Night Train to Riga

Two stories of love, heartbreak, and escape

Miroslav Volek (Flickr/mvolek)
Miroslav Volek (Flickr/mvolek)

Most people think of Ayn Rand as a philosopher and novelist of ideas—a proponent of laissez-faire capitalism and a theory she named Objectivism. But she was born Alisa Rosenbaum, the daughter of a Russian-Jewish pharmacist who grew up in St. Petersburg and who might have stayed in Russia had she not been disappointed by love. Or maybe I’m projecting—because I, too, might have stayed in St. Petersburg had I not been disappointed by love. Alisa left St. Petersburg in 1926. I left almost exactly 80 years later.

I’ve never told my story—and I’m reluctant to do so here. But I can tell her story—not only because it puts her proclaimed ideological motives into question, but also because, this way, I can at least indirectly tell my own. There are a few reasons: we’re both Russian-speaking Jews who moved to America. We both published our first writings in St. Petersburg. We both lived in the same area of the city—between the Five Corners Square and Nevsky Prospect. And we both fled Russia on a night train to Riga.

Alisa was born in St. Petersburg in 1905. When the Bolsheviks confiscated her father’s pharmacy in 1917, her family moved to Crimea, controlled by the anti-Bolshevik White Army, where she lived until she finished high school at the age of 16. She returned to St. Petersburg—renamed Petrograd by the Bolsheviks—to study history and philosophy. Later, she also studied screenwriting. She left Russia in 1926, just as she was turning 21.

Things went more quickly for me. I first visited St. Petersburg in 2004, studying writing with a group of American students, and lived with my aunt, Inna, the only relative in our family who stayed in Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Her apartment was on Vladimirsky Prospect, a block away from Alisa’s student apartment on Dimitrovsky Lane. I spent a month in Petersburg—and returned the next year for another month. During my second trip, I met a young woman named Oksana at a bar called Dacha. There’s a joke here—when you say the bar’s name quickly in Russian, you get the word bardacha, which means a big mess. And that’s exactly the role that Dacha played in my life: it’s where I got into a big mess.

I met Oksana while dancing. We spoke Russian and, as we danced, I said I wasn’t from Russia. She said she wasn’t from Russia either. I asked where she was from. She said Israel. I said I was from Israel too. We smiled—and that was how my misadventure started.

But I don’t want to get into my story. I want to talk about Alisa.

Alisa enrolled at the Petrograd State University after high school and at 18 she met Lev Bekkerman, a Jewish engineering student four years older. Lev was, according to her, a striking individual. He caught her attention to such a degree that, long after she left Russia, she used him as the real-life model for a fictional character named Leo. When Alisa was in her 70s, she was still mentioning Lev in her letters.

Alisa fell “madly and desperately in love” with Lev, as she later recalled. But this “love” wasn’t unconflicted. She was attracted, she wrote, to his “authentic self-esteem.” But she was repelled, she added, by his “lightweight” literary tastes. During this period in Alisa’s life, she began avidly reading Dostoyevsky—who had, incidentally, also been an engineering student and who had lived in a building just around the corner from Alisa’s apartment. Still, Lev’s tendency to project that “he was something enormously important” made her willing “to forgive a lot of minor flaws.” So their relationship might have had a chance—had Lev been interested. By her own account, Alisa came on too strong, and she didn’t like that he went out with other women. Either way, a few weeks after they’d started going out, Lev ended the relationship.

Alisa says in her letters that she pushed him away by being too open about her feelings. This comment is in line with her future persona, in which feelings ruin everything that rationalism props up. But it’s possible that she simply misread the situation. Maybe Lev was just a self-satisfied prick. A narcissistic asshole.

I can relate to the misreading of one’s lover. When I met Oksana, I thought she was everything I ever wanted: a fun, creative, strong young woman who spoke Russian, Hebrew, and English, who’d studied photography at the arts academy in Jerusalem, who’d experienced all kinds of interesting things in her life. She was a single mother to a five-year-old girl, an expat, an artist who made her living as a photographer. And she had an irresistible charisma that had something to do with her smile, her eyes, the curve of her lips. Her mother was ethnically Russian. Her father had a Jewish father and a Tartar mother. On her deathbed, the Tartar grandmother said that Oksana was a witch, like her, and that even though she wasn’t especially pretty, men would always want her. And now this woman whom men had always wanted—and whom I also wanted—wanted me too. Not just for sex but for life. Because when I shared my feelings with her, saying I wanted us to build a life together, Oksana hesitated, smiled, and said that she wanted this for us too.

It’s hard at this point in the story to see how my story ends like Alisa’s—with a night train to Riga. But that’s because this is actually just the beginning. I went back to Petersburg in December 2005, in the midst of the coldest winter in 30 years, and moved in with Oksana and her daughter. The apartment was near the Dybenko metro station, known mostly as a heroin hub. Ours was the last apartment block at the edge of the city. Beyond it was nothing but snow, dotted with bare fir trees.

Our plan was to live in St. Petersburg for six months and then move to Jerusalem together—but our relationship began to fall apart the very moment I arrived. If I wanted to sum up what happened poetically, I would say we had a dream that couldn’t withstand the pressures of reality. And that we had personalities that made it difficult to release our dreams and walk back our promises. So, instead, we destroyed each other. Oksana’s daughter, I’m relieved to say, did not directly experience our mutual destruction. But I’m sure she suffered from the instability it created around her. Especially when one day she woke up and found me gone.

When I think back to my own departure, I’m reminded of Alisa’s reflection later in life that she “would have stayed” in Petersburg had Lev returned her love. Knowing what I know about myself, I think that’s a misconception. She would have ended up leaving either way. Oksana returned my love—and I still left. And I think that, as in my case, Alisa’s infatuation with Lev was grounded in a fantasy cultivated by her literary sensibilities. This becomes obvious when you read anything she wrote about his actual life, like her opinion that he was “deliberately consigning himself to mediocrity.” Alisa didn’t want to admit that she might be wrong about Lev, that he might have simply been “mediocre,” so she diagnosed him with “deliberate self-destruction.” This version of Lev is different from her initial impression of him—that of a young man with the “intelligent face, very determined, kind of clear-cut, self-confident.” Unless that man was a figment of her imagination. Which is what he ended up becoming, since she turned him into a fictional character, imbuing Leo with Lev’s best qualities.

I, too, was writing a novel when I met Oksana. It was about the influence of a young woman named Yana, a single mother, on a male character who had qualities similar to my own. Yana didn’t exist in reality, until I met Oksana. Just like Leo didn’t exist until Alisa met Lev. We were in relationships with people who were as much in our heads as they were in the world.

Years later, Alisa wrote in her letters that “the whole issue in my mind is still an unfinished story, like a mystery story, to which I may never know the ending.” She added: “I still couldn’t, even then, think that he was a total mediocrity and that I invented everything.” It’s funny to imagine a writer who can’t admit to herself that she’s an inventor, if not of all things, then at least of some things. She thinks the mystery is outside her: in an inability to understand the real Lev. But the mystery may be inside: in an inability to understand herself, as well as the role her imagination played in her impressions of Lev, in her infatuation with a character largely of her own making.

That was, at least, what I think I realized about myself, not consciously but intuitively, on my last night in St. Petersburg. A cousin of mine, who was working at a St. Petersburg orphanage as part of a fellowship, invited me out to see a play that night. I went with her, knowing nothing about the program. It turned out to be a solo performance, an adaptation of Dostoevsky’s short story “The Dream of a Ridiculous Man,” located in an attic apartment to give the show a sense of realism. Though I would later be greatly influenced by Dostoyevsky, devoting part of my doctoral thesis to him, this was my first direct experience with his work. By the end of the show, I was in chills. I’d just spent an hour listening to the confessions of a man who put his worst fears and anxieties on the table for everyone to examine—yet the severity of the events he’d described paled in comparison to what I was, at that moment, myself experiencing. I, too, was a ridiculous man, with a ridiculous dream that could never come true. Except Dostoyevsky’s narrator was a fictional character, while I was an actual person living his actual life. Which made it abundantly clear to me that I was in serious trouble.

When we walked out of the play, I could barely contain my own anxieties. I confessed everything to my cousin, all the pain and suffering I’d pent up for weeks, and, when I finished, I told her I needed to leave Russia without Oksana knowing. She listened in shock and then promised to help me get out. On the way home, I called my friend Josip, a North American writer then living in St. Petersburg, and told him that I was going to leave the next evening and that I would need him to accompany me to the station to make sure I got on the train. He said he too would help however he could.

I got home pretty late after the play. Oksana and I weren’t speaking, and I went straight to bed. I knew she had plans in the city in the morning, so when I woke up, I waited for her to leave, then packed a single handbag with some pens, drawings, a computer, and toiletries. I took a cab to my cousin’s place near the Mariinsky Theater and ordered a train ticket to Riga by phone. In the afternoon, I picked up my ticket before going to Josip’s place on Nevsky Prospect, where I stayed for an hour or two before we made our way to the Vitebsk Railway Station, the departure point for all trains going to Riga. Alisa must also have left from this station, although she never mentioned it in her writing, only that she was seen off by her mother, Anna, and her sisters Nora and Natasha. Whether her father was there remains unclear. What’s clear is that she left—just like I left.

Like Alisa, I never wanted to put the details of my predicament in writing, yet perhaps that’s why I can relate to her flight from Russia, and why I can question how she represented this, and many other aspects of her early life, later in her writing. Perhaps something more did happen between them, something beyond a simple lover’s rejection—if such rejection can ever be simple—something that, once it played itself out, drove Alisa out of her native land. Years after leaving, she wrote that she “did not really understand” Lev, and that this incomprehension was “one more, horrible, touch of mystery” haunting her departure. I could relate to how horrible things felt when traumatic events remained unresolved. But I could never understand what it was about their relationship that made it so intense for her. The details she did offer about him were all so superficial: he was “perfectly good looking” and “never projected that he is unimportant to himself.” Which made me think that there had to be more to the story than she was revealing.

This became clearer to me when I started thinking about my own life—because there was so much more to my story than I could reveal. Unlike Alisa, though, I’m saying it openly. Not to taunt anyone, but just because, as I said, it’s not something I can write about in detail. It’s like Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants.” No one really knows what happened between the man and woman. We all say that the “surgery” mentioned in the story refers to an abortion. But you’d have to have some experience with abortions to be able to extrapolate such a conclusion—if not personal experience, then at least some knowledge of what an abortion entails. It would also help to have experience with romantic relationships that have fallen apart to get an idea of what else is happening in that story. You’d have to be able to tap into an aspect of your own experience to access the story’s emotional depths. The same is true of Alisa’s story, and of mine. Understanding why it was horrible involves tapping into your personal experience.

Alisa at least gave us a fictionalized version to compare with reality. All plot elements aside, the main difference between the novelized version of events and how she relates them in letters has to do with sex. When they meet, the Lev character thinks the Alisa character is a prostitute, and later the Alisa character uses money she gets from a police agent with whom she has a sexual relationship to help the Lev character. She loves both men, and she carries on affairs with both. In the end, after everything is revealed, the Lev character leaves the Alisa character and becomes a sex trafficker. The story oozes with sex and its discontents. And this might have a lot to do with both the mystery and the horribleness that haunted Alisa for years and years.

Alisa wanted Lev to love her the way she loved him, but no one loves anyone like someone else. We each love in our own way. And each person who is loved has to learn to receive the love that the other person has to give—not the love we wish we had.

Alisa left Russia with a story of disappointed love. But Lev never had a chance to leave Russia. He stayed behind with nothing but a somber world in which he had to survive. He married, divorced, remarried. By then it was 1933, a year after Alisa had written, but not yet published, her novelization of their relationship. In the fictional version, the Alisa character tries to smuggle herself out of Russia—and is shot as she crosses the border. The novel, We the Living, was published in 1936, just months before the real Lev was arrested by the real secret police. On May 6, 1937, under a law applied to both black marketeers and planners of terrorist attacks, Lev was executed. Twenty years later, during the period of so-called de-Stalinization, he was posthumously exonerated and pronounced innocent. Alisa’s magnum opus, Atlas Shrugged, was published that same year.

As for me, I went to New York, where Alisa had also lived, and where she died about 25 years before I arrived. She’d moved there from Los Angeles, where I’d spent most of my childhood and early adult years, and where I’d been living before moving to St. Petersburg. I was 26 when I arrived in New York, and it took me two years to rebuild my life, preparing the move I’d intended to make before meeting Oksana. In 2008, I finally relocated to Jerusalem.

Unlike Lev, Oksana didn’t stay in Russia. She moved back to Jerusalem too. From time to time, I’d catch a glimpse of her on the street. We spoke once. I later heard she raised her child and married someone—and that they had a child together. I got married too. My wife and I just had our second baby girl.

I haven’t been back to St. Petersburg since the day I left. That’s another thing Alisa and I have in common.

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David Stromberg is a writer, translator, and literary scholar whose recent work has appeared in Speculative Nonfiction, EastWest Literary Forum, and the Los Angeles Review of Books, among other publications. His latest book is A Short Inquiry into the End of the World, and his edited collection of Isaac Bashevis Singer's essays will be published in May. He was born in Israel, grew up in Los Angeles, and lives in Jerusalem.


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