Guest Column

Volodya, the Grim Reaper and I

The funny thing is, you don't get to choose where to have a near-death experience. Or the time. Or the outcome. Perhaps you do get to choose what you make of it.

In my case, the location turned out to be a bathroom in Sheremetyevo airport in Moscow. The date was Sept. 18, 1999. The outcome, as it happened, was that I lived to dine out on the story.

The problem was the fish I ate the night before in the northern city of Vologda. One bite into its stone-cold flesh had my hands off the fork and knife and stubbornly in my lap. It became a very long evening dedicated to celebrating a new partnership for UNH, Franklin Pierce Law Center and Vologda State University.

If only vodka really did kill everything, as Russians always promise. The ride on the overnight train to Moscow after that dinner was more sleepless than usual as my stomach and my mind wrestled over visions of what several trips to the bathroom at the end of the car might mean.

I was more optimistic the next morning as I enjoyed a bubble bath and tea at my Dartmouth colleague's apartment in Moscow. But that proved an illusory reprieve. By noon, I was nodding off mid-sentence as I rode next to the driver she had hired to deliver me to the airport. To the extent that he registered, he struck me only as rather well dressed and charming for this assignment.

"Nice to meet you, Volodya Stepanov."

It would be helpful if someone told you in advance when he's about to save your life. You might be more alert and responsive, maybe even polite, if you knew. You might even answer his questions, or smile when he offered a chatty observation about the passing scenery. You might pause to reflect over the significance of that tidbit of information he just shared, that his son is a rising star in the Russian foreign policy establishment. You might not turn your head toward your window to snore and drool on his car's upholstery.

At the airport, Volodya insisted on finding a quiet place for me to wait out the hour remaining before I could register for my flight and move into the international section. He suggested the fourth-floor lounge and insisted on accompanying me, taking my one small rolling suitcase. Did he sense the Grim Reaper approaching? Can bystanders see him when he's moving in on you? We stepped into the elevator, Volodya, the Grim Reaper and I.

I vaguely smiled at Volodya and thanked him for his solicitude as he pushed the button marked 4.

By the time the doors opened I was retching, falling over into myself and reaching for a wall, a door, anything solid. Volodya sent my suitcase forward with a knee, placed one hand on my lower back and used the other to push open the door of a bathroom next to the elevator. As I rushed through it, he said, "I'll be waiting over there, by the window. I'll be there as long as you need."

You can't imagine how intimate you can get with a Russian toilet. Or maybe you can. But, trust me, you don't want to. Within minutes, I was stretched out face down, my hands frozen in a grip on the seatless rim of the bowl, my chin locked over its edge, my hair, vomit, mucous and tears all mixing with more energy than soup in a Cuisinart. I knew I had to find help.

I knew I had to separate from the toilet, stand and get from the stall past the long mirror to the door.

I stood, turned and took one step.

And then it hit me, a force, like wind, except there was no wind in that yellow-tiled space. I was down again, sprawled on the floor. The wind shifted. Now it was pouring out of me, whistling as it sucked the life from me, taking all physical sensation with it. But my mind was lifting, lifting, rising, moving from a narrow point into a cone of golden light that was growing wider and wider.

"Well, no kidding, it's just like they say," I thought, "the golden tunnel of light and everything. This is death; I'm dying. Right here, on this bathroom floor. I always thought it would be a plane crash, but it's just the airport. And would you look at that, it really is a golden tunnel.

And it doesn't even hurt. Just like that and I'm gone. Gone from the earth." But then, I felt my heart, conscious of a physical sensation of regret. I thought, "I am going to die without ever feeling the touch of human flesh again. I will never feel the touch of my son's hand again, or his face, or his kiss. They'll call him and tell him his mother died in the Moscow airport. And they'll get my body. He may touch it. But I won't ever touch him again." With that thought, my mind descended into my body. I realized that I felt the floor beneath me. I realized I was very, very cold and shaking.

I realized I was still alive. And that I still had to get to the door.

Why didn't anyone come in? I couldn't stand or move my arms. Somehow I shifted on the floor and inserted the toe of my shoe in the crack between the door and the frame, twisted my foot, and opened the door the width of an 81/2B. And waited. Eventually two waitresses stepped over to push the elevator button. I croaked out in Russian, "Help, please help me." They turned and jumped back, like cartoon characters. Then they crept toward me, but not too close. "Please. Help me. There's a man by the window," I whispered in Russian. "Over there. His name is Volodya Stepanov."

They exited my limited screen. Then the screen filled with Volodya, who opened it wide and fell onto his knees into the pool of my illness. "Get a doctor!" he barked. "Call an ambulance!" He sat down on the floor and pulled me into his lap, which I immediately began to fill, flooding the gray flannel, silk socks and, I then recognized, fine leather loafers. "I'm afraid I'm dying," I said. "I won't let you," he answered. "I want to hold my son's hand again," I wept. "Hold mine for now," he offered.

And I did, for the two hours we waited, Volodya and I, on the floor of the bathroom, with me shaking and vomiting, and with him cradling me, stroking my arms and holding my hand until medical assistance arrived. Fyodor Dostoevsky often asserted that the essence of the Russian national character is the capacity for sympathy for suffering. As a novelist and journalist he devoted so much space to suffering characters that one contemporary critic referred to his "gratuitous cruelty" as a writer. I first read Dostoevsky seriously in the summer of 1971, and he drew me into the study of Russian culture that has been my professional life. Yet this piece of Dostoevsky's message I had always doubted, especially after fighting my way through Moscow subways and streets and after teaching students about the cruelties of Stalin and the thousands of murderous citizens who joined in his campaign against the Soviet people. Volodya Stepanov, a stranger to me in my hours of suffering, turned me into a believer.

But I don't want to leave you with the image of the two of us mired in my Moscow misery. I'll leave you instead with an image from another trip to Moscow the following May. Volodya drove me from the train station to my hotel, where I showered and changed, while he waited for me again, this time in an elegant lobby. Then he drove me to the Starlite Diner, an American-style grill. We are sitting on the patio, drinking tall glasses of cool beer in the dappling sunlight coming through spring leaves. I'm fully focused on him now as we discuss his youth as the son of a victim of Stalin's terror. I share his laughter as he recounts being the town swain with a talent for playing jazz on the trumpet, out there in Siberia in the 1950s. He encourages me to write a book I've long envisioned about children of the terror. And I notice that, perhaps to reassure me and erase any traces that might linger from the previous September, he is wearing the gray slacks, the silk socks and the fine loafers. They look utterly untouched. Do I? ~

Cathy Frierson specializes in Russian history; she holds the Class of 1941 Professorship for international engagement.

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