By Zarina Zabrisky
In Russian, kino means a movie theater or a film.
Scene 1. The camera slowly goes over my grandmother’s wall calendar open on the caption, in Russian: LENINGRAD. November 7, 1988. 71st anniversary of the Great October Socialist Revolution. Her fingers, with arthritis-swollen knuckles, tear it off, and turn the page around so it fades away.
Scene 2. The military factory entrance looks like Moloch’s jaws. I’m shivering in the endless line to the gates. The frozen fur of my collar bites into my chin. Snowflakes melt my mascara. It’s dark.
The security guard checks my ID.
“It’s 7 a.m.”
“Three minutes after.”
He stamps my ID.
I walk through the twilit yard and mumble as I make a poem:
Fare thee well, jail!
Your shadow will hover over me —
Fare thee well,
The fate will always be my prison
But you, oh jail, will not become my fate.
Every morning I dream of running away, but I’m seventeen and I have no place to run. And, in the Soviet Union, you go to prison if you don’t work.
Scene 3. In the hallway, I pass the Wall of Shame. The photos look like mug shots. Three alcoholics, five men who didn’t pay child support, and me.
Scene 4. My boss calls me into his steel cubicle. His face is beet-red. He smells of vodka. His fingers are shaking. His voice echoes from the vaulted ceiling.
“One more late stamp and you are on the Wall of Shame again.”
“I don’t give a fuck.” (I don’t say it.)
Scene 5. Folders with secret documents tower on my desk. Lists of tank parts. Inventories. Underneath, I have banned books: Brodsky, Solzhenitsyn.
I put a sheet into the typewriter and re-type Mandelstam’s poem, “The Twilight of Freedom.”
“If they catch you, you’ll go to prison,” says my co-worker.
Her face is red, fingers are shaking, and she smells like vodka, too.
“They are too sick to catch me,” I say.
Scene 6. My watch shows 8 p.m. I am in a boiler room called Kamchatka. All underground rockers in Leningrad are hanging out here. All misfits. Shaven temples, black clothes, and lots of black eyeliner. We work as factory hands, night guards, janitors. We hate our parents’ world.
Tsoi throws coals into the burning oven and takes his guitar. He is half-Korean and looks like a razor. His songs are sad and strong. He sings about us — how cold and dark it is outside and how there’s nowhere to go. How their clothes are too tight for us. How scared we are. We drink red wine, smoke pot, and Tsoi sings.
Changes, our hearts demand!
Changes, our eyes demand!
In our laughter, in tears, in the vein pulsations —
Changes, we are waiting for changes.
The changes are about to begin.
Scene 7. I’m at home, in the kitchen, drinking water from the faucet. My grandfather is sitting at the table smoking. The clock shows 2 a.m. My grandfather is suffering from a bad hangover. He also smells like vodka.
“Are you drunk?” he says.
“Look who’s talking.”
“It’s my holiday,” he says. “For seventy years, we celebrate the Great October Socialist Revolution!”
“Yeah, in November,” I say. “Your time is out of joint. Screw your holiday. The whole country is sick, suffering from a collective hangover. Look, grandpa, don’t you see? Things have got to change.”
“Andropov knew what he was doing,” says my grandfather. “We need a firm hand. Gorbachev is up to no good.”
I turn off the faucet and leave the kitchen.
Scene 8. The camera slowly goes over my grandmother’s wall calendar open on the caption, in Russian: LENINGRAD. November 7, 1989. 72nd anniversary of the Great October Socialist Revolution.
Scene 9. My friend Alina and I are at a session. We call underground rock concerts sessions. We have a special lingo for everything: the songs are called temy (themes) and men call us girlashki (something like little girls), but we hate it. Smoking pot is listening to music. Partially we need a special language because the KGB taps everyone’s phones and partially just ‘cause.
The session is happening at an assembly hall of a school in a sleeping district. We get inside climbing the window in the basement. The boy I like, Nick (Kolya, Nikolay), works at this school as a night watchman and he lets everyone in. There are people I know but I don’t remember their names. We drink port out of a green bottle. Strange Games are playing a sad song about a dead young king and we are all waiting for Kino.
Strange Games (Strannye Igry) and Pop-Mechanics (Pop-mechanika) with Sergey Kuryokhin (right, playing saxophone), Grisha Sologub (center, playing accordion), Viktor Sologub (left, bottom, playing a guitar).
I see double. Two bottles of port. Up and to the right, a painting in a golden frame — Lenin, next to a branch shelter that looks like a wigwam. I see two golden frames, two Lenins, two wigwams. I look up and to the right — the stage. B.G. is singing. I see two of them.
I close my eyes: two bottles. I open my eyes: Lenin. Close, open. Up, down. Kino is playing and we all are jumping and singing along with Tsoi: “We are planting aluminum cucumbers on the tarpaulin field!” We just came back from a collective farm where we had to harvest turnip and carrots for a month, living in barracks so we all know what this song is about. Nick is jumping next to me and his long dark hair is flying up and down. I see two Nicks. Everyone is dancing.
A school dance. From the author’s archive. Photographer unknown.
I step into the hallway and look at myself in the mirror. I have a blue plastic chain in my hair so I take it off to show off my shaved temples — I shaved them last night with my dad’s razor and made my grandma cry. I wear my father’s sweater he brought from Eastern Germany — along with the chain for me. It’s the only sweater I have.
Nick joins me and as we are smoking a joint, I see Alina leaving with a Strange Games singer.
Scene 10. I am on top of a heap of fur coats and they feel like dead animals. Nick is on top of me. I black out.
Scene 11. The next morning, I’m at a lecture at my university where I now study. I look outside. Saint Isaac’s Cathedral is across the black river, winged angels on the corners. I look at them, take notes and fall asleep.
St. Isaac’s Cathedral. From the author’s archives. Artist: Eidlin.
Scene 12. I am at the same university auditorium, only the river is white, ice-clad. Close up: December 20, 1989, in chalk on the blackboard. Saint Isaac’s Cathedral across the river is white, snow on the wings. I look at them and gag.
Scene 13. I am at a military department combat propaganda class. We are writing pamphlets: “American soldier, surrender! You are surrounded. While you are rotting in this trench, a millionaire is courting your sweetheart.” Everything here is classified. The notebook is pierced in two places with a thick rope that binds it together. Every page is numbered and once I am done, the student on duty stamps a wax seal over the ends of the rope on the cover of the notebook, then puts it away in the vault. A colonel with a square face locks the vault. The wax smells so sweet that I throw up.
Scene 14. I come home, light a cigarette and call my friend Alina.
“Hey. I think I’m sick. Dizzy, and throw up all the time.”
I’m sitting on the floor, in the corner of the hallway, by the little table, the telephone receiver jammed between my cheek and my shoulder, a long cord coiled like a snake. Old coats and fur hats piled up above me. They smell like mothballs. I draw naked girls on the wallpaper, in pencil. They dance, embrace and kiss on the old yellow wallpaper.
“Not going to go to the session tonight?” asks Alina.
“No. What for? To get dead drunk again? Or high? Sick of it. And just sick.”
“I dunno,” says Alina. “What else is there to do?”
There is a newspaper on the little table next to me, Young Leninist Truth. I pick it up and read aloud: “‘Two unidentified men broke into the building of a school, tied up the security guard, and robbed the safe. They also desecrated the bust of Lenin… On January 30th, Sergey Kuryokhin is playing at a musical salon.’ God, what happened to the underground? Now we can go to a musical salon and read about it in Young Leninist Truth.”
“So? I read Young Leninist Truth. Mom uses it for toilet paper. And if you are that desperate to be underground, we can climb through the window into the fucking salon,” says Alina. “Who cares?”
Ashes from my cigarette fall down on the floor. I smudge the spot with my finger.
“I want to figure something out. There was the Lost Generation. There was the Beat Generation. What are we? What generation?”
“Who cares? What does it even mean, generation?” asks Alina.
My father steps in the hallway from the kitchen and grabs the phone out of my hands.
“Enough! Go study!”
My mother enters, too. She snatches the cigarette out of my hand.
“Enough! No more smoking!”
I go to my room that I share with my grandma. She’s asleep. I put on a pale green tape into my player and put on the earphones. It’s Aquarium, The Children of December. The tape has many tears and is glued together with nail polish. I bought it from a classmate who deals tapes and I have no money to buy a new one. I open a notebook that looks like the one from the military department and start writing:
Our grandparents lived at a time when everyone had a political stance and acted it out: my grandfather was a communist for forty years and believed in a worker’s paradise. Their iron principles and stubbornness came from social upheaval. It was war and if you didn’t choose one side you were doomed. They were white, red or dead. They were the children of the revolution. They were the children of the storm.
Our parents caught “the thaw” that came after the cult of personality. They tasted freedom. They had a chance to become honest people. They had jazz and read Beatniks. My father still has Alan Ginsberg and Kerouac on his bookshelf. My mom still has short skirts in the wardrobe. They were the children of the thaw.
We are what came after the thaw: mud, sludge, shit. A slimy grey-brown film enveloped everything around and we are bonded by it. There was no light during Brezhnev’s times — just twilight, like December in Leningrad. No sun and no air.
We are the children of December. We are the children of winter and darkness. We grew up during dead times, the times with no reason, no conscience, no honor. The ideals that we tried to soak up from our literature are hopelessly outdated. We lost the ability to believe. We lost the ability to hope.
Outside of our kitchens, we have to lie, everywhere, to everyone, always, and the non-stop lying kills in us any semblance of honesty. The only truth we know is the Young Leninist Truth. We are paralyzed. We sleepwalk. We can’t move a limb.
And it isn’t just public life. In our personal lives, we are trying to attain what we can’t get in our public life. We are young and we love life, but our lack of principles, lack of will and endless hesitation destroy us, and we don’t know how to build.
The rare moments in which we live fully turn into the unbearable desire to “move into the corner and die,” as B.G. sings. I don’t like Kostya Kinchev but he’s right: it is our generation that is “silent in the corners,” “doesn’t dare to sing,” “feels the pain but lets itself be whipped again.” It’s our generation that “eats itself.”
There is a glimpse of truth in a novella in the Youth magazine.
Youth magazine, 1988. From the author’s archives.
A father is talking about his son: the kid is eighteen and he sits in his room for days on end, doesn’t read books, doesn’t watch TV. All he does is drink condensed milk right out of the can. It’s all of us right there. It’s that corner, dark and warm. That swamp we got stuck in — forever. It’s our only home to hide from the world outside. Milk for mom’s surrogate. Outside there, we feel terrible. Action is impossible. We don’t know “what to do.” “I’m a bum, mama, I am a bum — uuu, uuu,” sings Tsoi.
You can’t find escape in books. Science… science exists for society — and we don’t believe in that. Between us and society is an abyss.
I stop writing. Why am I writing this? To submit it to the Young Leninist Truth? I pull the sheet out of the typewriter, tear it into pieces and walk to the window. I press my face to the cold glass. It’s late and dark. Across the empty field is a big, square building, no lights in the windows. It looks like a sinking ship, a cruiser. To the right, a school I used to go to when I was little — Tsoi went to the same school, his mom worked there as a P.E. teacher.
School #356, Leningrad. The author in the first grade, school #356. From the author’s archives
I feel nauseous again. I change the tape to a yellow one — it’s Blood Group by Kino, and Tsoi is singing:
We want to see further than the windows of the building across the street,
We want to live.
We are as enduring as cats.
And here we come to claim our rights: “Yes!”
From now on, we are the ones to act!
We were born in the crowded apartments of the sleeping districts,
We lost our innocence battling for love.
The clothes you made for us are already too tight
And here we came to tell you that
From now on, we are the ones to act.
Scene 15. A close up: my grandmother’s wall calendar. LENINGRAD, January 21, 1990.
Scene 16. I’m on a tall, white table in a hospital room. A woman in white is smoking and poking an ultrasound head around my stomach. I see a small grey dot on the blinking screen and I cry. I don’t want to be pregnant. I don’t want to have children. I want to write books. I want to leave, live in another country.
Scene 17. I call Nick and his mother tells me he is in a psychiatric clinic. She doesn’t tell me why but I know: to avoid being sent to the army. She is crying and I don’t tell her about the baby.
Scene 18. The camera slowly goes over my grandmother’s wall calendar open on the photo of an angel with a cross on top of the column. Palace Square, in front of the Winter Palace. LENINGRAD. August 14, 1990.
The Alexander Column, Palace Square in St. Petersburg. From author’s archives.
Scene 19. I walk in Victory Park, in a crimson dress, eating a strawberry ice-cream waffle cone. My belly is as almost as big as me. It’s hot and the ice-cream melts and drips on it. From the cloudless blue sky, a big dragonfly lands on my belly, next to a milky-pink and shiny droplet on crimson. It sits there, as if at a table. A closeup of the dragonfly, her glass wings, transparent eyes. I’m looking at the dragonfly, the dragonfly is looking at me, and the people around are looking at both of us. It feels like time has stopped. Women with big hair and brown bags freeze, and so do men drinking vodka and playing chess on the bench. The hands of my watch stop. The end of the era. Then they start moving again. The dragonfly takes off and disappears. I walk away. People move along. The hands of my watch start flying, faster and faster, to a first contraction.
Scene 20. The ambulance comes at midnight. Contractions are faster now. Nurses in white march me to a large cold room. I have a big chocolate bar in my hand. A nurse has a square face and sounds like the colonel from my military department.
“Strip,” she says. “Shave. Everywhere.”
She takes my chocolate bar.
“Up, down, face to the wall, lean over, take off your rings. Cut your nails. Put iodine on your fingers.”
I’m naked and cold. I see goosebumps on my forearms. She gives me a nightgown with brown spots, with no sleeves. A stamp on the chest: “Property of the city hospital #33.”
“Put this on. You are not allowed anything else. Personal belongings go into the vault — sign here.”
She moves a chair with metallic legs on the concrete floor. It screeches, and she starts writing.
“First name. Last name. Yours. Your husband’s. No husband?”
She looks at me above her glasses, blankly. Frowns.
“Nineteen. I don’t feel well,” I say.
“You’ll live. No one feels well.”
“Can I have my chocolate? My mom says it speeds up the labor.”
I walk down the long hallway and Kino is playing on the radio. I whisper along with Tsoi:
The seeds have fallen down into the soil.
They are asking for the rain.
They need rain.
Cut open my chest!
Look inside of me,
And you’ll see
Everything inside is on fire.
In a day, it will be too late.
In an hour, it will be too late.
In a moment, you won’t be able to get up.
If the keys don’t fit the door,
Push the door through with your shoulder.
Mama, I know that we all are gravely sick.
Mama, I know that we all have lost our minds.
Steel between the fingers,
A clasped fist,
The blow just above the hand,
Tearing the flesh,
But instead of the blood,
Poison froze in the veins.
A destroyed world,
the bread cut in halves.
And so someone is crying
and someone is silent
and someone is so glad, so glad.
Mama, I know that we all are gravely sick.
Mama, I know that we all have lost our minds.
You must be strong.
You must know how to say:
Hands off! Hands off me!
You must be strong —
Otherwise, why do you live?
What would thousands of words mean
When the firm hand would be all that matters?
And here you are standing by the river
Thinking should you swim or should you not?
Scene 21. The labor ward is brightly lit. White light cuts my eyes. It’s all dirty white. It looks like hell or like a medieval etching of the house of sorrow. High above the floor, on white tables — women, moaning, screaming, praying. Dozen or more. Their mouths are stretched inside out, they are on their fours kneeling or sliding down the walls, clutching the walls, crawling down those walls, and from everywhere I hear moaning — Mama, Mama, Mama! And from somewhere else — God, Oh God!
Scene 22. They put me on the tall table and leave. I tear the silver foil off the chocolate bar and start biting into it, but the pieces are too big and it’s too cold, so it’s hard to swallow. Maybe half an hour passes or an hour, I don’t know. They took my watch away and there is no clock anywhere. The moaning stays the same, it doesn’t stop and doesn’t go louder, just the same — Mama, Mama, Mama, and God, oh God!
Scene 23. Two nurses appear. They look like white soldiers next to red, wet women on the tables. One shoves a finger inside of me.
“Not dilated. At all.”
“Off you go,” says the other.
One nurse brings a big syringe with transparent liquid. It looks like the dragonfly, but with a sting.
“What is it?” I ask. “I don’t want it!”
“Shut up!” says the nurse. “It’s just diphenhydramine. You’ll sleep till the morning, and then, we’ll see.”
She bends my arms behind my back. I fight back and scream, “Help!”
They gag me and push the needle into my arm. Next — darkness.
Scene 24. I open my eyes and I can’t remember anything. Where am I? Did I give birth? I look down and see my belly. It doesn’t move. I sit down and look at the bed. There is no sheet, just a dirty striped mattress. Instead of a pillow is my chocolate bar, now all melted. The blanket is covered in chocolate or shit, I’m not sure. Right next to me, on another bed, is a redhead woman. I try to speak but my mouth is too dry.
“Ah, you woke up,” she says. “I was worried. You slept all night and all day.”
“You were not dilated so they gave you a shot. Too many people giving birth last night.”
Scene 25. Walking is harder than talking. My feet don’t move well. I make it to the phone, but there is a long line and I have no coins to call. The stairs are all stone and it feels like winter, December. But it’s August, I think. August 15th? 16th? I put my forehead on the uneven wall. A radio is on and a cold voice cuts through the fog in my head: “Today, at four p.m., we will be saying the last goodbye to Viktor Tsoi, the lead singer of a popular rock group Kino who perished in a car crash yesterday.”
Scene 26. I climb up and down the stairs, up and down the stairs, up and down the stairs, until the contractions start again. I give birth as the radio plays on every floor and the song echoes around the hospital:
Mama, we all are gravely sick.
Mama, we all have lost our minds.
Scene 27. My grandmother turns a calendar page as my baby is sleeping in a crib next to her. It’s August 19, 1991.
The TV is on and Swan Lake ballet is playing. It stops abruptly, as old men in suits appear. Their hands and voices are shaking as they announce an emergency situation in the country. They all look like my boss from the military factory. They are communists trying to grab power back. It’s a coup.
Scene 28. Alina and I are in the square by the Mayor’s office, carrying broken chairs and metal, building barricades. Everyone expects tanks. Windows are open and TVs are on, playing Swan Lake on repeat. We are listening to my tape recorder playing Kino.
Zarina Zabrisky is the author of short story collections Iron, A Cute Tombstone, Explosion (Epic Rites Press), and a novel We, Monsters (Numina Press). Zabrisky escaped the aftermath of the Soviet Union collapse, and wrote traveling around the world. Her work has appeared in nine countries in over fifty literary magazines and anthologies, including The Nervous Breakdown, A Capella Zoo, Eleven Eleven, and Red Fez.
Interviews with Zabrisky and reviews of her books appeared in The Rumpus, Guernica, PANK Magazine, decomP and more. Zabrisky received multiple nominations and awards, including the 2013 Acker Award for Achievement in The Avant-Garde, three Pushcart Prize nominations, and more. She was a finalist in The Normal School‘s Prize in Fiction, 2012 (judge Amy Hempel.)
Zabrisky is a columnist for The Byline Times (UK) and contributor to Indivisible Movement, Digital Left, and more. She also hosts and produces literary programs for Globus Books YouTube Channel.
FOR MORE, Read “Liquid Sky of History” and find ZABRISKY ON Medium.com
Listen to Zarina Zabrisky in conversation with Joanna Stingray on “Underground Soviet Rock” and Stingray’s new book Red Wave, hosted by Globus Books: