By Asel Omar
Translated from Russia by Shelley Fairweather-Vega
TRANSLATOR’S NOTE: Asel Omar’s “Black Snow of December” presents a version of events from Kazakhstan’s recent history that, alas, are still little discussed today. In December 1986, as the Soviet Union struggled with glasnost and perestroika, the ruling national Communist Party removed Dinmukhamed Kunayev, an ethnic Kazakh, from his post as First Secretary of the Communist Party of Kazakhstan and replaced him with a non-local, Gennady Kolbin. In Alma-Ata (now Almaty), people, at first mostly students, gathered in the streets to protest. The protests spread to other cities and remained peaceful until troops were brought in from Russia to put them down by a bloody show of force and mass arrests three days later. To this day, no reliable count of deaths and arrests is available, the topic is still politically delicate, and no real national reckoning has occurred to come to terms with the underlying ethnic tension behind the unrest.
An unprecedented collection of women’s voices from the heart of Central Asia.
From the foreword by Gabriel Mcguire: “I cannot think of anything quite like … Amanat.“
A man is arrested for a single typo, a woman gets on buses at random, and two friends reunite in a changed world…. Diverse in form, scope and style, Amanat brings together the voices of thirteen female Kazakhstani writers, to offer a glimpse into the many lives, stories, and histories of one of the largest countries to emerge from the breakup of the Soviet Union.
The twenty-four stories in Amanat, translated into English from Kazakh and Russian, comprise a groundbreaking survey of women’s writing in the Central Asian country over its thirty years of independence, paying homage to the rich but largely unrecorded oral storytelling tradition of the region. Contemplating nostalgia, politics, and intergenerational history in a time altered by modernity, Amanat acutely traces the uncertainties, struggles, joys, and losses of a corner of the post-Soviet world often unseen and overlooked.
Utterly absorbing, Amanat is an invitation to listen-the women of Kazakhstan have stories to tell.
“We stayed home. We were frightened. There were rumors that those men on the square were storming nursery schools, killing children.”
Mikhail Yuryevich, the newspaper’s executive secretary, stood half-turned away from the desk, tapping his fingers on it nervously, the way old men do. His fingers were short and plump, but tapered, and suffused with cigarette smoke. His index and middle finger were marked with iodine-colored stains from always holding a smoldering Sortie. The smell of Mikhail Yuryevich’s Sortie filled the whole small editorial office, and his thick black sweater and goatee gave off the scent of aged, pressed tobacco.
Over the years, Mikhail Yuryevich had taken on the physical manifestations of caution and endless patience: a stooping posture and a sad gaze. Shifting his weight from one knock-kneed leg to the other, he even seemed slightly delicate; in the absence of any trace of physical labor, his body had to work constantly to maintain coordination.
“How I understand all that, God knows!” is what his eyes seemed to say, mourning all the injustice of this life, but at the same time, those eyes expressed a mysterious sympathy at the sight of twenty-three-year-old Rustem, a representative of the youthful nation. Between the two of them, at their respective ages, they personified the earthly history of Shem, Ham and Japheth. Mikhail Yuryevich didn’t eat pork, he used the informal “you” with everyone except the
Editor-in-Chief, and he did his time in his chair from morning to late evening every day. Rustem felt comfortable with him, intimate, as if he were a wise old Asian relative. Nobody had ever given Mikhail Yuryevich any diplomas, and he spoke so vaguely about his college years that nobody could even be sure what country they took place in. His lazy “g” and a stubborn insistence on pronouncing chto instead of shto betrayed his parochial origins.
As he spoke, he nodded understandingly (understanding Rustem, specifically—not the all-powerful Moscow of 1986, not Kolbin or Kunayev or Gorbachev), but he also steered clear of putting himself in Rustem’s position, a position he assessed very carefully, as if balancing on a tightrope stretched between two towers, obliging Rustem to treat him with sympathy and understanding in turn. He spoke quietly, with no strain, cajolingly, counting on Rustem’s good will and on the common human values they shared. At this moment, the conversation’s direction depended on Rustem. Mikhail Yuryevich would follow his lead.
“But Mikhail Yuryevich, did you personally see a single vandalized nursery school or a single bloodied child?”
“No, of course not, not personally.”
Suddenly a very clear image appeared in Rustem’s memory: his mother’s room and he himself, a twelve-year-old boy everyone called Rustik, with Auntie Galya, Uncle Kostya, Sofia Yakovlevna, and Auntie Galya’s sons Dima and Vladik. Little Rustik and his mom were hunkered down at Auntie Galya’s house, scared and distraught, and Sofia Yakovlevna, prowling the room, was the only one talking. “Lord knows, Gulya, I’d go straight to Kolbin and tell him, ‘Get out of here! Get out—can’t you see what’s going on because of you?’” That was December 17. The next two days Rustik and his mom stayed home because, on the morning of the seventeenth, his grandparents called and told them not to even stick their heads outside the building. His grandpa had been furious. “What more do they want, those students? They’ve got food and a roof over their heads! Study, work, what’s the problem?” And they stayed home, while events unfolded in the city that they learned about through rumors and sometimes from the view out the window.
Rustik had always thought his mother and Auntie Galya had a strange kind of friendship. They had been close since grade school, and they lived in the same apartment building. Now, in their early thirties, they still got together, rarely but very happily, and their conversations went on long past the time they started saying their goodbyes. Usually what prompted those visits was a need to borrow money from Auntie Galya. She never refused, and his mother always repaid her quickly.
One time Auntie Galya asked Rustik to help Vladik learn solfeggio. Vladik obediently went through his lesson, listened carefully to Rustik’s explanations, and shyly moved his chubby fingers to shape the right chord. His round eyes, framed with blond lashes, gave Rustik a frightened look, and he asked, almost inaudibly, whether he was doing it right. Rustik felt terrible for him. He was afraid to accidentally hurt his feelings somehow and even tried to speak more quietly. Auntie Galya walked in, took one look at Vladik, and gave him a firm thump on the forehead. “You’re Jewish, so you will always have to be better than the rest, because you’ll always have it worse! Got that?” Dima, the older brother, helped Rustik with his computer class in his final year. When Rustik finished school, Auntie Galya’s family moved away to Israel. They wanted Rustik and his mother to go, too, but what would they do there? His mother wrote them a letter once, but there was never an answer or a call in return.
But in those December days, Galya’s family had wanted to stick close to Gulya and Rustik, seeing them as protection. Rustik and his mom might have been searching for protection, too, but they had no chance of finding it. Near evening on the seventeenth, they decided to leave the building. His mother gave in first. “There’s something happening to our people out there, and we’re just sitting here!”
They walked, holding hands, along the slippery, grimy, trampled snow. There was no traffic at all, as if every car had gone into hiding, and it seemed that civilian life had sequestered itself deep in the warm apartments, their doors shut tight. Meanwhile, a terrible and thundering force marched down the streets and boulevards, yielding to nobody, incubating tension and terror.
Then, at an intersection where, on ordinary days, the cars are bumper to bumper and there is an impenetrable wall of churning tires and wailing horns, they encountered a group of men, dressed in black with red armbands, marching in a straight column as if they owned the place. Their somber, orderly movements made these civilians look like a militia on the move. Yes, that’s apparently what they were, because each one of them carried a piece of metal pipe or a heavy wooden club studded with nails. They were Russian men, and they were marching uptown, toward the square. Rustik and his mom turned quickly into an alleyway.
They were between the yellow apartment buildings, sturdy and Stalinist, between the remains of the old courtyard gates, hanging off yellow plastered columns. During Stalin’s time, all of this probably got refurbished regularly, painted, every link in the fence polished with oil. In the middle of this stage set of old Almaty, which used to seem so sturdy, a boy was running, slowing around the corners to avoid slipping: seventeen years old, wearing a malakhai, carrying a dombyra—and with two men from that crowd, wielding pipes, in pursuit. Two more in police uniforms came running around a corner and headed straight for him. They were still some distance away, and Rustik’s mom shouted to the boy with the dombyra: “Where are you going? Hide! Why have you stirred up all this trouble?”
“No, apai! It’s better to die on your feet than live on your knees!”
“My God, he’s just a child!” His mother was aghast.
They rushed past, both pursuers and pursued. Only fear remained, an almost animalistic fear, suffocating and rabid. Not cowardice, but fear. “People need to be afraid of somebody,” his grandfather used to say. “Otherwise there will be anarchy.” He wasn’t happy with anything that had happened. Grandma, on the other hand, said nothing. He remembered that exhaustion had flashed in her eyes, the same exhaustion that Rustem saw several years later in the eyes of Mikhail Yuryevich, the only difference being that in Mikhail Yuryevich it was genetic and centuries old, whereas Grandma’s exhaustion came from her own life, from her work in the Communist Party Central Committee, from the war she had survived. His grandfather’s exhaustion was of a different kind. Grandpa was pre-revolutionary. The upheaval in thinking he had had to live through was passed down to his descendants. He outlived three alphabets for his native language: Arabic, Latin, and Cyrillic. He learned Russian, German, and several Turkic languages, the latter of which were not very difficult from his philological point of view. But the three alphabets were like three different mentalities, right to left then left to right, or like going from a madrasa to a Soviet school. The Bolsheviks had killed his parents in 1918, as beys of the feudalist class, and he was raised in a miner’s family. His adoptive mother, who had the pagan nickname Baqa, meaning “frog,” taught her granddaughter—Rustem’s mother—to say bismilla-rahman-rahim, and they spent most of their time together, so she didn’t know any
Russian until she was four. They lived in Almaty, and Rustem’s mother remembered how the Russian kids in their neighborhood didn’t want to let her into their games. “Kalbitka, kalbitka!” they screamed at her. His mother didn’t take offense because she didn’t understand. Grandma Baqa comforted her when she came home empty-handed. Later, they moved to cold, uncivilized Tselinograd, when Grandfather was transferred there for work. Grandma Baqa had died by then, and in that virgin land, populated by settlers, Rustem’s mom nearly forgot her Kazakh grandma. In Tselinograd she started going to a one-story wooden schoolhouse with an outdoor toilet. Her classroom included children of various nationalities and also different ages. The whole class repeated after the teacher’s Ukrainian lilt: Oi, za ghaem-ghaem, ghaem-zelenen-kim. When the mud was too deep, Rustem’s mother’s mother carried her to music school. After a few years, the family returned to Almaty.
In their apartment there, the old folks kept quite a few things from the heyday of Soviet-Chinese friendship. A tablecloth with silken fringe, embroidered in gold—peonies, clouds, birds of paradise. Thin-walled wooden vases on stands, painted landscapes, a strikingly beautiful porcelain horse on a wooden pedestal in a glass case, bamboo chopsticks engraved with Chinese men and Chinese women, Chinese books, some covered in velvet and gilded with Chinese characters, silk-screen postcards, and many other little knick-knacks.
After his grandfather’s funeral, Rustem remembered sitting with one of his grandfather’s old friends, Uncle Kazbek, in a waiting room of the ministry where Uncle Kazbek worked. Uncle Kazbek patted dry the sweat beading on his forehead, adjusted his glasses, and said, “Spies, my boy, never say much about themselves.”
That made Rustem remember how quiet his grandparents always were. The outward trappings of their life, yes—his work history, the fact that Grandfather changed his last name because his older brothers, twins, had been sent off forever to Siberian camps, and he still didn’t know where they were buried; one had been the chairman of the rural council—but Rustem knew nothing at all about the rest. He thought about that Chinese horse with the brown mane and blue saddle covered in tiny designs, about his own enormous country and its global cataclysms, in which one person’s fate was just a microscopic gulp of air, and suddenly, with an anxious, careful, tentative pride, he realized that the Soviets naturally couldn’t have used ethnic Russians as Stierlitzes in Asia. But no, of course not, none of that could have had anything to do with his grandfather! And yet . . . Uncle Kazbek looked at Rustem warmly, like family, and both of them felt somehow relieved by their mutual discovery after all these fateful years.
“But then why did he . . . ?” Rustem hesitated.
“He signed a lifetime non-disclosure agreement. And if that’s not what you meant, then . . .” Uncle Kazbek tried to put a calm expression on his face and succeeded. “Well, you know what happens if you refuse to carry out an assignment the party gives you.”
Then Rustem told Uncle Kazbek about the two photographs from his grandfather’s archives. One was dated 1939. In it, Grandfather was sitting at a desk, smiling, light-haired, in a wool suit. The second was from 1945, taken in the Far East, in Manchuria, during the war against Japan. In that one, Grandfather wore an officer’s uniform, and there was a note in unfamiliar handwriting: “Major Omargaliyev Tulegen.” The face almost didn’t look like his; it seemed foreign, like the strange writing on the back: dry, pinched, his gaze lackluster, his hair shorter and thinner on his head.
That was the source of the exhaustion entrenched in Grandfather’s wrinkles, in his shrapnel scar. Nothing but war, in Belarus, in Ukraine, in Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Manchuria, Southeast Asia . . . And in the end, how much could a person bear? How much would he agree to tolerate after the murder of his parents, after a revolution, after Stalin?
Rustem’s mother’s aunt, who was just a baby during Stalin’s time, used to tell Rustem about the silver saddles and swords and daggers their family used to own, most of which they had given away or “accidentally” lost to rid themselves of certain memories, from before 1917—in order to save themselves, in order not to be associated with those infamous beys, the feudal overlords. At some point, back when his grandfather was still alive, during a time when scandalous truths were being revealed daily in the press, it suddenly occurred to Rustem to wonder, with surprise, how on earth his grandfather had survived. Why hadn’t they taken him away? What made him better or worse than the rest? Grandfather had laughed. “It’s just that back then, I wasn’t a Communist yet. I joined the party in ’41 and went straight to the front lines.” One of the first books his grandfather got during perestroika was a poetry collection by
Shakarim with a glossy photo of the poet in prison. The same Shakarim who wrote the verses that one time had gotten Grandfather summoned to the NKVD and let go after a scolding—after all, he wasn’t a Communist yet.
Rustem’s grandmother’s life was the complete opposite of her husband’s, so dissimilar it was difficult to believe it. She had an authentic, genuine biography that was her pride and consolation in her older years. Her stories about her childhood were much more expansive than his grandfather’s, although was it fair to call something more expansive than silence? It seemed to Rustem that what surrounded his family was one big expansive silence, about everything. His grandmother made him tear things to bits, even his student notebooks after he filled them up and was ready to throw them away, even their covers, where he had entered his last name and his school’s number; young Rustik learned he needed to tear off the edge from an old newspaper where the mailman had written their apartment number before he used it to wrap up garbage. Letters got shredded, too, along with their envelopes, so that the address could not be read. This was the apotheosis, the logical conclusion, of his grandmother’s stories about following around the combine, during her Young Pioneer years, picking up stray grain in the field. That was how his grandmother seemed in those stories, and it seemed quite likely to have been the truth. “You can consider me to have come from a family of farmhands,” she used to tell Rustik, her lecture never varying; it always ended with a wish for him to take a good look at how they were all living now, to understand his own helplessness and insignificance before this terrible life, in which they were lucky enough to have everything handed to them. As if there could be any limit to the good you could get out of what you did or didn’t receive at birth, thought Rustik; there was no universal scale of happiness and good fortune, and even if there was a zero point—like picking up the grain the combine dropped . . . but probably that wasn’t the zero point. The end points were existence and nonexistence, life and death, and all the rest swarmed around and between them.
After the events of December, General Zaviryukh stopped saying hello to Grandmother when they ran into each other outside. The General used to live one floor down but was given a much more fashionable apartment for using water cannons to break up the demonstrators. “He’s probably ashamed,” Grandmother said. But when the war in Chechnya began, she told Rustik, “Our men have entered Chechnya.” How did all those parts fit together inside her—“our men” in Chechnya and her disrespect for Zaviryukh—in a party-member grandmother, brave and strong, never bending under any blows fate dealt her, not knowing how to cry, brooking no dissent, able to cure a person of any sickness, except probably AIDS (even that was an open question—it might be possible if fate forced her hand), and she could rescue you from any tangled-up political situation as well, when heads were just about to roll. How did all of that fit inside this hook-nosed old woman, proud and confident as a camel trotting across a borderless expanse, knowing she would get where she was going and would never lose her way?
They went home, and Rustik sat down to write in his school notebook about what he had seen during those December days. He also wrote the rumors circulating about trucks spraying icy water to disperse the students. It was the blockade diary of a boy in December’s Almaty, written to the sound of the classical music that usually gets played before another national leader is buried, to the now-inaudible shouts of the people on the square, to the sound of the old people calling to check on things, to the music of superstition and pagan prayers for this dear country, loved in such torment, in which the gods were gradually dropping dead.
Of course, that’s not precisely what he was thinking at the time. He and his mom were thinking about whether he should go to school the next day, given the riots. Conferring with the old folks resulted in a firm answer: Go, probably everything will be fine. And so he did.
The first lesson of the day was replaced by a conversation between two teachers at the blackboard—“So what’s their complaint? The gall of those young people!”—and so on and by the compiling of a list of students absent from school. “Where are they if not out on the square!” they said, and on that list was about a third of the student body. “Good thing I came,” thought Rustik.
The next day, when everyone was there, Stalina Georgiyevna got mad at Kulakhmetov, the class dunce, and tossed the grade book down on his desk. “Don’t look at me like that, you bey brats! So, you’re all dressed up and don’t feel like studying!” The class was stunned silent. Rustik didn’t blame the teacher, and everyone always tiptoed around her, like fire, anyway; that day she gave him a five, the best grade, but Rustik always learned his history lessons because he loved the subject. Still, he told his mother about the incident, and all his classmates told their parents, too, and the principal personally delivered some kind of warning to Stalina Georgiyevna, as his mother told him later.
The Soviet myth about the unforgettable, kind, beloved first teacher always remained just that, a myth, for Rustik, a static symbol on a lovely picture in his reading book: a woman surrounded by children, like some wise good fairy. Even as a little boy, Rustik knew that, in his reading book, everything was always perfect and not like it was in real life. You get used to that. There, in big fonts and stupid dialogues, a girl named Sima is always helping her mother wash a windowframe, Vasya is forever reading a book, and even that naughty, lazy Petya always admits his mistakes in the end and becomes a better person, more like, let’s say, Vasya. Later, somewhere beyond the reading book, Sima and Vasya graduate and get married, and they have well-behaved children who read books and wash windowframes, and Sima and Vasya will go to the theatre and afterwards sit and watch TV with their grandmother. This story of mythical, faceless people continued later in the English class textbooks. And it was annoying that kids who already knew how to read before they started school still had to repeat the phrases about the windowframe, and if you got distracted, then Vera Fyodorovna, the first reading teacher, would jog right over to you in a thundering of platform heels and throw a fit, tossing all your rulers and pens and books on the floor. But what happened to Rustik with the Little Octobrists star was the worst.
He didn’t like to eat in the school cafeteria. In punishment for that, one time Vera Fyodorovna whacked him in the head, and to protest, he turned around, back to the table, and stared, tense and gloomy, at the tiled cafeteria wall, green at the cracks, rightfully expecting even more unpleasantness to come. Vera Fyodorovna’s shouts and scoldings were as ordinary as bread and tea for breakfast. What annoyed him the most was her saying, “You’re wearing a star with the portrait of the young Lenin, and you behave so shamelessly!” The blood rushed to his head, and his helplessness in the face of his teacher’s injustice collided, strangely enough, with his own stubbornness and desire to stand up for himself, because all of this was so unbelievable, deceitful, unfair: what did Lenin have to do with it? Many other horrors and kindergarten fears of teachers flashed before his eyes, until he felt like he was falling and couldn’t stop—this had all gone too far, and why were they doing this to him over some stinky bowl of soup, like the one that starts the revolution in Eisenstein’s “Battleship Potemkin,” but fine, go ahead along your foolish path, maybe it’s foolish, maybe it’s useless, but at this point, there’s no other way, even if half of Vera Fyodorovna’s class still hadn’t learned to read and write three years later, even if the sky fell down with all its heavy weight, he was already bearing too much of a burden.
“I don’t have to wear it, Vera Fyodorova.”
“So you can just put it down on my desk for me?” She provoked him, and the star got unpinned as if by somebody else’s disobedient hands, and it was put on the sheet of plexiglass that covered the sketches of kittens and puppies on the desk.
That very evening they went to a concert—Maryla Rodowicz was singing about the colors of the fair, and her guitarist was on stage in a suit, with his head bandaged, dyed a bloody red (“That’s because we sent troops into Poland!” his mother explained, under the rumble of the speakers). Rustik’s head bobs in time with the music, he loves all of it, they’re sitting in the second row, they bought the expensive tickets, and in the next seat over is Vera Fyodorovna with a date. The same Vera Fyodorovna who called his mom into school that day and told her she would probably have a heart attack any second now and Rustik would never make it into the Young Pioneers. Whatever irony of fate brought them all to that concert, this was one of those everyday twists, without which perfect story plots probably could not exist. Someone could have thought up this plot, certainly, but it would be extremely difficult to imagine the real-life Vera Fyodorovna; she could only crop up in the most commonplace, everyday settings.
In the school principal’s office, Rustik’s grandma, shifting her dour gaze from Vera Fyodorovna to Rustik’s mom, who had made the criminal decision to cheer him up with the Maryla Rodowicz concert, smiled coldly at the principal. The woman responded with the same Soviet party-line smile: this was an error by the teacher; of course the boy will be accepted as a member of the Young Pioneers; there’s no question about it, come now.
Throughout his years at school, he remembered Vera Fyodorovna, thin and blond, in her black turtleneck and chamois suit. He remembered the touch of her dry hand and her downtrodden son who was in the other class, just as blond, who wore the shirt with the girly collar.
Rustik’s mom met him after school, and the occasional pedestrians seemed not to just be walking down the street, but rather hurrying, looking somehow harassed. Now his mom didn’t know whether to send him to his music lesson. Fortunately, Lyubov Borisovna, the teacher, called them herself and said the accompaniment lesson would take place not far away, in Oleg’s apartment. Oleg was Rustik’s friend and another pupil of Lyubov Borisovna’s. Rustik headed over to Oleg’s place, and they tried to practice, but the conversation kept turning to the bothersome topic of what was happening on the square. Oleg’s parents came in: Everyone is afraid of the Kazakhs, and Lyubov Borisovna’s husband has started wearing a malakhai so that he looks like a Kazakh, and what’s happening in the nursery schools, and what are we supposed to do now? Rustik tried to be objective, take everyone at face value, even himself, and he tried to bring some peace to that room full of grownups, all while an invisible line, a gap, a crack, was being laid down between them, one that nothing could patch.
“If that Kolbin would just leave, everything would be easier,” he said.
And, sitting sideways to the piano, from where the only one he couldn’t see was Oleg’s dad, who was behind him, he sensed that the gap was expanding, fast and relentless, and that nothing could ever reconcile them again in that room full of Oleg’s toys and books, which at that moment became foreign and uninteresting to Rustik; the warmth and pleasure of being in this home had disappeared, and Rustik no longer had any right to enjoy it.
That evening, when it got dark, somebody who was completely hammered held a loud conversation on the pay phone outside Rustik’s window. “Kolya! We won on the square today, we dispersed those students. We won, Kolya!” A lamp burned on his desk. He didn’t feel like writing in his journal. The demonstrators had been dispersed. It just made him think: this was actually his native land, and these daily events, whether in December, January, August, year-round—it wasn’t some huge Soviet Union, it wasn’t Kazakhstan, it was this city, suffocating tonight from fear and hatred—this was his home; it was looking out through his eyes, flowing in his veins, venturing out on the now-terrifying streets. This native land of his had been battling for three days on the square where he wasn’t allowed to go.
His mother burned his diary. First she hid it under the linoleum in the corner of his room, but then she couldn’t put up with it being there and burned it, with Rustik’s permission. He couldn’t blame her. Too much had already happened in this lifetime, up till then, and God only knew what was yet to come.
Once, his grandfather had advised his mother not to join the Party: in the district where she worked, the Communists were reporting a recruitment shortfall among ethnic Kazakhs, and she received an application to join. But during that memorable period called the Stagnation, his grandfather had unexpectedly made a seditious statement. He said the Party was a temporary phenomenon. Then he entered another long period of saying nothing about politics, until perestroika, when it was revealed that he had always known Mandelstam, Shakarim, and Gumilyov by heart. He recited amazingly long scraps of verse to Rustik. Rustik thought that for someone pre-revolutionary, that’s the only way it could have been, actually. Now, of course, it was a good thing his mom wasn’t a Communist. She hadn’t wanted to do it, but they thought it might come in handy. It didn’t come in handy. What’s more, that sweet stagnation handed Rustik’s mother an unforgettable encounter with a provocateur in the artistic realm. He offered to give her some samizdat Bulgakov and Solzhenitsyn. That’s why his mom kept hiding Rustik’s school journal. Nothing that was burned ever let the family go. It got passed down from generation to generation. His grandfather burned all his poems from the war.
They had to buy some cognac for Uncle Sasha Kukushkin, who worked with Rustik’s mom. He and Uncle Mukhtar, the son of the former prosecutor general, tried to find them in the stirred-up city, and finally they did, and they came over to say they should all drink to the friendship of the peoples . . . That evening, Auntie Lyuba Konovalova called, too, and told Rustik’s mom, “Let’s stick together, Gulya.”
Mom called the library where she worked and talked to the director, Alexander Filippovich. “I haven’t disappeared,” she told him. “I’m doing my work, everything is fine.”
Mom worked at the library of the Society for the Blind. Alexander Filippovich had lost his sight long ago, when he was young. He learned Kazakh perfectly after going blind. Now he answered her in Kazakh, too. “No problem, Gulya. I’m with you. Don’t worry. I understand what you mean . . . You know, Kazakhs have a very strong tradition of obeying their elders without question, and that’s why they followed the elders today.”
That day they were more thankful to the blind man than to many who could see. A blind man doesn’t see faces, so for him, the race problem doesn’t exist.
The crack that had appeared in Oleg’s apartment quietly continued to grow. The New Year’s holiday everybody had forgotten about was approaching. There was nobody around to make the students stop, many of their families lived far away in uncivilized places, and these students, who didn’t belong in Almaty, couldn’t fathom why a boy like Rustik couldn’t talk to them in their native language, even though the same blood flowed in his veins. How could he explain any of that, anyway? About his grandfather, his mother, Almaty, about the eternal cycle of survival? How to explain that his grandfather had told him, during a time when that infamous national consciousness was awakening, that he ought to at least learn Russian well?
Rustik understood that in those days, the police officers who had helped to suppress the student uprising thought differently. One of them, a Kazakh man they knew, ran into them outside one day, satisfied and mean all at once: “Today the students got their heads bashed in, and I got a medal for dispersing them!”
And how hard was it for his mother to bite her tongue when they made an announcement at work that nobody should speak in Kazakh, even in a private conversation, if other people around wouldn’t understand. What do those other people have to do with it? What do they understand, ever? And why should anyone in Almaty have to constantly think about what other people will think? Rustik knew that their Korean neighbor, a police officer who had refused to accept a prize for dispersing the demonstrators, wasn’t thinking about other people. What did he care? What was it to him? After all, if Rustik had been older that year, instead of just twelve, he probably wouldn’t have been there on the square. The old folks would have already called him. They would have had time. And it would have been a vital, simple truth.
“They made us stand in a cordon,” said Mikhail Yuryevich.
Snow was falling outside the window. A woman was out in the courtyard, a chef in a white peaked cap, between the restaurant’s storage sheds. She threw out the garbage, then navigated back through piles of snow and disappeared behind a steel door. A truck drove up, noisily, leaving black clumps on the fresh snow.
Twilight, long and tedious, penetrated through the window into the room. But a man’s country comes first. Ireland first, Stevie, Rustem thought, remembering Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. You can be a poet or a mystic after, the book said. But what came next?
Ireland is the old sow that eats her farrow. Enough. Stand up. Close the door. Hand the key to the caretaker on duty and go home.
“We’ve stayed too long, Rustik. Time to go.” Mikhail Yuryevich seemed to crumple even as he rose to his feet. “Tomorrow, it’s a new issue, we’ll be up late again.”
“Goodbye, Mikhail Yuryevich.”
“See you tomorrow.” He hunched over some more and walked out.
Tonight, the walk was joyful, easy. The frost crunched pleasantly underfoot, and even his new dress shoes, with their soft soles, had a nice spring to them. Rustem pulled his scarf more tightly around him. Mikhail Yuryevich had been made second in command at the paper. Rustem had been fired. His investigation into who was to blame for the deaths of those students on the square, back in December 1986, had seemed premature to somebody up at the top. That’s what the editor had said, rolling his eyes to the ceiling: “It’s just too soon, you understand?” But even that couldn’t spoil this lovely, sparkling evening. Before him was a new life, and even if he didn’t know what kind of life it would be, it would be new, and Rustem had plenty of mental energy to spend on it. New Year’s lights played over the street he knew so well, Communist Prospect, and orange squares of light from each window were arranged on the snow.
“Stop. Let’s see some ID.” In the dark, Rustem hadn’t noticed the two police officers and the cop car hiding around the corner. Rustem reached into his inner pocket for his passport.
“You been drinking?”
“Then where’s that smell coming from?”
Rustem dug out everything in his jacket pockets, and winced at the flashlight beam in his face. The sergeant’s face was lit up, too. A billy club rested threateningly on his shoulder, and the breath coming from his mouth, twisted into a smirk, reeked of alcohol. That face was stingingly familiar, and the surprise of recognition made Rustem drop the money he had taken out.
“Get lost!” the sergeant muttered, handing the money to his partner. The cop car wailed over the slippery snow, its doors banging shut once it was in motion.
Yes, it was that same guy, in the malakhai, with the dombyra, whom he had seen running between apartment buildings. Rustem froze.
“Listen, brother! That was you. It was you . . .”
He no longer knew who he was talking to.
The shadows gradually turned violet from all the neon light on the avenue. The snow piled up, solemnly, in no hurry; the pines shed the light from street lamps and shop windows, and it all created the impression of a New Year’s fairy tale, fast approaching, the kind in which you feel calm and blissful, right down to the pleasant numbness in your joints.