Mark Budman: Love and Faith in the Shadow of Lenin
Ye Gods! Annihilate but space and time/ And make two lovers happy.
In the sixth grade, Nikifor Vladimirovich Rosanov sat behind Praskovia Nikitichna Tarasova in every class and pulled her pigtails. She had such luxurious hair—even silkier and thicker than his Siberian cat—and her nails were trimmed unlike the cat’s.
Praskovia shrieked and Nikifor grinned. She slapped him and he laughed. She threw books and pens and apple cores at him and he caught them in the air. She helped him with math, and he helped her with Russian, especially with poetry.
He walked her home—they lived in the Butovo suburb of Moscow—and she kicked any girl who so much as batted her eyelashes at him.
At the time, the Soviet Union looked almost healthy to an outsider. Gorbachev was only considering perestroika, Yeltsin drunk his vodka in Sverdlovsk, and Putin was a lowly KGB officer.
Nikifor and Praskovia first had sex at sixteen. Nikifor began the wooing attack with “your cheeks are like roses.”
Perhaps reading in her eyes that the line wasn’t poetic enough, he quickly quoted his favorite poet, Mayakovsky:
“The world is again in flowers like in hairs/the world again is a visage of spring.”
The year before, when he’d saved enough dough, Nikifor had tattooed Mayakovsky’s “Lenin and the Party are twins and brothers” on his arm. He told Praskovia later that he was impressed by the sheer logic of this quote—twins were not necessarily brothers. The tattoo had become infected, and he’d ended up with indelible red-and-blue blotches resembling the American election map.
Now, softened by the “visage of spring” ekphrasis and by the close proximity to the map, Praskovia’s defenses melted completely.
Afterwards, they lay on his raincoat in the cranberry bushes. Cold rain pelted their partially naked bodies. The event happened on a collective farm where the whole class was sent to harvest potatoes. The colors around them were brown, black and grey. So the bit of red between Praskovia’s thighs was a welcome splash of color.
But several years into the marriage, one evening after lovemaking, Nikifor told her that she had gained too much weight. You’re like a woman from a museum painting, he said. Rubens, he said. Unless it was Rubin. She vaguely remembered hearing this Jewish name before. He painted flying cows, didn’t he?
She knew Nikifor was right. She had gained at least two kilos after the marriage. Maybe three. But he shouldn’t have said that. Truth could have been the best defense, but it still was an offense. He pushed her off her pedestal. He was comparing her to a cow.
He was an important man now—a janitor at Lenin’s Mausoleum—the job he acquired partially on merit, thanks to his skills with the broom, the dusting cloth and the imported Spic and Span, and partially due to his networking connections—he was the drink buddy of the Janitor-in-Chief. Soon, his buddy was fired after being caught stealing Spic and Span, and Nikifor was promoted to Chief.
Perhaps, in his mind, this important position gave him the right to look down at his wife, a plain grocery store cashier.
Nikifor’s comment put Praskovia in a state of perpetual shock. From that point on, she undressed only to take a shower, and only when no one else was home. Even then, she closed her eyes while washing herself. If she peeked by mistake, her face reddened and her breath quickened, and she’d make the water cold. That would serve her right.
She made love to her husband in a nightshirt, and no matter how much he begged, it stayed on.
And then the nightmares came. Her sleep had become like a free fall into an abyss. Foul winged creatures with long beaks, fiery eyes and devastatingly large bellies circled around her, assaulting her ears with their rambling cries. She fought for breath, but the pressure on her chest was too heavy and her struggle to awaken lasted until dawn.
One night, after downing half a glass of her husband’s vodka, she had a different dream. A man in a white, floor length gown, sandals and a crown of thorns pulled her out of the abyss by her thick, brown, slightly grey-streaked hair, and called softly, “Praskovia, Praskovia.” He resembled David Stein, her upstairs neighbor—curly black hair, longish nose, and sad, dove-like eyes.
Then she noticed another man, red-skinned, barrel-chested, furry-legged, two-horned, with a lump of smoldering coal, shaped like a cigarette, in his hand.
Praskovia awoke, coughing, wiping her tears with her large fists, suitable for a middleweight boxer, and shaking sizable breasts barely covered by a torn flannel nightshirt. Her cigarette, which she’d forgotten to extinguish before falling asleep, had made a hole in her pillow, and smoke was filling the tiny bedroom. Nikifor slept next to her, snoring like a creature from hell.
The next day, Praskovia visited her aunt Pasha, a nursing aid at the woman’s hospital.
“It was the Savior,” Pasha said pursing her thin, pale lips. “Him for sure. He saved you because He wants you.”
Pasha was always nagging her to join the Nephews and Nieces of the Savior, a branch of an American sect that had made big waves in Moscow in the last several years. Pasha herself had been a Niece in good standing for close to a year and claimed she’d never felt better.
“I even lost two kilos,” she said one day. “It’s like ice cream for the soul,” she said the next. “I feel like my head is already in heaven,” she said the following week.
“I’ll think about it,” Praskovia gave her usual reply, but in the back of her mind she felt the mighty pull of the new religion.
Three days after the dream, Praskovia immersed herself in a barrel of lukewarm water and was pronounced a Niece by Shepherd Golovin who looked like a cartoon Biblical prophet from a Communist era anti-religion poster. He was equipped with a flying gray beard, tangled hair full of dandruff, a dirty white gown, a heavy crucifix hanging from a thin neck, penetrating mad eyes, and a wooden staff that was so crudely made that it must have left splinters in his hand.
A month after Praskovia was born again, when she was still a bit shaky on her feet, her grocery store manager, Vladimir Pisulin, caught her in a dark closet and grabbed her breasts through her uniform. He was squat like a barrel of pickles, and he smelled of Lysol and tobacco as always, but she had quit smoking now, and she found the resulting smell repulsive. Praskovia pushed him away with all her considerable might. He hit his head on the opposite wall and landed on his bottom, which was twice the size of a standard toilet seat.
“You’re fired, bitch,” he cried, trying unsuccessfully to rise to his feet. “Fired!”
Praskovia came home, fell on her knees and spoke in tongues. She’d seen other Nieces and Nephews do it many times, but she had always failed until now.
Nikifor returned from work early that day. His face was unusually white and forlorn. The smell of beer preceded him by what the telephone company would have considered a long distance.
Praskovia met him at the door and before he opened his mouth, she told him in Pushtu, “They fired me.”
“Huh?” Nikifor said. As far as Praskovia knew, he spoke only Russian.
“They fired me,” Praskovia continued in the language he understood. “Because I’m a Niece of the Savior.”
“Why can’t you be an Orthodox?” Nikifor sat down. “Or a Catholic? Or a Muslim? Or Jewish? Or even an atheist like me? They would leave you alone if you were like the rest of us. No, you have to be different!
“They’re going to fire me, too,” he added after a moment.
Praskovia uttered a wail, got to her feet, and walked closer to her husband. “What for?”
“Because they’re going to close the Mausoleum and bury Lenin. No one needs him anymore. No one but me.”
He sighed. “Say what you want. He’ll be gone, and I’ll be fired.”
She rubbed her forehead, stimulating the thinking process. “Let’s immigrate to America,” she said. “It’s the land of religious freedom. That’s for sure.”
Nikifor fixed her with a heavy stare. “Are you sure, Praskovia? To exchange the land of Mayakovsky for the land of hip-hop? To be rich instead of poor? To travel the world instead of taking the Metro to Sokolniki Park on Sunday afternoons? To be on welfare instead of working daily? Is that the life you want for you and me?”
“Yes, I’m sure. All people make sacrifices. Even the Savior died on the cross.”
“But the American government won’t let us in. They have Homeland Security now. It’s like our old KGB, but instead of preventing people from leaving, they prevent people from getting in.”
“We’ll tell them we were both persecuted on account of my religion.”
Nikifor grinned. “Yes, Praskovia. That might work. We are moving to America. We’ll apply for the visa tomorrow.”
Praskovia gasped. She expected stiff opposition, and now she hesitated. Things that progressed too easily were suspicious. This rollercoaster was going a bit too fast for her even though it was she who’d ordered the ride. She went to their bedroom, closed the door, fell on her knees and began to pray. Soon, she was talking in tongues again. Then the man who looked like David Stein appeared on a white cloud. He was stooping lest he strike his head against the ceiling.
“Should I move to America, Savior?” she asked in Swahili. “My husband wants me to. And you said I have to obey him.”
He put his hand on her head. It felt warm and reassuring. “America is not what it used to be. The spawn of the anti-Savior is raising its ugly head there,” he answered in Hebrew. “So they need you now. Go.”
She opened her eyes, and she saw herself in an American church, among warriors of the Savior, next to a tall, blond American pastor—no beer belly or tobacco smoke here. The church’s doors were barricaded with pews. The spawn of the Enemy came as the clock struck twelve, bursting through the door as if it were wet paper and scattering heavy pews as if they were Lincoln logs.
Praskovia held the Book of the Apostle Bud the Unworthy with both hands above her head. She saw one of the spawn, a man in a pink suit and a green shirt, with an earring in his left ear, fangs bared, jumping at the pastor. The monster’s roar reverberated in her ears. She was about to run to the pastor’s defense, but a woman in a blue surgical gown armed with a dilator and curette breathed fire in her face. Praskovia dodged and hit the creature across the muzzle with the Book. The demon fell to the floor and disintegrated. Praskovia, shaking, sweaty, looked around. The warriors stood their ground, their weapons at the ready. The spawn were gone and everyone burst into a hymn.
“Go, child, and serve me well,” David Stein said. “The victory will be ours.”
A few minutes later, Praskovia came out to her husband. Her eyes shone and her cheeks were aflame. He watched her, his mouth agape. She took him by the hand.
“So, will you go with me?” he asked in a trembling voice.
“I will go where you go. Your people will be my people. Your country will be my country.”
He exhaled. His voice was steady now. “And your ass will be mine,” he said and pulled her by the hand toward the bedroom.
Under his familiar weight, she closed her eyes and prepared to grit her teeth. Yet a strange new sensation jolted her body into another plane of existence. She opened her eyes, and saw a kind face next to her. It was Nikifor, yet his features were strangely fluid, changing into David Stein’s and back. Hope entered Praskovia like a caress of passion. The nightmare was about to go away. She was open for a miracle now. America awaited her and miracles happen in America. She would lose weight. Not would. She was losing it already. Her fat was melting away into the thin air. At least a kilo had been gone already.
She slid away from under Nikifor and took her slip off.