Monthly Archives: September 2013

The Roommate: Vladivostok and the Ghost of Mandelstam

Here’s an essay of mine that just went up in Numéro Cinq. Much obliged to Douglas Glover for running it, and for his generous introduction. Check out that site for photos as well; I will add some here as I get time.

By Russell Working


Pictures in a Bookcase

The tenth-floor hallway was filthy: paint was peeling from the walls, the garbage chute stank, and the elevator, I was warned, tended to break down. But when Tamara Fyodorovna, the landlady, showed me Apartment 81, the interior was spotless, with linoleum floors and wallpaper of alternating vertical brown and yellowish stripes and columns of fleurs-de-lis. Although the kitchen and living room-bedroom were tiny, the place featured a telephone, which many residences in Vladivostok lacked in 1997. The bathroom exhaled a sewerish eau de toilette, but this was not uncommon in Russia. Tamara Fyodorovna closed the door on the smell. “The kitchen’s got all the pots and pans you’ll need for cooking; plates and cutlery, too,” she said.

But in the end it was the bookshelves that made me fall for the place; those and the view of the sea.

The bookcases were glass-fronted and crammed with fiction and poetry and scientific volumes, and I was charmed that my landlady, an oceanographer who had vacated the place to live with her sister, had clipped photographs of writers from the newspapers and taped them up inside the glass. This practice, I would learn, is commonplace in Russia. The eyes of the authors followed me: Pushkin, Lermontov, Dostoyevsky, Chekhov, Akhmatova, and someone new to me: the poet Osip Mandelstam.

Tamara Fyodorovna flung open the curtains on the window in the main room, and I said, “Wow.”

It was February, and far below, at the foot of the bluff, the sunset had turned the sea ice on Amursky Bay into molten glass. Vladivostok, on the Sea of Japan, lies at roughly the latitude of Marseilles, but the salt water had frozen so thick, coal trucks cut across it to the far shore. Antlike fishermen peppered the surface. Some had lit fires in barrels that would smolder and die overnight. Across the bay, the sunset silhouetted the torn-paper mountains, and because this salient of Russia lies east of China, I wondered if the farthest peaks might be across the border, not forty miles away. On this side, prefab concrete apartment blocks stairstepped down the hill to the waterfront, and a smokestack smudged the air below with a printer’s devil’s inky thumbprint. A giant water pipe snaked alongside a road, shedding insulation.

Yes, of course, I said. I wanted the place.

I had quit my job as a reporter on a newspaper in Tacoma, Washington, and moved to the Far East, as Russians call their Pacific maritime (Siberia lies to the west). I was editing a biweekly English-language newspaper for the equivalent of $400 a month, although the crash of the ruble the following year would bring the exchange rate down to $72 a month. But if Continue reading



Filed under Russia, Writing