12 August, 2009

The Russia Diaries: 12 August - "You feel how others feel..."

12 August 2009


Tired. We walked nearly 12 kilometers yesterday and I slept like the dead. Vadim is an angel of hospitality, and we set off for a slightly slower-paced day filled with official business.

On the drive in to town I coerce Vadim to speak of his personal history. He is such a deep and curious man-- thoughts penetrative, mind broad and insatiable. Before we left this morning he gave us both a copy of his published novel! A story of an aging man in the Soviet Moscow who falls in love with a younger woman he cannot have...Hm.

It is evident soon that the story of his father is the starting point--a general in the Red Army who believed fervently in the Socialist ideal, "a great patriot," he added thoughtfully after a moments pause.

His father traveled to the U.S. during the Cold War, an absolutely shocking act of open-mindedness for the time, and found America to be "shockingly normal," returning with stories of human interest from Oregon to St. Louis, to Charlotte. Apparently motivated by the death of his own father (murdered by Germans only 500 meters or so from Vadim's house!), he joined the army young and never looked back.

"He adored his Motherland," says Vadim, interestingly referring to Russia as "his" Motherland and not "the" or "our." When I tentatively bring this up Vadim simply closes his eyes and shrugs, the wrinkles around his eyes deepening for a moment...

"And you?" I ask, changing the tone in typical British style, "How did you become the lifelong medical Muscovite?" He slaps the steering wheel and laughs, small teeth bared, head back in sudden joyous amusement-- so thrilled to be relieved of his dark thoughts for a moment.

"My mother's family has a medical background, and I think it was understood that my brother and I would follow this tradition. My father never pressured us to serve in the Army, and anyway as a medical doctor one is required to serve in the Army reserves as a Captain with training and everything. HA!" he explodes, slapping the wheel again, "Imagine me! Old man running about with teenagers in Georgia!" At this Irina laughs. She shifts cat-like in her seat, smirking at Vadim before glancing out the window again. He asks her is she understands him in English. She nods, and replies in Russian that she understands more than he knows. He looks at her and they both smile.

* * *

After arriving in town we change over some money and retire to Petrovka street at my request (it is going to feature...). Vadim takes u to a Turkmen restaurant and we embark on a glorious meal of "Asiatic" food served in a colourful tents illuminated by the blazing summer sun. There are men with pipes, students lounging on decadent jewel-toned sofas, and women in hats smoking skinny "European" cigarettes.. It was at this stage that I realize I am capable of reading Cyrillic letters and actually getting by in the Russian language! How did that happen?! Suddenly, the "code" cracked, I was at last able to read things and ask Vadim what things were, point, ask, etc. It was a real thrill.

I order a traditional stir-fry, Kit a sturgeon shish kebab and Irina noodles and pavlova. Vadim takes only coffee. I think of the photo albums from last night, of his relatively radical transformation from obese young man to fit and trim older man in what appeared in the photos to be just a few months. He not only lost weight, his hair turned gray, he grew a beard, he got glasses.... what prompted this shift? Dare I even ask? As if reading my mind he comments on it himself.

"When I was fat I would've eaten all day, but now just coffee," he apologizes/
"What brought about the change?" I ask, trying not to sound anything other than matter-of-fact.
"I was sick," he looks down into his coffee, "very sick. Yes." He glances away onto the green of the park where a few moments ago he had told us he has spent his childhood and youth behind the old hospital. "I am a medical doctor, I should have known something was not right," he explains this with a hint of what seems to be shame in his voice. "I was tired all the time, for 15 years. I thought I was just sick from Communism!" he laughs, but his face falls quickly, as does Irina's, the memory of that time devastating. "Anyway..." he continues quietly, "finally my colleague made me take a test, and I was able to identify the problem and move on from there..." he sips his coffee and thinks about this for another moment before speaking again, this time with more solemnity. "But the medication, the treatment, was the hardest thing in my life."

Ah Vadim. Such a complex man. A child of the Soviet Union, but an individual spirit aching to grow.

"The entire process, it takes ten years. I am in the middle of year eight," he says with humility. "Many, many people do not survive the process..." I cannot believe this. I press him gently to explain. "Well..." he searches, "all of the symptoms you had before are the same only in reverse and at 1000 percent. You are so irritable you are like a monster, lashing out at those you love for reasons you do not understand, it is as if the voice was not my own..." and then he grew very quiet in deed, moving the white cup between his surgeon's hands.

"But worst of all what is inside your mind. The opposite of exhaustion is not alertness... it is mania... and it is this that drives men to take their lives. It is the never-ending noise of the brain, releasing one thousand thoughts a second, every one of them menacing. And there is nothing to stop it. Nothing turns it off. No Sleep. No pill. Nothing but death itself..."

He finishes the final sip of his coffee with finality, exhaling as he replaces the cup upon the saucer.

"It took time, and a lot of tolerance from my family, but now I am more even and quite well. I do not know how they all managed. But it has made me a better Doctor," he said brightly, attempting to lighten things. "More sympathetic."

I look at him and try to penetrate him. I feel so limited by our too brief acquaintance, by the language barrier and by Kit and Irina, who are in this, removed and far away. I try.

"I can understand how hard that must have been," I fumble slightly, "I cannot feel the pain myself of course, but I can see it with my mind, I sympathize. And how challenging it must have been for those around you, who loved you and did not wish to see you in pain, not to be punished themselves when they had done nothing wrong. And as far as your practicing of medicine-- yes, I see. You see people at the most desperate moments of their lives. Some of them will never walk again, some of them die and you must tend to loved ones. Now, you have felt the despair, felt the frustration of being 'just another face' to a doctor, watched as your own wife and children suffered as you suffered. Of course you are a better doctor. You have been a patient..."

He looked at me a moment, trying to piece together exactly who I was. I could see I had puzzled him-- a young woman, the same age as his older son, who understood the greatest challenge of his life.

"You are a very sensitive girl, Alexandra. You understand. You feel how others feel."


  1. What an amazing experience!

  2. This is absolutely beautiful Al, thank you for sharing. btw, London misses you.

  3. What a fantastic growing experience for you.



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