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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

FACES & VOICES: An Eccentric Voice Tells About the Past




I was walking up the Arbat looking for the house where the bard Bulat Okudzhava used to live until his death last year. "Can I help you, assist you or be of any use to you?" asked an old but sprightly man with a head as bald as an egg. I did not immediately pay attention to his delightfully eccentric form of speech but just told him what I was looking for. "Not only can I show you where he lived but I can tell you all about Okudzhava and his family," he said.


And so he told me how the bard's parents had taken part in the Bolshevik Revolution in the Caucasus and known the then-chief of the Tbilisi secret police, Lavrenty Beria. When in 1938 the NKVD took Okudzhava's father away in the night from a flat on the Arbat, his mother appealed to their old friend Beria for help. Stalin's bespectacled henchman promised to look into the case. "But," said my new guide, "Beria knew perfectly well that Okudzhava's father was already dead and the next day he had his mother arrested too. Such was Okudzhava's childhood."


"How interesting," I said. "And who are you?"


"Samoil Davidov at your service."


He looked old enough to have been one of Stalin's victims himself but he said he had been lucky and suffered no more than discrimination in his profession because he was Jewish. "I was 25," he said, "when Stalin croaked, kicked the bucket, breathed his last, snuffed it, gave up the ghost and departed this life."


That was how Mr. Davidov talked, like a walking thesaurus.


He said he had spent his life working as an epidemiologist, a not very prestigious branch of medicine that was open to Jews when he started his career in the 1950s. His work took him to Third World countries such as Kenya and Bangladesh where he helped to fight cholera. When he retired, he found that his pension was inadequate but he believed in positive thinking and started brushing up his English as well as his rusty German so that he could offer himself as a guide to tourists.


"I try to amuse the foreigners," he said. "They pay me only if they are pleased. If not they are free to call me a fool, clot, nincompoop, blockhead, dimwit, dunderhead or dolt."


"I'm sure nobody would do that," I said.


Not only does Mr. Davidov entertain his clients but he also tries to pass on something of his vast knowledge of local history. His beat extends beyond the Arbat and he will give you a full-scale guided tour of the Kremlin if you wish.


"From a material point of view, I live poorly," he said. "When the Jews started being allowed to emigrate to Israel, I felt I was already too old to start a new life and stayed on in Russia. The reforms now are difficult but as you English say, 'You can't make an omelet without cracking eggs.' Instead of joining the Communists who say, 'Down with Yeltsin,' I thought I would try to earn my living."


What I appreciated most about Mr. Davidov was that he knew the real history behind the memorial plaques. "There's a house down there with plaques to two officers called Batitsky and Bagramian. What the plaques don't say is that Batitsky executed Beria and Bagramian was the so-called 'liberator' of Latvia," he said.


If you are interested in local history, don't just leave it to chance that you will meet Mr. Davidov on the street as I did. He takes bookings at 241-8509.