THE IRON CURTAIN
by Luba Markovskaia // Translated by Ann Marie Boulanger
A few years after the fall of the Soviet Union, my family and I immigrated to Montreal. My maternal and paternal grandparents followed soon after, setting up house a few blocks away from each other, in Côte-des-Neiges. Every weekend of my childhood was spent divided between those two apartments. On an alternating — and ironclad — schedule, I would shuttle between their respective houses on foot, escorted right to the door when I was little, then later, on my own. The two couples never spoke, at best coldly tolerating the latest news of each other, delivered with each of my visits. In fact, they were so diametrically opposed that the few blocks’ journey between their houses always gave me the sense I was slipping back and forth through an iron curtain.
In their one-bedroom apartment on Édouard-Montpetit Street, my paternal grandparents kept separate sleeping quarters. My grandmother slept in the closed bedroom, and my grandfather presided over the living room. A heavy velvet curtain separated his retreat from the rest of the world. They lived parallel lives, like shadows occasionally intersecting, steeped in indifference. During my visits, I’d spend most of my time in the bedroom, drawing and reading. Sometimes, Dedushka would summon me to his inner sanctum to show me something. My grandmother would poke her head in the bedroom door to pass along the invitation. Somewhat apprehensively, I’d step behind the curtain — where I’d be greeted by a smell I now recognize as a mixture of white tobacco and ambergris, and by the formidable bulk of my grandfather holding court in the gloom — and take my place in the empty armchair next to him.
Most of the time, he wanted to show me one of three things on TV: a wildlife documentary, a ballet, or a boxing match. With the latter, he’d launch into animated explanations of the elegance and tactics involved in the sport. Sometimes, I’d find him conducting a piece of classical music with an invisible baton, ba-dum-dum-dum. Other times, he’d hand me a book to read: the adventures of Till Eulenspiegel, whose terrible burnings at the stake haunted me for years, the wry tales of Gerald Durrell, or the heartbreaking short stories of O. Henry. After a while, he’d dismiss me, and I’d go back to the bedroom, a shade relieved. There’s no question those forays into his world were significant, but that didn’t make them any less nerve-wracking; I was expected to be worthy of whatever thing he’d chosen to share with me.
At my maternal grandparents’ house, on Isabella Avenue, the mood was lighter, but they ran a tight ship. I’d watch Soviet films and sit for my history lessons, following the curriculum that my grandmother, a former teacher, had taught her students, taken straight from the pages of textbooks ordered from a Russian bookstore on Decarie Boulevard. At mealtimes, we’d often interrupt our conversations to look things up in the thick Soviet encyclopedia, repaired many times over with cello tape. Once in a while, we’d discover a gaping hole in the tome — this one irreparable — and none of us would quite know what to say. There would go another composer, another author, forever silenced, relegated to the void, victims of censorship by the regime.
As far as grandfathers went, Dedulya was the complete opposite of Dedushka. Both are variations on the word “grandfather,” which I’d used since birth to distinguish between my mother’s father and my father’s father. Dedulya was a kind and gentle man who could build or fix anything. He’d invented a tool for picking blueberries during summer at the dacha: a sort of two-jawed rake that could gather up dozens of berries at a time, without ripping off the leaves or mangling the bushes. Anything that needed mending we took to him: a shoe with a broken heel, an erstwhile pearl necklace reduced to a handful of beads collected from the cracks in the floor… He’d take the object in question, study it with the utmost seriousness, and sit for hours or days, if that’s what it took, his attention never wavering from his latest engrossing task.
Every year, on his wedding anniversary, Dedulya would stand to tell the story, his voice quavering, of how he met his wife. He’d recount how he’d been in first grade when a new girl had joined the class, how the siege of Leningrad had separated them not long after, how he’d become an engineer in the navy, and how, while home on leave, crossing a bridge in Pushkin, he’d instantly recognized my grandmother. For my family, that bridge has become a pilgrimage site. I have a picture of me taken in that exact spot, in a suburb of St. Petersburg. We celebrate Meeting Day with as much pomp and circumstance as Victory Day.
As much as I was intimidated by my hushed living-room exchanges with Dedushka, I loved to sit in the kitchen and watch him cook, which he did with captivating focus and deliberateness. I’d look on as he chopped a thick bunch of dill, slowly and rhythmically, in time with his breathing, with a chef’s knife that seemed enormous to me at the time. Then, under my fascinated gaze, he’d slowly run a stubby finger down either side of the blade, wiping away the stuck bits, in a gesture that seemed to me both refined and dangerous.
Under the Soviet regime, time spent cooking was often seen as time wasted, energy squandered on a task considered pointless and, to quote Lenin himself, barbaric. Not only was the pursuit of sophisticated flavour profiles thwarted by food shortages and bland market offerings, it also reeked of the champagne tastes of the middle class. As staging grounds for elaborate meals, the shared kitchens in the communal apartments didn’t exactly make the grade. My mother and my grandmothers all hated to cook. In their homes, the oven was a place for storing the pots and pans used to boil meat and vegetables; it would never have occurred to them to use it for anything else. In the kitchen, they were whirling dervishes of annoyance and agitation, in stark contrast to the slow, measured gestures of my grandfather. Not only did he love to cook, Dedushka knew exactly where to find everything he needed for his recipes — he was a whiz at the black market. If the sole existing black-and-white photo of the event is to be believed, he single-handedly prepared my parents’ wedding buffet, a long table laden with dishes.
Despite the almost complete dearth of photos at my paternal grandparents’ house, I distinctly remember the one on the living room wall. It was of my grandfather, much younger than I’d ever known him, sprawled out on a sofa, mouth twisted into an ironic smile. In the foreground was a lioness stretched out on the carpet, staring directly into the camera. Next to the photo hung a costumer’s sketch. These mementoes represented two major phases of his life: director of a zoo and master of a ballet on ice, after a stint as an artist, a Russian word used to refer to theatre actors. One of only a handful of Soviets to ever cross the Iron Curtain, he’d toured Asia with his ballet company, making stops in Japan, Korea and China. He had friends all over the world, including a tall, elegant Black man by the name of Abel, who would visit him late at night and spend hours conversing with him in hushed tones. The mystique of these nighttime meetings fascinated me no end. My grandfather was a vehement anti-Communist. One day, he told me the story of how his parents had been executed under Stalin. The alleged reason? “You can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs.”
On a shelf on my bookcase, my maternal grandfather’s old Zenit camera occupies pride of place. It’s an indestructible device housed in a huge, black leather case. The metal is heavy and cold, the leather smells like the passage of time, and the buttons and levers emanate metallic-sounding clicks. Dedulya used the camera for decades to document my family’s life. He turned the bathroom into a makeshift darkroom, where he’d spend hours developing his shots by the glow of a red lightbulb. We were forbidden from opening the door, at the risk of erasing all the images imprinted on the silver powder, which my grandfather developed and retouched.
In Russian, the word retouch is borrowed from the French — no doubt an homage to the Daguerre brothers. But while it may sound perfectly ordinary to you, it has a refined, even esoteric, ring to it once transposed to Russian, in which it’s used exclusively to talk about the alchemy of the photographic process. What’s more, it’s intransitive: “Dedulya is retouching, don’t open the door.” And there was a lot of retouching to do: My grandmother hated how she looked in most photos, so it wasn’t unusual for her husband — who’d made it his life’s mission to cater to her every whim — to spend hours adjusting the brightness of his snapshots, dabbing them with a tiny paintbrush dipped in beige ink to make sure she always looked her best.
My favourite thing to do at the apartment on Isabella Avenue was to sit on the sofa with a stack of photo albums and study them one by one. The oldest ones were bound in leather and had stiff cardboard pages with slits cut into them to hold the corners of the yellowed, sepia-toned photos. You had to delicately lift a wispy sheet of tissue paper if you wanted to take out a photo to check the date on the back — something my grandmother sometimes did as she sat next to me, giving her running commentary. The more recent albums were the newer kind with the plastic pages, but still just as carefully labelled; they held colour photos, and then digital prints, which she was always after us to provide for the album.
One photo in particular stands out for me as the embodiment of who my grandparents were as a couple. They’re on one of their many nature expeditions in a small republic they viewed as part of their homeland. They’re floating along in a canoe made by my grandfather, who’s paddling. You can’t see them, but the paddles are laid across the canoe in front of him, just outside the frame. My grandmother is reclined against a pile of cushions, under an awning that her husband fashioned to shield her from the sun; it’s draped with gauzy fabric that makes her look like a princess from One Thousand and One Nights. They’re young and beautiful, and despite the Iron Curtain, they give every impression that the world is theirs for the taking. The Union is vast, rich, and multifaceted; you could crisscross it for years and never run out of places to visit, and everywhere you went, you’d be met with a smile. They were building a new world, based on the values of hard work and self-sacrifice. And while my grandmother eventually realized that their ideals were far from universal, Dedulya steadfastly refused to see the corruption, the lies, the genocide. Until his dying breath, he clung to his belief in the best of all possible worlds.
And so, in a family where some members had suffered the horrors of the regime, others were convinced they were living in a utopia. When my grandparents finally passed, the iron curtain that divided the streets of Côte-des-Neiges collapsed, taking with it those parallel worlds, with all their secrets and things left unsaid. These days, I don’t dare lift more than a corner of the heavy shroud of my memory, for fear that the stark light of the present will obliterate the gossamer images imprinted on the film.