A Death in Moscow
Sheets cover all the mirrors in Apartment 31 on Fortunatovskaya Street. The reason, Bronoslava explains, is because the spirits of the dead dwell behind mirrors. If the glass isn’t covered, the spirit may remain in the apartment rather than ascending to heaven. The door to the tiny room in the back, where Vladimir Mikhailovich Starostin lived and died, is closed. His cot has been removed, but his smell lingers.
I’m in Moscow because my wife, Lena, received news on a recent Saturday that her father’s health was failing. Vladimir had been suffering from an infection brought on by bedsores — the result of being paralyzed from the waist down for more than a decade and from being confined to the same tiny room, on the same tiny cot, for so many years. Lena spoke with her mother, Bronoslava, who was keeping vigil at the side of her husband, the next day. In the middle of the conversation, Bronoslava put down the phone. Two minutes later, she returned to say that Vladimir had stopped breathing and that his passing was peaceful. He was 75. Twenty years older than the marriage.
By Wednesday evening, Lena and I were on a plane to Moscow. When we arrived, rain, darkness, and the neon glow of signs broadcasting furniture outlets and casinos saturated the city center.
When I first met Vladimir, in 1992, he was a robust, portly composer-arranger who looked a bit like Einstein, with a shock of thick black hair and a mustache. His specialty was American jazz. His idols were Count Basie and Duke Ellington, and I once saw him conducting their big-band riffs at Moscow’s Theater Estrada, home to Vladimir’s orchestra. Vladimir never set foot in America, though he came close once, when the Soviet Ministry of Culture pressured him to replace some of his Jewish musicians with “Russians.” They asked him, threateningly, if he’d rather live in America, or Israel. He replied that he was happy working in Moscow with Russia’s best musicians, who just happened to be Jewish. The government never bothered him after that.
He met Bronoslava in May 1950. She was conducting an outdoor-park choir, and he showed up to sing. All their lives, they were bonded by music. My wife, Lena, is their only child. Lena says the pressure put on her to succeed was often unbearable.
Vladimir loved to drink and spent nights away from home, which set father and daughter into pitched battles against each other. One time, after Vladimir came home drunk and insulted Bronoslava’s cooking, Lena brandished a kitchen knife, threatening to cut out his heart, fry it and serve it to him for dinner. Following that performance, father and daughter didn’t speak to each other for a week.
Shortly after I first met Vladimir, as the Soviet Union was collapsing, his legs stopped working. The highlights of my annual trips to Moscow were visits to Vladimir, to that backroom stuffed with a spinet piano and music manuscripts, and multiple radios and televisions with antennas perched at all angles to pluck Count Basie or Prokofiev or the network news from the airwaves.
It was from Vladimir that I learned the words svolochi and voori — bastards and thieves. He was referring to the Russian Duma. In the middle of one discussion, he signaled for silence as a particularly languorous passage from a Rachmaninoff piano concerto played on the radio, bathed in static. When he returned from his reverie, he asked, “So what do Americans really think of Schwarzenegger?” “Is it true that Los Angeles police are particularly hard on black people?” “Is it true that Sharon Stone is ill?”
In his decline, Vladimir’s sadistic qualities melted into those of a respectful, sentimental husband and father. He told Bronoslava repeatedly how much he adored her. When Lena called him from Los Angeles with news of some professional triumph, she heard him weeping on the phone for joy.
During my previous visit, the entire family gathered in that backroom, where Vladimir mediated a conflict between Lena and her daughter Sasha, who lives in Moscow, over Sasha’s boyfriend.
“Please, both of you, put aside your anger,” Vladimir told them. “We only have each other, nobody else.”
Now, Sasha smokes in the hall outside Apartment 31, reflecting on her grandfather. “He knew everything,” she says. “He sat in that cot, staring at the same walls for 10 years. Most people would have gone crazy. But he was so smart, creating his own world back there. He worked on his musical arrangements, he built contraptions to charge dead batteries, he carved figurines out of wood.”
The funeral procession winds through the back streets of the city’s northeast sector, rolling along Fortunatovskaya Street. Vladimir rides in a large, black Mercedes van that spews diesel exhaust. Bronoslava sits in a seat adjoining the coffin. Lena and I are in a vehicle driving directly behind the hearse.
Outside the gates of the Krasney Lusch cemetery, a marching band assembles. The hearse is parked near the front gates. Pallbearers lift the coffin to a waiting cart. The sun breaks through clouds, softening a crisp autumn chill. I hold my wife’s arm as she and Bronoslava and Sasha and her boyfriend follow the coffin along the cemetery’s narrow paths. A crowd of some 50 mourners walks behind us. The band, playing a solemn etude, brings up the rear. The cart gets stuck in a pothole. Everyone stops. The pallbearers strain to lift the wheels from the rut. Yellow leaves fall from birch trees, like rain.
We pass an assembly of faces, photographs on tombstones, until the cart stops at a clearing and the crowd gathers in a semicircle around the coffin. Somebody pries open the lid. There lie the waxlike remains of Vladimir, his face sculpted into an expression of eternal peace, artfully preserved like a dried flower. The music stops. There is no rehearsed service. One by one, mourners pay homage, while Sasha discreetly removes the leaves that float down onto her grandfather’s face.
Lena strokes her father’s beard, holds his hand, kisses his forehead and tells him she never realized how much he meant to her. A pair of gravediggers circles impatiently. After Lena withdraws, pallbearers return to put the coffin’s lid back over the corpse as the band plays Vladimir’s own arrangement of Moonlight Serenade — punctuated by the sound of nails being pounded into the coffin.
There are no mechanical elevators lowering the coffin into the grave, just two guys with belts and pulleys. Suddenly the coffin is vertical, and then it’s gone, just like that, while the crowd applauds Vladimir’s life.
The crowd disperses, and Lena kneels among the mountain of flowers that cover the grave, including the 40 white roses that she brought for her father. I try to lift her, gently, as she sobs. The sun slips behind a cloud. “I don’t want to leave him here,” she says.
At the post-funeral dinner, a producer approaches Lena about singing a song that her father arranged, for a concert next year devoted entirely to the work of Vladimir Starostin at Moscow’s Novaya Opera. The song is by Evgeny Minaev. Lena sang it years ago at the 30th-anniversary celebration of her father’s orchestra. The lyrics say something about how love never dies.
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