heave ho on the Russia Volga
What can a man do when his love is unrequited? Take a boat down the
After all, what is a Russian river for but escaping heartache?
By Jeremy Atiyah
It was fleeting summertime by the
28 August 2001
The whole of
Instead, here was Maria, pale and serious. "Of course, I am not planning to spend the rest of my life in this dull little place," she told me. Nor, apparently, was she impressed by the fact that the dynasty of the Romanov Tsars had originated here.
Later she pointed at a low concrete wall overlooking the river. "This is where we usually sit," she sighed. And we sat. There was nothing else to do. So what now? Where could this possibly lead, beyond days, and more days, waking up in an old hotel room with peeling wallpaper, while receptionists downstairs knitted socks and waitresses in the breakfast hall looked affronted when asked to bring coffee? I was in
Maria, too, was losing heart. When I called her the next morning, she gave me several plausible reasons why we could not meet that day. "The Ipatevsky monastery?" she yawned. "Isn't that your kind of thing? Can't you go by yourself? The frescoes are startling." I imagined her hands dropping effortlessly at her side. Her eyes would close in a sceptical smile. She was the most startling thing in
What was a Russian river for, after all, if not for escaping hopeless loves?
According to Chekhov, the
Every day, one saw the boats drifting past, southbound for
"You do whatever you want," said Maria with a fixed smile, her lashes glittering in the sun. "Yes, I'll do whatever I want," I replied, handing my fare to a drunken sailor, securing for myself a private cabin, with a sink and a window. After all: what more than this (I now asked myself) could a man want from life? I would travel to the south, down
Only later, on deck – after I had watched Maria, clutching her skirts, disappear in a shimmer of gold up the bank and into the trees – did I realise that the atmosphere on the Yakov Sverdlov might be stretching my penance a little too far. Turning round, I got the feeling that I had blundered into a Soviet sanatorium.
Here we were, floating away from the station with a sinister, disembodied voice crackling from the bridge. A mournful silence was about to descend. Just a few old men and women with sandals on their feet and mushrooms of silver hair on their heads were shuffling about. One minute we were in farmland scattered with shacks and rickety wooden houses; the next we would be in forest-choked wilderness stretching to distant green horizons.
Only the safety instructions, pinned to a wall below deck, featuring a man with tousled hair and a stiff upturned collar like a romantic poet, looked interesting. Otherwise, there was nothing to do, except pace the narrow decks, or gloomy corridors occupied by cleaners in turquoise aprons and peroxided hair.
Even the bar was closed, which shocked me. At dinner a polite waitress asked if I wanted tea or coffee with my meal. It was as though we were here to escape, not into drunkenness, but from it. "Please," I begged. "Give me vodka."
So I ate and drank alone, while oil-smooth waters fanned out in silence behind us. The white cupolas of a lonely monastery came gliding by. A tiny rowing boat passed in front. I saw those sandy banks turn golden in the evening sunlight.
Were we, or were we not, sailing through the ruins of a dead empire? From time to time, empty factories came in and out of view, surrounded by cranes rusted into immobility. And yet here on board, pedantic old rules still operated. One announcement spluttered at , telling us to get up. Then came another at , when the sky was still streaked with polar light, telling us to go to bed.
One morning, from a wooden chair on deck, I tried asking a man in a tracksuit and plastic sandals if he had done this trip before. "Seventeen times," he mumbled, as the boat pulled into one of the locks built along the river. Huge machinery began towering up around us, including weed-clogged ladders and slabs of concrete so mighty that only Soviet Man could have built them. On shore, men stood beside motorcycles with sidecars of Second World War vintage. One old woman in a headscarf with a sickle over one shoulder was walking along the towpath. She was so close she could have stepped on to the boat. "Morning," she said. The old man beside me suddenly sprang into life. "What's the name of this place?" he burst out from his deck chair. "It's been a pleasure!" we all called out, when the lock doors finally opened and the boat began to inch forward.
Five more days on a boat, or two on a train: that was the choice I faced when considering the next leg of my journey down the river, to
On board, the next day, I promptly found myself in a compartment with a huge, blond, military man, who was only 23 years old, but wore a loaded gun in a halter strapped round his shoulders.
"Don't worry, I'm an off-duty body-guard," he told me. He was from
But when the window stuck in its frame, and when the movement of the train had slowed to a gentle bounce, his blond features sagged grey with anxiety. "You see, I was born in Lenin's home town," he kept sighing. "And what can I do about that?" It was as if he were talking about a wayward uncle who had taken to crime. Lenin, for him, was still slightly bigger than
No matter. The next day, a family from
"Are you crazy?"
Everyone, it transpired, had spent the previous eight months working in the frozen oilfields of northern
We sat around for hours, drinking tea. People kept buying me pieces of cake. We picnicked on strawberries. Tamerlane gave me old Soviet coins in exchange for English ones. Fareeda spent three hours making up her eyelashes and looking dark and beautiful. This was the Russian south.
Rolling across the steppe into
But the strangest thing was to have the place completely to myself. Walking the corridors I met no one. All I could hear from the square, far below, were outbreaks of funereal music. Events unspeakably terrible had once happened in this city. Now it felt as though the Soviet regime lived on; as if this whole hotel or maybe this whole city was no more than a ghost. One could only suppose that my journey down the
From my room, I called Maria in
"What have you been doing?"
I told her how I had come 2,000 miles along the river that protected
"I'm glad you are enjoying it," interrupted Maria, with the voice of one who did not intend to be so easily defined. And suddenly, on that hot night, a presentiment of Russian winter came blowing through my heart.