Mityok and I slept through the
rest of the day I guess they spiked our yesterday's dinner with some kind of
drugs (we were really sleepy the next day, too), and in the evening we were
visited by some merry straw-haired lieutenant in shoes that were squeaking as
he walked. He wheeled our cots, one after another, with jokes and laughs along
the way, to the asphalt platz in front of the cement shell of an
open-air stage, where several top generals with kind intelligent faces were
sitting behind the table, our comrade mission chief among them. We could, of
course, get there on our own, but lieutenant told us that this is the standing
order for the first-years and asked us to lie still so as not to confuse
Because of the multitude of
cots standing side by side the square resembled the yard of a car factory or
farm equipment show, and above it, following a convoluted trajectory, a stifled
moan was fluttering; disappearing from one place, it reappeared in the other,
then the next one, like a giant mosquito darting over the cots. On the way
there the lieutenant said that the graduation ceremony was now going to take
place, combined with the final exam.
Soon he, first among several
dozen lieutenants just like him, pale and anguished but still with inimitable
grace, was dancing the "Kalinka"
to the deliberately sparse accompaniment of the flying morale officer's
accordion. Lieutenant's last name was Landratov, I heard it when he was
presented with a small red booklet and congratulated on his diploma. Then all
the others were performing the same dance, and finally I got bored looking at
them. I turned my head towards the stadium field that started right at the edge
of the platz and suddenly came to realize why
it was so overwhelmed with weeds.
I was looking at them swaying
in the wind for a long time, and imagined that the cracked, peeling gray fence
with barbed wire on top, running behind the decrepit goalposts, was in fact the
Great Wall, and despite all the pickets that were either hanging loose or
missing altogether it still stretches as it did for millennia from the rice
fields of the faraway China right down here to the town of Zaraisk, imparting
the ancient Chinese spirit to everything around it the lacy gazebos where the
entrance commission sits in hot weather, decommissioned rusted-through fighter,
and antique military tents I am staring at from my cot, holding fast under the
covers to the small nickel-plated ball I screwed off the bedpost.
The next day a truck was
carrying Mityok and I through the summer forest and the fields, we were sitting
on our backpacks against the cool metal truck bed. I remember the swaying
canvas awning above us, the tree trunks and withered gray poles of an abandoned
telegraph line rushing past. From time to time the trees would give way and
allow the triangles of pale gloomy sky to peek through. Then we had a short
stopover and five minutes of blissful silence, interrupted only by heavy
faraway thuds, which the driver (who had to go into the bushes) explained to us
were large-caliber machine guns coming in short bursts at the firing range of
the nearby Matrosov
Infantry Academy. Then the incessant jolts resumed and I dozed off, waking for
just a few seconds when we already reached Moscow, in time to catch a glimpse
of "Child's World"
arches, as if a reminder of some long-forgotten summer school vacation.
When I was a kid I would often
imagine the newspaper spread, still smelling of fresh ink, with a large
portrait of myself in the middle (with the helmet on, smiling), titled:
"Cosmonaut Omon Krivomazov
reported in excellent spirits!"
Hard to understand why I wanted
that so much. I guess I always wanted to live part of my life through the eyes
of other people those who would look at that photograph and think of me,
imagine my thoughts, feelings, the delicate fabric of my soul. And most
importantly, of course, I wanted to turn into one of those other people myself,
stare into my own face composed of the typographic dots, think about what kind of
movies this man likes, who his girlfriend might be, and then suddenly realize
that this Omon Krivomazov is in fact me. Since those times I have changed, in a
subtle and unhurried way. I stopped caring about opinions of others, because I
realized the others would never care about me, and they are going to be
thinking about my photograph, not even me personally, with the same
indifference as I think about photographs of other people. So the news that my
heroism was to remain hidden and unknown was not a big blow for me; the big
blow was that I was going to be a hero.
Mityok and I took turns
visiting the mission chief the next day after our arrival, right after we were
outfitted with black uniforms like the ones in other military academies only
the shoulder patches were bright yellow, with mysterious letters "BKY"
on them. Mityok went first, and about an hour and a half later they sent for
When the tall oak doors swung
open before me I was a little stunned by the degree to which the view unfolding
before me copied a set of some war movie. There was a big table in the middle
of the room, covered with a yellowish map and surrounded by several people in
military uniform the mission chief, three other generals who looked nothing
like each other but at the same time all very much like a popular author and
playwright Borovik, and two colonels, one short and stout, his face a shade of
purple, the other lean and thin-haired, resembling an aged sickly boy,
wearing dark glasses and sitting in a wheelchair.
"The chief of Flight Control
Center, colonel Halmuradov," said the mission chief pointing at the fatso with
the purple face.
"Morale officer for the
special cosmonaut squadron colonel Urchagin."
The colonel in the wheelchair
turned his face towards me, leaned forward a bit and took off his glasses, as
if to study me closer. I shuddered involuntarily he was blind, eyelids of one
of his eyes fused together, between the lashes of the other one I could make
out the glistening whitish mucus.
"You may call me Bamlag
Ivanovich, Omon," he said in a high-pitched tenor. "I hope we're going to be
For some reason the mission
chief did not introduce the generals, and they did not by their manner
demonstrate that they even saw me. On the other hand, I thought I saw one of
them at the final exam in the Zaraisk Academy.
"Cadet Krivomazov," the
mission chief introduced me. "Shall we begin now?"
He turned to me, resting his
hands on his stomach, and started talking.
"Omon, you probably read the
newspapers, see movies and so on, and you know that Americans have landed
several of their cosmonauts on the Moon, and even drove around there in a
motorized conveyance. This would seem like an entirely peaceful endeavor, but
that depends on how you look at it. Imagine if you will a common hard-working
man from a small country, let's say in Central Africa..."
The mission chief scrunched his
face and imitated rolling his sleeves and wiping sweat off his brow.
"Then he sees that Americans
landed on the Moon, while we... You get the picture?"
"Yes sir, comrade
lieutenant-general!" I answered.
"The principal goal of the
space experiment for which you, Omon, are now beginning to be prepared is to
demonstrate that in technology terms we roughly match the capabilities of the
Western countries, and that we are also capable of sending missions to the
Moon. To send there a piloted, returnable craft is beyond our means at this
point. But there is another possibility to launch an automated vehicle that
we won't have to bring back.
The mission chief was bending
over the relief map with protruding mountain ranges and minuscule crater holes.
Right through the middle of it there was a bright-red line, like a fresh
scratch from a nail.
"This is a section of the
Lunar surface," said the mission chief. "As you well know, Omon, our space
science is mostly concerned with the dark side of the Moon, in contrast to the
Americans, who prefer to land on the visible side. This long line is the Lenin
Fault, discovered several years ago by our domestic satellite. It is a unique
geological formation, and in that region we have recently dispatched a
automated expedition to obtain samples of the Lunar soil. According to results
of the preliminary analysis, there formed an opinion concerning the need for
further exploration of the fault. You are probably aware that our space program
is oriented chiefly towards the use of automatic devices. Let the Americans
risk their own human lives; we only endanger mechanisms. And so there is now an
idea of sending a special self-propelled vehicle, so called lunokhod,
that will drive along the bottom of the fault and transmit valuable scientific
data back to Earth."
Mission chief opened a drawer
in the desk and began grasping inside while keeping his eyes on the table.
"The combined length of the
fault is a hundred miles, but its width and depth are insignificant, measuring
mere yards. We assume that the lunokhod will be able to travel along it for
fifty miles this is how long the batteries should last and then place in
its center a pennant with a radio beacon, which would transmit into space the
words "PEACE", "LENIN" and "USSR", encoded in electromagnetic impulses."
His hand appeared from under the table clutching a little
red-colored car. He wound it up with a key and placed it at the beginning of
the red line on the map. The car began crawling forward with a whir. It was
just a child's toy: a body very much resembling a tin can, sitting on top of
eight small black wheels, with "CCCP" painted on its side and two bulges in
front that looked like eyes. Everyone stiffly followed its progress, even
colonel Urchagin was turning his head in sync with the others. The car reached
the end of the table and fell over.
"Something like that," the
mission chief said contemplatively and shot me a glance.
"Permission to address the
senior officer!" I heard myself saying.
"But the lunokhod is
automated, comrade lieutenant-general!"
"So what do you need me for?"
The mission chief lowered his
head and sighed.
"Bamlag," he said, "your
The electric motor of the
wheelchair whirred softly, and colonel Urchagin drove out from beside the
"Let's go for a walk," he
said, approaching me and grabbing my sleeve.
I turned quizzically to mission
chief. He nodded. I followed Urchagin into the corridor and we started
along it I was walking and he was driving beside me, controlling the
speed with a
lever crowned with a homemade little pink plastic ball, containing a
red rose inside. Several times Urchagin would open his mouth,
attempting to say
something, but he shut it again every time, I started thinking that he
does not know where to start, and then he grabbed my wrist in a very
movement with his slightly damp narrow hand.
"Listen to me closely, Omon,
and don't interrupt," he said intimately, as if we had just finished singing a
song together by a campfire. "I am going to begin from a distance. You see,
the fate of mankind consists to a very large extent of things that are
convoluted, seemingly absurd or unnecessarily bitter. You have to be able to
see very clearly, very distinctly, to keep yourself from making mistakes.
History is never the way they write in the textbooks. There is dialectics in
the fact that Marx's teachings, directed towards a prosperous country, took
hold in the most backward one instead. We communists just did not have time to
formally prove the validity of our ideas too much effort spent on the war,
too long turned out to be the struggle with the remnants of the past and the
internal enemies of the state. We could not defeat the West technologically.
But the struggle of ideas is the field where you cannot take a rest for even a
split second. It is a paradox, and it is again dialectics, that we are aiding
truth with deception, because Marxism is bringing the all-conquering truth with
it, while that for which you are going to give your life formally represents
a deception. But the more deliberately..."
I felt cold in the pit of my
stomach and reflectively tried to snatch my wrist away, but colonel Urchagin's
hand seemed to have transformed into a small steel cuff.
"... more deliberately you are
going to accomplish your heroic feat, the greater degree of truth it will
actually attain, the greater justification your short but beautiful life will
"Give my life? What feat?" I
asked in a croaking voice.
"The very same," replied the
colonel very-very softly, almost as if he was frightened, "that more than a
hundred of boys just like you and your friend have already accomplished."
He fell silent, and after a
while continued in the normal tone.
"Have you heard that our space
program relies on the use of automatic devices?"
"Well, right now we're going
to go to Room 329, so you can find out what our automatic space devices look
"Comrade co-olonel!" he shot
back mockingly. "They asked you in the Zaraisk Academy quite clearly if you
were ready to give your life, didn't they? You remember what you answered, huh?"
I was sitting on a metal chair
that was fastened to the floor in the center of the room, my arms were strapped
to the armrests, my feet to the chair's legs. The heavy drapes on the windows
were drawn shut; there was a telephone without the dial standing on a small
desk in the corner. Colonel Urchagin was sitting across from me in his
wheelchair, smiling and joking as he talked, but I could sense that he was dead
"Comrade colonel, please
understand, I am just a regular guy... You seem to be mistaking me for someone
else... And I am absolutely not the one who..."
Urchagin's wheelchair whirred,
he moved from his place, drove up to me very closely and stopped.
"Now wait, Omon," he said. "Wait just a moment. This is where you go wrong. You think our soil is drenched
in what kind of blood? Non-regular? Some special blood? From some uncommon
He stretched his hand towards
me, felt my face and then struck with his dried-out fist against my lips not
hard, but enough for me to get a taste of blood in my mouth.
"It is drenched in this exact
blood. From normal, regular guys, like you are."
He patted me on my neck.
"Don't get angry," he said, "I am now like a second father to you. If need be, I can even punish you with a
"Bamlag Ivanovich, I don't
feel I'm ready to be a hero," I said,
licking the blood off. "I mean, I feel I am not ready... I think I'm
better off returning to Zaraisk than this..."
Urchagin bent over towards me
and started talking softly and gently, stroking my neck:
"You silly boy, Ommie. Just
understand, my dear, that this is precisely the essence of heroism, that the
hero is always someone who is not ready for it, because heroism is a thing that
is impossible to prepare for. You can, of course, be trained to run to the firing
slot very quickly, you can get accustomed to throwing yourself onto it, we are
teaching all that stuff, but the spiritual act of heroism cannot be learned,
you can only accomplish it. And the more you wanted to live before it, the
better for heroism. Heroism, even invisible, is essential for the nation it
nourishes that principal force which..."
Suddenly a loud screech reached
our ears. A black shadow of a large bird flying very close to the window darted
by the drapes, and the colonel fell silent. He contemplated something for a
minute in his wheelchair, then switched on the motor and rolled out into the
corridor. The door slammed shut behind him, then opened again after a minute or
two, and a straw-haired Air Force lieutenant with a length of a rubber hose in
his hands entered the room. His faced looked familiar, but I couldn't quite
"Remember me?" he asked.
I shook my head. He approached
the table and sat on top of it, his feet in shiny black boots hanging down; one
look at them was enough for me to recall where I have seen him it was that
lieutenant from Zaraisk Academy who wheeled our cots onto the square. I even
thought of his last name.
"Landratov," he said, flexing
the hose. "They sent me here to have a talk with you. Urchagin did. What are
you, nuts? Do you really want to go back to the Maresyev's?"
"It's not that I particularly
want to go back," I said, "but I sure don't want to go to the Moon. To be a
Landratov chuckled and slapped
his hands against his stomach and thighs.
"That's rich. Listen to him he doesn't want to. And you think maybe they're going to leave you alone now?
Let you go? Or return you to the Academy? And even if they did return you do
you have any idea how it feels to get up from the bed and take your first steps
on crutches? Or the way you feel when there's a rain coming?"
"No, I don't," I said.
"Or maybe you expect that once
you legs heal it's going to be peaches and cream? Last year we court-marshaled
two guys for treason. Starting with the fourth year, we have the simulator
training know what that is?"
"Well, in short it is very
much like the real thing, you sit as if in the cockpit, got all your controls,
pedals, but you look at a monitor screen. So these two are conducting the
exercise, and instead of practicing immelman turns they just fucking take off
to the west at extreme low altitude. And no response to the hails. So then we
pull them out of there and ask: what's with you, guys? What the hell were you
thinking? And they just stand there. One did answer, though. Later. He said:
"Just wanted, you know, to find out how it feels, you know. For just a moment..."
"So what happened to them
Landratov slapped the hose hard
against the table he was sitting on.
"What's the difference," he
said. "Main thing is you can kinda really feel for them. You always hope
that you will eventually start flying. So when they tell you the whole truth...
Think about it: who needs you with your prosthetics? Besides, we only have a
handful of planes in the country anyway, they fly along the border so Americans
can snap pictures of them, and even those..."
Landratov fell silent.
"'Even those' what?"
"Never mind. Here's what I'm
saying you don't really believe that you are going to traverse the skies in a
fighter jet after the Zaraisk Academy, do you? Best case you'll end up in the
dance ensemble at some Air Defense regional command center. But most likely
you'll just dance your 'Kalinka' in restaurants. A third of our guys drink
themselves to death, another third, the ones for whom the operation goes badly,
simply commit suicide. How do you feel about suicide, by the way?
"I don't," I said. "Never
thought about it."
"I did. Especially in the
second year. Especially one time when they were showing Wimbledon on the TV,
and I was on guard duty at the clubhouse, with the crutches and all. That got
me really depressed. And then I got better, you know. You see, you have to
decide something here for yourself, then it all becomes easier. So be careful,
when you get those thoughts you just don't give in to them. Think instead about
all the cool stuff you'll see if you really haul your butt to the Moon. These
motherfuckers aren't letting you out alive anyway. Get with the program, OK?"
"You don't like them very
much, do you?"
"What's there to like? They
won't say a word of truth ever. Which reminds me: when you talk to the mission
chief, never mention anything about death or even that you're going to the
Moon. You are to talk exclusively about automatics, understood? Otherwise we'll
be having another talk in this room. I have my orders, you know."
Landratov waved the hose in the
air, took a pack of "Polyot"
from his pocket and lit up.
"That friend of yours, he
agreed right away," he said.
When I finally got out into the
open air my head was spinning slightly. The inner patio, isolated from the city
by the enormous brownish-gray square hulk of the building, resembled very much
a piece of a suburban subdivision, cut out in the exact form of the yard and
transferred here intact: it had the crooked wooden gazebo with peeling paint, a
gymnastics bar welded from steel pipes that now supported a green rug,
apparently someone was beating the dust out of it, left it hanging and forgot
about it; there were rows of vegetables in the ground, a chicken coop, a
training circuit, a couple of ping-pong tables and several tires dug in halfway
and arranged in a circle, evoking images of Stonehenge in my head. Mityok was
sitting on the bench near the exit, I came closer, sat beside him, stretched my
legs and looked down at the black britches of my uniform after my meeting
with Landratov I couldn't chase away the feeling that those weren't my legs
"It cannot all be true, can
it?" asked Mityok quietly.
I shrugged. I wasn't sure what
exactly he was talking about.
"OK, about the aviation I can
believe," he said. "But nuclear weapons... I suppose you could make two million
political prisoners jump at the same time in '47. But we don't have them
anymore, and nuclear tests they're like every month..."
The door that I just came out
of opened and colonel Urchagin's wheelchair rolled out into the yard, he braked
and traced the yard several times over with his ear. I understood that he was
looking for us, to add something to the things he already said, but Mityok fell
silent, and Urchagin apparently decided not to bother us. The electric motor
started whirring again and the wheelchair took off towards the far section of
the building; passing in front of us, Urchagin turned his head with a smile and
seemed to look into our souls with the kind hollows of his eyes.
I assume most of the
inhabitants of Moscow know full well what is beneath their feet during the time
they spend in endless lines of the "Child's World" or pass through the
station, so I'm not going to waste my time here.
Suffice it to say that the mock-up of our rocket was real size, and there was
enough space left to put another one next to it. Interestingly enough, the
elevator was really ancient, pre-war, and was descending so slowly that one had
time to read a couple of pages from a book.
The mock-up was thrown together
quite roughly, in places the lumber showed through, but the workstations for
the crew were exact replicas of the real ones. All of that was designed for
practical exercises, which Mityok and I weren't supposed to begin for some
time. In spite of that, we were transferred and assigned quarters deep below,
in an expansive room with two pictures on the wall depicting windows opening to
the panorama of Moscow being built. There were seven cots inside, so we figured
we were going to get company soon. The dorm was separated from the training
facility where the model of the rocket was located by a three minute walk
through a corridor, and a weird thing happened to the elevator: where it was
very slowly descending just recently, it now turned out to have been ascending,
just as slowly.
But we weren't going up very
often, and the best part of our free time was spent inside the training hall.
Colonel Halmuradov was teaching the course in basic theory of rocket flight,
using the mock-up for clarifications. While we were studying the hardware the
rocket was just a learning aid, but come evening the floodlights were turned
off, and by the dim glow of the wall fixtures the mock-up would turn into
something wondrous and long-forgotten for a few moments, sending to Mityok and
me the last salute from the childhood.
We were first. Other guys who
formed our crew gradually appeared later on. Syoma Anikin was first to arrive,
a short sturdy fellow from Ryazan region; he was enlisted in the Navy before.
He looked great in the black cadet uniform which made Mityok look like a
clothes hanger. Syoma was very quiet and composed and spent all his time
practicing, a habit we all would be better off picking up, even though his task
was the simplest and least romantic. He was our first stage, and the young life
of his (as Urchagin would say with his penchant for transposing words in a
sentence to underscore the gravity of the moment) was designed to be cut short
after four minutes of flight. The success of the entire mission depended on the
preciseness of his actions, and were he to make even a slightest mistake we
would all meet a swift and pointless demise. He seemed to take it very close to
heart, so he was practicing even when left alone in the dorm, trying to make
his movements completely automatic. He would squat, close his eyes and start
moving his lips -counting to two
hundred and forty then turn counterclockwise, pausing every forty five
degrees of the arc, performing elaborate manipulations with both his hands.
Even though I knew that in his mind he was undoing the latches that fastened
the first stage to the second, every time it looked like a fight scene from a
Hong Kong blockbuster to me. After completing this complex job eight times, he
would fall on his back and kick up hard with both legs, pushing the invisible
second stage away.
Ivan Grechka was our second
stage, he came a couple of months after Syoma. He was a blond blue-eyed
Ukrainian, taken here from the third year of the Zaraisk Academy, so he still
was not too sure on his feet. But he possessed a certain inner clarity, a
perpetual smile directed to the outside world, which endeared him to everyone
he met. He and Syoma became very close friends. They would needle each other
jokingly and compete for the fastest time and cleanest separation of their
respective stages. Syoma was, of course, much quicker, but then Ivan only
needed to undo four latches, so from time to time he did come ahead.
Our third stage Otto Pluzis was a rose-cheeked introspective Baltic
who, as far as I can remember, never joined Syoma and Ivan in their practice
sessions in the dorm; it seemed that the only thing he ever did was crossword
puzzles in the "Red Warrior" magazine while lying on his cot (he would always
cross his legs in shiny boots on the gleaming nickel-plated bedframe). But
seeing the way he disposed with his portion of latches on the mock-up it became
crystal clear that if any of the systems in our rocket were reliable at all,
the third stage separation was it. Otto was a little on the weird side he
loved to tell stupid stories after "lights out", like those kids scare each
other with in camps and on sleepovers.
"So this one time this mission
is going to the Moon," he would say in the darkness. "They fly like really
long time. So they're almost there. And then the hatch opens and all these
people in white scrubs come in. So these cosmonauts are, like, "We're flying to
the Moon!" And those in the scrubs go: "Sure, sure you are. Just don't get so
excited. We'll have a shot of this really nice medicine now..."
Or something like this:
"So these people are going to
Mars. And they're almost there, so they look out the window. Then they turn
around and see this man, short and dressed all in red, and he's got this huge
switchblade in his hand. "So, guys," he asks, "you want to go to Mars, don't
Mityok and I finally were
granted access to our hardware when the training of the guys from ballistics
turned up a notch. Syoma Anikin was almost unaffected by the change the
altitude of his heroism was only three miles, so he would just put a
cotton-filled overcoat on top of his uniform. It was harder for Ivan, since the
moment for his march into eternity came up at thirty miles, it was cold up
there and the air was pretty thinned out, so he had to train in a fur coat, fur
boots and oxygen mask which made his entry into the narrow porthole on the mock-up
really tight. Otto, surprisingly, got it easier they were supposed to outfit
him with a special spacesuit with electric heating system fashioned by the "Red
Hill" factory seamstresses from several American high-altitude flight suits we
took in Vietnam, but the suit was not ready yet, so he was training in scuba
gear; I still have before my eyes an image of his reddened, sweaty poke-marked
face behind the glass mask rising over the edge of the porthole. Upon emerging
he would say something that sounded like "Zweigs!" or "Tsveiks!".
The general theory of the space
automation was taught in turns by mission chief and colonel Urchagin.
Mission chief's name was Pcadzer
Vladilenovich Pidorenko. He was born in a small Ukrainian village of Pidorenka,
and so the name was inflected on the first "o". His father worked in CheKa as
well, and gave his son a name constructed from the first letters of "Party
Committee for Agriculture of Dzerzhinsky region"; besides, the names "Pcadzer"
combined to give exactly fifteen letters corresponding to the number of
Soviet republics. But he couldn't stand being addressed by name anyway, so his
subordinates linked to him through varied work-based relations either called
him "comrade lieutenant-general" or, like Mityok and I, "comrade mission
chief". He pronounced the word "automation" with such dreamy and pure
intonation that the Lubyanka office to which we ascended to listen to the
lectures resonated like a soundboard of a giant piano for a moment; however,
even though the word itself popped in his speech quite often, he never conveyed
any technical knowledge to us, relating instead stories from his life or
reminiscing about the times he was conducting guerilla operations in Belarus
during the war.
Urchagin never touched any
technical subjects either; he would chuckle and shell sunflower seeds into his
or tell us something humorous. He asked us, for example:
"How do you break farts in
When we told him we didn't
know, he gave the answer himself:
"You got to fart into a glove."
And broke out in high-pitched
giggles. I was astonished by the constant optimism of this man: blind,
paraplegic, bound to a wheelchair but still carrying out his duty
failing to take enjoyment in his life. We had two morale officers in
Academy, who we called political instructors sometimes behind their
backs Urchagin and Burchagin, both alumni of the Korchagin
Academy, both looking very much like each other. They had only one
Japanese-made wheelchair among them, so while one of them was busy
the morale-boosting activities, the other one would lie quiet and
a bed in a tiny room on the fifth floor in uniform, with the blanket
to the waist to obscure the bedpan from prying eyes. Sparse furnishings
room, a special cardboard pattern for writing with narrow slits for
invariable glass of strong tea on the desk, white blinds on the windows
potted plant all that moved me almost to tears, in those minutes I
stopped thinking that all communists are cunning, double-crossing
Dima Matyushevich was the last
to come on board, assigned to be in charge of the lunar module. He was
extremely introverted and his hair was completely gray despite his young age.
He always carried himself very independently; the only thing about him that I
knew was that he served in ground forces. Upon seeing the posters with
nighttime landscapes above Mityok's cot which he ripped out of the "Working
Woman" magazine, Dima pinned up a piece of paper over his cot, with a picture
of a tiny bird and large printed
Dima's arrival coincided with
introduction of a new learning subject. It was titled like that movie "Strong
In Spirit". This wasn't a subject in the normal sense of the word, even though
it featured prominently in the curriculum. We got visited by people for whom
heroism was in their job description they told us about their lives simply,
without any pathos, their words were plain as talk around the kitchen, and
because of that the essence of heroism appeared to grow out of the mundane,
from the little everyday things, from that gray cold air of ours.
Among all the strong in spirit
I remembered one retired major best, Ivan Trofimovich Popadya.
Funny name. He was tall, a regular Russian warrior (his forefathers fought in
the battle of Kalka River),
his face and neck all red, covered in whitish beads of scars, and with
over his left eye. He had a very unusual life story: he started out as
ranger in a state wildlife preserve, where Party and government bosses
hunt, and his responsibility was to drive the animals bears and wild
boars onto the shooters behind the trees. Then the disaster struck. A
boar jumped the pennant line and mortally wounded with his tusks a
government who was hiding behind a birch. He died en route to the city,
the conference of the government officials decided to prohibit the top
from hunting wild prey. But such necessity, of course, continued to
so one time Popadya was called to the Party meeting at the preserve
headquarters, they explained everything to him and said:
"Ivan! We cannot order you and even if we could, we wouldn't, such is the nature of the offer. But you
see, we really need this. Think about it. No one is going to force you."
Popadya thought long and hard,
all through the night, and the next morning went back to the Party committee
and told them he agreed.
"I never expected anything
less from you," said the local secretary.
Ivan Trofimovich was issued a
bulletproof vest, a metal helmet and a boar's skin, and thus began his new line
of work which could be justly called daily heroism. He was a little
apprehensive the first couple of times, especially fearing for his exposed legs,
but then he kind of got used to it; also the government members (who knew what
the deal was) tried to aim for his sides, protected by the vest, under which
Ivan Trofimovich always placed a little pillow for softness. Naturally, from
time to time some enfeebled Central Committee veteran would miss, sending Ivan
Trofimovich onto disability pay; he used the time to read a lot of books,
including one that became his favorite memoirs by Pokryshkin.
To give you an idea just how dangerous his job really was, comparable
as it was
to armed combat, his Party membership card that he carried in the
sewn-in pocket had to be replaced every week because it would be
bullet holes. In those days that he was seriously wounded other rangers
step in, his own son Marat among them, but Ivan Trofimovich was still
considered to be the most experienced worker, so the most important
fall on him, and they even held him back if some insignificant regional
committee was coming for a routine hunt (each time that happened Ivan
Trofimovich took offense, just like Pokryshkin when denied a sortie
own squadron). Ivan Trofimovich was cherished. In the meantime, he and
studied the behavior and vocalizations of the wild inhabitants of the
forest bears, wolves, boars and thus improved their skills.
It was already some time ago
that the capital of our Motherland was visited by an American politician
Kissinger. He was participating in a crucial round of negotiations on a nuclear
arms reduction treaty made all the more important by the fact that we never
had any, but our adversaries were to never find out. Because of all that
Kissinger was cared for at the highest state level, all branches of service
were involved for example, when it became known that the sort of women he
likes most were voluptuous short brunettes, four of such exact swans floated in
formation over the Swan Lake of the Bolshoi in front of his turtleshell-rimmed
eyeglasses gleaming in the darkness of the government luxury box.
Negotiations were easier to
conduct amidst a hunt, so they asked Kissinger what kind of prey he prefers.
Apparently attempting a fine political joke he said that he'd like to bag a
bear, and was quite surprised and frightened when the next morning he was
indeed taken hunting. On their way there he was told that the round was closed
on two bruins for him.
These were Ivan and Marat
Popadya, communists, the best special rangers of the entire preserve.
felled Ivan Trofimovich with one well-aimed shot, as soon as he and
emerged from the forest on their hind legs growling; his carcass was
specially designed loops attached in the fur and dragged to the truck.
American couldn't quite get at Marat, even though he was firing almost
point-blank while Marat was deliberately moving as slow as he possibly
squaring those broad shoulders of his against American's bullets. And
the unexpected happened the rifle of our guest from over the ocean
and he, even before anyone was able to understand what was going on,
into the snow bank and charged at Marat with just a knife. A real bear
have disposed of such a hunter in no time, but Marat remembered the
responsibility he was entrusted with. He lifted his paws and roared,
scare the American away, but instead Kissinger whether he was drunk
brave, who knows ran closer and struck Marat in the stomach with the
the thin blade penetrating between the strips of the vest. Marat fell.
this happened in full view of his father, lying just a few yards away,
was dragged to him and Ivan Trofimovich realized that his son was still
alive he was moaning softly. The blood trail he was leaving behind on
the snow was
not a special fluid from a hidden container it was real.
"Hold on, son!" Ivan
Trofimovich whispered, choking on tears, "hold on!"
Kissinger was beyond himself
with excitement. He suggested to the officials accompanying him that they
should share a bottle there on the "mishki",
as he said, and then sign the agreement right away. They put the Employee Of
The Month board taken off a nearby rangers' hut on top of Marat and Ivan
Trofimovich, forming a makeshift table, with their photographs among others
right there on the board. All Ivan Trofimovich could see over the next hour was
the multitude of feet shuffling about, all he could hear was drunken foreign
talk and quick babbling of the translator; the Americans dancing on the table
almost crushed him. When the darkness fell and the horde has left, the
agreement was signed and Marat was dead. A thin thread of blood was dripping
from his muzzle onto the bluish evening snow, and on his fur a golden Hero's
glistened in the moonlight, put there by the chief ranger. All through the
night the father lied across from his dead son crying, not ashamed of his tears.
Suddenly the words "There is
always a place for heroism in our lives" that looked at me every morning from
the wall of the training facility, after having lost their meaning and becoming
stale long ago, filled with fresh significance for me. It was not some romantic
gibberish anymore, but instead a precise and sober statement of the fact that
our Soviet life is not the instance of reality but instead a kind of a
forechamber to it. I don't know if that was clear or not. Take America, for
example. Nowhere between the sparkling shop window and a Plymouth parked at the
curb is there a place for heroism, and there never was, if you don't count the
moments when a Soviet intelligence agent passed by, of course. And here, you
can found yourself standing by an exact same window, on exact same curb but
the times around you are going to be either post-war or pre-war, and right
there the door leading to heroism is going to crack open for you, even though
it is actually going to happen on the inside.
"You've got it," said
Urchagin when I confided my thought in him, "but be careful. The door to
heroism does open from the inside, but you accomplish the actual feat on the
outside. Don't let yourself slide into subjective idealism. Otherwise right away,
in a blink of an eye, your path upward, so high and proud, shall have lost its
It was May already, some of the
peat bogs around Moscow were on fire and the sun, pale but hot nonetheless, was
looking down from the smoggy sky. Urchagin gave me this book by a Japanese
writer who was a kamikaze pilot in WWII, and I was amazed to no end by the
similarities of the state of being he described to my own. Just like he did, I
never took time to think about that which was waiting for me, lived only in the
here and now, lost myself in books, forgot about everything when looking at the
movie screen flashing with explosions (every Saturday night they showed
military-historic films to us), was really upset about my not-too-high marks
for training. The word "death" was always present in my life in a way of a
reminder note stuck to the wall I knew it was there in place, but I never
looked at it long enough. I never discussed this topic with Mityok either, but
when they told us that our equipment training is finally about to start we
looked at each other and seemed to have felt the first breeze of the icy storm
imminently gaining on us.
At the first sight the lunokhod
looked like a large metal clothes hamper put on eight heavy wheels resembling
those you find on streetcars. Its body featured loads of assorted
protuberances, differently shaped antennae, robotic arms and other stuff none
of it functional; it was there just for the sake of TV cameras, but made a
profound impression all the same. The roof was sporting diagonal serrated
notches this wasn't done on purpose, it's just that they used the sheetmetal
for the subway station floor where it meets the escalators, and it's always
like that there. Nevertheless, it made the machine appear even more mysterious.
Strange are the depth of the
human psychology! First thing it needs is detail. I remember when I was young,
I would often draw tanks and airplanes and show them to my friends. They always
liked those pictures where there were lots of superfluous lines, so that I
would even put more of them all over. So was the lunokhod a convincingly
complex and clever piece of machinery.
The lid swung away it was
hermetically sealed, with rubber gaskets and several layers of thermal
isolation material. There was some space inside approximately like in the
turret of a tank, and fastened to the floor was a slightly modified frame from the
"Sport" bicycle, complete with pedals and two gears, one of them welded
carefully to the rearmost axle. The handlebars were your regular semi-racing
"horns"; by means of a special transfer case they could be used to wiggle the
front wheels slightly, but as they told us there should not be any need for
that. The walls were equipped with shelves, but those were empty for now; the
space between handlebars was occupied by a compass, and on the floor there was
a tin box painted green a transceiver with a phone. In front of the
handlebars in the wall there were two tiny lenses, like the fisheyes they put
into the doors; if one looked through them, he could see the edges of the front
wheels and the pretend manipulator. A radio receiver hung in the back just a
common mass-market brick of red plastic, with a black volume control handle
(the mission chief explained to us that in order to prevent the psychological
separation from our country every Soviet spacecraft is designed to receive
programming). The large convex outside lenses were covered on top and sides by
metal shielding, giving the front of the lunokhod an appearance of a face or
rather a muzzle, quite agreeable in fact, like the ones they draw on watermelons
or appliances in children's comics.
When I installed myself inside
for the first time and the lid clicked shut over me I thought that I would
never be able to endure such cramped and uncomfortable surroundings. I had to
dangle over the frame, distributing my weight between the hands clutching the
bars, feet pushed against the pedals and the saddle which did not so much
accept its share of weight as determine the posture my body was forced to
assume. The cyclist leans in this fashion when developing higher speed but
then he has an opportunity to flex back which I did not have, since my head was
already pressing against the lid as it was. However, truth be told, a couple of
weeks after the training started I did get used to this and it turned out that
there was quite enough space inside for one to forget for hours on end how
little space there actually was.
The round "eyes" were located
right in front of my face, but the lenses distorted the view to such an extent
that it was utterly impossible to make sense of anything beyond the thin steel
of the machine. On the other hand, the spot just in front of the wheels was
enlarged and in sharp focus, as was the edge of one of the toothed antennae;
everything else disappeared in zigzags and patches, as if you were staring into
a long dark corridor through the glass of a gas mask.
The machine was really heavy,
and it was hard to cause it to move so that I even started doubting that I
would be able to conquer the entire fifty miles of the lunar surface in it.
After just one spin around the yard I got winded, my back was aching, the
shoulders hurt too.
Now every other day, taking
turns with Mityok, I took the elevator to the surface, stripped down to my
underwear, climbed into the lunokhod and started my regimen of turning circles
in the yard to strengthen my leg muscles, frightening the chickens and even
squashing them from time to time I was not doing it intentionally, of course,
but I found it absolutely unrealistic to distinguish a wayward chicken from a
piece of an old newspaper or, for example, some laundry stripped from the line
by a wind gust, and in addition I could never put on the brakes in time to
avoid them. At first colonel Urchagin would drive in his wheelchair in front of
me, showing me the way he looked like a greenish-gray blob through the
lenses but then I got the knack for it and could go around the entire yard
with my eyes closed one only had to dial an exact turn into the handlebars
and machine described a sweeping circle all by itself, returning to the
starting point of the journey. I didn't even have to peer through the "eyes"
most of the time; I just worked my muscles and mulled my own thoughts.
Sometimes I would remember my childhood, sometimes imagine how the rapidly
approaching moment of my departure into eternity was going to feel like. From
time to time I also tried to wrap up some of the older conundrums which started
surfacing again in my consciousness. For example, I would start thinking who
exactly am I?
It has to be said that this
question bothered me since I was a kid, usually early in the morning when I
woke up and found myself staring at the ceiling. Afterwards, when I grew up a
little, I began asking it at school, but all I got in response was that
consciousness is a property of highly organized matter consistent with Lenin's
theory of reflection. I couldn't quite catch the meaning of those words, so I
kept wondering how come I could see? And who is that "I" that is seeing? And
what does it actually mean to see? Am I seeing something on the outside or
just looking within myself? And what is "outside" or "within"? I often felt
right on the threshold of solution, but when I tried to make the last step
towards it I would suddenly lose the "I" which was just now standing on that
When my aunt went to work she
often asked our neighbor to look after me, an old woman whom I also pestered
with all those questions, taking delight in seeing her struggle with the
"You, Ommie boy, have a soul
inside you," she'd say, "it peers out from you through your eyes, and it
lives in your body, like your hamster lives in the pot. This soul is a part of
God, who created us all. So you are this soul."
"Why would God have me sit in
this pot?" I asked.
"I don't know," said the old
"Where does he sit himself?
"Everywhere," the old woman
answered, showing with her hands.
"So I am also God?"
"No," she'd say. "A man is
not God. But he is divinely inspired."
"Is the Soviet Man also
divinely inspired?" I asked, having trouble with the unfamiliar words.
"Of course," said the old
"Are there many gods?" I
"No. He is one."
"Then why does the dictionary
say there are many?" I asked pointing at the Atheist's Encyclopedia on the
"I don't know."
"Which one is better?"
But the woman answered again:
"I don't know."
And then I asked:
"Can I choose for myself?"
"Go ahead, Ommie boy," the
old woman laughed, and so I buried myself in the dictionary, where they had
stacks of different gods. I particularly liked Ra, the god in whom ancient
Egyptians put their trust many millennia ago I liked him because he had a
hawk's head, and pilots, cosmonauts and other heroes in general were often
called "Motherland's hawks" on the radio. So I decided that if I am indeed
inspired by a god, let this be the one. I remember I took a large notebook and
scribbled this note in it, taken from the dictionary:
"During the day Ra traverses the
Celestial Nile in the Manjet-boat, the Barque of Millions of Years, shining
light on the world, in the evening he transfers to the Mesektet-boat, the
Barque of Night, and descends to the underworld where he travels the Nether
Nile fighting off forces of darkness, and in the morning he appears on the
The ancient people couldn't
have known that the Earth was in fact rotating around the Sun, it said in the
dictionary, and this is why they created this romantic myth.
Right under the article's text
in the dictionary there was an ancient Egyptian picture showing Ra's transfer
from one barque to the other; it depicted two identical boats side-by-side in
which two girls were standing, one of them passing to the other a hoop with a
hawk sitting inside that was Ra. Most of all I liked that the boats, in
addition to a lot of other stuff in them, contained what unmistakably was four
Khrushchev-era six-story housing projects.
Since then, even though I
continued to respond to the name "Omon", I would always call myself "Ra", and
that was the name of the main character in my private adventures that I
experienced before falling asleep, with my face turned to the wall and eyes
closed until the time, that is, when my dreams have undergone the usual
I wonder if anyone seeing the
photo of the lunokhod in the paper would be visited by a thought that inside
the steel box, whose existence is justified by its task to crawl fifty miles on
the Moon and fall forever motionless, there is actually a person peering out
through its two glass lenses? On the other hand, what's the difference. Even if
someone does get an inkling, they still would never guess that this person was
in fact I, Omon Ra, the true hawk of our Motherland, as the mission chief said
once embracing me by the shoulders at the window and pointing with his finger
to the glowing thundercloud in the sky.
Another subject that appeared
in our curriculum "General Theory of the Moon" was considered optional for
everyone except Mityok and me. The lectures were conducted by the doctor of philosophy
(Ret.) Ivan Evseyevich Kondratiev. For some reason I did not hit it off with
him, even though there was no clear rationale for my dislike; his lectures
were, as a matter of fact, quite interesting. I remember that the first meeting
with us he started in a very unusual fashion he read poems about the Moon to
us from scraps of paper for at least half an hour, becoming so touched himself
at the end that he had to wipe his glasses. I was still keeping notes at the
time, and this lecture left behind a nonsensical pile of quotational debris:
"And like a golden drop of honey The Moon is twinkling sweet and high... Not
long did moon's vain hopes delude us, Its dreams of love and prideful fame...
The Moon! how full of sense and beauty Is that one sound for Russian heart!..
But in this world the other regions, By moon tormentedly beset... And in the
sky, resigned to everything,The
disk of moon in shallow grin... The flow of thought he was directing, and
subjugated thus the Moon... This uneasy and watery moonness...".
And two more pages in the same vein. Then he became solemn and started speaking
in authoritative voice, almost chanting:
"My friends! Let us remember
now the historic words of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, related by him in the year
nineteen hundred eighteen in his letter to Inessa Armand: "Of all the planets
and celestial bodies," he wrote, "Moon remains the principal one for us."
Years have passed since then, many things have changed in the world. But
Lenin's judgment had lost neither its incisiveness nor importance, the time
having reaffirmed its validity. The radiant fire of Lenin's words casts a
special glow on the today's date in the calendar. Indeed, the Moon plays an
enormous role in the evolution of the humankind. A prominent Russian scientist
Georgy Ivanovich Gurdzhiev, while still in the underground period of his
activity, had developed the true Marxist theory of the Moon. In accordance with
it, Earth had five different moons and this is the reason that the star, the
symbol of our great state, has five ends. The fall of each of the previous
moons was accompanied by social upheavals and catastrophes thus, for example,
the fourth moon which crashed onto our planet in 1904, becoming known by the
name of the Tunguska meteorite, caused the first Russian revolution, which was
followed closely by the second. The moons that fell before it led to other
changes in the socioeconomic formation though of course the cosmic
catastrophes were not affecting the level of development of the productive forces,
which formed independently of the will and conscience of the people as well as
influence of planets, but instead contributed to crystallization of the
subjective precursors of the revolution.
The fall of the contemporary Moon moon number five, the last one
remaining shall usher in the full and absolute victory of communism
within the boundaries
of the Solar system. While studying this particular subject we will pay
attention to the two major works by Lenin regarding the Moon: 'Moon And
and 'Advice From A Stranger'.
We will start today's lesson by addressing the bourgeois falsifications of the
topic the views according to which all organic life on Earth is nothing but
food for the Moon, a source of the emanations consumed by it.
This can be proven wrong simply by pointing out that the goal of existence of
organic life on Earth is not the nourishment of the Moon but instead, as
Vladimir Ilyich Lenin amply demonstrated, the construction of a new society,
free from exploitation of man number one, two and three by man number four,
five, six and seven..."
And so forth. He spoke
effusively and intricately, but what I remembered best was an example that
stunned me with its poetic quality: the weight on the end of a string makes the
clock go, the Moon is such a weight, Earth is the clock, and life is the movement
of gears and singing of the mechanical cuckoo.
Quite often we would have some
kind of medical evaluation naturally, we all have been studied from head to
toe and crosswise. This is why upon hearing that Mityok and I had to pass
something that sounded like "reincarnational evaluation", I just wrote it off
as another reflex check or blood pressure monitoring the first word did not
convey anything in particular to me. But when I was called downstairs and saw
the specialist that was supposed to conduct the evaluation I was overcome with
childish fear, very out of place considering what I was destined for in the
very near future but insurmountable nonetheless.
It was not a doctor before me
in white scrubs with stethoscope sticking out of his pocket but an officer, a
colonel, but not in uniform he was wearing some kind of strange black cassock
with shoulder patches. He was big and fleshy, his face red, as if burned by hot
soup. Around his neck I noticed a nickel-plated whistle and a chronometer, and
but for his eyes, which resembled the visor hole of a heavy tank, he would look
like a soccer official. He conducted himself very amiably, though, laughing
often, and by the end of our talk I did feel more at ease. He talked to me in a
small office where there were only a desk, two chairs, an examination table
wrapped in plastic and a door into the next room. After filling out several
yellowish forms he gave me a measure of some bitter liquid to drink, put a
small hourglass on the desk in front of me and exited through the second door,
instructing me to follow him there when all the sand has fallen to the bottom.
I remember myself looking at
the hourglass, amazed at how slowly the grains of sand roll down
glass neck, until I realized that this was happening because each grain
possessed free will and did not want to fall down, for this was
death for them. And at the same time their eventual fall was
both our and "other" world, I thought, were very similar to this
hourglass when all who lived die in one direction, the reality turns
upside down and they
become alive again, that is, begin to die in the other direction.
I was really sad about this for
some time but then noticed that the sand was not falling anymore, and
remembered that I'd better go and show myself to the colonel. I felt
trepidation and at the same time an unusual lightness; I recall trying for
quite a while to reach the door behind which they were waiting for me, which was
odd considering it was two or three steps away. When I finally laid my hands on
the door handle I pushed it, but the door did not open. Then I pulled it
towards me and discovered that I was pulling on a blanket instead. I was on my
cot, Mityok was sitting at its edge. My head was spinning slightly.
"So? How was it?" asked
Mityok. He was strangely agitated.
"How was what?" I asked,
pushing up on my elbows and attempting to ascertain what had happened.
evaluation," said Mityok.
"Wait," I said, recalling how
I was pulling the door handle, "wait... No. Can't remember a thing."
For some reason I was feeling
empty and alone, like I had just traveled across a barren autumn field, and the
sensation was so peculiar that I forgot about everything else, including the
feeling of impending death, ceaseless in the last months, though it had lost
its edge by now, becoming just a background for all other thoughts.
"I see. You signed it for
them, didn't you? asked Mityok with a hint of loathing in his voice.
"Get lost," I said turning
towards the wall.
"These two burly corporals in
black frocks haul you in," Mityok continued, "and tell me: "Here, take back
your Egyptian." And your shirt is all covered with puke. Is it really true you
don't remember a single thing?"
"True," I answered.
"Well then, wish me luck," he
said. "It's my turn to go now."
"Break a leg," I said. More
than anything else in the world I wanted to sleep, because I had a feeling that
if I fall asleep fast enough, I would wake up being myself again.
I heard the door squeak behind
Mityok, and next it was already morning.
"Krivomazov! To the mission
chief, on the double!" one of our guys shouted in my ear. I started to wake
up, but managed to come to completely only when I was already dressed. Mityok's
cot was empty and undisturbed, all the other guys were in their places, still
in underwear. I was feeling a certain tension in the air, everybody was
stealing awkward glances at each other, even Ivan was not shooting off his
usual morning jokes, very funny even though totally stupid. I realized
something must have happened, and on my way up to the third above-ground floor
was trying to figure out what. Walking down the corridor and squinting at the
sun which tried to force its way in through the drawn blinds I caught my
reflection in an enormous dusty mirror, marveled at the ghostly paleness of my
face and realized that my heroic feat had, for all intents and purposes,
The mission chief rose to greet
me and shook my hand.
"How is your training?" he
"Progressing, comrade mission
chief," I said.
He stared probingly into my
"Good," he said after a
while, "I see. Here's what I called you here for, Omon. You are going to help
me. Take this tape recorder," he waved at a small Japanese Walkman on the desk
in front of him, "take the forms, a pen, and go to room three twenty nine, it
should be empty now. Have you ever transcribed recordings?"
"No," I answered.
"It's simple. You cue the tape
forward a little, write what you heard and then cue it further. If you didn't
catch something the first time, you rewind and listen again, several times if
you need to."
"Understood. Am I dismissed?"
"Yes. Wait. I think you should
understand why I asked you to do this and not someone else. You will soon face
questions, the kind that nobody down there," the mission chief pointed to the
floor, "will be able to answer for you. I would be within my rights not to
answer you either, but I think it's better for you to be in the loop. But keep
in mind, neither the morale officers nor the crew have to ever find out what
you are about to learn. What is happening now is a breach of protocol on my
part. As you can see, even generals commit those."
I silently took from the desk
the recorder and several yellow forms like those I saw yesterday, and went to
three twenty nine. The shades were drawn shut, the familiar metal chair with
leather straps on the armrests and legs was still standing in the center, but
now some wires were going from it to the wall. I sat behind the small desk in
the corner, placed the ruled pad in front of me and turned on the tape.
"Thank you, comrade colonel...
Very comfortable, it's a recliner, not a chair, ha-ha-ha... Of course I am
nervous. This is kind of like a test, right?... I see. Yes. With two 'i's Sviridenko..."
I switched the recorder off.
This was unmistakably Mityok's voice, but it was strange, like someone have
attached bellows instead of lungs to his vocal cords he spoke sonorously and
effortlessly, on a continuous exhale. I rewound the tape a little, pushed
"Play" again and did not stop the tape anymore.
"...test, right?... I see.
Yes. With two 'i's Sviridenko... Thank you, but I don't smoke. Nobody in our
group does they'd throw you right out... Yes, for more than a year now. I
can't quite believe it myself. Since I was a boy I always dreamed of going to
the Moon... Of course, of course. Precisely, only those with the soul that is
crystal clear. To think with the entire Earth below... About who on the Moon?
No, never heard about it... Ha-ha-ha, so that was a joke, you're funny... This
place look weird, though. Well, unusual. Is it like that everywhere or only in
the Special Department? All those skulls on the shelves, oh my God, standing
like books. And labeled, just look at that... No, no, not in that sense at all.
If they're here, it means they need to be here. Research, databases and stuff.
I understand. I understand. You don't say... So well preserved... And this one,
above the eye from a pickaxe?..
That's mine. They had two other forms there as well. The last check before
Baikonur. Yes. Ready. Comrade colonel, I have
already described in detail... Just talk about myself, starting from the
childhood? No, thank you, I am comfortable... Well, if that's a general order,
sure. Why don't you install headrests, like in cars. Otherwise the pillow is
going to fall down if it shifts... Aha, and I was just thinking why do you
have this mirror on the wall. And you're going to put another one on the table.
Wow, that's a thick candle... From whose fat? Ha-ha-ha, that's a joke again,
right, comrade colonel... Amazing. First time I see something like that,
honest. I only read in books that you could do that, but never seen it for
myself. Mind-boggling. Like a corridor. Where? Into this one? Jesus Christ, how
many of those mirrors you have here a regular barbershop. No, of course not,
comrade colonel... Never had. It's just a saying, I picked it up from my
grandma. I am a devoted atheist, or I wouldn't have gone to the flight
academy... I remember, but very roughly. I was already eleven by the time we
moved to Moscow; I was born in that small town you know, it just sits there
by the rail line, a train comes by every couple of days and that's all. It's
quiet. The streets are dirty, geese walk around. Many drunks. And everything is
just so gray doesn't matter if it's summer or winter. Two factories, a movie
theater. Well, there's also the park but you understand, no one in his right
mind would show his face there. And then, you know, something rumbles above, so
you just look to the sky. Well, what's there to explain... And I also read
books all the time, I owe to them everything that is good in me.
My most favorite was, of course, 'The Andromeda Nebula'.
Very big influence on me, that book had. Imagine, this Iron Star... And on that
very black planet there's our cheerful Soviet starship with a swimming pool, a
spot of blue light around it, and where the light ends adversary life forms,
they are afraid of light and can live only in darkness. Some kind of jellyfish,
I didn't quite understand that part, and also the Black Cross I guess he was
making a dig at the clergy there. This Black Cross was there, he was stalking
in the darkness, and where the blue light is the people are working, mining for
anameson. And then this Black Cross like shoots something mysterious at them!
It was aiming for Erg Noor himself, but brave Nisa Krit shielded him with her
body. And then our guys really got back at them, like revenge a nuclear blast
from there to the horizon, they saved Nisa Krit, and they caught the principal
jellyfish, and back to Moscow. I was reading it and thinking how do people
work in our embassies abroad! A very good book. And there's another one I
remember. They had some kind of black cave there or something..."
"No, the cave was afterwards,
and it was not a cave, more like corridors. Very low corridors, and ceiling all
covered with soot from torches. The warriors always walked with torches at
night, protecting his highness the prince. From Accadians, they said. But
really they were protecting him from his brother, of course... You, sir Master
of the Northern Tower, please forgive me if I said something wrong, but
everybody thinks that warriors and serfs, both. You may order my tongue cut
out, but still everyone would tell you the same. The Queen Shubad herself
posted this squadron there, against Meskalamdug. Every time he rides by on his
way to the hunt, he always passes the Southern Wall, and those two hundred
warriors with him in copper helmets what's that for, fighting lions?
Everybody's talking about it... What do you mean? What's with you, sir Master
of the Northern Tower, were you chewing too much five-leaf again? I am
Ninhursag, Arrata's priest and carver of seals. I mean, I'm going to be carver
of seals when I grow up, I am still little... come on, why are you writing, you
must know who I am. You gave me that bridle with copper figuring. You don't
remember? Why... Wait... So we're sitting with Namtura you know, the one with
his ears lopped off, he was teaching me to carve triangles. This is the hardest
one for me. You have to make two deep cuts, and then from the third side you
just dig with a broad chisel, and... Right, so then somebody from the outside
tears away the curtain, and so brazenly so we look up, and those two warriors
are standing there. Rejoice, they say, with the great joy! Our prince is prince
no more, but King Abarraggi! Just embarked on his way to the Goddess Nanna, so
naturally, we have to be going too. Namtura is crying from happiness, I
guess, singing something in Accadian, and starts gathering his rags in a big
bundle. And I went out into the yard right away, only told Namtura to pick up
the chisels. And in the yard Urshu Victorious! - all those warriors, and with
torches, like broad daylight... No, not at all, sir Master of the Northern
Tower! Of course not. It's what Namtura is mumbling all the time... Never had,
and I never brought sacrifices either. Don't. I am the nunn of the great King
Abarraggi now, you can't just cut my ears off all of a sudden, you need a royal
decree for that... Apology accepted. Right, so the chariots with bulls were ready.
Here's when sir Master of the Locks came to me here, Ninhursag, he said, take
this dagger made from the government bronze, you are an adult now. And also he
gave me a small sack of barley meal you cook that along the way, he said. So
I look around and I see those, in the copper helmets, walking around. So I
think: Urshu the Great! I mean, Anu the Great! This must mean that Meskalamdug
finally buried the hatchet with Abarraggi... Wise decision, I thought, you
don't quarrel with the King not when his every word is Anu. And then they
showed me to my chariot, so I climb into it. There was also this boy standing
there he was directing the bulls. I never saw him before. I only remember
that he had the turquoise necklace, very expensive. And the dagger tucked under
his belt must have just gotten it too. So, I looked back at the fortress, and
I got a little sad and stuff. But then the clouds parted, and in the clearing
the Moon just burst out... I felt so happy and light right away... So then they
push away this stone slab near the stables and there's the entrance into the
caves. I never knew there was a cave there. Really I didn't... Why, may I never
distinguish myself in battle! That was you, wasn't it? Now I remember. So right
there you, sir Master of the Northern Tower, approached us with two goblets of
beer, and you said here, from Meskalamdug, the king's brother. And the same
skirt you were wearing as now, only you had the copper helmet on your head. So,
we drank. I never drank beer before that, ever. Then the second boy shouted
something, and we drove ahead right into a crack in the cliff. I remember the
road was descending, and around me I didn't see a thing, it was so dark...
Afterwards? Afterwards I found myself here in the tower. That's from beer,
isn't it?.. Are they going to punish me now? Put in a word for me, sir Master
of the Northern Tower. Tell them how it was. Or just pass them the tablets, now
that you wrote everything down. Of course I have it with me... No, I'm not
going to give it to you. I'll affix it myself. Nobody better lay a hand on my
seal, by U... Anu the Great. Here. You like it, don't you? I made it myself.
Third time a charm. This is god Marduk. What do you mean 'fence', those are
the Elder Gods standing. Please help me, sir Master of the Northern Tower! I
will carve three seals for you, I will. No, I'm not crying... There, I won't
anymore. Thank you. You are truly wise and mighty man, I say this with all my
heart. Please don't tell anyone I cried... They'd say: what kind of Arrata's
priest is he let him drink a little beer and he's ready to cry... Of course I
want to. Where? From the South or North? Cause you have this wall all covered
in mirrors here. I see... Sure I know that. That was when Ninlil went to the
clear stream to bathe herself, and then she stepped out to the shore. Her
mother would tell her again and again, but she went just the same, so she's
stepping onto the shore, see, and that's when Enlil knocked her up. So then he
comes to the city of Kiur, but the Council of Gods says to him Enlil, you
rapist, away from the city with you! But Ninlil, she went after him, sure
thing... No, not blinding at all. The other two? That was after, once when
Enlil turned into watchman near the crossing, and then when Nanna was already
in Ninlil's womb..."
"And then, those two are just
different manifestations of the same. You can say thus: Hecate is the dark and
mysterious side, while Selena light and wondrous. I must admit I am off my
horse here just heard a couple of things here and there in Athens... Sure,
sure I've been to Athens. Under Domician that was. I was hiding there. Or we
wouldn't be talking right now, Abbas Senator, we wouldn't be riding in this
palanquin of yours... Impugning the royal name, what else. Presumably I said
that the master has a statue of the princeps in his yard, and that they went
and buried two slaves nearby. But he never had any statue in the first place.
Even under Nerva we were still apprehensive about returning. But with our current
princeps there's nothing to worry about. He sent to us Plinius Secundus himself
to be the Legate these are the times that we live in, glory be to Isis and
Serapis! Not for... No, not at all, Abbas Senator, by Hercules! This I picked
up in Athens, they have Egyptians there now like you won't believe... What
interesting tablets you have, one almost can't see the wax. And these lions'
muzzles are they made of electron? Corinthian bronze, you don't say... First
time I see that... Sextius Rufinus. No, of freed slaves. Here's the nice thing
about palanquins when the slaves are skilled, of course you can ride and
write. And the light is shining just like in a room, the pines passing by...
It's like you look inside my soul, Abbas Senator. Constantly within myself I
compose them. Not in the Marcial's order, I am afraid just
dulling the stylos... Songs I sing
with brief verse, like Catullus was singing, and before him Calbus and
ancients. What do I care! I have left the Forum in favor of verses...
I am exaggerating, Abbas Senator. These are verses, after all. As a
fact, that's why I was brought along with the Christians' case
literature. Just wanted to look at our Legate. A great man, he is...
exactly as a witness. No, I wrote it like it was that Maximus, he
from Galilee. They'd assemble at his place at night, inhale some kind
And then he clambers up to the roof wearing only his caligae, and cries
cockerel one look at that, and I knew right away they must have been
Christians... Well, about the bats I embellished a little, I admit. So
The gladiator school was already crying for them anyway. And that
liked very much. Right... He invited me to the table, listened to my
Praised me lavishly. And then he says why don't you, Sextius, come to
When the Moon is full. I will send for you, he says... And he did send,
really did. I gathered all the cartouches with the poems what if, I
he'd send me to Rome? I put on my best cloak... How could I wear a toga
don't have the citizenship. So then we're riding, and out of the city
reason. For a long time we were riding, I even dozed off in the
chariot. I wake
up, look around a villa, or a temple, or something like that, and
torches. So, you see, we go inside through the house and into the
they already have tables set there, right under the skies, and the Moon
shining. Such a large Moon it was that night. And the slaves say to me
Legate will be right out, why don't you lie beside the table, drink
This is your place, under that marble lamb. Well, I lie down, and I
drink- and then I notice everyone around is looking at me funny... And
not a word.
What was it, I'm thinking, that the Legate must have told them about my
poems...I got chills even,
honest. But then two harps started playing behind the screen, and I
cheerful all of a sudden simply amazing. I
don't even remember how I ended up dancing around... And
then they brought out the flaming tripods, and then those people in
chitons... They weren't quite themselves, if you know what I mean
and sit some more, and then extend their hands toward the Moon and
chanting something in Greek... No, I couldn't make it out I was
making merry. And then sir Legate shows up he had the Phrygian helmet
some reason, with a silver disk, and a flute in his hand. Eyes
poured me more wine. Those are some good poems that you're writing,
says to me. Then he started talking about the Moon exactly like you
Abbas Senator. Now wait a minute, you have been there too, haven't you?
Ha-ha, and all this time I'm thinking why is it we're traveling in
palanquin. But how... You have your toga on now, sure, but then you
dressed in a chiton, and Thracian helmet, just like the Legate. Yeah,
red spear you were holding, with the horsetail. I was really
my back to you. But Legate kept saying here, Sextius, why don't you
Hecate, he says, and I will play the flute for you. And he started
playing really softly. So I looked up, and I was looking and then
you are asking me
about Hecate and Selena. When did I manage to climb into your
everything all right? Well, glory be to I... Hercules. Apollo and
That's fine, I brought them with me, for Legate to read. And you, Abbas
Senator, dabbling in literature also? That's why you have been writing
writing all this time. A-a. As a keepsake. So you liked the poems too.
hour is for you it walks like Leah, and rose is reigning over hair so
fragrant. Of course. I can even affix my gemma. That's all right, the
is not that deep, it does not require a lot of wax. It'll print
through. Are we
almost there? Why thank you, Abbas Senator, my hair does seem to be a
messed up. And how much does a mirror like that cost in the Metropolia?
don't say, this kind of money would buy you a house around our place in
Viphinia. Is this Corinthian bronze as well? Silver? And some kind of
"I can make it out. There... To
Lieutenant Wolf, for the Western Prussia. General Lüdendorf. Begging
pardon, brigadenfuehrer, it just opened by itself. An amazing cigarette
shining like a mirror. So you were already lieutenant in '15? Air
Please don't, brigadenfuehrer, you are making me uneasy. Because of
crosses I'm not even allowed to fly sorties anymore. There are lots of
and MiG's in this world, they say, but only one Vogel Von Richthofen.
for that special mission, I'd probably be covered in mold now, alone in
empty barracks... Yes, like "bird". My mother was upset at first when
out how my father was planning to name me. But Baldur Von Schirach
friends with my father even dedicated an entire poem to me. They
study it in
schools now... Careful they're shooting from that window... No, the
thick enough... I can only imagine what he'd write if he knew about the
mission. This was something else entirely. I really bought into that
to the Western front business, only found out in Berlin what it was.
I got upset, naturally. I thought: don't they have anything better to
"Ahnenerbe" recalling combat pilots from the front... But when I saw
plane Holy Virgin Mary! Right away... No, not at all,
brigadenfuehrer, I just
lived in Italy when I was a kid. Right. Never in all my years of flying
seen such beauty. It was only later that I figured out it was actually
only different engine and wings a little longer... Damn, the ammo belt
jammed... No, it's all right, I'll manage... So, I walked into the
just stood there breathless. So white, so light like it was glowing
dark. But what was most amazing the preparation. I thought I'd be
hardware, and instead they took me to you guys in "Ahnenerbe", measured
skull, Wagner playing all along, and don't bother asking questions
silent. In short, when that night they woke me up I thought it was
measuring time again. Then I look out no, these two Mercedes are
behind the window, engines working... Great shot, brigadenfuehrer!
the turret. How come you're so good with this thing... So we get in, we
Then... Yes, it was cordoned off, SS guys with torches. We pass them,
get out of the forest, then some kind of building with columns and an
Not a soul in sight, gentle breeze and the Moon in the sky. I thought
all air fields around Berlin, but I never saw that one. And there's my
right on the runway, something attached under the fuselage, also white,
like a bomb. But they didn't even let me stand near it, whisked into
building right away... No, I don't recall really. Only remember that
playing. They ordered me to disrobe, then bathed me like I was a
no, save the grenades for later... Rubbed my skin with oil you know,
of something ancient, very pleasant. And they gave me the flight
except it was all white. And all my awards right there on the breast.
Vogel, I thought, this is it... I was dreaming all my life about
that. Then those, from "Ahnenerbe", say to me: go on, captain, go to
plane. They will tell you everything there. Took turns shaking my hand.
went. Even the boots were white, I was afraid to step in the dust...
moment. So I go up to the plane, and there... Wait a minute, if it
brigadenfuehrer, only not in this steel helmet but in some kind of
So you begin to explain it to me climb to eleven thousand, bearing on
Moon, the button is on the left panel... Damn. Just missed it... And
pad you gave me, and then coffee with cognac from the thermos. I am
saying no, I never drink before the flight, and you looked at me
sternly do you have
any idea, Vogel, who this coffee is from? So then I turn around and see
never believe that... Right. Just like in newsreels, and the suit is
double-breasted. Only with a cap on his head, and binoculars around his
And mustache a little wider than they draw on the portraits. Or it only
that way because of moonlight. He waved at me, like at a stadium or
something... Anyway, so I drank the coffee, got into the plane, put my
mask on right away and took off. And it became so easy all of a sudden
was breathing with two breasts instead of one. I climbed to eleven,
the Moon it was huge that night, half the sky, and then I looked
down. It was
all greenish down there, some river glistening... That's where I
button. The plane started veering to the right, how I got down I
know... Sign it? You also scribble something for me just to remember
Thank you... Did many of them manage to get through to Berlin? Sure,
understand... Nothing major, just the brick fragments, I guess. The
the nose is intact... Right, I told you nothing major, I can see it
cigarette box you can shave looking into that thing, no mirror
"No, I don't need it anymore;
I didn't even ask for it in the first place. You put it here yourself, comrade
colonel, just after you lit that candle... What was later I read the books,
then I made a telescope for myself, a small one. I mostly studied the Moon. I
even remember I went as lunokhod to the school matinee party once... I remember
that evening like it was yesterday... No, evening, all matinees were in the
evening then, and Saturday was exchanged with Monday that time...
All our guys assembled in the hall they all had those simple costumes, you
know, so they could dance. And I had this thing on get down on all fours and
it really looked like lunokhod. Music is blaring, everybody's so flushed... I
stood there by the door for a while, and then just went walking around the
empty school building. The corridors are all dark, nobody's there... So I crawl
towards a window, on all fours, and right behind it in the sky this Moon, it
was not even yellow, rather green somehow, like on that picture, you know? I
have a poster over my cot, from the "Working Woman". This is where I gave myself
a word that I was going to get to the Moon... Ha-ha-ha... Well, if you, comrade
colonel, are going to do your best, that means I will get there for sure...
Afterwards? Zaraisk Academy, right after high school, and then here right
away... You received it? Yes, comrade colonel, I know, it's always better when
it's informal like that, on a human level. Right here? Is it all right that the
ink is blue? Exactly. The simpler the soul, the shorter the protocol... Thank
you. Raspberry, if I could. Where do you get these carbonation charges, for the
siphon? On the other hand... Comrade colonel, may I ask you one question? Is it
true that all the lunar soil ends up here with you? I don't remember really,
one of our guys, I guess... Of course I'd like to, I only saw it on TV...
Wow... How much does this jar hold? Ten ounces or so? Could I really? Thank
you... Thank you so much... Just give me another tissue, to make sure... Thank
you. Sure I remember. To the right, through the corridor, to the elevators, and
then down. I won't make it by myself? Still under the influence? So you just
see me along, then... Woo... No, never. The new uniform? No, I like it, why? We
already had caps in the army once the Budyonny hats.
Looks good, but a little unusual no bill, and the badge is round... No, I
didn't forget... What do you mean to the left? Why the torch? Couldn't the
electrician... oh yeah, the secret access. A little light here, the stairs are
really steep... Almost like our lunar landing module. Comrade colonel, that's a
There was a loud click and two
voices, one male and one female, belted out in unison:
"...on their lips. The song to
this day can be heard in the depths..."
A short pause followed.
"Of grasslands so fresh," the
woman sang half-inquisitively.
"Malachite of the steppes," reaffirmed the rich baritone.
I switched the recorder off. I
was very scared. I recalled the colonel in the black cassock with the whistle
and chronometer around his neck. Nobody was asking Mityok any questions; that
to which he was giving answers was just soft whistling noise interrupting his
soliloquy from time to time.
Nobody asked me about Mityok.
Truth be told, he wasn't friends with anyone except myself, only played
homemade cards with Otto from time to time. His cot was already taken out from
our dorm, and now only the posters from "Working Woman" with pictures of
"Moonlit Night over Dnepr" and "Khan Baikonur" were left as a reminder that
there was once someone named Mityok living in our world. At the lessons everyone
was trying to look like nothing happened, colonel Urchagin being especially
perky and friendly.
In the meantime our small
squadron, not noticing the loss of the soldier as it were, was about to sing
its "Little Apple" to the end. No one was talking about it directly, but it was
clear the flight is around the corner. The mission chief met with us a couple
of times, telling us how he was fighting in Kovpak's battalion
during the war, we all had our pictures taken one by one at first, and then
all together, and then with the teaching staff in front of the banner. Then we
started to meet more new cadets, they were training separately from us, I
didn't know exactly what for there was some talk about an automated probe to
Alpha Microcephalos right after our mission but I wasn't completely sure that
the new guys were in fact the crew of that probe.
One evening in early September
I was suddenly called before the mission chief. He wasn't in his office and the
adjutant in the waiting room, idly flipping through pages of an old issue of
Newsweek, told me he was in three twenty nine.
From behind the door with the
number "329" I could hear voices and something that sounded like laughter. I
knocked, but no one answered. I knocked one more time and turned the handle.
A wide strip of tobacco smoke
was hanging under the ceiling, reminding me for some reason of the jet trail in
the summer sky over Zaraisk Academy. Strapped with his hands and legs to the
metal chair in the middle of the room was a small Japanese man that he was
Japanese I figured from the little red circle inside a white rectangle on the
sleeve of his flight suit. His lips were swollen and blue in color, one eye
turned into a narrow slit in the middle of massive purple haematoma, the flight
suit was splattered with blood some fresh, some brown and caked over. In
front of the Japanese I saw Landratov in shiny high boots and dress uniform of
an Air Force Lieutenant. By the window, leaning against the wall with his arms
crossed, a short young man in civilian clothes was standing. The mission chief
was sitting in the corner behind the desk he was looking at the Japanese
absentmindedly, tapping against the desk with the end of his pencil.
"Comrade mission chief," I
started, but he waved his hand at me and began collecting the papers strewn
across the desk into a folder. I transferred my gaze to Landratov.
"Hi," he said, offering me
his wide palm, and then all of a sudden, absolutely unexpectedly for me, kicked
the Japanese as hard as he could in the stomach with his boot. The Japanese
"This bastard here doesn't
want to be on the joint crew!" said Landratov, his eyes wide with amazement,
throwing his arms up, and rattled out on the floor a short tap sequence with
double slap on the boots, his feet turning unnaturally outward.
"As you were, Landratov!" the
mission chief burbled getting out from behind the desk.
From the corner of the room I
heard a soft whine filled with definite hatred; I looked there and saw a dog,
sitting on its hind legs before a navy blue plate with a rocket printed on it.
It was a very old husky, her eyes were completely red, but what startled me was
not her eyes but the small light green uniform top covering her upper body,
with the shoulder patches of major-general and two Orders of Lenin on the
"Meet Comrade Laika," said the mission chief catching my stare. "She's the first Soviet cosmonaut.
By the way, her parents are our colleagues. Worked in the Organs,
in the North."
Mission chief produced a small
flask of cognac, which he proceeded to pour onto the plate. Laika made a feeble
attempt to nip him in the hand, missed it and started whining again.
"She's quite vigorous, isn't
she?" the mission chief said with a smile. "But what she shouldn't have done
is pee all over the place. Landratov, why don't you go bring a rag."
Landratov went out.
"Yoi o-tenki ni narimashita
ne," said the Japanese, unsticking his lips. "Hana wa sakuragi, hito wa
The mission chief turned
quizzically to the young man at the window.
"He's just delirious, comrade
lieutenant-general," the young man replied.
The mission chief picked the
folder off the desk.
"Let's go, Omon."
We ventured out into the
corridor, and he put his hand over my shoulders. Landratov, rag in hand, passed
us by and winked at me, closing the door into the three twenty nine behind him.
"That Landratov, he's still
green,"said the mission chief
contemplatively," hadn't settled yet. But an outstanding pilot. A born pilot."
We walked several yards in
"So, Omon," said the mission
chief, "Baikonur the day after tomorrow. This is it."
I have been waiting for these
words for some months now, but still the sensation was of a heavy snowball,
with a steel nut inside, jamming into my solar plexus.
"Your call letters are going
to be 'Ra', as you requested. It was hard," the mission chief jabbed his
finger up into the air, "but we pushed it through. Only not a word about it
there," he pointed down, "not yet."
I didn't remember ever having
requested anything of the sort.
At the final testing on the
rocket mock-up I was just an observer other guys were passing the exams, and
I was sitting on the bench by the wall watching. I've passed my test a week
before, making the fully loaded lunokhod turn a hundred yard long figure eight
inside six minutes. The guys made their time precisely, and then they had us
all standing in formation in front of the mock-up for the farewell photo shoot.
I never saw the actual picture, but I can imagine perfectly how it turned out:
Syoma Anikin in front, his face and hands still bearing the traces of motor
oil, behind him Ivan Grechka, leaning onto an aluminium walker (his stumps
ached from time to time because of all the underground dampness), in a long
mutton overcoat, an undone oxygen mask hanging low around his neck, then Otto
Pluzis, in the silver spacesuit padded for warmth with a woolen blanket with a
merry yellow duckling print, his helmet was drawn back resembling a hood
stiffened by interstellar frost. Then Dima Matyushevich in a similar spacesuit,
only the patches of blanket were simply green-striped, not with ducklings, and
then I, the last of the crew, in the cadet uniform. Behind me, in the electric
wheelchair of his colonel Urchagin, and mission chief to the left of him.
"And now, according to
tradition which had turned into a good custom," the mission chief said when
the photographer was done, "we are going to come up for a few minutes to the
We walked across the large hall
and paused by the small steel door to cast the last look on the rocket,
exactly like the one on which we were destined to soar into the sky soon. Then
the mission chief opened that little hole in the wall with a key from his ring
and we started along the corridor I've never ventured to before.
We were weaving for a long time
between stone walls with thick multicolored cables snaking their way along
them, several times the corridor turned sharply, the ceiling coming down so low
now and again that we had to bend under. Once I spotted a shallow niche in the
wall with wilted flowers in it, a small memorial plaque was hanging nearby,
"Here in 1923 comrade Serob Nalbandyan was viciously murdered with a shovel"
inscribed on it. Then a red carpeted strip appeared under our feet, the corridor
widened and then ended witha
The stairwell was very long, by
its side there was an incline with narrow flights of steps in the middle just
like for strollers in the underground passages. I figured why they made it like
that when I saw the mission chief rolling the wheelchair with colonel Urchagin
up the incline. When he got winded Urchagin would pull the hand brake and they
froze in place, so the others didn't need to climb too fast, especially
considering that Ivan always had problems with long stairs. Finally we ascended
to the massive oak doors with state seals carved into them, the mission chief
unlocked them with his key, but the door halves saturated with dampness only
gave way when I pushed against them with my shoulder.
We were blinded by sunlight,
someone shielded his eyes with a hand, others turned away only Urchagin was
sitting calmly, with the routine half-smile on his face. Once we got accustomed
to the light it turned out we were facing the gray crypts of the Kremlin wall
and I realized we must have gone through the back door of the Mausoleum.
I haven't seen the open sky for such a long time that my head was spinning.
"All cosmonauts," the mission
chief spoke softly, "all of them, no matter how many there were, came before
the flight here, to the stones and stands that are sacred to every Soviet
person, to take a fragment of this place in their hearts with them to space.
Immensely long and arduous was the journey that our country went through we
started with machine guns mounted on horse-drawn carriages, and now you guys
are working with the most sophisticated automatic technology," he paused and
looked us over with a cold unblinking stare, "that our Motherland had
entrusted into your hands, which Bamlag Ivanovich and I explained to you in our
lectures. I am confident that in this, your last walk on the surface of our
Motherland, you will carry away some remembrance of the Red Square with you,
even though I cannot know what it will turn out to be for each of you..."
We were standing silently on
the surface of our dear old planet. It was late in the day, the sky was getting
slightly overcast, the bluish firs were waving their branches in the wind. We
smelled some kind of flowers. The clock tower started chiming five, mission
chief adjusted the hands on his watch and told us we still had a couple of
We went out onto the steps in
front of the Mausoleum. There wasn't anyone on the entire square if you didn't
count two just changed honor guards, who never acknowledged they have seen us
at all, and three mysterious long coats walking away in the direction of the
clock tower. I looked around, trying to soak in everything I was seeing and
feeling at this moment the graying walls of the State Department Store, the
empty "fruit market" of the St. Basil's, Lenin's Mausoleum, the red-bannered
green copper dome barely discernible over the wall, the fronton of the Museum
of History and
the leaden sky, hanging low and looking away from the Earth, quite probably
unaware of the steel penis of the Soviet rocket about to penetrate it.
"It's time," said the mission
Our guys filed slowly back
behind the Mausoleum. A minute later only colonel Urchagin and I were left
under the "LENIN" inscription. The mission chief looked at his watch and
coughed, but Urchagin said:
"One moment, comrade
lieutenant-general. I'd like to have a word with Omon."
The mission chief nodded and
disappeared behind the polished granite corner.
"Come here, my boy," said the
I came there. The first drops
of rain, heavy and sparse, fell onto the stones of the Red Square. Urchagin
grasped for something in the air, I stretched out my hand. He took it, pressed
it slightly and jerked me towards him. I bent over and he started whispering in
my ear. I was listening to him and looking at the way the steps were darkening
in front of his wheelchair.
Comrade Urchagin must have been
talking for two minutes, making long pauses. After falling silent he pressed my
palm once more and took his hand away.
"Now go, join the others," he
I made a movement in the
direction of the hatch but stopped.
"And you, sir?"
The raindrops were quickening
all around us.
"That's all right," he said,
producing an umbrella from a sheath resembling a holster, attached to the side
of his chair. "I'll go for a little spin here."
This is what I brought with me
from the Red Square falling slowly into the night the darkened stone pavement
and the slim figure in the old uniform top, sitting in the wheelchair trying to
open the stubborn black umbrella.
The dinner was not particularly
tasty soup with small star-shaped noodles, boiled chicken with rice and
stewed dried fruits for desert; usually after drinking the liquid I would eat
up all the squishy fruit morsels, but this time I only ate the wrinkled bitter
pear, then felt sick all of a sudden and pushed the plate away.
I was floating on one of those
water bicycles though thick reeds, with enormous telegraph poles sticking out
of them, the bicycle was unusual not the one with the pedals in front of the
seat; it seemed to have been converted from the real ground bicycle, between
the two long fat floats they installed the frame with the word "Sport" written
on it. It was absolutely unclear where all those reeds came from, and the water
bicycle, and even I myself. But I didn't care about that. It was so beautiful
around me that all I wanted to do was float farther and farther, and look
about, and I guess I wouldn't have even thought of wanting anything else for a
long time. The most beautiful thing was the sky slender long purple clouds
hung over the horizon, resembling a wing of strategic bombers in formation. It
was warm, and the water splashed a little against the paddles, and an echo of a
distant thunder rumbled in the west.
Then I figured it was not
thunder after all. At regular intervals something within of me, or maybe
outside of me, started to shake so hard my ears were ringing. After every blow
the surroundings the river, the reeds, the sky above looked more and more
worn out. The world was becoming familiar down to the smallest detail, like
that bathroom wall you have been staring at while sitting on the toilet, and it
was happening fast, until I suddenly realized that my bicycle and I were not
among reeds, or on the water, or even under the sky, but instead inside a
translucent sphere which separated me from everything else. Each blow made the
walls of the sphere harder and thicker, less and less light penetrated through
them, finally it got very dark. When the sky over my head was replaced by a
ceiling, a dim electric bulb turned itself on, walls began mutating, changing
shape, drawing closer, twisting and forming some kind of shelves, crowded with
glasses, tin cans and who knows what else. This is where the rhythmic
convulsions of the world became that which it was from the very beginning a
I was inside the lunokhod,
sitting in the saddle, clutching at the handlebars and bent down to the frame.
I was wearing the flight coat, fur hat with earflaps and fur boots, the oxygen
mask wrapped around my neck like a scarf. The green box of the telephone
screwed onto the floor was ringing off the hook. I lifted the receiver.
"Fuck you, you shit-faced fag!" the monstrous bass in my ear exploded with tortured desperation. "What are
you doing there, jerking off?"
"This is Chief of Flight Control
Center colonel Halmuradov. You awake?"
"Suck my dick, that's what!
One minute countdown!"
"One minute countdown,
affirmative!" I screamed back, biting my lip in horror, bloodying it, and
grabbed the handlebars again with my free hand.
"As-s-s-hole," the receiver
exhaled, and then I caught indecipherable snippets of conversation I guess
the person who was just yelling at me was now talking to someone else, holding
the microphone away from his face. Then something beeped in the receiver and I
heard a different voice, talking in a detached and mechanical fashion, but
still with a thick Ukrainian accent:
"Fifty nine... fifty eight...
I was in that state of profound
guilt and shock when people start moaning loudly, or shout dirty words; the
thought that I almost caused something irreparable to happen obscured
everything else in my mind. Keeping track of the numbers peeling off into my ear
I tried to make sense of what was happening and came to a conclusion that I
hadn't in fact done anything horrible yet. I recalled only how I put down the
bowl with the stewed fruit and pushed myself away from the table, having lost
the appetite. The next thing I remembered was the ringing radio, demanding that
I pick up the receiver.
I noticed that lunokhod had
been fully stocked. The shelves that have always been barren were now
packed oily cans with the Chinese luncheon meat "Great Wall" were
on the bottom, while the top shelf contained a pad, a tin mug, can
opener and a
holster with the handgun, all that drawn together with thick wire. My
thigh was pressing against the large oxygen tank marked "FLAMMABLE"; my
right against the aluminium water canister, its sides reflecting the
tiny lamp on the
wall. A map of the Moon was hanging under the lamp, sporting two large
dots, of which the bottom one was marked "Landing Site".
I pushed my eyes against the
lenses on the wall. Outside was complete darkness as could be expected, since
the lunokhod was covered with the nose cone deflector.
"The fleeting seconds of the
countdown," I recalled comrade Urchagin's words, "what are they but the voice
of history multiplied by millions of televisions?"
"Three... Two... Wun...
Somewhere deep below I heard
roaring and thunder it was becoming louder by the second and soon exceeded any
imaginable limit. Hundreds of hammers were striking into the steel body of the
rocket. Then everything started to shake, I bumped my head several times on the
wall if not for the fur hat, I swear my brain would have been splattered all
over. Several cans of luncheon meat fell onto the floor, then came a blow so
hard I immediately thought of a catastrophe and the next moment in the
receiver I still continued to hold to my ear I heard a distant voice:
"Omon! You're off!"
"Poyehali!" I shouted. The thunder turned into a steady and mighty rumble, shaking into
vibrations like those you experience in a fast-moving train. I put the receiver
back, and it rang again.
"Omon, are you all right?"
It was the voice of Syoma,
superimposed onto the monotonous drone of flight information being read out
"Sure I'm all right," I said, "but why are we... On the other hand..."
"We thought they were going to
scrub the liftoff, you were sleeping so soundly. The moment is calculated very
precisely, you know. The entire trajectory depends on it. They even sent a
soldier up the rocket, he was banging with his boots on the cone, to wake you
up. And they were raising you on the intercom all the time."
We were silent for several
"Listen," Syoma started
again, "I only have four minutes left, even less now. Then I am disconnecting
the first stage. We all already said our good-byes to each other, but you...
You know, we won't be talking anymore."
I couldn't find any words that
would be appropriate in this situation, the only thing I was feeling was
"Omon," called Syoma again.
"Yes, Syoma," I said, "I can
hear you. So we're flying, I guess."
"Yes," he said.
"How are you doing?" I asked,
fully recognizing the futility and even insult contained in my question.
"I'm all right. And you?"
"Fine. What do you see?"
"Nothing. It's all closed in
here. The noise is horrible. And shaking."
"Me too," I said.
"Well," said Syoma, "I
should be going now. You know what? When you get to the Moon, you remember me,
"Of course," I said.
"You just think about me.
Think that I was there. Syoma. The first stage. Promise?"
"You must complete the
mission, and do everything you need to do, you hear?"
"It's time. Farewell."
I heard several clicks in the
receiver, and then above the static and the roar of the engines I caught
Syoma's voice he was singing his favorite song on top of his lungs. Then I
heard a noise as if a length of canvas was being ripped up, and the receiver
turned to the short beeps, but in the moment before that, if I was not dreaming
it up, Syoma's song became a scream. I again got shaken violently, smashing
with my back against the ceiling, and lost my grip on the receiver. By the
changed tone of the engines I figured that the second stage was now
operational. I bet the hardest thing for Syoma was to fire up the engine. I
tried to imagine how it must feel to break the glass over the safety switch
and press the red button, knowing all the while that a split second later the
enormous wuthering funnels of the exhaust ports are going to come alive. Then I
remembered Vanya and grabbed the receiver again, but it was still beeping in my
ear. I slammed my hand several times against the radio and shouted:
"Vanya! Vanya! Can you hear
"What?" his voice asked
"Yes," he said, "I heard
"Are you... soon?"
"In seven minutes," he said. "You know what I am thinking about now?"
"I just remembered my
childhood. How we were catching pigeons. We would take this crate, you know, a
small wooden one, like they ship tomatoes in from Bulgaria, we'd spread some
breadcrumbs under and position it on the edge, and one side we'd prop up with a
stick, and tie a rope to it, like ten yards or so. We hid in the bushes, or behind
a bench, and as soon as pigeon walked in, we'd yank the rope. And the crate
"Right," I said, "so did we."
"Remember how when the crate
falls the pigeon wants to scram right away, and starts flapping its wings
against the sides the crate would jump up and down then."
"I remember," I said.
Vanya fell silent.
In the meantime it started getting quite cold. And it was
harder and harder to breathe every time I moved I wanted to catch my breath,
like I just ran up a long flight of stairs. I started to press the oxygen mask
to my face to inhale.
"And also I remember how we
were blowing up the spent handgun shells with match heads. You stuff them in,
flatten the opening, and there has to be a small hole and so you put several
matches to it side by side..."
"Cosmonaut Grechka," the
receiver interjected suddenly with the bass that woke me up and swore at me
before the start, "get ready."
"Aye, aye," said Vanya
faintly. "And then you secure them with a thread, or better yet, electrical tape,
cause thread slips sometimes. If you want to throw it out the window, like
seventh floor, so that it blows up in mid-air, you need four matches for that.
"Quit talking," the bass
said. "Put on the mask."
"Aye. And you don't strike the
box against the last match; best thing is to light it from a smoldering
cigarette butt. Or they will shift away from the little hole."
I have heard nothing after
that, only the usual rattle of static. Then I got bumped against the wall one
more time and the receiver began beeping. That my friend Vanya had just
shuffled off this mortal coil at the altitude of thirty miles in the same
simple and unassuming fashion which marked everything he'd ever done was not
quite getting through to me. I was not feeling bereaved at all, on the
contrary, I was strangely upbeat and euphoric.
Then I noticed that I am losing
consciousness. I mean, I noticed that I am regaining it, not losing. I have
been just holding the receiver to my ear, and all of a sudden it was on the
floor, my ears were ringing and I was staring stupidly down at it from my
saddle hoisted up there against the ceiling. The gas mask was just draped over
my neck like a scarf and all of a sudden I was shaking my head trying to get
my bearings straight, while the mask was lying beside the receiver. I figured I
was oxygen-deprived, reached for the mask and pressed it to my lips it got
better right away, and I felt how cold I actually was. I fastened all the
buttons on the coat, raised my collar and lowered the flaps on the hat over my
ears. The rocket was vibrating gently. I became very sleepy, and even though I
knew it wasn't a good idea I couldn't help it I crossed my hands on the bars
and closed my eyes.
I was dreaming of the Moon like Mityok was drawing it when he was a kid: black sky, pale yellow craters
and a faraway mountain range. Holding his paws in front of his muzzle, a bear
with the golden star of the Hero in his fur was moving slowly and fluidly
toward the fireball of the Sun burning over the horizon, a dribble of dried-up
blood showing in the corner of his agonizingly twisted mouth. Suddenly he
stopped and turned in my direction. I felt his stare upon me, raised my head
and looked deep into his still blue eyes.
"I and all this world we are
nothing but someone's dream," said the bear softly.
I woke up. It was dead quiet. I
guess some part of my consciousness had been maintaining the link to the
outside world, and the silence that enveloped me acted like an alarm clock. I
bent over towards the "eyes" in the wall. It turned out that deflector had
already detached I was looking at the Earth.
I tried to ascertain how long I
was asleep and couldn't come up with any specific estimate. Not less than
several hours, that's for sure, because I was hungry. I started grappling on
the top shelf I remembered seeing a can opener there, but couldn't find it. I
reasoned it must have fallen on the floor and began looking around and then
the phone rang.
"Calling Ra, over. Omon! Can
you hear me?"
"Aye, aye, comrade mission
"Well, thank goodness, looks
like everything's OK. There was this moment, see, very bad, the telemetry just
quit on us. It did not exactly quit, see, but we had to activate that other
system in parallel, and telemetry wasn't going through. We had to abandon
control for a couple of minutes. That's when you started running out of air,
He was speaking very quickly
and seemed strangely agitated. I decided he was nervous, but in the back of my
mind flashed a thought that he was simply drunk.
"You, Omon, gave us all a good
scare. You were sleeping so tight, we almost had to postpone the launch."
"My fault, comrade mission
"No, no, that's OK. It's not
your fault, really. They overdid on the drugs before Baikonur. But everything
is going smoothly so far."
"Where am I now?"
"On the working trajectory,
the ballistic sector. Going for the Moon. Have you slept through acceleration
from the satellite orbit, too?"
"Looks like I have. So, Otto
"Otto has already. Can't you
see the deflector have detached? You had to make a couple of extra orbits,
though. Otto panicked at first. Didn't want to switch on the booster block. We
even thought he chickened out. But then the guy got his act together, and... In
short, he's sending you his good-byes."
"What about Dima?"
"What about him? Dima's all
right. The landing automatics is in standby mode in the inertial segment. Oh,
that's right, he still has that correction... Matyushevich, are you receiving
"Aye, sir," said Dima's voice
in the receiver.
"Get some rest," said the
mission chief. "The next transmission is tomorrow at fifteen hundred, then the
trajectory correction. Mission control out."
I put the receiver down and
pressed my face to the "eyes", looking at the blue semicircle of the Earth. I
often read that all cosmonauts, without exception, were awestruck by the sight
of our planet from space. They wrote about some unbelievably beautiful mist
enveloping it, about the cities on the night side, gleaming with electric
lights, resembling enormous pyres, about even being able to distinguish rivers
on the day side well, just so you know: none of this is true. What the Earth
looks most like from space is a smallish school globe when you see it through,
let's say, fogged over lenses of a gas mask. This spectacle got real dull real
soon, I cozied up to the handlebars and fell asleep again.
When I woke up the Earth was
nowhere in sight. Through the lenses I could distinguish only a smattering of
stars, faraway and unattainable, made fuzzy by the optics. I imagined the
existence of a giant fireball, hanging in icy darkness without being attached
to anything, many billions of miles away from the nearest stars, tiny brilliant
points about which the only thing we know is that they exist, and even that is
not certain, because the star could die, but its light would still continue to
spread in all directions which means that in fact we know absolutely nothing
about the stars, except that their life is harrowing and pointless, since all
their progress through space is predetermined for all time and subject to the
laws of mechanics and gravity, not leaving any hope for a chance encounter. But
we humans, I was thinking, we seem to meet, laugh, slap each other on the backs
and go our separate ways, but at the same time in some independent dimension
where our conscience dreads to peek we instead are hanging motionless,
surrounded by emptiness, with no top or bottom, yesterday or tomorrow, with no hope to ever grow closer to
someone else or to express our will and change our destiny in even the smallest
of ways; we judge about the events happening to others by observing the
deceitful glow that reaches us, and all our life we are marching towards what
we think is a light, when the source of that light might have long ceased to
exist. And this also, I was thinking, all my life I subjugated to the dream of
soaring above the throngs of workers and peasants, members of the military and
and now, hanging in the glistening black void on the invisible threads of fate,
I could see that being a celestial body was something akin to receiving a life
sentence in a jail railroad car moving perpetually around the city freight
We were flying at a speed of a
mile and a half per second, so the inertial segment of our flight took about
three days, but I felt it was more like a week. That was probably because the
sun passed by the "eyes" several times a day and every time I was treated to a
sunset of breathtaking beauty.
All that was left of the giant
rocket now was the lunar module, consisting of the correction stage and braking
stage, where Dima Matyushevich was sitting, and the lander, or more simply the
lunokhod itself fastened to a platform. To save fuel, the nose cone was
discarded back when we were accelerating from the circular orbit, so outside
the shell of the lunokhod there was nothing but space now. The lunar module was
traveling in a way backwards, facing the Moon with its main engines, and my
mind performed the same trick as with the chilly elevator back on Lubyanka,
which turned from the mechanism of descending into the depths of the Earth into
a device for ascending to the surface. At first the lunar module was climbing
higher and higher above Earth, and then it gradually turned out that it was
falling onto the Moon. But there was some difference, too. In the elevator I
was riding with my head pointing up, whether I was going up or down. But I shot
out of the Earth orbit with my head down, and only later, after about a day of
flying, I found out that I, with my head now up, am falling faster and faster
into a deep black well, clutching the handlebars and waiting for the moment
when the non-existent wheels of my bicycle crash silently into the Moon.
I had enough time for thinking
about all that because I didn't have absolutely anything else to do. I often
felt the urge to talk to Dima, but he was constantly busy with numerous and
very complex procedures related to course correction. From time to time I would
lift the receiver and catch some of his unintelligible cursory communications
with the flight control engineers back in the center:
"Forty three degrees... five
seven... Pitching... Yaw..."
I'd listen to it for some time
and then tune out. From what I understood, Dima's main task was to catch Sun
into the visor of one optical instrument and Moon at the same time into
another, measure something there and relay the results back to Earth, where
they would compare the actual trajectory with the computed one and determine
the length of the corrective firing of the impulse engines. Judging by the fact
that I was jolted several times in my saddle, Dima was acquitting himself
When the jolts ceased, I waited
for half an hour more, lifted the receiver and called:
"Speaking," he answered in
his usual dry tone.
"So, have you corrected the
"Looks like it."
"Was it hard?"
"OK, I guess," he answered.
"Listen," I said. "How come
you're so good with this stuff? All those degrees and pitch and what not? We
never had that in the lectures."
"I served for two years in the
Strategic Missile Forces," he said, "they have a very similar guidance
system, only using stars. And no radio contact you have to do it yourself,
with a calculator. You make one mistake, and you're fucked."
"And if you don't?"
He didn't answer.
"What did you do there?"
"Tactical watch at first. Then
"What does that mean?"
"Nothing special. If you're
sitting inside a tactical missile, you're on tactical duty. And if you're in
the strategic, then you're on strategic watch."
"Was that hard?"
"It's OK. In civilian terms,
it's like a night watchman. One full day in the missile, three days
"This is why you're all
gray... Are they all gray there?"
Dima didn't answer again.
"This is from the
"Nah. It's more from the
training launches," he said with obvious unwillingness.
"What training launches? Oh,
that's when they have that small print on the last page of "Izvestiya"
that nobody should be traveling in this and that quadrant in the Pacific,
"And do they make those
"It varies, really. But you
have to draw the straws every month. Twelve times a year, the entire squadron,
all twenty five of us. So the guys are getting gray, naturally."
"What if you don't want to
"It's only a saying. Nobody's
drawing anything. In reality, before the training launch the morale officer
goes around and gives those envelopes to everyone. Your straw is already inside."
"So, if it's short, can you
"First off, it's the long one,
not the short one. And second, no, you can't. The only thing you can do is
apply for the cosmonaut squadron. But you have to be pretty darn lucky."
"Do many guys get lucky?"
"No idea. I did, as you can
Dima was not exactly
forthcoming with his answers, and often he would make pauses which were rather
rude. I couldn't think of anything else to ask him and put the receiver down.
Next time I attempted to talk
to him was several minutes before the braking was supposed to start. I am
embarrassed to say that I was motivated by a kind of cruel wonderment: whether
Dima was going to change his style before... In short, I wanted to check if he
was going to be as reserved as during our last conversation, or if the imminent
end of the flight would make him somewhat more talkative. I picked up the
receiver and called out:
"Dima! This is Omon speaking.
Please pick up."
And immediately heard the
"Listen, can you call back in
a couple of minutes? No, wait, is your radio working? Switch it on, quick!"
And he slammed the receiver
down. His voice was brimming with excitement, so I figured they were saying
something about us. But "Mayak" was transmitting music instead: when I turned
on the radio I heard the jangling of the synthesizer fading in the background,
the program was ending, and in a few seconds radio fell silent. Then I heard
the "precise time" beeps and found out that in Moscow it was fourteen hundred
of some kind of hours. I waited a while longer and picked up the phone again.
"Did you hear?" asked Dima
"I did," I said. "Only I
caught the tail end of it."
"No," I said.
"That was Pink Floyd. 'One Of
"I can't believe the working
masses would ask for that to be played on the radio," I said with
"Of course not," said Dima. "It's the theme music for the 'Life of Science' program. From the 'Meddle'
album. Pure underground."
"You mean you're a Pink Floyd
"Me? I love them. I had all
the records collected. What do you think about them?"
This was the first time I heard
Dima talk in such a lively voice.
"Yeah, they're OK," I said. "Not all of it, though. They have this record with a cow on the cover..."
"'Atom Heart Mother'," said
"That one I like. And there
was another one I remember it's a double album, where they sit outdoors, and
there is a picture on the wall with the same place where they sit..."
"Could be. That one, I think,
is not even music at all."
"Right! It's shit, not music!" barked someone's voice in the receiver, and we stopped cold for a couple of
"Well, I wouldn't say that,"
Dima started talking finally, "not really. At the end they have the new version
of 'Saucerful Of Secrets'. The timbre is different from what they had on the 'Nice Pair'. And vocals. Gilmore is singing."
That I didn't remember.
"What did you like on 'Atom
Heart Mother'?" Dima asked.
"You know, there are those two
songs, on the 'B' side. One is very soft, just a guitar. And the other one with
the full orchestra. It has this
beautiful bridge. Dum di-di-di-di-di-di-di-di dum da-dum tri-di-dum..."
"I know," said Dima. "'Summer Sixty Eight'. And the soft one is 'If'."
"Could be," I said. "So,
which was your favorite record?"
"I'm not in the business of
picking favorite records," said Dima contemptuously. "I like music, not
records. With 'Meddle', for example, I like the last song. About the echoes. I
even break down sometimes when I listen to it. Translated it, with the
dictionary and all. 'Overhead the albatross... And help me understand The best
Dima swallowed hard and was
"You seem to know English
well," I said.
"Yeah, they already told me
that in the missile squadron. Morale officer did.
But that's not the point. I couldn't find this one record. The last leave, I
even went to Moscow especially for that, took 400 rubles
with me. Hustled all around no one even heard about it."
"What was the record?"
"You wouldn't know. It's for a
movie. 'Zabriskie Point'. Spelled Z-A-B-R-I-S-K-I-E."
"Oh, that," I said. "I had
that one. But it wasn't the album, I had it recorded on a reel-to-reel. Nothing
special... Dima! What's wrong? Talk to me!"
For a long time there was only
static in the receiver, and then Dima asked:
"What was it like?"
"Well, how should I say that, I said pensively. "You heard 'Mor', didn't you?"
"Sure. Only it's 'More', not 'Mor'."
"So it was kind of like that,
but no singing. Just your regular soundtrack. If you heard 'Mor', you can
safely say you know what that one was about too. Typical Pinks. Saxophone,
synthesizers. And on the 'B' si..."
The receiver beeped and
Halmuradov's roar filled the entire space around me.
"Calling Ra, over! Look at
them, just fucking gabbing away!
Not enough to do? Get ready with the soft landing automatics!"
"Oh, shut up! It's ready!"
"Then proceed with orientation
of the braking booster axis to Lunar vertical!"
I peeked out through the
lunokhod's "eyes" and saw the Moon. It was very close the picture before my
eyes would have resembled the Petlyura's Ukrainian flag
if the top part were blue and not black. The phone rang. I picked up, but it
was Halmuradov again.
"Attention! At the count of
three activate the braking booster by command from the radio altitude meter!"
"Got it," said Dima.
I dropped the receiver.
The booster fired. It was
working in fits and starts; twenty minutes later I was suddenly thrown
shoulder against the wall, then with my back against the ceiling,
started shaking with unbearably loud thunder and I figured that Dima
off into immortality without saying goodbye. But I was not feeling
slighted if you don't count that last conversation, he was always
unaccommodating, and I imagined for some reason that after spending
in his intercontinental ballistic thing he understood something
something that would forever free him from the obligation of observing
The moment of the landing
itself I did not notice. The shaking and detonations suddenly stopped, and
beyond the lenses was again the same pitch black darkness as before the start.
At first I thought that something unexpected happened, but then I remembered
that I was actually supposed to land during the lunar night.
I waited, not quite knowing for
what, and then the phone rang.
"Halmuradov here," said the
voice. "Everything all right?"
"Aye, aye, comrade colonel."
"The telemetry is about to
kick in," he said, "it'll lower the guide rails. Drive down to the surface
and report. And don't forget to brake, you hear?"
And then he added in a softer
voice, apparently holding the microphone away from his mouth:
"Un-de-hround. What the fuck."
The lunokhod swayed back and
forth, and I heard a muffled thud from the outside.
"Go," said Halmuradov.
That was quite probably the
hardest part of my job I had to drive down from the lander using two narrow
guard rails that were now leading to the lunar surface. The rails had special
notches on them, so it was impossible to slide off, but there still remained
the risk of one of the rails ending up on some rock, which would make the
lunokhod topple over while riding down. I made several revolutions with the
pedals and felt the massive machine tilt and start going by itself. I stepped
on the brake but the inertia was stronger, lunokhod was being dragged down,
then the brake gave with a loud bang and my legs rotated the pedals backwards
several times, lunokhod lunged unstoppably forward, lurched from side to side
and positioned itself evenly, on all eight of its wheels.
I was now on the Moon. But I
haven't experienced any particular emotions over this fact; I was more
concerned with how I was going to put back the gear chain that had been ripped
out. As soon as I finally managed to do that, the phone rang again. It was the
mission chief. His voice was very official and solemn.
"Comrade Krivomazov! On behalf
of the entire flight command staff being present at the moment at the Control
Center, I congratulate you on the occasion of soft landing of the Soviet
automatic station 'Luna-17B'
on the Moon!"
I heard slapping sounds and
figured it was champagne being opened. Then snippets of music filtered through,
some kind of march, but I could hardly make it out through the static in the
All of my childhood dreams
about the future were born of gentle sadness native to those evenings that seem
to be detached from the rest of your life, when you lie in deep grass by the
remains of someone else's campfire, your bicycle resting nearby, the west still
bearing purple bands from the sun that had just set, while in the east there
are already first stars popping up.
I haven't seen or experienced
very much in my life, but I liked most of what I have, and I always counted on
the trip to the Moon to absorb everything that I passed by in hopes of
encountering it again later, to take it in more finally and forever this time;
how was I to know that the best things in life are always seen as if from the
corner of one's eye? While I was a kid, I often imagined extraterrestrial
vistas: stone-strewn planes, furrowed by craters and illuminated by
otherworldly light, sharp mountain peaks in the distance, black sky with the
glowing coal of the sun and stars around it; I pictured the layers of space
dust, many feet deep, and the stones resting motionless on the lunar surface
for billions and billions of years I was for some reason strongly impressed
by the thought of a stone being able to remain in one place for all that time,
and then I would bend down and pick it up with the thick fingers of my
spacesuit. I thought of looking up and seeing the blue globe of Earth above,
looking like the school globe distorted by the teared-over lenses of the gas
mask, and how this ultimate moment of my life will connect me to all those
other moments when I felt myself on the verge of something wondrous and
In reality, the Moon turned out
to be this tiny space, stuffy, confined and black, with the feeble electricity
switching on once in a while; it turned out to be the invariable darkness in
the useless lenses and fitful uncomfortable sleep in a scrunched-up position,
my head pushing against the hands crossed on the handlebars.
I was moving slowly, no more
than three miles a day, and I had no notion of what the world around me looked
like. On the other hand, this domain of eternal darkness probably did not look
like anything at all except myself there was no one else for whom something
here would have been able to look like something, and I did not switch on the
front headlamp to conserve energy in the battery. The ground under the wheels
was apparently absolutely smooth the machine was gliding over it steadily. I
couldn't turn the handlebars at all, though something must have jammed the
steering during landing, so the only thing left to do for me was to push the
pedals. The toilet was extremely uncomfortable in use so much so that I
always held it in until the last possible moment, just like long ago during the
siesta hours in the day care. But still, my journey into space was so long in
the making that I was not about to let the sullen thoughts take hold of me, and
I was even happy sometimes.
The hours and days passed; I
only stopped when I needed to drop my head onto the hands and fall asleep. The
stores of luncheon meat were being depleted slowly, there was less and less
water in the canister, each evening I extended by half an inch the red line on
the map hanging before my eyes, and the end of the line was drawing closer and
closer to the little black dot beyond which it will cease to exist. The dot
reminded me of the way they mark the stations on the subway map; the fact that
it did not have a name was very irritating, and so I scribbled "Zabriskie
Point" next to it.
Clutching the nickel-plated
ball with my right hand in the pocket of the coat, I have been staring at the
label with the words "Great Wall"
for at least an hour now. I was feeling the warm breeze over the fields
of the faraway China, and annoying buzz of the phone on the floor interested me
not a bit, but I picked up the receiver after a while anyway.
"Calling Ra, over! Why are you
not responding? What's with the light switched on? And standing in place? I can
see everything here through telemetry."
"Just resting, comrade mission
"Report the odometer readings!"
I looked at the small steel
cylinder with numbers.
"Thirty two point seven
"All right, turn off the light
and listen here. We've been looking at the map you're just coming up to the
My heart skipped a beat, even
though I knew that the black dot which was staring at me like a barrel of a gun
from the map was still some distance away.
"The landing module of the 'Luna-17B'."
"But I am the "Luna-17B"," I
"So what. They are, too."
He appeared to be drunk again. But I understood what he was talking about. It was that mission for
delivering the lunar soil samples, two cosmonauts landed on the Moon that time,
Pasyuk Drach and Zurab Parzwania.
They had a small rocket with them, they used it to launch a pound of soil back
to Earth, after which they lived for a minute and a half on the surface of the
Moon and then shot themselves.
"Attention, Omon!" said the
mission chief. "Be very careful now. Reduce the speed and turn on the
I flicked the switch and
pressed against the black lenses of the "eyes". The optical distortions made
the blackness around the lunokhod seem to come around in a kind of an arch
above, continuing as endless tunnel in the distance. I only could make out
clearly a small patch of the stony surface in front, uneven and scratchy it
must have been the ancient basalt shield; every yard or so across the line of
my movement short oblong humps were protruding from it, resembling very much
sand dunes in a desert, it was weird that I did not feel them at all while
"Well?" the receiver
"I can't see anything."
"Turn off the lights and go.
I was driving for forty more
minutes. And then lunokhod bumped into something. I picked up the phone.
"Calling Earth, over. There's
Right in the middle of my field
of view two hands in black leather gloves were lying, the outstretched fingers
on the right one cradling the handle of a scoop still containing a small amount
of sand mixed with tiny pebbles, while the left was clutching the glistening
Something dark was visible between the hands. Looking more intently, I was able
to discern the raised collar of the officer's coat and the top of the hat
sticking out of it; the shoulder and part of the head of the prostrate person
were obscured by the lunokhod's wheel.
"Well, Omon, what is it?"
exhaled the receiver into my ear.
I described briefly the picture
before my eyes.
"The patches, shoulder
patches, what kind?"
"I can't see them."
"Back up a couple of feet."
"Lunokhod does not back up,"
I said. "Pedal back is the brake."
"Ahh... Oh shit... How many
times I told the chief constructor... "the mission chief mumbled. "Well, as
they say: if I knew where I'd fall, I'd put some hay there. This is what I was
wondering if it's Zura or Pasha. Zura was a captain, you see, and Pasha was a
major. All right, turn the light off, you'll deplete the battery."
"Aye, sir," I said, but
before carrying out the order I looked one more time at the motionless hand and
the woolen top of the hat. I couldn't bring myself to start moving for a while,
then I clenched my teeth and leaned on the pedal with all my weight. The
lunokhod jerked up, and a second later down.
"Go," said Halmuradov, who
replaced the mission chief at the controls. "You're behind schedule."
I was saving the battery and
spending almost the entire time in complete darkness, rotating the pedals doggedly
and turning the lights on for just a couple of seconds at a time to consult the
compass even though that did not make any sense at all, since the handlebars
were not functioning anyway. But those were my orders from Earth. It is hard to
describe the sensation darkness, a hot confined space, sweat dripping down
from my forehead, light swaying motion I would imagine a fetus in the womb
must experience something similar.
I was aware, of course, that I
was in fact on the Moon. But the enormous distance that was separating me from
the Earth took on a shade of pure abstraction. I felt that the people I was
talking to over the phone must be somewhere close not because their voices
were clear in the receiver, but because I could not imagine the duty
relationships and personal feelings something so completely ephemerous to
be able to stretch several hundred thousand miles. The strangest thing of all
was that the memories which connected me to my childhood seemed to have
stretched over the same unthinkable distance.
When I was still in school, I
usually would while away the summers in a suburban village on a side of
parkway. Most of the time I spent in the saddle of a bicycle, sometimes
on twenty twenty five miles a day. The bicycle was not properly
adjusted the handlebars were located too low, and I had to lean
forward quite a bit over
them, just like in the lunokhod. And so now, apparently because my body
forced to assume the same position for a long time, I began having mild
hallucinations. I would drift off, go to sleep while I was still awake
was especially easy because of darkness and imagine that I see my
the asphalt flying back from under me, see the dotted white line of the
and inhale the air saturated with exhaust. I even started perceiving
of trucks rushing by and the rumble of tires against the asphalt; only
scheduled transmissions from Earth brought me back. But then I would
of the lunar reality again, transport myself to that suburban road and
how significant the hours I spent there were in my life.
Once I was hailed by comrade
Kondratiev, who started reading poems about the Moon again. I did not know how
to ask him to stop nicely, but then he began to read one poem that seemed like
a snapshot of my soul from the very first lines.
You and I, we believed in the
closeness of fate
But I started to notice as I'm
How my youth that I'm fond of
recalling of late
Seems so out of my stripes, and
unreal as heck.
It's the glow of the Moon, full
of subtle deceit
Right between me and you, like
the shore and the drowned,
Or the telegraph road and your
back which I see
As you race to that Moon on the
bike that you owned.
For a long time you....
I sobbed softly, and comrade
Kondratiev stopped cold.
"How does it go next?" I
"I forgot," said comrade
Kondratiev. "Went right out of my head.
"I did not believe him, but I
knew that to protest or beg would be futile.
"What are you thinking about
now?" he asked.
"Nothing really," I said.
"This can't be," he said. "At least one thought is always running around in the head. Tell me, will you?"
"I recall my childhood often, I said unwillingly. "How I would ride the bicycle. Very much like now. And
one thing I still can't understand there I was, riding the bicycle, and I
remember how the handlebars were low, and the breeze so fresh..."
I fell silent.
"Well? What's that you can't
"I was going towards the
river, I think... So how come I..."
Comrade Kondratiev was silent
for a couple of minutes and then put the receiver down.
I turned "Mayak" on by the
way, I didn't put much faith in it actually being "Mayak", even though the
radio was trying to assure me of it every couple of minutes.
"Seven sons are the gift to our
Motherland from Maria Ivanovna Plahuta from the village of Maly Perehvat, related the voice soaring above the working midday
of the faraway Russia and two of them, Ivan Plahuta and Vassily Plahuta, are
serving in the military now, in the Tank Corps of the Ministry of the Interior.
They asked us to play for their mother the joke song 'Samovar'. We are
fulfilling your request, boys. Dear Maria Ivanovna, for you today the song will
be performed by the People's Joker of the USSR
Artem Plahuta, who responded to our request with all the more willingness
considering that he himself demobilized eight years prior to the brothers, in
the rank of sergeant major.
The mandolins tinkled, cymbals
crashed a couple of times, and then a voice full with deep feeling started
singing, pressing on the r's like on a bystander in an overflowing bus:
"It's r-really hot, the
I slammed the receiver down.
The words made me physically cringe. I remembered Dima's gray head and the cow
from the "Atom Heart Mother" cover, and my back twisted in a slow cold shiver.
I waited for a minute or two, then decided that the song must be over by now
and turned the black handle again. It was quiet for a second, and then the
baritone that went for a moment into hiding burst out into my face:
"Tea it ser-rved for all the
Fiery water was on tap!"
This time I waited much longer,
and when I turned the radio back again the woman host was speaking:
"... us remember our
cosmonauts, as well as all those whose earthly toil makes their celestial watch
possible. It is for them today that we..."
I suddenly went back deep into
my own thoughts, or more accurately crashed into one of them, as if under the
ice, the hearing returned back to me only several minutes later, when the
somber choir of distant basses was already putting the last bricks into the
monumental wall of the new song. Despite the fact that I was completely
divorced from reality, I still continued to automatically push on the pedals,
sticking my right knee far out this way the blister from the fur boot was not
hurting too badly.
Here's what struck me.
If I could now, by closing my
eyes, place myself to the extent a person could be in a place at all on the
illusory suburban parkway, and the non-existent asphalt, foliage and sun before
my closed eyes became for me as real as if I was in fact rushing down the hill
at my favorite second gear; if, having completely forgotten about Zabriskie
Point, which was literally just ahead, I still was from time to time happy for
several seconds at a time didn't this all mean that while still in my
childhood, right then, when I was not simply a detached part of the world
immersed in the summer happiness, when I really did fly by on my bicycle along
the asphalt strip, towards the wind and the sun, oblivious to everything that
was waiting for me ahead didn't it mean that at that time I was already
rolling forward across the dead black surface of the Moon, only perceiving what
was reaching me through the crooked "eyes" of the lunokhod solidifying around
"Socialism is a society of
civilized co-operative workers headed by the monstrous Rasputin, being copied
and photographed not only by large groups of collective propagandists and
agitators, but also collective organizers, distinguished by their place in the
historically determined system of utilizing the airplanes against the needs and
tribulations of the low-flying cavalry, which in turn is dying, withering, but
is as limitless as we need to reorganize the People's Inspections Office."
Above the text, printed in gold
letters, there was a cartouche with the golden sharp-bearded profile
word "LENIN" arranged in a semi-circle, bordered by two olive branches
from foil. I passed by this place often, but there were always other
around, and I couldn't inspect it closer with them watching. I stared
entire installation over: it was a largish easel, about a yard in
in purple velvet. It was attached to the wall by two hinges, with the
of it held tightly by a small hook-and-eye. I looked around. The siesta
was not over yet, and there was no one in the corridor. I went to the
window the alley leading to the mess hall was empty as well, with
only two lunokhods
creeping slowly along it towards me from the far end; I recognized that
were Yura and Lena, the camp counselors. It was quiet, only soft
the ball on the ping-pong table was reaching me from down on the first
floor the thought of someone having permission to play ping-pong
during the siesta
hour filled me with melancholy. I unhooked the easel and pulled it
It exposed a portion of the wall behind, with a big switch in the
painted gold. Feeling more and more uneasy in the pit of my stomach, I
stretched my hand and clicked the switch up.
A soft whistle sounded and I,
while still not completely conscious about what it was, felt that I performed
something horrible over the world around me and over myself. The whistle came
on again, now louder, and all of a sudden it turned out that the switch, the
opened purple door and the entire corridor where I was standing none of it
was real, because in fact I was not standing before the wall with the switch on
it at all, but instead sitting in a very uncomfortable pose in some strange,
very tight place. The whistle sounded once more, and in a couple of seconds the
lunokhod congealed all around. Another whistle, and a thought flashed through
my mind that yesterday, before lowering my head onto the handlebars, I
continued the red line on the map exactly to the black dot signed "Zabriskie
The whistles were the telephone
"Had a nice nap, you
motherfucker?" rumbled the receiver with the voice of colonel Halmuradov.
"You are motherfucker
yourself," I said, suddenly getting mad.
Halmuradov burst into laughter,
vibrant and infectious I realized that he was not offended at all.
"I am here all alone again, in
the Control Center. All our guys went to Japan, to hash everything out for the
joint mission. Pcadzer Vladilenovich is sending his greetings, he was very
upset he wouldn't be able to say goodbye in person everything was decided in
the last moment. And they left me here, all because of you. So, today's the day
when you are deploying the radio beacon? Your troubles are over, looks like?
I did not answer.
"You couldn't be mad at me,
huh? Omon? Is it about me calling you an asshole back then? Come on! You were
having the entire Control Center doggy style, we almost had to scrub the
mission," said Halmuradov. "What's with you? You're like a broad... Are you a
man or what? This day in particular. You just remember."
"I remember," I said.
"Button everything down as
tight as you can," started Halmuradov with concern, "especially the coat over
the neck. Now, about the face..."
"I know everything better than
you do," I interjected.
"... goggles first, then wrap
the scarf over, the hat goes on last. Tie it under the chin. Gloves. The
sleeves and boots cinch around with the string. Vacuum is no joke. If
everything is right, you'll have about three minutes. Understood?"
"Not 'yeah', fuck you, 'aye,
sir!'. Report when ready."
They say that in the last
minutes of his life a man sees it in its entirety, as if in rapid rewind. I
wouldn't know. Nothing like that happened to me, no matter how I tried. Instead
I vividly, down to the minute detail, imagined Landratov in Japan how he is
walking down a sunlit morning street, in expensive freshly bought sneakers,
smiling and probably not even thinking what it was he put them on in the
morning. I also imagined all others the mission chief, now transformed into a
graying intellectual in a suit and tie, and comrade Kondratiev, giving a
thoughtful interview to the "Vremya" correspondent.
But not a single thought about myself was coming to me. To calm myself down I
turned "Mayak" on and listened to a quiet song. I remembered how long ago in my
childhood I was crawling on linoleum in the gas mask, singing along silently
with the distant loudspeaker, and started singing in a soft voice.
Suddenly the radio switched off
and the phone rang.
"Well," asked Halmuradov, "ready?"
"Not yet," I answered. "What's the rush?"
"You really are an asshole,"
said Halmuradov, "now I get why in your personal record it said that you
didn't have any childhood friends, except that fuck that we shot. Do you ever
think about others, and not yourself? I am going to miss tennis again."
For some reason the thought
that Halmuradov, his fat pasty thighs squeezed into white shorts, will be
standing soon on the tennis court, bumping the ball on the asphalt, and I will
not be anywhere anymore, seemed incredibly insulting to me not because I was
jealous towards him, but because I recalled with blinding clarity a sunny
September day at the stadium, from the high school times. But then I remembered
that once there is no me, there won't be any Halmuradov or any stadium either,
and this thought chased away the melancholy that I dragged with me from the
"Others? What others?" I
asked quietly. "Never mind, though. You go, I'll handle it myself."
"You drop that."
"No, you can go, really."
"Drop it," said Halmuradov
earnestly. "I have to fill out the forms, close the books, register the signal
from the Moon, put the time and date. You just do your thing fast, OK?"
"What about Landratov, is he
in Japan too?"
"Why do you ask?" muttered
Halmuradov with suspicion in his voice.
"No reason. Just remembered
"What did you remember? Huh?"
"Nothing really," I answered. "Remembered how he was dancing the 'Kalinka' at the final exam."
"Understood. Hey, Landratov,
are you in Japan or not? There's an inquiry about you here."
I heard laughter and slippery
whine of fingers clutching the receiver.
"He's here," Halmuradov said
finally. "Sends his greetings."
"Same to him. All right, looks
like it's time to go."
"Push out the hatch,"
Halmuradov began talking in fast monotone, repeating the instructions that I
knew by heart, "and grab on to the handles, so that the air does not throw
you. Than inhale from the oxygen mask through the scarf and get out. Fifteen
steps along the path of the lunokhod, take out the pennant with radio beacon,
put it down and switch it on. Carry it a little farther, will you, or the
lunokhod will shield the signal... Then... Well, we gave you the handgun, one
round is in the barrel, and our cosmonaut detachment never had any cowards..."
I put the receiver back. The
phone began ringing again, but I paid no attention to it. For a moment I was
overcome with desire not to switch the beacon on, so that this bastard
Halmuradov would sit in the Center until the end of the day and then receive
some kind of official Party reprimand, but then I remembered Syoma and his
words that I must complete the mission and do everything I needed to do. I
couldn't betray the guys from the first and second stage, and silent Dima with
them, they died so that I could now be right here, and in the face of their
short but exalted lives my anger at Halmuradov seemed petty and shameful in
comparison. When I realized that now, in a few moments, I am going to pull
together and do everything I was supposed to do, the telephone quit ringing.
I began preparing myself, and
in half an hour I was ready. I packed my ears and nose extremely tight
with special hydro-compensatory
tampons (that is, oiled cotton balls) and performed a check-up of my
clothing everything appeared to be tightly buttoned, tucked and
cinched; the rubber band
of the motorcycle goggles was pulling too strongly, so that they were
painfully into my face, but I decided not to bother I did not have
to suffer from it. Taking the holster from the shelf I extracted the
cocked it and shoved it into the pocket of my coat. After slinging the
with the pennant radio beacon over my shoulder I would put my hand on
receiver but then remembered that I have already plugged the ears, and
wasn't much in the mood to spend the last moments of my life in
with Halmuradov. I recalled our last talk with Dima and decided that it
right to deceive him about "Zabriskie Point" the way I did. It must
to leave this world if you are leaving some kind of a mystery behind.
I exhaled like I was going to
dive into water and began taking care of business.
The long hours of training made
my body remember what it needed to do so precisely that I haven't stopped for a
second, even though I had to work in almost total darkness, because battery was
depleted to the point that the lamp wasn't giving out any light at all only
the dark red worm of its spiral could be seen. First I had to undo the five
screws around the perimeter of the hatch. When the last of them clanked on the
floor, I felt my way on the wall for the bump of the glass window of the
emergency hatch release port and whacked it hard with the last remaining can of
the "Great Wall". The glass shattered. I put my hand inside, inserted my finger
into the ring of the actuator and jerked it towards me. The actuator was in fact
the "F-1" hand grenade fuse, so it had a delay of about three seconds, which
gave me just enough time to grab the handlebars and place my head as low down
as I could. Then I heard a blast above my head and lunokhod shook so violently
that I was almost thrown out of the saddle, but I managed to hold on. The next
second I raised my head. The bottomless blackness of open space was above me.
Between it and myself was only the thin plastic of the motorcycle goggles. It
was pitch dark all around. I bent over, took a deep breath from the oxygen
mask, then scrambled awkwardly over the rim of the hatch, raised myself up on
my feet and started forward every step coming at a cost of enormous effort
because of splitting pain in my back, which I was flexing for the first time in
a month. I really didn't want to go the full fifteen steps, so I went down on
one knee, unfastened the tie on the backpack with the radio beacon and began
pulling it out, but it caught on the fabric with its switch and wouldn't budge.
It was becoming harder and harder to keep the air in my lungs, and for a short
moment I panicked I thought that I would die right then without fulfilling
that for which I was here. But then the backpack slipped off, I placed the
beacon onto the invisible surface of the Moon and turned the switch. The ether
was now being filled with the encoded words "LENIN", "USSR" and "PEACE",
repeated automatically every three seconds, and on the body of the beacon a
tiny red lamp was shining, illuminating the picture of the globe floating
through wheat stooks for the first time in my life I noticed that the coat of
arms of my Motherland represents the view from the Moon.
The air was burning to rush out
of my lungs, and I knew that in a couple of seconds I will exhale it and
swallow a mouthful of fiery emptiness. I chucked the nickel-plated ball as far
as I could. It was time to die. I took the gun out, placed it against the
temple and tried to remember what was most important in my short existence, but
nothing would come to my head except the story of Marat Popadya that his father
told us. It seemed absurd and even insulting that I would die with this
thought, which did not have absolutely any bearing on my own life, and I was
trying hard to think about something else but couldn't, my mind drawing the
picture of the winter woods, a clearing, the rangers hiding in the bushes, two
bears approaching the hunters growling and pulling the trigger, I realized
suddenly with indisputable clarity that Kissinger knew. The gun misfired, but it
was obviously all over even without it, I saw bright lifesavers floating before
my eyes, tried to catch one of them, missed it and crashed onto the icy black
A sharp stone was lodged
against my cheek it was not painful because of the scarf, but uncomfortable
nonetheless. I propped myself on the elbows and looked around. There wasn't
anything to be seen. My nose was itching like crazy, I sneezed and one of the
cotton tampons flew out. I jerked the scarf off of my neck, then the goggles
and hat, then pulled the remaining tampons out of the nose and ears. I couldn't
hear anything, but the smell was distinctly moldy. It was wet and rather cold,
despite my having the coat on.
I stood up, tried to feel
around with my hands and began moving forward. Right away I tripped over
something but managed to regain my balance. In a few steps my hands met a wall;
I could feel thick cables hanging low along it, covered in sticky fluff. I turned
back and started in the other direction, this time I was walking much more
carefully, raising my knees high, but tripped again anyway. Then another wall
with cables was under my hands. This is when I noticed the tiny red lamp about
five yards away, illuminating the metal pentagon, and recalled everything.
But I wasn't able to
rationalize it or even have a single thought on the matter far away to my
right something flashed, I turned my head, shielding the eyes instinctively
with my hand and was able to distinguish between the fingers a long tunnel,
bright light shining at the end of it, revealing the walls covered with cables.
Turning away, I saw the
lunokhod standing on the rails, my long black shadow falling over it (unknown
artisan splattered it all over with stars and the words "CCCP"), and moved
backwards in its direction, covering my eyes from the blinding light which floated
to me over the rails, reminding me somehow of the setting sun. Something banged
on the lunokhod's side and at the same moment I heard a loud crack; I realized
I was being shot at and dashed behind the lunokhod. Another bullet chimed
against its side, for several seconds it was resonating like a giant funeral
bell. I heard the soft clickety-clack of wheels on the rails, then another
shot, and then the sound of wheels died down.
"Hey you, Krivomazov!" an
inhumanly loud voice thundered. "Get out with your hands in the air, you son
of a bitch! They gave you a medal!"
I peeked carefully from behind
the lunokhod: about fifty yards from me a small handcar was standing on the
rails, its headlamp shining brightly, and in front of the light a man with a
bullhorn in his left hand and a handgun in his right was swaying on widely
positioned legs. He raised the weapon, a shot rang out and the bullet, having
deflected several times, whizzed by under the ceiling. I hid my head again.
"Get out, you bastard! One!"
The voice sounded familiar, but
I couldn't quite place it.
He shot one more time, hitting
the side of the lunokhod again.
I peeked out carefully and saw
him place the bullhorn onto his handcar, stretch his arms to the sides and
trudge in a slow gait between the rails towards the lunokhod. When he came a
little closer, I heard that he was making buzzing sounds with his mouth,
imitating the airplane engines, and recognized him immediately it was
Landratov. I started backing away but quickly realized that once he flies past
the lunokhod I will be completely defenseless. After a moment's hesitation, I
crouched and lunged under the low serrated bottom.
Now the only thing I could see
was the pair of feet jumping from tie to tie, very agile but turned somehow
outwards. It looked like he did not notice. Approaching the lunokhod he started
buzzing in a different, more strained tone; I understood that he was banking
sharply, trying to fly around the lunokhod. His boots flashed between the heavy
cast wheels and then, unexpectedly for even myself, I grabbed his legs. When my
finger encircled his shins I almost let go because of the sickening sensation
of emptiness in his boots. He screamed and fell down, I didn't release my hands
and the prosthetics under the supple leather turned unnaturally sideways. I
gave them one more twist and started climbing out from under the lunokhod; when
I extricated myself he was already crawling towards the gun which he dropped
when he fell and which was now lying between the rails. I did not have more
than a couple of seconds, so I grabbed the massive pentagon of the beacon and
lowered it forcefully on the back of Landratov's straw-haired head.
I heard a crunching sound, and
the red lamp went out.
Landratov's handcar was much
lighter than my lunokhod and was moving much faster. The headlamp attached to a
large car battery was illuminating a round gallery, cables strewn along its
walls all covered with the same kind of sticky threads that grow, for example,
on the twine that you use to hang something from the ceiling in a kitchen or a
dining room. The gallery was apparently an abandoned subway tunnel, several
times other tunnels branched off, just as black and lifeless as the one I was
traveling in. Rats sometimes crossed the ties some of them were the size of a
small dog, but thankfully they took no interest in me. Then another side tunnel
appeared on the right, similar to the previous ones, but when I approached it
the handcar swerved to the right so forcefully that I was thrown onto the
rails, hurting my shoulder.
Turned out that the switch I
was passing was in half-locked state the front wheels went forward while the
rear turned right, and as a result the handcar was lodged dead. I figured that
I would have to make the rest of the way on foot in complete darkness, and
plodded forward, regretting all the while that I didn't take Landratov's
Makarov with me though it certainly would be useless against the rats anyway if
they decided to jump me.
I didn't make it as far as a
hundred feet when I heard dogs barking and people shouting ahead. I turned and
began running back. Lights went on behind me, looking over my shoulder I could
see the gray bodies of two German shepherds jumping over the ties in front of
people pursuing me; the only visible part of the pursuers were the swaying dots
of the flashlights. Nobody was shooting I guess they were afraid to hit the
"There he is! Belka! Strelka!
Sic him!" someone screamed.
I turned into the side tunnel
and scurried ahead with as much speed as I could muster, jumping high to avoid
breaking the legs. I stepped on a rat once and almost slipped, and then I saw
bright, unblinking, unearthly stars they were shining to the right of me, I
dashed there, bumped into the wall and started climbing, grabbing onto cables
and sensing with my back the German shepherds speeding towards me. Once I
tumbled over the edge, I fell down and didn't break my neck only because I
slammed into something soft, like a recliner still wrapped in plastic. I
tumbled over it, squeezed myself into an opening between the rows of cartons
and crates and started crawling. Several times my hands bumped against plastic
covers on backs of chairs and arms of sofas. Then it started getting lighter. I
heard someone talking softly right nearby and froze. In front of me was the
back of a bookcase a plywood sheet with a big word "Nevka" stamped on it. The
barking and shouting was still going on somewhere behind me, and then I heard
someone's voice, amplified through a bullhorn:
"Stop that! I will have silence! We're
live in two minutes!"
The dogs continued barking, and
someone started explaining in an impertinent tenor what the problem was, but
the bullhorn roared again:
"I said, get the fuck off the
set! I'll have you court-marshaled, and those dogs with you!"
The barking faded in the
distance I guess they dragged the dogs away. A couple of minutes later I
gathered enough courage to peek from behind the bookcase I was lying next to.
At first I imagined I was
inside some kind of an ancient Roman planetarium. On the very high domed
ceiling the distant stars were glistening with tin and glass, switched to about
one third of full capacity. A hundred feet from where I was I saw an old tower
crane; hoisted on its boom about ten feet above the floor the enormous bottle
of the "Salyut" space station was floating in the air, with the cargo ship
attached to it, speared by the boom like a plastic model of an airplane by its
support. Apparently the setup in this configuration was a little too heavy for
the crane, because the rear end of the cargo ship was buttressed by a couple of
logs; one could kind of distinguish them in the darkness, but once two powerful
floodlights switched on right next to me they became practically invisible,
because just like the wall behind them they were painted black, with specks of
foil stuck to them shining bright under the lights.
The floodlights were equipped
with special filters, so that their light was strange, kind of ashen white.
Besides the space station, which right away starting looking very realistic,
they were illuminating a large TV camera with letters "Samsung" across it (next
to the camera two guards with machine guns were having a cigarette break) and a
long table stuffed with microphones, plates of food and ghostly translucent
vodka bottles, resembling icicles pounded into the table; behind the table two
generals were sitting, both looking somewhat like a popular author and
Nearby I saw a smaller table
with one microphone, a man in civilian clothes sitting at it. Behind him was
the plywood board with "Vremya" written on it and the picture of the globe
above which a five-ended star was soaring, its side ends elongated. Bending
over the table another person in civilian clothes was discussing something with
the man at the microphone.
Who said that I did not catch.
The second civilian ran to the camera quickly and turned it in the direction of
the small table. A bell rang, and the man with the microphone started talking
clearly and deliberately:
"We are now at the leading
edge of the Soviet space science, in one of the field offices of the Central
Flight Control. For almost seven years cosmonauts Armen Vezirov and Djambul
been conducting their orbital watch. This flight, the longest in history, made
our country the beacon of the international space exploration. It is symbolic
that our cameraman Nikolai Gordienko and I find ourselves here at the exact day
when cosmonauts are about to perform a significant scientific task in thirty
seconds they will conduct a spacewalk in order to deploy the 'Kvant' astrophysical
The stage was flooded with soft
and indistinct light I raised my head and saw that the bulbs on the ceiling
were now switched to full strength. A magnificent panorama of the starry sky
unfolded before my eyes, the sky for which humans were yearning for so many
centuries, inventing all those beautiful but utterly naive legends about shiny
nails in the celestial sphere.
I heard muffled bumps from
where the "Salyut" was hanging like they bump into the stuck door of a
cellar, anxious that it would smash the sour cream jugs standing right behind
it if opened too hard. After a while I noticed the edge of the hatch raise
slightly above the surface of the space station, and immediately from the table
with the man and the microphone I heard:
"Attention! We are live!"
The hatch opened slowly, and
from inside the space station appeared a round silver helmet with the short
antenna on top. Everyone at the table burst in applause, the helmet was
followed by shoulders and silver hands first thing they did was attach the emergency
line to a special loop on the body of the space station, the movements were
fluid and slow, no doubt perfected during the long hours spent training in the
pool. Finally the first cosmonaut emerged into the open space and stopped a
couple of paces from the hatch I thought that it must require significant
bravery to stand ten feet above ground. Then I had a feeling that one of the
generals at the table was looking in my direction and I pulled my head back
behind the bookcase. When I decided to stick it out again, both cosmonauts were
already standing on top of the space station, shining white against the
backdrop of the inky space void strewn with tiny specks of stars. One of them
was holding a small box. It was, I guessed, the astrophysical module "Kvant".
The cosmonauts slowly and kind of under-watery proceeded across the body of the
spaceship, stopped beside a long mast that was sticking out and screwed the
module to it rather quickly. Then they turned towards the camera, waved their
hands fluidly and with the same diver steps returned to the hatch, in which
they disappeared one after the other.
The hatch closed, but I was
still looking at the stars blinking in the unimaginable distance where the
Cygnus was stretching its long slender arms, unsure about who to open its
embrace to: whether it should be the vast Pegasus, occupying a good half of the
sky, or the small but so touchingly bright and clear Lyre.
The man in civilian clothes was
all the while prattling excitedly and briskly into his microphone:
"For the duration of the
spacewalk complete silence enveloped the Control Center. I have to admit that I
was holding my breath as well, but everything went through smoothly. One cannot
but marvel at the precision and efficiency of the cosmonauts' movements it is
obvious that the years of training and their orbital watch were not in vain.
The scientific equipment installed today..."
I crawled back behind the
bookcase. A very strange state took hold of me I was suddenly overcome with
apathy and indifference towards everything that was happening. If they were to
try and grab me right there, I doubt I would have put much of a fight or tried
to flee all I wanted to do was get some rest. Placing my head on top of my
crossed hands, as was my lunar habit, I fell fast asleep. The voice kept
"The television transmission
of the work in open space was made by a special camera installed by the payload
specialist on one of the solar panels of the base block."
I slept for a long time five
hours at least. Several times someone started to shift the furniture around swearing
all the while, then a whiny female voice demanded that the sofa be replaced,
but I did not even move, hoping that all this was just a dream. When I came to
it was quiet. I raised my head carefully and peeked out. The table with the
microphone was empty now, the camera draped over with canvas. Only one
spotlight was illuminating the spaceships. There were no people anywhere. I got
out from behind the bookcase and looked around: everything was just like during
the program, only now I noticed on the floor under the spaceship a rather big
pile of waste, disgustingly flashing the cans and white labels of the "Great
Wall"; right before my eyes something splashed into it softly. I went up to the
table where the remaining vodka and plates of food were still standing; I badly
needed a drink. As soon as I sat down my spine curved automatically, assuming
the bicycle pose, but I was able to straighten up with some effort, combined
the vodka leftovers from several bottles it made two full glasses and
tipped them into my mouth one by one. For several seconds I pondered if I
should chase it down with one of the pickled mushrooms on the plate, but when I
saw the fork covered in hardened briny slime, the revulsion won over.
I remembered my crewmates and
imagined another room similar to this one, with five steel coffins probably
standing on its floor four already welded shut and one still empty. I guess
in some sense the guys were much happier wherever they were now, but I was
feeling sad all the same. Ten I though about Mityok. Soon my head began to spin
and I reacquired the ability to think about the happenings of this day. But
instead of doing the thinking I started recalling my last day on Earth, the
stones of the Red Square darkening from the driving rain, comrade Urchagin's
wheelchair and the chance touch of his warm lips whispering in my ear:
"Omon. I know how difficult it
was for you to lose a friend and learn instead that from your very childhood
you were approaching the moment of your immortality side by side with a
skillful and cunning enemy I don't even want to say his name aloud. But
still, try to remember that one conversation where he, you and I were all
present. He said then: 'What's the difference which thoughts a person has when
he dies? Aren't we all materialists?' You remember I said then that after he
dies, a man lives through the fruit of his labor. What I didn't say was another
thing, of paramount importance. Know this, Omon: even though nobody really has
a soul, of course, still every soul is an entire universe. This is the
dialectics of being. And while there is at least one soul where our way is
alive and victorious, this way will not perish. For there shall exist an entire
universe, and the center of this universe shall be this..."
He waved his hand describing a
circle over the stones that were already glistening menacingly.
"And now for the principal
thing that you must learn, Omon. You will not understand my words now, but I am
speaking them for the moment that will be later, when I am no longer beside
you. Listen. Even one pure and honest soul is enough for our country to become
the leader in space exploration. One such soul is enough for the red banner of
victorious socialism to unfurl high above the Moon. But at least one soul, for
at least one moment is indispensable, because it is in this soul that the
banner will be soaring..."
I suddenly felt a strong stench
of male sweat, turned around and tumbled onto the floor, knocked down by a hard
blow from a fist in a thick rubber glove.
Towering above me was a
cosmonaut in a worn-out woolen spacesuit and helmet with red letters "CCCP". He
grabbed an empty bottle, broke it against the edge of the table and bent over
me with the glass shard in his hand, but I managed to roll over, leaped to my
feet and ran. He lunged after me his movements were sluggish but at the same
time extremely fast, and it was very scary. I caught the second cosmonaut from
the corner of my eye he was hurriedly climbing down the black log propping up
the body of "Agdam T-3", sloughing off the foil stars as he went. I ran to the
doors, slammed into them with my entire body, but they were locked. I rushed
back, avoided the first cosmonaut but bumped into the second; he struck me hard
with the heavy magnetized boot, aiming for the groin, but hitting me in the
shin, and then tried to spear me with the pointy antenna on his head. I shrank
away again. Suddenly I realized that I have just drunk the vodka for which they
must have been waiting for probably several years, and that's when I got really
scared. I looked around, noticed on one of the walls a small iron door with a
red lightning in a triangle and words "CAUTION! DANGER!" and ran towards it.
Right behind the door was a
narrow corridor with resonant metal floor. I made what seemed to be only a
couple steps along it and heard behind the heavily vibrant clang of the metal
soles. This sound tripled my strength and speed, I turned a corner and saw
another short corridor ending in a round ventilation shaft with the raggedly
torn wire mesh screen, a stationary blade of a rusty ventilator behind it. I
would lunge back, but suddenly found myself so close to the pursuer that I
didn't even perceive him in his entirety, taking in instead a set of unrelated
sensations the sphere with the dark plastic visor and the red letters "CCCP",
black rubber fist with the small translucent trident, the overpowering smell of
sweat and the patches of a major on the woolen shoulders painted silver. Next
moment I was already slithering in the ventilation shaft. I squeezed past the
giant blades, resembling a ship's screw, rather quickly, but when I started
climbing the narrow well, leading somewhere far above, my coat bunched into a
knot, I got stuck and folded over like a fetus in the womb. Then I heard
rustling sound underneath, something touched my foot, I shot upwards screaming,
covered the remaining yards in mere seconds and started squeezing through a
horizontal opening. It ended in a round porthole, beyond which I could
distinguish the globe of the Earth covered in opaque haze of the clouds. I
sobbed and began crawling to it.
Through the thin film of tears
the Earth seemed blurry and indistinct, floating as it were in the yellowish
void, I was observing it across this void as I was drawing near, clambering
towards it, until the walls constricting me from the sides gave way and the
brown tiles of the floor rushed up to meet me.
I opened my eyes. A woman in
dirty blue uniform was standing over me, a bucket at her feet; she was holding
"Are you sick or something?
What do you want here?"
I transferred my gaze there
was a brown door in the wall, marked "next inspection 7/14". Beside it a
calendar was hanging with the large photo of Earth and words "For the Peaceful
Cosmos". I was lying in a short corridor with painted walls, three or four
doors were around me. I looked up and saw the black hole of the ventilation
shaft in the wall across from the calendar.
"What?" I asked.
"I said, are you drunk or
Steadying myself against the
wall, I scrambled to my feet and shuffled away.
"Where do you think you're
going," said the woman and spun me around. I walked in the opposite direction.
Around the corner began a short and steep staircase, terminating at a wooden
door beyond which an unclear noise could be heard.
"Go," the woman nudged me in
I climbed the stairs and looked
around she was still looking at me apprehensively then pushed the door and
found myself in a dark recess where several people in civilian clothes were
standing. They didn't pay any attention to my emergence. A growing rumble
sounded from a distance, I looked sideways and read the words "V. I. Lenin
Library" in bronze letters on the wall.
This must be Earth, I thought
I walked out of the nook beside
the staircase and began shuffling slowly across the platform towards the large
mirror at its end. The menacing orange time signs above it were reporting that
it was not evening yet, even though it was rather late in the day, and that the
previous train left the station about four minutes ago. In the mirror I was
greeted by a young man, his face unshaven, apparently for a long time, his eyes
bloodshot and his hair very disheveled. He was wearing a dirty black
cotton-filled coat and generally had an appearance of someone who spent the
last night hell knows where.
Come to think of it, that was
exactly the case. The patrolling policeman with small dark moustache started
shooting me suspicious glances, so when the train came I stepped into the open door
without hesitation. The door closed, and I was now riding into my new life. The
mission is continuing, I thought. Half of the bulbs in the lunokhod were burned
out, and that made the light seem stale. I sat on the bench, the woman beside
me reflexively pressed her legs together, shifted away and occupied the opened
space between us with her produce sack it contained several packs of rice, a
box of star-shaped noodles and a frozen whole chicken in a plastic bag.
Still, I had to decide now
where I wanted to go. I raised my eyes to the subway map hanging on the
opposite wall beside the emergency brake and began to look where exactly on the
I was located.
By 1984, Soviet Union was well underway to
"1984" (at least it was obvious to people who cared to think about things like
that). With the Orwellian framework already understood and accepted as given,
this book takes the next logical step (while paying homage to the original in
subtle ways compare "Room 329" and "Room 101") and continues to beat the idea
silly: in a society where there are thoughtcriminals, it is natural, even
imperative, to expect thoughtheroes. This line of reasoning appeared so
convincing to me that I did not suspect anything wrong with the first-person
perspective belonging to someone clearly marching to his death until the
narrator's mission was at an apparent end, but there were still some pages left
in the book. Thus, realizing the nature of the final meta-jump that the only
reason for and sole consequence of that heroism was supposed to take hold for a
brief moment inside the unwitting hero's head, with the remaining universe
enriched by this very fact and nothing else, regardless of absence of any
physical manifestation of his deed left me with a feeling of utter delight.
To try and share that feeling was the main impetus for starting this project.
Psychometrists usually divide intelligence
tests into two categories, one of them being "culture-fair" (that is, without
obvious references to objects, events and ultimately a language which would
clearly belong to a specific culture) and the other, naturally, opposite.
Chemistry exam is culture-fair, because chemistry is the same everywhere; "Who
Wants To Be A Millionaire" is culture-unfair, because a non-American would find
himself at a distinct disadvantage when facing a question about the 1968 World
Series. In this sense, Pelevin's prose is unfair to the extreme. It is not only
uniquely Russian, utilizing the abundant capacity of the language, of both
civilized and obscene variety (unlike the wastepaper dominating the modern
Russian literary landscape); no, it's also inextricably Soviet, in fact
post-Soviet, processed-and-condensed-Soviet. Pelevin explicitly counts on the
reader's knowing chuckle as popular culture icons and images, pounded since
early childhood into anyone who experienced the ultimate brain-laundering
(washing is too mild a word) of the Communist education-indoctrination system,
are turned inside out.
I am trying to accomplish here is to get
myself off the hook as a translator. To my taste, there are entirely
notes accompanying the text. At the same time as I am offering my
apologies for their proliferation, my defense is that it was necessary
eliminate the home-field advantage the fabled "Soviet people", and
Muscovites, have over Pelevin's books. I was sorely tempted to provide
more for example, note that the kamikaze pilot's memoirs are probably
Pilot's Own Story Of The Suicide Squadrons" by Kuwahara Yasuo, or
explain how Ahnenerbe is related to the skulls on
the shelf or what an immelman turn is, but I think I resisted the urge
admirably, only limiting myself to the readily recognizable realities
is permitted to use the word in the context of this book) of Soviet
On the other hand, the original text in
several places contained references to more specific Russian pop-culture
artifacts, mostly in form of lines from popular songs. Where these lines did
not disrupt the fabric of narration or contribute to it in a significant
manner, I allowed myself to omit them entirely. This decision is the obverse
side of the desire stated in the previous paragraph, as I do not see the point
of providing a rhymed snippet that would be a starting point of an association
for a Russian only to chase it perforce with the elaborate comment in an
attempt to explain what exactly the association is and what it's related to.
Factoids are one thing; saddling the reader with my own memories and mental
connections is quite another. This is not my book; I am just a translator.
Another popular Soviet patriotic song (about
pilots, no less) goes something like "We were born to turn a fairytale into
reality", which was readily stood on its head by irreverent dissidents by
substituting "Kafka" for the "fairytale" (the Russian words sound very
similar). I don't have any doubt that this line, good enough by itself to
describe the entire plot of this book, crossed Pelevin's mind when he was writing
"Omon Ra". Kafka holds the patent on the calm interweaving of absurd reasoning
and events into what seems to be otherwise sane environment until it is blown
sky-high by that same reasoning -which also happens to be a distinguishing
feature of almost every sentence Pelevin ever wrote. In fact, his "Life of
Insects" is openly borrowing and expanding the "stranger-turned-into-bug" motif characters of that book are people and insects (mosquitoes, ants,
dragonflies, dung beetles and so on) at the same time, or at least travel
between their avatars seamlessly.
Explaining in detail what the "Maresyev
Academy" means, then dropping Matrosov's name in the same context and waiting a
couple of pages until exploring what that entails, while interspersing the
veiled reference to Korchagin in-between is calculated to make the reader pat
himself on the shoulder for "getting it" a pleasant experience, to be sure,
no doubt accounting in large part for popularity of Pelevin's books among the
remains of the Soviet self-described "intelligentsia". Pelevin's books allow us
all to perceive ourselves as part of the "cultural elite" (to be fair, there
are also usually deeper layers than this simple example). Even while
self-consciously catching myself at being thus baited, I still can't help but
enjoy the resulting buzz, probably similar to one the consumer of detective
stories experiences when he figures out "who done it" just before the
oh-so-smart police inspector does. I must admit that this device Pelevin, once
convinced of its effectiveness, is prone to overusing. "Omon Ra" may be
considered as the first part of a trilogy (so far), with the remaining books
being "Buddha's Little Finger" and "Generation P" (and to a lesser extent
"Golden Arrow" as kind of an accompanying apocrypha) but to a large degree
these are actually the same book, only becoming bigger and more elaborate (and
switching time periods from late Soviet to early Soviet to post-Soviet to
openly inconsequential). Not surprisingly, however, one-joke (all right,
one-and-a-half-joke) setups work better in small formats, and that's why I pay
more respect to his rasskazy, short stories ("Omon Ra" is a povest,
traditional Russian genre that is a "small novel", or a "long short story", if
you will) the best of which are utterly untranslatable exactly because of
their concentrated nature.
Consistent, if not increasing with time,
virtuosity in handling of the language, coupled with playful pop-Zen detachment
(or determined alienation) from the "coarse reality" are hallmarks of almost
all Pelevin's oeuvres, and can be regarded as heralding a new style, or at
least direction, in Russian literature. There is a famous Russian quote stating
that "Pushkin is our everything". Continuing the analogy, Pelevin is our
Buddhism, existentialism and "new age", all rolled into one. This does not mean
that his books are as good or as destined for eternity as "Library of Babylon",
"The Trial" or "The Plague" but this is not their point. To learn quantum
mechanics, one rarely goes and dusts up the 1910s volumes of "Physical Review"
with original Einstein's articles (even though that actually might do a lot of
good). There are instead modern textbooks that digest, rearrange, enhance and
generally make them more fit (from the textbook author's point of view) for
human consumption. In the same vein, Pelevin "improves" on Borges, Castaneda,
Cortazar and Camus (not to mention Kafka) for the post-Communist Russia. Even
as I recognize the innate limitations of the approach, I cannot but acknowledge
the masterful treatment it receives. My hope is that my work will allow you to
do the same.