City Paper is not for tourists
It’s a Saturday night at Madam’s Organ, and because it’s a Saturday night, the joint is packed with D.C.’s bridge-and-tunnel crowd—horse-country blondes, jocks with their shirts tucked in, and 13 waitresses up to “par-taaay!” from a Richmond restaurant called Big Tobacco. This hardly bothers one of the bar’s regulars. In a corner near the back, a burly old man with a white beard has carved out a private dance floor on which he performs one of his patented moves, a kind of electric “Rock ‘n’ Roll Santa” staccato hip thruster, quirky yet charismatic. Shirt open down to a bulging gut, eyes rolled to the ceiling, he looks like a manic three-armed machine rotating vodka, beer, and tobacco into his hungry mouth. And when the machine stops, momentarily, he bearhugs total strangers and engages them in a kind of conversation.
“Blah blah blah, pooot pooot pooot, rat-tat-tat. I’m Rrrrrr-ussian painter,” the old man sputters. “Painter, good. You shit people. Hah, hah, hah, I’ll fuck everyone. I’m smoking a Marlboro, but I shouldn’t smoke. I’m drinking vodka, hmmm good vodka, but I shouldn’t drink. Do you know [obscure Soviet dissident]? I saw his picture the other day. Have you met [obscure Soviet dissident]? He’s a very cultured man. But he is not president. I am president; you are president. Who will become president is not important to us. I will phone Albright. I will dial her number.”
In his arms, the artist cradles a bulky roll of charcoal portraits loosely held together with a piece of rope, tawny and frayed, Old World style. He unfurls the portraits, holds one out at arm’s length, and says, “This Monica Lewinsky. Big girl. Big, big girl.” His eyes widen in admiration of his own work. “How much? Twenty dollar? Forty dollar?” The main features are merely hinted at—the big hair a blotch of black, the pretty-plus face a fleshy circle, and the trademark lips a wet red doughnut. It’s all a bit too contorted for your average art consumer. Not to mention that it’s too dark to see much of anything. But someone in the crowd is forgiving—or charitable. The artist snags his pair of 20s and heads straight back to the bar. He gets the cash because he has charm, because he has a big white beard, crazy twinkling eyes, and a strong patrician nose. Because he looks like an off-duty Santa. Very off-duty.
But not one person here can understand much of what the man is saying, not only because it is very loud but also because, after living 12 years in America, he speaks about nine words of English. And few know his illustrious past: that he’s been covered by almost every major television network, that his art is held in Moscow’s famous Tretyakovsky Gallery and the Norton Dodge Collection, the world’s largest collection of “unofficial art of the Soviet period.” And, most important, that 30 years’ worth of his work—literally thousands of drawings and paintings—is in boxes in Moscow because, so the story goes, the U.S. government raised his hopes and then dashed them.
All they know in the bar is that the jolly old hell-raiser is bitter and crazy and always bitching about betrayal, that he drinks far too much for a 64-year-old, and that his name is Sasha—Alexander “Sasha” Zhdanov.
Moscow, 1987. I first met Zhdanov during the dying days of the Cold War, when Muscovites, like misfit teenagers, were getting restless, testing the limits of authority. Private enterprise was sprouting, the underground art scene was alive and well, yet the city was still relatively free of cars and tourists and foreign carpetbaggers. It was an optimal time for American students. Though we lodged in a grimy, no-frills dormitory on the city’s outskirts, I had a local friend who had converted his parents’ extra apartment into a grunge salon of sorts. It was prime real estate: near the Foreign Ministry on a leafy side street peppered with small, obscure embassies of countries like Bangladesh and Togo. And it was on the ground floor, so whenever you felt like a rebel, you could exit or enter through the living room window.
One wintry night, I entered that scuzzy little apartment with its scuzzy little kitchen and observed bedlam before me. In a cloudy din of German industrial punk, cheap tobacco, and Uzbek skunk weed, amid a clutter of paintings, sculptures, and old Wehrmacht helmets—some perforated with bullet holes—the two small rooms were packed with bearded freaks and a few hollow-eyed party girls. The freaks were swigging grain alcohol from coffee cups, gleefully smashing the furniture and, with theatrical aplomb, cajoling the women toward the bathroom for animalistic release. These rituals of Russian courtship struck me as slightly slapdash, but I was there as an observer of the wanton spirit, not a guardian of Western morals.
At some point, Zhdanov muscled his way into the living room, downed a cup of grain alcohol, and stretched his arms wide in that Slavic bravado style, screaming: “We are going to see the madam!”
The madam? I wondered, looking around the room. How odd—a bordello in Moscow, with girls this easy?
But Zhdanov commanded respect and swayed the crowd. So, just like the Keystone Kops, we piled into four taxis and zigzagged out to a prefab suburb—”in the ass,” as Muscovites say of anything not downtown. And we were all screaming, “This is gonna be good!” out the window, to the dead of night.
We arrived at an apartment building and pounded on several doors, opened by gruff proletarian types with sleepy eyes and bushy mustaches, because Zhdanov wasn’t sure of the number…315…351…153…until finally we found the right one. But then, packed in to the narrow hallway, hungry for action, we were stunned into silence as the door was opened not by a madam or her sexy charges, but by a tiny, mouse-whiskered, barefoot man holding a paintbrush.
“Oh, Lord in heaven, Zhdanov,” he sighed. “What is all this ruckus? Why do you bring these people? I have nothing for them.”
The mood deflated as we sipped tea and glumly reviewed the latest works of Modom (not Madam): a series of dreary pointillist abstracts, reflecting, we were told, the painter’s battle trauma from Afghanistan.
Though we never made it to a bordello, I did gain entree into Moscow’s underworld—and its unofficial art scene, the closest thing the dingy metropolis had to an urban clubland at a time when all the bars and restaurants were quarantined inside crappy tourist hotels. The underground mainly took place in smoke-clogged apartments cluttered with canvases, dirty rags, slices of stale black bread, wisps of dill, empty bottles, little jars of dark water with brushes in them, drug paraphernalia, clippings from Western fashion magazines, and visa applications. Moscow’s underground painters were the type of people who could marvel at the late-summer shadows cast by birch trees one moment, then slap their wives or knock over the kitchen table and wrestle their best friend to the ground the next. It was brutal, cerebral, darkly comic action all rolled into one. Many of these painters would end up penniless or drink themselves to death, but others—Anatoli Zverev, Vladimir Nemoukhin, Oskar Rabin, Mikhail Shemyakin—would later achieve considerable fame in the West. Though something of a latecomer to the scene, Zhdanov played an active role, participating in group shows with the then-prominently anti-establishment Moscow Graphic Artists Society.
Zhdanov was known as a provocateur. He staged hunger strikes and an exhibit commemorating victims of the Chernobyl disaster. He had countless run-ins with the “state organs of security.” Foreign camera crews and dressed-down journalists packed into his studio as he read out hourlong political manifestos handwritten on sketching paper in huge block letters.
“At the time,” recalls Zhdanov in his native Russian, “I felt [that the Soviet authorities] could either kill us or kick us out. You see, for them an artist was worse than the worst criminal. They destroyed my studio. They tore the paintings off the wall at my exhibits. Plainclothes policemen used to wait outside and say, ‘We’ll get you, too, you Jew,’ because I was hanging around with many Jewish dissidents at the time.”
It wasn’t just the paintings and protest art that attracted attention both good and bad—it was also the extremely compelling backstory. Zhdanov’s stepdaughter, Vassa Gerasimova, was a water-ballerina defector. A member of the Soviet synchronized swimming team, she had sought asylum during a tournament in Spain in 1982. She went to the United States, married a former Navy pilot, and later sold real estate in rural Virginia. Her defection became Zhdanov’s soapbox from which to agitate, to protest, and, ultimately, to win his departure to America. Water ballet, the KGB, and underground art—it all made good copy.
In the mid- to late ’80s, when Zhdanov had become something of a media darling in his homeland, he also attracted the attention of American diplomats. In Zhdanov, they had an anti-Communist who was also avant-garde and—this being the time of Ollie North and the contras—an apparent freedom fighter. He protested, the diplomats reasoned, so therefore he must be a freedom fighter. They knew about his stepdaughter’s defection and promised to help him emigrate to the United States.
As these events came to a boil—the hunger strikes, the media attention, the visa politics—Zhdanov decided he wanted to express his gratitude to America for having provided a home for his stepdaughter. In a gesture of naive, spontaneous good will, he donated all his work—1,500 paintings and drawings spanning a period of 30 years—to the American people. Oh, how the Cold War-era U.S. diplomats loved this theatrical gesture, this thumbing the nose at the Soviet government from one of their prominent dissidents! Thirty years of work—all donated to the American people! Zhdanov worked out an elaborate document to that effect, and the document was received at the U.S. Embassy by these same diplomats. They shook hands and drank a toast to America, Zhdanov’s new home.
But at first, the Soviet authorities would not let Zhdanov go. Repeated requests for an exit visa, on grounds of artistic freedom of expression, were denied. Then, on Oct. 22, 1987, during a visit to Moscow by then-Secretary of State George Schultz, Zhdanov staged one provocation too many. To draw attention to their cause, he and his wife, Galina Gerasimova, a microbiologist, intended to chain themselves to a tree outside the American Embassy as Schultz was due to arrive. Security agents quickly moved in, threw them to the ground, and dragged them away, chains and all. After an eight-hour interrogation, they were released.
The next day, they got the long-awaited call. The authorities told them they would be deported; they had 30 days to get out. So on Nov. 30, 1987, after the artist packed his life’s work in 20 crates for eventual delivery to the United States, the couple left the Soviet Union for good.
Their move to the West passed through familiar points on the dissident emigrant trail: first Vienna and its moody, cobblestoned grandeur; then New York’s Brighton Beach, with its dirty sand and fake-leather hustlers; and finally, in the summer of 1989, Washington, D.C.
The night Zhdanov showed up at my doorstep, I immediately took him downtown, where he pranced around like a little boy among the softly lit white monuments of the Mall. At midnight, he ceremoniously stood outside the White House fence with wine bottle in hand, puffed out his chest like a Boy Scout, and saluted the sleeping president.
But, it turns out, Zhdanov was saluting the cartoon idea of American freedom. It was that pedal-to-the-metal, wind-in-the-hair notion of freedom, the kind that had played particularly well among romantic Russian artists back in the ’80s. The idea of a land far away where you could do whatever you wanted had special appeal to those who had nothing but contempt for the brown-nosing official artists who rendered domestic scenes of the happy Soviet family, guiltlessly airbrushing out reality. The underground artists had less money and no official recognition, but they had plenty of self-certitude.
Zhdanov, who in moments of alcoholic bravado has confessed that he’s “the most talented Russian artist in America, if not the West,” can’t be blamed for buying in to the dream of instant success, easy money, big Cadillacs, and pretty girls. It’s easy to mock him. But back in Moscow, I had heard other men with similar fantasies—bearded, learned men in spectacles with books overflowing their cluttered shelves. Such was the drug that is America. And Russian bohemians were the worst addicts of all.
But when the euphoria faded, and Zhdanov and Gerasimova finally settled into a bland, low-income tenement on North Capitol Street, he started to have second thoughts about the American idea of freedom. In the summer, the heavy wet heat was oppressive for someone used to the cold, and he couldn’t understand what freedom meant when you had no money—when you couldn’t afford paint, brushes, or canvas.
I had no ready answer. Well, nothing besides “I told you so”—an answer I had back in Moscow. But that would have achieved little since he had come this far. So I did my best to assist him the American way. I would act as his interpreter, help him sell paintings and make money—lots of it.
It was a slapstick routine with a comic role reversal: the old man in baggy pants and an open shirt, the young man in a suit chiming in with trenchant-sounding but clueless observations: “See the patina there—a dense, lustrous texture. Rather late Gauguin, don’t you think?” After a shaky start, Zhdanov got his first exhibition, a solo show at the Von Brahler Gallery in Alexandria. And, after I left the country to spend most of the ’90s overseas, he did just fine without me. He found an actor who had studied Russian at the elite Defense Language Institute to assume interpreting and translation duties. He sank some roots in the local Russian community. And he made countless casual friendships in D.C.’s art and bar worlds. Despite his lack of language skills, Zhdanov’s Old World authenticity, theatrical gestures, charismatic features, and fanatical dedication to his art had magnetic appeal.
All this led to some commercial success. Zhdanov staged solo shows at prestigious venues such as the Russian Embassy and the International Monetary Fund, as well as scores of local galleries. And some 50 of his works are now in the Norton Dodge Collection—all purchased by Dodge himself, a celebrated benefactor of numerous prominent Russian painters. The collection has its own wing of a gallery at Rutgers University.
By the early ’90s, with the shows, a few sponsors, and some media recognition, Zhdanov’s situation had stabilized. “I had freedom. I had canvas and paint,” Zhdanov recalls fondly. “Dodge was providing generous support. It was a good period.”
But as any painter knows, art collectors are always too few. The real buyers— those who can fork over 10 grand for a painting on a whim just because they like it—are perennially in short supply. Zhdanov will occasionally make a big sale that will cover a stack of new canvases and paints, or several months’ rent, or car repairs, and then there’ll be a long drought. And sales are not helped by the artist’s erratic temper. Alla Rogers, who owns a Russian/Eastern European art gallery in Georgetown and staged a Zhdanov exhibit in 1990, has high praise for the artist but finds the man problematic, particularly if he wants to advance commercially.
“He’s a difficult, troubled human being,” Rogers says. “He’s disconnected himself here in the United States. And he has total contempt for the public…for the art world.”
The stories of that contempt are legendary. According to Patrick Tracey, a Washington City Paper contributor and Zhdanov acquaintance who helped arrange a show for the artist at a Dupont Circle gallery in the winter of 1994, Zhdanov showed up at the Palisades home of one of the buyers after the sale. The hour was late. Brandishing the buyer’s check outside her door, Zhdanov screamed that he had changed his mind and wanted his painting back.
Indeed, when Zhdanov’s mood is foul, friends and acquaintances often find themselves on the receiving end of one of his after-hours telephone tirades. When I once got on his bad side, he phoned at 4 a.m., and again at 4:01, and again at 4:02, until the answering machine was overflowing with a rabid peasant’s frothing anger: “I’ll violate every fucking hole in your body. I’ll rip your nose off with my teeth. I’ll spit in your face. I’ll trample you into the ground, you dirt, you wretch, you CIA conspirator.” The phone monologues can last up to 15 minutes—idiosyncratic rants in which the KGB rubs shoulders with former President Bill Clinton, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, Madam’s Organ waitresses, and the Chechen Mafia, all growled out in a permanent loop. It’s hard to fathom the connections he makes among them, but in Zhdanov’s world, conspirators are everywhere, among secret agents, gallery owners, and friends. If it’s not the KGB, it’s the CIA; if it’s not the CIA, it’s the Freemasons.
Much of his suspicion, of course, arises from the paintings left behind, hundreds of canvases withering away, scattered to the wind, or sold off for booze by his Muscovite “friends.” As it turns out, the diplomats he entrusted with his works never followed through on their pledge to ship them to this country. No one knows for sure what happened. But to Zhdanov, the plight of his paintings could not be a legal technicality. It has to be a conspiracy. How else to explain—and this has been the cause of much of his frustration—why the U.S. government has not delivered the 1,500 paintings to America?
Whether the State Department ever had a legal obligation to do so is for Zhdanov a moot point. A cultural affairs officer at the Moscow embassy told me some years ago that it would be illegal for a diplomat to make a promise to take custody of the paintings. But Zhdanov and Gerasimova claim that in late November 1987, shortly before their departure, the U.S. consul general thanked them on behalf of the ambassador for their gift and promised to collect the paintings from their apartment for delivery to the United States.
Perhaps the promise, if it was made, came in a moment of diplomatic euphoria over Zhdanov’s gesture. Perhaps it was given orally, not in writing, made with all good intentions but perhaps without a realistic thinking-through of the bureaucratic and legal obstacles. In any case, whatever words were uttered in the heady days leading up to their departure from Russia, they have haunted Zhdanov and Gerasimova ever since they set foot in Washington.
Part of the reason they came to the capital was to lobby Congress for their cause. As determined dissident activists, they were even able to entice Republican Sen. Jesse Helms to indulge in one of his favorite hobbies: bossing around the conniving liberal do-gooders at the State Department. Claiming that the department’s investigation into the missing Zhdanov paintings had so far been “insufficient” and “silent” on important matters, Helms wrote to then-Secretary of State James Baker on Aug. 16, 1989, demanding that State provide copies of “receipts, memoranda, correspondence, cables, and other communications of any kind from the Moscow embassy or elsewhere which might have a bearing on Mr. Zhdanov’s case.”
But after receiving scores of such letters from senators and representatives whom Zhdanov and Gerasimova had contacted, the State Department eventually closed the door on the affair. “Investigations have not revealed any evidence that these works of art were accepted as a gift to the United States,” wrote Larry Napper, director of the State Department’s Office of Independent States and Commonwealth Affairs, to Zhdanov on Jan. 31, 1992. The letter went on to say that “contacting the Department of State any further would not be productive.”
If State was making a thinly veiled request for them to get lost, Zhdanov and Gerasimova saw only a coverup. An incensed Gerasimova anointed their cause “Picturegate”—a conspiracy against art. For a while, she even paced outside the White House, along with a few other Save the Whatnots, bearing a double-sided Picturegate sandwich board like a cross. She continued to write hundreds of letters, bang on doors, and bend the ears of gallery owners, human-rights lawyers, State Department officials, and the elderly Russian émigrés who gather at the Orthodox Church off 16th Street.
Gerasimova’s long-suffering faith is based on a conviction that her husband is a precious force of nature, the cosmos, and God. Because she regards him as a mystic, she has given him a wide berth in terms of behavior: While Zhdanov has knocked back the booze at Madam’s Organ, she has often been waiting outside the bar in her white pickup truck. Other times, she has stormed in like an angry mother to drag him away, never caring what others might think. After all, this is a woman who, as a little girl in World War II, escaped on the last convoy out of the Leningrad Blockade across a frozen lake, as Wehrmacht artillery rained down, sinking trucks left and right; once shaved her head out of loyalty to her man; and, during the 1987 protest outside the American Embassy in Moscow, suffered a broken leg at the hands of the Soviet authorities. Her crutch is now plastered onto one of Zhdanov’s more abstract works.
But is all this devotion misplaced? Are Zhdanov’s lost 1,500 works worth saving? The uninitiated might reasonably assume that the paintings do not hold up to the extravagant claims Zhdanov and Gerasimova make about them. Both are wholly convinced that his paintings convey a mysterious and mystical message, one that often goes over the heads of potential clients.
“ESP talents, finding high energy density in [Zhdanov’s] paintings, used them to travel through space and return,” Gerasimova wrote in one promotional blurb. And the diplomats and bankers who dropped in to his exhibition “Zhdanov: The Artist as Spiritual Messenger” at the International Monetary Fund in the summer of 1997 were slightly baffled by the flier that read: “It has been said that where the priest is insufficient, the artist arises: an artist sent by God. Such an artist opens people’s souls to themselves, and only through such an artist can a glimpse of eternity be caught.”
But then again, maybe Zhdanov’s American viewers don’t understand the Russian penchant for the paranormal. And his paintings do seem to give off energy—which may be because they are good art. And good art might just be a message from God. What’s more, unlike other Moscow avant-gardists who resurrected icon painting in the ’60s, Zhdanov has embraced spirituality but circumvented the familiar forms of religious art. As one leading Moscow art critic, Sergei Kuzkov, wrote a few years ago: “Zhdanov’s use of mystical and metaphysical themes takes place on an entirely independent, far wider and deeper path. The signs and omens of Zhdanov’s ‘spirituality’ don’t lie on the surface. Instead, it’s felt as some sort of pagan worldview running through the channels of the Unconscious.”
The mystical energy of Zhdanov’s paintings is, however, grounded in expressive figures and a solid academic background. Classically trained at the Rostov Academy of Arts in southern Russia, Zhdanov credits as his main influences Aleksei Savrasov, the 19th-century originator of lyrical Russian landscape painting, who “taught me to love nature,” and Kasimir Malevich, the founder of suprematism, who taught “the black-and-white basis of art…that the black square is the absolute.” Zhdanov also acknowledges Jackson Pollock as an influence. The result is a deep and subtle nature-bound spiritualism filtered through abstractionist lenses. The Russian landscape tradition of Savrasov—birch forests, lonely onion-domed churches, weather-beaten cottages, and countless takes on the many forms of snow—loses its objectivity in Zhdanov’s manic swaths of color; moody, muscular forms; and often mischievous turns on the modernist legacy.
For example, a Zhdanov from the early ’80s appears, at first glance, to be a pure white canvas. But upon closer inspection, in the middle distance, there is a tiny off-white speck, and upon even closer inspection, you can see a tiny off-white man pulling a tiny off-white sled. The modernist take on whiteness fades by means of the subtle figurative touch, and the wintry Russian landscape suddenly looms large again.
Occasionally, Zhdanov’s traditionalist inspiration is buried under pure abstraction. One white canvas is covered with a thick latticework of interconnected blotches of black. It’s hard to discern the meaning until you see the title, The Ravens Returned—a direct nod to a famous Savrasov painting of the same name that depicts a birch tree in winter, dappled with birds.
But generally, Zhdanov’s paintings are endless variations on a few signature themes: the moon, the woods, and a broad-shouldered figure who trudges or dances, marches or meanders—and at times even flies—through many of his nocturnal landscapes.
Sometimes the figure is alone, sometimes he’s in a group, and sometimes he’s a soldier in formation. Zhdanov calls him Pan, after the Greek god of nature, but in many ways, he’s a permanent and ongoing self-portrait. Beefy and bearlike, the Pan figure anchors the seemingly random splashes of color in a personal drama. As the art critic Kuzkov aptly phrased it, “Zhdanov’s Pan is inclined in equal measure to drunken violence and spiritual inclination.”
Rogers considers that this trademark lies at the heart of Zhdanov’s “expressionist figuratism.” “That sense of the hulking, dark, lost figure moving through the landscape is very powerful and evocative,” she says. “It’s probably his strongest work.”
Although Zhdanov has experimented with many forms, from wood and stone “compositions” to Pollock-like abstractions, his most successful works, both critically and commercially, have been his nocturnal paintings of Pan. And in preparing his portraits of this goat-footed god of Arcadia, his icon and muse, Zhdanov has discovered one bucolic slice of the American dream that has not betrayed him: Appalachia.
An hour west on I-66, through rolling horse country, at the edge of the Shenandoah National Forest, just after some lonely Kmart plazas with too much parking give way to tree-covered mountains, Zhdanov has a house. It’s not any fancy artist colony, just simple Appalachian foothill living—pickup trucks, too many dogs, rusty old cars poking through the grass, and buzzing chain saws somewhere—always somewhere—off in the distance.
Inside his house, Zhdanov has replicated the distinctively cozy clutter of a Russian artist’s cottage: paintings and drying mushrooms; brushes and rocks; tubes of acrylic and shreds of bark; heaps of sketches; little fading photos of religious icons or literary greats such as Gogol, Dostoevski, and Turgenev; old wool bedspreads; and a big black tomcat. This is Zhdanov’s rural idyll. He divides his time here between long walks in the mountains and lengthy, often all-night sessions with brush and paint in the living room/studio. He paints quickly and prolifically. Now rarely producing the big canvases of his early years, he favors smaller paintings on paper, the majority in service of his obsession with the moon.
“My planet is the moon,” Zhdanov declares, spreading his arms wide. “In one day, I can create 20 moonscapes.” He is true to his word—and unbothered that some of his paintings look hurried or lack definition. He paints like a musician recording countless takes of the same song until it’s right—and along the way gaining a therapeutic buzz from the mantralike repetition of his signature themes.
When Zhdanov needs a break from his monastic isolation, he drops in on one of the other eccentrics who live on the mountaintop. One night, I joined him at his retreat, and we did just that. His neighbor’s name was Ian, and he was building a house on a hilltop with his bare hands. His yard was littered with the rusting shells of luxury cars—Jaguars, Mercedes, BMWs—which he had hauled up to his lair. And most of the house did not have a roof yet, so Ian slept in a giant tent in his living room. Even in the part that wasn’t roofless, it was very cold. But Ian had a chair, an old turntable, old records, and a chess set.
Watching our breath freeze, we all drank whiskey and played speed chess while Thin Lizzy blasted out at the night and our host, a bona fide woodsman conspiracy theorist, rambled on at quite a pace about underground nuclear bunkers, Lee Harvey Oswald, folk medicine, and CIA clinical trials. He also had some interesting marital problems, what with a “half-Indian” wife who, he said, left every year with their two kids because she was fed up with the half-finished house and his shenanigans, but then returned in the summer—which was OK with him because, he said, her ancestors always did their summer camping and their winter camping in two different places.
On the mountaintop that night, Zhdanov’s eyes sparkled madly. “Fuck. Look at this—my land,” he declared. “Ian, that freak—blessed freak. He has mushrooms, good mushrooms. Nature, mountains, River Shenandoah, moonlight, moonshine, hah, hah—my cat. House not too big, not too small.” I could read into his cataloguing of the scenery a kind of happiness. Frustrations were momentarily blocked out, anxieties hidden away. And I could see why. The air was fresh and the sky was dark, and it all got fresher and darker and somehow more significant, more spiritual and expansive, as the whiskey kicked in and you stumbled outside to yell at the moon while pee splattered off the bark. It was wild nature. Because these were the mountains of Virginia, it was nighttime, and you could be a very free man.
The story could end on that redemptive note of Emersonian bliss: the old man puttering around God’s country, collecting wild mushrooms in small plastic baggies, painting wild and colorful abstract landscapes. He finds redemption in Appalachian solitude, with its rolling vistas of untamed plant life and undergrowth of human castaways. And, in some way, he reconciles himself to his new American home.
Furthermore, it turns out that many of Zhdanov’s paintings—which he thought lost for good—are actually being held in a Moscow apartment under more or less favorable circumstances. The problem can now be resolved not through grand political intrigues but by simply finding funds to deliver the paintings to the United States.
But such an ending would be far too American, not nearly Russian enough—too calming, too clean, too absent of awkward, loose strands.
In early September of last year, fate struck once again. On a routine shuttle down I-66 to Shenandoah, the couple’s pickup, driven by Gerasimova, was rear-ended and flipped. The elderly coupled tumbled over and over again, bouncing against the hard plastic fixtures of the cabin. Zhdanov’s beloved tomcat, Kisa, was in the back, on a chain, and simply vanished in the crash. Gerasimova was medevacked to Inova Fairfax Hospital and placed in intensive care. With a punctured lung, weak heart, and broken ribs, she lay heavily sedated for six weeks. Zhdanov, his face bruised and swollen from the accident, held a vigil at her bedside, the rough woodsman painter awkwardly lodged amid a jungle of medical equipment, mumbling regrets about his past bad behavior, tenderly caressing her hair.
In the weeks following the accident, while Gerasimova was in the hospital, Zhdanov lapsed into a stupor of helplessness and grief. (Gerasimova eventually recovered, although the trauma has strained their marriage.) He would come by my place every evening to drink, crashing sometimes on the couch, sometimes on the floor alongside an empty vodka bottle or a broken jar of pickles. Even after I had gone to bed, I could hear him babbling on, improvising inane lyrics to old Russian folk songs—”GoreStateDepartment, Matrushka! Matrushka! Lah dee dah, ClintonBush, Lah dee dah.”
Toward the end of this binge period, Zhdanov confided that he was losing it, that he could not go on without his wife and his cat. His wife, of course, I could understand, but I had never fathomed his deep affection for his cat. At one point, the proud old man with the shaven head, burly shoulders, and Roman nose clenched his fists and choked back tears: “America, America, give me back my cat! Kisa, Kisa, fucking America—give me back my cat. He was, you know, more than a cat. A human being. No, even more than a human being.”
And for that fleeting moment, there was something understandable and sane in his confession, his very human need for his cat, his companion. But just as the tears subsided and another vodka went down, the tender emotions were forgotten and the angry, muscular, delirious ranting started all over again: “KGB, CIA, Bush, Stalin, marijuana, moonlight, mushrooms and Shenandoah…KGB, CIA, Bush, Stalin, marijuana, moonlight, mushrooms and Shenandoah…” All playing, yet again, in a continuous, maddening loop. CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Photographs by Charles Steck.