A story by Bulat Okudjava

Translated from Russian by Sonia Melnikova
Published by Rosen Publishing, NY, 1992

I remember how I saw my mother off in 1949.

Yes, I saw her off. That's what happened. I had been there to meet her in 1947, on her return from the camp, and already was seeing her off again. In those days many people were saying goodbye to their loved ones, and not for a day, not for two, but for a long, long time.

After everything that had already happened to her, they arrested her again. We learned about it one dreadful night, when a man came bursting into our house, the man from whom my mother was renting a corner of a room in Kirovakan. He arrived at about 6 o'clock in the evening by the late train, to tell us the news and to tell us about her last good-byes. But he needn't have bothered. I've forgotten his name. People don't remember good deeds. And what was the point of coming anyway, since they had already taken her away? He could have just written us a letter, or sent a note with someone who was coming our way. He shouldn't have taken the trouble. There was nothing we could do about it anyway.

He sat in the kitchen dropping cigarette ashes on the floor and on his trousers, and sighing heavily. Auntie Sylvia was crying quietly, almost in a whisper. The lamp gave a yellow light. The weather outside was foul. Everything seemed to conspire against us, and yet we had to keep going and not let ourselves fall apart from anguish, and horror, and helplessness. So we held on the best we could, and we even tried to figure out what the charge was: Member of the Family of a Traitor of the Motherland, or Counter-Revolutionary Activity?

When my mother had returned two years earlier, in 1947, after ten years in a camp, she was neither rehabilitated nor forgiven; she had merely served her time and been sent back. She was forbidden to live in a big city, and with great difficulty Auntie Sylvia found her a job as a cashier in a little factory in Kirovakan. We lived in Tbilisi, where I was a student at the university. By that time I was beginning to understand some things. A tentative analysis of events was taking shape in my foggy head, and bitter questions arose, like “What for?” and “Why?” and “For whose sake?”

Auntie Sylvia was constantly on guard — it was that kind of a time. She would peer into my eyes and listen to the intonations of my voice, and she would get alarmed. As if answering my unspoken questions, she would exclaim every once in a while, “Your mother is very lucky, after all, isn't she? She came back alive and healthy. And we are all together again,” and she would look intently into my face.

“Of course,” I would say cheerfully, so as not to worry her. “Now everything is fine. Mama lives like everybody else, she works, she writes letters, and we can even go visit her.”

But my words didn't convince her. She sensed something dangerous in them. The more cheerfully I spoke, the louder and more firmly she would respond: “So? It's true, isn't it? She suffered terribly in the camp — just a poor prisoner. But now she's a free woman, and she even sends you some money. Isn't that so?” Or she would exclaim, “And what would we do without Stalin? How would we live?” And she'd look at me hard. “Just live,” the words slipped out, “Maybe no worse than now.” — “And what about the war?” She would raise her voice even louder. “We've survived a terrible war. Don't you understand that? Have you forgotten about the war?” — “No, I haven't forgotten,” I would say, just to keep her from worrying. “They have stopped food rationing...” It was true, we didn't have to use food coupons any more. “They lowered prices...” She was right — prices were slowly coming back down to prewar levels. “...And now your mother is free!” — “Of course, of course,” I conceded. “I'm not arguing, am I?” — “All right,” she'd say, calming down. “I'm just afraid you'll let something slip” — and she'd give me an embarrassed smile.

So Mama was working as a cashier, and somehow she even managed to send me little money from her meager salary. We wrote to each other, and things seemed to settle into a normal routine. There was no point in complaining, and I should have just admired Auntie Sylvia's fierce wisdom. We quickly grew accustomed to our misfortune and learned to explain it away, and whenever there was the slightest occasion for a celebration, or even just a little easing up, we would readily exaggerate our good fortune.

And so we rejoiced when she returned, we rejoiced when we managed to get her that job in the factory, and we rejoiced when she had the good fortune to rent herself a corner of a room in a house on the outskirts of town, from a man who wasn't afraid to open the door of his home to a woman all covered with dust and scorched by the sun in the steppes of Karaganda, a woman whose eyes had lost their shine. Yes, we rejoiced. That's human nature! We didn't complain, and we didn't ask foolish questions like, “What for?” and “Why?” and “In whose name?” As if everything was perfectly clear to everyone, and we didn't want to spoil our celebration.

It's true, sometimes these questions escaped from our lips anyway. Of course, we pronounced them in a whisper, offhandedly, as if they had no special significance, and we answered them with little signals that only we ourselves understood. But sometimes we got tired of whispering. And then Auntie Sylvia would say, “What can we do, my dear? When a nation has many enemies, it must protect itself somehow...” — “But this had nothing to do with Mama,” she would quickly add, “In your mother's case, of course, it's a mistake,” and she would peer at me. “Some day, my dear, they will find out.” — “I don't doubt it,” I would say sadly. She would bite her lip and then declare passionately, “If only you were in their place... You'd make it right...” and she'd gaze up at the ceiling. Their place! I was in no danger of being in their place. I was very firmly in my own.

And now they arrested her again. They came at night, of course, and turned the whole room inside out, especially the corner she rented. “Did they find anything?” I asked bitterly. “No, they didn't find anything,” the landlord answered, dropping cigarette ashes on the floor. “If they didn't find anything, then everything is all right,” I said. “What could they find?” Auntie Sylvia exclaimed. “What did she have, anyway, besides some old clothes?” — “There was nothing,” the landlord confirmed. “I was sitting there while she packed. They were searching. They dug around in her bed and her suitcase, but what could they find?” — “Did she cry?” I asked in a whisper. “Why should she cry?” Auntie Sylvia exclaimed. “Is she guilty of anything?” — “No, she didn't cry,” he said. “She was apologizing to me, poor thing. And why me? As if I don't understand. I understand everything.” — “I have some big connections,” Auntie Sylvia said, wiping her tears. “They don't know yet what I'm capable of.” Her face was already flushed with inspiration. My mother's landlord looked at her with hope and amazement. “I have important connections,” she said. “They'll have to reckon with me.” And she looked at me triumphantly. The landlord sat there listening, nodding to her, and dropping the cigarette ashes. Then he left. Somehow he just slipped out the door. Night had fallen. A monotonous rain was coming down. I wondered what Auntie Sylvia could do. “Don't worry — cheer up,” she said. “I won't let them hurt my sister. I'll show them! A second time — for no reason! Its impossible. Its too much!” I knew there was nothing she could do. There were no connections, I knew that. And who could have done anything in those times? All the same, her passionate belief was somehow comforting. What if she could? What if there was somebody, somewhere, unknown to me, the wife of some important man, for example, and just one word could change everything, and then we would look back and laugh. And if not, I thought, did that mean prison again? And interrogation, and camp, and humiliation, and the steppes of Karaganda...

I was in my fourth year at the university. I knew that they barely tolerated me, and I always felt as if someone was constantly watching me out of the corner of his eye. I felt that persistent presence at my back all the time. My future was cloudy, in spite of the pretty slogans and the lofty words about the glory of Man. Well, maybe someone else had a glorious future, but as far as I personally was concerned, things didn't look promising.

Oh, how wrong I was, insisting that she had no connections! How wrong! And here's how it happened. She started disappearing somewhere. Whispered telephone conversations kept our house in a state of constant agitation. Meetings with somebody, somewhere, were arranged, and it seemed that the whole city was involved in this plot, and that all the passersby in the street stared at me, some with an accusing look, some with sympathy, some suspiciously, and some sadly. On top of everything else, it was late autumn, with rains and fierce winds. Where was Mama? In prison? Or in a train car with barred windows? Auntie Sylvia's beautiful face betrayed nothing but stubborn determination. She confronted what seemed like an inevitable fate with her own unbending will and faith, and female wisdom. The telephone receiver brought forth from Auntie Sylvia the sounds of intrigue, entreaty, and friendly intonation, and there was no clear distinction between them; they were all mixed together. I was captivated by this strange melody. This was our reality, our way of living. “But you know her...” or “Of course, you're absolutely right...” or “Don't you believe me?” or “I understand, I agree, but all the same, all the same...” Sometimes she cried softly, hoping I didn't notice, and bent her head as she mended a sock, or cooked our simple meals, and I saw big tears rolling down her beautiful snow-white cheeks. Sometimes she pulled herself together and hurried to the mirror to study herself with meticulous attention. Then I saw her whole image change: now a charming smile flashed across her face, now stern determination, now suddenly a beseeching grimace and an obsequious nod, now a queen's poise and a mask of contempt. She was probably practicing a conversation, in front of the mirror, with somebody on whom her sister's fate depended. As I watched these bitter rehearsals, in my mind I saw the steppes of Karaganda, and I thought of the approaching winter. A prison camp, and barbed wire, and guard towers, and Mama in her quilted cotton coat, bent over a wheelbarrow...

According to Auntie Sylvia's reassuring words, all of the vast numbers of people who had been removed from life and condemned to a frozen stagnation in prisons and camps were guilty of something, and it was only in the case of my mother that there had been a terrible mistake, a mistake that soon would be corrected, and glorious justice would rule again. This didn't sound very convincing, but I accepted it as a ray of hope.

I don't know how she managed to get through, to conduct her investigations and make her discoveries, but one day she exclaimed as she came in the door: “Your Mama is in Tbilisi! They brought her here. She's in Ortachalskaya Prison. Now it will be easier...” What exactly would be easier I didn't understand: whether it would be easier to help or to visit her. But we weren't able to visit her anyway. They didn't allow visits before the trial, and when the trial would take place nobody knew. So Auntie Sylvia's unceasing activity continued, in the hope of finding something out. Oh, what efforts people wasted! And we weren't even trying to overcome the ruthless machine of fate, but simply to soften it a little. Everything was tried, from little intrigues to the loftiest plans. It was not for me to understand how she could do it, my aunt, my beautiful, passionate, helpless middle-aged Aunt Sylvia. This was for higher powers. Who was I? I was just a witness. I had neither experience nor skill, but only a constant helpless anguish gnawing at my soul. I thought, perhaps, I had earned this fate by an awkward gesture, a careless step, or a thoughtless word. Why, I thought, did other people have everything — smiles, future, and cause for rejoicing? They had everything, and I had nothing. But what did I know about others, wrapped up as I was in my own grief?

Winter came, and there was still no trial. Rotten Tbilisi winter, rotten feelings, rain and snow, smoky kerosene heater warming the room, endless lectures in the university, and my friends waiting anxiously with me. And all kinds of fantasies, all about the same thing. If they send her to camp again, at least let it not be in this terrible weather. Let it be in summer. Heat is better than the horror of frozen railroad cars and wet barracks and a wheelbarrow in the snow... And we kept on asking each other, in whispers, “What have you heard? Has it been settled?”

In the end, everything is settled, isn't it? You just need to summon all your patience. Oh yes, we were used to being patient. Patience became our second nature, the air we breathed, and when there was not enough air left for one more breath, then we wanted to scream and cry. We behaved strangely during that time. We said strange and senseless things, I remember; until one day, on a most horrible February afternoon, out of Auntie Sylvia's sorcery, out of her plotting and worrying, out of her endless trips to the edge of the abyss, the long-awaited cries of joy were born. I remember how she shouted in my face, after returning from yet another battle, that we had won, that there was a God, and there was justice. “And you said there is no justice, remember? Who said that? You said that, but I believed that she was not guilty; because I knew there's nothing she is guilty of... And you said that there was a wall in front of us. Who said that? But I had faith. I knew. There will be no camp. No! No camp, no prison - they can't put an innocent woman in prison... and you said... and I said they can't do it.” — “So what's going to happen?” I cried, afraid to believe her. “Now what?” At last she sat down in an armchair. But first she rushed around the room and shuffled papers on the table, and a little strand of hair came loose from her beautiful bun, and she tried to fix it and couldn't. Then she stopped and sat down and suddenly burst into tears, and her tears were silent and frightening. Maybe they weren't even tears, but some kind of joyful liquid from her soul. Who knows? “Now you see,” she told me, “how important it is to do everything you can while there's still time. I cornered them all. All of them. I had them all here in my hand.” And she shook her small fist in rage. “They realized she wasn't guilty of anything. So why send her to prison? What for? They gave her exile.” And she looked at me hard. “This means they'll send her to some village, or little settlement, and she'll be absolutely free there, can you imagine? She'll live in a normal house, go shopping, go to the movies...” I could see that she was studying my face. “What joy! What happiness!” I said, and tried to smile. “How long will she have to be there?” — “Well, it won't be forever,” she said with her usual foresight. She was stroking my head. The sentence was permanent exile, but as if in a silent conspiracy, we omitted the word. Nothing is permanent. “We'll be able to visit her, to talk to her on the telephone...” — “If only the place was decent,” I said. “I can hardly believe there won't be a prison camp.” She called her friends and told them there had been a very humane decision, and instead of the horror of prison camp, there would only be exile. We were living in difficult times, she said, and in complicated circumstances, but they still found it possible to make such a decision, and her poor sister, at last she would be able to breathe with relief after everything she'd been through, because, after all what kind of life had she had? Everything hanging by a thread, no rights. “You see,” she told me, “this is a very complicated time. Of course, Mama is not guilty of anything, and she shouldn't have had to go through all these horrors, but we live in a complicated time, and of course they can't just let her go - just like that. Do you understand?” — “Of course,” I said. “The main thing,” she said, “is that Mama is not guilty of anything. Otherwise, how could there be such a merciful verdict?”

It seemed that even the weather softened. I called my friends, Zurab, Volodya, Phillip, Nata, and Dodik Bartkulashvili, and told everybody what had happened, and I explained the difference between camp and exile, omitting the word “permanent,” as if it was not important. Because the important thing was that she would be a free person there. She'd be able to go to the movies if she felt like it, and I'd be able to visit her on my vacation. But for some reason we still couldn't get permission to visit her before she left, and they wouldn't accept packages for her, and the time of her departure remained a dark mystery. “Why can't she travel on her own to her destination?” I wondered, and the word “destination” was somehow comforting. It was so ordinary, not like exile, or permanent settlement. Once again, life tested our patience, and the gap between “us” and “them” grew still wider. We were helpless, and they were powerful and mysterious. However, Auntie Sylvia kept right on going. Her cheeks flushed feverishly, and her brown eyes shone, and the disobedient strand of hair kept coming loose from her bun. First thing in the morning, she would put on her best clothes and go off to secret addresses. Who knows where she went, what offices she penetrated, whom she entreated, to whom she appealed. Who knows, but finally her luck prevailed, and she learned that Mama would be leaving the following day, by the prison car of the Moscow train. How strange now to recall those years when every passenger train inevitably had a prison car, painted dark green, with small barred windows. We were so used to them that our gaze passed over them with indifference.

On the evening of the next day, long before the departure of the Moscow train, we were in the railroad station. Before we left home, Auntie Sylvia packed a big bag with things she thought Mama could use: an old jacket, a warm skirt, a pair of shoes, a pair of boots, a package of crackers, a small bottle of sunflower oil, tobacco, a few old magazines, a pair of socks, underwear, and even a kettle, a plain aluminum kettle that had seen better days and had lost its shine but was still usable. In the railroad station it was quiet. All the platforms were empty. The train was nowhere in sight. I stood there with the bag, leaning against an iron column, and Auntie Sylvia went off to conduct her investigations, because it was very important to find out where the prison car would stop. Time was passing. It was getting dark. The rain stopped, and the prickly March wind raced madly along the tracks. Auntie Sylvia, my dear tireless detective, returned, with the encouraging news that the train would be coming in soon. Of course, we had no idea exactly what would happen, or how we would pass the bag to Mama. Dirty gray dusk came down over the railroad station. The Moscow train appeared, approaching slowly. It was hard to tell which of the tracks it would choose, but Auntie Sylvia knew for sure that we were standing on the right platform. Now we could hear the clack of the wheels. The long snake of the train wriggled closer, but at the last minute it turned and crawled onto a different track, two platforms away from us. We ran along our platform. Far away, right behind the engine, we saw the prison car. As the train pulled in, passengers flooded the platform, waiting to board. We were too high up to jump over the tracks to reach the distant platform, and we found ourselves cut off from the train. It screeched to a halt and passengers started climbing into the cars. Only the prison car stood there alone. Nobody was hurrying onto that one. I rushed along our platform, and far away I saw the crossover to the other platforms. “Look, look!” Auntie Sylvia shouted, “There's Mama!” Somehow a small group of people had materialized beside the prison car. About thirty women with bags and suitcases were standing in a group, surrounded by a circle of guards. Among them, I spotted Mama in her old camp coat, with the her old camp suitcase in her hand. I waved to her and she saw us. We waved and nodded to each other. I raised my hand with my thumb up, wanting to let her know we were all right, and she shouldn't worry about us. Then the prisoners started climbing into the car in a vanishing stream. They poured in and disappeared, and the platform beside the prison car became empty again. Auntie Sylvia grabbed the bag from my hand and ran toward the distant crossover. It was getting dark fast. The engineer climbed on. The last passengers were boarding. I didn't see my aunt crossing the tracks. The lights went on in the train windows. Only in Mama's car was it dark. Then the train gave a jerk, and slowly began to move. A few moments later, it was as if it had never been there. Auntie Sylvia returned. She had reached the car and found the guard in charge. His name was Yeskin. At first Sergeant Yeskin didn't even want to talk to her. Then he took pity of her, but he refused categorically to pass the things to Mama. Auntie Sylvia begged him, she called him dear and brother, and she cried, and she thrust 50 rubles into his hand, and then he relented, but he took only the kettle. “Just the kettle,” he said. “This thing will be useful on the journey.”

All the way home we celebrated our good fortune. Now, many years have passed. Now it's not quite so painful to remember these things. In 1956, seven years later, Mama finally returned forever. Then we learned that Sergeant Yeskin had never given her the kettle.

What for? Why? In whose name?

But it does not matter any more.

© 1992 Sonia Melnikova

Bulat Okudjava
To listen to Bulat Okudjava reciting his poems and songs, click on  the photo.

About the writer:

Bulat Okudjava could be called the Bob Dylan of Russia. His name is dear to the Russian heart. He was born in 1924 and for most of his adult life lived in the heart of Moscow, in the Arbat. He first gained great popularity as a bard, in the Russian tradition, reciting or singing his poems and accompanying himself on the guitar. At the time when free expression was forbidden, his metaphoric, melancholic songs and poems spoke for an entire generation of young Soviets. In his poetry and prose Okudjava, who at the age of 18 volunteered as a soldier in World War II, was outspoken about his pacifism and about the oppression of Stalinism. He condemned censorship in Soviet literature, and he courageously signed petitions for the release of imprisoned writers, including Alexander Solzhenitzin. Until Gorbachev's glasnost, his books were published primarily by the Soviet underground press, Samizdat, or in the West.

Okudjava's father, a Georgian, was a high-ranking Communist Party official and was executed in 1937, a victim of Stalin's purges. His mother, an Armenian, was sent to a prison camp as the “wife of a traitor of the Motherland.” Sixteen-year-old Okudjava moved to Tbilisi to live with his grandmother. He returned to Moscow in 1956, after his mother was rehabilitated following Stalin's death. “Unexpected Joy” is fiction, but it is based on Okudjava's own experience. It was published for the first time in 1989, after a freer literary environment of glasnost. Bulat Okudjava died in 1997 in Paris and is buried in Moscow.

Certified Russian translation by a Certified Russian Translator: Sonia Melnikova-Raich is a Russian-English translator certified by American Translators Association (ATA). She is a certified Russian translator, certified Russian interpreter, certified court interpreter, Russian court interpreter certified by the State of California and Judicial Council of California, and a federal court interpreter. She has twenty years experience with expertise in legal translation, business translation, real estate translation, health care translation, medical translation, education translation, environment translation, communication translation, social services translation, social science translation, marketing and advertising translation and cultural adjustment, religion translation, art, film and video translation, architecture translation, and literary translation from Russian into English and from English into Russian. She works as a court interpreter for Superior Court of California, US Federal Court, USCIS (INS), Workers Compensation Board, and interprets for depositions, arbitration, trials, immigration and political asylum interviews, business meetings, and conferences. She provides certified translation of diplomas, academic transcripts, birth certificates, death certificates, marriage certificates, divorce certificates, adoption papers, immigration documents, business contracts, immunization records, and other legal documents in compliance with requirements of the USCIS (INS), US courts, credentials evaluation services, medical boards, boards of registered nursing, American colleges and universities. She can also provide a certificate of translation (affidavit of translation or affidavit of translation accuracy), and notarized translation, if needed. She translates from English into Russian and from Russian into English. She interprets English to Russian and Russian to English, performing consecutive interpreting, simultaneous interpreting, sight interpreting, and voice over. Other services include linguistic analysis of company and product names, localization and cultural adjustment, Russian-American cross-cultural communication, cultural sensitivity training, and cross-cultural conflict resolution.