Sunday, December 10, 2017

Yuri Lebedev: A Flower of the Heart

Orchid buds by Rita Baldwin

Flowers of the Heart Eleven December 10, 2017

For Yuri Lebedev

Last night I said that the knowledge and mental development in Vera, in Yuri, in me was rare and irreplaceable. So we must do what we could. –Judy’s diary 1995

The first question he ever asked me was:
“Do you teach Russian literature?” That
was during my first visit in 1990 to Kostroma
and to their Writers’ Organization. I said, “No.”
By the time Yuri came in 1993 as one of
three Russian writers, to Durham and to my
village of Saxapahaw, I was teaching Anna
Akhmatova and took them to that class.
Later he invited me to come and teach at his
Kostroma University in 1995. I taught
American poetry and translating Akhmatova.
When I had very few students, he called them
glupi [stupid]. He and Vera kept me a week
in their apartment, where his son’s young
family also lived. We’d sit for hours after
meals talking with my rudimentary Russian
and my dictionary. Meantime he arranged
for me to live in one of his colleagues’
apartments for the next two months. Vera
took me shopping to the big daily farmers’
market in the city center. He and Mikhail
checked on me and had me for meals.
Once it was so cold–fifteen below freezing--
that Vera thought I would not come, but
I bundled up in my three scarves, two
pairs of warm socks, and the fur-lined vest 
from the painter Aleksei Belikh, and
when I got off the bus, Yuri was watching
for me. He was thoughtful and gracious
to a fault, and modest. Who would know
how much he knew about nineteenth
century Russian literature. He would astonish
me with his quiet comments: “Tolstoy
wrote about Russian life as it was in the
mid-nineteenth century, but Dostoevsky
wrote about what it would be like in the 
twentieth century.” When he was one of
the three Russian writers visiting Durham 
and my village of Saxapahaw, he’d always
be ready for the day’s meetings when I
arrived, and when I asked him how he was, 
he’d beam and say, “Otleechno” [Perfect].
When I, who was their chauffeur and, when 
we were alone, their interpreter, got sick 
with a bad cold, he exclaimed, “Judy, you
must not get sick, or we’ll be dead.” I didn’t 
drink his recommended toddy, with vodka
and hot pepper, but I did stay home to rest
for two days. My landlord, their host, John 
Jordan, took them to a turkey shoot. John
knew no Russian. They later described arriving
in the dark and seeing a lot of men with
guns. They thought the end was near, but
when it was their turn, they won two turkeys
and a ham. Rarely was Yuri angry, but
injustice infuriated him. A few months ago
he wrote to me about my country’s foolishness 
in its treatment of Russia and other countries. 
We were, he said, making the same mistake
the Soviet Union had made when it tried to 
force other countries into Communism,
as we now tried to force all the world into our
form of democracy.  He wasn’t angry at me.
He welcomed me to his home, told me all
the news of his family. When I answered, I
had to agree that our country was making 
plenty of mistakes, but also that I hadn’t much
power to change our approach to international
politics. I did hope to publish books about
my Russian experiences. I will never forget
the warmth of their hospitality in their small
apartment. The last meal we had together
in 1995, I began to cry. I didn’t want to
leave. He comforted me: “Don’t cry, Judy.
Have some more wine.”

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