Alexander Kaletski, a Russian e'migre' novelist, opens the door to the apartment he lives in -- a gilded aerie over Manhattan, a seat in the skyline empyrean.
"It is incredible place, isn't it?"
This is no garret, no barren work place with a cracked photo of the lost family posing on the steppe, with a candle burning in a Chianti bottle, with an emaciated tabby perched on battered copies of "Petersburg" and "Dead Souls."
Incredible is the word; Kaletski lives here in this grand old East Side building, the entire 11th floor, a dozen rooms packed with paintings and leather and light at Fifth Avenue and 64th Street. He looks out the window and all of Central Park is spread out below him. This is the center of the material world.
"In Moscow," he says, "I lived in strange wooden room, about three meters by two meters, the size of that bar over there." He points to a distant nook, to rows and rows of crystal glasses and multicolored libations.
Kaletski wears glove-leather slippers, a silk jacket, a silk tie. He is 39 and looks years younger. His light eyes are the color of hothouse grapes. His Slavic cheekbones are as precise and delicate as the shells of razor clams.
He is pretty, regal even. But he is not the rich one. The apartment is owned by Kaletski's girlfriend of more than a year, Basha Czymanska -- the owner of a Madison Avenue clothing boutique and the former wife of a multimillionaire real estate magnate, Lewis Rudin.
Kaletski wanders into the bedroom. Two of his paintings hang on the wall. He lounges on the bed for a photographer's benefit. For a moment he takes the languorous pose of the young Truman Capote, peaceful in his pillows. He knows the irony of the pose:
"What will Soviets say? They will say, 'Look at the decadence of it. The decadence of the traitor in the West.' "
What a sea-change Kaletski has undergone -- from the ocher tones of Moscow to the epicenter of western luxury. He left the Soviet Union 10 years ago, escaping not only the censorship and "incredible dullness there," but also a specific milieu -- the artistic underground of Moscow that he has described in his first novel, "Metro."
Written in Russian and then translated by Kaletski into a sometimes wooden English, the new novel describes an insular and desperate world where all the carousing, the parties and the lovemaking seem joyless, mechanical and sad. The main struggles in life are for propiska (permission to live in Moscow), for an apartment, for a job, for the ability to express oneself artistically and avoid the gag or even the pistol of the state. The stakes involved in Kaletski's struggle make those in some other contemporary young-man-with-problems tales, such as Jay McInerney's "Bright Lights, Big City," look indulgent and barren.
Kaletski describes a uniquely Russian version of Paris and Berlin in the '20s or Greenwich Village in the '30s, an artistic underground full of self-invented characters, obsessive drinking and improvised forms of delight:
"There were incredible bohemian people, sons and daughters of the government heads. Ninety percent of the government kids are spoiled brats. A lot of them study in diplomatic schools. Or spy schools if they're stupid. They have a name for KGB school -- 'diplomatic translator school,' I think. They are wild, spoiled guys. But they get fascinating foods from the Kremlin stores, clothes from foreigners. They get Marlboros, whiskey, shoes. They have special coupons.
"Parties, always parties. The most important thing for a party is an apartment, a free place. Orgies were very common. There's no other entertainment, so you have fun at home. Sometimes there are prostitutes, sometimes they are Komsomol a Communist youth league girls who act as prostitutes."
And what if the authorities find out?
"I don't think you can be arrested for this kind of thing unless you're hurting or killing someone."
Kaletski began his life in the Soviet Union in comfort. His father was the president of a construction company and the family was accorded all the perquisites of the elite nomenklatura: fine apartments, groceries, cars. They lived first in the Ukraine then moved to Tula, a city about 100 miles south of Moscow.
"I had happy childhood. We had everything. We had dacha. We had beautiful apartment. We went to Moscow to visit ballet.
"My mother came from a high communist family. Her father was a czar's commissar and in the revolution, well, he's got corner in the museum of the revolution. So all her life she believed in communism. But eventually she knew it was a lie."
In Moscow, as in New York, Kaletski worked as an actor, composer, folk singer and writer. He portrays himself in the novel as an innocent, a wide-eyed student of art and life who finally learns enough about his corner of the world to want to leave it.
One of the characters in "Metro" -- and in Kaletski's own past -- is Stas, the "wild man" who led Kaletski through the intricacies of the Moscow underground.
"Stas is dead now," Kaletski says. "He was unique, really crazy. Nowhere except Russia, I think. His real life was so gray and boring that he created a totally crazy life and he lived it totally. And he brought all his friends into that world, they were actors in it. And little by little 20 or 30 people were in this fictional world, avoiding the grayness."
"My last film was the story of the Soviet gymnast Olga Korbut," says Kaletski. "I played her childhood friend and adult suitor. They tried to cut my name and my part out of the movie. I was leaving Russia just as it was coming out and they tried to reshoot my scenes. But the girl who played Olga had grown in the time since it had been shot and they just couldn't do it.
"I hated all the stupid censorship. Not only political things, but anything that seemed like it was of real life was not allowed. Even a fight between Olga Korbut and her coach could not be played in a movie. They'd say, 'Such a thing would never happen in Soviet Union.' Everything is just so dull. On one level it's a scary system. I was arrested for singing a song in honor of poet Osip Mandelstam. But on another level, the system, it's funny, hysterical and absurd. I could usually see the absurdity in the situation but my wife Lena, it was killing her. She would have died, I think. We had to leave."
At the height of Jewish emigration in 1975, Kaletski and Lena researched and devised an intricate plan to obtain exit visas. Together they managed to convince officials that Kaletski's father had been born to a Jewish woman.
"I needed to make them think I was a Jew. It was the only way out," he says. "My father was an orphan and came from the south of the Ukraine. With a name like Kaletski he could have been Jewish. All the files and archives were gone after the fascists had been in that territory and so the story was almost impossible to check. I guess the Soviets didn't want a scandal. It was better to let me go quickly than to drag it out."
Kaletski wrote key words and phrases from his songs and novel-in-progress on four thin strips of cloth that he and Lena stuffed into their trouser cuffs before boarding the Aeroflot flight to the West.
"I knew I needed to be involved in something good in art," he says. "In the Soviet Union I was competing with stale, censored art. I needed to leave the Soviet Union for the real world. Just as I got on top in Russia, I left."
Kaletski began his life in the United States with more success than most e'migre's. He toured college campuses singing his folk songs. He wrote and lived in Astoria, Queens, a quick subway ride from Manhattan.
"I liked Queens," he says. "My neighborhood was Mafia-controlled, so there was no crime. It was like socialism, only an ideal version."
His marriage to Lena, however, failed: "We were divorced after about a year and a half. We had been partners in Russia. Partners to get an apartment in Moscow, partners to get abroad. But when we came to America we didn't really need to be together. It was a sad story in the end. But we are friends."
Kaletski is friendly with some Russian e'migre's in New York but he wonders why so many have had troubled adjusting to life in American cities in the United States: "I tried to change myself. Most of the Russians that have come here haven't done that. I'm proud to be Russian, but I have to fight all of this and be something different. It took 10 years to do, but I've finally done it."
The price of his departure, of course, is that Kaletski can never visit the Soviet Union. He says, "It's sadness to know you can't do something like see your native country again. I can achieve anything but that. It kills you in your heart."
His father has been dead for years and he has had almost no contact with his mother and sister for a decade. He recently wrote a long letter to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev: "I said, 'We've heard you are different, more human, than the others. Can't my mother visit me before she dies?' "
Kaletski has had secret contacts with the Soviet Union since his departure. "I've smuggled hundreds of records into the Soviet Union and they've been played on Radio Liberty," he says, and he hopes to get copies of "Metro" into Russia soon, too. "I know the channels. I'm sure I'll do it."
Kaletski springs forward on the bed, gripping "Metro" and the pieces of cloth he used for notes.
"I went through hell to write this book. I never expected it would take so long, but look at it! Such a beautiful-looking thing! It's my American dream."