The oilmen have arrived from Beijing for a ceremonial signing over of drilling rights. “It’s a holiday for them,” their translator told me, last night, at the Grozny Eternity Hotel, which is both the only five-star hotel and the only hotel in the republic. I nodded solemnly; he needn’t explain. I came of age in the reign of Brezhnev, when young men would enter civil service academies hardy and robust, only to leave two years later anemic and stooped, cured forever of the inclination to be civil or of service to anyone. Still, Beijing must be grim if they’re vacationing in Chechnya.
“We’ll reach Grozny in ten minutes,” I announce to them in English. The translator sits in the passenger seat. He’s a stalk-thin man with a head of hair so black and lustrous it looks sculpted from shoe polish. I feel a shared camaraderie with translators—as I do with deputies and underlings of all stripes—and as he speaks in slow, measured Mandarin, I hear the resigned and familiar tone of a man who knows he is more intelligent than his superiors.
The road winds over what was once a roof. A verdigris-encrusted arm rises from the debris, its forefinger raised skyward. The Lenin statue once stood in the square outside this school, arm raised, rallying the schoolchildren to glorious revolution, but now, buried to his chin like a cowboy sentenced to death beneath the desert sun, Vladimir Ilich waves only for help. We drive onward, passing brass bandoliers and olive flak jackets, red bandannas and golden epaulettes, the whole palette of Russian invasion painted across a thunderstorm of wreckage. Upon seeing the zero-two Interior Ministry plate dangling below the Mercedes’s hood, the spies, soldiers, policemen, and armed thugs wave us through without hesitation. The streets become more navigable. Cement trucks can’t make it from the cement works to the holes in the ground without being hijacked by one or another shade of our technicolor occupation and sold to Russian construction companies north of the border, so road crews salvage office doors from collapsed administration buildings and lay them across the craters. Attached to the doors are the names and titles of those who had once worked behind them. Mansur Khalidov: Head of Oncology; City Hospital Number Six. Yakha Sagaipova: Assistant Director of Production; Ministry of Oil and Gas Industry. Perhaps my name is written over a crater on some shabby side street, supporting the weight of a stranger who glances at the placard Ruslan Dokurov: Deputy Director; Grozny Museum of Regional Art and wonders if such a person is still alive.
“A large mass grave was recently discovered outside of Grozny, no?” the translator asks.
“Yes, an exciting discovery. It will be a major tourist attraction for archaeology enthusiasts.”
The translator frowns. “Isn’t it a crime scene?”
“Don’t be ridiculous. It’s millions of years old.”
“But weren’t the bodies found shot execution-style?” he insists.
I shrug him off. Who am I to answer for the barbarities of prehistoric man?
The translator nods to a small mountain range of rubble bulldozed just over the city limits. “What’s that?”
“Suburbs,” I say.
We pass backhoes, dump trucks, and jackhammers through the metallic dissonance of reconstruction that comes as a welcome song after months of screaming shells. The cranes are the tallest man-made structures I have ever seen in person. I drive to the central square, once the hub of municipal government, now a brown field debossed with earthmover tracks. Nadya once lived just down the road. The oilmen climb out and frown at each other, then at the translator, and then finally at me.
Turning to the northeast, I point at a strip of blue sky wedged between two fat cumuli. “That was Hotel Kavkaz. ABBA stayed two nights. I carried their guitars when I worked there one summer. Next to that, picture an apartment block. Before ninety-one only party members lived there and after ninety-one only criminals. No one moved in or out.”
None of the oilmen smile. The translator leans to me and whispers, “You are aware, of course, that these three gentlemen are esteemed members of the Communist Party of China.”
“It’s okay, I’m a limo driver.”
The translator stares blankly.
“Lloyd from Dumb and Dumber? ”
“Jim Carrey. A brilliant actor who embodies the senselessness of our era,” I explain.
The interpreter doesn’t bother translating. I continue to draw a map of the square by narration, but the oilmen can’t see what I see. They see only an empty square demolished by bomb and bulldozer.
“Come, comrades, use your imagination,” I urge, but they return to the Mercedes, and I am talking only to the translator, and then he returns to the Mercedes, and I am talking only to myself.
Three months earlier, the Interior minister told me his idea. The proposition was ludicrous but I listened with the blank- faced complacency I had perfected throughout my twenty- three years as a public servant.
“The United Nations has named Grozny the most devastated city on earth,” the minister explained between bites of moist trout.
I wasn’t sure of the proper response, so I gave him my lukewarm congratulations.
“Yes, well, always nice to receive recognition, I suppose. But as you might imagine, we have an image problem.”
He loomed over his desk in a high-backed executive chair, while across from him I listened from an odd, leggy stool designed to make its occupant struggle to stay upright before the minister. The minister’s path had first crossed mine fifteen years earlier, when he had sought my advice regarding a recently painted portrait of him and his sons, and I had sought his regarding a dacha near my home village. He’d had two sons then. The first emigrated before the most recent war to attend an American pharmacology school, now worked at a very important drugstore in Muskegon, Michigan. I don’t know what happened to the second, but the lack of ministerial boasting serves as a death knell. The portrait, which still hung on the far wall, depicted the minister and his sons in tall leather boots, baggy trousers, long woolen chokhas,and sheepskin papakhas heroically bestriding the carcass of a slain brown bear that bore a striking resemblance to Yeltsin.
“Foreign investment,” the minister continued. “Most others don’t agree with me, but I believe we need to attract capital unconnected to the Kremlin if we’re to achieve a degree of economic autonomy, and holding the record for the world’s largest ruin isn’t helping. Rosneft wants to sink its fangs into our oil reserves, but the Chinese will cut a better deal. Have you heard of Oleg Voronov? He’s on the Rosneft board, the fourteenth richest man in Russia, and one of the hawks who pushed for the 1994 invasion. The acquisition of Chechen oil is among his top priorities.”
The minister set down his silverware and began sorting through the little trout bones on his plate, reconstructing the skeleton of the fish he had consumed. “If we’re to entice foreign investment, we need to rebrand Chechnya as the Dubai of the Caucasus. That’s where you come in. You’re what, the director of the Museum of Regional Art?”
“Deputy director, sir.”
“That’s right, deputy director. You did fine work sending those paintings to Moscow. A real PR coup. Even British newspapers wrote about the Tretyakov exhibit.”
With a small nod, I accepted the compliment for what was the lowest point of my rut-ridden career. In 1999, Russian rockets had demolished the museum and with my staff I’d saved what I could from the ensuing fires. Soon after, I was ordered to surrender them to the Russians. When I saw that I’d been listed as co-curator of an exhibit of the rescued Chechen paintings at Moscow’s Tretyakov Gallery, I closed my lids and wondered what had happened to all the things my eyes have loved.
The minister tilted the plate over the rubbish bin and the ribs slid from the spine of the skeleton fish. “Nothing suggests stability and peace like a thriving tourism sector,” the minister said. “I think you’d be the perfect candidate to head the project.”
“With respect, sir,” I said. “I did my dissertation on nineteenth-century pastoral landscapes. I’m a scholar. This is all a bit beyond me.”
“I’ll be honest, Ruslan, for this position we need someone with three qualifications. First, he must speak English. Second, he must know enough about the culture and history of the region to show that Chechnya is much more than a recovering war zone, that we possess a rich cultural history unsullied by violence. Third, and most important, he must be that rare government man without links to human rights abuses on either side of the conflict. Do you meet these qualifications?”
“I do, sir,” I said. “But still, I’m entirely unqualified to lead a tourism initiative.”
The minister frowned. He scanned the desk for a napkin before reaching over to wipe his oily fingers on my necktie. “According to your dossier, you’ve worked in hotels.”
“When I was sixteen, I was a bellhop.”
“Well,” the minister beamed. “Then you clearly have experience in the hospitality industry.”
“In the suitcase-carrying industry.”
“Then you accept?”
I said nothing, and as is often the case with men who possess more power than wisdom, he took my silence for affirmation. “Congratulations, Ruslan. You’re head of the Grozny Tourist Bureau.” And so my future was decided, as it often is, entirely without my consent.
Office space was a valuable commodity given how few buildings were still standing, so I worked from my flat. I spent the first morning writing Tourist Bureau on a piece of cardboard. My penmanship had been honed by years of attempting to appear productive at the office. I taped the sign to the front door, but within five minutes it had disappeared. I made a new sign, then another, but the street children who lived on the landing kept stealing them. After the fifth sign, I went to the kitchen and drank the vodka bottle the minister had sent over in celebration until I passed out in tears on the floor. So ended my first day as Tourist Bureau chief.
Over the following weeks, I designed a brochure. The central question was how to trick tourists into coming to Grozny voluntarily. For inspiration, I studied pamphlets from the tourist bureaus of other urban hellscapes: Baghdad, Pyongyang, Houston. From them I learned to be lavishly adjectival, to treat prospective tourists as semiliterate gluttons, and to impute reports of kidnapping, slavery, and terrorism to the slander of foreign provocateurs. Thrilled by my discoveries, I tucked a notebook into my shirt pocket and raced into the street. Upon seeing the empty space where an apartment block once stood, I wrote wide and unobstructed skies! I watched jubilantly as a pack of feral dogs chased a man, and wroteunexpected encounters with natural wildlife! The city bazaar hummed with the sales of looted industrial equipment, humanitarian aid rations, and munitions suited for every occasion: unparalleled shopping opportunities at the Grozny bazaar! Even before I reached the first checkpoint, I had scribbled first-rate security! The copy wrote itself; the real challenge was finding images that substantiated it. After all, the siege had remapped the city. Debris rerouted roads through abandoned warehouses—once I found a traffic jam on a factory floor—and what was not rerouted was razed. A photograph of the present city would send a cannonball through my verbiage-fortified illusion of a romantic paradise for heterosexual couples. But I couldn’t find suitable photo- graphs of prewar Grozny within the destroyed archives. In the end, I forwent photographs altogether and instead used January, April, and August of the 1984 Grozny Museum of Regional Art calendar for visuals. In the three nineteenth-century landscapes, swallows frolic over ripening grapevines and a shepherd minds his flock beneath a sunset; they portray a land untouched by war or communism and beside them my descriptions of a picturesque Chechnya do not seem entirely inappropriate.
I return home after depositing the troika of Chinese oilmen at the Interior Ministry. The street children vanish from the staircase landing as I approach, but leave behind the instruments of their survival: a metal skewer to roast pigeons, a chisel to chip cement from the loose bricks they sell to construction crews for a ruble each.
I knock on the door of the flat adjacent to mine and announce my name. Nadya appears in a headscarf and sunglasses. Turning her unscarred side toward me, she invites me in. “How was the maiden voyage?”
“An excellent success,” I say. “They dozed off before we reached the worst of the wreckage.”
Nadya smiles as she takes measured steps to the Primus stove. She doesn’t need her white cane to reach the counter. I scan the room for impediments but everything is in order. Nothing on the floorboards but the paths of kopek coins I’d glued down so her bare feet could find their way to the bathroom, the kitchen, the front door in her early months of blindness. At the end of one of these paths is a desk neatly stacked with black-and-white photographs, once the subject of her dissertation on altered images in the Stalinist era. I sift through a few while she puts the kettle on. Nadya has circled a single face in each. The same face, or rather, same person is painted into the background of each photograph, from his childhood to his elderly years, the signature of the anonymous censor.
The kettle whistles in the kitchen. We sip tea from mismatched mugs that lift rings of dust from the tabletop. She sits so I can’t see the left side of her face.
“The tourist brochures will be ready next week,” I say. “I’ll have to send one along to our Beijing comrades, if the paintings come out clearly. I’m skeptical of Ossetian printers.”
“You used three from the Zakharov room?”
“Yes, three Zakharovs.”
Her shadow nods on the wall. The Zakharov room, the museum’s largest gallery, had been her favorite too. The first time I ever saw her was in that room, in 1987, her first day working as the museum’s newly hired restoration artist.
“You’ll have to save me one,” she says. “For when I can see it.”
Her last sentence hangs in the air for a long moment before I respond. “I have an envelope with five thousand rubles. For your trip. I’ll leave it on your nightstand.”
“St. Petersburg is a city engineered to steal money from tourists. I know. I’m in the industry.”
“You don’t need to take care of me. I keep telling you,” she says with a firm but appreciative squeeze of my fingers. “I’ve been saving my disability allowance. I have enough for the bus ticket and I’m staying with the cousin of a university classmate.”
“It’s not for you. It’s for movies, for videocassettes,” I say, a beat too quickly. Slapstick and romantic comedies have become my favorite genres in recent years. “Find some that are foreign.”
She’s looking straight at me, or at my voice, momentarily forgetting the thing her face has become. She was with me when rockets turned three floors of art into an inferno she barely escaped. The third-degree burns hardened to a crevassed canvas of scar tissue wrapped over the left side of her skull. She might feel with her fingers what had been her face, but she can’t see it, and in that sense her blindness is a gift the fire gave as it took everything else. Her left eye isn’t there. She could point it at the noon sun and it would remain midnight in that bare socket. But her right side was partly spared. There the scar tissue opens onto valleys of smooth skin. In the heat her right eyelids fused together, sealing her eye from the worst of the flames. In it she can at times sense the flicker of light, the faintest movements. There is the possibility, an ophthalmologist told her, that sight could be restored to her right eye. But any optical surgeon clever enough to perform such a delicate operation was clever enough to have fled Grozny long ago. Nadya hasn’t any appointments, but she’ll try to meet with a half-dozen eye surgeons in Petersburg next week. If there is an operation, and if that operation is successful, she says she will move to Sweden. I fear for her future in a country whose citizenry is forced to assemble its own furniture.
“If it happens, the surgery, if it’s successful,” I say. “You don’t need to leave.”
“What I need is sleep.”
When I return to my flat, I scoop the hardened residue of the morning’s kasha onto a slice of round bread. The granules wedge into my molar divots, rough and folically acidic, suggesting the kind of rich, fibrous nutrients that uncoil one’s intestines into a vertical chute. I rinse my hands in the sink and let the water run even after my hands are clean. Indoor plumbing was restored six months ago. Above the doorway hangs a bumper sticker of a fish with WWJCD? inscribed across its body, sent by an American church along with a crate of bibles in response to our plea for life-saving aid.
I take a dozen scorched canvases from the closet and lay them on the floor in two rows of six. They were too damaged for the Tretyakov exhibition. Not one was painted after 1879, and yet they look like the surreal visions of a psychedelic-addled mind. Most are burned through, some no more than mounted ash, more reminiscent of Alberto Burri’s slash-and-burn Tachisme than the Imperial Academy’s classicism. In others the heat-melted oils have turned photo-realistic portraits into dissolved dreamscapes.
My closet holds one last canvas, the Zakharov I rescued. I set it on the coffee table and examine the brushwork by the light of an unshaded lamp. The seamless gradation of color, the nearly invisible brushstrokes; classic Zakharov. Not even the three years I spent writing my dissertation on Pyotr Zakharov-Chechenets could diminish my fascination with his work. Born in 1816, during the Caucasian War that Lermontov, Tolstoy, and Pushkin would later memorialize in their “Prisoner of the Caucasus” story cycle, he was a war orphan before his fourth birthday. Yet his brilliance so exceeded his circumstances that he went on to attend the Imperial Academy of Arts in St. Petersburg and despite exclusion from scholarship, employment, and patronage due to his ethnicity, he eventually became a court painter and a member of the Academy. Here is a Chechen who learned to succeed by the rules of his conquerors, a man not unlike the Interior minister, to be admired and pitied.
A meadow, an apricot tree, a stone wall in a diagonal meander through the grasses, the pasture cresting into a hill, a boarded well, a house. In 1937, the censor who would become the subject of Nadya’s dissertation painted the figure of the Grozny party boss beside the dacha. For more than fifty years the party boss occupied the bottom left corner of the painting like a mislaid statue of Socialist Realism. Soviet dogma had already pervaded the whole of the present, and here was a reminder that the past was no less revisable, no less susceptible to alteration than an unfinished canvas. In 1989, when the Berlin Wall fell and Soviet satellite states began breaking away, when the politicians and security apparatus had more pressing concerns than nineteenth-century landscapes, I asked Nadya to restore the Zakharov. She was well trained, intuitive, a natural restoration artist, and over the course of several weeks, she expunged the party boss from the painting. We didn’t take to the streets; we didn’t overthrow governments or oust leaders; our insurrection was ten centimeters of canvas.
It’s among the least ambitious of all Zakharov’s work. Here is an artist who painted the portraits of Tsar Nicholas I, General Alexei Yermolov, Grand Duchess Maria Nikolaevna, and the famed depiction of Imam Shamil’s surrender, and this, in my hands, portrays all the drama its title suggests: Empty Pasture in Afternoon.
I grew up in the southern highlands, just a few kilometers away from the pasture. Illiterate villagers who knew nothing of art proudly claimed this strip of soil worthy of Zakharov’s paintbrush. Though the land was technically part of a state farm, nothing was ever planted, and flocks were banned from grazing because no one liked the idea of sheep relieving themselves on Zakharov’s pasture. In secondary school, my class took a trip to the Grozny Museum of Regional Art and I finally saw the canvas that existed more vibrantly in village lore that it ever could on a museum wall.
More than anything, it was that painting that led me to study art at university. There I met and married Liana. We lived with my parents in cramped quarters well into our twenties, and found the privacy to speak openly only in deserted public areas: on the roof of the village schoolhouse, in the waiting room of the shuttered village clinic, in Zakharov’s pasture. After I received my doctorate and a position at the museum, we relocated to a Grozny flat, where we learned to talk in bed.
The USSR fell. We had a son. With the assistance of the Interior minister, I purchased the dacha on Zakharov’s pasture amid the frenzied privatization of the post-Soviet, prewar years. When the first war began, I stayed in Grozny and did my best to protect the museum from the alternating advances of foreign soldiers and local insurgents. My wife and son lived in the dacha, far from the war.
In my tourist bureau research, I’ve learned that the first and second Chechen wars have made the republic among the most densely mined regions in human history. The United Nations estimates five hundred thousand mines were planted, roughly one for every two Chechen. I didn’t know that number when I visited the dacha during the first war, taking what provisions I could cull from the ruined capital, a few treats for which I paid dearly, tea leaves for my wife, sheets of fresh drawing paper for my son. But I knew enough to warn them never to venture into the pasture. Until May 1996, they heeded my warnings. I don’t know how it happened, why they walked into the pasture, if they were pursued, if they fled masked men, if the mined field was a sanctuary compared with the depredations of their pursuers, if they were afraid, if they called for help, if they called for me. Those questions have been unanswerable from the moment they swung open the back door, descended the stairs, and ran across that fallow garden. I’d like to believe it was a day so beautiful they couldn’t be kept from the crest of the hill, the open sky, that radiance. I’d like to believe that my wife suggested a picnic on the hill. I’d like to believe that the moment before their last moment was one of whimsy, charm, anything to counter the more probable realities at the edge of my imagination. With terror or joy, with abasement or delight, they remained my wife and child, right to the end—I must remind myself because in the mystery that subsumes those final moments, they are strangers to me. I was in Grozny, at the museum, and never heard the explosion.
For the two weeks Nadya is in Petersburg, my evenings stagnate. Russian dignitaries, potential investors, state-approved journalists, and the omnipresent oilmen fill my mornings and afternoons, but when I return to my flat I’m reminded I am, at the end of the day, alone. Twice I go to Nadya’s flat to clean her bedroom closet, the back corners of shelves, behind the toilet, the little places that even in her fastidiousness she’d miss. I’m uncomfortable with the neediness that underlies my decision to insert myself into her life under the pretext of concern. I am concerned, of course. Some nights I wake from nightmares that she has tripped over a chair, a shoe, a broomstick I could have moved. But in rare moments—like now, as I scour the mildew from her bathroom tiles—clarity surfaces through the murky soup of daily life, and I know I have purposefully made myself into a crutch she cannot risk discarding. What I don’t know is whether I’ve done so out of love or loneliness, or if in this upside-down world where roofs lie on streets, intentions have lost their moral weight altogether.
One Wednesday, feeling unusually alert given the hour, I contemplate Zakharov’s pasture. It’s the least ruined of the canvases, stained with ash and soot, but still the damage is minor. Most severe is the burn hole at the center of the canvas, upon the hill, and even though the hole was burned into the canvas during the museum fires, I see it as the crater left by the landmine blast, the hole through which everything disappeared. A few years ago, Nadya could’ve restored it in days.
An idea. I let myself back into Nadya’s flat to retrieve her restoration kit. It’s at her desk, amid the black-and-white photographs censored by the propaganda officer who had painted the Grozny party boss into the foreground of the Zakharov. Nadya became fascinated with the propaganda officer after she had expunged the party boss from the painting, particularly when she discovered that he had inserted a portrait of the same person into hundreds of the censored images, from boyhood to elderly years. If you lined up all the photographs, you might see this stranger’s entire life unfold before you in the background. I pause on one, identified as Leningrad 1937 in pencil on the back. Here he’s just a boy, chubby face and gray eyes below the accent mark of a cowlick, hardly noticeable in the crowd. I feel him staring up at me with an intensity approaching sentience, and for a moment I can’t move: His gaze has pierced and pinned me to a present space we share. How did he die? The question has looped through me on a ticker tape these past five years, but I have never before asked it about a boy who was not my son.
Back home I set the contents beside the Zakharov canvas. Plastic bottles of emulsion cleaner, neutralizer, gloss varnish, conditioner, and varnish remover. A tin of putty. Eight meters of canvas lining. A depleted packet of cotton-tipped swabs. A dozen disposable chloroprene gloves. I’d taken a yearlong course in conservation at university, but my real education came from Nadya, when, in the months after my family died, I neglected my duties as deputy director and spent most afternoons in her office, watching her work.
Every evening for the next week I snap on the chloroprene gloves and wash away the surface dirt with cotton balls dampened in neutralizer. The emulsion cleaner smells of fermented watermelon, and I apply it with the swabs, running small circles until the cotton tips gray and the unadulterated color of Zakharov’s palette is revealed. Using the repair putty as sealant, I patch the burn hole with a square of fresh canvas. Then, for the real challenge, I paint.
The patched hole is the size of a halved playing card in the center-right of the painting, near the cresting hill. The grass, turned emerald by sunlight, must be flawless, the gradation beyond reproach, and I spend several hours testing different blends of oils before coloring the canvas patch with delicate brushstrokes. As I work, I realize that even in his rendering of a distant field of grass, Zakharov is beyond imitation. I lean back, search the painting for two familiar figures, as I have for years, but this time is different. Nadya would never forgive me had she been here and been able to see me paint, upon the patched hole on the hillside, a woman and a boy.
With quick, strong lines, I draw them as silhouettes. The boy’s arms are raised, his body elongated as he makes for the crest, his hands thrown open. The woman, a step behind, follows him up the hill. Their backs are to me. The sun rakes the grass and ripe apricots bend the branches. No one chases them. They run from nothing.
Nadya has returned and the white tea has cooled in our cups and still she hasn’t mentioned the Petersburg eye surgeons.
“Good news,” she says and feels across the floor for her suit- case. She hands me two VHS tapes. “These are the two you wanted, right?”
I examine the two VHS cases. Soviet comedies, sadly. “Yes, these are precisely the ones I wanted.”
“I was afraid the street vendor had swindled me.”
“What did the eye surgeons say, Nadya?”
The pause was long enough to peel a plum.
She delivers the news with a downcast frown. “Reconstructive surgery is possible.”
I force as much gusto into my congratulations as I can muster, slapping my palm on the table while my spine wilts. What will I be if Nadya no longer needs me, what if she moves to Sweden and assembles bookcases in a living room I will never see? This is good news, though, of course it is, but Nadya’s face is joyless. “What’s wrong? Is there a long wait for the operation? ”
“There won’t be one.”
“What? Why not?”
“Too expensive.” She’s still facing the empty chair across the table, thinking that I’m still sitting there. “It’s one hundred and fifteen thousand.”
One hundred and fifteen thousand rubles. A huge, but not impossible, sum. Years to save for, but within the realm of possibility, like a vacation to Belarus. I’m already scheming ways to defraud the Interior Ministry when she says, “Dollars.”
My heart spirals and crash-lands somewhere deep in my gut. At thirty-three rubles to a dollar, the number is insurmountable. Nadya reaches for her purse and pulls out an envelope.
“What I owe you for the trip. Help me count it out,” she says. For a moment her instinct to trust anyone, even me, is infuriating. Isn’t suspicion the natural condition of the blind? Haven’t I warned her, told her to be careful, that she can’t rely on anyone? But by some perversion she’s become more trusting, more willing to believe that people aren’t by nature hucksters and scoundrels, which is why, I suppose, my VHS collection is rounded out with Gentlemen of Fortune.
“It’s nothing,” I say.
“I’m paying you back.”
“If you want to be a martyr go join them in the woods.”
“Help me count it out,” she insists, her voice stern, cool, serious. “I still have money left from the disability fund. I’m not a charity.”
Of course there’s no disability fund. Of course the government isn’t sending her a monthly payment or subsidizing the flat adjacent to mine. The cash sealed in the Interior Ministry envelopes I bring over on the first of the month comes from me, as does her monthly rent.
“I’m waiting,” she says. We both know this is a farce. But I sit beside her. I play my part in the lie that preserves the illusion that our friendship, our romance, whatever this is, is based on affection rather than need. I count out the bills that I will return to her in an Interior Ministry envelope on the first of the month, and when I finish we shake hands as if our business is concluded and there is nothing left that we owe each other, no debt unpaid, no obligation unfulfilled.
In bed I run my fingers through what remains of her hair, press my fingertips to her cheeks, slowly scrolling, as if I am the blinded of us, to decipher the dense Braille scrawled across her face. I slide my hand down her torso, over the bulge of her left breast, the hook of her hip bone, to thighs so smooth and unmarked they’re hers only in darkness. She rolls away.
Lying here in bed, you nearly forget the falling rockets, the collapsing museum, the air of the clean sky impossibly distant, the cinder blocks shifting like ice cubes in a glass. The Zakharov was in your hands when you found her, her face halved by burns, her teeth chattering. You nearly forget how you lifted her cheek to cool it with your breath, how her broken eyes searched for you as you held her.
You nearly forget the many times you have warned her of monsters as though they are a people apart: lurking beyond her doorway, ready to prey on the blind and vulnerable. As she turns from you, tucking the sheets beneath her hip, you nearly forget to ask yourself, “What monster have I become today?”
In the morning I return to my flat and find the canvases on the floor where I left them. Daylight grants the scorch and char an odd beauty, as if the fires hadn’t destroyed the artworks, but revised them into expressions of a brutal present. I pick up the nearest canvas, a family portrait commissioned by a nobleman as a wedding present for his second son. The top third of the canvas has been incinerated, taking with it the heads of the nobleman, his wife, the first son, and the newly betrothed, but their bodies remain, dressed in soot-stained breeches and petticoats, and by their feet sits a dachshund so fat its little legs barely touch the ground, the only figure—in a canvas commissioned to convey the family’s immortal honor—to survive intact.
I hang the canvas on the wall from a bent nail and step back, marveling that here, for the first time in my career, I’ve hung a work of modern art. After pulling the furniture into the kitchen, I hang the remaining canvases throughout the living room, finally coming to the restored Zakharov, which I consider taking back to the closet, shelving in the darkness where it will exist for me alone, but my curatorial instincts win out, and I hang the Zakharov on the wall where it is meant to be. The street children long ago stole the last of my door signs.
I scrawl one more on a cardboard shingle and nail it to the door: Grozny Museum of Regional Art.
Now for guards. I toss a crumpled hundred-ruble note down the stairs, thinking that they, like the Sunzha trout, are too hungry to pass up a baited hook. A small hand reaches around the corner, and I grab it, yanking on the slender arm to reel in the rest of the child. He squirms wildly, biting at my wrists, until I shake him into submission and offer him a job in museum security.
He stops squirming, perhaps out of shock, and I close his hand around the hundred-ruble note. His fingernails look rusted on. His shirt is no thicker than stitched-together soot.
“Bandits are stealing the signs from my door,” I tell him. “I’ll pay you and your friends three hundred rubles a week to keep watch.”
Over the following weeks, I bring all my tours through the museum. A delegation from the Red Cross. More Chinese oilmen. A heavyweight boxing champ. A British journalist. This is what remains, the charred canvases cry. You cannot burn ash! You cannot raze rubble! As the only museum employee besides the street children, I give myself a long overdue promotion. No longer am I deputy. As of today, I am director of the Grozny Museum of Regional Art.
The newly installed phone rings one morning and the gloomy Interior minister greets me. “We’re properly fucked.”
“Nice to hear from you, sir,” I reply. I’m still in my sleeping clothes and even for a phone conversation I feel unsuitably dressed.
“The Chinese are out. They traded their drilling right to Rosneft for a few dozen Russian fighter jets.”
I nod. It explains why China hadn’t sent their most shrewd or sober representatives. “So this means Rosneft will drill?”
“Yes, and it gets even worse,” he heaves. “I may well be demoted to deputy minister.”
“I was a deputy for many years. It’s not as bad as you think.”
“When the world takes a dump, it lands on a deputy’s forehead.”
I couldn’t deny that. “What does this mean for the Tourist Bureau?”
“You’ll have one more tour, then it’s safe to say you’ll need to find new employment. Oleg Voronov. From Rosneft.”
It took a beat for the name to register. “The fourteenth richest man in Russia?”
“With respect, sir, I give tours to human rights activists and print journalists, people of no power or importance. I’m not qualified to give a tour to a man of his stature. Why does he even want a tour?”
“My question precisely! Apparently his wife, Galina Something-or-other-ova, the actress, has heard of this art museum you’ve cobbled together. What’ve you been up to?”
“It’s a long story, sir.”
“You know I hate stories.”
“Well, do show him our famed Chechen hospitality. Be sure to offer him a glass of unboiled tap water. Let’s give the thirteenth richest man in Russia an intestinal parasite!”
“Don’t worry, sir. I’m a limo driver.”
“I’ll land on my feet, Ruslan. Don’t lose too much sleep over my future. Perhaps I’ll visit America. I’d like to see Muskegon while I’m still young and healthy enough to really experience it.”
Three weeks pass and here he is, Oleg Voronov sitting in the backseat of the Mercedes with his wife, the actress Galina Ivanova. Up front is his assistant, a bleached-blond parcel of productivity who takes notes even when no one is speaking. But try as I might, I’m unable to properly hate Voronov. So far he’s been untalkative, inattentive, and uncurious; in short, a perfect tourist. Galina, on the other hand, has read Khassan Geshilov’s The Origins of Chechen Civilization and recites historical trivia unfamiliar to me. The office doors of dead administrators clatter beneath us and she asks thoughtful questions, treating me not as a servant, or even a tour guide, but as a scholar. I casually mention the land mines, the street children, the rape and torture and indiscriminate suffering, but Voronov and his wife shake their heads with sympathy. Nothing I say will turn them into the masks of evil I want them to be.
The tour concludes at my flat. I’m hesitant to allow a man of his stature into the small world of my museum, but his wife insists. As we ascend the stairwell, Voronov checks his watch, a cheap plastic piece of crap, and in that moment I know I will not hate him as he deserves to be hated.
“This is what remains of the Grozny Museum of Regional Art,” I say as I open the door. Voronov and his assistant circle the room. I glance to the kitchen sink, but a glass of unboiled tap water is a fate I wouldn’t wish upon even a Russian oligarch.
Voronov and Galina pass the burned-out frames to the pasture painting. “Is this the one?” he asks her. She nods.
“A Zakharov, no?” he asks, fingering his lapel as he turns to me. “There was an exhibit of his at the Tretyakov, if memory serves.”
Only now do I see clearly the animals I have invited into my home. “The fires destroyed most of the original collection when the museum was bombed. We sent what was saved to the Tretyakov.”
“But not this?”
“Rather reckless, don’t you think, to leave such a treasure on an apartment wall guarded only by street urchins?”
“It’s a minor work.”
“Believe it or not, my wife has been looking for this painting. It has special meaning for her. I know, I know. I married a sentimentalist.”
“Could I offer you a glass of water?”
“You could offer me the painting.”
I force a laugh. He laughs too. We are laughing. Ha-ha! Ha-ha! It’s all a joke. “The painting is not for sale,” I say.
He stops laughing. “It is if I want to buy it.”
“This is a museum. You can’t have a painting just because you want it. The director of the Tretyakov wouldn’t sell you art from his walls just because you can afford it.”
“You are only a deputy director and this isn’t the Tretyakov.” There’s real pity in his voice as he surveys the ash flaking from the canvases, the dirty dishes stacked in the sink, and yes, now, at last, I hate him.
“Come now, I have a penthouse gallery in Moscow. Temperature and moisture controlled. First-rate security. No one but Galina, and a few guests, and I will ever see it. You must realize I’m being more than reasonable.” In a less than subtle threat he nods out the window to the street where his three armed Goliaths skulk beside their Land Rover. “What is the painting worth?”
“It’s worth,” I begin, but how can I finish? What price can I assign to the last Zakharov in Chechnya, to the last image of my home? One sum comes to mind, but it terrifies me. Wouldn’t that be the worst of all outcomes, to lose both the Zakharov and Nadya in the same transaction? “Just take it,” I say. “You took everything else. Take this too.”
Voronov bristles. “I’m not a thief. Tell me what it’s worth.”
My gaze floats and lands upon the bumper sticker of WWJCD? inscribed within the body of a fish. What would he do? Jim Carrey would be brave. In the end, no matter how hard, Jim Carrey does the right thing. I close my eyes. I don’t want to say it. “One hundred and fifteen thousand dollars. U.S.”
“That’s what, three-point-seven, three-point-eight million rubles? Let’s make it an even four,” Voronov says with a single fleshy clap. His wife still hasn’t looked away from the painting. He turns to his assistant who has followed him around the room, taking notes all the while. The assistant unyokes herself from a mammoth purse, pulls out eight stacks of banded five-thousand-ruble bills, and lays them on the floor. “Never trust banks,” Voronov says. “You can have that advice for free. It’s been a pleasure.” He slaps my back, tells the assistant to bring the canvas down with her, and heads for the door.
Then he’s gone. Galina remains at the Zakharov. Even now as I’m losing it, I’m proud my painting can elicit such sustained attention.
She nods to the stick-figure silhouettes of my wife and child, smiling as she dabs the corners of her eyes. “You wouldn’t understand, but someone I once loved died in this field.”
She pats my shoulder and walks to the door.
Then she’s gone and I’m left alone with the assistant whose saccharine perfume smells of vaporized cherubs. I close my eyes and try to imagine the darkness extending into permanent night, to imagine our lives as dreams we tumble through, but I can’t imagine, because even at night I know morning will come, and even with my eyes clamped I know I will open them. What will Nadya see when she opens hers? Who will she see when she sees me?
“And you’ll have to give us a curatorial description,” the assistant says. “Something we can mount on a placard.”
She passes me the notepad and I stand before my painting for a long while before I begin. Notice how the shadows in the meadow mirror the clouds in the sky, I write. Or the way the leaves of the apricot tree blow in the same direction as the grass on the far side of the meadow. For such a master, no verisimilitude is excluded. Notice the wall of white stones cutting an angle across the composition. It both gives depth and offsets the horizon line. On the left side of the canvas, running up the hill, you will see channels of turned soil. One could assume they are freshly dug graves, or recently buried land mines, but look closer and see they are the furrows of a newly planted herb garden. The first shoots of rosemary already peek out. In this painting, Zakharov portrays all the peace and tranquility of a spring day. The sun shines comfortably and hours remain before nightfall. Toward the crest of the hill, nearing the horizon, you may notice what look to be the ascending figures of a woman and a boy. Pay them no mind, for they are merely the failures of a novice restoration artist. They are no more than his shadows. They are not there.