It starts with a slight sore throat.
My Russian wife, Lena, and I are in Moscow for the first days of the 21st century. The original idea is to spend these precious vacation days taking casual walks together in snowy Ismailovksy Park and through the Pushkin Museum. Instead, my temperature starts rising.
Lena and her teenage daughter, Sasha, are off having their hair done; I’m hanging around with her aging parents, Bronyasha and Valodya, in their apartment — a cramped Soviet-era dwelling with narrow, mazelike hallways. To preserve space, cabinets are attached high on the walls, filled with heirlooms, photographs and yellowing diplomas from sundry arts academies.
I‘m slumping on the divan that doubles as a bench for the dining-room table as Bronyasha pours more tea, offers me her homemade ”schee“ (cabbage soup) and clears dishes. Valodya is an invalid mostly confined to a cot in his back bedroom, though for the New Year he boarded his wheelchair to join the assembly in the living room. Right now he’s alone in the back, charging batteries for his audiocassette player on a contraption he designed himself. The sounds of a Rimsky-Korsakov opera, mixed with static, waft in from his room.
”I think I need to lie down,“ I tell Bronyasha. ”Wait,“ she replies. ”The doctor is coming.“ What doctor?
There‘s the doorbell. No, it’s not the doctor but Clava, Sasha‘s godmother, the embodiment of Mother Russia: silver hair tied back, a yardlong bosom that clears the way for the rest of her. How does she move in such tight quarters? Yet Clava is as determined in motion as in temperament, wielding her home-cooked lemon peruk (the size of a large pizza) like Marie Antoinette bearing a shield. I close my eyes, and when I open them the peruk is in slices, piled onto a plate. Clava’s on her fourth piece, chatting like a songbird with Bronyasha, who‘s downing slice number two. Flesh hangs from Clava’s arm. I eat two pieces. ”Have another,“ she orders me in Russian. ”It‘s very delicious, but I can’t eat more.“
”Nyet, nyet, nyet — davai escho!“ (”Have more!“)
I‘ve come to believe that it’s men who are destroying Russia, and whatever grace and beauty can be salvaged from this charnel house will emanate from women like Clava and Bronyasha, who just keep cooking and feeding.
Within 20 minutes, I‘m in Bronyasha’s bedroom (a closet really) with my shirt off, for an examination by Dr. Vera Pavlovina, a stocky brunette with tired brown eyes, late 30s, dressed in an ankle-length pleated gray skirt and a baggy sweater and holding a crumpled leather instrument bag. Literally the doctor in the house, Vera lives on the first floor and works at a central-Moscow clinic for about $100 a month, which is indeed as paltry as it seems. Bronyasha has known her since Vera was 10. Now Vera treats Valodya‘s enigmatic paralysis of the legs, Bronyasha’s high blood pressure and guests like me, free of charge. Though middle-class Muscovites only a decade ago, the doctor, my in-laws and their neighbors have become part of a growing circle of Russia‘s ”new poor.“ Established friendships like these are now more than ever the key to survival in this country of topsy-turvy fortunes.
Vera places a spoon on the back of my tongue to peer at my tonsils. She sets an ancient stethoscope on strategic points of my back and chest as I’m asked to breathe through my mouth, and to cough. ”You have the greep [flu],“ she says kindly, yet stoic. ”Expect a high fever for about four and a half more days. Stay in bed for six. Be especially careful when you‘re first feeling better. That’s when this virus slips into pneumonia.“ She prescribes a powdered cold remedy, a litany of juices, vitamins, fresh fruits, some of Bronyasha‘s heart medicine (to ease the coronary strain from five successive days of fever), and hot lemon tea, which I’m to drink by the liter. Her low-tech medical approach is on target. The fever follows the course she predicted — almost to the hour.
And so I spent the better part of our holiday in bed, with a raw cabbage leaf on my face (to draw out the virus, they said). I think it was in reality, not in a fevered vision, that I tried to register as a foreigner (as is required by Russian law), and got shuffled to five different Moscow police stations, none of which had jurisdiction to do the job. Then there was the New Year‘s Eve party, during which President Yeltsin announced his resignation on TV, and no one seemed much to care; old people sang Ukrainian ballads at the dinner table while the rest of us danced till dawn to Lou Bega in the tiny, cramped kitchen. I remember lying in bed hearing Beavis and Butt-head in Russian through the walls, and Sasha screaming with laughter. And, later, the tender voice of a friend bringing me apricot juice. Only in delirium, and in Russia, do such extremes somehow make sense.