I met him on the train to Estonia.
It was 6:00 in the afternoon. I was traveling with a Belarusian-American girl. She and I had just entered our four-person sleeping compartment, where a gloomy, blond, pregnant woman was already lying on one of the two bottom bunks. We weren't sure where to put our heavy suitcases, but our uncertainty did not have time to linger, for an overwhelming force entered the room. It was the shadow and the voice of an old Russian man standing in the threshold of the compartment— and what a hideous grin!
His teeth and hair were white, his skin pink, his eyes watery and blue. I hadn't processed what he'd said, but no matter; in a moment he'd bouldered into the crowded compartment. He bent over, his backside swinging into the face of the pregnant lady, lifted the unoccupied lower bunk, and with crude exuberance started burrowing a series of heavy bags – mine, my friend's, his – under the bed.
His zeal infected us. My friend and I spontaneously started sorting out the linens with an intensity disproportionate to the task at hand. We argued over whose pillows were whose, whether we shouldn't wait to do this until later, how to lay the sheets, and pressured the pregnant lady to stand up so we could make her bed. Among the shuffling, talking, and panting, we exchanged names in Russian:
When the sheets had settled Aleksandr Ivanovich left the compartment and stood in the corridor, bent over at the window. The train had long since set off on its overnight journey from Moscow to Tallinn. I followed my new acquaintance out the door; he turned around with emphasis and shut the two women into the compartment.
"Where are you from?"
"America! I tried to go to America once."
"They didn't give me a visa!" He hung his head theatrically, then snapped it back up, his left eye blazing with delight, a smile spreading across his face. "I guess I'll have to feed the mosquitoes in Estonia!" He then laughed a laugh that was no joke: loud, deep, harsh, irregular, and drawn-out – like a group of men chopping down an old tree.
"And why didn't they let you in?"
"Because my opinions aren't allowed in America! If I came to America...."
We chatted in the hallway, the girls still in the room. He told me he was born in a city in Russia I'd never heard of, but had been living for thirty years in Tallinn, ever since he married an Estonian. He told me that he didn't speak Estonian, then started complaining about his adopted homeland: "Globalization, Americanization, Europeanization! They've held on to nothing!"
"What were you doing in Moscow?" I asked him.
"I only stopped through – to salute the Kremlin!" He laughed.
"Where were you before that?"
"I've been on trains for six days now. I spent two months at Lake Altai. Holidays – but hard holidays. All work! Do you know Lake Altai? No? It's in Siberia."
"Oh," I asked innocently, "so you love nature?"
He stopped. A sarcastic humour took overovertook him. "I'm not Greenpeace." Abruptly he huffed off, leaving me alone in the corridor.
I returned to the compartment as tea was being served. Aleksandr Ivanovich warmly bid me sit next to him on his bottom bunk. I got jealous – he'd been entertaining the girls with conversation. As he spoke, his right arm swung persistently and monotonously in the air, fingers flailing. He talked about his youth. He had been a sailor, but then he met his wife. "And she told me to choose her or the sea. And ever since then, I've worked in dirty soulless factories! Goodbye to the sea!"
He spoke much more colorfully than the average Russian, who himself speaks much more colorfully than the average American. Indeed, for a man like Aleksandr Ivanovich, meaning is not weighed down by the dictatorship of prose; in such a man's speech, the colloquial poetry of the words and the intensity of their delivery lead each other on in a dance whose heights of expression surpass anything one hears in the oral blandeur of the white Anglophone world. I saw the pregnant woman wipe some of his spit off her forearm.
My friend offered our cabinmates biscuits. The pregnant woman shook her head and Aleksandr Ivanovich explained that he was on a diet and hadn't eaten a bite of food since his voyage had begun. "I only drink!" He gulped away his warm tea, sweat buds sprouting across his big face.
"Do you know any jokes?" he asked me. Rising to the challenge, I tried to translate into Russian a long-winded joke called "Lenin in Paris."
The moment I finished, I realized that my effort had been incomprehensible to my audience. Without a pause Aleksandr Ivanovich launched into a joke he claimed to have made up himself: "A German baby, an Estonian baby, and a Russian baby are mixed up at a hospital. Oh God, how terrible! Their mothers refuse to go home and wait outside the room where their babies are sleeping. Suddenly one of the little babies cries out: ‘Heil Hitler!' and the German mother rushes in, recognizes her baby—" at this point in the performance Aleksandr Ivanovich imitated the Hitler pose, and continued, "—and goes home a happy little Germanette! Now the Estonian and Russian mothers are very angry! And they wait and they wait. Finally they get fed up and check up on their little babies. And what's there? One baby lying on the floor of his crib, in blood! And the other baby standing above him like this—" now he waved his arms triumphantly, beating his chest "— Well! Anyone can tell which is the Russian and which is the Estonian baby!" He laughed, and continued to beat his chest.
Several jokes later, he had tired us out, and we now tried to ignore his ongoing attempts to start new conversations. He kept laughing at us, which irritated me. I was bothered by guilt – I felt insipid to ignore such a character, especially when he so clearly wanted my attention. He left the compartment to resume looking out the corridor window, and I lay on my upper bunk, opposite my friend, floating gently into a transit slumber....
Aleksandr Ivanovich, struck by an idea, surged back into the room with a savage smile, crooked teeth jostling around his face, and a finger waving in the air. He raised one elbow upon each of our two beds and glanced back and forth between us.
"You're definitely Americans?"
We nodded. He paused another second ... then turned back around, poked his head into the corridor, looked left, looked right, and then shut and locked the door. He took up his position between our beds again and grinned.
"Are you free?"
I didn't know how to respond, apprehensive of his terrifying laugh. He cackled at my silence.
"Well, are you free?" he asked again.
"There are many types of freedom," I said. "But we have rights."
"Rights!" he cried. "Tell me, my dear one: how can Americans be free if you're all in debt? When you buy a house, you buy it with debt! You all use credit cards – credit card debt! How can you be free if you owe another man money? He is your master!"
"Russians don't go into debt?"
"No!" Some Russians have a way of saying "no" – nyet – long, loud, heavy, and indisputable, like a wave crashing upon the beach. "Russians aren't in debt, so Russians are free. Americans are in debt and so is their government. So you are not free! Tell me, why do you go into debt?"
He laughed. "Exactly! Why do you have such heavy suitcases? The more you own, the more you're a slave."
"Russians are also materialistic!"
His smile took on an altogether different shade, the wrinkles on his face appeared to deepen. "Russia has many secrets...."
"For example – how to be free."
"But you are not free in Russia," I said, gaining confidence against the colossus. "You do not have political freedom, political rights."
"Rights! I don't want rights; the more rights you have, the less you are free. Americans are slave to their rights! The more you can do, the less you can think. You have the rights to be a slave in America – the right to be in debt!"
"But we have the right to speak. Why did you have to close the door? Russians are afraid to say their opinion."
"Russians have nothing, so they think. Americans are afraid because they don't know freedom!" He paused. "Do you know the difference between volya and svoboda?"
I stared blankly, and again came his terrifying laugh. I had learned that svoboda was "freedom." I asked my Belarusian friend in English what volya meant, and she responded, hesitantly, "Well, it's hard to explain and I'm not entirely sure myself. Volya is a more old-fashioned word, it's more about personal freedom, closer in meaning to "free-will"... but I don't think there's a clear distinction even for Russians...."
He was waiting, smiling. "Americans," he continued, "have svoboda – they have rights. But I don't want rights, I don't want democracy, because in a democracy you are a slave to everyone else and to your government. Russians have volya."
"And what does it mean, to have volya?"
His smiled vanished. He leaned his face close to mine, his breath suffocating me, his finger tapping his temple, and he whispered: "The freedom to think!"
"All people in the world have the potential to think. Some think freely and most don't."
"Nyet!" he said. "Russians have the freedom to think because they have volya. When you are in a democracy, you cannot think. But when you have volya, that means you can decide your fate yourself, and decide whether to obey or not obey. In a democracy, you must obey!" He laughed. "Russia has many secrets!"
In the glare of his brilliant smile, I tried to think of a response.
"He's deep in thought!" he cried out. "Doctorate! Dissertation! He'll go back to America and write a dissertation about me!" He laughed. I felt that he had perceived something absurd in me from the moment I told him I was studying Russian literature in America. He knew and didn't care that I was comparing him to characters from Dostoevsky and Lermontov. "You should go write about me! Americans need to learn what is volya!"
"But I thought Americans could never have volya?"
"Yes. In America there will never be a revolution. Because the people are in debt!"
I got defensive. "And in Russia, the people are afraid to talk, afraid to think!"
"No!" he said. "Russians are not afraid. They are careful. We have saved ourselves once or twice being careful – many times in defense!"
"It is a shame," he continued, "that you don't speak better Russian. Then we could really talk about these things!"
"And it's a shame," I responded, "that you don't speak any English!"
He laughed, it seemed, at my ignorance. "The English language doesn't have the ability to talk about these things. The English language...."
Fed up, I lay back down. He stood and laughed. "I tired out the American!" He returned to his bed, directly beneath me, his smell filling the room.
He had stood up again and was waving his fingers in my face. The short summer night was now underway, and I wanted to sleep. "American! In America, do you have the right to take your own life?"
"I don't think so, but it doesn't really make a difference, does it? Do you have that right in Russia?"
"In Russia, we have volya!" he said. "The Russian decides every day whether to kill himself. And in Russia, whenever someone dies, it is because he chose death!"
We tried to talk about rights, but it was difficult. I decided to venture a new topic. "Are you a poet, Aleksandr Ivanovich?"
"Yes – but I compose in my head – I never write – because I have volya!" Our conversation went on for nearly 6 hours. He started explaining to me something about how his brain worked in zig-zags, that the lines of his brain weren't rational. We spoke about Bush and Putin, and he told me that a Russian leader is like the energy vacuum in the middle of a wire. But he always returned to volya. Eventually I told him that I was still unsure about the concept.
"Of course you don't understand! You're American! In the West, in Europe, in America, you said that people don't have the right to take their own lives. And what svoboda is that? Every day I get to decide whether I will live. That is volya. And so I am glad I don't live in a democracy because then I don't worry about svoboda – because in free countries, the people are slaves!" He laughed. "Svoboda imprisons the soul."
"I think that the country with the most svoboda is where the soul can be most free."
"Americans don't know what is the soul! How can the soul be free if it's in debt?"
"I'm not in debt."
"But you're American."
"But if I'm in Russia, I still don't have volya?"
"You may have volya if you listen to me and become Russian. But now you are here, you have neither svoboda nor volya! You are a very poor man," he said, "until you stop being afraid of death."
"Until you stop being afraid of your government!"
"Fear of death is worse!"
"I thought you said Russians weren't afraid, they were just careful."
"Yes, I am careful. But I myself decide to be careful!"
"How do you know that it's your own decision to be careful?"
"Because I have volya!"
Well, I thought, it is true that Americans talk less about their souls than do Russians – though I wanted to argue with him that there was a real impulsive American soul. I wasn't sure, anyway, what the soul had to do with credit card debt. Our conversation had exhausted itself. I wondered whether this was a man who truly stood on the precipice of life and death, whose detachment from life made him a semi-fictional reality; or was he a fool whose thoughts centered, week after week, on one or two incoherent ideas that he'd picked up somewhere and badly misunderstood? Aleksandr Ivanovich lay down on his bed, but in a moment later had jumped up with again.
"If your Belarusian friend leaves you..." he spoke slowly, cunningly, unable to hide his exuberance, till he cheerfully broke out, "no problem! We'll find you a Mongolian!" And he laughed for a long, long time.
I woke up the next morning, disquieted by a night of dreams haunted by the spectre of volya. The old man, who evoked, most essentially, an indefatigable life-joy, was already chattering away, entertaining my friend with stories from his sailor youth. We were in the suburbs of Tallinn. As the train pulled in to the station, my friend and I started gathering our things, sorting out our linens, discussing logistics, and before we knew it, without a goodbye to placate our restless American souls, Aleksandr Ivanovich had disappeared.