The Price of Dreams

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Chapter Seventeen

RUSLAN’S ALARM clock woke them at three thirty. He had to set off early for the long drive back to Kazan. Tamara threw on her T-shirt and jeans and crept down to the hotel car park with him.

They embraced.

‘Let me know what you decide.’

‘I’ve already decided. I’ll do it.’

Ruslan stepped back. ‘You will?’

‘Yes. I won’t be able to live with you till June but I’ll marry you in March.’

‘Oh, that’s wonderful. Thank you, Tamara. I promise you’ll never regret it.’

She smiled. ‘Make sure I don’t.’

‘You won’t.’

She waved him off and then crept back into her bedroom, where she tried and failed to go back to sleep. ‘Oh God, please,’ she said out loud. ‘Someone tell me I’m doing the right thing.’

A month later, Giorgi, Venera and another of their sons came to Menzelinsk with twelve suitcases of gladioli to sell. Ruslan had wanted to come but he had a tournament in Lithuania.

In the afternoon, once they had sold most of the gladioli, Venera took Tamara to look for a ring. They linked arms as they walked away from the peasant market.

‘Me and Giorgi know everything, but nobody else does.’

‘I wasn’t sure if he’d told you.’

‘He’s so grateful to you, Tamara. He’s also very excited too, about marrying you.’

‘Sometimes I am. Sometimes I’m really worried that we’re rushing into it.’

‘I’ve known him since he was a boy. He’s a lovely, lovely man.’

‘I know. In a way, I’m a bit disappointed. I mean, every girl hopes that one day the man of her dreams will get down on one knee and say, “I can’t live without you, please marry me.” All I got was, “If you don’t marry me, the KGB will break my legs.”’

Venera smiled. ‘He loves you very much.’

‘I know. I’m in love with him too. But it’s just so quick. I haven’t dared to tell my parents yet.’

‘Do they know you’re going out with him?’

’Yes, of course. My rich fiancé’s going to pay for me to fly home for the New Year, so I’m planning to tell them then.’

Venera laughed. ‘I didn’t know he was rich.’

At dinner that evening, Giorgi had a question for her. ‘Have you thought about having your wedding blessed in a church?’

‘I’m not religious, really.’

‘Nor is Ruslan, but our mother would be so happy if you did.’

‘Yes, I suppose my parents would too, especially my mama.’

‘So is that a yes?’

Tamara nodded. ‘If that’s what Ruslan wants.’

On his way home from Lithuania, Ruslan made a detour to Party headquarters in Khosume. Much to his surprise, Lionidza admitted him to his office almost at once.

‘What can I do for you this time?’

‘I was wondering if you could help me promote a little brotherhood and unity, sir.’

‘How’s that?’

‘Well, I’m getting married.’

‘To the Akhtarian girl?’

‘Yes, sir.’

‘Congratulations. This is splendid news.’

‘Thank you. But the thing is, the Rebels killed a lot of people in my home village, and some people might not be very happy about my choice of bride.’

‘So what do you want me to do about it?’

‘Well,’ Ruslan hesitated. ‘There’s a church there. It used to be a museum of atheism, but that’s been closed for several years now. It occurred to me that if we could have it reopened as a church, then we could bless the wedding there, and a lot of the older generation would be so happy to get their church back that they’d forget all about my bride being Akhtarian.’

Lionidza stroked his chin. ‘It takes quite a long time to get a church reopened. When are you planning to get married?’

‘Next March, sir.’

‘It’s too soon. I mean, for a start the Bishop of Khosume has to request it.’

‘He already has, four years ago.’

‘Oh. What happened?’

‘You’re still thinking about it.’

‘You don’t realise what a pain this sort of thing is. If we let the Ksords reopen a church, then we have to let the Akhtarians open one of theirs, and then the Tatars will want a mosque. The Tatars aren’t so bad but the Ksordian and Akhtarian bishops really hate each other’s guts.’

‘I’d be very grateful if you could look into it, sir.’

‘I’ll see what I can do, but I’m not promising anything.’

The instant Ruslan left, Lionidza rushed round to Comrade Zikladza’s office.

‘I’ve just been speaking to that athlete, Ruslan Shanidza. He’s going to marry her.’

‘Who?’

‘The Akhtarian girl.’

‘Oh yes, him. So matchmaking turns out to be another of your many talents. When’s the big day?’

‘March.’

‘Is that soon enough? Wouldn’t it be better if they got married before the end of the year?’

‘I think March will be okay as long as he’s seen to make plenty of preparations for his wedding.’

‘But isn’t it usually the bride who does all that sort of thing?’

‘Don’t worry. I think I’ve got something up my sleeve in his particular case.’

Ruslan and Tamara managed to spend an hour together in late September when he ran in a half marathon in Kazan. He had worried that their semi-forced marriage might somehow strain the atmosphere between them, but the instant he saw her he realised that their feelings were as strong as ever and that she was as happy in his company as he was in hers.

They found a quiet corner of the stadium where they could hold each other’s hands and talk until it was time for her to catch the last bus to Menzelinsk, where she would stay overnight and then head for Staroye Safarovo at first light.

Tamara flew home to Akhtaria for New Year. She took off her ring when she met her parents at the airport. Then she swore them to secrecy and told them everything, saying that yes, she knew it was all rushed but she was happy and excited and she was certain that she and Ruslan were right for each other.

On 2nd January, Giorgi drove Ruslan, his mother and Venera up to the Akhtarian capital Zeda’Anta to meet them. It was the first time Ruslan’s mother had ever entered ‘Rebel’ territory, and he was more than a little nervous about how she would react. But the visit was a great success. The two sets of relatives took to each other, and Tamara’s parents were clearly wowed by their famous future son-in-law.

Tamara flew back to Kazan that evening. The others all hung back to allow her and Ruslan a little time to themselves before she headed for the departure lounge.

And that, apart from long letters and two short telephone calls, was the end of their courtship. When they married less than four months later, they had spent little more than fifty-seven hours together. For most of this time, they had been in the company of others, with just sixteen hours alone, nine of which had been spent asleep.

In the event, they got married twice. The first was on the Friday in the civil registry office in Zeda’Anta, but they didn’t treat this as their real wedding. They just had a quick lunch with Ruslan’s mother and Tamara’s parents before heading off in separate directions.

That evening, Tamara arrived in Timashevsk with a large party of family and friends. The following morning, Ruslan came to her hotel, accompanied by Giorgi, his four sons and Murad, all of them wearing long white shirts hanging loose outside their black trousers. In the lobby of the hotel, they were greeted by Tamara’s relatives and female friends. The two parties exchanged gifts of cakes and biscuits.

Then Tamara’s mother fetched her down to the lobby. She was wearing a long white bridal dress that showed off her shoulders. Ruslan was stunned when he saw her. He had never seen anyone so radiantly beautiful in all his life.

She took his arm, and he led her to a sleek black Volga. They all set off for Vakesia, Ruslan’s home village, in a convoy of cars, each with a rag doll tied onto the bonnet.

When they arrived at the newly-restored church, Ruslan and Tamara put on glass coronets studded with beads and crosses. They stood at the entrance to the church and greeted each of the guests as they went in. Most of the village had turned out in their finest, and those who couldn’t fit inside would wait outside to cheer the couple as they emerged.

The church looked splendid. Volunteers had carried out the necessary repairs and the village babushkas had cleared out the dusty museum of atheism. The icon painters had only finished a few days earlier, but everyone agreed they had done an excellent job and theirs was the most beautiful church in the whole of Central Kubania.

During the service, the young priest intoned as he led Ruslan and Tamara round the altar while the congregation stood and watched. Ruslan’s mother followed behind them, whispering instructions.

‘Cross yourselves.’

‘Bow to the icon.’

‘Face the altar.’

Then rings were exchanged and the priest pronounced them husband and wife. Ruslan and Tamara kissed. All the guests came up to the altar to kiss them (four kisses each took quite some time) and put money into their hands. Everybody then walked in procession to the mass grave of the Rebels’ victims, where Tamara laid her bouquet in a solemn ceremony.

It was a beautiful spring day, and an enormous outdoor party was held on land near to Ruslan’s mother’s house. A Tatar band played folk songs and Western and Russian pop songs, and Fatima (by now a singer of some repute) sang with her extraordinary voice.

She brought with her a beautiful young half-Tatar, half-Ksordian girl by the name of Leila Meipariani, who had been one of her backing singers but had recently gone solo, making her name with an old Tatar folk song that she had turboed up and translated into Ksord-Akhtarian.

’Give me daffodils in the springtime

As a token of your love

Hold my hand in the gentle sunshine

While the birds sing their songs for us.

We’ll walk together in the fairs and markets,

And let everyone see that we are one.’

Ruslan and Tamara were delighted. The song was perfect for them.

There had been some apprehension about the arrival in Vakesia of so many Akhtarians, the largest number to visit the village since the Rebel raids more than forty years earlier. In the event, there was no trouble. The toastmaster did his best to keep the guests dancing rather than drinking, and Tamara’s father made a gracious speech in which he thanked his Ksordian hosts for the warmth of their welcome.

Giorgi, in his speech, made a joke about the strange new practice of getting married and then not living together afterwards. He said he hoped such Western decadence wouldn’t catch on. He was forthright about his doubts when he heard that Ruslan had fallen in love with an Akhtarian, but Tamara had won him over. His voice cracking with emotion, he told her, ‘You’re the best thing that’s ever happened to Ruslan, no doubt about it. You’ve put the sparkle back in his eyes and we love you for it.’

He proposed a toast to the love between Ruslan and Tamara and the friendship between their families: ‘May they both last forever.’

The newlyweds had the briefest of honeymoons at a sanatorium on the Sea of Azov. Then, after just one day and two nights, Tamara flew north to finish her national service in Tatarstan while her new husband flew south to Azerbaijan.

Six weeks later, to his delight, Ruslan found himself in New Zealand, where he had been entered for the Lion Foundation Rotorua Marathon.

He behaved impeccably, staying with his minders all the time and never breathing a word of politics or commenting on the staggering prosperity of the capitalist West. He spent almost all his time on light training and investigating the course and working out tactics with his coaches.

He won the race easily and dutifully brought his trophy back to the Soviet Union.

Tamara’s national service came to an end in June and she flew straight to Azerbaijan. She had a window seat and enjoyed looking down at the snow-covered peaks of the Caucasian Mountains. She wondered if Ruslan was doing his altitude training down below and hoped he might look up and see the plane that carried his wife.

Then she saw the blue-grey waters of the Caspian Sea and thought she could make out the urban and industrial sprawl that was the town of Sumgait, her new home.

Once off the plane and into the hot airport terminal, she soon spotted an elderly Azeri with a long, flowing moustache. Speaking in heavily accented Russian, he introduced himself as Muallim Osman, Ruslan’s neighbour. It took forty minutes to reach their apartment block, part of a large 1940s development near Sumgait town centre. By now, the apartments had problems of leaking, damp, noisy plumbing and delicate electrical systems, but they were probably still better than the Khrushchev-era apartment Tamara had grown up in.

The six-storey apartment buildings were set in two zigzag lines some twenty-five metres apart at the nearest point, arranged so that groups of four apartment blocks lay in a diamond-shaped pattern with a garden in the middle.

Osman insisted on carrying all of Tamara’s bags up to the third floor (the lift was out of order), where he introduced his wife Yasemin.

’Call me Babushka,’ she said. ‘Everybody does.’

They took Tamara into Ruslan’s flat, where Babushka Yasemin had opened the windows and put fresh milk and sausage in the fridge.

‘Thank you,’ said Tamara, virtually exhausting her Azeri vocabulary. ‘You’re very kind,’ she continued in Russian.

‘Our pleasure. Ruslan often speaks of you, and we’re lucky to be the first to meet you. By the way, you should get all your washing done before Sunday. It’s time for the remont.’

Tamara nodded uncomplainingly. She was used to the remont, when the municipal hot water was cut off for a week in summer so the system could be patched up.

Yasemin led her out onto the main balcony from which there was an excellent view of the diamond-shaped courtyard between the four blocks of flats. She then showed her the balcony outside the small kitchen. This had a good view of the main road leading to the town centre.

On Saturday, Tamara went to explore Sumgait. She was surprised that Ruslan chose to live there, rather than in the more attractive and less polluted city of Baku, but she began to realise why he was so attached to the place as she met more of his neighbours. Behind their rather formal exterior, everyone she met was warm and welcoming.

She went shopping in Sumgait town centre. Many of the shops were staffed by Armenians, several of whom who spoke to her in their native language, assuming that she was one of them. People had always told her she looked like an Armenian.

Ruslan finally came home from the mountains that evening. He swept her up and carried her into the bedroom the instant he walked through the door.

Next day, they took the train to Baku (‘The Soviet Union’s First Electrified Railway’) so that she would know the way to the Central Clinical hospital, where she was due to start work in the Ear, Nose and Throat department the following morning.

Tamara’s daily routine got her up at six. She showered, had a quick breakfast of black bread and coffee and kissed her husband goodbye. After a twenty-minute walk through the shopping district, she took the train to Baku followed by a short walk that got her to the hospital by eight o’clock.

Her working day lasted until seven in the evening and she then took the train home, arriving sometime around eight fifteen. If Ruslan were there, her dinner would be waiting for her, though he would often go away for several days at a time for training or competitions.

Tamara was the only Akhtarian working in the hospital. People told her there was a Ksordian porter, though she would never get to meet him. Most of the staff were Azeris, but there were also a lot of Russians, Georgians and Armenians (three of whom mistook Tamara for one of their number), plus several Chechens, three Kurds, two Mountain Jews, at least one Lesghin, a Khinalyg and an Udines among the staff.

There was a fridge in the ENT department where Tamara was instructed to put all the gifts of meat, cheese, eggs and the like that her patients gave her in an effort to speed up their treatment. In Tatarstan, she had refused every bribe, but her colleagues made it plain that she was expected to accept them here. She soon realised that she and Ruslan would rarely need to go shopping. Her share of the bribes in the fridge would usually be enough to keep the two of them supplied.

Tamara felt happy and settled in Azerbaijan. She was enjoying her work at the hospital and was delighted with her specialist ENT training. Her doubts about a rushed marriage had dissolved, and she found Ruslan as kind and loving a husband as she could hope for as he and his many friends welcomed her into their lives.

On 1st September, Ruslan left the Soviet Union for Rome. He was ecstatic to find himself in the eternal city and was astonished by its prosperity, the cars, the Vespas and the shops. The dress sense of Italians made him feel like a country bumpkin, and he couldn’t understand why there was so much communist graffiti. How could anyone want to swap capitalist abundance for the shambles that the Soviet economy had by now become?

The World Championship marathon took place on a hot and humid day. Ruslan was confident of winning a medal. As usual, he concentrated on his pace for the first twenty-five kilometres. Then he spent five kilometres catching up with the leaders, who were bunched together. His plan was to stay with them and attempt to pull ahead near the end.

At thirty-five kilometres, the pack was joined by the European Champion, the Italian Giovanni Bardolini. Instantly, two Africans and an Australian started to pull ahead and Ruslan went with them, even though it stretched his stamina to the limit.

Four kilometres later, the two Africans began to pull ahead once more. Ruslan fell some distance behind them, with the Australian Steve Morgan just ahead of him and Bardolini a few paces behind. By now, lactic acid was building up in Ruslan’s legs, his kidneys ached, his knees ached and every step was torture. He knew he had no chance of catching up with the Africans, but Bardolini seemed to be falling behind and Morgan looked in even worse shape than Ruslan felt. If he could just keep going, he would beat him and take the bronze.

Some 500 metres from the stadium, Ruslan began to overtake Morgan. He was surprised by the noise of the cheers from the spectators lining the route. Then he realised too late that they weren’t looking at him but behind him. He glanced back and saw Bardolini by his shoulder.

Bardolini overtook Ruslan, who tried to speed up but had no reserves of energy left. It was no longer a question of trying to win a medal. It would take every milligram of his strength to complete the race at all. He finished fifth, almost thirty metres behind Bardolini and Morgan, and collapsed onto the ground as a wave of cramp and nausea washed over him.

It was the first race Ruslan had lost since he regained full fitness and he was devastated. The gold and silver medallists, David Wairimu of Kenya and Suleyman Ahmadi of Djibouti, were simply better than him, and he would have to improve if he were to beat them in the future. But to allow himself to be outfoxed by Bardolini, and then to crumble, that was unforgivable. Ruslan was furious with himself. His coaches were furious with him too.

That evening, as he was scowling into his beer, Ruslan was approached by an enormous British athlete, who spoke to him in excellent Russian.

‘Excuse me, are you Ruslan Shanidza?’

‘Yes.’

‘You were unlucky today.’

‘No, Bardolini outwitted me.’

’I’m sure you’ll get a medal next time. Anyway, I wasn’t looking to speak to you about that. You know, I’ve been racking my brains ever since I saw your name, and I’ve finally remembered where I came across it before. Have you ever had an article published in Voprosy Istorii?’

‘Yes, a long time ago.’

‘So it was you that proved that Akhtaria was founded by Goths.’

‘Yes, I suppose so.’

‘I cited your article in my PhD thesis.’

‘What’s a PhD?’

‘Same as your Candidate of Science, except we get to call ourselves Doctor.’

He introduced himself as a hammer thrower and lecturer at the London School of Slavonic and East European Studies.

‘Was that your Candidate of Science thesis or something?’

‘No, just a Diploma assignment.’

‘You’re joking! Must have been some assignment. What did you do your Diploma thesis on then?’

‘The Azeri-Armenian war of 1918 to 1920.’

‘Azeris and Armenians? A tinderbox waiting to burst into flames if ever there was one.’

‘I hope not,’ said Ruslan. ‘I live in Azerbaijan, and everyone says my wife looks like an Armenian.’

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