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  • Reading little but Russian history and Russian literature certainly gave me plenty to ponder as I made my way through daily life in Moscow. Every building, every corner, every park and every face reflected the complex history and nature of this country. It seems that I was constantly being reminded of where I was, and what happened there in the past. But it wasn't simply the people or the buildings or the subway that brought about these feelings. That would be too easy. It was the stories behind the people, the buildings, the subway, that really brought it home, in a way that stripped away the superficiality of what was obvious and hit me dead in the gut.

    Before I moved to Moscow, I read 'Lenin's Tomb' by David Remnick. In the book he talked some about the Stalinist terror, and while he wasn't the first to do this, he weaved his tale within the context of Moscow and its geography. At times used I the book as a kind of tour guide, as he visits the sites of the mass Stalinist graves buried beneath parking lots, parks, and 'monuments to socialism'.

    My apartment was nearby the Moscow-Volga canal in the north of the city. Built in the 1930's, the canal connects the Moscow River with the Volga, which runs down to the Caspian Sea. This project, along with other canals, connects Russia in a web of waterways that allows for transport from the North Sea to the Caspian, from St Peterburg to Astrakhan. And these canals were built under the most brutal conditions by slave labor. Remnick writes about one person he interviewed, a man who as a child grew up nearby the Moscow-Volga Canal during its construction. He would watch the convict guards, paid in vodka, beat the other laborers, and he would watch dogs carry off from the construction site mangled arms, legs. When one wasn't able to work, they were shot, and buried by the side of the canal. He would ask his parents what was going on, and they would tell him to keep his mouth shut.

    And now this was where I lived.

    On both sides of the canal near nearby my flat ran a park, lush with flowers, trees, and recreation areas. On occasion I found myself walking along its paths, blissfully enjoying the flora. But whenever I walked along the canal, no matter what state of mind I'd be in, my mind would eventually wander back to sixty years ago. And I would think, am I walking over the graves of countless unknowns, people forgotten as soon as they were arrested and sent to work? If I dug in that little hill there, would I come across a pile of broken bones with holes in the back of their skulls? The Russian love of nature has been well documented, and it shows in the many beautiful forests and parks throughout Moscow. But whenever I walk through these densely wooded parts of town, I can't stop wondering if it was here, in this clump of trees, that the secret police or the interior ministry shot a couple hundred people and buried them.

    When I walk through Lubyanka Square, and pass the old KGB headquarters, still in use by the state security forces, I can’t help but think of the immense torture and murder that took place behind its walls. Of the empty cells with only a drain, where someone would be told to go and sit down, and then behind them a small slat would open behind, just big enough for a gun to fire a bullet in the back of their head. Remnick tells us of how, during Stalin’ s reign, the crematoriums would be working around the clock, and that a film of ash would cover the surrounding Moscow neighborhood. People would eat, sleep, live under this ash. How can I, or anybody else who has not experienced something like this, fathom how people could live at all during this time. And yet, they did. What else could they to do?

    And that is something that haunts me, that forces its way into my thoughts at some of the oddest times. I’ll be sitting on the metro (what Muscovites are most proud of, but another thing that constantly reminds me off the millions killed in its construction), talking at work, or simply just sitting in a bar having a beer, when I’ll look at someone and think ‘this person did live through it’. How did they survive? What quirk of fate allowed them to live while millions of others didn’t? Who, of the countless faces I see every day, ratted on their friends or family, manufactured stories about fellow workers in order to move ahead at work? Or, conversely, who had their brother, sister, mother, father, grandparent, ground up in the machine? Was it that man there whose father’s arm the dogs dragged away from the grave site? Did that women compromise her best friend, perhaps, in order to save her own neck? It’s not that I feel disgust, or pity. I try hard not to allow any judgmental thoughts into my head. For who am I to judge any of these resilient people? What the hell do I know about any of this, a boy from the suburbs of California? How many times have I had to make a choice between life or death, survival and betrayal or a short and brutal life in a gulag, or, in later years, a psychiatric hospital? What would I do under similar circumstances?

    These were just some of the things that floated through my head while living in Moscow.
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