Black Earth City

    Charlotte Hobson is a young Englishwoman of Russian heritage who spent the years 1991 - 1992 as an undergraduate student in Voronezh. This city of one million, 500 kilometers south of Moscow, is a major rail junction in the Don Cossack region, near the border of Belorussia. Hobson, who was fluent in Russian, was there as Communism collapsed, the Soviet Union disintegrated into a dozen separate countries, and the former Soviet ways were undergoing a strange shift into an amalgam of the old Russian and the new international culture.

There were also Gypsies. I saw a group of Gypsy women burst upon the outdoor market one gray afternoon, shouting to each other and moving quickly among the crowd. They wore layers of raucous scarves and frills, orange petticoats, and pink-red shawls tied around their waists. Gold and sequins flashed from their arms as they elbowed shoppers out of their way. They offered their goods to sell with threats and laughed hoarsely when they were refused. Cursing them, the crowd turned their backs until the Gypsies were gone. All the Russians despised and feared the Gypsies. They'd steal the bread out of your mouth and give you the evil eye afterward. They were not governed by the same laws as normal people; they were the harbingers of chaos.

I asked some Gypsies once, on a whim, if I could stay the night with them. They were camped on a piece of wasteland out toward the road to Moscow. Mitya and Edik were buying cigarettes. The woman I asked laughed, and said, "Better let me tell your fortune."

"Let me just sit here and chat, then. We'll drink tea together."

She looked dubious. "I'll have to ask my baron," she answered at last. "Wait over there, and I'll find him."

I joined Mitya and Edik, who looked at me with disapproval. "They're dirty, Charlotte, what do you want with them?"

"Come on, we have to go, "Edik broke in. "What's interesting about them?" he said, and we got into a taxi. "They're dangerous." And to most Russians, they were. Not just because of their thievery and their diseases but because of the breath of anarchy they released into the streets. Like devils, they were, come to tempt us.

Anarchy was not new to Voronezh. As a border town, it had been barely controlled by Moscow until the end of the eighteenth century, inhabited by escaped serfs, schismatics fleeing persecution, and smugglers. The Cossacks, who bred their famous horses in the region, acknowledged no authority but their own. As late as 1765, when the Bishop of Voronezh visited a village in his diocese, he encountered a procession bearing a beribboned young man --- a representation of Yarylo, god of fertility. The province was, a contemporary lamented, "half-pagan, half-barbarian."

In another village, the villagers were descendents of eighteenth century exiles and convicts. Although the streets were named after Soviet heroes, the villagers proudly repeated the old street names that commemorated their forefathers' activities: Strangler's Lane, Embezzler's Lane, Counterfeiter's Row.

This part of Voronezh's history, however, was little known or appreciated by the 1990s. For many people, the rabble that had begun to appear on the streets since perestroika was proof that the so-called democratic system was dragging their country into shame and disorder. Their town suddenly seemed strange to them, and dangerous. ...These people --- good, responsible citizens all of them --- even regretted the end of the propiska, the residence permit, which had more or less prevented free movement within the Soviet Union. They would tell you that Russians could only be ruled by the rod: Look at our history! We're an Asiatic people, we're not European, they would explain.

And yet for some members of the underclass it was a time of liberation, Johnson the bomzh [vagrant] told me and Mitya, "A whole year's gone by without prison." He couldn't tell us why, but he added wistfully, "I'm going to the Novosibirsk region. They say it's beautiful up there, with forests and lakes...."

His tone reminded me of the dreams of the Russian peasantry in the nineteenth century, of an utopia on the White Waters of the Altai mountains. Inspired by some omen, whole villages would suddenly set out toward these mythical lands, leaving their houses and fields behind. In 1856, not realizing that the Crimean War had already ended, thousands of serfs departed on foot for the Crimea in the belief that all those who fought in the campaign would be set free.

And indeed, similar stories began to circulate in Voronezh in 1991. The Americans were about to open a factory in Voronezh, and all those who worked there would be given visas to the United States. The government was going to announce an immediate redistribution of land. And it was funding investigations into alien landings in the Voronezh region, as there had been so many sightings. One had even been reported by the Tass news agency: humanoid giants, three or four meters high with very small heads, had landed in a vehicle like a shining ball right in the center of the city --- Koltsov Square, or thereabouts.

Why not? Stranger things were happening all around. Anyone could see, now, that the gray materialism of the Communist regime was too tight to contain all of life. Chaos, passion, and the old superstitious Russian magic had burst the seams, and now reality was layered and raucous.

So I was hardly surprised when Horse told me about the deaf and dumb people. It was late one night in the bar in the Theater of the Young Spectator. We were talking about Lapochka's housemates when Horse sloped toward me and swore me to secrecy.

"You mustn't ever let them see you know," he whispered. "They can hear, really, and speak."


"The deaf and dumb people. In reality they aren't. I drank with them one day, you see. We went out to the vodka bar on Koltsov Square. That's where they all go, they call it the White Horse. And I bought them drinks and they bought me drinks and I think they must have put something in them, because I started feeling very hazy and you know that's not like me.... Everything was looking unsteady, and then one of them suddenly said, 'You know I can talk if I want. But I don't want.' And another one said, 'We're underground, three kilometers underground.' I particularly remember the three kilometers."

"Then why do they pretend?"

"They have their reasons," said Horse, shrugging. "Who knows why?"

--- From Black Earth City
Charlotte Hobson
©2001 Picador
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