The Communists were in power. The year: 1988. The place: the territory and city of Kaliningrad, named for a buddy of Joe Stalin. My wife and I were there for the day, exploring the bleak, gray remains of several centuries – none bleaker or grayer than those produced by the Soviet Union.
Kaliningrad, Konigsberg under the Prussians and Germans, is Russia’s only Baltic port that never freezes over. For decades part of the USSR, it’s separated geographically from the rest of Russia, which no doubt accounts for its schizophrenic personality. After World War Two, the German survivors were driven out by the Russians and the German language replaced with Russian. Much of the old city was destroyed and replaced with typical monstrosities of Soviet architecture – including the Prussian Royal Palace, displaced by the sinking and abandoned House of Soviets, a modern structure of remarkable size and hideousness.
The middle-aged woman showing us around Kaliningrad shuffled gloomily from site to site, giving us the required official explanations. When we showed interest or asked questions to try to get beneath the surface, she perked up a little. Then, as we said goodbye, I handed her the fat paperback copy that I’d just finished reading of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s epic The Gulag Archipelago, about the Siberian prison camps of the USSR.
“For you,” I said, putting the dog-eared paperback into her hand.
“For me?” she cried, clutching the volume to her chest, then quickly lowering it discreetly, almost hiding it. “Oh my! Solzhenitsyn! For me!”
All works by Solzhenitsyn were forbidden in the Soviet Union, even in this outlying territory of Kaliningrad, but I hadn’t anticipated such an emotional response for the gift of a well-used paperback – and in English translation, at that.
Almost in tears, the woman hugged us and said goodbye as we boarded the boat that would carry us on the rest of our journey. I still see her, in that shapeless patterned dress, long gray sweater, and down-at-the-heel shoes, standing on the dock as we pulled away, holding the hefty paperback as if it were jewelry box filled with rare treasures.
Today, it’s hard to imagine the excitement a physical book could create, the thrill of holding in one’s own hands a volume that was yours, that you could read, share, annotate, love. I wouldn’t have been able to pass on a Kindle to that sad woman, even if it had existed in 1988. It’s a different world, today, connected in different ways. Perhaps it’s better, now, as words fly across the globe in many different formats. Tweets, blogs, Facebook posts, emails, text messages, and more keep us constantly, relentlessly, joined together. No doubt it’s more difficult, these days, for dictators to ban potentially dangerous literature and ideas. I hope so.
Communications of all kinds today, whether books, magazines, movies, television shows, or DVDs, are controlled less by political powers than by the giant corporations who own the methods of creation, reproduction, and distribution. Where this evolution may be taking us is frightening to think about.
Words have great power, as that woman on the dock in Kaliningrad demonstrated. As long as words are free and able to communicate ideas, emotions, hopes, dreams, fears, ambitions, the entire magnificent spectrum of the human mind, maybe we’ll be okay. Maybe.
Bruce Douglas Reeves, author DELPHINE, winner of the Clay Reynolds Novella Competition, published by Texas Review Press, available from University Press Books-Berkeley (800-676-8722), Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and the Texas A & M University Press Consortium, as well as your local bookstore, by order.