Even after years in Moscow, I can never quite shake the feeling of being in a weird cat's cradle of conflicting ages. Even the city's thrusting modernity is still laced with quaintly historic touches: soldiers in jackboots and breeches; timeless babushkas in headscarves; ragged, bearded beggars straight out of Dostoyevsky; obligatory coat checks and rotary phones; fur hats; drivers and maids; bread with lard; abacuses instead of cash registers; inky newspapers; the smell of wood smoke and outdoor toilets in the suburbs. Some rhythms of life seem absolutely unchanged from my fathers' day, my grandfather's day even.
There have been a few times during my stay in Russia when I think I have caught glimpses of the nightmare world my grandfather entered in July 1937. A police station in Moscow where I was taken after being beaten up by some drunken Tatars one night in 1996, which was impregnated with the eternal Russian prison odour of sweat, piss and despair. The investigator's office where I watched for hours as the detective's crawling pen painstakingly took down details of my statement, denting the cheap official paper under harsh, institutional lamplight. And then a few days later, the dingy hall where I was taken to confront my assailants, they weeping in manacles as I sat high on a dais with the investigator in front of their swelling criminal file. A journalistic visit to Butirskaya prison, where heat and humidity were so intense that it was hard to inhale and the prisoners had empty, sunken eyes. I tried to talk to a couple of them, briefly, but it was so uncomfortable speaking to a stranger in such unnatural proximity, chest to chest, I found I had nothing to say. Neither then nor later, could I humanize the prisoners or relate to them as people. They had passed through the looking-glass into another reality; they had been transformed into something less than human, closer to the casual brutality of a herd of animals. Their faces were the faces of men whose whole lives had imploded into the space of a few feet of the fetid room they inhabited. They stared at me as I pushed past from a distance of six inches, but when I looked into their eyes I knew they were looking at me from a distance I could never, ever cross. For a few hours, I imagine that I saw and smelt and touched the very Russian underworld of crime and punishment which swallowed my grandfather two generations before. It was enough, perhaps, to start picturing what it was like, at least physically. What it was like in his head and heart is a place I never wish to visit.
Excerpt from Stalin's Children: Three Generations of Love and War by Owen Matthews, published by Walker & Company.
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