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Uncertain Weights and Measures

 

“The story of a Russia — and a love — at the precipice, poised between dreaming and giving in. As in Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels or Bellow’s Seize the Day, Parr’s characters seem to move under the surface of the page — breathing, changing, flawed, and resilient.”

— Sean Michaels, author of Us Conductors

 

“A historical novel that feels refreshingly contemporary, Uncertain Weights and Measures exposes the tensions between ideology and conviction, politics and art, truth and power. This remarkable debut novel is both a compelling love story and a thoughtful exploration of the human heart and mind.”

— Johanna Skibsrud, author of Quartet for the End of Time

 

“An illuminating and assured debut. Parr deftly incorporates her historical research into an affecting story about young woman grappling with the tense intersections between art and science, politics and idealism, duty and love.”

— Catherine Cooper, author of White Elephant

 

Moscow, 1921. Tatiana and Sasha meet in a bookstore the night it is bombed and fall in love.

Tatiana, a promising young scientist, soon follows her mentor to the Institut Mozga to study the source of genius, while Sasha, an artist, drifts aimlessly in a world increasingly indifferent to his art.

In this brilliantly captivating tale of a love torn apart by ideology and high-stakes politics, Jocelyn Parr portrays the heady idealism and cavernous contradictions of post-Revolutionary Russia.

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To my friends

 

 

 

 

It is possible, if we try, to lie our way to truth.

— Dostoyevsky, Crime and Punishment

 

 

 

 

1921

Before Lenin was dead and before my life had properly begun, I used to spend all my time in a bookstore down on Nikitskaya. I was barely a person then, just a girl, and then just a girl staring down the women I’d meet, wondering if their fate had to be mine. The bookstore had no sign. Either you knew where it was or you didn’t. The entrance was several steps below street level. To find it, you looked for the tobacco place next door because it had a glowing green lamp in its window. When the snow shrouded the entrance on winter afternoons, that blur of green was the only indication that you’d arrived. If you knew to look.

The owners, Rachel and Mikhaíl Osorgin, lived in the back room. The place smelled like potatoes most of the time but did not smell of dust. Nothing settled in there; everything and everyone just passed through. The men who ran it were academicians: specialists in Schopenhauer and Dostoyevsky and the history of carnival and the grotesque. If they specialized in other fields, I either didn’t know it at the time or have forgotten it since. This is how memory works. We say memory is about the past, but it isn’t, and secretly we all know it. I remember them as specialists in Dostoyevsky and Schopenhauer because I loved the grotesque, because I wanted to ask the beautiful terrible questions.

None of them knew a thing about budgets or inventories, but they didn’t need to. They had no real expenses and no real income either. They called it a bookstore because they didn’t want to call it a publishing house, or couldn’t call it a publishing house, since that couldn’t capture their mandate, which was this: keep everything in motion, make all knowledge available. If a book showed up with no binding or missing pages they didn’t care, they’d bind it with rubber bands or staple together whatever pages they had, and then they’d put it on the shelves, ready for whoever wanted to spirit it away. I went there because I wanted access to everything they had; others went there because it was the only place you could find mystical and religious texts in those days. Obviously, their time was limited; dilapidated as it was, that place was a luxury. The era of thinking about the beautiful and the terrible as abstractions was coming to an end. Instead of abstractions, the beautiful and the terrible would become palpable: death would become fact, not figure. But in the era of abstractions, we weighed our riches in books and ideas, we had so many. Every book that lined the shelves or was left open on the table had either been stolen or donated, and every book was given away just as easily. Sometimes the books arrived in wheelbarrows. Sometimes on sleighs. An apartment would be subdivided somewhere in the city, and the books would be thrown out along with the bourgeois residents.

Mrs. Osorgin was always in the back room preparing one thing or another. The potato smell got into the wool of our coats. Everyone who went there left smelling the same. I sometimes fantasized that I could meet someone in an entirely other part of the city and know them as one of my own, because they’d smell like the shop and I’d know they’d been there. But the truth of the matter was most Muscovites smelled like potatoes then, since it was all anyone ate in those days, whereas very few had ever been to Osorgin’s. Sometimes we ate dinner in the back room. Then Mrs. Osorgin — I never called her Rachel — added special things to the meal: nuts, butter, chopped onions.

As for Mr. Osorgin, when I think of him now, I cannot see his face. It is the hunch of his back that I remember, the way it told of a lifetime of loving books, though perhaps it also spoke of fear or shame; I have no way of knowing which. His voice resonated, sonorous and slow, as if it came from inside a much bigger body, as if no matter what he said, all you would remember would be the beautiful, solemn sound. He can’t have been more than forty then, but I was so young he seemed older than that. Maybe if I’d paid closer attention to what he’d been saying, rather than how he’d said it, I’d have understood why everything happened the way it did.

When we wanted new books, we stole them from the stores on Tverskaya. If we wanted to understand the new books, we’d bring them to Osorgin’s. (I say we but even if I envied the students who would steal from the stores, I couldn’t manage it myself. I sometimes went into the stores on Tverskaya with a new volume in mind, but as soon as I found it, I’d feel as if everyone were watching me and then I’d look around the store until I found someone who was.) At Osorgin’s, every wall but one was lined with shelves that sank in the middle with the weight of books. On the remaining bare wall hung a chalkboard, and every week some new idea would appear there. One week it might be a citation from Freud. Another, it might be Bertrand Russell: Is there any knowledge in the world which is so certain that no reasonable man could doubt it? Sometimes one citation would relate to another, but just as often there was no obvious link. Sometimes the citations were tributes and sometimes they made fun. Which was it when drawings from Tsiolkovsky’s “An Airplane or a Birdlike Flying Machine” appeared? Subtly, these ideas rippled out from Osorgin’s and into bars and late-night conversations throughout the city.

The students, the professors, the activists, the fighters — whoever went there, worked there, or sold books there —were my kind of people. I automatically trusted them. It was that kind of place.

On the day I met Sasha, the store was mostly empty. Sasha, Jack, and I were the only customers, but I didn’t know them yet. My impression when I first met them was that Jack was studious and Sasha was wild. A simple conclusion based on nothing, really. Jack had arrived at the bookstore first and I’d not even noticed him bent over his book in the corner by the blackboard. Sasha, on the other hand, came in clamouring. He was slight but moved with confidence: strong, powerful. His straight black hair stuck up everywhere when he pulled off his hat. When he went to stand in front of the stove, I thought, I’m cold, too. Then, standing there, next to him, I was suddenly so hot.

It seemed as if we stood there for a while, but that can’t have been the case, because when the explosion happened and the windows shattered and the shelves collapsed, so that the whole room was instantaneously a torrent of books and broken glass, that was precisely when I felt someone grab my hand. From the jolt in my shoulder I knew I was being pulled by someone strong; that someone was Sasha, and I remember distinctly that his hand was still cold.

Behind us, I heard Osorgin yell something about water. In the alley behind the store, Jack was already ahead of us, running without looking back. The sound of our footfalls ricocheted wet against the alley’s walls. Jack disappeared around a corner. We ran after him, past crumpled-up buildings that had fallen to ruin a long time ago. Jack kept too far ahead for us to see him, until finally we rounded a corner and found him, doubled over, trying to catch his breath. I heard my own breath then, felt it cold and rough against my throat. I heard voices yelling out, heard the crackle of wood catching fire, or collapsing, I couldn’t tell which.

Jack and Sasha were strangers to me, but already I felt as though I knew something about the one who’d held my hand and the one who’d run away. The one who’d grabbed my hand held on tight, and the way he did told me that he was good. That he was strong and wouldn’t let go until it was okay. The one who’d run away had fled on his own, and it told me that he was an individualist and a coward, though it would take years for me to articulate it that way. The three of us walked the rest of the way down the alley until we made it back to Nikitskaya, ending up down the street from the front entrance to the bookshop. A figure ran past us, heading to the shop. I watched him go and was about to follow, when Jack barked at me, You can’t go back.

Maybe it was the way he said it, with such conviction, or maybe it was because it was the first thing he’d ever said to me that made me listen. Somewhere in my stomach was a thought of the Osorgins, or a feeling, the feeling that I ought to do something, but what? We stood there dumbly, our sweat turning to ice.

I’m Alexandr, said the one who had held my hand, the dark-haired one who was loud and got cold in bookstores.

Sasha, I thought, what a soft name.

He’s Jack, said Sasha, at which Jack stood taller. They stood side by side then and I saw that they had been friends for a long time. Standing there, still a little out of breath, Jack seemed taut and quivering, like a bow before its release; Sasha seemed like a man who could be still for a long time.

I’m Tatiana L—, I said, too formally, I thought.

Let’s get a drink, said Sasha.

Everything’s closed, I said.

I know a place, he said.

I can’t, said Jack, and he slouched away, leaving Sasha and me like that, facing each other, on a winter’s night in 1921.

In the fall, just a few months before meeting Sasha, I had met Dr. Vladimir Bekhterev, a man who very quickly felt like a father to me. Earlier that same year, I’d lost my own father in a manner that was all too common at the time.

Then, as now, the single most important factor determining one’s access to everything, from a job to an apartment to a good man to work on your teeth, was connections. In the early years of Lenin’s rule a temporary but insidious capitalism was reintroduced (small shops and tiny plots of land for individualized farming were permitted again, a good thing I suppose, but it made some people very rich). Those were the NEP years, after the innocuously named New Economic Policy, and we called the newly rich class it created the NEP men and NEP women. In those years two incompatible systems further complicated the power of “knowing a guy.” Under NEP, the first system concerned one’s identification as a member of the proletariat; the second concerned one’s ability to contribute to the revolutionary effort. For this reason, a soil scientist from the upper classes could still, in the early to mid-twenties, be considered useful to society, despite a bourgeois background.

By the time Lenin died, it was clear the era of bourgeois experts was coming to an end. Anyone with a damning background had taken whatever measures possible to rewrite family histories. Faces were scratched out of family portraits. Loving couples divorced. Children denounced parents. People moved from country to city or city to country and, in the process, changed names.

So, a soil scientist could work in the office of the People’s Commissar for Agriculture, could even have worked at the same desk in the same office for so long that he remembered the days under the Tzar when it was called the Ministry of Agriculture, and then one day, he might decide he ought to change his name and move far, far away.

My father was that kind of soil scientist.

One day he stopped being my father. He told me about it in a letter, which I read, and then, following his instructions, lit on fire. I was eighteen years old. Whether he’d decided to leave or had been forced to, I don’t know. Apart from the salutation, which read Dearest Daughter, the letter barely mentioned me at all. In as few words as possible, he explained that his situation at work had changed and that if he stayed, his future (and mine) would be compromised, which was something he couldn’t bear. The letter was written with such concision that I could hear the anguish behind every word. In life, my father had used all the words, all the stories, all the time. Never in my life had he been so cold, never so reasonable. It was as if he were already gone when he wrote that letter. I cried in angry confusion as it burned but shared my feelings with no one, this also according to his instructions. The only thing he left behind was his pocket watch and something less tangible: a belief in hard work. Amazing how lucky you get, he always said, when you work really hard.

When he was my father, he helped me with my studies and said that, of the sciences, it was the only field of study that would not be corrupted by politics.

In his letter, he admitted that he had been wrong.

It was his friend, then, a man I’d met only once, who got me into university on the strength of Communist connections I did not have and, as such, into one of the only classes Dr. Bekhterev ever taught in Moscow. I called this man my uncle, but we were not related. Connections were different than beliefs. I believed in the Revolution and I believed we could sacrifice our way to progress, but I never joined the Party, so I had no real connections. I couldn’t have. In those years, getting into the Party was harder than becoming an academician. I’d attended the Communist youth meetings before the loyalty tests became a standard rite of passage, which was a good thing, because if they’d asked after my loyalties I would have said I believed in what my father had believed: science, and science was separate from politics. Like him, I would also come to realize that I was wrong. Unlike him, I came to believe the reason science wasn’t separate from politics was that nothing was separate from politics. Not science. Not art. Not love. In this way, I was like my mother.

So, that first class with Dr. Bekhterev was held in the fall of 1921, two or three years into my studies. The lecture hall, shaped like an arena, seated about fifty students. The wooden desks perched on steps cut of an ever larger semicircle, so that sitting in the front row felt like being on stage, and sitting in the back row felt like joining the orbit of one of the outermost planets. When the clock shuddered past nine o’clock, a student below me turned back to whisper that Dr. Bekhterev was always late. That student’s name was Alexandr Lev Luria. That was how he introduced himself, with all three names. His accent told me he was from Leningrad, though back then we called it Petrograd. Later, we became friends.

Luria was right. Bekhterev was almost an hour late for that first class, but not a single student left the room.I would have left if they had, but they didn’t. He arrived carrying a bundle of manuscripts and an overcoat. He was in his early sixties and had the shape and heft of a butcher: broad shoulders, thick gut. From his neck up, he was all hair. His beard, moustache, nose hairs, eyebrows, and the hair on his head sprouted out of him as if from an unremitting spool of thin, pepper-coloured wire.I imagined someone brushing up against him might come away with small cuts and scrapes.

When I try to describe the force with which Dr. Bekhterev entered my life I feel certain I will fail. I was practically a child then: too young, for example, to know anything about the reputations of my professors. From where I sat, on the outer ring, in my tenuous orbit, ready to be flung out into the deepest black, I had the vague notion that my professors existed only where I saw them: in the lecture hall, in the lab, in their offices. They’d been born with their specializations, just as they’d been born with their eye colour, fingerprints, and dispositions. They had not studied. No commissar had appointed them, no colleague had denounced them, no experiment had failed, no book had been rejected. They had never been intoxicated by the smell of a woman passing them on a darkening street, nor had they ever experienced rage. They’d never been left off the guest list, nor put on. They had been born professors and would die that way. In short, they were not people.

That year, I had started to lose my eyesight. Nothing cataclysmic. Indeed, the loss occurred so imperceptibly that I hardly noticed it at all. I mention it now because it correlated with the period in which I started to sit closer and closer to the front of the lecture hall, as if being drawn in by a stronger and stronger gravitational pull. Month by month, ring by ring, I approached the front of the room, until one day, I was sitting in the very front row. When Bekhterev spoke, he spat.

I don’t remember the name of the course I took with him, nor even what the university thought we were studying. The discipline was yet to be named, meaning it had no rules. Bekhterev explained the novelty of the discipline metaphorically, that is, by way of the telescope.

We know nothing! he said.

Bekhterev used the word neuropsychology and compared the field to that of seventeenth-century astronomy when Kepler’s observations of the universe, which had been made with the naked eye, led to a revolution in our understanding of the solar system and our place in it.

When he lectured, Bekhterev paced back and forth. Kepler had deduced from what little he could observe (his eyesight had been severely damaged by a case of childhood smallpox) that the solar system was heliocentric, thus contradicting centuries of astronomy that placed the earth at the centre. A man with blunted sight, said Bekhterev, looking at us with a fierce intensity, think on that.

We are, said Bekhterev, at that very same threshold. Kepler had no telescope to speak of. We have no telescope. He had reason and imagination. We have reason and imagination. To date, about the brain, we know nothing.

The way he talked about what we were doing had its effect: his pursuits became mine.

During Bekhterev’s lifetime, we started to think we knew something, but now, I’m not so sure. A little bit more than nothing is still, essentially, nothing. The mathematicians would disagree. They would say that the difference between nothing and a little bit more than nothing was like that between night and day. But I am not a mathematician.

Science was a raised skirt or a missing button, concluded Bekhterev in one of his lectures. You always hope for a nipple, but even its suggestion will hold your attention for a very long time.

It became legendary among Bekhterev’s colleagues that after his first year of marriage his wife banished him from their bedroom because he didn’t sleep. If his office at the university was any indication, his home must have been a landscape of paper. I imagined him falling asleep reading manuscripts. In the morning, on waking, he’d only have to dig around in his sheets for a pencil before starting to work again. Every lab assignment he ever handed back to me looked as if it had been to war.

Bekhterev never linked our studies with revolution, never drew comparisons, even, to the questions we, his students, were asking ourselves about what it meant to be a comrade, what it meant to be in love, what it meant to touch another and be touched, and what it meant to go out into the street and scream until you had no voice. He’d never been a thirteen-year-old girl living atop an illegal printing press, wishing that she could print pamphlets, too. No. In his class, we talked only about the brain. But he believed in the leap. The leap from one idea to another, from one neuron to another, from one stage of development to another. I could go from his class to a rally and see the same fundamental logic at work. Bekhterev talked about evolutionary leaps; Leontiev talked about societal leaps. They were the same. They were about risk taking and experimenting and moving forward. One thing, then its opposite, then the fight between the two, then a kind of combustion, and then something new. In this way, my commitments to science gradually became political. In neuropsychology, it wasn’t even that we were free to make mistakes; it was that we were called upon to make them. Mistakes were inevitable in the political world, too. In science, the most ambitious took their time, waiting, they said, getting ready for a really big failure, which meant they were doing something totally new. It’s not an exaggeration to say neuropsychology seduced me. I remember the ache in my hand at the end of each lecture, how it suffered from trying to keep up.

While the link between the Revolution and the science was mostly meant metaphorically, in the oral exams the link was explicit: I studied for my first exam for weeks, but it wasn’t until the night before that my roommate — her name was Rima and she became one of my best friends — told me I’d been studying the wrong thing.

Dummy, she said, shaking her head as she looked over my notes.

My desk was covered in diagrams I’d copied and recopied and copied again. When I closed my eyes, anatomical diagrams floated before me as visions. The new words slipped into my speech, replacing my everyday vocabulary with the specialized lexicon of the new science: sulci and gyri and neural pathways. It had been weeks since I had slept a full night without a pressing question waking me before dawn. I’d flip on the lights and scour my notes for an answer. This was what I thought it meant to be an aspirantura. I was aspiring. This was what it looked like. The bags under my eyes were proof of how much it mattered to me.

Which meant I almost cried when she told me I’d made a mistake.

They know you are good; that’s why you’re sitting the exam, she said.

Then what? I asked.

It’s about you, she said.

The examiners had been sent over from the nearby Marxist-Leninist Institute. Two old guys and a young one, all sitting behind a long wooden table, all of them wearing wire-rimmed glasses. From the rumpled look of them, they’d been sitting there for hours. Behind them was a blackboard, wiped clean. I sat in front of them. Because it was something all the students did in those days, I’d eaten extra sugar in the days before the exam. My palms were sticky with what I imagined was sweet, sugary sweat.

The youngest examiner began. His face was pockmarked, though he was handsome. He asked a few easy questions about brain anatomy and the nervous system, but I saw the way his eyes went glassy when I responded. Rima had been right. The exam wasn’t about science. We were waiting for what really mattered.

The political exam.

You may be aware, said the older one, that some have started to recognize that certain advantages might accrue to those who profess allegiance to the goals of the Bolshevik party, whether it be in terms of career or political advancement or even housing. We’re not accusing you of this — we’re not in the business of accusations, by any means. You should think of this examination as an opportunity to refresh not only your scientific knowledge but your political theory, particularly as we move forward into the demands of revolutionary life. What our society needs is true comrades, people who are not aligned with the bourgeoisie, here or elsewhere.

No one likes an opportunist, I said.

Precisely, he said.

So, said the young one.

Their questions, new to me then, were standard. They wanted to know about my family: how my mother had been a card-carrier and had abandoned us to devote herself to the cause, and how, out of grief, my father had left me just as soon as I was of age. Officially my caregiver became my uncle, but I never lived with him. Not that I said this. I wasn’t much of a political creature, but I had learned enough to know that sometimes a vague suggestion — the word caregiver for example — could create the image of my uncle’s participation in my life even if I mightn’t have recognized him on the street had our paths crossed by chance. One of the examiners wrote something down. Perhaps the word grief had been too much. I wiped my sugary hands against my lap, pushing hard into my legs.

The uncle who got you into school here?

Yes, I said. My uncle’s connections must have been very good: none of this was pressed.

They wanted to know what I knew about the West, about capitalism. Things I knew about capitalism and the West, the two being one and the same, were that they relied upon exploitation. They were colonizers; their societies were marred by slavery and poverty, by lineups for the most basic services, by people living on the street. I knew slavery hadn’t ended, no matter what the officials said. The reports from the Pullman porters were clear: slavery was everywhere. I knew about the income gap and the basic idea, the rich get richer and the poor get poorer and Christianity justifies the disparity.

How’s that? the young one asked.

As an opiate, sure, but more than that. It casts the whole system as a moral one, I said. Rich capitalists still want to believe they are good. Christianity helps, but Christianity can be bought. And that thing they believe: pulling up your boots. They explain poverty by laziness and laziness as a sin. Capitalists confuse the choice to buy with the freedom to think — they only have the former.

Right, they said. And the Tzar?

He enslaved the press. He punished political discontent and political protest. Shooting ranges, and absolute power. Literature was censored. But Marxist thought burst through the lines of the censored literature.

What about Engels? they asked.

Socialism is a science and it must be pursued as such. It must be studied.

I passed.

What I’d said was what I believed, but somehow being tested on my beliefs made them come out strange, foreign, as if they were a second language and not something I’d been born into. I was so young — barely twenty years old — when I had that first exam. In truth, I was the perfect age for such a thing: the thoughts we have then are the purest ideologies we’ll ever hold, even if the ideology is to question everything, which mine wasn’t. Not exactly. The way I thought about things, when I did think about them, was that everything was a science; questioning was thought. Socialism was a science. Historical materialism explained the mystical religions at the time of kings and queens and the rise of Protestantism under capitalism. The dialectic was what would free the West from capitalism. Dialectical thinking meant first you discovered an atom, then you asked that atom a question: how small are you? The atom said, I am this small, no smaller, and you said, Come on…, and it replied, Okay, smaller than that. It is A meets opposition in B, and they combust and become C (and C was better than either A or B ever were). I was living at the start of the new age in the city that was at the centre of it all. We’d left behind the mystical age and finally begun the inquiry into what really governed everything: our material conditions, our material bodies.

But the examiners didn’t speak science.

It was spring when I saw Sasha again. I’d wanted to find him myself, but I realized only after he’d dropped me off that first night I didn’t know where he lived or studied. He was one of those people who preferred asking questions to answering them, a characteristic that was rare in those days. When I saw him next, he was waiting for me out front of my residence. I don’t know how many nights he sat on the bench like that, waiting. When I saw him, I laughed out loud because he looked so much the part of an art student in his fedora and an ill-fitting overcoat. He’d gotten an idea into his head, he said, and hadn’t let go of it all winter long. The idea was me.

He wanted us to go back to Osorgin’s. I hadn’t returned since the explosion. Winter and my schoolwork reduced my radius. I felt nervous, but I couldn’t tell if it was the thought of returning to the bookstore or the idea of Sasha himself that created the feeling, so I said sure. We didn’t speak on the tram ride in. He was different than the men I’d known before. They’d all been students, studying science, like me, or politics, like Rima. I’d met Nikolai in the Pioneers, Pavel at school, Pyotr at a rally, but all of them seemed like boys in comparison to Sasha. They drank competitively with their friends, they kissed with over-big, over-wet tongues. How did Sasha kiss? I wondered.

The tram stopped and we got out. At a cigarette stand, Sasha asked for Gitanes. The cigarette girl looked at him, taken aback, and offered him a different brand, which he refused. We walked on.

No one sells French cigarettes, I said.

She does, he said, just not tonight.

She didn’t look like she does, I said.

He pulled out a near-empty pack of Gitanes and offered me one.

The Gitanes smoked cleaner than other cigarettes I’d tried, like the difference between brandy and cognac I said to myself, as if I knew.

From the level of the street, we looked down at the entrance to Osorgin’s. The front window had been blown out and left that way for months. In the blackened interior we spied charred and sodden books and I wondered what it meant, or if it meant anything at all. The green lamp was broken, its glass mingled with other debris from the tobacconist’s. Where had the Osorgins gone? I walked down a few of the steps to peer through the broken window. Lying against the chalkboard wall, under remnants of the last image that Osorgin had sketched, I made out the shape of a body, the slow rise and fall of its back as it slept. Sasha and I looked at each other, trying to read one another’s reaction, trying to know if what the other’s face said meant it was better to go in to investigate or better to leave well enough alone. The figure shifted under our gaze.

Should we go? I whispered to Sasha. He nodded yes.

On the wall that week, Osorgin had sketched this image:

It is Husserl’s conception of time, memory, and the pressure the past puts upon our present. Had Osorgin anticipated the explosion? I wondered. Had the bomb — we later found out it was a bomb — been intended for the bookshop, or was it, as others said, intended for the synagogue down the street? The diagram seemed to capture every question I had about what had happened to the Osorgins, what was happening to Sasha and me that night, and what all of it would mean for the future we had, just then, started to hope for. In the diagram, a line moves from A to E thus capturing an idea we have about time — that it is linear. Husserl is telling us something, saying, hang on a second, time isn’t so linear after all. It gets punctuated from beneath the surface as P surges up: P is a sound from the past, like that of an explosion (or sound’s absence, the silence of the million-strong crowd gathered before the poet Mayakovsky), or a scent (like the lime trees that once lined the streets in Moscow), or an impression as vague as summer’s timeless heat. The scent of lime wafts by and suddenly we’ve forgotten what season we’re in, what year. Yet we keep thinking of time as progressive, forward moving. The future is a line that stretches out ahead of us, captured in the diagram by the arrow that follows the E. The arrow is anticipation, what we project for our future, our imaginations moving forward at more or less the same rate as our memories move back until suddenly, again unbidden, the movement is broken by a memory, say, of a loved one, and then we exist for a moment in no time and no place. The timelessness and placelessness of a scent or a sound: it exploded my heart just to think of it.

That night, Sasha took my hand again, and again we walked away, slowly this time.

The exams taught me one thing and one thing only: everything I needed to know I’d learned from that blackboard in the bookstore, from the clandestine meetings at the hand of my mother, from the pamphlets and speeches, from the all-night conversations in a bar. I’d learned it from hearing Kollontai and Mayakovsky lose their voices reciting poems to thousands of people, from the way a woman could sell Gitanes one night and not the next, from the timelessness of a first kiss.

Over the course of the next three years, Sasha and I would fall in love. The way we came to know each other was so intimate that I spent those years adapting to feeling I had been cracked wide open, feeling another person in the world knew me better than I knew myself. When we would look back on our encounter at Osorgin’s, we’d say on that night we found each other, and so our lives were divided into the period before, when we were looking, and the period after, when we had been found.

In January 1924, Lenin would die. That same year I would marry Sasha, and I would start working for Bekhterev at the Institut Mozga, an institute he referred to in private as the Pantheon of Brains. My life seemed to have found its right shape. Then, suddenly, both Sasha and Bekhterev would be gone, and I would need to find them. This story is about that. I call it a story, but it’s not fictional. Everything I have written here is true.

 

 

 

 

1927

On October 27, 1927, the Institut Mozga opened to the public for the first time. We chose that date so that the opening could coincide with the tenth anniversary of the Revolution, and therefore with the parades, the arrival of fellow travellers from around the world, and the general euphoria some of us felt at how far we had come. The institute fulfilled Bekhterev’s lifelong vision of a pantheon like the one in Paris but, in his words, ours would be better because our brains were elite and our aim was to enlighten. The Parisians had been indiscriminate, displaying the brains of criminals and degenerates with the same care they bestowed on their men of science. We were different. They had put together their collection so easily by way of theft, since no one had asked the permission of the criminals and degenerates, whereas our collection was the result of careful solicitation — letters to the living geniuses, letters to their bereaved. Bekhterev had been slowly collecting this way for years, but it took Lenin’s death and the politburo’s desire to have his brain on display for the institute to get the political support it needed. Crass as it is to say, Lenin’s death had come at a good time for Bekhterev. Lenin’s brain allowed Bekhterev’s scientific enterprise to align with the revolutionary, and so the institute was born.

Nevertheless, it had taken over two years for any significant research to be done on Lenin’s brain, this because the politburo had determined the brain had to be sent out of the country, to the laboratory of a certain Dr. Oskar Vogt, whose techniques were considered the best in the Communist world. The institute was, by virtue of Vogt’s involvement, a joint German-Russian venture, a collaboration that had allowed us access to research, technical advances, and equipment that would otherwise have remained beyond our grasp. Vogt’s deadline for any initial results had always been October 1927 because of the anniversary, so there we were, ready to open the doors for the first time to a public that wanted to know how Lenin’s brain could explain Lenin’s genius. We wanted to know, too. Ten years after the Revolution, Lenin’s genius would be revealed once again. Our expectations were high.

Aligning our scientific aims with the revolutionary aims was facilitated by the language of Marx, who saw history as the result of material conditions just as scientists looked to the physical (rather than the metaphysical) for explanations. We said we were looking for the material substrate of genius. Genius was a term loosely defined back then, there being no particular test nor any clear physical characteristic that could be discovered post-mortem. In the absence of clear measurables, our only evidence was a lifetime of achievements. Let me try to clarify. In the two years since the institute’s establishment we had not yet succeeded in correlating the physical attributes of a certain brain with the excellence displayed in an individual’s life. That there must be some link between the physical and the mental, between the folds of the cerebral cortex and the intellectual range of capability it exhibited, was hardly an original hypothesis. Our aim was to prove not only that there was a link but also how that link might work. We wanted to see genius, not just believe in it. Where, precisely, did music and poetry come from? What about military strategy, plans for space travel, or visions of a life unending? How could a brain’s physical attributes explain the order of one mind and the chaos of another?

The People’s Commissar for Health, Nikolai Semashko, praised our efforts, saying the institute’s work would result in the victory of materialism in an area where metaphysics and dualism were still strong. No god, no mystical order, and certainly not the stuff of dreams could explain how one person delivered perfect speeches while another strained to tell a house guest where he’d hidden a key. All our talents, all our traits, all our truths: they were physical, they were material. For Semashko and for others, what made our research so important wasn’t merely that it could explain why the titans of our past had been so powerful. No, our work promised an even greater though more illusory end: the project of remaking man. Change the physical and you change the mind. Change the mind and you change the world.

By then, Sasha had developed a hypothesis about Bekhterev and the institute that meant we’d agreed he should stay at home. His hypothesis was that the institute wasn’t doing research; my hypothesis was that Sasha didn’t know anything about research. Three years into our marriage this much had become clear: I believed that physical and economic truths lay behind the different fates of people and countries, whereas Sasha believed in the beauty of ideas you couldn’t quite pin down, in feelings so powerful they dodged precise description. For me, words captured the essence of things; for Sasha words caught only the most fleeting impressions. Before we married, this difference might have been what made us so compelling to each other, but three years on, its charms were wearing off.

The morning of the opening was cold and the wind scraped against my cheeks, suggesting an early winter. Walking up the hill towards the building, I looked at it as if for the first time. There was nothing else like it in Moscow. A visiting scholar from Yaroslavl once told me it was the spitting image of that city’s Orthodox cathedral.

Strange, he’d said, for a scientific institute to look so…religious.

The original architect came from Yaroslavl, I told him, and he hung himself in the attic.

Yes, he’d responded, I heard.

Over the years, I’d stopped seeing the idiosyncrasies of its design. The turrets and archways, the hand-carved wooden doors, even the red, gold, and azure fleurs-de-lys of the interior, it all disappeared in the haze of the everyday. Besides, it was what happened inside that was truly strange.

While Vogt had been hard at work on Lenin’s brain in his Das Neurologische Zentralstation, we’d been perfecting our methods for comparing the brains we did have, which involved microtoming certain sections so a cellular study could be undertaken, and leaving other sections whole so a macroscopic examination could also take place. The process was painstaking and still inconclusive. Our hope was that Vogt’s analysis would establish irrefutable correlations. In this way, brain analysis could finally become explanatory as opposed to merely descriptive. This hope meant I was just like everyone else that night: desperate to know what he had discovered.

The rumours about Vogt had been good and not good. Good: he was a Communist. Not good: he’d been thrown out of the German university system for “unprofessional conduct.”’ On the good side: even before Lenin died, as he was suffering the result of his 1923 stroke, he had wanted Vogt among his medical team. On the bad: everyone, including Bekhterev, especially Bekhterev, hated him. Bekhterev hadn’t said this exactly, but by then I knew him well enough to identify a deep animosity in the way he crossed his arms and bit his lip at any mention of Vogt. For my part, Vogt’s expulsion from the university suggested he thought like a revolutionary.

If Vogt were successful, his work would bring our institute to the forefront of all the other scientific institutes across the union, all of which aimed to advance the revolutionary science. Collectively, they would transform our people from backward peasants into efficient workers whose lifespans would be extended, whose energies would never wane, whose collective intellectual capacities would make a triumph of the Soviet system.

It was late afternoon when I made my way to the front entrance of the institute and stood, huddled against the open door, looking out onto Bolshaya Yakimanka. The boulevard had calmed for the night. A taxi idled by the bakery across the way. Denuded, lonely trees lined the street, their naked branches reaching up like supplicant hands. The setting sun snuck under the clouds and hovered a moment above the shops. Its golden light shone directly into my eyes, so I had to squint and look away. The institute’s brick exterior glowed bright red and then dulled as the sun descended behind the shops. A car door slammed and the taxi pulled away.

I propped the first door open, then returned through the second set of doors to where it was darker and warmer. Sergei, our custodian, was sitting at the front desk, talking in a low voice with Anushka, one of our technicians.(I liked to think of her as one of “our” technicians because of the way it suggested a hierarchy, but the truth was I was one of our technicians, too). They both looked up as I entered. Sergei winked at me, then resumed the conversation. At a bar once I’d seen him feign a drunken stumble in order to collapse, hands forward, onto Anushka’s chest, and I’d seen her let him. She was only a few years younger than me, but in that time the entire university system had changed. No more lectures, and the exams were taken in teams. Everything was designed to encourage collaboration as opposed to competition. It sounded good in theory. Sergei, on the other hand, was ten years older, a puffy thirty-something, prematurely aged by drinking, and one of those activist-types who, when he was younger, had espoused all the typical values — anti-church, anti-ownership, free marriage, easy divorce — right up until his lover announced she wanted an abortion and he refused outright. Now they were married with two children between them, though I guessed he’d fathered others. I walked slowly past them, past the portraits — mostly scientists, save Lenin — and into the grand salon.

It was empty. The glowing chandelier warmed the salon’s ivory walls and gold-tipped mouldings. Underneath the chandelier, the brains were arranged in a perfect semicircle. I went to find Bekhterev, just to have something to do. During the day, the podium had been set and the seats had been cleaned, but now the lights were dimmed and the excitement would be about watching and listening, not doing. I crossed the salon between the exhibit and the wall of mirrors, which disguised doors to the laboratory, back offices, and kitchen. There, too, the lights had been dimmed, but I heard voices arguing in the offices, one of which was Bekhterev’s. I zigzagged between the lab tables without turning on the light.

Forget it, said Sarkisov, just as I appeared at the door. Sarkisov was probably just a few years older than me, but he’d trained under Vogt, using the German equipment and Vogt’s techniques, so that, despite his young age, he had returned to Moscow as our superior. He had other tricks up his sleeve, alliances only he knew about, debts owed, blow jobs given, as Sasha would have put it. Bekhterev and Vogt were standing at opposite sides of the room, with Sarkisov between them, as if he were trying to bring them to agreement or prevent them from coming to blows. Sarkisov’s presence was awkward for Bekhterev because on paper, Sarkisov was everyone’s superior, but by reputation no scientist in the country got close to Bekhterev. Everywhere in the country, the newly established power structures butted up against the traditional hierarchies in just this way. Vogt, looking smug, nodded at me, then sat down in a chair, crossing one leg over the other before daintily pulling down on the pant leg that had risen to reveal his hairless leg. He lit a cigar. Bekhterev faced the two men with his arms crossed, leaning heavily against the wall. He stood up straight when he saw me.

The doors are open, I said.

Vogt and Sarkisov started to speak German, which meant the conversation was over, since Bekhterev didn’t speak German. He nodded at them and left. I followed him out. I’d interrupted something, but Bekhterev said nothing and I didn’t ask. Their voices and then their laughter trailed after us as we walked back through the dark laboratory and into the grand salon that seemed, with its ivory light and its promise of order, a different world altogether.

Having closed the mirrored door, Bekhterev and I stood for a moment, looking at the room. The room demanded a certain sobriety, a reverence, even. Bekhterev put his hands in his pockets and pulled his shoulders back.

It looks good, he said.

Yes, I said.

I could see he was upset, but there was a limit to our closeness, and that was it: I couldn’t ask what was wrong.

We stood quietly in the dark, as if not quite ready to set the evening in motion. The room’s periphery was dark because the room’s only source of light was the chandelier at the centre, whose glow got caught up in the liquid of the displays, so that they, too, emanated a golden glow. Standing against the doors as we were, I realized that from this angle the exhibits lost their singularity and became elements of a collective formation that resembled the ancient ruins of Stonehenge, images of which I’d marvelled at as a child. Suspended in formaldehyde, all the brains appeared to float in their glass displays. Because the clear liquid was viscous, the brains did not rotate once placed inside, meaning there was a distinct front and back to the exhibit, a feeling that was exacerbated by the way the light faded, and so we were, in fact, looking at the shadowed side of everything.

The stillness of the room created a sense of awe.

That is, until, to our surprise, a lone figure moved from one of the plinths to the other, the way museum patrons do between paintings, with a slow, thoughtful step. The figure disappeared again behind the exhibit of Rubinstein’s brain.

Each case sat on a plinth, and each plinth was labelled with the name of the brain’s owner and a description, detailing its distinctive characteristics. Certain plinths had shelves that held documents or objects illustrative of the owner’s life: musical scores for Borodin and Rubinstein, poems for the writers, decrees and speeches for the politicians. Even if my contribution had been more of the exhibiting than the analysis, I still had the sense that the alignment between the musical scores and the thickness of the folds were obvious, as if the folds were etched with notes or the frontal lobe with decrees.

Bekhterev and I listened to the sound of a drawer opening. Some of the drawers contained photographs, and, in the case of brains whose key aspects were more visible on a cellular rather than a structural level, microphotographs of pertinent histological sections. Lenin’s brain, housed at the top of the semicircle, had been damaged by a shooting or by his strokes or by something else — we weren’t sure just what had been the cause — and so it needed to be displayed on a specific angle to hide the dead, black tissue. The other brains were displayed on the same angle — the right frontal lobe protruding — so that the choice appeared aesthetic. What very few knew, but many should have suspected, was that the display cases held only models.

We heard the drawer slide shut and the figure drifted on to Borodin.

Luria! called Bekhterev. With a sudden gestalt-like shift, the drifting figure became Alexandr Luria. He slipped between the plinths and walked over to us, squinting as his eyes adjusted to the dark. It had been years since we’d seen each other, yet he seemed the same. Same wire-rimmed glasses, same coal-black eyebrows, like an angry God had gashed his face with them, same jagged teeth too big for his mouth, same skinny body more wiry than that of a ballet dancer. Physically unattractive but so brilliant it didn’t matter. Since completing our studies we’d gone in different directions, mine ever aligned with Bekhterev’s, and his dedicated to his own research and further study.

Seeing him again that evening reminded me of our last encounter. We were still both students then, both working with Bekhterev in what I imagined was the same sort of relationship, both protégés. Luria had taken me aside, though, and said there were rumours that my relationship with Bekhterev went beyond the professional. I’d known from his tone that he was asking me to clarify, but I refused on principle, knowing no man would ever be asked to do such a thing. The memory of that question and my refusal to provide a clear answer made me blush, as we do, looking back on the errors we made when we were young. I excused myself to attend to the others whose voices I could hear from the entrance.

As I was walking away, I heard Luria ask Bekhterev if he would introduce the exhibit.

In the entrance, I stationed myself close enough to the door so I could feel the cold air when it opened and closed. My greetings and instructions became a kind of litany that, in its repetition, allowed me to think. We had invited scientists, party members, and newspaper reporters. Some had brought their wives.

I surveyed the gathering crowd as an outsider might, curious about why they had come and what the evening would mean to them. The journalists who wrote for Meditsinksi Rabotnik, Der Tagesspiegel, Neue Zürcher Zeitung, the New York Times, and Pravda spoke varying degrees of Russian, ranging from the requisite spasiba to complete nuanced sentences and accomplished swearing, the truest test of literacy. Those who spoke well demonstrated it for those who spoke poorly, so that when they gathered around Sergei they were communicating not with him but with each other, establishing a linguistic pecking order they thought also mirrored their authorial rank. I’d seen this before. Capitalism breeds such manners. The foreign journalists always arrived together. They moved around the city in packs, staying in the same hotels, having sex with the same circle of women, and forming singular, neat opinions for export to their countries.

I’d met one of the journalists several years before in the lineup to see Lenin’s body in the dark winter of 1924. That was the winter we remembered for its strikes and famines and peasant revolts. It was also the year I’d married Sasha, against the wishes of both our families, and the year I’d started to work for Bekhterev, against the wishes of Sasha.

In the very faces of the lineup that winter’s day, I saw an entire world mourning. I remembered a peasant and his two young sons who had walked all the way from their farm near the western steppe, having left home just as soon as they heard the news. Diplomats from France. Whole orphanages. Groups of workers. Residents in communal apartments had come as a group, bringing their petty arguments with them. Reporters from the United States, Great Britain, France, Denmark, Switzerland. Nurses. Young Pioneers. Priests. People from the Caucasus. Secretaries’ unions. Teachers. At one point a girl my very same age sat down on the cobblestones and started to weep. A part of me wanted so much to embrace her, but I was at a loss as to how I could. Then an older woman walked up to her, knelt down, and put her hand gently on the weeping girl’s crossed arms. Their eyes met and soon after they were holding each other, though they had been strangers just minutes before.

All that day, the line had advanced slowly. Though the boulevards were wide by the university, once we rounded the northeastern corner of the Kremlin walls, the streets narrowed. At points, the noise seemed too much. The Pioneers had begun to sing songs and, because by that point we’d all started attending schools with the same curriculums, the same songs, and the same traditions, the words escaped our mouths without a single thought. Many from the crowd joined in. At one point, we began a folk song, the title of which I forget, but I remember the words And the Red Sea seethes and how our voices were suddenly doubled when another crowd that was as large and as diverse, joined in for the next lyric. That was how we realized there was not one line, but two. Our line came from the southern part of the city, theirs came from the east. The lines merged at the intersection of Nikitskaya and Rewoljuzzi.

All that day, I had been looking for my mother. If she were anywhere in Moscow, she would be here, I thought. Strange settings make familiar faces unrecognizable. That was why, when I saw Dimitri waving at me from the other line, I didn’t, at first, wave back. I puzzled for a moment, and then knew I knew him, so I waved. And then I knew him as Dimitri, and so I smiled. Dimitri was Sasha’s friend, not mine.

I had been wondering what my mother might look like; almost a decade had passed since I’d seen her. By the time she left, I’d reached my full height, though not my full figure. I was taller than her then but had no breasts to speak of, nor hips. She, on the other hand, was petite, yet full-figured. I only knew this because at night we bathed together and I took in her body, wondering in what ways we might, one day, be the same. Her clothes masked the soft curves of her breasts and hips.

Dimitri’s line snaked out of view and I forgot about him.

My strongest memories of my mother were of the walks we’d taken on nights when my father attended the English Gentlemen’s Club, when the streets became ours, our boots clopping against the cobblestones taking us down alleys, through small doorways and down dark steps to rooms guarded by men who recognized us and pinched my cheeks, ushering us in to smoky halls where people spoke in unison at a fever pitch. After the recitations and the speeches, the formality of the gatherings were abandoned and the adults would greet each other fervently. As they made plans whose details always escaped me, I would feel myself disappear. The less I understood, the more I resented being there. Eventually I would beg for us to leave, if only to have the opportunity to have my mother to myself again. The goodbyes went on forever. Finally, we’d leave, and then we’d be out in the streets again and they were ours. As we walked, my mother would explain something of the plans that had been made.

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