Soviet Soldier

Ray Hadley

When I look at pictures of Siberia, I see how people lived in tipis
like American Indians.  In the background there are always drab
four-story, Soviet style apartment buildings.

People of the Yamal Peninsula were given $50 a month for heating oil.
They raced reindeer through the streets pulling hand-made sleds.
In winter the sun went down at three o’clock. There were freighters
in the harbor, strange derricks and rigs for extracting natural gas. 

On the walls black and white photographs of soldiers standing
in front of helicopters, on the wall were photographs of the planes
that dropped the atomic bombs, the Czar bomb, the biggest one
in the world.

They sent video tapes of polar bears playing, rolling in the snow,
cubs fighting with each other, back to relatives in St. Petersburg.
How many years could you endure, the winter of nights,
a summer of nineteen hour days?

You were so young then in the photos. When you showed them to
your children, you made a joke,  “They sent daddy to Siberia.”
Forty, thirty below, you brag about it now when it’s only minus ten
in Moscow.

Cold jokes, your breath would freeze and fall as ice into the palms
of your hands.  When you cried it was only because of the cold.
Your tears would freeze running down your cheeks. You could chip them
off with your finger nails. You’d warm your hands in freezing water
so they wouldn’t burn.

You lean forward showing your children the deep lines in your forehead.
“Once they carried rivers of ice to the sea,” you said.

Kafka said, “A book is an axe to open up the frozen rivers of the heart.”
 “Up there,” you said, “we read only one book, went to the shed
and sharpened the blade with a metal file.”