art by Eleanor Bennett
Things We Leave Behind
by Alex Shvartsman
Some of my earliest memories are of books. They were everywhere in our apartment back in the Soviet Union; shelves stacked as high as the ceiling in the corridor and the living room, piles of them encroaching upon every nook and available surface like some benign infestation.
Strangers came by often, sometimes several times a day, and browsed the shelves. They spoke to my father, always quietly, as though they were in a library. Cash and books exchanged hands in either direction but there was little haggling, both parties reluctant to insult the books by arguing over their price like they might with a sack of potatoes.
I learned to read at the age of three. My parents showed off this talent proudly, bribing me with candy to sound out long, complicated words like "automobile" and "refrigerator" in front of their friends. I found it more difficult to pronounce the harsh Russian R's than to put together the words written in Cyrillic block letters on scraps of paper.
Growing up, I struggled to grasp the complexity of the world around me. It didn't help that everything was in flux, changes nearly as profound as the ones happening to my body. "Perestroika" and "glasnost" were the complicated words of the day, and I didn't quite understand them, even though I could easily read them in newspaper headlines.
My father's engineering job required him to constantly travel to sites in Western Ukraine, overseeing the installation and maintenance of heating and cooling systems in factories all over the region. He spent at least a week out of every month away from home and brought back suitcases full of books from every trip.
For a country with high literacy rates and voracious readers, it was surprisingly difficult to buy a good book. Store shelves were full of dusty reference materials and Marxist propaganda, but nothing one would want to read.
It went like this: the state-controlled book publisher produced a print run of "The Three Musketeers" by Dumas. One hundred thousand copies would be printed and distributed to stores across the Soviet Union. When a shop in a small town in Western Ukraine received its allocation of five copies, the store manager paid the mandated retail price of under a ruble per book into the register and the books never reached the shelves. The manager then resold the copies to someone like my father, at a significant markup.
My father brought the books home with him and a stream of strangers would pick them up one at a time, paying cash or trading in volumes of even greater value. It is how he grew his collection on an engineer's salary.
"This country is disintegrating," my mother often complained upon his return. "The way things are going, there may be strife, perhaps even a civil war. This isn't a good place for Misha to grow up."
"He'll always be safe here," said Father with utmost confidence. "You know this to be true."