Red square

As Russia gradually disassembles itself, one adoptive mother wonders what memories she might put away to share years from now with her Russian baby son.

By Janis Cooke Newman

Published September 5, 1998 1:51PM (EDT)

The guards outside Lenin's tomb have little puffs of steam coming out of their nostrils -- like dragons. In the building behind them, the body of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, dead since 1924 and preserved with formaldehyde, lies in a glass sarcophagus. I am standing in the frigid air of February in Russia, reading to my husband, Ken, from a guidebook called "Moscow: Soul of the Country."

"For a quarter of a million dollars," I tell him, "you too can get the Eternal Lenin Deluxe package."

"You made that up," he says.

I hold up my guidebook. "It's right here."

The guidebook also contains several "Traveler's Tips" for avoiding the "inevitable long lines to view the dead leader," but besides the two cold-looking guards and us, no one else appears to be interested in the father of the Soviet Union.

"I don't think it's open," Ken says.

"It's supposed to be," I tell him.

We walk back and forth in front of the low black building, but can find no entrance, not even a sign. The guards do not seem approachable, in spite of the wide-brimmed Russian military hats that make them look like children playing dress-up.

I flip through my guidebook, desperate to find the Traveler's Tip that will get us admitted into "one of Moscow's most popular attractions." I need this to be one of those rare travel days: the one where the greengrocer in Tuscany gives you a packet of seeds for the odd little zucchini that tastes like nothing you've ever eaten, or the pub owner in Galway opens up just to serve you a fortifying pint of Guinness because you've hiked all this way and isn't it a lovely walk then. The kind of day that makes you feel adventurous and lucky, and keeps you from thinking about a baby in an orphanage with a knotted-up rag for a diaper.

We've traveled to Moscow to see the little boy we are going to adopt. To see him, and then as the Moscow Center for Adoption requires, leave him behind for three months until he is released from the Russian database and can be adopted by foreigners.

Yesterday, in the room where the women who work at the orphanage take their tea break, I held his thin body for the first time. Russian disco music played from a pink plastic radio, and glasses of bitter black tea sat steaming on the cracked vinyl tablecloth in front of me. A woman in a white lab coat brought him in -- a little boy with dark circles under his eyes and hair that stood up in tufts like a baby bird's. I rested my cheek on his head and it smelled of boiled cabbage and sleep.

"Can we go back?" I asked our Russian coordinator, a man with small decayed teeth and a bristling fur hat, the next morning. "Just for an hour?" I wanted to sit in the room where the women drank their tea and hold my son again, memorizing the whorls of his ear, the dark blond hairs that grew between his arched eyebrows, the small dent like a thumbprint between his nose and mouth.

"No," our coordinator told us, lighting a fresh
Marlboro from the one in his mouth. "Is not possible." Then he suggested we go to Red Square instead.

Ken and I walk across the square to St. Basil's Cathedral, its green and yellow striped domes looking like hot air balloons tethered against the cold blue sky. At a scratched plexiglass ticket booth, an ancient woman with two woolen babushkas tied over her head sells us tickets for more rubles than any of the prices printed on her sign.

Inside the cathedral, the walls and ceilings seem to have been painted in a rush with wide-eyed Madonnas and red, turquoise and yellow flowers, but a thick film of smoke and dirt covers everything. Icy wind blows through windows that are covered only with chicken wire, and after 10 minutes, we are too cold to explore the small dark chapels under the fanciful domes. Shivering, we hurry back into the harsh sunlight.

"Let's try the Kremlin," I say, because the map in my guidebook shows it to be made up of numerous buildings, a few of which I think must be heated.

We walk along the high wall that surrounds the center of the Russian government, its turrets and gold-faced clock tower reminding me of a castle in a storybook I once had about a young czar and an enchanted bird. I look up at the narrow openings that have been worked into the red brick and imagine medieval sentries with huge crossbows, watching us. At last, we come to a tall doorway flanked by guards, but when we try to enter, one of them hurries over, wagging his finger back and forth at us and saying, "Nyet, nyet." We back away, feeling embarrassed and unwelcome.

- - - - - - - - - -

"Why don't we have lunch?" Ken says, and I agree, thinking of the warmth of a cold vodka.

We decide on the Slavyansky Bazaar because, as the guidebook assures us, "they serve up exquisite blinis in a romantic atmosphere that hasn't changed since Stanislavsky sat in a corner booth dreaming about the Moscow Arts Theatre."

"What street is it on?" Ken asks, trying to unfold a Moscow city map in the wind.

"Nikolskaya," I tell him.

"What does an 'N' look like?"

"Like an 'H,'" I say.

I stamp my frozen feet on the cobbles of Red Square while Ken looks at the map.

"It's not here," he says, and tries to show me, but the wind whips away a corner of the map and flattens it against his coat.

"Until 1991," I read from the guidebook, "Nikolskaya Street was called 25th of October Street."

"What does that look like in Russian letters?" he asks.

"It doesn't say."

A man with several bottles of vodka clinking against each other in a plastic shopping bag pushes past us. "Nikolskaya?" Ken shouts after him.

"Nikolskaya?" the man says, shaking his head back and forth.

"Slavyansky Bazaar?" Ken tries, and the man takes Ken's arm and drags him down the block. I run after them and when we stop, the man is pointing to a small alley across the street. Before we can say "spahseebah," the Russian word for "thank you," he runs away, his vodka bottles sounding like sleigh bells.

Six lanes of traffic roar between us and Nikolskaya Street. There is no crosswalk.

"I don't know how we're going to get over there," Ken says.

"They all did." I point to the people rushing around on the other side.

"Maybe they were born there," he mutters.

We walk until we come to concrete steps that lead underground, and we take them, hoping they might miraculously transport us to the other side.

Under the street, it is damp and smells of urine. We step around a man in sandals and thick socks who squats next to a little stack of cassette tapes he's set out on a blanket printed with characters from the "Lion King." A little farther along, we see a gypsy woman dressed in what looks like overlapping pieces of material without any sleeves or legs sewn in. She is nursing a baby, holding out a dirty hand to the people who pass by. Her child looks to be the same age as my little boy, and I want to put something in her brown palm, but I do not know the value of the rubles in my pocket, and all the zeros make me think it would be too much. At the end of the tunnel, we climb another set of concrete steps and come up near the unmarked alley the man with the clinking bottles had pointed out.

The sky has clouded over and it's colder. We walk the narrow street searching for a sign with a letter 'C,' followed by something that looks like a little end table. I wrap my scarf over my mouth and the moisture from my breath freezes there and makes the wool cold and scratchy against my face. At the end of the street, we turn and walk back, checking every building in case we've missed it. We are searching for the Slavyansky Bazaar the way you search for a favorite shirt when you are certain if you don't find it, you've lost not only your shirt, but every good memory you ever had wearing it.

Halfway up the street, Ken stops in front of a padlocked door with large Moorish windows. The sign above is so faded I can barely make out the words.

"This is it," he says. I peer in and see up-ended tables, chrome sinks and cast-iron burners scattered across the bare wood floor. A crumpled stove has been pushed up against the door as if at one time it had been needed as a barricade. I stand there letting my breath cloud the window until I can no longer see inside.

What will I tell my Russian son, I wonder, when he is 10, or
12, or 15, and wants to know what the city he was born in was like? As it is, I can tell him nothing about his mother -- the woman who gave birth to him in a Moscow hospital and three days later disappeared back to Ukraine. I have no stories about the day he was born, how he learned to crawl, the first thing that made him laugh. I was counting on Moscow to give me something to replace these stories; the fairy-tale domes of St. Basil's, the blinis stuffed with sour cream and caviar, the Russian spirit that could survive the harshness of both communism and democracy -- things that would become a history for Alex. Now, it looked as if I would be able to tell him nothing about his city, nothing except the cold, the people who did not smile and the feeling of not belonging.

"Let's go back to Red Square," Ken says, taking my hand. "We should be able to find something to eat there."

We trudge along past shops selling tinned herring and canister vacuum cleaners to the back entrance of GUM, the largest department store in Russia. The GUM building is a mile and a half long, with three levels of tiny shops connected by black wrought-iron footbridges. The front of every shop is blocked by the broad backs of women in fur coats, and I can only see what is being sold inside when one of the women turns around with a piece of linen, a child's dress, a pair of fur-topped boots to examine it in the natural light that falls from the arched glass ceiling.

I stand on the end of a long line of women heading toward a sign my phrasebook translates as "Ladies Toilet." At the front of the line, a woman with thick legs and gray ankle socks sits on a folding chair and collects a coin from each of the waiting women before allowing her back to the stalls. I search my pockets for a coin the same size and shape as the one the woman is grabbing out of each hand, fingers pointed like the beak of a ravenous bird. When it is my turn, I wait until I feel the dry rasp of the woman's fingertips in my palm before moving toward an open stall.

I have the thin metal door in my hand when a woman who's been standing behind me, bumping her shopping bags into the backs of my legs, shouts out in Russian. I turn to see her fluttering her fingers as if plucking something out of the air. She points her other hand at a shelf covered with small squares of brown paper.

I pick up a couple of the squares and wave them at the woman, showing her I've understood. She nods her head and smiles at me, and her smile makes me feel like a young child whose ignorance of the basic practicalities of living she has found especially endearing.

"Spaseebah," I say, thanking her for this small moment of grace. Spaseebah for this kind gesture I will one day tell my son about.

Janis Cooke Newman

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