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It started the way all the best stories start: at the Slavic Department’s Annual Christmas Party.
There, my senior seminar instructor announced the topics on which the current seniors were (are) writing their (our) theses. “Emily,” she said, “is writing on the legal dissidence movement in Russia in the 1960s, and on its leader, Esenin-Vol’pin.”
Shortly after that, after the Polish students had sung a song that only the Polish students performing understood, one of the Russian teachers, a man who used to be a journalist, approached me.
“Have you met Esenin-Vol’pin?,” he asked.
“No,” I said.
“Would you like to?”
The Russian instructor had Esenin-Vol’pin’s number tucked away somewhere, having interviewed him for an American Russian-language magazine. He (that is, Esenin-Vol’pin) lives in Boston. If I emailed the instructor, I could have it.
And so, after I went to Moscow for a week on a research fellowship from my school (thanks, school) to read Esenin-Vol’pin’s archival writings, that is what I did.
He gave me the number. He told me not to pass it on (done), and also to remember that the subject of my thesis is elderly, and has a tendency to mumble, and that I should remember that.
I worked up the courage to call at the end of January. A woman named Yulia answered the phone.
Esenin-Vol’pin is a great mean, she said, but he was in the hospital. I should call back in few months.
I called back the next day to tell her that I’d go to the hospital. She said that she was glad that I called, because “Alik’s” friends were upset with her for not getting my number. And so she took down my number and gave me the number of Esenin-Vol’pin’s ex-wife, which I assumed I would never call. I intended to sort this out with Yulia, “great friend and admirer of Alik’s,” before she went back to Moscow.
But the day before she went back to Moscow she told me that I needed to call Irina, the ex-wife.
And so I did. And I explained that I was writing my thesis on the man she was taking care of, and that, if it was possible, I would like to come to Boston to meet him. And she would express enthusiasm and say that Esenin-Vol’pin is a great man and that she, too, was a dissident, and take down my name and number. And I would call back every week, or every other week, and she would tell me that he was still in the hospital, but maybe I could visit in the hospital, and that I should call back, and ask if she could take down my name and number again.
Two weeks ago, I got a voicemail while I was in class. A two minute long message from a man named Lev. I called back. He was also a friend and admirer of Esenin-Vol’pin’s (they are all admirers, his friends), and “Alik” is a great man, and was going to schedule a time for me to come see him. And we should call each other at the beginning of the next week.
I called him last Tuesday. “It is a bad day today,” was all he said. And I though that I would keep calling, but that that was it.
And the next day, or maybe the day after that, Lev called me. Could I come on the 11th of April to the hospital? Could I meet him in the lobby at 2? He would take me to him. To Esenin-Vol’pin.
And so (accompanied by my father, day-tripper extraordinaire), I did. And he did.
And I met the person about whom I read and wrote and read and wrote, for whose words I flew to Moscow, for whom I spent three months calling Boston numbers and butchering the Russian language over the phone.
And he was incredibly nice and incredibly humble. And he was also 88, and did indeed mumble and lose his train of thought, and I was glad that Irina and Lev were there to help me get my point across, and to add in their own contributions. And I was glad that he was glad to hear about my thesis, that he tried to read the copy that I brought immediately. That I wrote about not just about a historical figure, but a man. A great man, to quote Yulia and Irina and Lev. But a good man, more than that.