Olga Orlova and the Fields Medallists – Part II

03/08/2010 1 comment

The second meeting

Venue – A Moscow Kitchen. October 2002.

Vladimir Voevodsky came to the interview not alone, announcing from the entrance that his prize should be shared with three people, of whom he couldn’t bring along the first and the third, but he had managed to snare the second.

VV: Let me introduce you: this is Yuri Shabat, Professor at the Moscow State University. If I make a mistake in something, he’ll correct me.

OO: And who is the first person?

VV: Well, actually even before him were the dinosaurs. When I was really little, I loved dinosaurs. And then books on chemistry began to fall into my hands; my mum brought them, she was a chemist. From theory I soon moved onto practice, and there were explosions in the bathroom, after which there were experiments with electricity, and then, going backwards, theoretical physics, which my father, a physicist, introduced me to. When I was seriously ill with pneumonia, my father’s friend Oleg Sheremetyev brought me a Rubik’s cube to distract me. There were no published solutions to the puzzle at the time, and I killed two days to crack it on my own. And then Oleg and I went on to solve more complicated mathematical puzzles. Oleg used to spend much time those days teaching mathematics to kids at the Pioneers Palace. He was the first to show me that mathematics could be interesting of itself, in a very pure sense.

OO: Volodya, you finished high school but you do not have a degree. Does that mean, by Russian standards, that you are under-educated?

VV: I was rusticated from Moscow University for academic failure. I was already interested in algebraic geometry, but attending classes seemed like such a waste of time. I took a break from academics, and began an apprenticeship at a vocational school where kids were being taught programming. One day, I found some scrap paper on a table with formulae scribbled over it – and immediately realised that there was someone around who thought just like me. I was overjoyed and went in search of the owner of that paper. And that’s how I found Yura Shabat. He didn’t deny it. “Yes,” he said, “These are my papers. So what?” Well, I said, I have also been thinking along those lines. It was very important to me that I had found him.

YS: Yes, and after that, we worked for a long time together.

OO: So what attracted you to algebraic geometry?

VV: Purely subjective factors, I have to say. At the time, algebraic geometry was being done by interesting people, such as Shafarevich.

OO: And how did the move to America come about?

VV: Even after returning to academics, I still wouldn’t attend classes. In 1989, then, obviously, everything collapsed, and such formalities as degrees seemed quite useless. After Yura Shabat, I began to work with Misha Kapranov, and we published several papers. Then he went off to graduate school in the States, talked about our work, and thanks to him, I became a graduate student at Harvard.

OO: Your relationship with America, it appears, was not entirely idyllic?

VV: To be honest, America impressed me at once. On the very first day I arrived at Harvard, I was handed keys to an apartment, to an office, and a cheque for a thousand dollars. And I was a mere graduate student! At the time, there were many Russian mathematicians on the faculty. Dmitri Kazhdan was Dean. I need to share my prize with him as well. He and his colleagues supported me at a period when I could no longer live in Russia, and I was still new to America. I remember, during my first Christmas in Boston, I got drunk and wandered into a black ghetto. There I was robbed, beaten and hurled into the snow. This, of course, added to my discomfort; but I was deeply anguished, missing Moscow, and thinking how much I hated their Christmas. I wanted my New Year [My note: Russians celebrate New Year rather than Christmas], with a fir tree and my mum and presents. I went to Professor Joseph Bernstein, and said to him – I can’t stay here. He answered me in one sentence, “Well, if it’s so bad for you here, then go home.” I am eternally grateful to him for this. I went to Moscow for four months, and he covered up for me, saved my fellowship and stipend. Then I returned and lived for a few months in my office, writing up my dissertation quickly. When I went in the mornings to brush my teeth in my sweat-pants, students would be coming into the department and looking askance at me. But Dean Kazhdan gave me the possibility to complete my work in peace. So I got my doctorate, but without any college degree either from Russia or America.

OO: Was such an option open to you in Russia?

VV: Formally, it wasn’t prohibited, but it is clear that the entire procedure would have been much harder, and taken much longer. There have been earlier precedents, but in my opinion, perhaps more often in the pre-war days than today.

OO: Setting aside material comforts, what distinguishes a scientist’s life in Russia from that in America?

VV: Everything. It’s a different professional environment. In my own field, there are ten times as many people working in America. There is the corresponding level of competition. In Russia there is no direct relationship between a scientist’s academic success and financial situation. If a person is comes up with an extraordinary idea, then everybody says, ‘Praise God, we are happy,’ but his salary is not going to go up from tomorrow. In America, it is likely to increase; but if you prove something interesting with your colleagues, at once the question arises – who did what first? Because the prizes have to be divided. In Russia, when people think up the same idea simultaneously, it is rather nice. There’s a professional collegiality. But in the US, this would decrease the material consequences of a scientific achievement. Although I have to say that in mathematics this is not as strongly felt as in biology, chemistry or medicine.

OO: Besides science, you have always had a wide range of interests. You have travelled the world, kept up your interest in history, followed politics. You live in the US, your wife is Egyptian, and you have friends of various religious persuasions. You have, perhaps, a nuanced view of events in the world.

VV: Undoubtedly, I have a cosmopolitan regard of current events as I do constantly listen to views of people from different sides of the barricades. And it is not difficult for me to note that not all of them are true. No less, it is evident nuclear weapons that used to be so difficult to obtain, will become quite common. And I don’t see any reasons that can stop those people who want to use them. Clearly, nuclear war awaits us in the coming decades. On the other hand, in American scientific journals, such as Science, I regularly read that its consequences are not as scary as we might imagine.

OO: Well, thanks for the consoling thought… And what will happen to mathematics in these projections?

VV: Nothing good is going to happen to mathematics, even if there’s no nuclear war in the near future. Mathematics has developed over a long time with lots of intensive research. But today’s mathematics requires immensely larger resources: of people, time, and money. You understand, in modern science we have a situation where the amount of time a person has to spend just to bring himself up to speed with an open problem is unacceptably long. I cannot explain – even to a very good student in his final year at University – the details of my work! Today, new people find it harder and harder to engage in the scientific process. I think it’s a bad sign. If mathematics does not turn to the practical needs of mankind, in fifty years it will no longer be in any form we can recognise.

YS: Well, here I’d like to object. I am well acquainted with the history of mathematics, and can say that apocalyptic predictions of its demise are not new. But mathematics, paradoxically, has always evolved in an irrational fashion. Its history is very similar to that of poetry. In some periods there is a crisis, and then there’s a period of barely discernible development in new directions, and then there’s a powerful creative explosion. Forecasting this systematically is impossible. I think than in fifty years mathematics will still exist as a fully-fledged science.

VV: Shall we bet on it? Let’s meet in thirty years, say, and examine the situation. We won’t wait fifty years – who knows if we’ll live that long?

Vladimir and Yuri made the wager, I excused myself. Time passed.

[To be continued.]

[I translated loosely from Olga Orlova’s piece on Polit.Ru. It appears that in 2002, when she first wrote it up to link with the International Congress of Mathematicians at Beijing, the journal that had commissioned it, ‘New Model’, went out of business without publishing it. She and her editors decided that the content was still relevant in 2006, when the Perelman story was appearing in the world’s press in the run-up to the ICM in Madrid.]

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Olga Orlova and the Fields Medallists – Part I

The first meeting. Venue – Beijing, August 2002. We met up with Vladimir Voevodsky and Laurent Lafforgue at the International Congress of Mathematicians – the pre-eminent event in the world of mathematics. The Congress is nothing less than a hybrid between the Olympics and the Nobel Prizes. What it has in common with the former is its quadrennial occurrence, and to present at it is as much an honour as it is for a sportsman to win a medal at the Olympics. And like the Nobel it confers an award, the Fields Medal, which is possibly the greatest prize in mathematics.
We may never learn what occasioned Alfred Nobel so much dislike: mathematics as a discipline, or mathematicians as a community. One thing is for sure, though: he did not declare any share of the prize to mathematicians that might enhance either their prestige or their financial status. Nobel laureates quickly become stars on TV and radio, their bank accounts bulging to the tune of several trailing zeroes; for the rest of their lives, they enjoy the fruit of their labour. Fields medallists, though, are known chiefly to their colleagues, and the prize money itself is so modest that they scarcely have enough to purchase a middling automobile. In addition, there is a severe restriction: the prize can be won only by a mathematician not older than 40 years of age.

But none of this diminishes any of the scientific work that is nominated for it. And so the professionals in their thousands descend upon the Congress from all parts of the world, reminiscent of warriors who congregated to measure themselves against each other in ancient times. In 2002, the Congress held in Beijing was unusual in two ways. It was the first time since the inception of the Fields Medal in 1932 that it was being held in China. Secondly, it was the first time that the prize was being awarded only to two mathematicians, not four as was the usual practice. [My note: this is not true. The first five ICMs had only two prizewinners each, as did the one in 1974.] The quality of achievement of these two men was considered so high that it had been impossible to find another pair equally eminent. In Beijing, the event had assumed a national importance. I suppose this was no different from the way we conducted the International Festival of Youth in Moscow in 1957.
On all TV and radio stations, they transmitted live broadcasts of the events unfolding at the mathematical institute where the Congress was hosted. All manner of strangers, in the markets, on the streets, in the shops, came up and welcomed us when they noticed the badge we wore with the ICM logo. And the prizes themselves were awarded in the great hall of the Chinese parliament by the President, Jiang Zemin. At the centre of all the attention, of course, were two young light-haired Europeans, who looked so alike to the President that he mixed up the medals, and didn’t at once realise with whom he should standing to be photographed.
[I translated loosely from Olga Orlova’s piece on Polit.Ru. It appears that in 2002, when she first wrote it up to link with the International Congress of Mathematicians at Beijing, the journal that had commissioned it, ‘New Model’, went out of business without publishing it. She and her editors decided that the content was still relevant in 2006, when the Perelman story was appearing in the world’s press in the run-up to the ICM in Madrid.]

Gole the Victorious

So there I am, minding my own business, you know, my business of ploughing that putrid piece of land that his freakin’ feudal lordship allows me, when Blossom is enveloped by a storm of midgets, and he twitches and moans in pain, and all I could do is snap my whip, and I do it so well that thirty leeches fall off him, fat and dead, and midges die in their thousands. Well, I say to myself, this is a satisfying day. I may be small, but I’m good. So I unhitch Blossom from the plough, and lead him towards the city road, and spit at the freakin’ feudal lord (may the leeches consume him), and walk a bit, and, boy, is it hot.

I stop for a brief break, and Blossom is pleased, I think, for he nibbles on some grass, and I ponder great things. I chop down a little tree with my faithful axe, and I shape it into a signpost, and I carve out a message.

This way went Gole the Warrior, vanquisher of Saracens, thirty knights undone by me, and countless forces of infantry.

And I clamber onto Blossom, and whisper to him, and he waggles his ears at me, and we are back on the road.

And then we hear frantic clip-clops approaching us from behind, and a great knight stops us, and says, “Have you seen Gole the Warrior?” and I say, “That’s me, buddy.” and he nearly falls off his destrier. “Ride on my right,” I say, nudging Blossom on, and the knight obeys, and I can see his brow is furrowed and his nose is wrinkled, for I haven’t washed in days, and I am fairly ripe, and Blossom’s scarcely much to look at, and he is thinking, “Can this be? A stinky peasant on a half-dead horse? Is there some enchantment?”

“Who are you?” I say, and the knight shakes himself alert, and bows from his saddle.

“Bova, the king’s son,” he says, and rides beside me, thinking deeply.

And then we hear frantic clip-clops approaching us from behind, and a magnificent knight stops us, and says, “Bova! Have you seen Gole the Warrior?” and Bova points silently at me, and the knight is so surprised that a prince is riding with a peasant that he bows to me, and says, “Yeruslan, at your service.”

I bid him ride on my left, and he does so, and raises his eyebrows at Bova who shrugs. They think I don’t notice. I do, but do I care? They are warriors of legend, and many a tale is told of their doings in Rus, but I’m no less after all. I am Gole the Warrior.

And then we hear frantic clip-clops approaching us from behind, and a young knight overtakes us, and, recognising Bova and Yeruslan, he bows to me and exclaims, “Churila, sir, at your service,” and I reply, “Gole, at yours.” and he takes Bova’s side, and we go on for some miles, and I don’t speak much except to say, “I’m grateful for your company, my brothers,” for that is how I fancy knights talk among each other.

And we come across fine meadows and lush pasture and there are fine cows too many to count, and I direct Blossom towards them when Bova shouts, “Stop, Gole. These are the domains of the Saracen Queen!” and I say, “Long has she menaced Rus. Let us rest and refresh ourselves on her lands.”

And Yeruslan turns to me, and I can see he is worried, and he says, “The Saracen Queen’s forces are mighty – twenty-two knights, and Zilant the Undefeated.”

And I say to him, “Mere mosquitoes! Are they too much for you?” and he is struck dumb. The knights follow me onto the meadow, and I let Blossom graze, and I take my sweaty shirt off, and I lie down beneath an ancient oak, and the knights bestir themselves to do battle with each other, to test their strength and mettle. To each his own, I think, and I close my eyes.

And the knights chase the shepherds away, and the meadow is pummelled into mud under their war-horses, and they come back to sit near me, to wonder at my calm.

For the bells are pealing and the gates to the Saracen Queen’s city are opening, and trumpets are blaring, and Churila is shaking me awake, saying, “Gole, there’s a force sent against us.”

I open one eye, and I say, “A force? Three knights – three leeches. And a division of infantry? All mosquitoes. Go on, Churila, deal with them, and send one to the queen with a message to marry me.”

Off Churila goes, and fights hard, and cuts down one knight and then another and he spares the third, who drags himself back to his queen, and she, clearly is not happy, and she sends six champions against us with three divisions of infantry. Churila is exhausted but he shakes me awake, and I take a look, and I say, “Six knights? One blow and they are dust. Go on, Bova, surely you can manage?” and I go back to sleep.

And Bova fights long and hard, and he takes them apart, and sends one man to tell the Saracen Queen to marry me.

But she sends twelve knights now against us, and six divisions of men-at-arms, and they blow their horns and wave their maces and make a godawful din.

“Yeruslan,” I say, “Sort them out, there’s a good fellow.”

“If you can’t,” I add, “We’ll help you.”

And he is as good as they say, for he charges the enemy and fights them like a lion, and though they are so many, he outdoes himself, until he crushes the lot, and, barely able to stay up on his saddle, sends one man to the Saracen Queen, demanding that she marry me.

And then appears Zilant, a giant of a warrior clad in iron. The earth shakes as he emerges from his iron nest that is stretched across twelve trees that bend under the strain.

Zilant roars and the grass flattens before him, and I awaken again.

My brothers are exhausted and there is nothing for it, and I put on my shirt and I’m sweating again, and I clamber onto Blossom, and he staggers forward, and I squeeze my eyes tightly shut, and I cross myself, and I think, “Here I go to my death, and it is an honourable one.”

And I wave my axe over my head, and I whisper to myself, “Fathers and brothers, remember my name.” and later they tell me that Zilant cannot believe his eyes and roars, “Is this for real? A silly peasant? Against me? A flick of a finger and he’ll fly a furlong!” and he crouches close over his horse’s neck for a better look, and then Blossom jumps, and I rise on my stirrups, and I chop hard against Zilant’s head, and he goes down pole-axed, and I strike him as he lies stunned on the ground, and I cut him as I would an oak, and then I shrug, and Blossom limps back to my friends.

And they gape at me unbelievingly, and meanwhile the Saracen Queen is filled with grief and foreboding, and she can do nothing other than to open the gates and come out herself and bow to me. And she is puzzled by me and shakes my hand and crushes it so hard that I have to clench my mouth shut not to shout, and I jump from the agony in my breaking fingers and jerk my hand back. And she says, sweetly, “I’ve always honoured courage.” And she puts her hand on my shoulder, and I can scarcely withstand her strength, and I stagger, and she says, “Protect my kingdom! You are our defender now.”

So I bow to her and worry how I am to save my head.

And she throws a feast in our honour, and she brings out her best mead thinking to muddle our heads, but I refuse, and I say, “After a day’s hard work, I drink nothing except the Water of Champions.”

And the Saracen Queen says, “We have a little of the mighty water.”

And I say, “How much of it do you have?”

And she says, “A bottle full.”

And I say, “Is it any good? The usual variety is no better than beer.”

And she orders it brought before me, and I pour myself a glass and swallow it in one, and she says, “How is it?” and I say, “I have hardly got a taste.”

And I pour myself out another glassful and I down it, and then I down three more, and the queen shouts, “Enough, enough! You’ll leave none for me!”

And I say, “Excellent water. How strong am I now?”

And I ask that a length of ship’s cable be brought, thick as an oak tree, and order it tied into a knot, and I take a destrier from the stables, and I ride him full pelt towards the rope, and the knot slips over my head, and I tear it open, and all who see it, fall onto their knees in awe, and raise their hands to the heavens, and praise my name.

And soon I am known far and wide as the Gole the Great, and the Saracen Queen marries me, and she gives me two daughters, Luck and Fortune, and I look upon them and am proud.

And nobody can doubt again that I once felled thirty knights with one terrible blow of my hand.

[Based on the Russian folk tale. Crossposted from here.]

Categories: folk tales, russia, war

Haraprasad Ray’s Sino-Asian Trade – A Review

[Haraprasad Ray, a Sinologist of considerable expertise, wrote several monographs on Sino-Indian relations, history, trade routes and so on. His 1993 book, Trade and Diplomacy in India-China Relations: Study of Bengal During the 15th Century, was reviewed by Denys Lombard1. I translate that review loosely here.]

Although the title does not explicitly state so, this is essentially a rereading by one of the few Indian Sinologists (a lecturer at the Jawaharlal Nehru University) of the Chinese sources of the four missions to Bengal during the reign of the Yongle Emperor (between 1412-1414, 1415-1416, 1420-1421, and 1422-1423). As Pelliot has already assumed, it seems clear that Zheng He did not participate in any of these visits but left the responsibility to three of his associates: Yang Min, Hou Xian and Zhou Ding.

Mr Haraprasad Ray’s work is based mainly on the text Xiyang Chaogong Dianlu, “A Report on the Tributes sent to the Court from the Countries of the Western Seas” by Huang Shengceng, a native of Suzhou (1490-1540), and recently published by Xie Fang, based on seven different versions (Beijing, Zhonghua shuju, 1982). He tells us of having also ‘discovered’ by himself an unpublished manuscript in the City Library of Shanghai, which, unfortunately, he hasn’t used in this work. Huang’s text, certainly inspired by the Xingcha shenglan and the Yingyai shenglan, includes as well other unpublished sources, whence its interest.

The observations of Mr Haraprasad Ray, who is himself of Bengali origin, are invaluable. He establishes that the Chinese went well past Pandua (itself about 30 miles north of Gaur, a site not mentioned in the Yingyai edited by J.V.G. Mills) to Gaya, Delhi and up to Jaunpur. It is not without interest to see that the Chinese emissaries stopped at Jaunpur, that ‘enigmatic’ kingdom, where, under Ibrahim Shah Sharqi (1402-1440) an amazing cultural development inspired by Persia was flourishing at precisely that same time, Jaunpur being known then as the ‘Shiraz of India.’ Further, Mr Ray identifies certain Bengali fabrics that previous translations from the Chinese had hitherto omitted: manzheti, which appears to correspond to panchadi, a sort of calico; xinbailedali, corresponding to jhamartali, a sort of muslin; chaotaer corresponding to chautar, a thin cotton material; moheimoluo corresponding to mahmal, a velveteen fabric, and so on.

The glossary of Chinese terms (listing unnecessary characters like those of Zheng He and Yongle, but omitting those of Pand-du-wa and Zhao-na-pu-er) remains incomplete, and it is regrettable that the author was not better acquainted with the fine work of G. Bouchon (although a 1973 article by her on the Muslims of Kerala is cited) and L.F. Thomaz2, or R. Ptak3. Nevertheless, we eagerly await his forthcoming observations concerning Calicut, Quilon, Cochin and the Maldives (probably deriving from the same Xiyang chaogong dianlu).

We must in particular highlight the appendix (pp 147-160) in which Mr Haraprasad Ray returns to the question of the reasons for the termination of the famous voyages after 1433: “Cessation of the Voyages : A New Look into its Causes.”

Far from inferring a “Chinese decline” from the reduction in naval expeditions, the author suggests rather that state enterprises began to be taken over by private firms. This view (admittedly not entirely new, found as it is in the works of Wu Han and Lo Jungpang) is certainly a fine one, and we risk little more if we make a quick comparison between the Chinese trade, now almost free of any interference from the state, and future European commerce, which would have to endure more than two centuries of the yoke of the Estado da India. If we agree with Mr Ray, and there are, in our view, compelling reasons to do so, we must conclude that the Chinese interlopers had won the game long before the Europeans began to play it.

1. Denys Lombard. Haraprasad Ray : Trade and Diplomacy in India-China Relations. A Study of Bengal during the Fifteenth Century, Bulletin de l’Ecole française d’Extrême-Orient, 1994, vol. 81, n° 1, pp. 388-389.

2. Regarding Bengal, we would have expected at least a mention of the fine edition of the first Portuguese evidence on the region: G. Bouchon, L.F. Thomaz, Voyage dans les deltas du Gange et de l’Irraouaddy, 1521, Paris, Fondation Calouste Gulbenkian, 1988.

3. When, for instance, Mr Ray addresses the issue of the trade in horses (p. 120), it is unfortunate he does not mention the little monograph by R. Ptak, Pferde auf see, Chinas Pferdeimporte von den Riukiu-Inseln und den Ländern Südostasiens und des Indischen Ozeans (1368-1435), Bamberg, 1991.

Polina Zherebtsova’s Diary of the Chechen War – Part 4

08/11/2009 5 comments

[This is the final part of the translation of the extracts of Polina Zherebtsova’s Chechen Diary, originally published in Bolshoi Gorod.]

2 November

I argue with Mum. I tidy up. I get ready.

Yesterday, in passing, I saw Aladdin in the distance. He nodded at me. He wasn’t alone; he was with an older man and a young fellow.

In the evenings, I narrate to the kids the fairy tales of Wilhelm Gauf. He died so young, and yet gave the world so much! Everyone listens to me attentively. The kids are called Zara, Waha, Alissa. Alissa is a niece of Tamara, from the fourth floor.

In spring, I’ll turn 15. Of course, if I’m still alive.

Mansour, who lived with us with his family as a refugee in 1995, during the first war, told everyone in the yard that I was his bride. He explained to me, “I did it on purpose. So that they wouldn’t insult you or pester you.” And then he said, “But will you wait for me?” I nodded quietly. Such an idiot!

In the absence of his father, Mansour is like the elder in the family. He resolved conflicts between all of us in the military hostel more than once during that hard winter of 1995. We often quarrelled because of the cramped, closed quarters. We had had to sleep in turns – we couldn’t all have slept at the same time in our one-room apartment.

In 1995, we temporarily housed several more refugees in our apartment. I remember we had a neighbour, Olga Stepanovna, in our own entrance. Later, through snow-covered paths over a mountain pass, from the city of Vladikavkaz, her son arrived. An anti-war miracle! Whenever the reds or the whites, thinking he was a spy, wanted to execute him, he would repeat, “Guys! My mum is old. She’s all alone. It’s war. I’m going to my mum.” They’d then let him go.

And I can barely communicate with my mother. We are constantly arguing, quarrelling. Her nerves are shattered because of the crossfire. We managed to sell all the papers, except for four that were missing.

The bombing continues nightly. In the daytime it pretty much stops.

7 November

Yesterday, my ‘elder brother’ came by. He offered to teach me Arabic. He showed me the interesting alphabet – like drawings. I agreed.

No school now. As for History, I’ve read the textbook already. Twice!

The elder brother is, of course, Aladdin. He gifted us two frocks. One, a light blue one, he gave to me. A similar one, but green in colour, he gave to my mother. In addition, he brought me a large white scarf, imported from Mecca! I dreamed about such a thing for so long! The wealthiest women among us cover their heads with scarves like this! It is white, with white embroidery.

Aladdin brought books. Different ones. Many of them. He said, “You love to read books, and time passes faster when one reads. Here are some thrillers.” He is so … unpredictable!

These are events of yesterday. Today, I took out a notebook where I practise writing – and there was money in it! It all spills suddenly over me. I barely managed not to faint! All of 160 roubles! But what for? We are thrilled with him as it is. And we’ll be grateful all our lives to him for saving us. But this is unnecessary!

Can it be that he doesn’t love me at all? Aladdin treats me like I’m little. He is friendly, but that’s it.

There was bombing yesterday. Mum and I ‘went walkabout’ for bread. We came under fire. Came home safely. We started to tidy up the house. The painful fragment in me quietened down, gave me a moment’s peace.

Today is November 7, the revolutionary holiday of the former USSR. Maybe that’s why everyone is happy!

Budur of the terrible tales of the town of Grozny.

8 November

Yesterday evening there was a terrible fire fight. Missiles and shells flew into the yard. Thumps from mortars and machine-guns. The walls shook constantly. Everyone’s window panes blew out. We had sealed our panes with paper crosses, and so they remained intact.

When we were gluing the crosses on, some of the neighbours laughed and said maliciously, “Crosses, just like the Russians have on their graves!” Mum didn’t react. She tried to advise them: “Didn’t you see the films about the war with the Germans? For safety, everybody glued on the crosses. You should do the same.” All that happened was that everybody started referring to the Russian military as the Germans.

Aladdin came in the evening and began to teach me to read. He was amazed at how quickly I learnt all the letters; I write them easily under dictation.

Aladdin was covered in clay. He explained that as he was walking, our ruined district began to get shot up. He ended up lying in a trench with a gray cat. The cat was struggling to get away. She scratched him. It turned out that that was my tomcat – Chips! Aladdin was hiding with him?

We heated up some water so that our guest could clean himself up in the kitchen. We washed his clothes. Mum said that they were wet and that she wouldn’t let him leave at night. He declined initially out of decency, but his face lit up, and he stayed! Mum and I had to jostle for space on grandma’s bed, and we arranged the sofa for our guest.

Elder brother confesses, “My friends do not understand me when I tell them that I am looking out for a Russian family. I tell them of my friendship with you. That you are normal. But they do not believe me.”

Princess Budur.

9 November

My elder brother Aladdin spent the night at ours! We talked long into the night. He fed me candy, which he fished out of his pockets.

Aladdin made himself comfortable in the apartment, and generally behaved like a real brother or cousin. I learned a lot about him, about this childhood, his mischief at school, his friends.

Then he got fed up; his attitude changed dramatically. He started to scold me for not eating properly. I wasn’t wearing the headscarf correctly. I was putting the letters together far too slowly when I read. I understood. And my Slavic blood boiled.

Mum intervened. She announced, half in jest and half-seriously that he was pompous. “When a guest starts to criticise the host, it’s time to throw him out!” Aladdin was offended. He didn’t have any breakfast, and left. But I know that he will come back! He doesn’t want to get used to us, but still he does. Mum feels sorry for him.

In the morning I again went over the rules of the Russian language. Mum gave me a dictation. Mum is asleep now. I am sitting quietly. I found several old newspapers and am reading them.

A woman leaves Rais’s house, next door. She offered to sell some cigarettes (“Astra”), the cheapest and thinnest. In all, 96 packets at 30 kopecks each.

10 November

It snowed.

No, I wrote wrongly. It was a snowstorm like in February! All the trees are white. Mum’s heart is not doing well. She took some medicinal drops and went to bed.

There’s no bread, but there’s yesterday’s leftover dumplings with grass from the garden.

A man from our building stopped by to say good-bye. We don’t know him. He has a singularly yellowish pallor. He is missing a hand. He has fine, painfully thin facial features. Everyone calls him the Black Glove. His attention had been drawn to us several days earlier. He had chanced to see how I was carried out of the car, wounded.

He introduced himself, said he came from Greece. Black Glove learnt from the gossip of our neighbours that we did yoga. That we unravelled dreams. He wanted an explanation for what he saw: “Dogs chasing me! Big ones and small ones. They want to tear me limb from limb. I try to run, but can’t. There are many dogs, an entire pack!” We understood his dream as follows: “Enemies abound. To remain means death. One must depart quickly. The hunt approaches!” This man informed us that he works in Greece. My favourite country!

Bidding us farewell at the door, the man whispered, “I will come back. Maybe in five or six years. My family is there…” On the table, we saw a few bars of chocolate.

I am filled with a giddy hope that all will be well! This is like the hope of kids awaiting New Year’s presents from Santa Claus. Or the hope after a ship sinks when, through the veil of rain and storm, people espy the shore. It is not far! Just a little effort and everyone will be saved!

Mum’s heart is bad. It is 2:35 now. Mum took her tablets, but they do not help. Her lips and hands and legs are cold. I keep telling her that she needs to sleep. I give her a hot-water-bottle in place of a heater. Before my eyes is an imaginary Aladdin. I am having an imaginary conversation with him.

I’m sitting on the sofa. Gunfire from afar. Near the factory ‘Grad.’ It’s the third time it is being strafed. The weapons used are like the Katyusha rockets of the Patriotic War in 1945. We didn’t go out for bread.

I hear the howl of aircraft. The sound is approaching us.

Icicles drip outside the window. Small stalactites. The sky is clear, blue.

At night I had a dream: in a dark basement I am fighting a battle with Death. She is black, in a long coat with a hood; in her hands is a mace. Beneath our feet is a swamp. And so many people are already in the swamp to their chests; they cannot escape and save themselves. I swing and hit Death with a cane on the head. It was a palpable blow, as though I had hit something real, alive. She recoiled, and I managed to escape from the cellar.

I described the dream to Mum. She laughed and said, “This clearly means that in this war you will certainly not perish!”

Princess Budur.

Polina Zherebtsova’s Diary of the Chechen War – Part 3

31/10/2009 3 comments

26 October

Early in the morning when there were few people about (I am reluctant to walk with a walking stick), Mum and I went to the market. I looked at the remnants of the missile. It was huge! Boys were climbing all over it. They announced that it was ‘infectious’ and had to be removed. The missile had destroyed everything around.

Some of our acquaintances arrived to trade. Mum wanted to sell on our ware, so that it wouldn’t get lost. But people were scared to oblige. “There’s a lot of theft,” they explained, and said it had gotten worse after the explosion. Twelve people had been shot on the spot for stealing. Looters were at it day and night. They took things off the dead: gold, raincoats, shoes, clothing, cosmetics. They did this under the guise of locating their family members. Some came with their children to steal. A father with a kid ‘searched’ for the mother. And the mother with her other offspring was, at the same place, looking for the father. The guards didn’t cotton on immediately to this trickery.

One of our neighbouring traders showed uncommon courage. After the rocket exploded, she dragged an injured Chechen woman to safety; at the same time, thieves ran off with her entire merchandise. But she had no regrets. I spoke to her. She had done well!

Our market has shrunk now. In the morning there are hardly two rows. Tables have been placed along the Mir Prospect. People have decided: here will be the cafe, here the barber, and here the entrances to the residences – it would be easier to seek shelter.

Seeing me with my walking-stick, passers-by and the traders joked, “A youngish grandmother!” Everyone wished me the speediest recovery.

The loudspeaker in the Mir Prospect area that used to play music throughout summer now repeated the same thing over and over: “500 people are missing; 1000 people are wounded. There is no count of people taken to villages and rural health centres.”

We burst into tears on hearing that at the candy store, a girl was killed – she was my age. Her elder sister and her mother were both wounded! Our neighbour Rosa was also killed while selling cabbages. She was eight months pregnant. Her seven children are orphaned. There are many such others.

We bought bread and went home. We were not the only ones wailing in the bus. Got home and boiled up some tea. Almost at once Aladdin appeared. I didn’t feel like talking at all.

Aladdin began to take his leave. Mum was taken aback when he put an envelope in her hands: “For the operation and medicine,” he said, “Or for food, in an emergency…” “We’ll pay it back!” I called out as he left. We were embarrassed. We knew that it wasn’t good to take money from someone we scarcely knew. But we had no way out. Without money, there would be no treatment. There were almost 200 roubles in the envelope! Aladdin asked me to call him ‘elder brother.’ I liked the idea and agreed.

Polina's House

27 October

In the morning, Aunt Maryam brightened our mood. She lives in the apartment next to ours. Ever since Mum moved into this house in December 1986, she and Aunt Maryam have been friends. Maryam kissed me and promised, ”You’ll be right as rain soon! Just bear it a little longer.” She gifted me a head-scarf, a cream coloured one with a delicate border. And powder! We had breakfast together. Maryam warned us that she would move a part of her property to her relatives in Ingushetia. And she would lodge a family from the house across to the next-door flat on the first floor. We wouldn’t be alone anymore! And if she could find a way, either she would come or send one of her sisters to help us leave as well.

We sealed up a part of the window with pieces of wood, to block shrapnel. Zolina’s little daughter came over to play with me.

28 October

Mum got ready to go to the market. She decided she would trade till lunchtime and then buy some food. Our larder is empty. Again we’ll be spending instead of saving! We quickly finished our breakfast and took with us in two light packages a few magazines and newspapers. Maybe someone will want them? Mum is a naive person.

And then began a terrible shelling! It thundered everywhere from the direction of downtown and the marketplace. The sky turned red from the fire. Mum was, like, who cares? She said it was all rubbish. Just then a woman carrying pickled cabbage in a bucket ran toward us. She was crying and talking to herself, “Everything is bloodied again! Everything has been bombed! The market is aflame!” Mum stopped her, offered her water to drink. The woman caught her breath at our front gate and said, “This is not weapons fire. It’s an aircraft! It bombed the market! There are many dead! The bomb fell at the corner by the House of Fashion, where women were selling bread!” She left, crying.

Mum collected herself. “Chop chop! We have no food. Our area is still calm. Let’s go to the nearest market, the little one, to the Beryozka stall. We’ll buy some produce.”

Mum is very stubborn. I got ready quickly. I didn’t take the scary walking stick. The road is not far, barely one stop on the bus. I went, leaning on mum.

We passed our yard successfully. We crossed the road. And we began to move through someone else’s yard. And then the airplanes roared into view. Bombs exploded. We threw ourselves across the road. We found a basement but it was quite small, there were already five people standing in it, crowding into each other. No space to enter. Back out again! Now we were at the entrance of an apartment building! Excellent, it was not locked. We squatted in the corner, under a door.

An explosion! Another explosion! A man screamed from the house opposite. The upper storeys were aflame. Another man spoke comfortingly to the injured one, “Take it easy, take it easy, I’ll just tie it up.” But the wounded man continued to scream terribly. The airplanes headed in the direction of the private sector and began to drop bombs there. We went out onto the street.

The building to the right of us was missing a corner. From below its roof, black smoke streamed out. The house across the one we had hidden in was on fire on the upper floors. The shrieks came from there.

Still driven by Mum’s obstinacy, we went further to the little market. There were goods in the stalls but no sellers or buyers!

“They’re in the shopping gallery,” guessed Mum. We entered it.

Inside was a crowd. Adults with kids, preschoolers. People sat by the marble columns and prayed. The entire floor was covered in glass. The windows had been smashed into smithereens. Some of the buyers and sellers went into the basement. We also went there.

Ovens were burning in the basement. Civilians sat around on empty wooden and metallic boxes. Women offered each other nuts and water. People prayed in Russian and Arabic. They decided: “If we have to spend the night here, we’ll give our clothes to the children. We’ll spread them out on the floor so the kids can sleep.”

It was cold. People talk to each other in low voices, as though they might be overheard. Mum and I sat around for an hour or two, for as long as the bombing went on. Everyone was frightened. Nobody wanted to go upstairs to the first market hall, let alone the street, as long the bombs were falling. At last, we came out.

We bought all that we could. And headed home on the lower side of the road, where the shopping gallery was, so that it would be easier to hide in case the bombing started again.

People came over and told us that the missile that had fallen on the market, the one that had wounded me, had been launched from the Caspian. Journalists had uncovered this news. Within only five days, the Russian army had admitted it. They had aimed the missile at another target – at the stock exchange building – but they missed. It fell on the peaceful market.

I just cannot believe that this is the third war in my life! The first was in 1994 (I was nine years old); the second, in the summer of 1996 (from 6 – 22 August; I am 11 years old) – how many neighbours perished then! And here’s the third one. Autumn, 1999 (I am fourteen).

What to do? Aladdin hasn’t come.

Our neighbour, Uncle Valera, had a surprise for me. He handed me some gifts from Muslim, a chap who lives in the first entrance to the building. A white scarf with a blue border, and gray autumn boots. Muslim is a relative of a very kind woman, Zulai. I have spoken to him all of one time. Long ago, last spring. Muslim met me on the way from school. He told me that he liked me more than Hava, his neighbour. He understands that I need to study! But if I completed 16 years of age, then we could get engaged! That’s the custom here. I had been amazed.

And now, unexpectedly, I received his short note: “If you remember me, please pray for me!”

I closed my eyes and at once saw him. A gentle face. Light eyes, dark hair. Muslim always stood in the doorway of his entrance, neat and modest. I wanted to cry. My nerves! Absolutely useless. “In vain did you, Muslim, worry about the opinions of the elders in the yard! You feared their judgment! All because my mother is Russian,” I muttered to myself, and stared at the gifts. I thought we might have become friends! Seeing his note, I felt so good in my heart. At once, I could breathe easily and freely. “Muslim! I will not forget your name in my prayers!” I promised silently. “But, forgive me, the shoes are too small for me. I gave them to Mansour’s mum. I only kept the head-scarf.”

Budur.

[Continued…]

Polina Zherebtsova’s Diary of the Chechen War – Part 2

31/10/2009 1 comment

22 October

My mum and I were wounded on 21 October, Thursday.

I saw: a woman, killed, sitting at a table. The wounded sought shelter in the cafes and at the entrances to houses. Volunteer rescuers gathered up the victims of the crossfire, and carried them off in vehicles. Those with the worst injuries were taken away first.

Suddenly a bright flash lit up the entire sky. A loud thunder followed. Frightened, we rolled behind our stall, hiding between its iron pillars. There was no other cover nearby. An explosion! And another… It felt as though the same explosion was repeating itself over and over. We ran, discarding our stock, to the courtyard of the House of Fashion. This was the very centre of Grozny. Rosa Luxembourg Street. As I ran, an huge piece of the last explosion whistled over my head.

At that moment, time stopped and moved in slow-motion, as in a film. I realised suddenly that nobody, not mum, nor anybody else would be able to save me from death if I were to cry out for help. It made me laugh; I no longer desired anything – belongings, bags, valuables. I realised that I could take nothing, absolutely nothing, with me There.

The shrapnel glinted and time returned to normal. Swishing over my head, it caused sparks to fly from the brick walls of the house it struck. My legs were suffused with agonising pain, a metal rain, but my momentum kept me going.

I collapsed after a few further steps… But then I was raised off the ground.

We threw ourselves into the doorway of a house, but instead of a door there was an iron grill that allowed nobody past. We ran back into the courtyard again, and in shock, darted into yet another entrance, where used to be the shop ‘Fisherman’. When I sat down, huddled in a corner, the agony in my legs made itself known again. Mum and Kusum pushed into the entrance, throwing aside a young Chechen woman. The woman’s knee was smashed; I could see at once the exposed white bone.

There were other women and children in the entrance. Mum said that there was a hole in her pocket and that her thigh was burning a little. She found another piece of shrapnel in her pocket. When some men looked into the courtyard, everyone shouted that the young woman without a leg should be taken away first. She had lost a lot of blood. She looked to be 17 to 20 years old. The men took her away.

The volunteer rescuers looked into the courtyard again. They were young fellows. Among them was Aladdin. They decided to take me for bandaging to a pharmacy on Victory Street (which used to be a bakery). Aladdin carried me in his arms, whispering to me, “Don’t cry, my princess! Don’t be afraid! There will be help.”

As I was carried under the crossfire, I saw three dead. They were lying separated from each other. Someone had covered them with a cardboard. One was a woman, another a man, and I couldn’t make out the third.

At the chemist’s, a woman I didn’t know pulled out the fragment out of mum’s thigh. They could only bandage my legs, as the shrapnel had embedded itself deep inside. Aladdin consoled me, stroking my head and chewed on a cupcake.

They decided that we should return home; the hospitals were overflowing with the injured, the marketplace having been filled with women, children, and the elderly. There were few men there, hardly any. We had been far from the epicentre, almost three blocks away. How many had been killed there?

We were given a lift home by some strangers in their car. Frequently I had to clap my hands over my ears – there was a ringing noise and a feeling that I might faint any moment. Everything around me appeared to swim… Did I have a concussion?

I heard someone repeatedly say, “Whoever does good to Polinka will see it; whoever does ill to Polinka will see it.” I guess it was part of a prayer. Actually, it goes like this: “Whoever does an atom’s weight of good will see it; And whoever does an atom’s weight of evil will see it.” (Sura 99) But there was ringing in my ears and in my semi-delirium, I heard my name repeated in these lines.

In the morning, the pain in my leg worsened. No sooner had we had breakfast than my mum began to beg the neighbours to take me to a doctor. The tenants on the top floor agreed. They took me in their runabout to the hospital ?9, our main hospital. The doctors immediately said, “You need an X-ray. We don’t have it. There’s no mains electricity, and the generator has been misplaced in all the confusion.” Still, I was sent to the operating theatre.

A striped cat roamed around the dark and dirty operating theatre on the first floor. He rubbed himself against the table legs and purred. At the threshold of the open doors stood weeping people. Everyone was covered in blood, their clothes torn, some draped in sheets. People ran around looking for their relatives and friends. Those with mild injuries were sitting on the floor or on chairs; they had been awaiting their turn to be examined by the doctors since the previous day. Muffled moans came from the loved ones of those who had died within the hospital walls. A Chechen woman screamed loudly: her children had been killed. A middle-aged woman asked for money for an operation on her son and for medicines. People gave her what they could.

The doctor who examined me was exhausted. He could barely stand. He told of how at night during surgery the electricity had been switched off several times as hundreds of people were being operated on. Many perished.

A young German journalist, wearing glasses and a checked shirt, asked the doctors about the numbers of casualties during the nights. What sort of injuries predominated? He asked me if I had been frightened. The doctor quoted some figures. He said that everyone couldn’t be accounted for in the confusion, because of which many people couldn’t locate their missing kin.

They forgot to anaesthetise me when they treated my wounds. I screamed, although I was ashamed of it. The doctor collected himself and gave me an injection. He looked for the shrapnel but couldn’t find any. “Without X-rays, we can’t help,” said the doctor. “We are needlessly traumatising the leg. You should go where they have a working X-ray machine.” They could only take out minor fragments. At that time, mum’s leg was bandaged. But she was able to walk.

We purchased painkillers, lots of bandage, surgical towels and antiseptics.

23 October

Yesterday a wonderful thing happened! In the latter half of the day, we had unexpected guests. Kusum and Aladdin! The same Aladdin who had carried me through the yard of my childhood! They hadn’t known our address. They found us after asking about victims. They only knew which district of Grozny we lived in, and had to search for a long time. Both were exhausted.

Mum made tea. Kusum had brought fruit. Aladdin gave us 70 roubles for bandages; he didn’t have any more money. He was silent throughout. I didn’t speak either. We didn’t look at each other; we averted our eyes. Only the adults talked – mum and Kusum.

25 October

I am crying. My wounded leg hurts worse in the evenings. All these days, the neighbours have been going into town at night. Many talk of a large tail-less rocket. They say that there is heavy radiation where it lies.

There are lots of foreign journalists in town. They managed to get through! Someone measured the radiation with a meter. People are specially coming to the market to look at the death-rocket. I ask my mum to persuade the neighbours to take me there. I want to see the filth that has brought me pain.

The Russian side refuses to comment on the bombing of the marketplace. But the Chechens do not have such large rockets. It is said that those who were near the rocket were torn to pieces; now their loved ones recognise them by the remnants of various things: buttons, shreds and pieces of clothing.

Mum bought a few loaves of bread. She distributed them ‘for my well-being’ to the neighbours who crowded around our entrance.

Mum found a walking-stick that belonged to grandma Yulia that she had bequeathed to us. It is a brown wooden hooked stick, sort of like that of Baba-Yaga. I’m learning to walk with it around the room. I repeat that I want to see rocket that killed all those people and injured me. Mum whines that we have already spent all our money; there’s none left for the operation and the medicines. Today she was at the stall for twelve hours, and she saw the rocket!

[Continued…]