On a shelf in a cellar in the former KGB headquarters in Chernigov, in the black-earth country in the heart of Ukraine, lies a thick file with a crumbling brown cardboard cover. It contains about three pounds of paper, the sheets carefully numbered and bound. Its subject is my mother's father, Boris Lvovich Bibikov, whose name is entered on the cover in curiously elaborate, copperplate script. The file records my grandfather's progress from life to death at the hands of Stalin's secret police as the summer of 1937 turned to autumn and the great purge of the Communist Party swept away a generation of old Bolsheviks.
I saw the file in a dingy office in the old secret-police headquarters in Kiev 58 years after his death. It sat heavily in my lap, eerily malignant, a swollen tumor of paper. Typed on flimsy forms or handwritten on scrap paper in archaic script, the file existed on that peculiarly Russian border between banal bureaucracy and painful poignancy. It was a compilation of the absurdly petty—a receipt for the confiscation of a Browning automatic and 23 rounds of ammunition, another for the confiscation of his daughter's Young Pioneer holiday trip voucher—and the starkly shocking. Long confessions, written in microscopic, crabbed writing, covered in blotches and apparently written under torture, my grandfather's confessions to being an "enemy of the people." The final document is a clumsily mimeographed slip, confirming that the sentence of death passed by a closed court in Kiev had been carried out on Oct. 14, 1937. The signature of his executioner is a casual squiggle. Since the careful bureaucrats who compiled the file neglected to say where he was buried, this stack of paper is the closest thing to Boris Bibikov's earthly remains.
In the attic of No. 7, Alderney Street, Pimlico, London, is a handsome steamer trunk, marked "W.H.M. Matthews, St. Antony's College, Oxford, ANGLIA" in neat, black-painted letters. It contains a love story. Or perhaps it contains a love. In the trunk are hundreds of my parents' love letters, carefully arranged by date in stacks, starting in July 1964, ending in October 1969. Many are on thin airmail paper, others on multiple sheets of neat white writing paper. For the five years that my British father and Russian mother were separated by the fortunes of the cold war, they wrote to each other every day, sometimes twice a day. They talk of tiny incidents from the few months they spent together in Moscow, they gossip about mutual friends and meals and films. At moments their epistolary conversation is so intimate that reading the letters feels like a violation. At others the pain of separation is so intense that the paper seems to tremble with it. But above all the letters are charged with loss, and loneliness, and with a love so great, as my mother wrote, "that it can move mountains and turn the world on its axis." And though the letters are full of pain, I think that they also describe the happiest period of their lives.
"As our letters travel they take on a magical quality—in that lies their strength," she wrote. "Every line is the blood of my heart, and there is no limit to how much I can pour out." But by the time my parents were reunited, they found there was barely enough love left over. It had all been turned into ink, and written over a thousand sheets of paper, carefully folded in a trunk in the attic of a terraced house in London.
We believe that we think with our minds, but in reality, I found, we really think with our blood. Blood follows you and draws you toward itself. Twenty-six years after my mother finally left Moscow to marry my father, I moved in the opposite direction, back to Russia. For much of my time there, I thought I was in a story without a narrative, a constantly changing slide show of phantasmagoria that Moscow was projecting onto my life for my personal delectation. But in fact I was caught in a cool web of blood-knowledge that was slowly winding me in. I have found myself, time and again, tripping over the roots of experience that I shared with my parents and grandparents. Echoes of their lives kept cropping up in mine like ghosts, things that remained unchanged in the rhythms of the city that I believed was so full of the new and the now. The damp-wool smell of the Metro in winter. Rainy nights on the back streets of the Arbat when the eerie bulk of the Foreign Ministry glows like a fog-bound liner. The lights of a Siberian city like an island in a sea of forest seen from the window of a tiny, bouncing plane. The smell of the sea wind at Tallinn docks. I came to Moscow to get away from my parents. Instead, I found them there, though for a long time I didn't know it, or refused to see it. So I began to write a story about Russia and my family, about a place that made us and freed us and inspired us and very nearly broke us.
It's hard, now, to imagine the thrill and the mystery of moving to Moscow, the secretive capital of a parallel, hostile world, as my father did as a young diplomat in September 1958. The Moscow he knew is separated from the Russia in which I lived not just by half a lifetime but by a seismic shift of history. My father's generation was defined by a bitter ideological divide that ran across the world, and he, for reasons that I only began to understand when I went to live in Russia myself, did everything in his power to live on the other side of that divide. The time and city were pregnant with pitfalls for a young man in love with Russia and blessed, or cursed, with a strong wayward streak. The cold war, which was born along with my father's fascination for Russia, was approaching its height. Soviet tanks had recently crushed the Hungarian uprising, and there could be no doubt that it was the ambition of socialism to conquer the world. To the embassy cold warriors with whom he worked, Moscow was then the heart of all the darkness in the world.
When my father first arrived in Moscow, the city's soul was swelling with victory and pride, not deflating in exhaustion. The Moscow he knew was a controlled, oppressive place, not the teeming mayhem into which it was to descend after the Soviet Union collapsed. And emotionally, for my father, the distance was far greater. For a generation unused to travel, Russia might as well have been on a different planet. But Mervyn could not have been happier. For all its rigidity and control, my father found Moscow a place of adventures, where he was courted by the KGB and fell in love. He had finally loosed himself from his home place in the world, and was drifting toward a place where he fit in.
My Russia was a society adrift. Over the previous 70 years Russians had lost much of their culture and their God. But at least the Soviet state had compensated by filling the ideological vacuum with its own bold myths and strict codes. It fed people, taught and clothed them, ordered their lives from cradle to grave and, most important, thought for them. Communists—men like my grandfather—had tried to create a new kind of man, emptying men of their old beliefs and refilling them with civic duty, patriotism and docility. But when communist ideology was stripped away, so its quaintly '50s morality also disappeared into the black hole of discarded mythologies. People put their faith in television healers, Japanese apocalyptic cults, even in the jealous old God of Orthodoxy. But more profound than any of Russia's other, newfound faiths was an absolute, bottomless nihilism. Suddenly there were no rules, no holds barred, and everything went for those bold and ruthless enough to go out and grab as much as they could.
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 Dostoevsky; 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 father's day, my grandfather's day even.
There have been a few moments during my time 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 odor 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 wept 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 the 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 smelled 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.