I am supposed to be above the Russian girlfriend and her lingerie, I know, but I nonetheless take a photograph of my own, create a mask in Photoshop, and color correct the bra and panties to go along with the blog entry. I leave one strap unchanged, just to see if you’ll notice. You don’t; you’re busy. I have been distracting you from your work. And so I retaliate with a story about S., a small-time criminal I met in Athens one summer. He’d managed to get out of the Soviet Union, I don’t recall how, but I do remember that he’d procured papers certifying a non-existent Jewish heritage to apply for repatriation to Israel if all else failed. But Athens was fine for S.; he had a small racket, a group of women painting Matryoshkas for him, the little Russian nesting dolls carved from wood. These dolls were different, though: the hollow figures were not of the usual plump, rosy-cheeked women dressed in sarafans and headscarves, but political leaders, the largest and fattest being Yeltsin, inside of whom was a slightly smaller Gorbachev, followed by an ever-diminishing sequence of Brezhnev (Andropov and Chernenko apparently too insignificant to merit inclusion), Khrushchev, Stalin, Lenin, and Nicholas II, and finally Catherine the Great, Peter the Great, and Ivan the Terrible.
We spent the days in a room near Syntagma Square in a hotel left over from an era grander than our own, with green onyx shelving and brass fixtures and a heavy-lidded, sullen staff whose eyes barely moved from the TV screen when we entered the dark lobby from the blinding afternoon sun. The room was cool; the two twin beds kept sliding apart on the polished inlaid marble floor, and so we finally pulled the mattresses off the dusty box springs. It was almost too hot to do anything else but have sex and smoke and trace the contours our bodies drew against the dimming light of the window above. Passing a cigarette back and forth, watching the smoke rise in a lazy swirl, I asked him what he’d done before. He was an engineer, he said, he played the piano, but he seemed indifferent to his past, didn’t mind his new life at all. He blew one small calamari-shaped ring through another that had spread in size, grown fuzzier as it drifted upwards towards its own dissolution. When I told him I was a painter, he offered to let me decorate dolls for him. I declined; we never visited the markets where they were sold. I considered whether this was some special privilege he was offering me, considered whether his women were employed in other ways when they weren’t painting dolls. He asked me if I wanted a set, but I didn’t really have much use for them. I told him I’d been trying to find a grant source to move to Athens for a year; he wondered aloud if my skills could be useful in terms of assessing the relative accuracy of forgeries. But my money was running out, I hadn’t found what I was looking for, and I wasn’t planning to stay in Athens much longer.
Soon afterwards, when the Matryoshka dolls turned up in Berlin in small wooden cases jittery, sideways-glancing vendors spread out on the pavement before them, I bought a traditional set of nine, with the smallest doll shaped like a bowling pin no more than a half-inch high. It was the set I would find empty one day, its progeny pilfered, months after I’d discovered with horror that our babysitter was in fact a kleptomaniac and had stolen an array of small personal items I grieve for even still—including my grandmother’s soup ladle, a fountain pen made of blown glass, and an original copy of Ram Dass’s “Be Here Now,” identifiable as mine by my own fervent, truth-seeking, gullible, adolescent signature—leaving behind only the outer shell, a barren Matryoshka.