A Memoirby Grace Sewell
I tell Anne that this town looks like a copy of the cities we have read about in outdated geography textbooks. The bus’s engine fails while Bravo’s “Этот город” (“This City”) blares on the radio. We exit and walk alongside our grammar teacher, who asks us to conjugate делать. The verb, meaning both “to do” and “‘to make,” appears most often in commands.
Делать links Chernyshevsky’s crystal palace to the fact that Uncle Vanya still lives in a communal apartment. Question. What is to be done? Answer. There is nothing to be done.
We have arrived at a sanatarium in Izhevsk. This is the fact of the day, but I have not memorized it yet. Only one letter separates sanatarium from sanatorium. I am unsure of the difference. The streets are named for Lenin, Kalashnikov, Pushkin.
When we arrive at the sanatarium steps, I imagine the babushkas yelling at the loud boy who always wears the same Reagan-Bush T-shirt. Wherever there are points of entry and exit in Russia, there are grandmothers to bear witness. Reagan-Bush boy speaks loudly, and although the timbre of his footsteps echoes through the space, the babushkas steel themselves against his intrusion. They remain silent.
We make our way to the Kalashnikov Museum. A man introduces himself as an engineer. His glares imitate the stares of the women who recite Church Slavonic across the street. In Russia, if you do not know how to look into the eyes of icons, you cannot see into heaven.
The engineer’s overcoat signals his “exceptional contribution to the advancement of warfare.” He made guns, and he made them well.
Only at the end of his speech does he hesitantly acknowledge that he is a reenactor. He mutters, “Thank you for your time,” in English. Anne whispers, “We already knew that, didn’t we?” I nod my head in agreement, but it is easy to forget. His overcoat is long enough to find a place in Gogol’s stories and Soviet factories alike. He is one member of a string of reenactors, charged with intercepting American tourists before they have formed impressions of this place. All of them hesitate to end their performances, as if the inevitable return to the present moment signals an unforgivable personal failure. The main industry here is not military research and development but the curation of memory.
He quickly disappears after this final revelation. Our gun man is gone.
Reagan-Bush boy wants to hold a gun. An AK-47 lands in his arms after the attendant turns a key. He cradles its curved body. “Was it used in a real war?” he asks. His face betrays wide, childlike eyes, which threaten to break after bad news. “Yes, it was designed at the end of the Great Patriotic War,” the attendant responds. Perhaps it is easier for her to remember thirty million patriots than thirty million dead when she gives public tours. Reagan-Bush boy’s eyes freeze in place.
Nobody can legally carry guns in Izhevsk, the so-called City of Arms. They appear thousands of miles across the ocean in the United States; in schools, churches, and malls. I do not think that they are cradled so tenderly in such places.
Our grammar teacher summons us. Anne and I move into formation. We flank Reagan-Bush boy and his gun on both sides. The attendant snaps a photograph.
Anne and I are roommates. I call her over to my bed to review today’s photographs. We are smiling again on the streets of Izhevsk, captured in a document that recalls a family portrait. An old AK-47 connects us. “Look, Grace, what are we doing?” Anne asks. She laughs so uncontrollably that she nearly falls off the bed. Делать and its aspect pair, сделать, glare at us from our textbook. I scrawl practice sentences on a piece of paper:
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