The Charm School - Chapter One
"You are already staying in Smolensk two days, Mr. Fisher?" she asked.
Gregory Fisher was no longer confused or amused by the peculiar syntax and verb tenses of English as it was spoken in this part of the world. "Yes," he replied, "I've been in Smolensk two days."
"Why don't I see you when you arrive?"
"You were out. So I saw the police -- the militia."
"Yes?" She leafed through his papers on her desk, a worried look on her face, then brightened. "Ah, yes. Good. You are staying here at Tsentralnaya Hotel."
Fisher regarded the Intourist representative. She was about twenty-five years old, a few years older than he. Not too bad looking. But maybe he'd been on the road too long. "Yes, I stayed at the Tsentralnaya last night."
She looked at his visa. "Tourism?"
She asked, "Occupation?"
Fisher had become impatient with these internal control measures. He felt as if he were making a major border crossing at each town in which he was obliged to stop. He said, "Ex-college student, currently unemployed."
She nodded. "Yes? There is much unemployment in America. And homeless people."
The Russians, Fisher had learned, were obsessed with America's problems of unemployment, homeless people, crime, drugs, and race. "I'm voluntarily unemployed."
"The Soviet constitution itself guarantees each citizen a job, a place to live, and a forty-hour work week. Your constitution does not guarantee this."
Fisher thought of several responses but said only, "I'll ask my congressman about that."
"Yes." Fisher stood in the middle of the office with pale yellow walls.
The woman folded her hands and leaned forward. "You are enjoying your visit in Smolensk?"
"Super. Wish I could stay."
She spread his travel itinerary over her desk, then energetically slapped a big red rubber stamp across the paperwork. "You visit our cultural park?"
"Shot a roll of film there."
"Yes? Do you visit the Local History Museum on Lenin Street?"
Fisher didn't want to push his credibility. "No. Missed that. Catch it on the way back."
"Good." She eyed him curiously for a few moments. Fisher thought she enjoyed the company. In fact, the whole Smolensk Intourist office had a somewhat forlorn look about it, like a Chamber of Commerce storefront in a small Midwestern town.
"We see not many Americans here."
"Hard to believe."
"Not many from the West. Buses from our Socialist brother countries."
"I'll spread the word around."
"Yes?" She tapped her fingers on the desk, then said thoughtfully, "You may travel anywhere."
"An American is telling me this. Everyone is getting passport. Thirty bucks. Two, three, four weeks."
"Could take longer. Can't go to Vietnam, North Korea, Cuba, few other places."
She nodded absently. After a few moments she inquired. "You are interested in socialism?"
Fisher replied, "I am interested in Russia."
"I am interested in your country."
"Come on over."
"Yes. Someday." She looked down at a printed form and read, "You have the required first aid kit and tool kit in your automobile?"
"Sure do. Same ones I had in Minsk."
"Good." She continued, "You must stay on the designated highways. There are no authorized overnight stops between here and Moscow. Night driving in the countryside is forbidden for foreign tourists. You must be within the city of Moscow by nightfall."
"When you reach Moscow, you must report directly to the Intourist representative at the Hotel Rossiya where you are staying. Before you do this, you may stop only for petrol and to ask directions of the militia."
"And to use the tualet."
"Well, yes of course." She glanced at his itinerary. "You are authorized one small detour to Borodino."
"Yes, I know."
"But I would advise against that."
"It is late in the day, Mr. Fisher. You will be hurrying to Moscow before dark. I would advise you already to stay in Smolensk tonight."
"I am already checking out of my hotel. Yes?"
She didn't seem to notice his parody of her English and said, "I can arrange for another room here. My job." She smiled for the first time.
"Thank you. But I'm sure I can make Moscow before dark."
She shrugged and pushed the paperwork toward him.
"Spasibo." Fisher stuffed it in his shoulder satchel. "Da svedahnya," Greg Fisher said with a wave.
"Drive safely," she replied, adding, "Be cautious, Mr. Fisher."
Fisher walked out into the cool air of Smolensk, considering that last cryptic remark. He took a deep breath and approached a crowd of people surrounding his car. He sidled through the throng. "Excuse me, folks. . . ." He unlocked the door of his metallic blue Pontiac Trans Am, smiled, gave a V-sign, slipped inside the car, and closed the door. He started the engine and drove slowly through the parting crowd. "Da svedahnya, Smolenskers."
He proceeded slowly through the center of Smolensk, referring to the map on the seat beside him. Within ten minutes he was back on the Minsk-Moscow highway, heading east toward the Soviet capitol. He saw farm vehicles, trucks, and buses but not a single automobile. It was a windy day, with grey clouds scudding past a weak sun.
Fisher saw that the farther east he drove, the more advanced the autumn became. In contrast to the bustling agricultural activity he'd seen in East Germany and Poland at the same latitudes, the wheat here had been harvested on both sides of the highway, and the occasional fruit orchards were bare.
Greg Fisher thought about things as the landscape rolled by. The restrictions and procedures were not only annoying, he concluded, but a little scary. Yet, he'd been treated well by the Soviet citizens he'd met. He'd written home on a postcard to his parents, "Ironically this is one of the last places where they still like Americans." And he rather liked them and liked how his car literally stopped traffic and turned heads wherever he went.
The Trans Am had Connecticut plates, had cast aluminum wheels, a rear deck spoiler, and custom pin-striping; the quintessential American muscle car, and he thought that nothing like it had ever been seen on the road to Moscow.
From the backseat of the car came the aroma of fruits and vegetables given him by villagers and peasants wherever he'd stopped. He in turn had given out felt-tip pens, American calendars, disposable razors, and other small luxuries he'd been advised to bring. Greg Fisher felt like an ambassador of goodwill, and he was having a marvelous time.
A stone kilometer post informed him that he was 290 K from Moscow. He looked at the digital dashboard clock: 2:16 P.M.
In his rearview mirror he saw a Red Army convoy gaining on him. The lead vehicle, a dull green staff car, pulled up to his bumper. "Hey," Fisher mumbled, "that's called tailgating."
The car flashed its headlights, but Fisher could see no place to pull off the two-lane road bordered by a drainage ditch. Fisher speeded up. The 5-liter, V-8 engine had tuned-port fuel injection, but the local fuel didn't seem to agree with it, and the engine knocked and backfired. "Damn it."
The staff car was still on his tail. Fisher looked at his speedometer, which showed 110 kph, twenty over the limit.
Suddenly the staff car swung out and pulled alongside him. The driver sounded his horn. The rear window lowered, and an officer in gold braid stared at him. Fisher managed a grin as he eased off the gas pedal. The long convoy of trucks, troop carriers, and cars passed him, soldiers waving and giving him the traditional Red Army, "Ooo-rah!"
The convoy disappeared ahead, and Greg Fisher drew a breath. "What the hell am I doing here?" That was what his parents wanted to know. They'd given him the car and the vacation as a graduation gift after completing his MBA at Yale. He'd had the car shipped to Le Havre and spent the summer touring Western Europe. Heading into the East Bloc had been his own idea. Unfortunately the visa and auto permits had taken longer than expected, and like Napoleon and Hitler before him, he reflected, his Russian incursion was running about a month too late into the bad season.
The landscape, Fisher noticed, had a well-deserved reputation for being monotonous and infinite. And the sky seemed to be a reflection of the terrain: grey and rolling, an unbroken expanse of monotony for the last eight days. He could swear the weather changed from sunshine to gloom at the Polish border.
The excitement of being a tourist in the Soviet Union, he decided, had little to do with the land (dull), the people (drab), or the climate (awful). The excitement derived from being where relatively few Westerners went, from being in a country that didn't encourage tourism, where xenophobia was a deep-rooted condition of the national psyche; a nation that was a police state. The ultimate vacation: a dangerous place.
Gregory Fisher turned on his car radio but couldn't find the Voice of America or the BBC, both of which seemed to come in only at night. He listened for a while to a man talking in a stentorian voice to the accompaniment of martial music, and he could pick out the words "Amerikanets" and "agressiya" being repeated. He snapped off the radio.
The highway had become wider and smoother as he left Tumanovo, but there were no other indications that he was approaching the great metropolis of Moscow. In fact, he thought, there was a singular lack of any visible commercial activity that one would associate with the twentieth century. "I'm having a Big Mac attack."
He put a Russian language tape in the deck, listened, and repeated, "Ya-plo-kho-syebya-choo. I feel ill. Na-shto-zhaloo-yetyes? What's the matter with you?"
Fisher listened to the tape as the Trans Am rolled along the blacktop highway. In the fields women gleaned grain left by the reapers.
Ahead he saw the silhouette of a village that was not on his map. He'd seen villages such as this one strung along the highway, and he'd also seen clusters of more modern buildings set back at the end of wide lanes, which he took to be state farms. But no solitary farmhouses. And the villages weren't exactly picture-postcard quality.
In contrast, throughout Western Europe, every village had been a delight, each turn in the road revealed a new vista of pastoral loveliness. Or so it seemed now. In some superficial ways, he realized, rural Russia was not unlike rural America; there was little that was quaint or historical in either heartland, no castles or chateaux, few messages from the past. What he saw here was a functional if inefficient agribusiness, whose headquarters was in Moscow. "I don't like this," he said.
Fisher was in the village now. It consisted mostly of log cabins,izbas, whose doors, window frames, and flower boxes were all of the same blue. "People's Paint Factory Number Three is overfilling quota on blue paint number two. Yes?" The entire village stretched along both sides of the highway for a half kilometer or so, like some elongated Kozy Kabin motel in the Adirondacks. He saw a few elderly people and children digging root vegetables from their kitchen gardens in the small fenced-in front yards. An old man was forcing mortar into the chinks between two logs of an izba while a group of children were gleefully terrorizing a flock of chickens.
Everyone stopped, turned, and watched as the metallic blue Trans Am rolled by. Fisher gave a cursory wave and began accelerating as soon as he passed the last cabin. He glanced over his right shoulder and saw a glimpse of the sun hanging lower on the southwest horizon.
Some half hour later he turned off the highway onto a smaller parallel route that had once been the principal western road out of Moscow. In a few minutes he found himself on the outskirts of Mozhaisk, 128 kilometers from Moscow, and he slowed to the urban speed limit. His Intourist guidebook informed him this was a thirteenth-century town of Old Moscovy, but there weren't any signs of antiquity evident in the plain concrete and wooden buildings. His map showed a monastery somewhere in the area, and he saw the spire of the Cathedral of St. Nicholas, but he didn't have the time or the inclination to sightsee. There was a flip side to being an American in a Pontiac Trans Am in deepest, darkest Russia. There were limits to the amount of attention one could comfortably take.
He continued through Mozhaisk, affecting a nonchalance behind the wheel, avoiding the stare of the State motor policeman directing traffic through the only major intersection.
Finally, with the town behind him, he saw what he was looking for, a petrol station, the petrol station, on the eastern end of Mozhaisk, marked by a picture of a pump. He pulled onto the immaculate, white concrete and stopped beside a yellow pump. A man in clean blue overalls sat in a chair outside a white concrete-block building reading a book. The man peered over the book. Fisher got out of the car and approached him. "How's business?" Fisher handed him Intourist coupons for thirty-five liters of 93-octane. "Okay?"
The man nodded. "Oo-kay."
Fisher went back to his car and began pumping gas. The man followed and looked over his shoulder at the meter. Fisher did not wonder why all petrol stations were self-service if the attendant stood there watching you. Fisher had stopped wondering about such things. He hit thirty-five liters, but the tank wasn't full, so he squeezed in another four liters before he put the hose back. The attendant was peering inside the Pontiac now and didn't seem to notice.
Fisher got into his car, started the big engine, and raced the motor. He lowered the electric windows and handed the attendant a packet of postcards from New York City. "Everyone is being homeless there. Yes?"
The attendant flipped slowly through the cards. Fisher put a Bruce Springsteen tape in the deck, popped the clutch, and left six feet of rubber on the white concrete. He made a tight, hard U-turn and accelerated up the road. "Surreal. Really."
He rolled up the windows and lost himself in the music.
Fisher pressed on the gas pedal until he was well past the speed limit. "Haven't seen a traffic cop in the last thousand miles. They never heard of radar here."
He thought about the Rossiya Hotel in Moscow. That would be his first decent accommodation since Warsaw. "I need a steak and scotch whiskey." He wondered what he was going to do with the fruits and vegetables in the rear seat.
Another thought popped into his mind. "Avoid sexual entanglements." That was what the embassy man in Bonn had told him when he'd gone there to pick up his Soviet visa, and so far he'd avoided it, though not by much in Warsaw. Still, he had fifteen pairs of panty hose and a dozen tubes of lip gloss. "We'll see what shakes out at the Rossiya."
Fisher kept looking for a sign directing him back to the main highway. "The sun has riz, and the sun has set, and here we is in Roosha yet."
Greg Fisher pulled off to the side of the deserted road. A stone kilometer post read 108 K, and an arrow pointed back to the main highway via a one-lane road with crumbling blacktop. An arrow to the left pointed toward a rising road in better condition. The sign was in Cyrillic, but he could make out the word "Borodino." He looked at his dashboard clock: 4:38. Impulsively he accelerated, swinging onto the Borodino road, heading west into the setting sun.
He didn't know what he expected to see at Borodino, but something told him it was a not-to-be-missed opportunity. In June he had stood on the beach at Normandy and had been moved by what had happened there. Similarly, he thought, he would like to see the place where Napoleon and Kutuzov had faced off, where fifty years later Leo Tolstoy had stood and pondered his epic, War and Peace. Fisher thought perhaps he owed the Russians at least that before he entered Moscow.
The road curved gently and rose gradually. Poplars flanked either side, and Fisher found it pleasant. He drove slowly through a set of stone pillars with open iron gates. The road crested a small hill, and he saw spread before him Borodino Field, where Napoleon's Grande Armée met the Russian army led by Field Marshal Kutuzov. The road led down to a small parking area beyond which was a white limestone building with a red-tiled roof and a neoclassical portico. On either side of the portico were wings in which were set arched French windows. Two old, muzzle-loading cannons flanked the entranceway. This building, Fisher knew from his Intourist booklet, was the Borodino museum. He rummaged through his tapes and found Tchaikovsky's "1812 Overture." He slid in the tape, turned up the volume, and got out of the car, leaving the door open. The overture reverberated over the quiet battlefield, and a flock of wild geese took to the air.
Fisher mounted the steps of the museum and tried the doors, but they were locked. "Typical." He turned and looked out at the grass-covered fields and hillocks where a quarter-million French and Russian soldiers met on a September day in 1812, the French intent on taking Moscow, the Russians on defending it. For fifteen hours, according to his guidebook, the two sides fired at each other, and in the evening the Russians withdrew toward Moscow, and the French were in possession of Borodino Field and the little village of the same name. A hundred thousand men lay dead and wounded.
In the distance Fisher saw the memorial to the French soldiers and officers who fought there in 1812, and further away was a newer monument dedicated to the Russian defenders who tried to stop the Germans in this same place in 1941. Fisher noted there was no monument to the Germans.
Greg Fisher was suddenly overcome by a sense of history and tragedy as he gazed out over the now peaceful fields, deathly still in the autumn dusk. The cold east wind blew tiny birch leaves over the granite steps where he stood, and the cannon of Tchaikovsky's overture boomed over the quiet countryside. "Russia," he said softly to himself. "Rodina -- the motherland. Bleeding Russia. But you made them all bleed too. You gave them death in seven-digit numbers."
Fisher walked slowly back to his car. It was much colder now, and a chill passed through his body. He shut the door and turned the tape lower as he drove slowly on the lanes, past the black granite obelisk honoring Kutuzov, past the common grave of the Soviet Guardsmen who fell in action in 1941, past the monument dedicated to the Grand Armée of 1812, and past the dozens of smaller markers dedicated to the Russian regiments of both 1812 and 1941. In the deepening dusk Fisher fancied he could hear the muted sounds of battle and the cries of men. I'm too hard on them, he decided. They got shafted bad. Screwed by the West once too often.
He had lost track of time, and it had become noticeably darker. He tried to retrace his route through the low hills and clusters of birch trees, but he realized he was lost.
Fisher found himself going upgrade in a towering pine forest and reluctantly continued on the narrow, paved lane, looking for a wide place to turn around. He put on his headlights, but they revealed only walls of dark green pine on either side. "Oh, Christ Almighty. . . ."
Suddenly the head beams illuminated a large wooden sign attached to a tree, and Fisher stopped the car. He stared out the windshield at the Cyrillic lettering and was able to make out the familiar word STOP. The rest of the sign was incomprehensible except for the also familiar CCCP. Government property. But what wasn't these days? "Do I need this?" He thought he detected a quaver in his voice, so he said more forcibly, "I don't need this crap. Right?"
As he sat considering what to do next, he noticed what appeared to be a small opening in the trees off the right shoulder. The opening lay beyond the sign, and he didn't want to pass the sign with the car, so he took a flashlight from under his seat and got out. He walked the ten meters to the opening. It was a graveled patch, not five meters square, but obviously meant as a turnaround, a means of allowing the unwary motorist to obey the sign. "Russian efficiency." He kicked at the crushed stone and decided it would be all right. He turned back toward his car, then froze.
Over the hum of the engine he heard branches rustling. He remained motionless and breathed through his nose, noticing the resinous scent of the trees. The air was cold and damp, and he shivered in his windbreaker. He heard it again, the brushing of pine boughs, closer this time. The headlights attracted a deer, he thought. Right. He took a step toward his car. Somewhere in the distance a dog barked -- an unfriendly bark, he decided.
The glare of his headlights blinded him, and he shielded his eyes as he walked in long strides the ten meters back toward his car; one, two, three, four, five --
"Russian efficiency," said a voice a few feet to his right.
Fisher felt his knees go weak.