Aesthetic Drift #1 by Kseniya Melnik
A Voice Frozen
My hometown, Magadan, in the northeast of Russia is a port city isolated from the rest of the continent and it is the emotional heart of my first collection of stories, the center of gravity toward which each of the characters is pulled.
As I was writing and thinking about the place where I spent my first fifteen years, I knew the book wouldn’t be complete without a story about one of Magadan’s most legendary residents, Vadim Kozin.
Once a sensationally famous Soviet tenor who performed private concerts at the Kremlin, Kozin served two terms in the Gulag camps near Magadan and remained in the city, first exiled there and then by choice, until his death in 1994, at age 91. I fell in love with his songs when I discovered them in my twenties, already in America, and was touched every time by the disarming sincerity of his renditions. I was shocked and heartbroken to realize that such a man—a national treasure—had lived not far from my childhood home.
I thought that through my fictional resurrection, not only would Kozin—once-silenced in Russia and now increasingly forgotten—regain his voice, he would add historical gravity and real-life pathos to my book. His tragic life story is a vivid dramatization of Russia’s bumpy progress through the twentieth century. I figured I could lightly fictionalize his life and be done.
Yet, in my “Kozin story,” called “Our Upstairs Neighbor,” there isn’t a character named Vadim Kozin. I realized early into the writing that I would have to make things up in order not to lie.
Before leaving Magadan for Alaska in 1998, I knew little about Kozin. I have vague memories of a very long concert in honor of his 90th birthday. I was ten, and I don’t recall anything about it except an empty red throne that had been set up for him on stage. He never showed up.
I also knew that my grandfather was once Kozin’s downstairs neighbor; they had a polite neighborly relationship, but they were not friends. This was after Kozin had served his first term in the Gulag. My grandfather told me that whenever he passed him on the staircase, Kozin was elegantly dressed in a checkered European-style coat, a chic hat, a beautiful bright scarf—and always in a cloud of sophisticated cologne.
When Kozin was arrested for the second time, my grandmother was asked to be a witness while the KGB inventoried his apartment. Some time later, my grandfather saw Kozin at a construction site, where he was working as part of his sentence.
Hearing these stories as a child didn’t mean much to me. I didn’t understand the tragic trajectory of Kozin’s life. Now that I was writing the collection and studying Russian history in more depth than I had ever learned in school back in Magadan—particularly the bloody roots of my hometown as the administrative center of one of the harshest networks of forced labor camps—I began talking to my grandfather and researching Kozin’s life with new eyes.
The thinnest outline of Vadim Kozin’s biography is the following. Born in St. Petersburg in 1903, he was the only son, the oldest brother of a gaggle of sisters, of a well-to-do merchant and a Gypsy mother, a singer. Their house was always full of prominent musicians. After the revolution of 1917, young Kozin was expelled from the naval institute because of his non-proletarian background.
He started performing Gypsy songs and Russian romances at the workers’ clubs; he was soon invited to sing at the best theaters of Leningrad and eventually to tour the country and perform for Stalin and his cronies. He recorded a hundred and twenty songs before the Second World War, and each new record was a national event. During the war, Kozin performed for soldiers in the front lines and at the blockaded Leningrad.
He was first arrested in 1944, at the height of his career, and served four years in one of Magadan’s camps. While a prisoner, he often performed with the other imprisoned musicians for the camp administration. In the fifties, after his release, Kozin began touring again. He served a short sentence after his second arrest in 1956 and lived the rest of his life in poverty in a small studio apartment dominated by a piano with his two beloved cats, surrounded by hundreds of books and his old records.
I don’t know whether Kozin was still a household name throughout the country in his later years; I’d read that some of his fans wrote him letters and sent him gifts. He was popular in Magadan, though, and often gave solo concerts. With glastnost in the late 80s and early 90s, there was a renewed interest in the old victims of political repressions, and journalists and cultural personalities traveled to Magadan to meet with Kozin.
In 1991, Magadan’s city council considered naming Kozin “Citizen of Honor,” but ultimately decided not to do so. Kozin received a nice apartment from the city near the theater, which, after his death in 1994, was converted into a museum. As far as I know, he was never officially rehabilitated.
Why was Kozin arrested in 1944? One article I read stated that the charge came under the infamous Article 58—counter-revolutionary activity—and recapped the following legends regarding Kozin’s so-called offenses:
1) During World War II, Kozin was supposedly planning to defect to the enemy’s side after a concert for the Polish legionnaires;
2) Kozin got too close to the famous pilot, Marina Raskova, whom Lavrentiy Beria, the notorious chief of the secret police, was interested in romantically;
3) Kozin cursed Stalin and the entire Soviet government when his mother and one of his sisters perished in the blockaded Leningrad on the same day that he was promised assistance with their evacuation; and
4) Kozin refused to write a song about Stalin. This same article quoted Magadan’s First Secretary of Regional Party Committee as saying that the charge for Kozin’s 1956 arrest was under Article 121—homosexuality.
My grandfather, too, had heard the rumor about Kozin refusing to write a song about Stalin, that Stalin was jealous of the people’s love for Kozin, and that Kozin’s supposed homosexuality was the excuse to repress him both times. I certainly could not make any independent conclusions.
As much as I felt pulled to tell Kozin’s story, I was even more hesitant to put thoughts into his head and words into his mouth. I also realized that the chronology of Kozin’s life, including the dates of his birth and death, would not fit into the chronology of my book and would have to be shifted. I knew that changing the timeline was generally accepted in historical fiction. When it came to Kozin, though, I felt that if I used his name but altered even one detail about his known biography, I would be lying.
The voice I had meant to return to Kozin wasn’t his voice at all; it was my voice and it was adding to the cacophony of rumors about his life and past—tinged by propaganda, ignorance, and simply lack of information—that has sounded for more than half a century.
I had two options. I could commit fully to recreating Vadim Kozin’s biography. I would have to get all my other characters out of the way. I would have to stick strictly to the information available, to find and read every surviving scrap of Kozin’s writing, every letter to him and from him, and listen to every interview with him. I would have to travel to Russia to talk with anyone who had personally known him when he was alive. I would have to gain access to the NKVD and KGB archives and study Kozin’s file.
After I gathered all that material, I would have to analyze it through the lens of history and of the biases of the sources. (And I hardly have the expertise for such analysis.)
Many suspected that Kozin was gay, but I’ve read an interview where he denied it. What does that mean? Even if he had been officially convicted under the homosexuality charges, that wouldn’t make the charges true. People were convicted under a plethora of absurd charges: foreign espionage for a peasant who had never left his native village, Soviet property theft for a worker who was twenty minutes late to his shift. “If there is a person, an article will be found for him,” was the famous postulate from those times.
But even if I did manage to collect all that information—enough for a separate book, really—such a book would still not constitute Kozin’s story. The truth was in the depth of his heart and soul; only he knew it.
As for my story, I kept my first allegiance to art. While inspired by and largely based on Kozin, my character—named Vadim Makin—is ultimately a fictional creation, free to interact with other fictional characters and free to retain some degree of mystery. I will be happy if Makin points readers to Kozin, to discovering more about him and seeking out his recordings. And while the character Makin is very important to my tale, he is like the decrepit angel in Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s, “A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings.” The other characters true motivations are revealed through their interactions with the old Soviet tenor.
If Kozin was still alive today, how would he tell his life story, given the passage of years, the frailty of memory, the human’s proclivity to revise, explain, conceal, especially considering the current political climate in Russia with regard to the LGBT community? For us, in the twenty-first century, Kozin’s Truth, if such a thing even exists in any kind of constancy, will be forever unknown.
History is such a rich field to mine for fiction. But fiction is not the proper place for a memorial. Just the opposite: like any act of creation, fiction gives life, and I hope that my story and its characters have taken on a life of their own, independent of Vadim Kozin. And if one wants to honor Vadim Kozin’s memory, there is no better way than listening to his songs—a monument composed of melody and lyrics—the only true voice of his that survives.
Kseniya Melnik (Episode 99) is the author of the linked story collection Snow in May, which was short-listed for the International Dylan Thomas Prize and long-listed for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award. Born in Magadan, Russia, she moved to Alaska in 1998, at the age of 15. She received her MFA from New York University. Her work has appeared in The Brooklyn Rail, Epoch, Esquire (Russia), VQR, Prospect (UK), and was selected for Granta‘s New Voices series.