Nicolas Bokov

 

 

 

(France)

 

 

Coincidences
Translated by Morelle Smith

 

It’s a beautiful spring day in 1989. I’m with Philippe, in his parents’ apartment at Lyon. He is getting ready to leave for the monastery at Vercors, where we are going to stay for a few days. And where he is going to become a novice.

His parents are off travelling. As I’m waiting for him to finish his preparations, I look around the apartment. The place where one lives says a lot about its occupants, especially when they are away. Books, pictures, ornaments. Knick knacks which are there simply because the owners like them. Like a self portrait, a reflection of one’s inner universe.

Egg-shaped stones – marble, agate, jasper – piled on a plate…. Like the soul’s many intentions, simple and precious, projects that have been toyed with, but never brought to fruition.

But there’s something familiar here in this cairn of precious stones. These ‘Ural Mountains’ were very fashionable in Moscow houses in the fifties.

When I was a child there was a similar object placed on a shelf which stood in a corner, wedged between a divan which was almost as long as the wall, and an equally long sofa, which took up all the space between the shelf and the opposite corner.

The bedroom was tiny but very comfortable – perhaps because it was so small. But then I was small too – about six or seven years old.

And here, in this apartment in Lyon, there is another very familiar object, that could also be seen in the Moscow apartment – a little statue of the Venus de Milo, the arms carefully cut off above the elbows. An identical one stood on the shelf in the house at 24 Olanski Street. On the fifth floor (counting the floors in the Moscow way, that is, beginning on the ground floor).

My father had brought this statuette from Germany. At the end of the war, many soldiers brought back objects like this. Especially the officers – there were organized ‘distribution points’ where they could go and choose presents for their families. These objects had once decorated German homes.

We also had a watch, slightly damaged in combat, and French reproductions of famous portraits – Madame de Pompadour, Madame Recamier and her Daughter. They were found in Germany and had probably made their way from France. Another was Young Tyrolean Women in a Meadow. A feathered eiderdown! – which I liked to ‘bury myself’ in. And a Telefunken radio. But this didn’t work any more – a mouse had slipped inside and caused a short circuit. The mouse died, and the radio shared the same fate.

So, the Venus de Milo. But our one had a distinctive seam round its neck. Its graceful little head had become detached from the body and was stuck back on with yellow glue which was clearly visible.

And here’s a box, what can this be? I can’t resist opening it. Inside, there’s a simple pen nib, the kind used in primary school. It’s like the one I used to write with, which had to be stuck into a pen holder and dipped into the ink well! A number 11.
The precious stones from the Urals, the Venus, the pen nib…
And at this point, something quite unexpected happens.
With total, astounding clarity, which allows for no shadow of a doubt, I realise something. Or rather, I know something with unerring certainty, as one knows a proven fact. At that precise moment, my father is writing me a letter.

And that’s quite something. I am forty four years old (this was 1989, in Lyon), and for the first time in my life and in his, my father is writing to me, writing to a foreign country, from far away Jdanov (known today by its old name of Marioupol), the place where he got married for the third time and where he’s been living ever since.

Philippe, I say, it became utterly clear to me a moment ago, there’s no doubt about it, that my father is writing me a letter. Perhaps he’s already finished it.
Oh! I don’t like it! Philippe calls out from the clothes closet, all these presentiments, visions, predictions!

I did not insist. The fact seemed so undeniable that I was already wondering what the letter might contain. This first letter. For even when I was a child there were few meetings, probably just one, in the summer of 1953, when my father had come to Moscow (to get a divorce apparently) and had paid me a visit at my summer school camp.

We went out into the street.
From Lyon we headed for Roanne where Philippe worked as a painter in a big studio with stained glass windows. We spent the night there and in the morning we were joined by another travelling companion – who was also going to be a monk – and we set off towards the blue hills of Vercors.

Three weeks later, I was back in my Parisian suburb. Holy Week had already begun, it was Easter time.
A letter from my father was waiting for me.

 

*

 

But since we were already so far away, in Moscow, in 1952, 1953, 1954….1957….in the comfortable little room where we were living, Mama and I, can we not linger there for a while, for just a page or two?

Let’s look again at the carpet on the wall! – also brought back from a defeated Germany. The pattern round the edges is brown and dark red. Against a distant background of mountains and pine trees, a stag with mighty antlers looks at us, and a slender doe drinks from a stream.

The mirror! – it too comes from the West. Its engraved frame already has some dull patches and the corners are darkened.

It’s a shared apartment and our neighbours’ rooms are all more or less mysterious, and all quite different from one another.

Mama comes home from work (she guesses the time it will take). We have dinner. I can stay up for a little while – draw a little or carve some wood (for example, the chopping board – mama has already resigned herself to this…)

And if it’s time to go to bed, that has its appeal as well. Often, on the threshold of sleep, ‘it’ begins – my mouth fills with a mysterious ‘nourishment’, I ‘eat’ it and it tastes very good, unusual. I don’t understand how, but I can see this ‘nourishment’ – not with my physical eyes, not as an image or an object.

Sometimes the ‘nourishment’ is accompanied by another phenomenon, which I call ‘the unwinding of the ball’ and this ball has a certain ‘length’. It is also within me, and exciting. The ‘ball’ has its own existence, it does not depend on me but I can ‘hunt’ it, or stop paying it attention. It then stays somewhere ‘close by’ and I can come back to it.

I don’t talk about this with the adults and I don’t question it at all. It must be something that happens to everyone since no one talks about it or questions it.

It so happens that similar ‘nourishment’ has been described, and has even been called the ‘Isakover phenomenon’ after the American psychiatrist who published an article in 1938. It’s relevant to mention that I learned this from reading Aimé Michel who has collected and commented on mysterious phenomena experienced by Christian believers in his work Metanoia: Physical Phenomena of Mysticism (Albin Michel, Paris 1986). And at the same time I can salute the memory of the author, recently deceased, a man of admirable erudition, quite unknown to the general public.

The pendulum of memory traces a wide arc! A period of forty years separated my odd childhood experience from my discovery that this phenomenon had been, if not explained, at least recognized. And as the pendulum goes back it carries me with it, into my memories.

 

*

 

But one cannot go directly to the event. A path must first be cleared for others, through the undergrowth and thickets of everyday life.
To approach the strange premonition of my childhood which waited twenty five years for the day of its fulfilment.

We went from Moscow, Mama and I, to visit my grandfather Fedor and grandmother Sophia. Their village is some twenty-five kilometres from Zagorsk (which has gone back to its old name of Serguev Possad ‘Serge’s town’) on the Iaroslavl route, a city on the ‘gold ring’.

First of all we take the train: Moscow-Third (Second doesn’t exist), Pushkin, then the loudspeaker at Iaroslavl station announces that it ‘stops at all stations’. One of these halts is at Sofrino. Small, nothing special. A tiny dark yellow building.

But throughout the fifties, as soon as we approached Sofrino, I found myself gripped by fear and sadness. I could not shake off these feelings that left me drained of all vitality. We never got off at this station. None of our relatives or friends lived around there.

The train came to a halt. I would turn away from the window, my eyes glued to the ground and repeat to myself ‘Come on, let’s go, hurry hurry!’ At last, the train would start up – What a relief! Almost joy!

It happened each time we went to my grandparents’ house. On the way back, it was the same. The Sofrino station terrified me.

When I was about fourteen, the fear diminished, almost disappeared. The station became something that I ‘did not like’, that was all. And I never tried to find out why it had that name or what might be found there.

And, as soon as the station was behind us, the journey was a source of joy and excitement: the white walls of the monastery at Zagorsk, then the bus, then a walk of three kilometres – not difficult, it was downhill. And below us, the marvellous blue forests in the distance.
The snow crunches under our feet.

The twilight gets steadily darker, the silhouettes of the woman and boy are less and less distinct…(as if I was watching them, walking on but not receding into the distance).

The village of Iazvitsy (‘the Wounds’) begins at the top of the slope that leads down to a ravine. There’s a stream at the bottom and a well close by.

I wait for that moment – I like it so much! – when we have to climb the steeply sloping path to the first houses in the village. One more step – still higher – another step – and then we come out onto the street which leads through the village and disappears into the distance. In the semi-obscurity of twilight, one can see the gleam of light from the small window of ‘our’ house.

Ah, here they are! What a journey! says grandfather, happy to see us. He rarely goes to Moscow and never in winter, but he does go in autumn to visit the ‘agricultural exhibitions’, marvels at the extraordinary produce and even buys plants. Mama lays out the treats from the city – icing sugar, flour (that’s handy! cakes for the winter celebration of ‘St John’s day’) sweets, crackers. And even…a marrow bone with plenty of meat scraps on it.

Grandmother gets busy right away, looks for a place to put the bone – somewhere cold, and God forbid the cat…The bone is placed in a cast iron pot and covered with a frying pan, with a stone placed on top. The whole lot goes on the ‘bridge’. This is a small wooden platform on stilts in the yard, just behind the door, in the second part of the house, where the tools are stored. This area is roofed but windowless, and has a beaten earth floor. Steps lead down from the bridge to the yard.

But the main entrance to the house is by the front steps, a high wooden staircase under an awning, which leads to a long balcony overlooked by windows. The front door opens into the kitchen with its immense Russian stove in the old style, big enough to sleep on, the favourite place of Ivan the Fool from the folk tales; a narrow double door leads to the rear part of the izba, * with its scrubbed and painted wooden floor and high ‘Dutch’ stove. In this part of the house there’s the main room with a table for meal times, and two small bedrooms with no doors.

All seven children were born in this house. The first, Ivan, died in infancy. After him came Alexandra, Pavel, Victor, Vera (my mother, God rest her soul), Polina and a second Ivan. And later they produced grand-children in different localities, and great grand-children and … at this point, I’ve lost track of all their names.

 

*

 

It is time to go back to Moscow.
Let’s wait until grandfather finishes drinking his tea.
There’s more than a touch of ceremony to this. On the table, with the water still boiling, stands the samovar (at last it’s making an appearance in these notepads, this emblem of my country, brought to us a long time ago from China, by the irrepressible Tatars). I see grandfather in profile. Behind him, in the corner, the icon, against a cloth background. This is grandmother’s domain; grandfather doesn’t hide his allegiance to Voltaire’s philosophy. Although, when he was growing up, he was close to Orthodoxy; he tells the story of how he served as a valet – as a ‘young lad’ – for someone called Simanski, a student at the Religious Academy in the monastery of Serguev Possad.

The tea is drunk with ‘sugar in the mouth’; a piece of refined sugar held between the teeth sweetens the tea which is sipped from a saucer. Putting the sugar directly into the tea is reprehensible – one always puts in too much.

But today, instead of sugar we have sumptuous sweets filled with marmalade, placed on the table in a small bowl. Steam rises from the samovar, from the cups and saucers; there are beads of sweat on our foreheads, beads of condensation on the windowpane, mother is talking about something, grandmother is lost in her private thoughts, the cat purrs, forever poised to pounce on any fallen crumb.
I understood some of what I heard. But what I enjoyed most was being with the adults, bathing in the conversations they were having with each other, being accepted, being one of them. At home.

Ah! Already it is Sunday evening, it’s getting dark, it’s time to light the lamps. Tomorrow we will have to go to work and to school, it’s time to leave, unfortunately, although the journey will be interesting. The bags are already packed full of delicacies from the country – salted cucumbers, mushrooms, cabbages…
We’re going back. And, again, that horrible Sofrino..

 

*

 

Sophia died in May of 1961 (she was born in 1887). Fedor died in 1967, in January. There were no more trips to the country.

After the glorious years of the fifties, ten, twenty years went by. In the autumn of 1974, big changes were brewing in my life. I was under investigation, suspected of being the author of certain writings, which it could be proved I had circulated, I was without work, and homeless (but that’s nothing, that’s my destiny! Otherwise, I would take root, and turn into a polyp!). The sketchy outline of an alternative was already taking shape – to leave for the East – or the West. And if it was the West, there would be no coming back. My friend Serge took us – Irina and me – under his wing. He had found a place for us to stay for the winter. A bit far away it’s true, it would take about an hour to get there, a house outside the town, a dacha. For nothing! All we had to do was live there and keep it heated, in other words, act as caretakers.
Wonderful, what luck! What a relief. And where is this place?
On the train route to Iaroslavl.
Couldn’t be better! My uncle Pavel and his family, my cousins, live at Zagorsk. There’s a small station near there, that’s where Father Alexander Men lives.
What’s the name of the station?
Sofrino.
I felt as if I was on fire and my knees turned to jelly.
Of course I did not let my astonishment show – how could my self respect allow anyone to guess how scared I felt? But I would have liked to shout out loud and clear ‘Never!’ and run as fast as my legs would carry me.

But how could I turn it down? “I cannot live there because when I was a child I was afraid of that station?” No, one cannot talk like that, cannot respond to the kindness of others with such a trivial objection.

As I made my way to the dreaded station I felt chilled inside. Haunting music played in my mind, the ‘music of destruction’. (I hear it in the present day too, when I read about the reign of Jehu and his massacre of the house of King Ahab [II Kings, 9, 10]. “Jehu” actually means “He is Yahweh”; he was anointed king by order of the prophet Elisha.)

I could not alter course either to right or left, all had been decided years before when, most likely, I had accomplished nothing, not one single act of significance.

As if I had come to this place in order to die here. But I don’t know how to do it, no-one has taught me !….
That said, there were also a few things that brought me solace – the scent of a decomposing leaf, the bright autumn colours of the countryside around Moscow. And the house turned out to be excellent – very spacious, with a fireplace and a library of books from the beginning of the century – Simmel, Husserl. And Three Discussions by Soloviev…The house belonged to a deceased university professor, a historian.

We had discovered that the Moscow Patriarchy had a little factory nearby, producing church vases and little icons with plastic frames. In the adjoining building, there was a small shop selling foodstuffs and cognac.

Our life found its rhythm and the days began to flow past. Sawing wood, doing small jobs to earn money. News of arrests and house searches. A photograph in the papers. And there were friendships, among others …with Dmitri Leontiev: he was clearly no longer a child, he was already a musician and writer ( After his death he left behind a remarkable work, A Year in the Life of Fedor Stepanovitch, partially published today thanks to the efforts of his mother.) The dissident Guenkine, who would later marry the legendary Irina Kristi, rolled about in the snow like a wild Viking. The taciturn Velikanov, the subject of a judicial investigation – nothing new there – took photographs with an ancient camera which transformed us into characters from the 19th century. Igor Melnik made a sudden appearance, delineated the world’s problems for us and disappeared without waiting for their resolution.

My elderly mother paid us a visit, and brought us felt boots. For now, everything was going well.
Every morning and evening Serge would pray and sing psalms in his room. He lost weight, became animated, and we waited to see what would come of all this. Although the topic of religious faith never came up in our conversation.

One evening in February 1975 Irina and I were coming back from Moscow. It was almost night time, already past eleven pm when we got off the train. We had to continue along the road for a short distance then take a turn off onto a path which wound between piles of snow, and cross a field leading to a little bridge over a stream. That was where the village began, emptied of its inhabitants in winter. But still, there was quite a wide path of heaped snow running alongside the houses as far as the small factory and we had cleared the path leading to the historian’s house.

We had left the road and were crossing the field, heading for the bridge. About half way across I turned round suddenly. And saw someone, probably a man, a little over middle height. He was moving quickly. Running even.

The tension that took hold of me said – here we are, this is it.
The inner tension of the victim.
The ‘fear of Sofrino’ which I’d known for so many years was about to be explained.
Irina, who was walking in front of me, turned round abruptly and stood to one side, letting me go ahead of her and even gave me a little jab in the back to get me to go faster.
We crossed the bridge, and gained the opposite bank. I looked behind me.
The person had stopped on the path before the bridge.
Quickly we reached the deserted village. Looking round I saw that the unknown person had turned back along the path.

Serge was not at home that night. But it wasn’t the first time.
I wandered around the house. I sat down near the fireplace, without putting on the light. Something had happened, had changed for ever, but what, and where…And how was I going to find out…
I lacked religious faith and its consoling words – “You are too small in the face of these events, you do not control them, but you are caught up in them. Accept life or death and put your trust in God”
I felt extremely alone. I could only recite the first part of the prayer “Take this burden from me ” but my soul was deprived of the firm support given by the words that follow: “ but let not my will be done, but Yours”

My vexed pride was fretting about something else – ‘not losing face’. ‘Finding a way out of it’ added the body, fearing manacles and hardship. And death, even more.

My curiosity felt positive – how would it all end? Positive, too, these objects – the pine logs, resinous and scented, with their reddish bark. And the fire – peaceful, free, the flames rising up from the glowing embers. A book whose spine was worn, but was still attached to the binding.

Little by little, dawn filtered into the house. All was peaceful as we drank our morning tea. There were still some enjoyable tasks to be done (and which would even bring in money) – typing up the writings of the monk Nil, edited a century ago.
From the bedroom where Irina was, you could see the path leading up to the house.
I heard something, not so much a voice as the piercing cry of a bird –
They’re coming!
Immediately, almost instinctively, the door was bolted – to gain a few seconds and have time to look around so that this precious moment would not be snatched from us right away. To say goodbye.
A group of people was coming up the path towards the house. The first one, wearing a typical winter hat.. . is not someone I know. Right, this is it.
And yet, something didn’t quite fit…I could count them already – four of them. Not many people to make a house search or an arrest…The last one coming up the path was none other than Serge!
Their animated voices rang out from the other side of the door.

The people with Serge were relatives of the dead historian – who wrote manuals, among other things – and a potential buyer of the house, the famous chess player, Spasski.
That innocuous episode has an enormous, even triumphal, significance, which only my heart truly grasped. Spasski is of course a family name but not just any name, it’s the name of one of the Kremlin towers and it comes from Spassitiel, the Saviour. Somewhere, a malicious agency had been defeated, our lives and our freedom saved.

On the 25th April, Irina and I landed at Vienna airport. The ‘Sofrino terror’ was behind me for ever. For ever? Sometimes I touch the back of my neck which emerged unscathed from that fateful night.

But what was the meaning of this fear? Why had it been ‘sent’ to me? It was certainly prophetic, it warned me of something to come. Even now what it says is reassuring – “Everything is mapped out in advance, everything is predetermined. Accept life as you do death. And have no fear. But pray all the same.” Always the same ‘predetermination that is not set in stone’ of Psalm 138.

Fifteen years later, not far from Sofrino, the priest Alexander Men was assassinated. By a blow from an axe to his neck. Serge, who made his own investigations, wrote a book about this murder, which was never solved.

 

*

 

In my collection of incidents there is a small one which doesn’t fit into the category of coincidences. But it would be a pity to leave it out.

We are back in the village, it’s New Year’s Eve, 1952. We have eaten later than usual. Grandmother Sophia, grandfather Fedor and me. And let’s not forget the cat.

Grandfather had, of course, drunk ‘home made’ vodka from a small liqueur glass to celebrate the occasion. Then he had gone to bed. And we went outside, grandmother and I, for a walk in the village, which was not something we usually did.

Of course, in the fifties – as it still is today, it seems – there were no lights in the village’s one street, but it was not too dark in winter because of the snow.

The village of Iazvitsy was made up of two wide rows of houses which stretched for about one and a half kilometres, the house fronts looking onto a fairly wide street which was piled with snow in winter to allow a passageway. At the time when I used to go there, one could still see sleighs.

The village was situated almost exactly on a north-south axis; beginning on the lip of a steep ravine it sloped gently, almost imperceptibly, downwards until it reached the bank of a small river.

The shimmering snow, throwing off delicious sparkles of light! The silence – it could even be described as ‘infinitely soft’ – of the expanse of snow, stretching out far beyond the village.

Looking up, I noticed something. And it is difficult to describe what that something was.
‘A small cloud’, a ‘roller’ …imagine a translucent shawl, a crimson colour, or a small gauze scarf with worn patches. It was translucent – you could see the stars through it – but it still had a crimson colour.

It was almost as high as the chariot of the Great Bear. It gave off pulsations and it moved through the sky from east to west; you had to crane your neck to see it, about 60-70 degrees above the horizon.
Grandma, grandma, look at the flying thing! I called out.
Grandmother’s only response was that her eyesight was poor.
‘Pulsating’ ‘as if it was alive’ the little shawl crossed the sky against the background of stars, and disappeared. The whole spectacle lasted no more than a few seconds.

My heart expanded with excitement and an inexplicable, inexpressible happiness. It was ‘my’ event. For thirty years, it remained engraved in my mind as clearly as if it had taken place just the day before. The memory filled me with joy, consoled me. Until 1983, I did not mention this to anyone. But even after I told the story, it still lived on in my memory for several years.

Some years later: Alsace, the small town of Erstein. It’s the autumn of 1991. The local church is well preserved, very old, it has a ‘special altar’. In the past, this church was a site of pilgrimage, and prayers said in front of the altar were remarkably efficacious. All this was written on a plaque, with the advice to recite the “Credo”, the “Our Father” and three “Hail Marys”. “And your prayer will be answered.” Well, if it’s that simple….just out of curiosity. In any case I want to sit down and rest.
“Our Father, which art in heaven…..”.

The small town is situated twenty kilometres from Strasbourg, which I clearly had no chance of reaching that night, on foot. I entertained the dream of someone in a car giving me a lift there. It’s easier in a large town, to find somewhere to sleep and something to eat. Besides, since the grape picking at Ribeauville, I know people there, and here’s a Strasbourg address I’ve found…

I shouldered my rucksack and walked round the church. The place was deserted. The street was deserted – as soon as it left the town, it turned into a local road. Not a soul was stirring at this time in the afternoon.

One more thing – I had no more water in my bottle and there was no one around to ask to fill it for me.

A Renault 5 drove past, braked abruptly, reversed. When it reached me, it stopped. The driver opened the window and said in a loud voice –
I’m heading for Strasbourg. Are you going there?

I felt emotional as I put my bag in the boot. Then, in the fifteen minutes that the journey took, I questioned the driver.
Did you have any thoughts or did you feel anything when you saw someone with a rucksack at the side of the road?

Actually, he does not usually pick up hitch hikers. But today…. no, he didn’t have any thoughts. He came onto the road, saw me, and stopped. That’s all.
So, where in Strasbourg are you going?

He let me off right in front of the cathedral. A little surprised by my fervent gratitude, he smiled at me and left.

Chance or Providence?
Oh! How much the ‘psychological colouring’ of the world depends on my choice. If I say ‘chance’ the world remains mechanical, empty, cold. And what if it was really true, what was written on the church plaque, and the car stopped in response to my prayer? An invisible and mysterious Friend heard the dream of a weary homeless man and life turned out to be sweeter and more tender than it sometimes seemed.

 

 

*(typical Russian rural house, made of wood MS)

 

 

 

 

 

 

__________________________________________________________

 

Morelle Smith writes poetry, fiction and travel articles. Her novel Time Loop (about the Cathars of the Languedoc) was published in 2010 and her most recent poetry collection, Gold Tracks, Fallen Fruit, in 2011. She has worked in the Balkans as English teacher and aid worker. She also teaches and translates from French. Her blog is : rivertrain.blogspot.com

 

 

__________________________________________________________

 

Nicolas Bokov, a dissident Russian writer, had to leave USSR in 1975 and came to live in Paris. He spent many years travelling in Europe before returning to France, where he has since published several books including La Conversion and La Zone de Réponse, a collection which includes the story Coȉncidences.

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