My Last Soviet Summer
by Maxim D. Shrayer
By summer of 1986, my parents and I had been refuseniks for 8 years. A 19-year-old university student, I took part in a two-month-long expedition across Russia. Leaving Moscow in June of 1986 meant trying to put behind the ever-present signs of the Chernobyl nuclear catastrophe. A sense of panic had given way to a dulled sensation of the whole huge country cracking at its seams. This journey, which took me almost 1,000 miles to the south of Moscow, gave me a chance to observe, freely and unhurriedly, the ways of provincial Russia. This was a kind of antidote to a Jewish city boy’s vision of the world—and probably to my whole existence as a refusenik. To this day, memories of the expedition inform my perception of Russia. To this remarkable experience of slowly traversing the Russian heartland in the direction of the Black Sea I owe much of what I know firsthand about daily life in rural Russia and inside Russia’s southern boundaries. My family and I left the USSR on June 7, 1987. Twenty-five years later I described my journey in a chapter of my book Leaving Russia: A Jewish Story. In this episode I write about returning to Moscow from North Caucasus via the coast of the Black Sea—the area of the recent winter Olympics.
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We were leaving Northwest Caucasus on June 8 and traveling to the Russian coast of the Black Sea. A direct route would have taken us across the Main Ridge down to the sea, and then up the maritime highway along the Abkhazian coast, past Sochi. But the route over a mountain pass wasn’t available to our expedition column of buses and trucks, and we took a long detour, first driving north past Stavropol and then going northeast and southwest through the Krasnodar Region. By the second day of the journey we had measured the whole girth of the Krasnodar Region. After Goryachy Klyuch, it was straight down to the coast and then another hour along the maritime highway, before we came to Pshada, a small inland town about 25 miles down the coast from the resort of Gelendzhik. During the week we spent at the Black Sea I didn’t make a single diary entry. Even though we still adhered to a schedule of lectures and digs, the Black Sea stop was a time of respite and relaxation, and I must have taken a break from chronicling or note-taking for future poems. The week at the Black Sea was also the culmination of a love adventure with an elusive classmate by the name of Anastasia. It was going absolutely nowhere, we both knew, and had no future in Moscow. Anastasia came from a Soviet diplomatic family and I surmised—she was reticent—that she had spent part of her childhood in East Germany. I think she surmised—without asking questions—that I was from a refusenik family. Anastasia was smart, prankish, and open-minded. She was almost six feet tall—my height. Short-haired, slender and blonde, she looked Scandinavian and sported low-cut summer outfits, braless and backless. Like some other members of Soviet golden youth I had met, Anastasia was sardonically contemptuous of the system. She despised our expedition living, the dirt, the collectivism, acting in every way as though she were an inmate on route to penal servitude. She wore long dresses to supper and stared, with horror, at rusty-red stewed pork or khaki pea soup. Lying out in the sun and smoking was, perhaps, her greatest pleasure throughout the two months of the journey. Sometimes I shared Anastasia’s solitude. We would sneak out of the camp—into the steppe or a mountain forest, later to a pebbly deserted beach. Anastasia and I knew that romance together, even under the most discreet of terms, was limited by the duration of the expedition. So the more delicious the adventure, and especially its last two weeks, right on the razor’s blade of time.
We were staying near the village of Beregovoe in the valley of the Pshada River, which carries water from the foothills of North Caucasus to the Black Sea. Our camp was only a couple of miles from the coast, a lovely walk on a path of reddish clay. Around us were hills or low mountains covered with indigenous subtropical forest, sections of it under preservation. Where we were, the coast was not built up or developed; the beach was uncrowded as compared to the way I remembered from visiting Black Sea resorts as a child. There were a couple of shashlyk booths run by Armenian men in white shirts who acted like owners of big restaurants someplace in Miami or Los Angeles, and no changing cabins or benches. At the entrance to the beach, a handful of old local ladies in faded skirts and untucked blouses offered their wares—fruit, tomatoes, scallions and radishes, sunflower seeds by the glassful….Although presently in the Krasnodar Region, that part of the Black Sea coast hadn’t become Russian territory until the 1830s. There had once been a small Greek outpost at Gelendzhik, and the area north of Colchis was known to ancient Greeks as Zygii. Ancient Pontus was across the Black Sea in modern-day Turkey, the coast of ancient Colchis was some 200 miles down the coast in modern-day Georgia. Anastasia and I strolled under seaside groves. I treated her to shashlyk and then read my poems to her. We stood on the edge of the pebbly beach and imagined the Argonauts sailing across the “hospitable” Euxine in search of the Golden Fleece. We closed our eyes and tried to lose ourselves in history—far outside of Soviet time.
On the evening before the departure for Moscow, we had a celebratory dinner and skits. One of my classmates came from the Gelendzhik area and somehow arranged for a collective farm to sell us 20 or 30 plucked chickens at cost. They were spiced and roasted, and the expedition director also made an exception by buying flasks of cheap red wine with our contingency funds. Even though ahead of us lay another week of travel and one more major stop, we toasted the conclusion of the expedition. I sat by the fire, hand coasting the hem of Anastasia’s skirt. I sipped sour red wine and thought of the nearing return to a young refusenik’s double life.
Maxim D. Shrayer is a professor at Boston College and 2012 Guggenheim Fellow. For more information about Leaving Russia, visit the author’s website at www.shrayer.com.
Copryright © 2014 by Maxim D. Shrayer. All rights reserved.