If there were a God, then Once There Was a Village, Yuri Kapralov’s chronicle of life as an exiled Russian artist on the Lower East Side, would have gone to Broadway instead of Rent. Only the staging of this book, set amid the riots of the late ’60s and the crime-infested turmoil of the early ’70s, might look like a cross between Les Miserables and No Exit.
Originally published in 1974, Kapralov’s surreal memoir was hailed by the Voice and Publishers’ Weekly as an “authentic” and “poignant” account of the multiethnic, junkie-ridden streets of Alphabet City. But the book dropped out of print until now, when it is being reissued by Akashic Books. Once There Was a Village is a time capsule of an era worn away by arson and the ensuing waves of gentrification. It is also the tale of a survivor, a warrior poet and artist who watched his own village in the North Caucasus mountains get carpet-bombed by the Germans during World War II, fought in the Korean War, and would later duke it out with the cops during the infamous Tompkins Square Park riot in 1988. (His bloodied, bald pate was featured on the cover of the Voice.)
During the ’60s, he was among those who occupied the Christodora Building on Avenue B, long before it became a luxury high-rise. He was active in the early homesteading movement and still lives in an embattled co-op on East 6th Street. At a time when the so-called radical East Village is being catalogued in gallery shows, documentaries, and walking tours like some animal on the verge of extinction, Kapralov’s eyes are an apt lens through which to view the neighborhood’s transformation from a way station for immigrant poor to the urban party zone it has become.
“I didn’t want to come to America; I was basically in the wrong place at the wrong time,” says the ailing 65-year-old, lunching on a plate of boiled beef at the old Ukrainian National Home on Second Avenue. Born in Stavropol, Kapralov spent the latter half of WWII laboring on a German farm—”one step above a concentration camp,” he recalls. In 1949, he was shipped to New York; from there, he and the other “orphaned” youth were taken to work on a Vermont farm. “The farmer was basically exploiting us, so we staged a little revolution and went to Nyack, where we lived in an abandoned zoo,” he recalls. “I lived in the house of the white elephant.”
Though Kapralov began visiting the Lower East Side in the early 1950s—then teeming with Russian youth clubs and social centers—he did not actually move there until 1965, when he brought his second wife and son to live in a run-down walk-up on Avenue D, then to the East 7th Street tenement he chronicles so vividly in Once There Was a Village. In those days, a beer at Vazac’s bar on Avenue B cost a quarter and you could rent a four-room railroad flat for $42 a month. Yet the scene, Kapralov says, was far from the bohemian romance it’s made out to be. Of all the social histories written about the Lower East Side, Once is the only one to document the riots that rocked Avenue C in 1967. Kapralov describes watching as an army of Tactical Patrol Force officers (an early incarnation of the NYPD SWAT teams) descended on East 7th Street to battle with scores of bottle-throwing teenagers, mostly Puerto Ricans angered by poor living conditions:
The bottles and garbage cans are now flying again, TPF’s are running back and forth, and kids have even managed to set a police communication truck on fire. And in the midst of all this, a contingent of the Petrograd Workers Commune, red and Vietcong flags waving…about fifty people, mostly white hippie-revolutionary types, are marching in the middle of Seventh Street from B…One of the TPF’s ventures into the intersection to retrieve something the marchers dropped when they fled. He gets hit on the side with a garbage can cover thrown like a frisbee.
Between bouts of drunken stupor and insanity, Kapralov made art—delicate pen-and-ink sketches, like the ones that illustrate the pages of Once, as well as large, abstract constructions made from bones and the guts of broken-down pianos. Although he has sold hundreds of pieces, and once showed in the company of Franz Kline and William De Kooning, Kapralov never attained fame as an artist. Nor has he had much luck as an author, though he’s written over 100 short stories and two other books.
The first, Castle Dubrava (published by E.P. Dutton in 1982) is a modern-day vampire tale set in the legendary home of Vlad the Impaler. Bizarrely, the book was originally agented by Lucianne Goldberg, the New York literary agent credited with scripting the Monica Lewinsky scandal. “That woman was a real witch,” Kapralov says of Goldberg, referring to a perceived conflict over the book contract. (Goldberg says, “I don’t know who this person is… that was like 20 years ago.”) Though well received, Castle Dubrava also went out of print—a shame for a page-turner that makes Anne Rice sound like a cheap soap opera hack.
In the cluttered, fifth-floor apartment he shares with three cats and his mottled dog Sharik, Kapralov shows me Devil’s Midnight, his 600-page account of the Russian Civil War based partly on stories he heard from his father, who served with both the White and Red armies. It remains unpublished, thanks to several chapters that various editors have deemed too gruesome. One of those disputed passages concerns the story of a faction of the Red Army that marched across the Russian plains and got caught in a buran, a fierce ice storm that happens in Russia only once every 200 years. “It lasted for three days and killed thousands. In Russia, they call it a chort—a devil.”
Kapralov still lives in a world haunted by devils and vampires—both the neighborhood’s and his own. His spirit broke in 1987 when his daughter, Faith, was raped and killed. If he had the money, he says, he’d go to Brazil to find a witch doctor he knows who could cure the cancerlike illness that’s rotting his body. But like those who linger too long in the swampy backwaters of Loisaida, Kapralov now finds himself rooted to a past not entirely his own. His sadness is reflected in his descriptions of the “empty-eye sockets” of abandoned tenements that once littered the nabe: “The buildings are dead, but they don’t know it yet. There are still human spirits flying through the empty, fucked-up hallways, and every crumbling wall talks to you when you’re willing to listen. And the layers of cheap linoleum are wondering whatever happened to all the tired feet that were scraping them day after day…Irish feet, black and Puerto Rican feet, Ukrainian and hippie and, finally, the unsteady feet of the junkies. All gone.”
“The neighborhood lasted a few more years than I expected,” he says of the East Village he eulogized in 1974. “But now, I don’t have much hope. It’s totally invaded by people who don’t care about the history…There’s a lot of Euro-trash French, Germans, Japanese, Russian mafia. They’re buying up everything. It’s basically divide and conquer….Maybe next the Mongolians will come and start setting fires in the streets and taking over houses, and then everyone will start squawking about them, too. I hope so.”