My grandfather was arrested because he looked askance at communism.
If he had looked straight, he would still be living in his native village, in his family home, and raising his seed, like other men did, rather than rendering the kids a burden to grandma.
My grandfather was not executed by shooting thanks to granny’s nephew. He was only exiled to Siberia; to be more precise, he was not put up against a wall because he happened to be married to my granny, and therefore had a lucky escape. Otherwise they would have finished him off, sure as eggs is eggs, for such a crime – ‘looking askance at communism’!
That nephew of my granny’s (they say I took after him - God rest his soul) went to war and did not come home. Allah, damn Hitler’s grandma and her nephew too! My granny was proud when grandpa was sentenced to 15 years. Her nephew would not beat down doors for my grandpa unless my granny urged him to – but she would be able to look for the sickly shepherd herself, although for sure, he was bound to be putrefying in mother earth.
Grandpa did not come home from Siberia. Granny’s surmise was that he had most likely got married there, and would not come back to the village because he was afraid of the Soviet government.
Granny thought that there was no Soviet government in Siberia, and that was why he had been exiled there. The backwoods, like our village, were the real banishment. In Siberia it is always snowing, and the snow is whiter than here, because the sky is closer to the earth. Granny said she had had a dream about Siberia and grandpa had told her about it...
As I have already said, grandpa actually got caught due to granny. When my grandpa was being photographed for a newspaper granny appeared next to him in his field, and grandpa, being a very jealous person, got angry with her as she stared at the camera and bellowed at her. The photographer was taken aback and clicked the camera. The poor man was frightened by grandpa - a strapping fellow. They would say that he ate for seven people. When grandma recalled this, she would smile and cover her mouth with her veil in confusion. She was proud that grandpa had been exiled thanks to her, and could not respect the statutes imposed on her. Grandma kept onobserving this old custom – even when the veil, the Iashmag, had been declared a vestige of the past, she had kept covering half of her face with one. This ‘quality mark’ of an Azeri woman remained on granny’s face all her life...
When my grandpa was being photographed he had been supposed to look straight ahead, towards the ‘radiant future’, but when he snapped at granny this was perceived as him snapping at communism. Grandpa was one of those who had joined the Kolkhoz (collective farm) earlier than the others, bringing a couple of geese and a mule – he still had nothing else to his name, rumor had it. This was probably why the government had decided to publish his photograph in the newspaper. My grandma had not even seen a newspaper before, but guessed that it should be something beautiful. Maybe during the taking of the photograph another difficulty had occurred. In any event, it all turned out for the worst for my grandpa. Grandma, by a stroke of bad luck, had felt an urge to have a look at this event and see with her own eyes how such a huge man could be captured by this little camera... you do not know whether to laugh or cry...
The news of the arrival of a reporter had caught everybody napping. Poor grandpa roamed around a wide area, jolting on a lame jade called Mohammed, which had never been able to gallop. Consequently everyone who did his job slowly was called ‘jade Mohammed’.
Due to the unexpected arrival of the reporter, grandma and grandpa had not had enough time to take in the significance of this event. If granny had known how it would all turn out, she would never have let the reporter photograph him. Afterwards, she would never allow us to take photos.
As a result of all this, the photo reached the higher offices, creating distrust in grandpa’s political trustworthiness.
It sufficed for them to fasten a crime on him, give him the label of a so-called ‘Kulak’.
Grandma only saw the photograph later, when grandpa was already in custody and an investigator, a so-called ‘silistchi’, was visiting our village. Holding an inquest into the matter, he showed her the photo and said: “granny, everyone is supposed to look straight ahead when being photographed, so to say towards the ‘radiant future’, but your husband, as you see, curled his lip and made faces instead. This is an absolute mockery of communism, is it not?”
Grandma, in her innocence, fell for the bait and agreed; how could she know that the investigator would take her at her word?
Grandma’s nephew came with some court papers from Baku. Grandma kept these for the rest of her life, as a relic, in memory of grandpa. Later they disappeared. I suppose granny took them with her to the other world to settle a score with grandpa and that investigator. The papers were probably a copy of a bill of indictment. According to grandma (she was illiterate, so her nephew, who was later killed in the war, had read it to her), it said: “Goncha Molla Mohamed kizi, wife of Gashim Arih ogli, confirmed that her husband is looking askance at communism”. “May my tongue wither and fall off if I said so!.." grandma grieved. The investigator had written, claiming they were her words, that when our neighbor Bedirgulu had given the name ‘Communist’ to his newborn son, my grandpa had laughed: “If the communists desperately need my lame jade and couple of geese, this is the limit!” The investigator, that son of a bitch, used it as grounds for accusing him of a political crime. The written word remained on the page to condemn him ... but there was no way you could reach the brute – the town was far away.
Granny swore by God, with those papers in her hands, “Vallah-billah, my husband did not mean to jeer at the communists, it was just a joke... Bedirgulu has a ready tongue, he replied to my husband’s joke like this: “My Communist is small yet, but one doesn't have to be big to be efficient..."”
Granny told me that, while talking to the investigator, she had thought she had managed to convince him that grandpa’s words were only said in fun. Now she was distressed. “How could I know?... I thought that since he knows Mamedhasan - the husband of my grandnephew - he would not use my words against us … but he turned out to be a monster..."
Grandma had confirmed that it was a photograph of my grandpa, and tried to persuade him that grandpa was looking straight ahead rather than anywhere else. As for the wry face, this was perhaps due to the camera, or the photo being crumpled up in someone’s hands. The investigator entered this wise judgment of grandma in his notes, but as he did not believe in her sincerity threatened her with imprisonment for shielding her husband, the man who looked askance at communism. Then he had mercy on her, as she was a woman and, in addition, a relative of Mamedhasan, who dug wells. Later, the investigator disappeared too; apparently, Allah had punished him for the evil inflicted on my grandpa.
My father learned a lesson from this event. It is why he always looked straight ahead after that. Even when working in the field he mowed a straight line rather than a curved one. When driving a tractor, he always took a straight route. He took another photo only once in his life, when Muhtar, Chairman of the Kolkhoz, shouted at him, - he stood against the background curtain, which was draped over a cattle shed, and turned his eyes optimistically towards the grazing cows. He could not sleep until the photograph was ready. Poor grandma humored Afsar, the photographer, by giving him a huge, lamb-size turkey so that he was careful. Father looked good on the photo, with a purposeful look and proper facial expression. He looked in the photo as he did in real life - aquiline nose and protruding eyes, turned towards the bright future.
Due to his desire to be seen looking forwards all the time, my father once fell into an irrigation ditch while driving a tractor, and on another occasion ran into Mirala's bull calf. After these mishaps, he followed grandpa’s example. He changed his profession from tractor driver to herdsman, and by doing so made the soul of the dead man happy. As for granny, she did not believe that her husband had a soul, and she doubted that grandpa had passed away. In general, she considered that if grandpa had a soul, he would not be afraid of the Soviet government and would therefore come back, at least in her dreams... as a soul cannot be arrested... she dreamed about grandpa after he was exiled, but only a couple of times.
Thus, (these words stick to my tongue, evidently it runs in the blood), my grandfather was sent off almost to the ends of the earth because he looked askance at communism. Grandma used to tell us this story at least once a year, and if there was a heavy snowfall, she did so on those occasions without fail. Grandpa had been arrested at dawn on that unlucky day, and that evening there had been a heavy fall of snow. Grandpa had forgotten to take warm clothing. “Poor man, how can he weather that frost without warm clothes?” grandma grieved. Sometimes it came into her mind that grandpa would escape from that backwoods place and those sons of bitches would never run him down. Later the investigator reported to us that grandpa was still in the city. Grandma rushed to the main town and with her nephew, who lived there, went to Baku where they were received by a functionary, who looked as much like our countryman Bakhshala as two peas in a pod do. Grandma explained to him, in unsophisticated language, the reason why grandpa was looking askance (when saying the word ‘askance’, granny always dropped her voice) at communism. The functionary did not catch what she was saying. Her nephew Malashah came to her aid, with his ready tongue. He explained what was what and grandpa was not sentenced to be shot, but exiled. It was only at that very time that grandma first saw the ill-starred newspaper with grandpa’s photograph in it.
On the eve of the day my grandpa was arrested, my grandma, being pregnant with my father, was craving thistles, and grandpa had had to go down to the lowland for some, or bring something else if there were no thistles to be found, as winter was at its height. Allah blesses the souls of his relatives – though grandpa was a tough guy, he was clement. Grandma delivered my future father, lamenting “gangal, gangal!” that is to say, she was crying, 'thistles!' Let Allah take away the souls of the grandmothers of those people who took my grandpa, and let them lament like this when they are dying...
While grandpa was in exile, having apparently reached the point of no return, granny was asked for her hand in marriage about ten times, especially during wartime, when one could not find even barley cakes, but grandma spared my father’s feelings and sent all her suitors away. However, she did not grieve over grandpa much, and she was right, because he had not returned even after fifteen years.
As I have already mentioned, grandma sensed that grandpa had married again and settled down in Siberia and must now have kids nearly the same age as my father. Once, when I was already grown up, and as they say in our village, … had started to wear trousers (please, guess the meaning of these dots yourself!), we received a letter from a distant snow-covered taiga signed “Volodia Gashimovich (meaning son of Gashim) ... Oh, damn! Grandma must have had second sight!..
Translated from Azeri by Siyavush Mamedzad
Kosta Dzugaev was born in 1956. By profession he is a philosopher.
He is the author of more than 60 works of political journalism, 25 academic works and 10 expert analyses, many of which have been translated into foreign languages.
One frosty January morning Kiril opened the window and looked out cautiously. It was the terrible 1991. All more or less sensible people were experiencing a clear sensation of pending catastrophe, and as more and more things happened in Tskhinvali they grew progressively less surprised.
A strange war had been going on in the town for the past three weeks. The central streets and buildings were occupied by Georgian militia and irregular units. The borders of this zone were marked by improvised barricades set up by townspeople. At first there was no shooting in the daytime, all the fighting took place in the dark, but tension had gradually accumulated and now shootings were roaring about the city day and night. Someone could easily be hit by a deliberate shot or stray bullet.
After phoning his friends and hearing the news – the main item of which being the blowing up of an armored personnel carrier near the bathhouse in Main Street on June 8, - Kiril decided to call at his native Pedagogical Institute, where he worked as a senior teacher, teaching the younger generation the most humanitarian of subjects – ethics. He put on his dirty old sheepskin coat and knitted skiing cap. He hesitated for a while, pondering whether to take his double-barreled shotgun with him or not. On the one hand it would be somewhat inconvenient to carry his shotgun with him during the daytime (he fell into this habit later), but on the other he did not want to leave it at home, as many people knew he had a gun and some boy might somehow get into his house and steal it, as it was such a valuable firearm in times like these.
Eventually Kiril took his gun and, locking the iron gates of his house, came out into the alley where he had grown up in the friendly neighborhood containing Russians, Georgians and Armenians. He gave a cheerful wave to the women gossiping animatedly about something a couple of houses from his house.
The blowing up of the armored troop carrier interested Kiril, so he went down the alley and found June 8 Street. It should be said that this street had been named in honor of the date of the imposition of Soviet power in South Ossetia. In the evenings Kiril and his neighbors, half jokingly and half seriously, had tried to guess what name would be given to the street now the Soviet power had been removed, at least from the South Ossetia political unit. It could be seen by the naked eye, heard by an untrained ear, that the rotten Communist Party of the Soviet Union was counting down its last hours all over the huge country. It was in its death throes, and an untrained nose could catch the stink which had been ascribed to “decaying capitalism” by worthless communist ideologists in the past.
But you needed to be careful down there, very careful! The street was being shot at from both sides: from Bogir Square, where a Georgian position had been erected, a little way down from Kiril’s alley, and from the village of Tamarasheni, a Georgian enclave alongside the Transcaucasia motorway, the urban part of which is June 8 Street. People weren't being shot much now, but sometimes the whistle of bullets could be heard, and bullets would strike houses and lodge in the trees which grew in abundance along streets, and with an unpleasant screech ricochet from the kerbs and the concrete poles of the streetlamps. Kiril came round the corner. For a few seconds he scrutinized the street closely: the trees prevented him from seeing everything, but the tumbled down armored personnel carrier was visible. The heavy machine gun seemed to have been taken off it - it would be interesting to know who had done this: the Ossetian home guards, Georgian police officers or the Russian operational group from the military unit quartered in Tskhinvali, which was reacting to the developing events by conducting limited patrolling along selective routes.
Kiril decided he had better visit the district in the evening. He turned back. Walking deep into the valley, and along the path running between the neighbors’ yards and gardens, he went straight to the Pedagogical Institute. Such paths were unusual at that time - much later, when the town had been systematically destroyed by missile-artillery fire and snipers from the Prissk heights were hunting down every moving object, these sort of safe passages became really popular. Kiril recalled as he walked that on the 6th of January, the Orthodox Christmas Eve, the central crossings had been occupied by Georgian policemen and “political instructors” - members of irregular militia - but he had foolishly gone to work at 9 o’clock by his usual route and been stopped at the turning to the Institute. Only now did he realize that he had been in grave danger then. By that time several men had already been taken away and their fate had been unenviable.... but he had not felt any danger then. To the order, given in Georgian, for him to show them his documents he had nodded calmly, and thrusting his hand into the breast pocket of his jacket, at the same time setting his tie straight in his habitual way, he had taken out a small identity document with a solid dark red cover with 'CCCP' die-stamped on it. The police officers had not even checked the document. They had muttered something like “mesmis, mesmis5...” and moved aside to let him pass. Kiril had walked on, suppressing his laughter. He had understood that the cover of his document, his sharply cut jacket under his unbuttoned cream-colored winter coat and, most likely, his calmness, had given the police officers the impression he was an intelligence service worker! If they had looked at his document they would have found that he was a member of the Philosophical Society of the USSR. However, Kiril kept thinking, the police officers had not been mistaken when they had let him pass with some respect; one of them had even saluted him, waving his cap – and who should police officers pay respect to, if not philosophers? A wise man is superior to a fighter, Brahman is stronger than the Kshatriyas and the Nart clan of high priests of Alagat was superior to the courageous fighters of Akhartagat and the producers of material values of Borat. And had not Platon written to Kiril that “Until philosophers reign in a country, until so-called kings and sovereigns begin to philosophize in a noble and profound way and state authorities and philosophy are merged, and until a country is free of the people – though there are too many of them – at present supporting the claims of either power or philosophy at the expense of the other, how, my dear Glavkon6 can countries rid themselves of evils...”?
That’s right, thought Kiril, walking on the crispy snow towards his alma mater. But he was puzzled by one question: what should we do with bankers? What with the financiers, whose cunning clan had not been noticeable before, but now... he recalled some speeches he had heard about intellectual bankers and the world elite, ... that is, no, blast it, it is the contrary – world bankers and the intellectual elite! Well, if such people exist, we cannot do anything about it, but there should be one condition –the intellectual elite should come first, then the world's bankers, not the other way round.
In those days the rector of the Institute would routinely stand in the yard to impress everyone, surrounded by deans and department heads. Unhurried conversations were held on different subjects, just to pass the time till the break – then the rector would let his colleagues go home. Today Kiril walked past his colleagues, greeted them politely but did not stop. Having walked through the front entrance of the main building, he went to Moscow Street and came up to the barricades.
This barricade had its own history. A huge motorised water-cannon, which had been driven to Tskhinvali for the dispersal of crowds, was the main feature of it. Some fellows said that it was a special police car, which had been purchased abroad by either the Russian or Georgian authorities, there to disperse rebellious people. Kiril thought it was just a simple fire truck, one with the latest modifications. In any case, it had not been put into action: Ossetian home guards, irritated by the mere sight of the vehicle, had set fire to it without a word on the very first night it had appeared there. Now it was not far from the town's Department of Internal Affairs office. When the center of the city had been cut off from the outskirts it had been dragged there and put across the street so that the Institute would be behind it. After that sacks of sand and slag stones had been put on it, and thus the place was turned into a well-fortified position, from where crossfire with Georgian formations emerged. The Georgian formations were only 200 meters away, in Bogir Square. Tskhinvali is a small town, everything is near everything else.
At the barricade there were about twenty five or thirty people. Most of them were students. Kiril knew them; a few of them were older, and had had some work experience in the armed forces. There were also some people hanging about who were trying to take things from the empty rooms of the Institute – Kiril had learned to recognize them, the future marauders of the Georgia-Ossetia war. On the barricade itself several fellows stood on guard and occasionally shot. Most however were unarmed scouts; others generally stood around the campfire made by burning cardboard and broken boxes. Young boys would hang about.
Kiril came up to the group, raising his hand to greet them. He shook hands firmly with some close friends.
As usual they were all telling each other the news. They were listening attentively to friends coming in from other districts; they kept cursing the Moscow leaders, principally the boss, Gorbachev, and General Maliushkin, who had let the Georgians into the town, though they knew very well that he was a military man and had had to obey his order. But now a new topic could be heard more and more often: men were making negative comments about the pompous public orators of the recent past who were no longer to be seen anywhere – either at the barricades or in the self-defense squads.
Suddenly everyone’s attention was drawn to a clumsy, wobbling figure approaching the barricade mumbling something. Kiril recognized him at once. He was Vova, a feeble-minded man from the town.
Oh, town fools! he thought.
What a pity that you are known to our reading public mainly from the humorous works of Ilf and Petrov! Many writers and poets have written about characters like you, but unfortunately very little attention has generally been paid to them in literature....
What a pity your names are vanishing without trace in silhouettes of the past and only many centuries from now, and very rarely, will somebody like Blissful Basil cry about the penny taken from him....
What a pity that it is impossible to find worthy academic works about you, works on the history of God’s fools! Only the most desperate researchers, perhaps because of lack of experience, dare to tackle this problem, which is so imperceptible, so deep, since the existence of these people obliges us, as the human race, to ponder something socially important and essential. Who are they? Surely without them the town lacks something, isn’t that so?
Vova wasn’t the only fool living in Tskhinvali. The ancient history of our town, inhabited by Ossetians, Georgians, Jews, Armenians, includes dozens of these strange human beings. Kiril remembered Moumate7 Shalo, who differed from this Vova by jogging tirelessly for long hours. Besides, Moumate Shalo was Georgian, Adili8 Vova Ossetian, but there was no ethnic conflict between them.
Vova wore old, worn-out boots, patched up dark grey cotton trousers, a paramilitary service jacket of thick broadcloth, though pretty shabby, and on his head he had a kind of peaked cap. The fellows on the barricade greeted him cheerfully and were about to begin teasing him - this was a bit of fun for them on such joyless days. However Vova was serious: he came up to the barricade and in his typical nasal voice, hardly understandable to the unaccustomed ear, began to curse the fellows there in dirty language; he both shuddered and flinched from shots at the same time. The fellows began to calm him down, then argue with him jokingly, but Vova kept on cursing them. Kiril asked the people on the barricade to stop making jokes and listen to Vova attentively - it then became clear that Vova was not actually cursing, but in his lingering language demanding that they cease fire and leave the barricade. He was swinging his arms, wincing, but seeing that his words were not having any effect on them he began to drag the soldiers off the barricade. First he went for the unarmed ones, as he was afraid of armed people, but they resisted.
Leaving the fire and surrounding Vova, the fellows, outvoicing each other, explained to him loudly that this was not their fault, this disorder: barricades, burnt out houses, people shooting without respite - so there was no need for Vova to attack them. They themselves would be glad to leave the barricades and return to their homes, but at the crossing bad people were shooting, burning out houses and cars and behaving very badly – these people were responsible for it. This explanation did not have any visible effect on Vova, who raised his own voice in response and continually took his cap on and off on top of his black, close-cut hair. He started to push the fellows, jumping around nervously, and run round the barricade, tugging at hands, legs and clothes. The barricade guards could not stop him or calm him down, and began to explain their position again, pointing to the Georgian position and offering him the opportunity to shoot at it from a small-bore gun. With great indignation Vova rejected this temptation and kept doing what he wanted. Catching sight of Kiril he addressed him with respect, as if he were an older man. In his excitement he frequently blinked his weak-sighted eyes and the words he uttered could barely be understood.
Kiril spotted the corner of a thick book protruding from Vova’s pocket and, having soothed him, asked what he had there.
But was Vova able to read? No one knew - most likely he could not, or someone would have seen him at least once with a newspaper. In response to Kiril’s question Vova took a new Bible out of his pocket – they had already been distributed in the town free of charge by some newly appeared preachers – opened it, and without looking at it extended it to Kiril, saying with ardor: “read-read-read...” For a few moments the philosopher and feeble-minded man’s eyes met, and something strange, mysterious and volatile touched their souls... Kiril looked at the text and read aloud to the surrounded students: “Beware lest any man spoil you through philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, after the rudiments of the world9...” The students roared with laughter, and Kiril laughed with them . Having stopped laughing, Kiril said to the students that nothing happened without a particular reason, and so it was significant that they had come across that particular extract. Then the students began asking him questions about how to understand this allusion to philosophy in the Bible. Kiril explained by citing the arguments the Apostle Paul had with the epicureans and stoics. Then one of the students said that biblical prophets were probably loonies, while another said they reminded him of children with their sincerity. Kiril grasped this idea, and began to promote his extremely paradoxical ideas among his listeners, saying that in terms of their personal integrity, and their naturally clear minds, people are indeed just children, but when they grow the world begins to retort, to spoil, to fudge them, adjusting them according to its vicious artificial template, meaning that essentially an adult is a hopelessly maimed child. Kiril cited Freud, who called on people to think over the alarming contrast between the shining mind of a healthy child and the weak-mindedness of the average adult; from this Freud had drawn the conclusion that outstanding achievements in art, science, culture and everywhere in life, especially in love, were the product of those who by some coincidence had been able to maintain the child in themselves, though they usually paid for this by experiencing objective reality as an oppressive and intense burden in this crazy world. Lucky is the person sliding on its surface, unable to see its dark and fatal depths... Now look, Kiril said, we have all been so much readjusted by the world that we do not feel the madness of the shooting and killing of Georgians and Ossetians, and it is necessary that “Adili” Vova has come, so that we, outsiders, can see and think about this...
“By the way, where is he?”
They all looked round and found that while they had been philosophizing, Vova had walked away silently without attracting anybody’s attention, approached the opposite end of the barricade, climbed over it and was now within the space being shot at. He had already taken a few steps in the direction of the Georgian position. The Georgians spotted him from there and opened fire.
Kiril recklessly rushed towards him, shouting: “Hold on, Vova! Come back!” Kiril was about to climb over the barricade, but his junior friends hung on his shoulders and would not let him throw himself under a hail of bullets. Having come to his senses Kiril shouted in the direction of Bogir Square at the top of his voice: “Don’t shoot!! He is mad, mad!!” waving a light blue scarf taken from his neck.
The shooting quieted down. Some jester shouted: “You are all mad, as you are fighting against the whole of Georgia with such a handful of people. What? Shall we not shoot at all?!”
“Wait!!” Kiril was overstraining his voice, “He is coming now, you will see him yourself!!”
Vova limped up to the Georgian position without being harmed. Pricking up their ears, the barricade fighters heard him begin bickering with them, proving his point. From time to time some fragments of comments, in Georgian, made by police officers and members of the irregular forces were heard. This episode lasted about an hour. At last the exhausted Georgians asked the Ossetians to take Vova back and save them from his invasion. Vova refused to go back. He decided he would make his way to the Georgian commanders in the center of the town and went off in the direction of the nine-floor government building, accompanied by a police escort.
Kiril stayed near the Institute until twilight. That day there was more shooting on the “Bogir-Institute” line of confrontation. Before leaving Kiril drew the home guards’ attention to what had happened. People like Kiril expressed regret that on the political Olympus sat intelligent, well-balanced, responsible, very kind and fair people – if there had been at least one man like Vova among them, there would have been no war at all...
Nodding approvingly, Kiril hung his double-barreled shotgun on his back, said goodbye to the fellows at the barricade and moved on to the textile mill district to see the blasted armored personnel carrier and his friends among the local detachment of the self-defense militia. The millstones of the Georgia-Ossetia war were continuing their sinister turns. However in the Bible, the present left from Vova, on a randomly opened page, he read: “if it be possible, as much as lieth in you, live peaceably with all men..” (Romans 12.18).
From the collection
“Time to Live” (2003, Maikop, published by“Adygeya”)
Fazil Iskander was born in Abkhazia in 1929. He has achieved global fame with works such as “Sandro from Chegem”, “Constellation of Kozlotur”, “Chik’s Childhood” and others. These have been translated into, and published in, many foreign languages.