“We can’t choose where we come from, but we can choose where we go from there.”
Stephen Chbosky, The Perks of Being a Wallflower
I took my first breath on the second floor of the hospital on the main street in a small town in Eastern Siberia.
Sixteen years later I was standing on a dusty courtyard inside the school across the street from that hospital. I was given my high school diploma. That summer I left the town and never came back.
I don’t remember much of that sixteen years. No defining memories.
That’s not true. I do remember everything. I simply chose to forget it.
I was a thin and sick kid. I got bullied a lot. I didn’t have close friends. I was an outcast. I didn’t take part in fist fights. I didn’t curse. I didn’t start drinking and smoking like everybody else.
It didn’t bother me much that I wasn’t accepted. I knew on a subconscious level that I don’t belong there. I was just doing my time. I was waiting for my train.
Reality didn’t matter much because I was living a double life. My real life was inside the imaginary world of books I read.
There were no books in our apartment. Later I asked my mother about that and she said, “I don’t know. We just didn’t.” Looking back now I think that was a common thread in everybody’s life: nobody really asked questions and life was taken as a given. The Soviet way of life was the only feasible reality. That was the Era of Stagnation in the Soviet history, or as Brezhnev and his cronies called it “the period of developed socialism”.
I bought my first book when I was nine years old. It was the first Sunday of September. It was chilly but sunny. The air was crisp. The leaves already started to turn yellow. The main town square with an obligatory statue of Lenin was lined with tables filled with books. It was an annual book fair.
To this day I don’t understand why authorities thought that a book fair was a good idea. It felt different. It felt free. A bit. Of course, only state bookstores were allowed to sell. If somebody showed up with his books and tried to sell them at the fair that would be unthinkable. It was called a speculation, which is a criminal offense with two years in labor camps.
At that time I did not have even the slightest awareness of such things. I was just a kid.
As I was walking along the tables one book caught my eye. I guess because it didn’t have a bland cover with just a title like the other books. It had a picture of a ship stuck in the Arctic ice. I was given very little money but it was enough to buy the book.
It was a glorious book. It became my favorite book for years. I read and re-read it.
It opened my eyes to the heroic time of polar expeditions. Well, through the story of the Soviet icebreaker “Krasin”. But something is better than nothing.
In 1928 Italian General Umberto Nobile flew on the airship “Italia” to the North Pole. On their return back to Svalbard they ran into a storm and crashed. Injured, hungry and desperate they were drifting on sea ice. The whole world tried to save them. Roald Amundsen, legendary explorer who was the first to reach the South Pole, flew on the seaplane on a search mission only never to be found himself. Famous Swedish pilot Einar Lundborg found the survivors but crashed his plane on the landing and got stranded together with them. Only after 48 days the Soviet icebreaker “Krasin” came to rescue them.
Even today, many years later, this story gives me chills. But hardly anybody remembers it now.
That was the first book in my library. Books became my obsession. I spent all my lunch money on books.
There were three bookstores within two blocks from my school. On the main 20-minutes recess between the classes it was enough time to sprint to the bookstores and hunt for books. Even if it’s minus 40 outside. Just run faster. What jacket? No time for that.
The biggest problem was to find a good book. There was a word for that: “deficit”. Don’t get me wrong: there were a lot of books on the shelfs in bookstores. But most of them were lame Soviet propaganda. Novels and stories of writers nobody can remember now. Vanished. Forgotten.
The real books were hard to come by. On Thursdays, the delivery day in bookstores, the real books usually got sold out within an hour. With a long queue of people out of the door.
That was a lucky day. But most of the time the real books were nowhere to be found. The ladies who worked at the bookstore hid them “under the table” and sold them only to their friends or friends of friends. It was called “blat”.
What was “a real book”? It’s hard to imagine this concept now when there are so many bright and talented authors freely sharing their ideas and points of view. Back in the Soviet Era of Stagnation most of the writers were the sellouts, the cogs in the big machine of the Soviet propaganda. They knew it. Their readers knew that. Everybody understood and played the game. It was pretty self-evident and ironical.
So the books of pretty much all modern Soviet writers were not the “real books”. Real books were mostly classic Russian literature. And if you are really lucky, translated books of foreign writers. Nothing controversial of course, the list was heavily censored. Arthur Conan Doyle, James Fenimore Cooper, Stanislaw Lem. But not George Orwell, Ernest Hemingway, Victor Nabokov.
The books of world literature were the most valuable books. These books literally open the world for me. When TV news and newspapers offer little or heavily distorted information about how people in other countries lived, the only other way was the books. It’s not just an introduction to different cultures and ideas. It is realizing the immensity of the outside world. It’s like standing in a desert with a bucket of precious water in your hands and discovering that there is a whole wide river in front of you.
When I was a teenager I was introduced to people with private libraries in their living rooms. They graciously allowed me to borrow their books. The books I could not find in bookstores existed in their libraries. I guess these people had connections, “blat”.
That was an interesting time in my life. Rudyard Kipling once said, “Words are the most powerful drugs known to mankind.” I can attest to that. The real world just completely dimmed. All I did was drugs: I read books non-stop for about two or three years. A book in a day or two.
I woke up when I was sixteen. I looked around. I punched my card. I left.