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from the July/August 2003 issue

Paris Lost

In the steppes of southern Russia, there once was a city whose inhabitants spoke only French in the summer and English in the fall. 

Our first official German document, which we got at police headquarters on the Alexanderplatz in 1990, was an East German residence permit. We didn't get any closer to our old dream: the right to travel freely. Right on the first page of the document it said: On departure from the German Democratic Republic, this permit must be surrendered to the appropriate civic authorities, or to the border control. Valid until 8/30/2000.

We didn't have a big trip planned at first; back then, we were happy to have gotten any document at all. It allowed us, from that point on, to sit peacefully in our foreigners' residence hall in Marzahn and get to know the different German beers. You can't have everything at once. The mere fact that I wasn't in the Soviet Union anymore, but someplace else entirely was a source of great joy to me. I had already tried to leave the Soviet Union before, on one pretext or another, or tried to find a way to leave. But all of my schemes fell through. For instance, in 1986, I got an invitation to the GDR from one of my mother's best girlfriends, a woman who'd married a German and now lived in Berlin.

At first, everything went smoothly: I gave my urine and blood samples, and went through the physical to prove that my health was good enough to undergo a foreign trip. There was only one more hurdle: the CIF, the Committee for International Friendship. Without its permission, I would get no travel permit. The CIF officials only met once a month. They were responsible for the ideological face of Soviet youth abroad, so naturally, they tried to let as few young people out of the country as possible. Even though I only wanted to go to the German Democratic Republic, which had no ideological differences with us, I still had to appeal to the CIF. And not alone, but with the Komsomol chairman of the drama school where I was studying. The chairman had to describe me in writing and practically personally recommend me for travel. Luckily, our Komsomol organizer, Oleg, was a good guy. I bought two bottles of vodka and paid him a visit. At first, he wanted no part of the whole scenario: the CIF headquarters was in the most out-of-the-way corner of Moscow, on the Leningrad Highway. But after a couple of glasses, he got friendlier.

"I accept, I'll write you a positive recommendation, but what will you bring me back in return from the GDR?"

"Well what do you want?" I replied. Back then, I didn't even know what was to be had in the GDR.

"Two cartons of Kent cigarettes, and a bottle of egg custard liqueur," Oleg specified, clearly having a much better idea than I did. I was to prepare myself well for the CIF session, and review the political situation in Germany. This was not overcomplicated, because there wasn't all that much in our schoolbooks about postwar German and European history. Basically, the information had been shrunk down until it barely filled two pages. The Soviet Army had not succeeded in freeing the entire continent of Europe in 1944-45, the lesson went, because one part had already been freed by the Americans. Therefore, Europe divided into two camps, and the people who were freed by us willingly chose Socialism. The others, because they were under American influence, had to submit to the capitalist way of life.

On the question of Germany, things were somewhat more complicated. The country was divided along ideological grounds. All the ex-Nazis settled in the West, while the anti-Fascists founded the Socialist German Democratic Republic. The Wall arose later, as a symbol of divided Germany, and because the West Berliners had developed the selfish habit of traveling to the eastern half and using their valuable western loans to buy out all the shops, leaving them permanently empty. The West Berliners had wanted, practically speaking, to ride two horses at once: to earn under capitalism and buy under socialism. At first, the East Germans tolerated this arrangement out of nostalgia and conscience, but at some point, it started getting on their nerves, and their general secretary, Walter Ulbricht, leaped into action. He wanted social justice, so he ordered that the West Berliners be walled off. Overnight, armed brigades of workers surrounded the western part of the city with a provisional wall. The next day, the West Berliners must have had pretty silly looks on their faces when they set out to do their shopping in the GDR as usual.

On Oleg's recommendation I read the entire chapter of the history book a second time. Two days later, both of us stood sweating on the carpet before the CIF commission, which consisted of four old women and a cripple who looked very suspicious. The point of the discussion was to find out why I wanted to go to the GDR, and to decide if I was mature enough to make such a trip. Each side lied to the other. The ladies from the CIF pretended they really didn't know why I wanted to go to the GDR. And I pretended that I didn't know myself.

"I would like to get to know the Socialist daily life of our brothers in the GDR, see the sights in Berlin, and share experiences," I murmured. In reality, my plan was to buy as many Nazareth and AC/DC records in East Germany as possible, then resell them in Moscow at four times the price. The East German music industry was then in many ways ahead of ours. The crumbling piece of shit from the Committee wanted to know everything: which sights did I want to see, and what were the last names of the Socialist brothers whose daily life I wanted to learn about? One of the women read out loud the character portrait Oleg had written of me: "Wladimir Kaminer has shown himself to be a disciplined and cooperative participant in the group. However, he is often not present at Civics, and he takes only a limited part in group projects."

"What did you write, you idiot," I hissed in Oleg's direction, beside myself with rage.

"Stay calm," he answered coolly, "I know what I'm doing. Everything's going accordiing to plan."

"It is good that you're so frank with us, and don't keep your problems secret from your colleagues," one of the women said to me and smiled mildly. "But what do you have against Civics, and why do you take such a limited part in group projects, Wladimir, tell us what's wrong?

I was fucked. I hadn't even known that the discipline of "Civics" was a duty at Drama School.

"What can I say," I responded. "Probably because I don't take drama school seriously enough. I wanted to become a pilot like my uncle, but I didn't meet the health requirement."

"It's wonderful that both of you are so frank with us," the old women said, delighted. "You can go."

Outside I bitched at Oleg.

"You don't get it," he told me. "The activists have become very suspicious. The new line everyone's taking is to own up to our failings. Since we're supposed to learn from our failings, we've got to have some. Self-criticism is the rule. Everyone's got to talk shit about himself and everyone else, if you want to get along well with people like that. I swear. You'll see, you'll get used to it."

He calmed me down. Nonetheless, two weeks later I was turned down. The reason for it had nothing to do with the Committee for International Frienship. A student from our drama school—the son of a famous actor who gladly and frequently played Lenin—had tried to climb over the fence of the Swedish consulate to apply for political asylum. They sent him back to his father. So all the students of all the drama schools in the country were slapped with a universal travel ban.

* * *

A few months after we reached Germany, we were recognized by the already-dissolving GDR as humanitarian refugees, who came from that already-dissolved country, the Soviet Union. In place of the East German papers, we got new western documents, pretty blue travel passes with two black stripes on the cover. In these documents, it said that this document did not speak to our citizenship, but it attested to our absolute right to freedom of travel: "For all countries," it said on page seven. Naturally, that was intended entirely theoretically. Practically speaking, it meant that if some country wanted to dispense a visa to us, it could choose to stamp our blue document, no problem. Nonetheless, from that point on, we enjoyed unrestricted travel freedom. My friend Andrei and I quickly planned our first flight together. Naturally, it should be to Paris. This city has always played a special role in the minds of Russians as an almost unachievable paradise.

We prepared ourselves thoroughly for our trip and bought a camera and two bus tickets with an open return: "Experience Paris for ninety-nine marks round-trip." Now we really could drive off to Paris every night. But it all felt like it was happening too quickly for us. To prolong our enjoyment of our absolute freedom to travel a little longer, we lingered for a while in our house in Marzahn. We sat every day in the kitchen, drank more beer, and talked to each other about Paris. Andrei said that his cousin, whom he'd never seen in his life, had lived in a castle near Paris for years. Even in the dark days of the Iron Curtain, she'd managed to catch the fancy of a French nobleman, marry him quickly, and leave her homeland. Since then she'd been considered a missing person by the family. "I can hardly wait to meet her at last," Andrei said. In my family, there was only my Uncle Boris, the pilot, who'd been to Paris once, as a tourist. And yet, until his death in 1981, he never once put a foot outside the borders of the Soviet Union.

As a child, I could never count my whole extended family. The grandmas and the grandpas had so many brothers and sisters, who themselves brought many children into the world, who then, in their own time, married abundantly, such that it was easy to lose track of them all. It was a great horde of people that had strewn itself across the whole world and was barely recognizable as a family. Most of them lived in Ukraine, while my parents and I lived in Moscow.

There were some legendary characters in the family who my parents always loved to tell me about, how once Uncle Simeon from Leningrad, who was a terrible card player, built up huge debts and tried to kill himself. He jumped off the balcony of his ninth-floor apartment and only broke a leg, miraculously spared by the hand of God. When Uncle Simeon got out of the hospital, he began to gamble successfully, paid off his debts, and in 1977 emigrated to Australia as a Jew. There he won first prize in an all-Australia poker competition, and became a millionaire. My father had a photo in which you could see Uncle Simeon, in a white suit, with a walking stick in his hand, in front of his Australian house and garden. How this photo came into our family archive is a mystery. My parents never got letters from Australia, and they didn't send any there, either.

Another legend from the family circle was Uncle Boris, who spent nearly all his life in Kazakhstan. Once, shortly before the Olympics in 1980, when I was already in eighth grade, Uncle Boris came to visit us in Moscow. He was the brother of my dead grandfather, and he embodied for our family the history of the Soviet Union. Uncle Boris had taken part in all of the adventures of primitive Socialism, and, later, developed Socialism. He had come to Moscow to pick up some document that was supposed to get him an increase in his pension, and he lived for a month in my room.

Our Moscow apartment was not big: two rooms, three hundred square feet altogether. At the time, I couldn't rightly judge how small it was, because all the neighbors and all my parents' friends had the same kind of living space. It only occurred to me years later, when I went into the army and got a bigger room, that the whole time we'd been living in a birdcage. Three hundred square feet. The bathroom alone in our barracks was over a thousand square feet.

So Uncle Boris lived in my room, and day after day told me stories about his adventurous life. When the war began he was already visiting a flight school. He wanted to be a flyer. In 1944, when the Soviet Army had already freed half of Europe, Stalin decided that this was the time to take on the Japanese. All the flight students were sent to the Far East, whether or not they were done with their training. Uncle Boris became an officer, and for a whole year, he hunted Japanese planes among the mountains of Manchuria. Twice his machine was shot down, once in China and once in Korea, but he came out of the war intact notwithstanding.

Afterward, he became a scientist, and worked in the collective that invented synthetic rubber. For that, in 1947, he was sentenced to twenty years in a labor camp. His wife, Aunt Lisa, who loved him very much, had jealously denounced him. Uncle Boris was a good-looking man, and above that a war hero, and in his scientific institute, he was simply surrounded by women. He came to be an object of desire at the collective. But Aunt Lisa wanted him for herself alone, and couldn't bear the knowing glances of other women. She showed up at the security office and told them that her husband wanted to sell the secret formula for Soviet synthetic rubber to Japan. For that my uncle got twenty years in a labor camp, and my aunt went into exile with him in Kazakhstan willingly, and with a happy heart. They lived together there in a dugout near the village of Kandagakh.

At the beginning, Uncle Boris was furious at his wife: she had ruined his career, and now she should amiably vanish from his life. As time went on, they betrayed each other again. Most of the prisoners in the camp were German prisoners of war. They traded soap for tobacco with the natives, and as soon as possible, built the first synthetic rubber production plant in the Steppes. My uncle became director there. That's why he didn't live like the Germans and the other prisoners in barracks, but in a specially built dugout with a view of Kandagakh. Every day he was picked up in a PKW and driven to work. In the back seat, there always sat a soldier with a loaded machine gun, who kept on eye on him, the prisoner.

After twelve years, my uncle was rehabilitated, and received a special Order from the government, which ended up in my father's bureau, and became a family relic. On the front was a portrait of Stalin, in profile; on the back it said: "The Soviet Government thanks you for your toil." After his rehabilitation, Uncle Boris stayed in Kazakhstan. He got an apartment in Kandagakh from his rubber business, and worked there another twenty years as an engineer. His wife, Aunt Lisa, died in the seventies; he went into retirement and then came to visit us in Moscow.

One evening he told me about his trip to Paris. This was when his wife was still living. He was working in his business, and despite his rehabilitation, and twelve years hard labor, he didn't dare dream of such a trip. But at the beginning of the seventies, it suddenly became a reality. Back then, every child knew that our Socialist Fatherland was beloved by all the peoples of the world, and only imperialist governments were against us. They spread lies about our daily life behind the Iron Curtain, and tried to make us look like warmongers. But we were for freedom and understanding among peoples. Besides, our government was very generous with its citizens; it couldn't be compared to an imperialist regime. And so, each year a hundred of the best proletarians were singled out—laborers, construction workers, army officers, miners or mothers with numerous offspring: they all were given a (nearly) free trip to Paris, sometimes even a trip to London, too. Naturally, on the condition that all the candidates were members of the Party.

The chosen had to agree to undergo a few routine health checks, and receive instruction from the security organs on how to conduct themselves abroad. They had to sign documents stating that they would keep to themselves everything that they saw in Paris or London. And then they could exchange two hundred rubles into foreign currency and prepare for their departure. There was only one catch. Naturally, the government could not actually send its people to France or, even worse, England. The Soviet workers would be unable to resist the temptations of the capitalist world. Besides, the evil imperialists were lying in wait just for Soviet citizens to show themselves abroad, and had different traps and provocations prepared for them, in order to be able to spread even more lies about our country. And so, such trips could exact a huge financial cost on the state treasury.

Thus, the government hit on a comparatively economical, if less exciting solution: it was to build their own "Abroad" in the Steppes of southern Russia, near Stavropol, with a real city, and many inhabitants. It served in the summer as Paris, and later, in the fall, when it began to rain and the clouds appeared, after a quick overhaul, it became London. The project had top secret status, only employees of the state security agency lived and worked there with their families. They were specially trained; in summer, they were required to speak only French among themselves and in the fall, only English.

The season began in June. The tourists would be picked up from "Orly" or "Heathrow" airport by bus and driven to hotels. In small groups, led by two travel guides, they would explore the clean-swept streets of the foreign country, buy pretty sweaters and unknown types of cheese, stare at the foreign cars that drove up and down the street, and laugh at the Eiffel Tower or Big Ben, which did not compare to Soviet monumental art. But on the whole, they found Abroad pretty neat. It was nothing special, but they weren't disappointed, either. The food in the hotel tasted strangely foreign, and the native French or English people, who were mostly unemployed, sat in their cafes all the time drinking vodka with beer, naturally not in the huge quantities we had back home, but in tiny little glasses. They greeted the Soviet tourists very kindly, and almost every one of these unemployed foreigners understood a few Russian phrases. After three or four days, the Russians flew back to their families.

My uncle really wasn't ever supposed to see this Paris because of his past, but back then there were no computers, and even the sharpest state apparatus makes a mistake every now and then. When Uncle Boris was honored a second time for his excellent work in the rubber business, he was given a three-day trip to Paris. The news spread quickly, and all the neighbors came to say good-bye. Euphorically they made up lists of presents that they wanted Uncle Boris to bring back from Paris. He himself had only one wish, which sounded very childlike: to get "drunk as a lord" on the Eiffel Tower. Everybody laughed about his dream.

Boris took a bag of Soviet canned food with him, and a Russian-French dictionary. The flight to Paris lasted six hours. The first two days, my uncle tried to get away from his group. Every time they gathered below in the hotel lobby, Uncle Boris went to the bathroom and sat there as long as he could, in the hope that the group would go into town without him. But when he came out they'd all be standing by the bathroom, waiting patiently for him. After that, they drove together in the bus to the center, to go shopping.

On the third day, Uncle Boris finally lucked out. While the group was browsing in a sweatshirt shop, and the tour directors had briefly lost sight of them, a bus stopped directly in front of the store. Without pausing for long, Uncle Boris jumped on. The bus was almost empty except for a pair of crumpled Frenchmen. A bottle of vodka and a phrasebook were in my uncle's pants pocket. Now he only had to find the Eiffel Tower.

The bus driver looked at him in a friendly way. "Salut, Russo turisto!" he greeted him. My uncle thought to himself, I've seen that man once before, someplace, this plump, eyebrowless face, and this grin.

"Were you ever in Kazakhstan?" my uncle held up his phrasebook: "D'où 'tes vous? Kazakhstan?"

"No," said the bus driver. "Je suis de Marseille, comprenez-moi?"

"I've seen you before," my uncle said again, but on the quick he couldn't find the words. "Est-ce que nous allons passer devant la Tour Eiffel?"

"Bien entendu," said the bus driver, and grinned again. The Frenchmen on the bus all began to smirk. Out the window, Uncle Boris caught a glimpse of the Eiffel Tower.

"Stop here," he called out to the bus driver. "I'm getting out here, merci pour tout et bon voyage."

"Take care of yourself, Grandpa," murmured the bus driver, and put on the brakes.

My uncle jumped out of the bus. In front of him was a typical Parisian street: French coffee drinkers sat in two small bars, housewives did their shopping, a grandmother pushed a stroller in front of her. Through an open window, you could hear music. Suddenly a man stuck his head out the window and called out something in loud French. The whole street got up and started to walk quickly toward the Eiffel Tower. The first tourist buses were arriving. And a tour guide from my uncle's group was there. He ran to him, out of breath and grabbed him by the sleeve. "What shit are you pulling? Where were you trying to go?" His voice was high with agitation.

"Nowhere," Uncle Boris responded. At once, he knew where he'd seen the bus driver. It was the guy who used to drive him to work every morning, twenty years earlier, when he was still a rubber plant director, living in a dugout. The group flew back to Kazakhstan that same day, and Uncle Boris drank his vodka not on the Eiffel Tower, but in his hotel room, along with the pair of worthy workers that he had shared the room with, and a woman with numerous offspring, who had happened to drop by.

"It may be that I've missed out on a lot in my life, that I was in the wrong place at the wrong time and that I was unjustly sentenced, but all the same—I was in Paris. And that experience I'll take with me to the grave," Uncle Boris told me proudly and laughed. At the time, his story seemed absolutely unbelievable to me.

Years later, after Perestroika, as ever more unbelievable stories out of the dark past of the country came into the open, I had to change my opinion. I read the reports from eyewitnesses of people who had built "Paris" and lived there for years. Also, many novels and stories had been written about it. So I arrived at the conviction that my Uncle Boris had told me the truth after all. His Paris was a chimerical city, erected as a kind of ideological condom to protect the population from the tainted charms of western civilization. Such methods work, but they never last; the truth comes to light sooner or later.

The Russian Paris lasted no longer than five years. During a trip through Russia at the end of the seventies, a clever Dutch journalist came across a pair of photos that a young dairymaid in a kolkhoz showed him: There she stood with her mother, a worthy dairymaid of the Soviet Union, under the Eiffel Tower, and smiled at the camera. To the Dutchman, the Eiffel Tower in the photos had a strikingly Socialist air. He put the young, naive woman under pressure, and in the end convinced her to accept his valuable, but on a dairy farm totally useless, dictation machine, in exchange for her photos. The Dutchman vaunted the machine as a "foreign speaking machine, a true wonder of technology" and practically ripped the photos of the Eiffel Tower out of the girl's hand.

One of them turned up a few months later in the features section of a Dutch newspaper. At first nobody in the west took the story of the picture seriously, everyone thought the whole thing was a joke. But the then-head of the KGB, Andropov, did not find the photo in the foreign newspaper funny at all. He ordered "Project Paris" to be torn down to the last stone in the shortest time possible. Many construction worker brigades from the congress and the Interior Ministry participated in the destruction of the French capital. It had to go down quickly, almost overnight.

According to reports of eyewitnesses, the KGB needed more money for the planning of the destruction of Paris than had been needed earlier for the building of the city. Beyond that, as a consequence of the hastiness of the demolition work, many valuable objects were lost. The whole Parisian infrastructure ended up by the roadside: among other things, more than five hundred Phillips televisions, several hundred refrigerators, a few cars, and countless doors and windows. In spite of strong controls, entire houses disappeared this way: "It was stolen," was the refrain. The heads of the KGB followed the thieves, but not far; they just wanted their Paris buried and the history to be forgotten as quickly as possible.

Afterward, the fall of the city had a rather positive influence on the architecture of many villages in the southern Russian steppes. Travelers still marvel at the chic glass doors and unusually wide windows on one pigsty or another. Even ten years on, a twelve-foot-long broken Big Ben with its hour hands snapped off still lay in a bend in the road of the city Inosemzevo. The natives consider it one of the best sights to see in the area. They have no idea where the thing came from, but the giant clock has come to be called "Monument to Lost Time."


“Paris Lost” © Wladimir Kaminer. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2003 by Liesl Schillinger. All rights reserved.

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