Saving His Life
There is no antidote against the opium of Time.
-- Sir Thomas Browne, Urn Burial
The nursing home is a noisy place. Every time I visit, I feel like I’m in a carnival midway. There are always patients shouting and laughing. One woman is constantly banging on the emergency exit and yelling, “Can somebody here open the door? Can somebody here please tell me how to open the door?” Another lies in her hospital bed all day calling out “Hello? Hello? Give me a cigarette! Give me a cigarette! Hello? Hello?” Someone else is always whistling; it echoes everywhere, like
a little melodious brook, never the same tune no matter how long you listen. I’m always startled by the contrast: from outside, this looks like just another other placid, tree-shaded apartment building in the heart of Lakeview; inside is an endless cacaphony of wails, cries, laughter and chattering, like the jungle dawn in a Tarzan movie.
My father-in-law Nick isn’t one of the noisemakers. He’s a pacer. All day, every day, he walks up and down the
corridor, between the nurse’s station and the big window at the far end and back again. Sometimes other residents start to tag along with him, and the result is a crowd flowing back and forth through the ward like a tide. Nick is a distinguished-looking man, very tall and gaunt, with an owl-like face, graying hair combed straight back, and a neat moustache; in the midst of this ragged mob he looks like a disgraced politician pursued by reporters.
If you asked him why he was so restless, he wouldn’t be able to tell you. Of course, he has a hard time explaining or
understanding anything about his situation these days — he is simply afflicted by mysterious surges of nervous energy, like
a lightning rod in an invisible thunderstorm. He jumps out of chairs, fusses endlessly with objects on his nightstand, arranges himself in his bed with elaborate formality and then, the moment he is comfortable, bounds up to look out the window. He is constantly wandering into the rooms of other patients, searching for things he can’t remember. His
possessions — eyeglasses, brushes, belt, shoes, alarm clock — turn up everywhere: scattered around other patients’ beds, or
in front of the nurse’s station, or sometimes strewn down the corridor. One of his shirts was found once behind the big TV
in the common room.
Sometimes I think he’s looking for clues to what sort of place he’s in. One day in the common room he looked around in sudden amazement at the other patients watching TV and said to his daughter Nina, “These people — how did
they all come together like this?”
“They’re like you, Dad,” Nina answered. “They’re all getting older and more confused, and their families can’t give them the help they need.” She didn’t use the word “Alzheimer’s” — that only would cause trouble. Nick will never admit
he might have such a problem.
He thought about her answer for a moment. Then he shook his head; it just didn’t sound plausible to him. “Oh, well, it doesn’t matter,” he said, with a grandly indulgent gesture. “However it happened, it’s lucky they all found each other.”
Another day, when we were out for a walk, he said to me: “The people in that place where I live — they’re a little
strange. Sometimes I can’t even understand them. But it’s a nice kind of strange. I like them.”
But there are other times when we get that ominous call from the nursing home: “Nick is agitated.” It could mean that he had a screaming fit when the nurse tried to give him his medication, or else that he got into a fistfight with the orderlies who kept him from escaping into the elevator. Nina and I will ask to talk to him to try to calm him down — but
often this doesn’t work, because he doesn’t remember what it is he’s upset about by the time he comes on the phone. He thinks the nursing home staffers are acting like lunatics for some reason he can’t imagine. Actually he thinks this even in his calmer moments; when the orderlies inscrutably turn on him, or the doctors and nurses try to treat him for conditions he knows he doesn’t have, he thinks that’s just typical of the way things always go for him. His current situation has only served to confirm his lifelong certainty that he’s surrounded by fools and madmen.
The technical name for his condition is “diffuse degenerative dementia.” What this means is that he hasn’t sustained a strong localized form of brain damage; his mental faculties are slipping from him in countless untracable ways, steadily and irreversably. Alzheimer’s disease is one common type of this condition. Another is called “multi-infarct dementia,” meaning
brain damage caused by a lot of small strokes. It’s not clear which one Nick has; usually that can’t be determined without an
autopsy of the brain. But the prognosis is the same in either case: it is untreatable and incurable. Nick still functions reasonably well, compared to some of his fellow residents. He still walks around, and talks, and eats on his own. In the later stages, people sometimes forget how to breathe.
It’s impossible to say exactly when it began for Nick, but the symptoms became unmistakable four or five years ago.
He came to stay with us then, because his girlfriend threw him out. (“He’s turning into an old man,” she told us; “I can’t have an old man in my bed.”) He didn’t know what was happening to him, or how bad it was. We weren’t sure either: he still passed most of the standard tests of mental acuity his doctors gave him. But he was painfully aware that something wasn’t right, and wasn’t ever going to be fixed.
In some ways, though, his condition hadn’t changed him much. He’s always been a difficult man. In fact, I often think he’s the most exasperating person I’ve ever met. He does make a good first impression: even today, he’s almost always pleasant, soft-spoken, and exquisitely polite; he carries himself with the kind of dignity and reserve that people used to call
“old world.” When I first knew him, I thought he was like a music teacher from some provincial European capital, some place where schoolchildren are well-behaved in public and the young give up their seats to the elderly on streetcars. But as I got to know him better, I realized that his dignity and reserve were covering over something less pleasant: a bottomless well of self-absorbsion and contempt for other people. I came to think that he was going through his life like a silent-film comedian, blithely oblivious to the trail of debris he left in his wake, self-righteously aggrieved at the slightest suggestion
that he could ever be at fault. To this day, he is routinely infuriated by the self-evident stupidity of the people around him — even Nina, the only person he really trusts. When she corrects his mistakes, or refers to events he knows didn’t happen, he lashes out with his old, familiar fury: “Don’t talk nonsense! You sound like an idiot!”
Soon after he came to stay with us, he asked me if I would help him with his memoirs. I was reluctant. I knew what the point was likely to be: all Americans are ignorant morons. Since he first came to this country in the 1950’s, he’s never ceased being appalled at what Americans don’t know about world history, or for that matter their own history, and he’s seen it as his duty to lecture them about their shortcomings. I had the feeling the memoirs would mainly be an opportunity for him to revisit all the stupid and provincial remarks he’s heard Americans make over the last forty years. (He’s always had a prodigious memory for stupid remarks; he sometimes gets outraged all over again at something a foolish hardware-store clerk said to him in 1955.)
Still, I agreed to help him. Partly it was because he was so obviously pained by the realization he’d never be able to do it on his own. But also I had an ulterior motive: I wondered if his past would explain why he’d turned out the way he did. I knew this wasn’t something he wanted to explore (though he never did set any conditions about what kind of story I could write about him, or what I could or couldn’t say) — he’s never had any interest in talking about his inner life. In fact, he
usually denies he even has an inner life: he’s always claimed that all his thoughts and actions emanate from a core of wholly pure and transparent rationality.
Anyway, I plowed through all his papers — his letters, his published and unpublished articles, the back issues of the
political journal he used to edit, the transcripts of an oral history project he took part in during the 1970’s, and some episodes of autobiography he wrote for a small-town newspaper around ten years ago. These, together with the stories and letters of the other people in his family, allowed me to reconstruct his life in depth. When I thought I had a handle on the outline, I asked him to tell me whatever stories he wanted to about his past.
I wasn’t certain what to expect. From his papers, I had at least come to understand just why he thought Americans
were so provincial: his life has been a weird collage of exotic adventures, of mysterious cities, inexplicable wars, storms and
invasions and swarming refugee camps. But what else could he tell me now, when he found it increasingly difficult to remember how to tie his shoes?
I needn’t have worried. His long-term memory was intact. He seemed to have forgotten nothing about his past: he
could describe the exact layout of all the houses he’d ever lived in, the organizational chart of a Southern California defense
plant where he’d worked in 1962, and the brass buttons on the uniforms worn by the traffic cops in 1930’s Shanghai. The slightest prompt set him off. One day, he saw a poster in a liquor-store window for Tsingtao beer, and he began reminiscing
about what the roofscape of the city of Tsingtao had looked like just before the start of World War II; another time, as we strolled along a beach in Evanston, he saw a little patch of clouds rise above Lake Michigan, and he described with hallucinatory precision what a typhoon looks like as it emerges above the Pacific horizon.
There’s an essay by Thomas De Quincey that I often thought about when I was listening to Nick. De Quincey compares the past to the strange city of Savannah-del-Mar, submerged beneath the ocean by a tidal wave. One can, he writes, “in glassy calms ... look down into her courts and terraces, count her gates, and number the spires of her churches. She is one ample cemetery, and has been for many a year; but in the mighty calms that brood for weeks over tropic latitudes, she fascinates the eye with a Fata-morgana revelation, as of human life still persisting in submarine asylums sacred from the storms that torment our upper air.”
That’s how it seems to have been for Nick. The surface of his brain was racked by his dementia; he was tormented by doubts and inexplicable anxieties (when we dropped off his clothes at the local dry-cleaners, he fretted endlessly that the building would be torn down before we returned); but his memories were somehow preserved, with all their detail mysteriously exact, deep in the calmest waters of his mind.
The real problem was something else: the dementia was eroding his attention span. For as I’d known him, he’d been undeflectable in conversation; he droned on to the bitter end, while fire engines screamed by the window, phones rang, and pots boiled over on the stove — and if he ever noticed that anybody was trying to interrupt him, he simply glared and raised his voice. But now for the first time he was having a lot of trouble keeping on track. He was so concerned to recall every detail that he exhausted himself, and he would often cut a story short with a curt dismissal at a moment of maximum suspense. He liked to tell me, for instance, how his father had once escaped from a POW camp during the Russian Civil War — but just as his father had gotten through the last fence and was about to make his dash for freedom, Nick would suddenly say, with a weary, dismissive sigh, “So that was it.”
“What was it?” I’d ask. “What did he do?”
“What did he do?” Nick said testily. “Nothing. He did nothing. There was nothing he could do.”
At other times he would, without explanation or warning, launch into the second half of a story and leave me to guess what the first half had been. Once at a dinner party he turned to me and said, “Lee, I keep meaning to tell you: the soldiers
forced the women to strip naked before they could cross the bridge.”
I was able to recognize this as a story about the Japanese occupation of Shanghai in the late 1930’s — though I never
learned, then or later, whether this was something he’d seen or had only heard about. Our other guests seemed astonished at our choice of dinner-table conversation. One of them said, with a sort of cautious sympathy, “That’s terrible.”
“Yes, terrible,” Nick said mournfully. “But what could they do? There was nothing anybody could do.”
As time went on, his stories became more fragmentary. He started telling the same ones over and over again — but
would trail off at an earlier point each time. Then, too, he was having increasing difficulty remembering words. In the middle of a story, he’d hit a mental roadblock where he couldn’t think of some ordinary term, and immediately go off on a long detour of paraphrase — a detour that would invariably lead to further detours, when he forgot one of the words in the paraphrase and had to start paraphrasing that. For a while, I was able to help him out: by then I knew most of the stories by heart, and could unobtrusively supply the word that would get him back on track. But gradually his sentences were unravelling past the point where I had any idea what he was talking about. That’s when we had to stop: the struggle to make sense was becoming too painful for him.
In the years since, it’s only gotten worse. Today he can barely speak at all, except in jumbled phrases, and it’s usually impossible to tell if they’re connected by a hidden thread of thought or memory. So I don’t know if I ever got his complete
story, and I can’t ask him any longer what’s missing. But I still do ask him questions now and then, and sometimes he surprises me. Typically not: most often, he stares at me with sullen suspicion, or else snaps: “I don’t want to talk about that.
I’ve forgotten all of that. Ask me later.” But several months ago, in a surge of sudden energy, he began to tell me with his old photorealistic clarity the layout of a racetrack in Shanghai that he used to bicycle past on his way to school. He remembered the banners and pennants flying, the horns sounding at post time, and how unearthly the roar of the crowd sounded, echoing down the tree-lined boulevard... and then he reached for a word, became distracted, and forgot the rest.
“The racetrack in Shanghai,” I prompted.
“What are you talking about?” he snapped. “There was one, but I never went to it.”
He wouldn’t talk after that. I felt as though I had just seen a shaft of sunlight illuminate a submerged line of rooftops, before the waters darkened.
The defining event in Nick’s life happened before he was born. The Russian Revolution was one of those vast historical calamities that most Americans have been spared: it was a time when people who never thought of themselves as political, who never thought they’d have to choose sides about anything, were forced to make political choices that could easily cost them their homes, their families, and their lives. This was how it was for Nick’s parents.
The Cherniavsky family is from the Ukraine. As far back as anybody could remember, they had been peasant farmers. Nick’s grandfather had risen in the world, and had become a shopkeeper in a village south of Kiev. Nick’s father Nikolai, when he was a child, had an even grander goal: he wanted to go to the big city and study engineering. But that dream was wiped out by the First World War. Nikolai enlisted in the Russian Army instead, and was commissioned as a cavalry officer; he served on the Eastern Front in Austria, until the news reached the troops of the revolution back home.
The news put Nikolai in an impossible situation. On the one hand, he was a loyal military man who’d several times been decorated for bravery; on the other, he’d spent a lot of time in the officers’ quarters having earnest debates about politics, and he’d come to think of himself as something of a socialist. And there was a third factor: as the fervor of revolution spread through the army, he was becoming uneasily aware that if he stayed at his post much longer, he’d probably be shot by his own men.
One night, after many whispered consultations, he and the other officers in his regiment decided to solve their problems together. They all deserted. They took the officer’s insignia from their shoulders and solemnly threw them away into the nearest ditch, and then they walked off from their posts. Over the following weeks, they made their way eastward, hitching rides with interminable convoys and sneaking onto overcrowded troop trains, back into the storm that had overtaken their homeland.
When Nikolai reached the Ukraine, he found that his family had fallen apart. His father had died and his brothers were joining the various splinter armies that were already turning their guns on each other. His recent experiences had given Nikolai a taste for making bold, non-negotiable decisions, and he came to one now: he would put his socialist beliefs into practice. He would go northward to St. Petersburg, the epicenter of the revolution, and enlist in the Red Army.
It was a perilous journey; the train wound sluggishly past an endless succession of burnt-out villages and tense military checkpoints. But Nikolai didn’t regret doing it — at least not until he arrived at his goal. His first night in St. Petersburg, he heard Lenin himself address a huge open-air rally. The scene was dramatic: the wild swoop of shadows across the ornate buildings ringing the square, the surge and rush of passion in the crowd, and that famous bald-domed head bobbing in the midst of the turmoil like a deep-sea mine. But Nikolai was appalled by the cruelty and fanaticism of what he heard, and decided right then that he was about to enlist on the wrong side. So the next day, he left St. Petersburg in search of the nearest encampment of the White Army that was fighting the Red.
I don’t know if he ever really believed the White Army had a chance. But he stuck it out to the end, as the confused and declining fortunes of his cause took him the length of Russia. Everywhere he went, he saw the chaos and brutality of the civil war: pointless battles, endless swarms of refugees, atrocities committed by all sides. The worst came for him personally when he was captured by a Red brigade and thrown into a prison camp on the shores of Lake Baikal. It was the dead of winter; the prisoners were sleeping in unheated barracks by night and working an ancient coal mine by day. Nikolai met a few White officers, but most of the prisoners were Germans captured years before during the World War. They were pleased (or so he later said) to help an enemy of the Reds escape, even if he had so recently been their own enemy. So one moonless night a bunch of them obligingly created a diversion, a mock fight outside one of the barracks, while Nikolai made a break for it. He got through the fences and bolted across a wide snowbound meadow towards a distant line of trees he could dimly make out in the starlight. He always said afterwards those were the worst moments of his life: waiting for the uproar and gunfire of the guards discovering he was gone — noises that miraculously never came.
His luck held: he was discovered the next day by a White patrol, and he made his way back to his regiment. But by then he had lost the will to go on fighting. The White cause was lost anyway: except for a few remaining White strongholds, the Reds controlled the whole of Russia. The White armies still in the field were disintegrating; troops were deserting en masse, and the few who remained loyal kept waiting for orders that never came. By that spring, Nikolai was idly passing his days in the White city of Vladivostok on the Siberian coast. That was where he met Irina Spalwing.
She was the daughter of a university professor at Vladivostok’s prestigious Far Eastern Institute. Her father Eugene Spalwing was a passionate scholar of Japanese language and culture — an unusual preoccupation for a Russian in those
days, because Russians weren’t exactly welcome in Japan. During the Russo-Japanese war of 1904, one of Eugene’s relatives
had been beaten to death by a mob on the streets of Tokyo. But Eugene himself travelled the length of the country without fear, and he eventually became one of the first Westerners to be accepted by Japanese academics as a serious student of their country.
Irina grew up surrounded by the tokens of her father’s obsession. A photograph preserved in the family shows the
Spalwing children sitting around a little black lacquer table and serving tea; they’re all wearing ornate kimonos, and would look just like a perfect Japanese family if it weren’t for their flowing blonde hair. Irina was around ten when the photo was
taken. I have to say that she looks deathly bored. But she never did have any use for her father’s enthusiasms; all her life,
her son later said, she was much more inclined to boast about her family’s connections among the Russian aristocracy than
about how much clout the Spalwing name might have in Kyoto. She grew up to be snobbish, quick, wilful, witty, and restless — just the sort of young woman who’d fall for a brooding, romantic cavalry officer like Nikolai.
Nikolai and Irina spent the spring and early summer strolling together along the quays and promenades of Vladivostok. They passed hours at a time watching the ships glide in the harbor and the clouds cross over from Manchuria on their way out into the Sea of Japan. They were in love, and it was a love like a classic novel: her parents bitterly disapproved of the match; his life would be in danger if he stayed in Vladivostok much longer. The dramatic crisis arrived in midsummer. That was when word reached the city that the remnants of the White Army in the field were surrendering. Vladivostok could soon expect to be taken. Nikolai knew then that he was out of time.
So he and Irina decided to elope. Nikolai boarded a train overland across the Russian border into Manchuria. Irina followed a few weeks later. She bundled herself up as a peasant woman to attract as little attention as possible. Under normal circumstances, a young upper-class Russian woman would have never travelled alone, but in those days there were swarms and tides of refugees streaming across the border, and she went unnoticed.
They were reunited in the city of Harbin, in northern Manchuria. That was where, a month later, they were married. At the ceremony, they exchanged wedding rings of pale Siberian gold. Each was inscribed around the inner rim with delicate Cyrillic characters: the ring he gave her read “Nikolai,” and the ring she gave him read “Irina.” Both rings bore the
date: 14 IX 1922.
Harbin was a strange place. I’ve looked through some 19th century books on Manchuria, and none of them mention
it: in those days, it was a nondescript fishing village, one of dozens that have been scattered for centuries along the banks of
the remote Sunghuajiang River. Nothing of note happened in Harbin until the end of the 19th century, when hordes of Russian construction workers came pouring into town. They were building the great Trans-Siberian railway; the Romanov government and the Manchu court (both of them impossibly exotic to the people of Harbin) had cut a deal to extend the last eastward leg of the railway across the flat terrain of Manchuria, rather than the broken mountain ranges of Siberia to the
north. This was how Harbin became a major junction connecting western Russia with the Pacific.
It quickly swelled up into a sizable city — one of the biggest trading centers in Northern Asia. Russian travellers were passing through on every train, and soon Chinese traders were coming in as well, bringing their goods by boat down the Sunghuajiang from the cities of the Chinese interior. Then with the Russian revolution and civil war, the real torrent arrived.
Tens of thousands of Russian refugees came across the Siberian border. There were millions of exiled Russians streaming out around the world in those days; Russian enclaves were springing up everywhere from Shanghai to Berlin. All kinds of people were caught up in the flood, from peasants whose villages had been on the wrong side in a factional fight to millionaires who came overland bringing long lines of limousines like herds of purebred cattle.
They were stunned by what they found in Harbin. Back then, nobody talked about ideas like “indigenous architecture” or “site-appropriate design.” The builders of Harbin hadn’t created a Manchurian city, but a Russian one. It
had wide radiating boulevards and big stucco buildings painted in bright pastels; the skyline was tangled by Victorian terracotta ornamentation and dotted everywhere by ornate onion-ball church domes. The refugees said it was like a mirage of St. Petersburg, floating amid the desolate grasslands of Asia.
They treated the place as a kind of substitute Russia without the Bolsheviks. By the early 1920’s, Harbin had downtown department stores crammed with more Russian and imported goods than the stores of Petersburg or Moscow. Its cafes and corner newsstands sold newspapers representing the furiously contending monarchist, fascist, liberal and radical factions. Its boulevards were lined with ornate tearooms and restaurants. There were theaters where great actors staged the Russian classics, and movie houses showing the latest films of Chaplin and Valentino. There was even a yacht club, which filled the Sunghuajiang River (a name soon Russified to Sungary) with bright European-style sails in the long summer afternoons.
When Nikolai and Irina arrived, the talk in Harbin was of the imminent fall of Lenin’s government. Everyone was daily expecting the news that the Revolution had failed and they could all go home. Nikolai himself, during his first year or two in Harbin, attended lots of urgent meetings about the plans for post-Bolshevik Russia. He had a certain standing in the community, because he’d been a White Russian officer; many of the leading politicians in the city assured him he’d have an
important role in the great counter-offensive that was expected to be launched any day now.
He may have believed such talk at first. But in the meantime he had to support himself; Irina was already expecting a child. So he fell into one of the century’s newest and most essential trades: auto mechanic. The streets and the countryside surrounding Harbin were crowded with luxury automobiles, and they all needed a reliable garage.
Irina gave birth to their only child, a son, in April 1924. They named him Nikolai, of course. I’m calling him Nick here
to keep the names straight — nobody actually called him that till much later, after he came to America. (His family and Russian friends always called him Kolya, which is the normal shorthand for Nikolai, like Bob for Robert.)
After Nick’s birth Nikolai begin to wonder what sort of future his family could have in Harbin. The great re-conquest
of Russia was on indefinite hold, and in the meantime Harbin’s own situation was growing daily more perilous. Those were years of revolutionary chaos in China; Manchuria was a shadowy and shifty domain of contending warlords. The people of Harbin often saw interminable, dusty armies of one or another faction marching across the grasslands, and silent gunfire in the distant hills on summer nights. Sometimes the armies swept through the villages along the river collecting conscripts; now and then their officers entered the city to hire mercenaries. A lot of Nikolai’s comrades from the White Army, bored with waiting for the Russian invasion to begin, hired on with one warlord or another and went off to fight in the annual campaigns.
Then, too, the city itself was changing. After the Reds solidified their hold on Russia, the stream of refugees across the border dried up; but with war and revolution tearing Manchuria apart, people from the surrounding countryside were flooding into Harbin for sanctuary just as the Russians had done a decade earlier. At the start of the 1920’s, the population
of the city was around a hundred thousand, almost all of it Russian; by the late 1920’s, the population had doubled, and
almost all the new arrivals were Manchurians and Chinese. Nobody talked about Harbin becoming a melting pot; the Russians kept to their sections of the city and they expected their new neighbors to do the same. But a kind of infiltration of the local culture began even so.
During the long and bitterly cold winters, the Chinese started a tradition of carving ornate ice sculptures in the public parks. There were huge dragons and dreamy cloud spirits and bristlingly-armored ghost warriors silently bellowing and calling and leering among the massed snowdrifts and the thickets of bare trees; sometimes the artisans would hollow out unobtrusive gaps in the sculptures where candles or even incandescent bulbs could be hidden, so that at night the milky ice would glow from within, in wavering and mysterious pastels, like trapped spirits. The Festival of the Ice Lanterns, they called it. Irina and Nikolai and the other Russians found it beautiful but somehow disturbing. It was as though a florid Asian dreamworld was seeping up into Harbin’s strict European proprieties.
Was this what finally decided Nikolai it was time to go? He never said, and there were other possible reasons. Maybe it was the rumor that the Japanese were going to invade and take the whole of Manchuria for themselves. Or else maybe he’d been to one political meeting too many, and convinced himself that he and everybody else in Harbin was going to spend all
eternity stuck out there in the middle of nowhere, debating a dream of revenge. Whatever it was, one day in the fall of 1926 he told Irina that they were leaving.
They packed up their few possessions and set off by train to the Chinese coast. There they booked passage on one of the tramp steamers that bobbed from port to port all along the shores of Asia. For most of the voyage, there was nothing to look at but the blank ocean and a featureless line of land off to starboard. Then one morning they came out on deck and found something new: the blue water for miles around them was stained by a turbulent tawny-yellow murk. This was the sign that they’d reached their goal, the point where the currents of the great Yangtse River emptied into the China Sea. The steamer turned towards the west and made its way up the wide river delta, to the mouth of one of the Yangtse’s tributaries, the Huangpu. The river was a gorgeous swarming riot of freighters, junks, steamers, yachts, sampans, and warships. Upstream, around a slow glittering bend, there came into view the vast sprawl of Shanghai.
“My very first recollection,” Nick wrote once in a newspaper article, “is of my father holding me by the hand as we walked down a street in the Honkew District of Shanghai. Trucks full of Chinese soldiers were racing up and down the street and there was sporadic gunfire.”
That was in 1927. The city was caught in the middle of yet another of the countless convulsions of the Chinese Revolution; units of the Nationalist Army were fighting each other that season. It may seem strange to picture a young Russian man strolling down such a dangerous scene with his three-year-old son at his side, but it actually was a typical sight.
There were tens of thousands of Westerners in Shanghai, and they walked its streets as though in an inviolable bubble.
“Shanghai is not China,” says a tourist guidebook from those years (All About Shanghai, A Standard Guide, 1934 edition). “It is everything under the sun and in population at least, it is mostly Chinese, but it is not the real China.” In some
ways, it was a city like Harbin: it had been built by foreign money for foreign interests. At its heart was a crowded zone of banks and stores and trading companies, factories and mansions, apartment blocks and warehouses, known as the “International Settlement.” More than a hundred thousand Europeans and Americans lived there; they had their own police and fire department and utility companies and a local administrative council, which operated independently of the Chinese government. (The French in Shanghai insisted on yet another separate set of city services, under their control — their zone
was known as the “French Concession.”) Surrounding it were the Chinese districts, where millions of people were crowded together; some estimates put the population density of Shanghai as two or three times higher than Paris or London. If you surveyed the city from a high vantage — the rooftop of the glamourous Park Hotel, for instance, which billed itself in
magazine advertisements as “The Tallest Building In Asia” (it was sixteen storeys) — it appeared as a kind of doughnut: a
central plateau of low, flat European rooftops encircled by a enormous broken mountain range of peaked and serrated Chinese tile.
Inside the Settlement, life was a gaudy cosmopolitan hodgepodge. Something of its character can be made out from the ads in the tourist guidebook. There were French dressmakers, American beauty salons, German breweries, and a British doctor specialising in the treatment of “venereal complaints.” There were riding academies and dancing academies. A stop-
the-presses ad in the guidebook’s 1934 edition announces that the Shanghai Art Store has just gotten in “1935-style shoes.”
There are listings for brass band concerts, movie theaters, and a municipal symphony orchestra. There are countless ads for nightclubs — featuring “Charming Dance Hostesses” and “Lovely Dance Partners” and “the Prettiest Dancing Hostesses.” The Candidrome Ballroom, “The Rendezvous of Shanghai’s Elite,” was featuring that season the music of “Buck Clayton and his Harlem Gentlemen.” It was a whole compacted world of European glamour; most of the people in the Settlement could go their whole lives without bothering to learn a word of Chinese.
There were thousands of Russians living in the Settlement — ten thousand from the initial flood during the Russian
Civil War (or so Nick estimated, in his oral history); tens of thousands more would arrive in the early 1930s, after Japan invaded Manchuria and the White Russian enclaves there were overrun. Because they were refugees with no political status, they became the lowest caste in the Settlement, barely rating above the Chinese. They took the jobs that the other Europeans wouldn’t touch: Russian men worked as rickshaw bearers, which was unheard-of for whites in Asia; young
Russian women made up by far the largest percentage of the Settlement’s prostitutes, and they had a virtual lock on the “dance hostess” trade. But even if they were destitute, they still had their own strong community, as thrivingly insular as any
other in Shanghai. They had Russian language newspapers, groceries, teahouses, and bookstores, and even a radio station. And, like Russians everywhere, they tended to treat any new acquaintance as a long-lost cousin, entitled to the family’s
inexhaustible support. The moment Nikolai had made a couple of Russian friends in Shanghai he had no problem finding a job or a place for his family.
In the spring and summer of 1927, he worked as a longshoreman on the docks and quays of the Huangpu, while he and Irina and Nick lived in an old boardinghouse in the French Concession. That winter, he took a step upward: he got a job installing burglar alarms. It was steady work; there were a lot of millionaires in Shanghai in those days, both Western and Chinese. Nikolai worked in mansions that were labyrinthine vistas of opulence, studded by antique vases and pieced out by luminous tapestries. He would sometimes laugh about it, and say the butlers were just as snobbish and surly whether they worked for bankers or for ganglords. The next spring, he had a piece of real luck. The Chinese laborers at the Shanghai Water Works went on strike. The British owners fired them all and brought in Russians as scabs. Nikolai got hired as a mechanical engineer (mostly because he’d been an auto mechanic), and the pay included a living space in the company housing complex.
The Water Works was a sprawling Gothic maze of dark turrets and grimy walls that squatted on the banks of the Huangpu river. The silt and filth of Shanghai, the garbage from the floating cities of boat people on the Huangpu, the sewage and debris and the occasional dead gangster, came pouring into the plant’s vast system of filters and pipes and pools,
and the end product was some of the cleanest tapwater in Asia. Nikolai was proud of his work (he was quickly promoted) and Irina liked their little row house; only young Nick was miserable. He was trapped inside the Water Works like an orphan prisoner in a Dickens novel, because Nikolai absolutely refused to send him to school or let him play with other children.
Why not? There were a lot of reasons. If Nikolai had thought Harbin was a bad place to raise a child, the thronging turmoil of Shanghai seemed infinitely riskier. Then, too, while Nikolai still thought of himself as a socialist, he’d come to
take on increasingly aristocratic airs; he liked to think of himself as a man of culture and dignity, while his fellow Russians in
Shanghai were too vulgar, too destitute, too desperate, too criminal. He particularly loathed the laxity of their childrearing and thought that the company of Shanghai’s Russian children would be a disastrous influence on Nick. And then, too, although there was a good Russian school in Shanghai, he was sure that he could do a better job teaching Nick himself. In a way, it was a grand act of love and parental concern; it certainly never thought that keeping Nick isolated might do him any harm.
But Nick resented it bitterly, and always felt that it had been a disaster for him. It marked him in ways he couldn’t
wholly trace out for himself. At the least, it ensured that he would always have a hard time making elementary connections with people. He seems never to have picked up the cues everybody else absorbs in childhood about how to read people’s
faces and interpret their subliminal signals. He can’t make small talk; he can’t tolerate being contradicted; he’s always been
unable to strike a balance in a conversation between sullen silence and interminable monologue. It’s a typical pattern for an
only child, that unconscious sense of always being the center of attention — and for Nick it was intensified by total social
obliviousness. It’s as though he spent his earliest years blind and for the rest of his life has walked around with tunnel vision.
His parents loomed over his childhood. He regarded his father with an inextricable tangle of respect, resentment, love, and fear. What stood out the most for him was Nikolai’s military manners and emotional aloofness; he had, Nick wrote in
one of his reminiscences, “an air of near-Olympian omnipotence” — perhaps the last quality a lonely boy looks for in a
father. Nick was awed by Nikolai’s strength (he could drive in screws with his thumbnail), his determination, his air of exhaustive knowledgability, and his pose of culture. He remembered him this way in the oral history: “My father was a poet of above-average ability, and he frequently wrote invitations in verse to our friends for holiday or birthday dinners. He was composing for a couple of years, I think, a novel in verse based on the time when he served in the Russian White Army. Sometimes we would walk hand-in-hand up and down the alley at the employee housing complex and he would recite to me from memory whole chapters from his novel, occasionally changing a verse here and there.”
But he was less impressed by his mother. In everything he wrote and said about her, the dominant note is impatience. From an early age, he considered her to be exasperating and irrational. In the oral history, he describes her this way: “She
always spoke very fast, so fast that she made her words tumble over each other, and whenever she was at a loss for words she would just make up a term on the spur of the moment. The people who didn’t know her well found this confusing and
perplexing. She was always very self-conscious of position in society, prestige, and popularity. Both her mother’s and her father’s families had coats of arms and this meant a great deal to her. Her favorite saying in those days — she used to say it
to me repeatedly — was: Don’t you ever forget that your ancestors were nobles. They were not just common people.”
This snobbery sometimes was too much even for Nikolai; Nick says in the oral history that he sometimes wondered if his father kept claiming to be a socialist only because it annoyed Irina so much. But Nick’s real grudge against his mother was that she was his jailer. When Nikolai went off to work each morning, he would set Nick’s lessons for the day (he’d ordered stacks of schoolbooks from the Russian bookstore), and Irina was supposed to supervise him. But she always had shopping to do — in Shanghai in those days, refrigerators were a luxury for the very rich, and most people kept only a day’s worth of food in the house. At the market she would often run into friends, and stop off at the teahouse for a talk; and Nick ended up being left alone for hours. He would wander by himself along the grass plots behind the row houses, or down the grimy brick alleys behind the filtration plant. He often sat at the little window in his bedroom, peering out forlornly at the water works’ intricate roofscape as it was washed by Shanghai’s cold winter rains or baked by the sultry summer sunlight. A gap in the angle between two rooftops held a wedge of of the Huangpu River: he could see fishing boats bob along the glinting water, and now and then the steep side of a steamship sweeping past.
Like many kids who grow up in isolation, Nick retreated into a world of daydream. He read Sherlock Holmes and Jules Verne, the way most Russian children do; but soon he conceived a different passion: for America. His favorite writers (in Russian translation) were Jack London and James Fenimore Cooper; he had an enduring love for stories of the Wild West and the Gold Rush. Almost as soon as he could read, he was devouring Shanghai’s Russian language newspapers, and while he was starved for real life and took a deep interest in everything, from Mao’s Long March to the Italian invasion of Ethiopia (Halie Salassie was one of his earliest heroes), his particular enthusiasm was for American news. He followed the Presidential elections closely (he supported Roosevelt); and he read everything he could about the Lindburgh kidnapping and the assassination of Huey Long. It often struck him as a profound injustice that he was half a world away from such excitement, stuck in Shanghai where nothing ever happened.
When he was twelve, he finally persuaded his father to send him to Shanghai’s Russian school. He proved to have an
easy time in class; Nikolai actually had done a good job with his home instruction. But he was less successful with his schoolmates. They were merciless. Not only was he a newcomer, but he cut an absurd figure: he was tall, skinny, hopelessly unathletic, and socially incompetent. He couldn’t even understand a word they said. He spoke the classically pure Russian he’d learned from his parents; the other kids had their own weird patois, a thickly slanging Russian mixed with English and overlaid by a lot of garbled French. It took him months of patient listening to get the hang of it, and even then he had to be careful not to let it slip out of him at the wrong time. If his father had heard a hint of slang in his speech, that would have
been the end of his schooling.
But none of that mattered — or at least Nick would never admit that it did. He was developing his characteristic form of self-defense in difficult social situations: he simply refused to accept he was having a problem. (In later years, he modified this strategy: if he had to admit there was a problem, he refused to accept that it could be his fault.) As far as he was concerned, he wanted to be liked by the other kids, and so he was — end of story.
Besides, he was dazzled by Shanghai. He bicycled everywhere through the swarming streets of the Settlement and the tree-lined boulevards of the French Concession; sometimes he would venture out to where the ruler-drawn European districts ended and the tangled Chinese neighborhoods began: an alluring, tumbledown glow of paper lanterns and neon, announcing alchemists, herbalists, necromancers, radical newspapers, opera houses and opium dens. He was never worried; “the crime rate was extremely low,” he remembered, “and I could go into any neighborhood in the city, no matter how
poor, without fear.”
On the other hand, it was a city perpetually on the edge of catastrophe. The Japanese invasion spread throughout China during the 1930s, and by 1937 there was ferocious fighting in the Chinese districts of Shanghai. The area to the west of the Settlement turned into a weird and savage zone of street warfare where the Japanese army, the remnants of the nationalist Chinese forces, the collaborationist Chinese police, and anti-Japanese paramilitary groups run by the Chinese gangs all contended; it came to be known as “the Badlands.” The Settlement remained relatively safe; its neutrality and independence had been guaranteed by America and the other Western powers, who kept gunboats perpetually patrolling the waters of the Huangpu. But that didn’t mean there weren’t a lot of thrilling close calls. Nick recalled in the oral history: “Machine gun bursts, artillery salvos and rifle shots became a a part of our daily environment ... antiaircraft artillery and
machine guns, Japanese or Chinese — we had no way of knowing — would open up and the spent rounds would bounce
off the roof of our house.”
As the fighting worsened, the city seemed to grow more surreal. One morning when Nick was on his way to school he saw a wild dogfight unfolding in the clouds overhead, mysteriously ignored by the busy crowds on the street. Another time he was awakened in the middle of the night by a strange light in his bedroom; from his window he saw that the refinery across the river had been bombed, and huge roils of red flame were shimmering on the black waters. A few days later, a ride on a trolleycar took him through the Badlands, and he found that the familiar streets had been transformed: “For blocks and blocks the Japanese put manila ropes around the utility poles and put straw on the sidewalks and they used this area as stables for the cavalry horses. There were hundreds or thousands of horses. It was an unbelievable sight.”
The worst came for the Europeans one Friday when a Chinese plane swooped down and — deliberately or not,
nobody ever found out for sure — dropped its bombs on the Settlement. One bomb fell on an intersection in the busiest commercial street along the river; another landed in a public square that was serving as a holding camp for thousands of newly-arrived refugees. Nick happened to pass by the square soon afterwards. He described the scene in one of his newspaper articles forty years later: “It was total chaos — blood all over, mangled bodes, torn limbs, dead, wounded, all in
one bloody mess. Cars, rickshaw cabs, buses, streetcars all torn apart, smashed upside down, broken glass. Cries for help, groans ...” Nine hundred people died; it was known in Shanghai afterwards as Black Friday.
But the most important thing that happened to Nick in those years had nothing to do with the grand events of history. He and his father had another gigantic battle, filled with desperate pleadings and absolute refusals: this time the issue was whether he could join the Boy Scouts. For Nikolai it was yet another potential cesspool of dissolute company — but he
finally relented, and Nick began attending Scout meetings. For the first time in his life, he made a friend.
Victor Velgus was an unusual kid, even for Shanghai. He was half-Russian and half-Chinese, a rare combination —
even rarer because it was his mother who was Russian and his father Chinese. They had met in Siberia during the Civil War, where she was a nurse and he was a laborer. In their long, meandering flight over the following years, into Manchuria and then southward to Shanghai, she had somehow strayed away, and Victor had no idea where she was now. He lived with his father in a big, crumbling apartment block in the Badlands. But he detested that arrangement, and he spent most of his time on the streets, or hanging around in the Russian teahouses and taverns in the Settlement. He was fluent in Russian and Chinese (both Mandarin and the hissing Shanghai dialect that most other Chinese professed to be unable to understand) and he had also picked up a smattering of English and French. He earned his pocket money as a bicycle messenger, taking letters and military dispatches from one sector to another through the Badlands and the Settlement — dodging heedlessly
among the swarms of troop convoys and past the bristling checkpoints run by the police and the gangs. That’s why he had joined the Boy Scouts: he wanted the uniform because it made him look more official on his rounds.
Victor was everything Nick wasn’t. Nick was timid and priggish; Victor was a hustler, an adventurer, a carouser. “He always had one girlfriend after another,” Nick said in the oral history. “He was a good dancer and very good in company. He was a very enjoyable person. He was also a very self-centered person, very effective in promoting himself.”
Victor could charm anybody — particularly those, like Nikolai and Irina, who believed they were impervious to being charmed. They were at first furiously suspicious of him, but soon they were enchanted. After a couple of months of hearing his stories about how he was sleeping on the street after his latest fight with his father, they told him he could move in with
them. He proved to be a fitful and unreliable houseguest, useless at chores, ostentatiously baffled when cash or little trinkets
went missing — but Nikolai and Irina doted on him. They even enjoyed the innumerable ways he found to hit them up for loans; Irina was still laughing years later over the way Victor had once danced around her on the street like an organ-grinder’s monkey, begging her “Let me have a quarter, please let me have a quarter.”
Nick and Victor spent every day together, and came to take each other for granted with the profound taciturn devotion of teenage boys. Victor worked hard to bring Nick out of his shell. He had no luck coaxing him into sampling Shanghai’s adult entertainments — but did at least get him to play hooky. The two attended the Russian school together until the fall of 1940, when the school had to close: it was right on the boundary between the Settlement and the Badlands, and the streetfighting in the Badlands was growing more anarchic and savage. So instead Nick and Victor enrolled for night classes at a college in the French Concession. But the lectures were given in French, which neither of them spoke well enough to follow; so at Victor’s instigation, they started skipping classes and going to movies instead.
“Never have I seen so many movies as we saw that winter,” Nick remembered. “And Shanghai had beautiful movie
theaters, elaborately constructed, huge, and richly furnished.” They showed the latest arrivals from Hollywood; when The