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Looking For A Living God

May 2000

By Amanda Holmes

Those colorful gingerbread domes will take your breath away. But Saint Basil’s Cathedral on the inside seemed less a destination than a series of vestibules. There was a labyrinth of interconnected chapels, mostly under scaffolding. God was either lost, or too difficult to find. So I left. I saw the dead god first.

It was November 11, 1993. “Now’s our chance,” Ben said, “before it’s too late.” Ours was a circus-gawking impulse and we knew that. To pay respects was hardly the motive. We just wanted to scratch the tourist itch. Lenin would have hated us for it.

Even so, it was the notion of a last chance that made the thing urgent. Sentiment over communism was at an all-time low. There had been talk of moving Lenin from the mausoleum to a final resting place next to his wife. I had read how they treated the body in chemical baths to keep it from decomposing. The maintenance process was a complicated and macabre ritual, and the result was that he had taken on the appearance of a lacquered mannequin.

As usual it was cold, and a light snow dusted Red Square. Some sort of demonstration was going on. Guards stood in odd places, but there was no queue for the mausoleum that day. We passed a guard who dropped his cigarette butt and scrubbed it into the snow with the heel of his boot. He almost looked through us. “So you want to see Lenin,” his weary eyes seemed to say. “Go right ahead, if that’s what interests you.” We were the only ones, ducking through the open doorway into the shiny marble entrance of Lenin’s mausoleum. There was a small flight of stairs and a narrow corridor. We turned a corner. Inside was as superior and heartless as a bank vault.

And suddenly there he was. It was no waxwork. Ben and I were completely alone with the dead body of Lenin. Russia is a country that will never cease to take the visitor by surprise. But suddenly, I panicked. What were we doing here?

I walked past his short body and hovered around. Ben followed slowly. Our presence seemed to compromise his repose. We’d come upon him too suddenly, without any mental preparation. Lenin seemed vulnerable and exposed, with two unbelievers. I felt I could leap the barricade and grab him by the lapels. Shake him and wake him up. “Do you realize what you created? You see the mess you made of your country?” But I could see he would not understand. So after a few minutes, we simply walked out, bewildered, into the indifferent square.

In a cafe near the big department store, G.U.M., we ate tasteless, greasy chicken for lunch. “He’s been there too long,” Ben decided. “That’s what it comes down to. He’s just been there too long, and they suddenly don’t care.”

But to find a living God in Moscow. Here, more than anywhere, I needed this. I contacted Kate Allen, a nurse from the States, who had lived in Moscow for five years. She’d started a small church group. They used to meet in her office, but lately they’d begun holding meetings in a library across town. On the telephone, Kate told me her driver could pick me up in front of the U.S. Embassy compound, if I’d like to come along.

On Wednesday evening, I waited at the embassy gates with my new baby sleeping on my chest in a Snugli. A dilapidated car with worn-out shocks pulled up, and I squeezed into the back beside Ludmilla. She was a big Russian girl of fifteen who spoke English and smiled at the baby. Kate introduced herself and her driver, Sergei. “This is his new car,” she told me. “Isn’t it wonderful?” The traffic was heavy, and the exhaust fumes poisonously strong. Kate chatted about life in Moscow. She loved it here, she said, although she’d soon be leaving. “What’s it like living on the compound?” she wanted to know.

“Very convenient,” I told her, not wishing to sound ungrateful.

“I bet you have wonderful laundry facilities,” she said.

“We do,” I admitted. “I gather most Russians have to wash their clothes in the bath.”

“That’s me!” she laughed mirthfully. “I wash them in the bathtub!”

We passed shops, their grimy windows decorated in large, faded paper daisies, a few garments strung up like an afterthought. A babushka sat beside a bucket of plumed flowers. It was spring. That’s why Kate was in such a good mood. The snow was melting to reveal the mud and dirt of a different Moscow. Wisps of pollen floated about and settled in the puddles like scum. “It’s from the cottonwood trees,” she told me happily, “and they call it pukh.” It was the ugliest spring I’d ever seen. We pulled into the courtyard of a library. The air inside was cold, and smelled like old stone. We climbed a shallow staircase to a lobby stacked with sofas and chairs, still under plastic covers. The fabric was a bright 1960s floral design - not retro, but the real thing. The service was held in a blue and white room with Regency molding.

Cherubs floated up the walls, and the large windows were draped in graying frills. There was a huge grand piano on stout legs and chairs set up in rows. Soon the room was packed. People of all ages greeted each other with kisses and mellifluous Russian. There was also a handful of starry-eyed American students who had fallen in love with a Russia that had, thus far, eluded me. People peered at my baby, still sleeping calmly on my chest, and smiled.

The pianist was painfully thin, wearing incongruous garments assembled stylishly. The service began with a hymn and citations from the Bible, read by a bespectacled young man with a mop of blond hair. Then Kate read passages from the denominational textbook. Later the meeting was opened for experiences from the floor. A gentleman with a long beard and wise eyes stood up and spoke. Then a woman with hennaed hair, and next, a young girl.

The specific words spoken that evening have by now escaped me. But the spirit of the meeting captivated me. I don’t think I’ve ever seen such innocent wonder in grown people. There was a sense of treading on holy ground. Perhaps in the West, coddled by material comforts, we felt little incentive to reach beyond the five senses. God had become a matter of indifference rather than a need. In a few weeks’ time, spring was soaring. Trees leafed up. Weeds and daisies took over the muddy ground. Shrubs appeared everywhere, out of nowhere. Days were longer, brighter, and all but timeless. It was the flip side to those dark Russian winters, the side I’d never thought about. I lifted and turned my baby’s pram over the pot-holed pavements, on my way to the shops, past the crumbling entrance of a kindergarten, overgrown with weeds. There was a new fragrance in the Moscow air. It was the fragrance of hope.

I soon discovered that the library was easily accessible by metro. I needed to feel again that sense of spiritual awakening. It felt like luxury, in a place where the freedom of religious worship was so newly felt.

Nevertheless, getting to those services seemed to require unnatural effort. This was why I made it a habit. One evening, I got to the library and found it firmly shut. After some knocking and peering into windows on my part, a woman opened the door. I recognized her as the one who sat on a stool in the cloakroom. Apparently this was her job. She explained in Russian something I did not wholly grasp. I only understood that the services had stopped. Later, I learned that Yeltsin had decreed all foreign religious denominations must register with the government before meeting publicly. The process would take time, and this group would have to comply with the regulations. I telephoned Kate and was told that they were meeting in somebody’s apartment. “Just go to the back of the building, and it’s the second door from the end,” she said, giving me the address. The taxi driver, who picked me up at the embassy gates the following Wednesday, drove a short distance, then pulled up to a glass-fronted building that looked like the headquarters of some western corporation.

“No, no,” I said, pointing vaguely across the street to an old apartment complex. “I’m sure it must be there somewhere.” “This building is for you,” he told me firmly. “That is for Russians.”

“But this isn’t where I’m going.”

He reluctantly let me out on a mudflat behind the building I had pointed to. Dom Dva, House Two, it said over the doorway.

“I’ll be about an hour,” I told him. He shook his head as though I were making a mistake, and said he’d return.

Inside Dom Dva I rode the rickety elevator up to the apartment in question and pressed the buzzer. A light appeared at the peephole. “Is this Olga’s apartment?” I asked.

“Olga? Nyet.” The peephole darkened. I rang again and the door was opened on a tiny chain. “Go away,” a voice told me in Russian. “There is no Olga here.”

“But this is apartment number 17, isn’t it?” The door slammed.

I went back down in the elevator and into the muddy courtyard. A woman in a headscarf was sitting on a bench. I asked her if I had the correct address. “House number two, yes, this is it,” she said gruffly. I attempted to engage her in my problem, but she decided to ignore me. I wandered around, and at last glimpsed a handful of people disappearing through an entrance at the far end of the block. The lobby of that building was the same as the one in Dom Dva and I rode an identical elevator to an identical landing and rang the bell. This time the door was opened by a large, smiling woman. “I recognize you immediately,” she told me warmly, holding out her massive arms. “Prehadiete!” Come in. The apartment was full of visitors, and I was greeted with kisses.

“How’s your little baby?” they asked. We assembled in a narrow living room with carpets hanging on the walls. People sat on chairs, on the floor, or stood at the back. A tape was put on, the crackled recording of an organ playing Onward Christian Soldiers. Everyone sang in his or her own language. Passages from the Bible followed, and then correlative citations from the Christian Science textbook. The reader was a Russian girl of about seventeen. These spiritual ideas which I have pondered and cherished all my life, and read now in Russian, were like a beloved friend in a new dress. And this tiny apartment had become a secret, sacred place.

Afterwards, we sang another hymn to the accompaniment of the tape recorder. Then, as before, the meeting was open for remarks from the assembled congregation. People shared accounts of how they had been healed by turning to God. One woman brought greetings, money and books from her church in Germany. After the service, beaming with pleasure, Olga passed around a tray of tiny crystal glasses, whose labels had been carefully preserved and were still glued on. The drink was strawberry syrup diluted with dirty water, but it seemed the sweetest ever tasted.

And once again, I felt the palpable presence of a living God as I walked up a narrow unplowed street that was covered in snow, the air so cold it seemed unnatural to breathe it. I’d been looking for violin strings in a music store close by, but they hadn’t had any in stock. On a whim, I took an indirect route home. Across the road, an elderly woman rummaged through a dumpster, looking for food. She was dressed in a thin coat that looked too small for her. I decided to give her what I would have paid for the violin strings. “Izveniti?” I said. Excuse me. She turned to face me and I gave her some money. Her hand released the bones she had salvaged, and she crossed herself. “Bog harasho,” she said. God is good. In terms of my own currency, the sum was modest. In hers, it was a windfall. It seemed the sort of cunning twist only a benevolent God could devise. And if it was God who was good, rather than me personally, the money had nothing to do with me. So I gave her all I had in my pocket. The woman’s eyes filled with tears as she took it. “Bog harasho,” she said once again. As I looked into her eyes, I saw us both, sealed in a bond of timelessness. We embraced each other. “You are all right,” I heard myself say. We were both crying, but as I turned and went up the road, I felt no further need to engage her personally. What she said had been exactly right. God was good. Her God and mine had smiled on us both.

© 1999 by Amanda Holmes. All rights reserved.

 Amanda Holmes has published articles and short fiction in Ploughshares, The Christian Science Monitor, The Sentinel, and SUN. She has written art gallery and museum listings for The New Yorker and compiled two books: The Henry James Sampler and The Jane Austen Sampler, both published by Kensington.

Purchase Amanda Holmes’ book, The Henry James Sampler!