Like any saga, this story has a long pre-history which begins—naturally—in Mozambique. To afford the down-payment for a house in Chicago, I first had to sell my four-room apartment in Moscow. That fabulous dwelling was in every sense dearly earned. Though we never had a chance to live in it. So this is:
Admittedly, while in Africa, we were paid rather lavishly. As much as fifteen to twenty times the average wage in the USSR. Returning to Moscow in 1985, I discovered that life continued to be eerily normal there. After Tete it took us months to feel comfortable sleeping on sheets in a bed, without a gun, or being able to drink tap water. Every gloomy Moscow morning I would take the same crowded Metro to the university where the familiar cloakroom babushki would not even notice that I’d been away for a year. ‘Were you sick?’ they would ask compassionately, taking my parka and fur hat. ‘I didn’t see you last week.’ Meantime I had become an unusually wealthy student. I could buy the most expensive available car (Volga-31) with cash, and there would still remain plenty to buy presents for all the relatives. But why get a car? I still lived in the university dorm, four guys in a room. Instead, we ate delicacies by crateloads. Moscow was supplied exceptionally well compared to the rest of the country. We could indulge in Soviet Gargantuanism: Czech beer, Hungarian ducklings, Romanian salami, Bulgarian fruits, Yugoslav patés, Finnish cheeses, Cypriot juices, Iraqi dates, Algerian red wines, Cuban cigars, Portuguese sardines, olives or port.
I had lived in the dorms of Moscow State University for five years, since I was sixteen. It was a world of our own. But we were about to graduate and leave. (Five years later several dorm-mates emerged as leading lights of post-Soviet politics, as either warlords in places like Tajikistan, Karabagh, Ingushetia or Transdniestria, or as more peaceful parliamentarians; or even in more distant lands like Eritrea, Palestine and Lebanon). After the chronic overcrowding of the dorms, the idea that I could afford a whole co-op apartment of my own seemed ever more dazzling as the day of graduation approached. But, as I was immediately told by a friendly-looking lady at the Bank for Foreign Trade, I really couldn’t buy an apartment because I didn’t have a residence permit for Moscow.
In the usual Soviet fashion, I tried several ways round this stupid rule, until I ran into a particularly irritable old man at the Public Reception Desk of Moscow City Soviet. He looked rather like one of the moving skeletons in Steven Spielberg’s films. Dressed in a worn double-breasted suit in the fashion of the 1930s, with a tiny red-gilded pin in the lapel, he stood up and, shaking slightly, cried in a high-pitched voice: ‘Comrade—or shall I say Mister?—Derlug’yan, there are probably many rich men like you in Moscow, but if we allow all of them to buy mansions on Gorky Street, what will become of our socialist values?’ As I was about to leave, he hissed: ‘You know, back in 1938 I used to shoot your ilk.’ Well, I was suffering from my own veterans’ syndrome. Standing in the door, I retorted that it wasn’t certain who would have shot whom first and whose pleasure would be greater . . . He promised to report me to the appropriate authorities.
All available legal channels were now exhausted, and I had no access to extra-legal capabilities. At this point, as scientists say, a miracle occurred. Which was always an integral part of Russian reality. For when I went back to Mozambique a year later, I was assigned as interpreter to an inconspicuous individual with the common name of Voronenko. He had come to teach a month-long course in urban planning and earn his own legally sanctioned hard-currency roubles. Yet he wasn’t as blindly interested in Japanese electronic wares as most other Soviet aid workers. Voronenko, rather, developed a collector’s passion for Makonde ebony sculpture. When he discovered that, beyond fluency in Portuguese, I had a degree in African studies, our professional relationship grew into days of leisurely conversation under a mango tree about the history of Mozambique, African mythology and everything else in the world. Eventually talk turned to the inevitable question of the little fortune waiting for me in the Bank for Foreign Trade.
So far its main effect had just been to fatten me up after the year of starvation in Upper Zambezi, when I got back weighing 120 pounds. It had also impressed my mother into taking me more seriously. For several years she felt ashamed to tell anyone in our town that I was studying in Moscow a language called Hausa (she would pronounce it ‘chaosa’). Being quite a resolute woman from a Cossack stanitsa near Gorbachev’s, she came to Moscow when I was in my sophomore year and tried to bribe the entire Dean’s office to have me transferred home or expelled outright. She always wanted me to become something practical, a Party secretary or a gynaecologist. So when I returned after the first stint in Mozambique, I requested that my last half-monthly pay be issued in cash. It came to 1,813 special roubles that could be used for purchases at hard-currency stores (they fetched twice the number of the normal roubles on the black market). By way of comparison, my father earned 250 internal roubles a month as a factory manager, and my mother’s disability pension was 58 a month. For increased propagandistic effect, I asked for the sum to be given me in smaller bills, which resulted in several neat fat packs in bank wrappers that I stacked in every one of the many exotic pockets of my Portuguese commando camouflage pants. In mitigation, I had barely turned twenty-three and wasn’t even a graduate. The ploy worked. When my mom saw me pulling the bundles of cash from every imaginable recess of the uniform, for the first time ever she admitted that probably I had a reason for not becoming a gynaecologist. She still complained bitterly that I came back too skinny.
In Tete I told Voronenko about the talking cadaver I had run into at the Moscow City Soviet. He nodded understandingly, wrote his phone number on a cigarette pack and told me to call him when I got back to Moscow. During the next seven months or so I occasionally wondered who he might be. Although he taught a modest course in planning, wore sandals and shorts, could readily sit in the red dust with the African wood carvers, and wove baskets as his hobby, there were times when I couldn’t help detecting markers of a powerful courtier in the way he listened and conducted conversations, or when I observed how willingly he was served by the normally frosty diplomats from the embassy. The very fact that he could develop a serious amateur interest in African art and mythology matched what I had learnt about the dispositions of near-the-top nomenklatura.