The New York Review is publishing dispatches from around the world documenting the coronavirus outbreak. Read the full series, and listen to writers reading their contributions, at nybooks.com/pandemic. —The Editors OAKLAND, CALIFORNIA, March 17—By Thursday afternoon, downtown San Francisco, already void of tourists, had turned ghostlier still.
Dispatches on the coronavirus outbreak from Madeleine Schwartz in Brooklyn, Anne Enright in Dublin, Joshua Hunt in Busan, Anna Badkhen in Lalibela, Lauren Groff in Gainesville, Christopher Robbins in New York, Elisa Gabbert in Denver, Ian Jack in London, Vanessa Barbara in São Paolo, Rachel Pearson in San Antonio, A.E. Stallings in Athens, Simon Callow in London, Mark Gevisser in Cape Town, Sarah Manguso in Los Angeles, Ruth Margalit in Tel Aviv, Miguel-Anxo Murado in Madrid, Tim Parks in Milan, Eduardo Halfon in Paris, Anastasia Edel in Oakland, and more.
“Mama,” I shouted at the top of my lungs, waving the ticket victoriously. “I got it! Orchestra!” Unlike my mother, I didn’t see a man running toward me. It was just that suddenly there was nothing in my hand, still raised above my head. I only saw him running away—with my ticket—pushing aside some passers-by, the crest of his red shapka bobbing between fur coats and dublyonkas, then disappearing into the snow, along with Romeo and Juliet, the rising star Nadezhda Pavlova, and everything good in this world.
They’d have looked like regular vacationers had it not been for a slightly startled expression they all shared. They followed the waiters obediently. Suddenly, a whisper ran through the dining hall: “Chernobylskye.” People from Chernobyl. In a moment, we got new neighbors: a woman in her early thirties and a girl of five. By the meal’s end, we’d learned that Varya and Katya were from Gomel, a Belarus city about seventy miles north of Chernobyl. At the beginning of June, the plant where Varya worked had started distributing free vouchers to Black Sea resorts. The sea air was healthful and healing, the plant’s management had told them, though nobody would say what they might need healing from.
Once, my grandfather telephoned Shostakovich to say he was in Moscow, with two bottles of Novorossiysk’s famous Abrau-Durso champagne and—no less famous, though in narrower circles—some salted bream. “Why are you sitting there all alone?” Shostakovich demanded. “Haul them over!” The composer and the mayor demolished the meltingly oily fish in Shostakovich’s kitchen, washing it down, blasphemously, with champagne. He and Grandfather used to play film-score music four-handed, a homage to their youth, when both earned extra rubles by playing accompaniment to silent movies. While Shostakovich played, the nervous tics that habitually plagued his features disappeared. He seemed almost happy. And so I grew up with a sense of tantalizing proximity to genius and history and to the men who made it—one with music, another with the monument that enshrined it.
On the last day of 1980, the announcement came: our Pioneers’ Palace had been invited to perform at the Exhibition of Achievements of the National Economy in Moscow. My task was to announce the song numbers—“Bread Is A Land’s Glory,” “March of Pioneers,” “A Circle Dance of Friendship,” and so on—with “ringing optimism,” no small feat given that my voice, though loud, was naturally in a low register. When, at last, the day we’d prepared for over six long months had arrived, we lined up at 9 AM sharp, trembling with anticipation, in front of the Exhibition’s main entrance, a giant triumphant arch topped by the bronze “Tractor Man and Kolkhoz Woman” thrusting forward a bunch of wheat.
Almost all the Romanovs had an artistic bent: they painted, doodled, carved, embroidered, cut jewelry, or sculpted. For many Romanov exiles after 1917—hounded, stripped of their wealth, living under the constant fear of further reprisals—art became, in part, a coping mechanism. Later, as the memory of the massacre gave way in its immediacy, new generations of Romanovs took to art for reasons not so different from the rest of us: to meditate, to understand, and to express. Imaginative, often humorous, and at times fantastical, these artifacts paint a different, more authentic portrait of a family whose life and legacy continue to pique our interest, one hundred years after the Romanovs were swept off the world’s political stage.
In the morning, she wrapped the four limp fish in damp sheets of Soviet Culture and stuffed them into an oilskin hamper. It leaked, but the trolleybus taking us to the airport for her flight to Leningrad was empty at that early hour, so no one noticed. She carried the hamper in one hand and her suitcase in the other, while I bore her portable typewriter. The fish delivered, the defense of her thesis was a breeze. Mother passed with flying colors.