Writer Vardvan Varzhapetyan (born 1941) has worked as a hunter, corresponded with Ray Bradbury, published the Armenian-Jewish journal Noah, translated the Torah into Russian, and wrote the first book about the life and work of Alexander Tinyakov, Russian literature’s primary enfant terrible. Varzhapetyan has also written books that first appeared to him in dreams: he is the author, for example, The Number of the Abyss, an 848-page book dedicated to the victims of the Holocaust. On the pages of its manuscript, the author handwrote 5,820,960 single-digit numbers (each number representing one victim) without spaces, hyphens, and other dividing marks. V–A–C Sreda presents Varzhapetyan’s wildly unique autobiographical monologue, as recorded by Fyodor Derevyankin. The text has been divided into parts, furnished with subheadings, and the order of the parts has been changed for the sake of readability.
I recently thought that I had not made an obedient and caring son, a faithful and exemplary husband, or a good father. So what had become of me? I thought that I had turned out a carefree person. Perhaps this is the essence of my life: delighting people and praying for them. Maybe that is why my favorite things to do are reading books and dreaming things up.
What did I dream up? I dreamed up an Armenian-Jewish magazine and called it Noah. I wanted to show these two nations against the backdrop of all mankind. The money for the publication was donated to me by everyone from Azerbaijanis to Japanese, all the peoples of the world. (Twenty issues of the magazine were published from 1992 to 1997.). Although there was a war in Karabakh at that time, I gave my word to the Azerbaijanis that I would not distort their thoughts, and they believed me.
Then I came up with a new translation of the Holy Scripture, the Torah. I saw it in a dream, and for five years I worked to make real what had been revealed to me. Then I saw in my dream the book The Number of the Abyss, which took two years to finish. Then I came up with another interesting book. I had been thinking about how great books begin: what phrases are at the beginning of the most famous books? I collected them and published them as a separate book, which sold out instantly. I also came up with a recipe for a perfume (a secret perfume) that you could not steal even if you wanted to. Basically, I like making things up.
I have spent most of my life reading, having adventures, and finding my place in life. I must have gone through twenty different occupations, crafts, and professions. I kept changing them until I realized that I was most interested in being a writer.
This is probably my happiest dream: it did not take many years to make it come true. I dreamed that I was a front-line soldier. I am in Vienna on May 9, 1945. All of Vienna is rejoicing: the war is over! The soldiers treat everyone to drinks. Everyone is drunk and cheerful, and soldier play the accordion, their uniforms unbuttoned. Before me is a bridge over the Danube, and I am sailing in a boat: I have been assigned to escort a dozen captured Krauts, who are bound with a thick rope. People shout at me from the shore, “Varzhapetyan, where are you going?” I say, “I’ve been ordered to take them to the headquarters!” This is instead of having a drink with everyone. But most of all, it hurts me that no one notices that I have a Hero of the Soviet Union star pinned to my chest. I turn this way and that, but no one pays attention. People shout at me from the bridge: “All your Krauts are getting away!” I see that half of them have already jumped into the Danube, and the rest are about to jump. But they are all tied up with the same rope, all dozen of the Germans. I, too, jump into the Danube and am floundering in the water—until I wake up. Of course, I didn’t have the star pinned on my chest or the Krauts with me, but it was such a beautiful dream! May 9, 1945, Vienna—and I am a Hero of the Soviet Union!
When the Germans were approaching Moscow, my father and my mother, who was pregnant with me, were evacuated to Ufa, where we were assigned to barracks of some sort, although the place’s owners would have been happy to kick us out. But since it was the Soviet government who had sent us, they couldn’t do it. We were generally quite cold and hungry there.
When I grew up, my mother told me that we had been housed with the family of a railway inspector. He and his wife lived together. They had a big room, while we lived in a cubbyhole. They would take turns going on train trips. Once it so happened that they locked their room with a padlock and both of them left: clearly, one of the other railway inspectors had taken ill. Although we were starving at the time, they had all they could want because people were willing to hand over anything, even gold or food, to get from point A to point B. Taking advantage of the fact that they were gone for a long time, Mother opened the lock with a nail.
I entered the room as if it were Ali Baba’s cave—there was so much food there. There were hams hanging from the ceiling, but you couldn’t steal a whole ham, and if you cut off a slice, it would be obvious immediately. There were sausages and a barrel of clarified butter. My mother was at a loss. She said that she didn’t know how to steal something unnoticed, and then she spotted a bag of potatoes. The bag was tied with a rope, fifteen knots on each side. My mother broke all her fingernails untying it, because the rope had been soaked before it was tied: when it dried, it had become like stone.
My mother was able to untie the bag, counting all the knots on each side as she did so. When she opened it, she found it full of large potatoes, covered with a tattered newspaper. If you removed a single potato, a bit of newspaper would immediately fall to the floor. Meanwhile, we were starving to death. When later my mother told me this story, I thought that when I grew up, I would go to Ufa, find these people and kill them. But they died before I was old enough to travel on my own.
We returned to Moscow in 1943. Back then you could not return to the city just like that: you needed an invitation, and you were sent one only if you were a scientist or an engineer needed at a factory. No one was allowed into the city without an invitation: it was cordoned off. My mother says we got off the train at some station before reaching Moscow. My eyes were complete covered in pus (I don’t know whether it was from malnutrition or not), and my father was officially disabled. We got off the train to sneak into Moscow.
We were stopped by a patrol at the perimeter. The officer asked where our invitation was, and Mother said we had none. “Then you can’t go through!” he said. Mother said that she knelt down in front of him and said, “Where can I go? We have nowhere to go back to! If you want, shoot us right away! We have nowhere to go.” The guard took pity and allowed us to enter the city. We returned to Bolshaya Yakimanka, in the Moskvorechye neighborhood. For all the time we had been in evacuation, my parents had had to pay the maintenance bills for our flat.
Then I went to school, which I graduated in 1958. I was a straight-C student, and my father beat me hard, because he was often summoned to school: I remember entries in my report card about my having disrupted classes. I had only two Bs in my transcript, in history and astronomy. It never occurred to me to go to university. I went to the Paris Commune shoe factory to work as a carpenter’s apprentice.
If it hadn’t been for the army, which I joined later, I probably wouldn’t have wanted to pursue a higher education. I served from 1961 to 1964, during the Cuban missile crisis, when the world was hanging by a thread, so to speak. I served in the missile forces stationed beyond the Urals, in Kurgan Region, where huge intercontinental missile silos were located in the forest.
In fact, we built those silos, along with a construction battalion, and lived in dugouts. We were fed worse than the sailors on the Potemkin. Our only salvation was alcohol, which was supplied by the barrelful. The commanders looked the other way, because we needed something to keep us warm. The officers stole food, while we were fed rotten cabbage and rotten potatoes. So one day I decided to write a letter to the editor of The Agitator’s Notebook, the tiny newspaper of the Urals military district.
I wrote the letter, but it must have been more than a month later that I was woken up and escorted to headquarters. I went in and saw that an entire commission had arrived: a lieutenant colonel, a major, and a captain. They were already looking at how much food had been received and studying the distribution books. The colonel asked whether I had written the letter. I said that I had. He said, “We have come to verify the facts you describe. Remember, if there is a single word of untruth here, you will be tried by a military tribunal.”
Fortunately, it turned out to be true. They saw this and ran the major who was our food supply officer out of the army; soon afterwards, a decent mess hall was built for us. After the commission had finished its work, three or four days later, the lieutenant colonel came to me and said, “It will be difficult for you to continue serving here: you have annoyed many of the commanders. Do you want us to transfer you somewhere? To Crimea, to the Caucasus, to the Moscow Region?” I said, “No, I have friends here.” So they left. The commanders, of course, hated me from that time forward. I think I spent a total of more than 250 days in the brig after that.
But it was one thing to be punished for real violations, and another to be accused unfairly. When that happened, I would take out my notebook and start writing. The officers, seeing this notebook, were afraid that I would write another letter to the editor, and so it was if I were protected by a bulletproof bubble. Then I thought, Wow! That’s what I have to be—a journalist. If I, a soldier, wrote something that had such a tremendous effect, then I must study to be a journalist.
There were university prep courses in the army, but they were for overachievers, not for slackers. However, I asked my father to send my textbooks, and I would get up at five in the morning, before reveille, and study in the supply room. In our third year of service, the overachievers were prematurely discharged and sent off so they would have time to enroll in university.
What was I to do? The nearest university was in Sverdlovsk. I had to produce a forged letter from the commander to the rector of Ural University. Allegedly, my duties were such that I could not get away from my unit for exams, and so the commander asked the rector to make an exception and allow me to take the entrance exam at the nearest teacher’s college, which was in the town of Shadrinsk. I was aided my friends who worked at headquarters in faking seals and signatures. The letter was dispatched. The reply now had to be intercepted, because if the commander got it, he would be nonplussed and not amused. It was intercepted. The university made an exception for me, and I ran the sixty kilometers to Shadrinsk.
I would go AWOL every time I had to sit for an exam. The first exam was the essay, and I came up with my own topic: “The Image of the Communist in Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s Novella One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.” I got an A. I got an A on my Russian language oral exam, and an A on my German exam. That left the final exam, in history.
I went back to the unit, already an old-timer—and out of uniform. The officer on duty asked why I was not in uniform. But instead of saying, “Yes, Comrade Lieutenant, ” I said something to him about how hot I was. He got even stricter, and my answers got even sillier. Finally, he said to me, “I’m putting you under arrest for five days, ” before heading to headquarters to fill out an arrest report. I stood there thinking, I have studied for three years and passed three exams—and everything is going down the drain. Now he will take me to the guardhouse, and that will be it: I’ll miss the last exam. So I went to the soldiers’ tearoom, to the jumbo urn containing boiling water, filled a mug up to the brim, and poured it over my hand. It immediately swelled up, and I went to the infirmary. The duty officer came running: “Where is Varzhapetyan?” “He was accidentally scalded by boiling water.” “So he’s also a self-harmer!”
I ran to the infirmary. The doctor there was very good: he did not turn me in, and so a day later I ran with my arm bandaged up to sit for the last exam. My exam sheets were sent to Sverdlovsk, whence I got a letter informing me that I had been enrolled in the correspondence department of the journalism faculty, and that the first finals were scheduled for January 10. But when December came, I was still in the army. All my peers who joined with me had been home for a long time, but I was kept until December 30 for being such a bad soldier. It was my fourth year in the army.
Then there was my time studying at three universities—Kazan University, Ural University, and Moscow State University. Moscow State proved to be the rottenest: the quality of education was extremely poor, because almost everyone had got in by pulling strings, especially in the journalism faculty. But the journalism faculty at Ural University turned out to be quite strong.
Other important dreams have been milestones in my life. When I was publishing the Armenian-Jewish journal Noah, I was invited to visit Israel several times. During the first trip I was on the jury of a KVN competition between the Israeli and Armenian teams. I was the only non-Jew on the jury. The teams were dead even going into the last round. The last assignment was Homework: three jury members voted for the Israeli team, and three voted for the Armenians. My vote was the deciding one. I voted for the Israelis, and the Armenians nearly killed me. To be honest, I didn’t like either team because already back then they were performing pre-rehearsed material instead of performing impromptu.
In Israel, I visited Yad Vashem, the museum of the history of the Holocaust and Jewish heroism. There, for the first time, I was told the exact figure of how many Jews had been murdered during the Second World War: at the time, it was known to be five million 820 thousand something. The memorial struck me, but I was also struck by something else: after seeing all this horror at Yad Vashem, seeing how people had been turned into ashes, smoke and dust, after seeing how terrible it had been, young people emerged from the memorial complex laughing. At first, there was sadness and tears, but then life quickly reasserted itself. I thought about how I could explode this stereotype in the minds of people: six million Jews had been murdered. Six million: how was that? Six million exactly? Such figures should never be rounded up! How could they be rounded up? Could they be rounded up by seventy thousand or 150 thousand more? We are talking about real people. I began thinking about how to organize an uprising against this thoughtless repetition: six million Jews were murdered…
Soon I had a dream—of a huge wasteland, with a two-storey wooden house in it. I walked up the creaky steps to the second floor, and there was a room in which a huge table was piled with all sorts of interesting books. I noticed that one book was quite unusual. It was precious: its pages were made of gold. I even turned them over, and the pages tinkled. The pages were filled with lines of black numbers, line after line of them. I woke up and realized what I had to do.
I grabbed a stack of paper and began writing numbers in no particular order: 0, 3, 4, 1, 7, 9, 8, 4… My task was to write as many numbers as there were Jews who had been murdered. Each number represented a Jew who had been murdered. I wrote for two years, filling a mountain of paper with numbers. I wrote every day for five, six hours. It was very hard work to write so many numbers. I would write and cry, write and cry. Then I took what I had written to the printers so that they could print the manuscript in book form. I called it The Number of the Abyss.
The pages of this book were not numbered, because for Jews books begin at the end. My task was to make a book that would be understandable without any words to anyone, even if they were Japanese, Arab or Mexican. I realized that I should not solicit donations to have it published, as I had done with the Armenian-Jewish almanac. I understood that I had to pay for it myself, and so I borrowed twelve thousand dollars, which was a huge amount of money for me. The book was published in an edition of 999: it took me ten years to sell them and pay off my debt.
When it was still being put together, the director of the printing plant called me and said, “Vardvan, the workers are asking what it is that they are printing. Endless number and pages, all of them black. It isn’t some kind of encrypted spy message, is it? What is it?” The book was large, almost 900 pages long. “We, ” he said, “sense that it is something terrible and sinister. What are we printing? Come and talk to the workers!” I went and told them about the Jews, about the Holocaust. They were amazed and did the job very painstakingly.
After The Number of the Abyss was published, I gave it as a gift to three outstanding scientists: the mathematician Arnold, the chemist Goldansky, and the astronomer Rauschenbach. Arnold, the great mathematician, leafed through it and said, “So what? What did you want to say with this book?” Goldansky said, “Yes, yes.” And so did Rauschenbach. I was amazed. The workers had understood what it was and what it was about, but the great scientists had not.
I invited the Israeli cultural attaché, the wonderful writer Shammai Gollan, to the book’s presentation. He said, “Vardan, have you not been to Israel, to the Yad Vashem Museum? What can you, a non-Jew, add to what has already been written? You could fill entire libraries with books about the Holocaust.” I said, “Well, it’s not for me to judge. Come if you have the time.” He came. I gave him the book. He opened it and said, “Vardvan, you have done something that all the Jews in the world have not thought to do.” I received letters from all over the world: from the Library of Congress, from the Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel, from ministers, from ordinary people.
Recently, I learned at Yad Vashem that, ten years after the publication of The Number of the Abyss, more than 500 thousand new names of victims were added to the list. If I could find a sponsor now, I would finish the book and make a second edition, because “six million” means nothing, it frightens no one. I remember what the playwright Alexander Gelman told me: “Vardvanchik, you don’t know what you’ve done. I now know where the twelve members of my family are. They’re here. Twelve numbers: my younger brother, my grandmother… Your book is like having their twelve tombstones at home.”
Since childhood, I dreamed of being the very, very best at something. I knew, however, that I wouldn’t be the handsomest, the strongest or the richest, but that never worried me. This vanity has not left me my entire life, perhaps even to this day. I used to try and set stupid records. For example, at one job, a former front-line soldier told me how during the war they had walked around Moscow, a distance of either 103 kilometers or 113. It took them more than two days. But I said that I could walk it in a day. We made a bet. I set out on an early August morning in Chinese sneakers and walked walked walked the concrete roads for seventeen hours without a break, until my sneakers fell to pieces. I had walked eighty-tree kilometers. Now I look around and think: wow, how awful.
One day I decided to see how long I could go without drinking or eating. And so, as witnessed by my wife, Margarita Khemlin, a wonderful writer, I neither ate nor drank for six and a half days. I could have gone longer, but I was afraid that suddenly I would cross some irreparable bodily backup boundary. I began eating and drinking again.
When I was young, I was once sent to a collective farm. I was nineteen years old. I was a laboratory assistant at the Energy Institute, which was headed by the scientist Gleb Krzhizhanovsky, a friend of Lenin’s who had written the Russian lyrics to the revolutionary song “Varshavianka.” I was sent from the institute to the collective farm, where I had a conversation with local peasants about who the strongest man in the neighborhood was. The men agreed that the strongest man was a tractor driver named Kolya: he could lift and carry 150 kilograms. I said that I could do two hundred. So they said, “All right, all of us can do two hundred.”
They had brushed me off like a fly. Once again a demon kept pushing me. I ended up wearing them down. “All right, ” they said, “let’s bet on it. Here (we were on the threshing floor) are scales, grain, and sacks. Let’s go.” They poured grain into two hefty bags, a hundred kilograms each. The goal was to walk about fifty paces from the scales to the shed where the wheat was stored. The two bags were tied together. Four of the men picked up the bags and put them on my shoulders: the wheat fit perfectly, sticking right to them. They put the sacks on my shoulders and said, “You’ll fall over right away.” I said, “Come on! Let’s do it!”
When they placed the second bag on top of the first one, I felt as if I had been squashed like an accordion, as if I had been driven knee-deep into the ground. I couldn’t breathe. I thought about what to do: it was a shame to lose the bet, but I was unable to move. I couldn’t even move my little finger. Yet somehow I did move my little finger, and then my other fingers, and then I walked a centimeter, two centimeters, a whole step, finally reaching the shed and winning the bet. I was awarded a bottle of vodka, thereby affirming that my life was worth three rubles.
I thought a lot about this incident because, given all the conceivable circumstances, I should have instantly broken my spine or something. What was the explanation? I was no hero of any kind, and I had never played sports. There was only one explanation: the Lord, seeing my hopeless stupidity, sent four angels to support the bag by its four corners. Otherwise, I could not explain how I managed to do it. This is the species of vanity, pride, and stupidity that has haunted me all my life. But I have managed to do things that, while not immortal, have been sensible and interesting.
Another adventure was giving up journalism to work as a hunter in Tuva. I studied journalism for two years at Ural University, two in Kazan, and the last two in Moscow—as a correspondence student. I had a research supervisor—a very famous person, Dietmar Ilyashevich Rosenthal: everyone uses his reference books on spelling and punctuation.
In those days, acceptable topics for theses were on the order of “Party-Mindedness in Print, ” and “How to Write an Essay.” I wasn’t interested in any of it. I came up with another topic: “Ray Bradbury’s Science Fiction.” Dietmar Ilyashevich was quite spooked. He asked me why I had to write such a thesis. Because Soviet publishers had started printing Bradbury’s books: The Martian Chronicles was already out, as was Fahrenheit 451, but very little had been written about him. However, when Dietmar Ilyashevich found out that I had written a letter to Bradbury in America, and he had sent me a huge parcel filled with magazines dedicated to him, and with his books, Dietmar Ilyashevich stopped arguing with me.
I asked Bradbury a bunch of questions, like why he had written his most famous novel, Fahrenheit 451. He replied that it was a protest against the Hitlerite, Francoist and Stalinist dictatorships. This, in short, was “anti-Soviet propaganda, ” and I couldn’t use a single word of it. But since he had sent me so much stuff, I wrote my thesis about his work.
My opponent at my thesis defense was a well-known American studies scholar. He was so amazed by my thesis that he suggested that I immediately be awarded a PhD in philology. The rector’s office replied that in the two hundred years of its history, there had been no such precedent at Moscow State, but said that they were willing to immediately enroll me in graduate school and count my thesis as the abstract of my dissertation.
I thought, What’s the point? I had long wanted to go to Tuva, especially since I learned that it was the dead center of Asia (that is, the place most distant from all the oceans), and that the Yenisei had its source there. Their only Russian-language newspaper in those days, Tuva Pravda, had been tearfully begging for twelve years to send them a journalist, but not a single fool willing to go had been found. Then I turned up.
I went to Kyzyl, the Tuvan capital, and began working at the newspaper. I worked and worked, but the editor-in-chief wouldn’t let me drink tea in the office. I would say, “I used to work for the Literary Gazette, and they sold port wine, brandy, and beer there!” And he would say, “You’re slandering them!” I spent about a year hunting and fishing there. I never really got to kill anything. Only once I killed a she-wolf, and that was more out of fright.
I was a jack of all trades. I worked as a porter, and I worked in a laundry on the railroad. I was a mailman, a security guard in a parking lot, and a lab technician. I was part of a geological survey team, went to medical school, and worked as a journalist. I had so many jobs, and all of them came in handy, I think. They were especially useful when I decided to become a writer.
I decided to become a writer when I was working as a hunter. I then had my own hunting cabin in the Republic of Tuva, in its most remote area, the Todzhu District. (Tuva, by the way, was part of China until 1912, when it was known as Tannu Uriankhai. I met people who had been slaves under the princes: they told me all sorts of terrible and amazing stories.) It was then and there that I decided to try my hand at writing.
I returned to Moscow, but it turned out that I had lost my residence registration. I went to Arkhangelsk Region, where I pushed trolleys at a woodworking plant that built panel barracks for the BAM. But then my registration was restored, and when I told my mother that I wanted to be a writer, she was so scared. My mom, Anastasia Khokhlova, was born in the village of Medvino in Ryazan Region. She was illiterate. My mother was terribly frightened: she told me that only the children of ministers, academicians, and generals could be writers. Her disbelief gave me so much strength! If she had praised me and told me that I was talented, I’m certain that I wouldn’t have made it. But I wanted to prove to her that I could do it.
Of course, for many years what I wrote was total scribbling. Just like Bradbury: he kept writing stories, sending them to all the big science fiction writers—Heinlein, Clarke, and so on. They would later say that it was a pity that they hadn’t drowned him along with his scribbling. He wrote a pile of science fiction, but then he burned it all in his back yard and started writing The Martian Chronicles. I don’t want to compare myself in any way to a great and beloved writer, but I really must have written tens of thousands of short stories, and it was all scribbling, until quantity turned into the glitter of quality.
The first serious thing I wrote was a story about Omar Khayyam: I had decided to write stories about my favorite poets. First I wrote about Khayyam, then about Villon, and for ten years I did the rounds of the publishing houses and editorial offices. I would go to a thick magazine, and their first question would be whether I was a member of the Writers Union. I would say no, and they would tell me I had to be a member. I would go to publishing houses, and they would ask the same question. I did the rounds like this for ten years: it was a vicious circle. Everyone told me I was talented, and the reviewers whom the thick magazines asked to read my stuff wrote good things. Marietta Chudakova, for example: she was given my story about Khayyam. Everyone told me that she would rip me to shreds, but she wrote a wonderful review.
Novy Mir gave me two excellent reviews, but wouldn’t publish me. But I was close… I saw people drink themselves to death, go crazy, and hang themselves because they were talented, but no one would publish them. They couldn’t even resort to samizdat. Suppose a person was not a dissident or a free thinker, just a good poet, a good prose writer, but he was not published anywhere. Back then it was impossible to publish books at your own expense: everything had to go through Glavlit. Some people went crazy, got drunk, and hung themselves.
But I got lucky, very lucky. I decided to go to the best and most famous publishing house at the time—Soviet Writer. I brought them two stories, and they asked me whether I was a member of the Writers Union. I said no, and they told me to go the literary advisory board. I laid the manuscript on their desk and said, “Here is my manuscript. You sit here getting paid to read manuscripts. Please read my manuscript and write that I am incompetent, that you cannot publish me, that I am a scribbler!” I left the manuscript with them, and fortunately for me a commission arrived just at the same time. They discovered that the publishing house had been signing fake contracts for non-existent works. The editor-in-chief was kicked out. When they began looking at the folders containing approved manuscripts, they found newspaper clippings instead of novels.
A new editorial board came in, along with a new head editor. They started looking for something to publish: they had to publish something. They looked in the slush pile and found my manuscript. They sent it out for review: one review was full of high praise, while the other was devastating. They asked for a third review, which was very good. And the editor, the wonderful editor Zelenov, a front-line veteran, also gave it good review. Only five months to the day after I brought them the manuscript, the book was out. The Ballad of Fate was immediately published in an edition of a hundred thousand. A week after it was published, I couldn’t find a copy in the stores to buy: it was sold out. Khayyam and Villon were interesting! The book got me accepted into the Writers Union, and I kept on writing.
I had another dream. It took up five years of my life. In the year 2000, a modern Hebrew language course were organized in Moscow for the Jewish intelligentsia, and I was invited to attend because of my “services to the Jewish people.” I thought I would give it a try.
I was the only goy among the thirty-three people who began studying the language. Four months later, when the financing dried up, I was the only one who hadn’t missed a single lesson. Four of us finished the course. Our instructor was Alexander Alexandrovich Kryukov, chair of the modern Hebrew department at the Institute of Oriental Languages and a brilliant specialist. He told me I was a good student—I was already writing poems in Hebrew and so on—and asked me to come to the institute and continue studying with his own students. I thanked him but told him that he had taught me to read and write, and that was enough.
Then I bought a bilingual edition of the Torah, in ancient Hebrew and Russian. For a whole year I read it out loud from morning to night: “B’reshit bara elohim et hashamayim v’et ha’aretz.” In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth… I would read it once, and then over again. So I was reading and reading, and sometimes I would say to myself, Vardvanchik, you could translate this passage better than it was translated in the Russian Synodal Bible.
So once I had a dream. At first it was a bunch of nonsense, but suddenly that was swept away as if by a hurricane and replaced by total darkness. I heard two phrases loud and clear: “You will do a work of penance, and your name will be Benjamin.” I woke up and thought that it had definitely not been your average dream. A work of penance? That meant I had to do something important. My name would be Benjamin? In ancient Hebrew, Benjamin (Binyamin) means “son of the right hand.”
I thought, Well, I’m a writer, but what great thing could I do with my right hand? I thought, Here you are reading the Torah and you think that you can translate it better, so make a better translation. I sat there for five years and translated the Pentateuch of Moses, aka the Torah, aka the Holy Scripture. I would translate one book, raise funds and publish it, then I would translate the second book and do the same thing.
Later, I published a book called The Road from Rome, which featured five stories about my favorite poets: Khayyam, Villon, Ovid, Gregory of Narek, and Li Bai. I had been published by Soviet Writer in 1983, and The Road from Rome was the first book by a Soviet writer published at his own expense. That was in 1989, I think. I sold it myself on Strastny Boulevard, at the entrance to the Chekhovskaya subway station, next to the arch. (You pass under the arch, and there is my favorite library, the Chekhov Library). For two months, December and January, I sold it, selling all five thousand copies. And I didn’t bargain with people, but sold the book at the price indicated on the cover, five rubles. I believe that every writer should put themselves through this experiment: they should sell at least a thousand copies themselves, if they were able to get published at all, confronting the people who buy them. So they can come back in a day, in a week, and tell you what they think of you and your book, to say good things to you or spit in your face. I’m sure many writers would hide their faces if they were asked to do this, because there are all kinds of books, good and bad.
But I heard so many good things about myself! I would sit there like a street trader, wearing felt boots and sometimes a sheepskin coat. I would be selling away, and people would ask who wrote the book. I said it was me. “What do you mean ‘you’?” they would reply. “Are you Varzhapetyan himself?” And the person would go buy bottle of vodka or red dessert wine, or pasties. It was bliss. And I also found out who my main readers were: university-educated women between thirty-five and fifty years old. It was a powerful sociological study. Only two copies were returned to me the entire time: two out of five thousand readers did not like the book.
When I put together The Road from Rome, I took it to the publishing house Legal Literature, which also published fiction. The director told me that an entrepreneur had read my books and agreed to finance the publication. They were printing my new book at a printing press in Vladimir when suddenly the director called me and said, “Vardvan! The entrepreneur called and said he has gone broke: he cannot be involved. I’m sorry: I don’t know what to do.” I said, “Do you believe me?” “How can I put it? I guess I believe you.” “Then finish printing the book, give me the entire run, and I’ll go out and sell it.”
He probably didn’t believe me. Soon a container from Vladimir arrived at one of the freight stations. It was a big deal lining up stevedores and a crane, then retrieving and unloading the container. Consequently, I took the entire load to the Chekhov Library: they allowed me to store all the books there, and they gave me a table to set up on the street. So in two months I sold all the copies and paid off the publisher. I gave them twelve thousand, pocketing thirteen thousand. It was a lot of money for me.
I saw so many different people while I was selling the book, including fascists, liberals, and Cossacks. But there were two categories of people who would not buy any books from me: military men and writers. Many of them came up to me on the street, but the military folks thought that I should give them a copy of the book for free, so I would tell them, “Out here I am a trader, but if you come to my house, I will be happy to give it to you.” The writers laughed and told me I was a fool: how had I paid such money! But then, many years later, they told me I had done the smart thing: nowadays, you can’t get a book published no matter how much you pay.
There was one more dream. When my skull was fractured in August 2003, some people decided that it was for my “Judeophilia, ” for the magazine and all the rest. But who did it? Someone came up behind me and smashed my whole noggin in with a sledgehammer. I survived, however, thank God. I don’t know who it was or why they did it. The person stole nothing from me: neither my money, nor my documents, nor my mobile phone. They just tried to kill me, dropped the sledgehammer, and scrammed. Even Echo of Moscow radio station reported that writer so-and-so had been killed. But I was alive, and five or six days later I regained consciousness at Municipal Hospital No. 1, where I had been taken.
I woke up a different person. I had been baptized as a child in Ufa, during the evacuation. My mother was a Christian, a believer. The priest gave me the name Viktor, because my mother was Russian, but my father called me Vardvan, which my mother could not pronounce, because she was from Ryazan. But she couldn’t call me Viktor at home either, because she was afraid that my father would be offended. Now I had woken up a believer. I hadn’t been a believer before then, but I woke up a completely different man in terms of my faith. It was as if I had believed and been praying all my life.
I started going to church after I was discharged. I didn’t like one church, then another, but I finally found a good church: the Church of the Holy Martyr Antipas. It’s in Kolymazhny Alley, next to the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts: if you stand facing the museum, there is a small alley on the right with a church in it. I really liked the priest there, Father Dmitry. So there I was praying: the church was packed, because Lent began the next day, and this priest delivered such a passionate sermon.
After the service, I was walking home and thinking how I could get through Lent with dignity: seven weeks is no joke! Forty-nine days! Then I had a dream. A huge stadium is packed to capacity: it’s the World Athletics Championships. The final gold medal is up for grabs: in the marathon. The best marathoners in the world take to the track, and the commentator announces, “The best marathoners in the world are starting now. Among them is an old man who is in a stadium for the first time and wants to run, too. Let’s wish him success!” And the stadium roars, “Old man, come on! Don’t let us down: we’re rooting for you!” The old man is me. The marathon runners have decided amongst themselves that when the starting pistol goes off they will wait and let the old man run two kilometers before running: they will give him a head start.
The shot rings out, and the old man lunges forward. The commentator reports his progress: “He has run 500 meters, 1,000 meters, 2,000 meters!” Then the others take off. Two and a half hours later, the stadium is waiting: the winner appears, crossing the finish line. Then the second-place runner crosses the line, then the one hundred and twenty-second, and so on. An hour after the last runner has finished, the old man barely staggers over the finish line, and the whole stadium jumps to its feet and applauds like crazy.
I woke up, thinking, Lord, now that was a dream! It meant that I had been praying all that time. The forty-ninth day of Lent was ending, and the next day was Easter. Again the church was packed, and the priest again delivered a very good sermon. He said, “Two people have lived through the weeks of Lent with dignity: I, because it is my duty, and Vardvan. Let us sing him ‘Many Years’!” I heard that, and my legs buckled. I fell to my knees, saying, “Father Dmitry! I’m not worthy!” He said, “I know who is worthy of what!” Meaning that he had not divined my dream. I had just been going to church all that time, both in the afternoons and the evenings. Sometimes I would be the only one there besides the priest and the choristers.
Subsequently, I tried so many times just to get through at least one week decently with the same fervor, with the same zeal, much less the seven weeks of Lent. I never pulled it off: I was unable to live even one day this way. Then I thought that I had regarded the dream as a kind of blessing, telling me, You’ll succeed, you’ll be fine. Not that fasting is the simplest thing to do, but you have to pray, pray, and pray some more. And purify yourself, strip away your sins, of which there are probably 150 layers. I thought that at least I had gone through it once, and now I knew what Lent was.
Since I often go to bookstores, I once had this idea. There are the huge bookstores, like Moskva and Biblio-Globus, and people, whether urban or rural, go into them and say they want to buy decent books—for their grandchildren, for their children, for themselves. “Where are your decent books?” they ask. The saleswoman says, “What kind of decent books? We have Russian classics, children’s literature, and fairy tales.” “But where are the decent books?” “Go and look.”
So I thought that I should publish a series of “decent books.” I stood outside the church, soliciting donations. I spent a whole year begging, and I collected over three thousand dollars. (But I was not given the money in dollars, of course. Each book cost a hundred dollars to print.) Consequently, I published thirty-two or thirty-six books, an entire library. I asked a book illustrator, Lev Saksonov, to make a really good layout. Everyone who picks up these books immediately smiles.
But they are not just decent, these books. I read all the Russian fairy tales, thousands and thousands, to choose a decent fairy tale, and found only two: “The Turnip” and “Ryaba the Hen.” The others are seemingly fairy tales, too, but they can also be quite wicked. The Brothers Grimm, for example. Yes, and Hans Christian Andersen—take “The Tinderbox.” Remember? The witch in the story fills the soldier’s pockets with gold and says, “Give me the tinderbox now!” But he thinks, “Why should I give it to you?” He takes out his saber and cuts off the witch’s head. So much for the fairy tale. I’m glad I finally did this series.
The original idea that I had was ambitious. On the back covers of the early books, I had written that this book was the first step towards building Seraphimograd, a city where there would be no humiliated, destitute people. This was during the presidential elections, when Medvedev became president. I wanted to convey to him that Russia had nowhere to go: people’s lives were hard. There was so much gangsterism and crime: those were terrible times. So I thought that I had an idea: to establish Seraphimograd in the land of Seraphim of Sarov, a place where the poor, the sick, and the lepers from all over Russia would flock, knowing that no one there would offend them, that they would be taken care of, fed, and given medical treatment. It would be a city for the unfortunate and destitute, where orphans would live together with elderly people. There would be no separate orphanages and nursing homes: old and young would live together. Because old people and orphans are similar: the old people would tell the children everything, and the children would ask the old people questions. There would be synagogues, mosques, and Orthodox churches. It would be city of kindness!
I thought that Medvedev would suddenly stop and go, “Wow!” On the first day of the presidency, he would travel to Sarov, find a place that he fancied, and order that the new city’s foundation stone be laid there. And people would respond to that, because there had never been a city like this on earth at all. To build the City of the Sun! But I managed to climb only a few steps on my way to the president, no further. I did publish the library, however.
Tinyakov was called the Smerdyakov of Russian poetry. But when I read the documents related to him, I found a lot that suggested the opposite. I spent a long time studying Tinyakov: it took me more than five years. I have two volumes of handwritten notes, of passages I copied from the newspapers and documents in the archives. Then I typed up more than 1,100 pages on a typewriter: first I wrote them out in a notebook by hand, and then I came back to Moscow and typed them. All of it is organized into sections. There are so many treasures there! So many unpublished and unknown letters, and notes by Tinyakov himself, sometimes quite interesting. You know, there is a lot of dirt in my soul, too. I’m just as much a womanizer as he was, and one hell of a boozer. I’m a braggart, and I’m chockablock with vanity. Tinyakov was talented in his own way, just as I am in mine.
Everyone was friends with him, the entire Silver Age of Russian literature: Severyanin, Gumilev, Blok, Tsvetaeva, Akhmatova, Sadovskoy, Kuzmin, Sologub, Chebotarevskaya—everyone, the whole Silver Age. They would write to him, “Dear Alexander Ivanovich, I present you with my book.” Merezhkovsky wrote to him, “Alexander, my collected works are coming out, and you have to write about them, especially once you are able to have a look at them. I have ordered the publisher to deliver them.” So Blok and all these people saw something in him? So there was something about him? If he was interesting to them, to those great people, then why can he not be interesting to our contemporaries? After all, he was a crooked mirror of the Silver Age, so to speak.
I did indeed chose the vilest character of the time. He is much more interesting than just some slightly sneaky character: there are a million of those. Then, of course, there were the wild pendulum swings Tinyakov’s life took. After all, when he started out, he wrote such good lyrical poems: it was clear that he had a pure soul. And he went to Yasnaya Polyana to ask Tolstoy how to live: Tolstoy advised him to return to his family, with whom he had broken off relations, and go back to high school. Tinyakov had good intentions. And meanness, too: he slung mud at people who had done him a lot of good. Gorky believed that a very good prose writer had been lost in Tinyakov.
I was primarily interested in discovering Tinyakov for myself, but also for other people. I thought that I would write a book about him, but then I realized that it was beyond my powers: there was too much filth. Although Novy Mir once mentioned that Varzhapetyan had written “a huge work about Tinyakov, ” so far I have produced only a draft of this work, and Common Place has published a small book of mine entitled Something about Tinyakov, which is about two hundred pages long.
People sometimes ask me why I slander myself. But I say good things about myself, too, as well as the bad things. If I had not been interested in Tinyakov, I would not have discovered the Silver Age, which I read from top to bottom, and perused thoroughly in archives and collections. For example, there was the story of Beilis, accused of murdering a baby: it was a terrible case, of course. Tinyakov insisted in the articles that he wrote that Beilis was guilty, that he was a murderer. Korolenko and Gorky wrote, knowing the state of mind of Russian society (which Gorky knew better than anyone, from the lower classes to the ladies-in-waiting and all the rest), that there would be no miracle at the trial, that the jury would say, “We find him guilty, of course.” The fact that the jury—those peasants, those burghers, a postal service conductor—found Beilis not guilty was a real miracle.
I correctly wrote in the book that if we’re going celebrate a national unity holiday, then it should be celebrated on the day of the verdict in the Beilis trial: that would be an occasion that wasn’t concocted. A miracle really happened that day: Russia said, “Not guilty, ” although the palace wanted Beilis found guilty. Not a single Orthodox priest was found who was willing to testify as an expert witness on blood libels: they had to summon a Catholic priest, Pranaitis, an anti-Semite. None of the prosecutors in Kiev agreed to take the case. This suggests that it was a country where there were pogroms, but where there were also surprisingly conscientious people. I think they still exist.
Translated, from the Russian, by Thomas H. Campbell