I love novels about adolescence, especially if the main characters are orphans and poor. What better way is there to test the true essence of a human being than to peel them of protections such as parents, money, and social status? David Copperfield, Anne Shirley, Jane Eyre, Pollyanna – all are tortured orphans that managed to break the orphan-barrier and find their place in the world due to the power of their personality, talents and principles. Nobody took care of them. They were left to their own devices in a tough world- and made it. With the beginning of the modern age, orphans disappeared from the literary view and were replaced by average adolescents with troubles at school, difficulties in deciding who to go to the party with, mother issues, and with all due respect- this doesn’t even begin to compete with an orphan in rags begging for more porridge at a workhouse.
Even though Alyssa, the amazing heroine of The Crown Not Heavy is equipped with two parents who are totally alive, and doesn’t live in 19th century London but in 80’s Moscow, she manages to bring back the literary charm of the orphans’ struggle for life and identity, one that she needs to create from nothing, or from what she understands as nothing: social and familial chaos, music that takes up too much space in a world where what actually matters is too depressing to deal with. That’s why we see a lot of alcohol, Russian rock and restless nightly strolls with the wrong crowd, youthful love with a man that next to him even Heathcliff himself is a little kitten – and all of this is funny and sad and exciting, and most of all, extremely glamorous.
Translated by: Maya Klein
We arranged to meet at the Bagration Underground station and walk to Gorbushka to see a Siberian punk band. Gromov explained how I would recognize him:
“I wear glasses, the bridge is held together by wire. Hmm… and I have a beard.”
“I wear glasses too,” I cried joyfully, “sunglasses. And mine are broken too. You’ll spot me right away.” It was the honest truth—you couldn’t miss me, I stood out in a crowd.
When the rock-n-roll phase of my life began, one of the most important goals I set for myself was to fashion an image. Image determined everything. A black leather jacket, tight black jeans, combat boots, hair that said, “we have just been bombed–I tried to escape and used my head as the brakes” and dark sunglasses worn year-round were mandatory items for any self-respecting rocker. My pride and joy was a pair of black WWII motorcycle goggles. And here’s the story behind them: after turning the house upside down in my quest for appropriate rocker attire, it was time to raid the apartments of grandmothers, aunts and friends that were far from the rock-n-roll life, meaning, anyone who agreed to hand over their useless old rags. Sofia, my paternal grandmother, had a fairly large storage place in her apartment. She once accidentally blurted out, and subsequently regretted mentioning, that she kept many of the spoils of war taken by Grandfather Matvey from WWII.
“He was in the battle for Berlin, after all,” I thought. “There’s bound to be plenty of worthy stuff there.”
And so I went. I climbed up to the storage place to the sound of Sofia’s desperate cries coming from below. “Countless diamonds sparkle in the stone caves”. Indeed, I discovered a real treasure. Hats, caps, a wool coat, a white silk suit and a military jacket a la Stalin, I can’t even list all the items that I found. But the dark sunglasses were by far the most important discovery. They were the real glasses used by the German mobile infantry corps – so big that they covered my eyes entirely, even from the sides, with extremely dark lenses. Those glasses were priceless: no one had anything like them and they were cool as hell. When I wore them on the street, clad in black, with the tips of my hair dark and pointy, the masses scattered.
But disaster soon struck. The glasses slipped out of my hands and one of the lenses cracked. Devastated, I paid a visit to Marina and Gleb, my best friends and confidants, in order to part with the crazy cool that I didn’t even have the chance to establish. We drank to honor their memory. Gleb thought a while and then he took out a roll of white tape, the sticky kind that leaves traces of glue on your hands and taped the cracked lens with two strips overlapping diagonally. While it admittedly impaired my vision, it also added a necessary element of danger and adventure to my image. Now not only did everyone flee from me – they also gave up their seats on public transportation. No one argued with me, the ticket collectors on the Underground and the cleaning ladies in the stores didn’t yell at me, no one reprimanded me.
The cops, on the other hand, were a different story altogether. They stopped me occasionally, asking for ID. In those cases, I took off the glasses, whipped out my passport and spoke to them in my intelligent, well-behaved girl-from-a-good-family voice. And they always let me go. Of course, it was an expression of conformism on my part, and some of my friends reproached me for it: “What kind of a rebellion is that if you walk around with your ID and present your Moscow residency papers on demand?”
But what else should I do, besides getting a club to the head when asked for ID?
Nevertheless, despite my hardcore coolness, I felt I was lacking some detail that would make my outfit inimitable. The final brushstroke.
For a long time, maybe a year or so, I collected Soviet themed pins. My specialty was mainly Lenin. I had so many little Lenins! Flower-Lenin, Button-Lenin, Little Lenin on a Hair Pin (a barrette with Lenin’s tiny head on it), a triangular Lenin, a square Lenin, a diamond shaped one, a ball – an endless array. Apart from the Lenins, I loved Communist themed medals. Those medals became my area of expertise. Of all of them, the Gagarins were the most awesome. They had a little sash with the words “the world’s first cosmonaut” on it and a smiling Gagarin in a space helmet swung on the medal. Perfect! I had at least twenty of those Gagarins. I couldn’t help myself; I bought every single one in the shop. I would later give them out as gifts to friends. I hung them on my chest, about five or six of them – just one more than the number of decorations that Brezhnev had. Well, alright, there were a few more Lenin pins here and there in order to make an impression and a huge portrait of B.G. that hung on my chest like a crucifix.
On the evening of May 4, I found myself in a somewhat complicated situation. I had planned on going to a punk festival, which was supposed to be hosting the entire Moscow punk scene, and thus I needed to dress accordingly. But I had also arranged to meet Gromov there. He was one of the country’s leading rock journalists, editor-in-chief of the underground paper Gonzo, the Russian version of The Rolling Stone. I dreamed of becoming a rock journalist, I was obsessed with it, so I needed to make just the right impression on Gromov.
In preparation for the important meeting, I primped for hours before the mirror. All in all, I was pleased with my appearance. But I had my doubts about the Grebenshikov icon. The punks would definitely look upon it unfavorably but I didn’t care about them, I could do and wear whatever I pleased.
Gromov, on the other hand, might think that I was just a stupid little girl, another snot-nosed B.G. groupie, and not take me seriously. That’s why I kept putting on the pendant and then taking it off. I finally decided that I would wear it and if necessary, I’d quickly remove it before the meeting.
We met on the platform. Gromov turned out to be a lanky guy with long hair – a mop of straw colored hair and a thick red beard. His hair fluttered in the breeze, his beard stood out and his red mouth smiled carnivorously. The lenses of his glasses could have been gray and tied together with wire, however, as he towered over me at 1.90 meters height; it was quite hard to tell. And I imagined we were kindred spirits with matching broken glasses. He was dressed fairly normal, nothing too provocative. But when he caught sight of me, he was stunned. His jaw dropped and he looked at me for a few moments without saying a word. I reveled in the impression I made, I never got tired of that. My voice and manner of speech gave no indication as to the creature he would encounter, a monster that everyone fled from.
“Yes, I see that your glasses are indeed, hmm…broken. How can you see anything through them?” Gromov asked with a tinge of irony. “One lens is taped up and your hair is covering the other…”
“When you lose your sense of sight, the other senses become more acute. Besides, I manage.” I replied.
We were already on the escalator, going up. Everyone was staring at us. He seemed uncomfortable.
“It’s evening, it’s dark outside. Don’t you want to take the glasses off?”
“Not at all. I never part with them. I even sleep with them on.”
“Oh well, suit yourself. But I’d advise taking off the Grebenshikov. The scene there won’t take well to it, they have other idols. And in any case, he doesn’t really go with the rest of your look. It doesn’t fit.”
Oh, damn, I thought, I forgot to take it off, what a retard! Now he thinks I’m a dumbass and the punks will give me trouble about it too.
But I didn’t want to show weakness and so B.G. remained on my neck like an albatross.
The punks gathered at the entrance to Gorbushka. These were the real heavy ones: colorful mohawks, tattoos, piercings. And their image! They managed to pull it off, and in the heart of Soviet Russia no less. I don’t know how they even got there, usually if someone wore ripped jeans and had a mohawk, the pigs pulled him out of the crowd and dragged him to the police station where he got the shit beaten out of him and was thrown in a holding cell.
We arrived early since Gromov was one of the festival organizers, and immediately headed backstage. I felt as if I had leaped through time and space and suddenly found myself in London, circa 1977. The musicians – long haired or sporting shaved heads, wearing jeans and leather, heavily pierced, and all of them drunk, with guitars, keyboards and microphones – flowed from one dressing room to another. There were lots of women around: mere girls and older ones too, wearing make-up, perfume and with an air of passion to them. Gromov introduced me around:
“May I present Alicia White-Swan– a budding journalist.”
He leaned over and whispered in my ear with a smug smile:
“I think that’s much better. You need a pseudonym that sticks. Besides, Blanc in Russian means white. It suits you.”
I looked at him, astonished: I didn’t know what he was thinking – I didn’t resemble a white swan in the least. But I didn’t hold Gromov’s interest for long. A tall, rail-thin man of about 25 with long black hair distracted him.
“Oh, it’s our graphic designer. I need him desperately. Sasha, wait up!” and with that, my companion vanished from sight.
I stayed at the same spot for a while, until I realized that Gromov must’ve gone to attend to his duties as a producer of the event and that I would have to get by on my own.
The Siberian bands were doing their best, but they played badly and their lyrics were hard to decipher. The decibel and testosterone levels, on the other hand, soared, and the curse-laden tirade that tumbled from the stage in an ongoing flow planted joy in our hearts, frozen by the Soviet winter. Up by the stage some punks loaded on beer were kicking ass for the life of them.
After the concert I stood shyly at the exit and didn’t know what to do: should I walk to the Underground alone, wait for Gromov or go look for him backstage? That’s when he suddenly popped up behind me.
“So, what did you think?” he asked.
“They’re amateurish. They don’t know how to play properly and most of their lyrics are totally stupid,” I answered, carefully weighing my words: I’m a rock journalist after all, even if I’m only starting out.
“And besides, you know their big hit, ‘At Grandma’s’: ‘Oh Granny, you’re so hot/ You roll out the cookie dough/ And go down to blow.’ That’s ridiculous. You don’t say that. It’s either she goes down on you or she blows you.”
My God! This is the Soviet Union in 1988 – the kingdom of Puritan hypocrisy. I am 18 and still a virgin. I’ve never uttered those words in my entire life but here I am, casually discussing oral sex with a practical stranger who must be ten years older than me! However, I seem to have impressed him with my sophistication and nonchalance because I spotted him eyeing me curiously.
“Yeah. They screwed up a little with the language part. But they’re punks after all, the main thing is their expressive power. Do you like punk music? What do you listen to anyhow? Apart from ‘Aquarium’ of course.”
“‘Aquarium’ isn’t my favorite band at all. It’s ‘The Sounds of Mu’! Petya is a genius!!! I saw all their gigs this year.”
“So why don’t you hang a Mamonov instead of the Grebenshikov on your neck?”
“First of all, I don’t have a photo of Mamonov, and in any case, no one knows who he is. B.G., on the other hand, is famous and that’s why everyone gets so mad when they see him. And if I had a Mamonov on my neck, they would start asking questions like ‘who is that guy?’ Get it? The entire effect would be lost.”
Gromov burst out laughing.
“Effect…you’re just a silly teenager, screaming and peeing your pants at the sight of your idol. You really go crazy over Grebenshikov or Tsoi…”
“You don’t get it, Tsoi is…”
“Sure I don’t get it. It’s my balls that get in the way. He has a strong sex appeal that works on your ovaries, or wherever your hormones are formed.
“Girls screamed and cried at ‘Beatles’ and ‘Rolling Stones’ concerts too, but that didn’t stop them from being the greatest rock groups.”
“Sure, but both groups got so sick of the fans that they stopped performing live and shut themselves away in recording studios. Tsoi, on the other hands, enjoys all the fuss…”
We were walking to his house to listen to some super-important records; ones that you had to know before writing anything at all about rock music.
I sulked quietly. Despite all my efforts to seem serious and cool, despite my insights about oral sex, I was being called an ignorant little girl, and accused of having a uterus too.
Gromov looked at me and laughed.
“Oh, you made a face. Like a baby. Let’s take off these glasses, shall we? My Dad is home. He’s a professor, lectures on Antique aesthetics – he could get frightened.”
He leaned over and took my glasses off, brushing the hair out of my face.
“A light breeze from the fields…freshness…” He bent down to me and inhaled deeply. “Wait, what’s that scent? Wildflowers. How did Bunin put it?
Emanates from them the beauty of chaste,
Heart and eyes relatives they
And talk about long-forgotten
Professor Dad wasn’t in the least surprised that his son brought a strange girl home in the middle of the night. Gromov left me alone with him while he quickly tidied up his room and we actually had a very pleasant chat. Professor was very charming, full of old-world charm. Later Gromov and I listened to Pink Floyd and T-Rex on an old 8-track. All of the albums were on magnetic reels and threading them in the machine required a fair amount of knowledge and expertise. It was a ritual, a kind of sacred ceremony.
I lost track of time. Here was this older man, a real authority in his field – you could even call him a legend, and he was having an actual conversation with me as if we were equals. He had his own underground magazine, he organized alternative rock festivals, he got picked up by police, even the K.G.B followed him. He told me that I looked like a swan and that I smell of violets, forget-me-nots, or some other wildflower. He recited Bunin and Syd Barrett. His phone was ringing off the hook but he told everyone that he was busy, couldn’t talk and turned back to me. My head was spinning…
“How are you going to get home? It’s late. The Underground stopped running,” Gromov said suddenly.
“Oh no! It’s two!” I was horrified that I hadn’t called home to let my mother know I was going to be late. She knew that I went – dressed the way I was – to a rock concert, but by now Mother must be going out of her mind with worry, probably thinking that the police stopped me. But should I call home? With him there? And prove that I am not a free independent person and have to answer to my parents? No way!”
“Do you want to stay over?” Gromov asked casually. “I can make up the couch.”
“No, no, I’ll go home. In a taxi.”
“Where do you live?”
“In the Krasnye Vorota square, Strobasmannaya street.”
“Right in the center? That will cost you at least twenty roubles.”
“That’s alright. I have money.”
“Ok, suit yourself. I’ll walk you out.”
*This story is taken from: The Crown is Not Heavy by Alice Bialsky, 2014.
*Video: Ina Pardo
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