Sep 16, 2015 · 16 minutes

Previously: Part Three

I’d tracked down Anna’s mother in her apartment in Vladimir, and after a few distraught phone calls, she agreed to an interview. 

I bought a ticket for the next train, and arrived there at five in the morning, just as dawn was breaking. I stepped out onto the platform looking across a ravine of railroad track and rocks. No station in sight; the others jumped down onto the tracks and seemed to walk in one direction, so I followed, stumbling across to the other end, climbing up onto the terminal-side platform, through a little building no bigger than a village library, and out the parking lot, to a taxi — a beat-up Volga, with a beat-up woman driver. 

The ride to my hotel was like an obstacle course, swerving around deep potholes, until we reached the top of the hill, just behind the city’s 12th century limestone churches, Vladimir’s crown jewels. Back when these churches were built, Vladimir was, for a brief golden moment, the capital of the emerging Russian state. But then Genghis Khan’s Golden Horde swept through, and rival clans started promoting a settlement called “Moscow,” placing Vladimir in permanent decline ever since. Even when I visited in 2008, Vladimir was still locked in decline, having lost ten percent of its population from 1989 to 2002, down to just over 300,000 inhabitants. 

I checked into the city’s main (and only) hotel — Zarya, or “sunrise,” one of those Brezhnev-era concrete slabs that they threw up in just about every Soviet city, with its cheesy flashing Christmas light display, and a bizarre window display at the entrance featuring bald mannequins dressed in remarkably cheap slutware. It was hard to say what the purpose of that was. After a brief nap, I called Anya’s mother — she and Anna’s six-year-old son, Kirill, were at a child psychologist that day, so we postponed our meeting until early afternoon. It was a 20-minute drive from the center to her district on the edge of Vladimir. An unpaved sidestreet took us into the maze of five-story and eight-story apartment blocks. Someone had spraypainted “Kosovo Is Serbia” on the side of Anna’s mother’s apartment block. It was the sort of Soviet-built residential slum you find all over Russia. This is where the Other Russians, the 90% who aren’t gods, spend their lives. So it came as a shock when Anna’s mother, Tatyana, opened her apartment door to reveal fresh white paint, stylish overhead lights, new furnishings and, most impressively, a brand new blue-and-white kitchen, right out of an IKEA catalogue. Tatyana was an unhealthy, hobbled, heavy-set woman, the result of years in and out of hospitals with a bad heart. 

“Everything you see here was a gift from my daughter,” Tatyana told me, shuffling painfully back to her seat at the new IKEA kitchen table. “It was a surprise gift. She told me, ‘Mom, you have to leave the apartment for two days, go to a friend’s, and promise not to look once.’ I did exactly as she told me. When I came back, I just couldn’t believe what Anna had done. I’ve lived in this Brezhnev building for 30 years, Anna grew up here. She was determined to change it after all these years, to lighten everything up.” 

Kirill, Anna’s handsome six-year-old orphan, was a ball of cheerful, confident energy: he offered me a candy wrapper and told me to open it. When I unwrapped it and saw that it was empty, he laughed and yelled, “Empty!” Then brought me a handful of his favorite candies — “kiwi flavor is my favorite” – and a cup of hot tea. 

“He isn’t old enough yet to understand what it means that his mother’s dead,” Tatyana said, her voice wavering. “To him, his mother is up in heaven looking down. But the real meaning of it won’t hit him for at least another five years or more.” “Mommy’s up in heaven!” Kirill cheerfully yelled. 

There was an uncomfortable moment where I wasn’t even sure how to start, or if I should even be there. Tatyana, who’d already been visited by several Russian journalists, pulled out her family photo albums. She started with the most recent photos of Anna, Tatyana, and Anna’s son vacationing at a resort in Turkey — 

“These are the last photos we took together,” Tatyana said. “I was afraid to go. I’d never been abroad. Anna insisted. It was her gift to me. She said, ‘Mom, you’re just starting to live life now. You haven’t seen anything.’” Tatyana sipped her tea. “I’m very insecure about how I look nowadays. I used to be thin until I was 38, when I was hospitalized. Since then… I don’t go out. But Anna told me, ‘Don’t be ashamed of anything, mom. Just enjoy yourself, relax in the sun, get into your swimsuit. Do exactly as you’d do if there was nobody else around to make you feel insecure about yourself.’ Well, it’s harder for me than it was for her.” 

She showed me Anna’s school photos — even as a child, a photographer brought out that same, icy expression, perhaps detached, perhaps blank, perhaps defensive. “Anna was a very quiet child, very shy with a quiet voice,” her mother tells me. “Anna never caused problems at school, never got in trouble. But when she was 11, she started getting ambitious. She dreamed of owning a BMW — she cut out photos from magazines and put them above her desk. And you see? She became the ‘Face of BMW’ in Russia. It was a real achievement. She used to tell her boy Kirill to aim high as well. So the other day we’re on the bus here, and Kirill suddenly shouts, ‘A house on Rublevka!’ (Oksana Robski’s mansion-lined neighborhood.) Can you imagine, out here in Vladimir, how it sounds to local people when a child suddenly shouts on a bus, ‘A house in Rublevka!’” 

“There’s a nice beach there!” Kirill shouts from the kitchen. 

He meant a riverbank, which landlocked Russians turn into “beaches” of various quality — in a place like Rublevka, imported sand would be the norm. “Kirill’s been to Rublevka already with his mother, you see, so he knows what it is,” Tatyana explained. “He’s seen it already. That is another problem. Now he’s in Vladimir, in this… Well, let him dream.” 

The boy was all energy, desperate for attention. He fiddled with my digital recorder, he wanted to butt into our conversation. Tatyana finally sent him into her bedroom to watch cartoons. 

“Kirill badly wants a man, a father, in his life. Anytime a man appears, Kirill clings to him like a dog,” she said. “What Anna really wanted was a family. For her and her son. That’s what she never had when she grew up.” Anna’s father was an alcoholic — another awful cliché in the regions. His drinking became such a problem that Tatyana finally gave him a choice: either give up the bottle, or leave. He left. Anna was only eight. Her father stayed in Vladimir after moving out, but he never once called or visited. 

Once, on a bus ride home from school, Anna saw him. “I asked Anna if she said anything to him, and Anna told me, ‘Mom, what am I going to say? Hello papa, I’m your daughter!’” I realized I’d heard almost the exact same story from a girl I knew who’d moved to Moscow from Volgograd, formerly Stalingrad. Her father was a drunk, abandoned her at birth, and rotted away in another residential slum across town. One day, in high school, she saw her father at a bus stop — he didn’t recognize his daughter, but she recognized him — and, like Anna, this girl was too proud, or too afraid, to approach him. The girl carried that banal tale of abandonment and betrayal to Moscow with her, and eventually made her way to London. 

Anna’s father died in 2005, just as his daughter was starting to get famous. The cycle of abandonment was already repeating itself again in Anna’s life — with her common-law husband, a privileged and sometimes violent son of a local government official, who fathered Kirill. I saw one photo of him in the album — a bear of a guy with a confident, sly expression, smiling at the camera. 

“Even when she was pregnant with Kirill — even after she gave birth to him — Anna’s husband fooled around on her, and he didn’t bother hiding it. He’d get phone calls from strange girls all through the night. Two or three in the morning, girls were calling him. While she nursed Kirill at home, her husband disappeared for days leaving her alone. I finally told Anna, ‘Get your things and move back in with me. That’s not a life you’re living.’ So Anna left him. And it meant nothing to him. He completely abandoned his own son then, and even now he doesn’t bother with him. He lives here in the same town, ten minutes apart, and yet he’s only bothered seeing his son twice in seven years. What kind of man can do this?” 

Hearing Tatnaya mention his father’s name, Kirill yelled out from other room, “Dmitry Mikhailovich!” 

Kirill’s grandfather, the local government bigwig, never visited or called Kirill once, even though Kirill is his only grandson. After Anna’s murder, Tatyana felt so distraught and abandoned that she went on a popular national television show and called the grandfather out by name, asking how he could live with himself not even calling his grandson after his mother was killed. The public shaming worked: two days later, Kirill’s grandfather called and asked if he could visit. “The minute he came over, Kirill was so excited. He took him by the hand and said, ‘Since you’re my grandfather, let’s go play chess together in the other room.’ And he led him away. His wife stayed with me, and started crying and complaining about their bills. She actually asked me if I could loan her money, even though he’s a well-paid government official, and I’m now alone. I simply couldn’t believe what I was hearing. When they finally left, I pulled Kirill’s grandfather aside and said, ‘Please, I just have one request: call your grandson, even a couple of times a week, for a few minutes. Anna used to call her son every single night. Every night. Please, find an hour or two every month to play chess with your grandson.’ And what did he do? He called once, and then disappeared for good. I haven’t heard from him since.” 

Kirill walked around us in his same playful mood — the conversation didn’t seem to bother him. He was more interested in getting my attention. 

“It was clear the only reason why Kirill’s grandfather came over is because he got in trouble with his superiors after they saw me on television. He only visited us so that he could go back to his bosses and say, ‘I did it,’ and that was it. After he vanished again, Kirill asked me, ‘Why doesn’t grandpa call me? Is it possible he didn’t like me?’ I told him, ‘Kirill, it has nothing to do with you. Don’t blame yourself, it’s not you.’” 

What makes Anna Loginova’s story so unbearable is knowing how utterly ordinary this sort of cruelty and abandonment are in the real Russia, the Russia of Boris Yeltsin and Vladimir Putin: take her story of poverty, broken home and parental abandonment, multiply it by 11 time zones, and there you have Russia in all of its Dostoevskyan horror. Add to that such grim statistics as three million homeless children and another 700,000 in orphanages, and an average male life expectancy of less than 60 years — lower than that of Bangladesh and Papau New Guinea — and you start to understand the real struggle that most Russians outside of Moscow and Petersburg face, and the hopelessness that’s internalized as a major premise of life. 

“Anna wanted a family, she wanted Kirill to have a father,” Tatyana repeated. “But at the same time, experience taught Anna never to allow herself to be in a position again where she’d have to rely completely on a man, as she had with her husband. Because you can’t in Russia. And you can’t rely on the government either. My pension is 200 dollars a month, after 30 years of work. How can anyone live on that? Anna told me, ‘Mom, I have to do it on my own.’” 

Most girls in her position would settle for a suitor, but Anna was too proud, and burned. 

“After her husband abandoned her, a rich local businessman offered to take care of both her and Kirill — what we call a ‘Papinka.’ Anna refused. Instead, she moved to Moscow to make it on her own.” 

There, she found that it was easier to control her own fate, to get famous and earn money, than to find a man whom she could depend on. As her career and fame begin to skyrocket in 2007, the last year of her life, she started making plans to move her mother and son to Moscow. “Everything she did was with one goal in mind: Reunite with Kirill, bring him out to Moscow, and put him in the best private school. She had the school picked out for him, an affiliate of Moscow State University. A week before Anna died, she called me and told me that she’d put down the first deposit for Kirill’s school. That same week she decided to surprise him with a gift — a kitten, for Kirill. She picked the kitten out, but since it was only a week old in January when she found it, she had to wait until March before she could pick it up and give it to her son. She was so excited. Just visiting the kitten brought her close to Kirill. That’s where she was the night she was killed — she’d gone out to check up on the kitten, spend some time with it. That’s how Anna wound up there, in the south of Moscow, where she died.” 

I remember in college, we were taught not to think too highly of Dostoevsky because, as one tweedy lit professor explained to our class, Dostoevsky’s stories were “melodramatic” and “simply not believable.” At best, another professor theorized, Dostoevsky’s depictions of cruelty and psychological avalanches were nothing more than “satire” or “parody” of contemporary literature — Dostoevsky was a liar, our professors assured us, so there was no reason to take anything too close to heart. While Russia conditions its people to harden their hearts, America conditions you to a different sort of callousness, a kind of comfort-numbness. If Russians’ hearts are hardened, ours are afraid of the smallest things — the fear of looking stupid, of not getting it, of caring too much, of lacking the proper distance and irony, of not being cool in precisely the right way. Every modern American response is designed to ensure one thing: That those Dostoevsky stories were not read as representations of fact, because otherwise, you’d find yourself with tears pouring down your face, choked — as I was then — and you’d have to come up with an explanation for that, a way out for your reader, who has been trained to be suspicious to the point of phobic of anything too “melodramatic.” 

I spent nearly 15 years in Russia before the Kremlin ran me out of town and shut down my newspaper in the most dramatic finale an American journalist could ever imagine, and I can tell you that when it comes to flat straight-forward realism, Dostoevsky was a journalist. Russian lives are every bit as “melodramatic” as his novels were, and as ours aren’t. We don’t lead literary lives; we aren’t tragic. We can’t have everything you know. And then there’s the Russian malice, a bottomless supply of malice that Russians feel toward anyone who might make it out. Tatyana described how this poisoned everyone from her neighborhood who watched Anna’s rise: “There’s a particular Russian characteristic — I don’t know if foreigners have it too — but it’s a kind of spite and envy that knows no limits,” she said. 

“When Anna first left for Moscow to make a career, the people in our building would say, ‘You see, she’s abandoned her own sick mother and boy. She’s going there to become a whore.’ And after she appeared in her first video clip, and on her first magazine cover, one of my neighbors Lida came to my door and said, ‘I saw your Anna on the television. Well, I guess anyone can get on TV these days!’ And when Anna pulled up in her BMW, neighbors whom I’ve known here for 30 years suddenly stopped talking to me. But when Anna came to Vladimir in her Porsche Cayenne — all the men turned their backs on me for good. We were treated like witches.” Tatyana showed me the notes and text messages that Anna sent her mother wherever she was, the little notes and the greeting cards, a whole box full of them — cards cheerfully counting down how close she was to getting the money together to bring Kirill and Tatyana to Moscow to live together again. One card she mailed to Kirill just a month before she was killed ended with a promise: “We’ll finally live together in Moscow this year!” 

To be continued...


Editor's Note: This article also appears in NSFWCORP: A Long Fucking Story, an oral history of NSFWCORP including interviews with former writers and previously out of print long-form features.