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TANYA, MISHA, LENA, AND RINAT: WHERE ARE THEY NOW?
S o, where are we now?—we who lived in the Soviet Union, where most of us had a stable job and a salary we could rely on, who had unbounded, unshakable confidence in what tomorrow would bring. We who knew there were doctors who could treat our ailments and teachers who would help us learn. And who also knew that we would not pay a kopeck for all these benefits. What kind of existence are we eking out now? What new roles have we been allocated?
The changes since the end of the Soviet era have been threefold. First, we underwent a personal revolution (in parallel, of course, with the social revolution) at the time of the demise of the Soviet Union and during the regime of Boris Yeltsin. Everything vanished in an instant: Soviet ideology, cheap sausage, money, and the certainty that there was a Big Daddy in the Kremlin; even if he was a despot, at least he was responsible for us.
The second change came with the 1998 debt default. Many of us had managed to earn a bit in the years after 1991, when the market economy was introduced, and there were signs that a middle class was being formed. A Russian middle class, admittedly, not like what you might find in the West, but a middle class nonetheless, one that would support democracy and the free market. Overnight, it all disappeared. By then, many people were so tired of the daily struggle for survival that they could not rise to the new challenge; they simply sank without a trace.
The third change came under Putin, as we embarked upon a new stage of Russian capitalism with obvious neo-Soviet features. The economy in the era of our third president is a curious hybrid of the free market, ideological dogma, and various other features. It is a model that puts Soviet ideology at the service of big-time private capital. There are an awful lot of poor, indeed destitute, people. In addition, an old phenomenon is flourishing again: the nomenklatura, a ruling elite, the great bureaucratic class that existed under the Soviet system. The economic system may have changed, but members of the elite have adapted to it. The nomenklatura would like to live the high life, like the New Russian business elite, only their official salaries are tiny. They have no desire to return to the old Soviet system, but neither does the new system entirely suit them. The problem is that it requires law and order, something Russian society is demanding ever more insistently; accordingly, the nomenklatura spends most of its time trying to get around the law in order to promote its status.
As a result, Putin’s new-old nomenklatura has taken corruption to heights undreamed of under the Communists or Yeltsin. It is now devouring small and middle-size businesses, and with them the middle class. It is giving big and super-big business, the monopolies and quasi-state enterprises, the opportunity to develop. (In other words, they are the nomenklatura’s preferred source of bribes.) Indeed, they represent the kinds of businesses that produce the highest, most stable returns not only for their owners and managers but also for their patrons in the state administration. In Russia, big business without patrons, or “curators,” in the state administration does not exist. This misconduct has nothing to do with market forces. Putin is trying to gain the support of the so-called byvshie , the ci-devants, who occupied leadership positions under the Soviet regime. Their hankering after old times is so strong that the ideology underpinning Putin-style capitalism is increasingly reminiscent of the thinking in the Soviet Union during the height of the period of stagnation in the late Brezhnev years—the late 1970s and early 1980s.
Tanya, Misha, Lena, and Rinat are real people (although I have changed some of their names), not fictional characters, ordinary Russians who, together with the rest of the country, have been struggling to survive. They were all my friends. This is what has happened to them since 1991.
It is early winter, 2002. The Nord-Ost saga has just ended. Russian society, particularly in Moscow, is in a state of shock. I appeared on television, playing a small part in these events, and, as a result, old friends reappeared in my life.
The late-night call was from Tanya. Actually she had always rung in the small hours, so late that most people were already asleep.
I hadn’t seen Tanya, my sometime neighbor, for ten years or so. In those days she had been downtrodden, but now she was a queen. She looked triumphant and chic, not because she was expensively dressed, which she was, but because she was self-possessed and poised. This was something new.
In the Soviet period, Tanya’s life had been one long torment. Almost every evening she would come down to see me (I lived on the ground floor of an old block of flats, and she lived at the top). She would weep over the fact that her life was ruined.
In those years Tanya was an engineer in a research institute and thus was regarded as belonging to the Soviet scientific and technical intelligentsia, a substantial social category that no longer exists.
How did one come to belong to that stratum? At the time, a young woman from a good family—Tanya was the only daughter of well-established parents—was expected to pursue higher education; if, after secondary school, she showed no particular inclinations or aptitudes, she studied at a technical institute, of which there were any number, and became an engineer. After graduating, she was required to work for three years at the speciality the state had trained her in at its expense. Accordingly, there was a whole army of people who were deeply dissatisfied with life, young specialists who had never wanted to be engineers and who now spent their working days in research institutes producing nothing useful whatsoever.
Tanya was a fully paid-up member of this army, with the profession of engineer of communal facilities in nuclear power stations. For days at a time and without the least enthusiasm, she would design projects for drainage and water-supply systems that nobody ever built, receiving a minuscule salary in return. She was always unhappy because of a chronic shortage of money. She tried to feed and clothe her family decently, frantically ministering to her two small, perpetually sick children and her husband, a rather odd young man named Andrey, a lecturer at a prestigious technical university in Moscow.
As a result, Tanya was a typical neurasthenic, endlessly tormenting herself, Andrey, and the children with her bad moods, her hysteria, her depressions, and her constant dissatisfaction.
To make matters worse, Tanya was from Rostov-on-Don. She had managed to move to Moscow by marrying Andrey, whom she had met on a Black Sea beach. She was regarded as little better than one of the limitchiki , menial “quota workers” who, in the mid-1970s, were granted temporary residence permits in Moscow in return for working in unpopular or undersupplied occupations. At that time there were no end of female “engineers” in the capital, women from the provinces who had married Muscovites. No one wanted to remain outside Moscow, and young women from good families did their best to move there.
Tanya did not know what she wanted, but she knew clearly what she did not want: to be an engineer and to be living in penury with the impoverished Andrey. We talked about it a lot. Tanya was angry because she saw no way out.
There were often noisy disputes at home. In accordance with Soviet tradition, Tanya, not having a place of her own in Moscow, should have lived with Andrey in his flat, but he did not have an apartment either. So they ended up sharing one large flat with Andrey’s parents and his two elder brothers, each of whom had a family and a couple of children.
All in all, it was a typical Soviet beehive, but with no option to swarm and achieve independence. To make things worse, Andrey came from a genteel old Moscow family consisting of exceptional people. One, for example, was a famous professor who had taught the violin at the state conservatory. He was the second husband of Andrey’s grandmother, who had also been a professor of violin there. His grandmother had died long ago, but her husband was still in the beehive. Like Tanya, he had nowhere else to go.
Andrey’s parents were professors of physics and mathematics. The elder brother was a professor of chemistry at Moscow University who made one discovery after another, although his achievements had little material impact on his life.
The situation made Tanya more and more exasperated. She considered Andrey’s family to be a bunch of incompetent failures despite the dozens of academic qualifications they possessed, and Andrey’s family reciprocated wholeheartedly, constantly finding fault with her. Tanya, it’s important to remember, was from Rostov-on-Don, where, even in Soviet times, people traded in any available product. Illegal underground workshops flourished there. Many rich men divided their time between prison and the outside world, and no one considered it a disgrace. The newspapers called them speculators and con artists, but the young women of Rostov were happy enough to marry them.
When we first met in the early 1980s, Tanya already thought she had made a mistake in marrying Andrey. Love hadn’t come into it. She admitted she had simply swallowed the bait of residence in Moscow. She came out of herself only when she could produce pretty things she had picked up who knows where and was inviting you to buy them. She undoubtedly had a special gift for commercial persuasiveness. She could sell you a blouse of appalling quality at three times its value while assuring you, “It’s what people are wearing in Europe.” When the fraud came to light, she would not be embarrassed in the least. This talent for speculative trade was something that Andrey’s traditionalist, highly educated family despised.
Now, in 2002, Tanya invited me to her home, which turned out to be that same spacious flat in the heart of Moscow.
The flat had been magnificently refurbished. The place was crammed with the latest technology, excellent copies of famous paintings, high-quality reproduction antique furniture. Tanya was almost fifty, but her skin was youthful and healthy, her clothes bright. She talked in a loud, confident voice, very openly, and although she laughed a lot her face remained unwrinkled. Obviously she had had plastic surgery, a telltale sign that she had made the big time.
Has Andrey struck it rich? I wondered. Tanya strode through the rooms. Ten years ago she had preferred to whisper in this flat, to sit in the corner of one of the rooms, avoiding her in-laws.
“Well, where is the family?”
“I’ll tell you, only don’t faint. All this belongs to me now.”
“It’s yours? Congratulations! But where do they live?”
“In a minute, in a minute. Everything in good time.”
A handsome young man about the age Tanya’s sons must be now, I supposed, slipped quietly into the room. The last time I’d seen her boys, they’d been children, so I blurted out, “Can this really be… Igor?”
Igor was Tanya and Andrey’s elder son and must by then have been twenty-four or twenty-five.
Tanya burst out laughing. Peals of merriment, mischievous, echoing, youthful. Not at all like Tanya.
“My name is David,” the handsome, ox-eyed young man with dark curly hair murmured. He kissed Tanya’s manicured hand. I remembered a time when her hands hadn’t looked like that: they had been worn by many hours of washing clothes for a large family. David drifted off into the depths of the flat. “Well, don’t let me spoil things for you, girls.”
Oh, dear. We really were not girls.
“All right, tell me. Reveal the secrets of your youthfulness and prosperity,” I begged my old friend. “Where is your family?”
“They aren’t my family anymore.”
“What about Andrey?”
“We split up. My sentence of hard labor came to an end.”
“Have you remarried? This boy? David?”
“David is my boyfriend, short-term, just for the sake of my health, really. He’s my toy boy. I’ll keep him for as long as I feel like it.”
“Good heavens! Who are you working for?”
“I don’t work for anyone. I work for myself,” Tanya answered firmly and with a metallic edge to her voice that didn’t seem to go with the image of the slightly indolent, manicured lady with a young lover who was sitting opposite me.
Tanya is a happy product of the new life. In the summer of 1992, when there was nothing to eat in the majority of homes in Moscow (the outcome of “economic shock treatment,” part of the market reforms of then-prime minister Yegor Gaidar), Tanya, together with her children and the rest of the professor’s family, was living in the country at the in-laws’ old dacha.
In that terrible, hungry summer, Muscovites, if they had a dacha, were sitting it out in their wooden shacks in the country and growing vegetables for the winter so as to have at least something to eat. The research institute where Tanya worked had closed for the summer. The facility had no work at all and hadn’t, in any case, paid anybody’s salaries for ages. The employees, town dwellers all, had gone off to hoe their vegetable patches or to trade in the markets that had sprung up in large numbers on the streets of starving Moscow. Tanya was busy growing vegetables of her own and looking after the children. Andrey often stayed in the city and didn’t come back to sleep at the dacha because, unlike the majority of research institutes, his technological university had not closed.
One morning, for some reason, Tanya turned up in Moscow unexpectedly, unlocked the door of their flat, and found Andrey and a young woman student in her matrimonial bed. A loud-mouthed woman from the south of Russia, Tanya bawled at Andrey so the whole apartment block could hear her.
Andrey made no excuses. He said he loved the student. She herself said nothing, got dressed, and went through to the kitchen, where she began boiling the kettle for tea as if nothing had happened.
For Tanya her rival’s silence and her manifest familiarity with the layout of the flat was the last straw. She decided, then and there, that she hadn’t been putting up with Andrey’s pathetic family all her married life only to let a rival invade their space. She told Andrey not to imagine he could get away with it. He collected his things and left with the student.
That, in effect, was the day Tanya’s new, completely independent life began. Andrey behaved abominably, giving her not a kopeck to support herself or the children. Three years later, when Tanya had made a little money, she would, in fact, occasionally feed him and even buy him clothes, but not from any feeling of sympathy. Tanya fed Andrey because revenge is sweet. She gave him red caviar, a symbol of luxury in Soviet times, which she could now afford. Andrey gobbled it up until it was coming out of his ears, not even blushing at the humiliation, because he was so hungry. At times he ate at the soup kitchens set up at churches, pretending, for good measure, to be a believer. He even learned how to cross himself.
In 1992, the summer of the free-market breakthrough, these events were still in the future. After a week, when there was nothing left to feed the children, and with her mother-in-law insisting that she must forgive Andrey and take him back, Tanya went off to trade at a nearby market.
Her mother-in-law shrieked, “The disgrace of it! The disgrace!” and took to her bed. She soon came around, however, when Tanya began buying her medicine with the disgraceful money she was making at the market. Not one of the old lady’s sons, her husband, or her other daughters-in-law had been able to do anything like this for her. Matters had taken on a tragicomic aspect when it was resolved, at a family council, that they would never, come what may, sell off the family heirlooms, the antique furniture inherited from their forebears, the rare antiquarian music albums, the pictures by famous nineteenth-century Russian painters. Lying obstinately in her bed and readying herself for death rather than disgrace, Tanya’s mother-in-law was the first to vote against the idea. In the early 1990s, other long-established families who had held on to their heirlooms through the Stalin years were selling them off on the cheap or, as people said at the time, “for a meal.”
Meanwhile, Tanya was out at the market from six in the morning until eleven at night. It was not work but hard labor. It was pure purgatory, but it had one redeeming feature: this was slavery with a price tag. Tanya, stood in the market and earned real rubles that rustled in her pocket. What was more, you got your cash on the day. You stood there and you got the money, not later but right then, and that was what mattered. Tanya always came home with money. She also came home with swollen legs, barely able to put one foot in front of the other, and with enormous swollen crab-claw hands, incapable even of washing herself or making herself look half human. But—she was almost happy!
“You may not believe it, but I was happy not to be dependent on anyone else anymore. Not on the director of the institute, who didn’t pay me; not on Andrey, who was giving me nothing, not on my mother-in-law, with her family heirlooms and traditions. I depended solely on myself.” Tanya, now rich and beautiful, told me the story of how it had all changed ten years ago. “My mother-in-law? Well, one fine day I just told her where to get off. ‘Go **** yourself!’ And what do you think? For the first time she didn’t preach back at me. It was a revelation. A revolution took place before my eyes. The seemingly incorruptible old Moscow intelligentsia was being broken. It was being broken by the money I was giving my mother-in-law. She stopped lecturing me because I started feeding her. Me, the one who was always in the wrong. Gradually all of them, that whole family, which had looked down on me for so many years because I didn’t come from the same sort of background and because, as they always said, I had inveigled Andrey into marrying me because I wanted to move to Moscow, the whole bunch learned to smile at me and even to listen attentively to what I had to tell them.
“And it was just because I was feeding them all by trading at that market. I gloried in it. I was prepared to continue doing it for just one reason: to get more and more money, more and more, and to humiliate them by rubbing their noses in it.”
When Tanya returned home toward midnight, she would collapse on the bed. She no longer had any time for her sons. She did not check their homework. She would collapse and then she was out like a light. Early the next morning everything started again.
Her mother-in-law began looking after Tanya’s children—for the first time, it has to be said, since they had been living under the same roof. Tanya was amazed yet again.
In the market, Tanya found herself working for an adroit young man who was a “shuttle,” as people said then. Nikita’s “shuttling” consisted of importing cheap clothes from Turkey, cheap watermelons from Uzbekistan, cheap mandarins from Georgia—in fact, anything cheap from anywhere at all. Tanya and the other women working for him sold his goods. There were no taxes, no state levies. In the market, the rules were the same as inside a prison. Disagreements were resolved at knifepoint, extortion was rife, people got beaten up. The women traders were mostly in the same situation as Tanya, single women with children abandoned at home, former members of the scientific and technical intelligentsia whose institutes, publishing houses, or editorial offices had closed. They were little better than whores for their bosses.
Soon Tanya was sleeping with Nikita. He picked her out from the others, despite the difference in their ages, and took her with him to Turkey on a buying trip. He took her once, then a second and a third time, and within two months Tanya, a woman with a commercial streak, had become a shuttle herself, having seen that the enterprise really wasn’t rocket science.
Then Nikita was murdered, shot by no one knew whom. One morning they found him at the market with a bullet hole in his head, and that was that. Nikita’s saleswomen migrated across the way to Tanya and were glad to do so. Tanya proved much more efficient than Nikita, and business began to boom. As a bonus, Tanya was less of a shit than the deceased.
After another six months, Tanya stopped traveling to Turkey. Not because she was tired, although life as a shuttle was hard. At that time you had to carry the goods yourself, in enormous bundles that you dragged around airports and railway stations, skimping at every turn, even on luggage carts, which had to be paid for. She stopped traveling herself because she had discovered her niche: she was exceptionally good at business.
Tanya flourished, and her business soon grew to the extent that she hired five and then another five shuttles and became the proprietor of what, in the context of a local market, was a large business. The shuttles traveled, her women traded, and Tanya managed them all. She was already going around, as people put it, “not dressed like a Turk”—in other words, like a European. She was a habituée of all the restaurants, where she ate, got drunk, threw her money about, and relaxed after work. She had plenty of money left over for herself, her family, and her workers. Takings in those years were astronomical. She had lovers befitting her income and years: virtuosos. Tanya got rid of them when she felt like it. Andrey, to be frank, had not been worth much in that department.
Another year passed and Tanya decided to refurbish the flat, having first taken over ownership of it. She bought some rather poky apartments for Andrey, his brothers, and her father-in-law, which made all of them happy. Tanya kept her elderly mother-in-law with her. Pity aside, she needed someone to look after her sons. The elder, Igor, had reached puberty and was causing problems, while the younger boy was sickly.
Tanya did, however, carry through the refurbishment as a kind of retaliation. “I just really wanted to show them who owned the place!”
She threw everything out, absolutely everything. She sold off all the heirlooms and expunged all traces of her in-laws’ dusty gentry past. Nobody protested. Her mother-in-law went off to the dacha and kept out of the way. The result was a modern European flat equipped with cutting-edge technology.
After the renovation Tanya decided to move on: she abandoned the shuttle business and went into mainstream commerce, buying a number of shops in Moscow.
“What? Those shops belong to you?” I couldn’t believe my ears. Tanya was the owner of two excellent supermarkets I would drive to after work. “Congratulations! But your prices… !”
“I know, but Russia is a rich country!” Tanya parried, laughing.
“Not that rich. You’ve become an imperialist. A bit hard-nosed.”
“Of course. Yeltsin’s gone, and with him the easy money and the romance. The people in power now are insatiable pragmatists, and I am one of them. You are against Putin, but I am for him. He almost seems like a brother to me, downtrodden in the past and getting his own back now.”
“What do you mean by ‘insatiable’?”
“The bribes. The endless bribes you have to give everyone. Just to keep hold of my shops, I pay up. Who don’t I give bribes to? The pencil pushers at the police station, the firemen, the hygiene inspectors, the municipal government. And the gangsters whose land my shops are on. Actually, I bought them from gangsters.”
“Aren’t you afraid to do business with them?”
“No. I have a dream: I want to be rich. In today’s Russia that means I have to pay them all off. Without that ‘tax’ I would be shot tomorrow and replaced by someone else.”
“You aren’t exaggerating?”
“If anything, I am understating things.”
“What about the bureaucrats?”
“Some of the bureaucrats I pay myself, and the rest are paid by the gangsters. I give the gangsters money and they keep those other gangsters, our bureaucrats, sweet. Actually, it’s quite convenient.”
“Where is Andrey now?”
“He died. In the end he couldn’t take the fact that I had moved up in the world and he was eating my caviar. He asked me to take him back, but I wanted none of it. I told him to find himself another student. Anyway, I don’t want to live with an ugly man. I’ve decided I like handsome men. I go to male strip shows and choose my partners there.”
“You’re kidding! Don’t you miss family life? Domestic bliss?”
“No. I don’t. I’ve just started living. There is a downside. Of course there is. You may think it is all sordid, but what was so pure about the way I used to live?”
“What about the children?”
“Igor, unfortunately, has turned out a weakling, like Andrey. He’s on drugs. I’ve sent him to a clinic. This is the fifth time already…. I am having Stasik educated in London. I’m very pleased with him. Very. He’s first in everything there. My mother-in-law looks after him. I rent a small flat for her. Stasik lives in a student hostel during the week, and at the weekends in this flat with my mother-in-law. I paid for her to have a hip replacement. They did it in Switzerland. She’s come back to life, running around like a young woman, and she absolutely worships me. I think she really does. It’s a great thing, money is.”
David swirled into the room bearing a tray. “Time for tea, girls,” he crooned. “Just the three of us. All right, Tanechka?”
Tanya nodded and said she’d be right back. She wanted to change for tea. David exuded degeneracy and languor. It was all rather unpleasant. A couple of minutes later, Tanya returned. She was covered in diamonds, her ears ablaze, her decolletage ashimmer. Even her hair was glittering.
The show was for my benefit. I politely registered appreciation. Tanya was really pleased, as radiant as her diamonds from the pleasure of presenting herself, the new Tanya, to an old friend.
We quickly drank our tea and said our good-byes.
“Only not for ten years this time!” Tanya proposed as we parted.
“Let’s make an effort,” I replied, and thought as I went down the stairs that in the Putin era people really did meet up more often. Old friends, I mean. There was a time in Russia, the late Yeltsin period, when everybody was terribly busy just surviving, when people didn’t phone each other for years, some embarrassed because they were poor, some because they were rich. It was a time when many emigrated forever; when many put a bullet in their brains because nobody seemed to need them anymore; when people snorted cocaine out of disgust with themselves. Now, however, it was as if everybody who had survived was meeting up again. Society had become noticeably more orderly, and people even had free time.
When the new times had arrived, women were the driving force, going into business, divorcing their husbands. The husbands became gangsters, and in the first years of the Yeltsin period, many died in shoot-outs. These things happened because, on the eve of perestroika, many Russian women had felt, like Tanya, that they would never be able to change their lives. Suddenly here was their big chance.
A week later I had to be at a press conference in connection with a special election to the municipal duma, I think. And there, quite unexpectedly, I met Tanya again. In our already rather structured and, as under the Soviets, cliquish society, owners of supermarkets just don’t go to political press conferences.
Tanya manifested herself to the world of journalists with never a hair out of place, in a classic black business suit and without a single diamond to be seen. David was there as well, and he, too, gave a topnotch performance, flawlessly playing the role of Tanya’s business secretary, modest but not ingratiating. No “girls” on this occasion.
I sat with the journalists. Tanya was on the other side of the barricades. Handed a microphone, she was the last to speak. She was one of the candidates running for a seat in the municipal duma. She told the journalists, including me, how she saw the problems of the homeless in Moscow, and promised to fight for their rights if the voters did her the honor of electing her to be a member of the legislative assembly.
“What on earth do you need this for? You’re rich already,” I asked Tanya when the press conference was over.
“I told you, I want to be even richer. It’s very simple: I don’t want to pay bribes to our councilor.”
“Is that all?”
“You have no idea of the level of corruption nowadays. Gangsters in Yeltsin’s time didn’t even dream of this. If I become a councilor, that will be one ‘tax’ less.”
“But why have you taken to defending the homeless in particular?” We wandered into a French café nearby. Tanya had chosen it; the place was too expensive for me.
“I think that backdrop will make me look good. Anyway, I really can help them pull themselves up by their bootstraps. I’ve done it myself.”
“And why at the press conference, at the end of your speech, did you talk about Putin? About how much you love and respect and trust him? Did your image makers tell you to say that? It’s in terrible taste.”
“No, it isn’t. It’s what you have to do nowadays. I know that, without any help from ‘image makers.’” Tanya stumbled over these difficult English words, which have immigrated into Russia along with the new life. “If I didn’t mention Putin, our local FSB man would be around to see me in the shop tomorrow to complain I wasn’t saying what everybody says. That’s the kind of life we businesspeople lead now.”
“So what if he came around and said that?”
“So nothing. He would just demand a bribe.”
“To ‘forget’ what I hadn’t said.”
“Listen, aren’t you tired of all this?”
“No. If I need to kiss Putin’s backside to get another couple of shops, I’ll do it.”
“But what do you mean by ‘get’? You just buy them, don’t you? Pay for them, and that’s it?”
“No, things are different now. To ‘get’ something, you have to earn the right from the bureaucrats to buy the shop with your own money. Russian capitalism, it’s called. Personally, I like it. When I tire of it, I’ll buy myself citizenship somewhere and move on.”
We parted. Of course Tanya got elected. She’s said to be not bad. She puts her heart into battling for the poor of Moscow. She’s organized another canteen for the homeless and refugees, she’s bought another three supermarkets, and she often speaks on television in praise of our modern times. She rang recently and asked me to write an article about her. I did. The one you are reading right now. She asked to read it before it was published, was horrified, and said, “It’s all true.” She made me promise not to publish it in Russia before her death.
“How about abroad?”
“Go ahead. Let them know what our money smells of.”
So now you do.
Misha and Lena
Misha was married to Lena, my school friend from early childhood. She had married him when they were at college in the late 1970s. At that time, Misha was a very clever, talented young man who translated from German, who dubbed films while still a student at the Institute of Foreign Languages, and whose future seemed very bright. When he graduated, he was inundated with attractive offers of employment, not something that happened often.
Misha landed a job in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which was very prestigious, especially toward the end of the Soviet period. It was unusual for a man without family connections to get into such a closed corporation as our MFA. Misha had none. He had been brought up by his grandmother, a humble cleaning woman. His mother had died suddenly, from a brain tumor, when Misha was only fourteen. His father had promptly abandoned his orphaned family and run off with another woman.
So there was Misha in the MFA. We were great friends. We would go on picnics together, grill kebabs in the forest over a campfire and enjoy ourselves thoroughly. Lena and I were very close, and Misha was keen to be friends, too.
Underpinning our relationship were my two small children. When Misha came visiting, he simply couldn’t take his eyes off them. He would watch them with delight no matter what nonsense they got up to, talk to them and play with them for hours at a time.
All our friends knew that Misha very much wanted to have children. He was obsessed with the idea, but Lena was a talented linguist. She was writing her dissertation and kept postponing having a baby until after she had graduated in philological sciences.
Misha was very jumpy as a result. He gradually developed a complex about the fact that they did not have any children. He began to suffer and to torment those around him, most of all Lena. However, Lena was made of stern stuff, and once she had made up her mind, nothing was going to change it. She would defend her dissertation and get her degree, and after that she would get pregnant. That was all there was to it.
Misha reacted by taking to the bottle. He put up with his disappointment for as long as he could but then just went off the rails. At first he didn’t drink a lot, and people laughed at his behavior and teased him, but then his bouts began to last for several days at a time. He would disappear, and goodness knows where he was spending his nights. Later still he would drink for weeks at a time. Lena thought that perhaps she should give in and not finish her dissertation, but how do you make a baby with a man who is permanently inebriated?
Then the new times came—Gorbachev, Yeltsin—and the only reason Misha wasn’t fired for his chronic drinking (he would have been sacked instantly under the Communists) was that there was no one to replace him. MFA staff who knew languages and had experience on the other side of the Iron Curtain were suddenly worth their weight in gold. They abandoned the cash-strapped MFA to work for the commercial firms and branches of foreign companies that were springing up. Misha got no offers, even though the Germans were the first to dash into the Russian market and translators fluent in German were the most sought after of all.
Even at the MFA, Misha’s days were numbered, and he was eventually fired. Late one night at the end of 1996, in December when there was around thirty degrees of frost, someone rang my doorbell. It was Lena, wearing only her nightdress under a coat. You just don’t walk around Moscow dressed like that in winter, and certainly not if you are Lena, who was always immaculately turned out. She was an equable, well brought up, and intelligent young woman. Now, however, one foot was bare, as if she were a destitute person without a home to go to, while on the other foot the top of a half-laced boot was flapping like a flag. My friend was shivering as if she had fallen through ice and just been pulled out of the freezing water. Something had frightened her half to death, and the shock had made her incoherent.
“Misha, Misha,” she repeated over and over again, sobbing loudly, quite unlike her usual self and seemingly unaware of where she was or of the people around her.
The children had woken up by now and came quietly out of their room. They stood by Lena, spellbound by an anguish they could not understand. Lena finally noticed them, pulled herself together, took a tranquilizer with a glass of water, and began to explain what had happened.
Misha had been away from home for three nights in a row. Lena wasn’t really expecting him back. She had gotten used to his drinking bouts and his absences, and so she went to bed. She had to go to the institute early in the morning. Shortly after midnight, however, Misha suddenly turned up. This was unusual.
This time he came straight in through the door and, just as he was, in his winter coat and dirty shoes, unwashed and stinking, walked into the bedroom and stood over Lena in menacing silence, staring at her in the semidarkness. He seemed out of his mind. His black eyes were shining unnaturally, and there was a silvery gleam on his cheeks. His once handsome face was contorted in a grimace. Lena pulled the covers up and said nothing. She knew from bitter experience of living with an incipient alcoholic that it was pointless to say anything. Despite appearances, you were talking to someone who could not hear. You just had to wait for him to fall asleep.
Misha moved closer to the bed and said, “That’s it…. It’s all your fault… that I drink… and now I am going to kill you.”
Lena heard a note of quiet determination in Misha’s voice that left no room for doubt. She jumped up and rushed around the room. At first, Misha cornered her on the balcony, and she thought she’d had it, but drunks are clumsy and she was able to slip past him, grab some things by the front door, and run out across the snow to the nearest refuge, my block of flats.
After that they got divorced, and although neither was at all maudlin by nature, they would both come to sob in my kitchen and tell me how much they loved each other but how they could never live together again.
I continued to see Misha, although increasingly less often. He would drop by once in a while, mainly to ask for money, because he was continuing to drink and very hard up. He had only the occasional translation to make ends meet.
On his rare sober visits, he told me he was trying to stop drinking and start a new life. He had developed an interest in Orthodox Christianity, was reading religious books, had been baptized, had found a confessor whom he trusted, and was going to confession and communion and finding solace in doing so. He was convinced that redemption was possible. Misha’s outward appearance was not, however, that of someone on the road to salvation. He was in a bad way, his hair greasy and unkempt. He wore a threadbare, obviously secondhand black coat that was much too short for him, and when I asked where he was living, blurted out some nonsense to the effect that nobody understood him and it was difficult to live anywhere when nobody understands you.
Under Yeltsin this was not a particularly unusual or surprising sight. A lot of penniless people were wandering the streets, people who had been well educated, respectable citizens who had lost their jobs and taken to drink when they could find no place for themselves in the new reality. It was precisely on this fertile ground of general dissatisfaction, unemployment, and the laying off of many who had been members of the professions in the Soviet period that Orthodoxy became fashionable, and the failures who had lost their work, their spouses, or their reasons for being ran to the church, although not all of them, certainly, were genuine believers.
Accordingly, Misha was one of many people on that path. He came to see me one time, sober and yet joyful, and invited me to congratulate him. He had become a father the day before; he had a son. We hastened to say how pleased we were: at last his dream had come true. For some reason, however, Misha was not in the seventh heaven we expected.
The boy was named Nikita. A long time before, when Misha was still married to Lena, he had often mused that if he had a son, he would name him Nikita.
“Who is Nikita’s mother?” I asked cautiously.
“A young girl.”
“Do you live with her? Are you married… or going to get married?”
“No. Her parents don’t like me.”
“Then rent a flat and live with your son. That is so important.”
“I haven’t got any money.”
“Start earning some.”
“I don’t want to and I can’t. I just can’t—it’s simply not possible.”
He cut off any further attempts at conversation.
More than a year passed. Yeltsin abdicated power, nominating Putin as his successor. The second Chechen war started. Putin was constantly on television. One moment he was flying a military aircraft, the next issuing instructions in Chechnya. The election, a foregone conclusion, was approaching.
Late one night Lena called. “Do you know what?” she said in a barely recognizable voice, hoarse, like the voice of a singer after a concert. “I have just had a phone call. Misha has killed the woman he was living with. She has left a fourteen-year-old son from her first marriage. The boy was in the flat when it happened. Misha got drunk. Apparently the woman was older than he, felt sorry for him and drank with him so he wouldn’t feel so lonely. Anyway, they were drinking together yesterday when Misha took a knife and said what he said to me: ‘I am going to kill you.’”
Lena burst into tears. “It could have been me,” she said. “Do you remember? You were all trying to persuade me not to get divorced. You said he would sort himself out, that he needed treatment. But he would just have killed me.”
The court was lenient on Misha, especially after the story of his life was related. He was sentenced to four and a half years. Not much for a murder. The court held that he was not mentally ill or suffering from diminished responsibility, despite his alcoholism.
Misha was sent to a labor camp in Mordovia, in the depths of the forests. Six months later, the commandant of the camp came to see Lena in her Moscow flat, where by now she was living with a new husband and the son she had finally had. The commandant was not the brightest of men but evidently had a kind heart. The decision to visit Lena was his own. He considered it his duty, as he was in the capital on business, to find her, despite the fact that she was divorced from Misha, and tell her that “her Michael” (as the commandant described him, to the horror of her new husband) was the best prisoner he had ever met, the most literate and hardest-working person in the camp. The commandant, who evidently had a pedagogical bent, had appointed him to look after the prisoners’ library, and Misha had reorganized it. He was reading a lot himself and working with the other criminals in the role of psychologist. Misha had single-handedly constructed a wooden church inside the camp’s barbed wire and was preparing to become a monk. He was corresponding with a monastery to find guidance on his chosen path. The commandant also informed Lena that he supported Misha’s monastic inclinations, since he could see only good coming from them for his contingent of murderers, rapists, and old convicts. At Misha’s request, he was going to buy a church plate in the Moscow Patriarchate shop and take it back to the camp.
The jailer ended by promising he that would intercede to have Misha’s sentence reduced on the grounds of exemplary conduct.
“Lena, are you not glad?” he asked the divorced wife, noticing that she was practically in tears.
“I am frightened,” she replied.
“There’s no need for that,” Misha’s commandant replied. “He has changed a lot. He isn’t dangerous. He doesn’t drink anymore, and he won’t kill anyone else. At least, I don’t think so.”
The commandant smoothed his hair, drank his tea, rubbed his hands together as if intending to produce fire from his palms, and added, “To tell the truth, I am a bit sorry he will be leaving.”
We started readying ourselves for whatever might transpire. Misha might resurface in Moscow at any moment. In any event, it was 2001 before he reappeared. For a few weeks he bobbed around, again with nowhere to stay, his German forgotten, by now completely incapable of adapting to the new life.
I had known for a long time that he was in Moscow, but we met by chance on Tverskoy Boulevard. When our paths crossed, I barely recognized the features that had once been so familiar. We sat down on a bench and spoke for three hours or so without a break. He didn’t ask about my children, and I didn’t ask about his son. Misha simply needed someone to talk to, someone to hear him out.
He talked the whole time about choosing the right monastery. I looked closely at the man in front of me. Of the earlier Misha, or what he had been in his youth, almost nothing remained. He looked gray, old, and flabby. Of the talent you once could have seen in him, nothing remained. There was only a grudge against fate, and a lot of prison slang. In addition, Misha treated me to a lot of banal nonsense about the meaning of life, in the way it is written about in crude brochures for the barely literate. I realized the kind of library they must have had in the camp in Mordovia.
“Have you found a job?”
“Where? The pay is low everywhere, and they expect a lot.”
“Well, we’re all in that situation now. We just have to put up with it—” I began.
Misha interrupted me. “Well, I don’t want to be like everybody else.”
He certainly had that in spades.
“How are you getting on with the monastery?”
“They can’t take me for the time being. There’s a waiting list and you have to pull strings even for that. You have to know people. Having been in prison doesn’t help.”
“I suppose it’s understandable. You really haven’t been out of prison for long.”
“Well, I don’t understand it.” Misha became aggressive.
“What are you planning to do?”
“I shall go into that little church.” Misha gestured behind him, and there indeed stood one of the oldest churches in Moscow, solidly rooted in the years. “I’ll ask them to take me on as a watchman. They told me you need the right number of points in your resume to get into a monastery.”
We both laughed. Only someone born in the Soviet Union and who had spent a fair part of his conscious life there knew how typically Soviet that approach was to getting a good job when you couldn’t do it through string-pulling. And here we were, talking about a monastery, faith, religion, the rules of the church, which couldn’t be further removed from the everyday reality of the Soviet way of life. We fell to laughing at the idea.
“It’s weird,” Misha said, “how in the New Russia the ways of Orthodoxy and of Soviet life have suddenly come together.”
From beneath the dropsical eyelids of a man with kidney or heart trouble, the old Misha suddenly glanced at me, merry, on the ball, playful, gallant.
“Of course they have. Aren’t you afraid the church you are so keen to sign up with has turned into that local committee of the Young Communist League you once fled from? That everything has just been repainted in new colors, and when you finally get into the monastery you’ll be bitterly disappointed and…”
I bit my tongue. No glib words came to mind.
“You were going to say I would kill someone again, blaming my problems on them?”
“No, of course not,” I stammered, although that was indeed what I had been about to say. Misha and I seemed to be back on the same wavelength.
“That is exactly what you were going to say. I can only reply that I am afraid myself, of course, but I have nowhere else to go. If I stay here, I shall certainly end up in prison again. I felt better in prison, in a confined space. The monastery is like a labor camp, only with different guards. I need to live under guard. I can’t control myself, seeing the kind of life we have around us.”
“And what kind of life is that?”
“Cynical. I can’t bear cynicism. That is why I started drinking.”
“But why did you kill your woman friend? Was she cynical?”
“No, she was a very good person, and I can’t remember why I killed her. I was drunk.”
“So, at all events, you won’t stay in the world.”
“Under no circumstances. I couldn’t stand it.”
I didn’t meet Misha again, but I do know that he didn’t manage to get into a monastery. The paperwork dragged on. The Orthodox bureaucracy in Russia is much like the state bureaucracy, indifferent to anything that doesn’t affect it directly. Misha went along to the Patriarchate, submitting forms, working as a watchman, actually living in a church. He gradually started to drink again. He turned up at Lena’s a couple of times asking for money. The first time she gave him one hundred rubles; the second time she refused. She was quite right. She and her husband were not working to enable Misha to get drunk when he felt like it. Of course she was right.
Except that Misha threw himself under a Metro train. We heard about it much later, and only by chance. And we discovered that Misha, one of the most talented Russians I ever met, had been buried as homeless and unclaimed. More exactly, the authorities buried his ashes, because in such cases the remains are cremated. Nobody knows where his grave is.
You can mount a frontal attack or you can make a detour. The compound of the Special Intelligence Regiment of the Ministry of Defense, its most elite unit, is not, of course, a place for civilians like me to be strolling around. Sometimes, however, it has to be done. I have been brought here by Rinat, one of the regimental officers. Rinat is a major. Nobody knows who his parents were. He was brought up in an orphanage. His face is Asian, with slanting eyes, and he speaks several Central Asian languages. His speciality was intelligence gathering. Rinat fought clandestinely in the Afghan war for years. He then infiltrated Tadjik armed bands in the mountains and on the Afghan-Tadjik border, catching drug smugglers red-handed. On behalf of the Russian government, he secretly helped some of the current presidents of former Soviet republics to come to power. Naturally, he spent a lot of time in Chechnya during both the first and the second wars. His chest is covered with medals.
Rinat and I are looking for a hole in the fence. He wants to show me the squalor in which, for all his medals, he lives in the officers’ barracks; he wants to show me, too, the house in the military village that he had hoped to move into but then found himself out of luck. Although this regiment is highly trained and very famous, we find the hole we are looking for. An impressive hole it is, too, not just big enough for the two of us to squeeze through; you could drive a tank through it.
We walk on for five minutes, and there it is, the village where the spies live. It is morning. Around us we see the unsmiling faces of officers on their day off. The weather is far from cheering. Churned-up clay squelches underfoot. We are not walking but slithering, looking down at the ground in order to maintain our footing.
I look up and, wondrous vision, see before me, like a mirage among the other dismal five-story buildings, a fine new gray-green multistory block of flats.
“That’s how it all started,” Rinat says. “Of course, I wanted a flat. I’ve had enough of wandering the world. My son is growing up, and I am constantly away in wars.”
The major falls silent in mid-sentence and suddenly embarks on a maneuver that puzzles me. He hides his face and doubles over as if we are being shot at and need to find a trench to shelter in. Rinat whispers quietly that we should pretend not to know each other; he also asks me not to look ahead and not to wave my arms or attract attention.
“But what’s wrong?” I ask. “Is it an ambush?”
I’m joking, of course.
“We mustn’t make him angry,” Rinat says softly, continuing his distracting maneuver. Like well-trained spies, we quickly, deftly, and without fuss change direction.
“Whom mustn’t we annoy?” I inquire when Rinat raises his head with a sigh of relief, indicating that the danger has passed.
“Petrov, the deputy commanding officer.”
Our maneuvering is explained by the fact that Petrov had been driving toward us. His car had pulled up to the fine new block of apartments because that is where Petrov lives. Only after he had disappeared inside did Rinat relax and continue our stroll around the compound. We kept ending up back at the fine building, which Rinat gazed upon with longing and envy.
To tell the truth, I am perplexed. I know a little about Rinat’s combat record, his fearlessness, and I am amazed. What is it, I wonder, that he fears most? Death?
“No, I have learned to live with death. I don’t mean to boast.”
“Yes, I am afraid of that, of course, because I know I would be tortured. I have seen it happen. But I am not all that afraid of being captured.”
“Probably peace, civilian life. It’s something I know nothing about. I am not prepared for it.”
Rinat is thirty-seven. All he has done in his life is to take part in wars. His body is covered in wounds. He has peptic and duodenal ulcers, and his nerves are in tatters. He has constant, agonizing pain in his joints and cerebral spasms after several injuries to the head.
Recently, the major decided it was time to settle down, to come back from the wars to our ordinary world. He found he knew absolutely nothing about it. For example, who would give him a place to live? Surely he deserved a flat for all he had been through defending the interests of the state. Or some money?
As soon as Rinat started asking Petrov about such things, it became apparent that he could expect nothing. Rinat concluded that while he had been carrying out special government missions across mountains, countries, and continents, his state had needed him and had rewarded him with medals and orders. As soon as the major’s health gave out and he decided to try to settle down, though, he found there was nothing waiting for him, and the military hierarchy was simply going to turn him out on the street. The army was even going to expel him from the squalid nook in the officers’ barracks where he and his son were presently sleeping.
Rinat has a son, Edik, whom he is bringing up on his own. The boy’s mother died several years ago, and for a long time Edik lived alone in the officers’ barracks, waiting for his father to come back from numerous wars and important combat missions.
“I know how to kill an enemy so he doesn’t make a sound,” Rinat tells me. “I can climb a mountain swiftly and silently and take out those who are occupying it. I am an excellent rock climber and mountaineer. I can ‘read’ mountains from twigs and bushes and tell who is there and where they are hiding. I have a feel for mountains—they say it is a natural gift—but I am incapable of getting an apartment. I am incapable of getting anything at all in civilian life.”
Before me is a helpless professional killer trained by the state. There are many like him now. The state sends people off to yet another war; they live in the midst of war for years, return and do not know what peaceful life is with its law and order. They take to drinking, join gangs, become hit men, and their new masters pay them big money to take out those they say need to be murdered in the interests of the state.
And the state? It doesn’t give a damn. Under Putin it has effectively ceased to interest itself in officers who have returned from the wars. It seems as if the state is actively engaged in ensuring that there are as many highly trained professional killers in criminal gangs as possible.
“Is that what you are thinking of going into, Rinat?”
“No, I don’t want to, but if Edik and I find ourselves on the street, I can’t rule it out. I can only do what I am trained to do.”
Rinat and I finally squelch through the mud and slush to a dismal shack. Called the “three-story building,” it is the officers’ barracks. We go up to the second floor, and behind a peeling door is a squalid, spartan room.
In his entire life the major has never had a home to call his own. First there was the orphanage in the Urals. Then there was the barracks of the military college he enrolled in from the orphanage. Later still, garrison hostels alternating with tents when he was on active service. He has been in the army sixteen years, a rolling stone under military oath. For the last eleven years, Rinat has moved constantly from one combat mission to the next. It is not a life that has led him to acquire possessions.
“But I was happy,” the major says. “I never wanted to stop fighting. I thought it would last forever.”
All that Rinat has acquired is now stored in one parachute bag. The major opens his standard-issue cupboard with an inventory number on its pathetic, battered side and shows me the bag.
“Sling it over your shoulder and go off on your next mission,” he succinctly summarizes his values.
A boy is sitting on the divan and looking at us sorrowfully: this is Edik.
I interrupt the major. “You were married, though, so you must have had a household of some kind.”
“No, we had nothing. We didn’t have time.”
While Rinat was fighting in Tadjikistan, helping President Rakhmonov to take power, he slipped away and got married in Kirghizia. The newlyweds had met during Rinat’s previous combat mission, in the city of Osh, where the young woman lived and where Rinat had been sent because a bloody conflict had broken out there between ethnic groups.
They got married right there, their passion and love flaring up amid the butchery and the pain. Rinat then presented his young wife to his commanding officer. The commanding officer shrugged and asked him to leave his wife in Osh, because, for a spy, a sweetheart was an Achilles’ heel. Rinat left his wife behind and went back to Tadjikistan to join an armed group on the frontier.
One day his commanding officer told him that he had a son and that his wife had named him Edik. Later still, in June 1995, Rinat’s young wife, a student at the local conservatory, was killed by people who had discovered who she was married to. She had just turned twenty-one that day and had been on her way to take her second-year exams.
At first, Edik lived with his grandmother in Kirghizia. The boy was too little to live in officers’ hostels, and in any case Rinat rarely spent the night even in the grim, unswept rooms the state provided for him. He was still engaged in secret operations and was at large in the mountains of our country. He was severely wounded twice more and spent periods in various hospitals.
“Even so, I did not want a different life,” Rinat says, “but Edik was growing up.”
The time finally came when he decided to collect his sons, and, after that, Edik stayed with his grandmother only when Rinat was away on six-month military missions.
We are sitting in their cold, dismal little room. Edik is a quiet boy with bright eyes that see everything. He is very grown up. He talks only when his father goes out and only when he is asked a question: the son of a spy, in a word. He understands that his father is going through a difficult period now, and that this is why, in the next school year, he wants to send Edik to the cadet officers’ college. But the boy does not like this idea.
“I want to live at home,” he says calmly and in a very manly way, without any suggestion of whining. Nevertheless he repeats it several times: “I want to live at home, at home.”
“And is this your home? Do you feel at home here?”
Edik is an honest boy. He knows that when you cannot tell the truth, it is better to say nothing, and that is what he does.
Indeed, who could call this pen for combat officers, with the drunken bawling of contract soldiers on the other side of the thin walls, with its inventory of regulation furniture, “home”? Edik knows, however, that they are trying to drive his father even from here, so let this be home.
Relations between the regiment’s commanders and the major began to sour when Rinat asked to be allocated a flat in that fine new building we had been walking around while hiding from the deputy commanding officer. The major supposed he was within his rights, since for many years he had been at the top of the waiting list for accommodations.
“When I asked Petrov, he was indignant: ‘You haven’t done enough for the regiment,’” Rinat relates. “Can you believe it, that is exactly how he put it? I was very surprised and told him, ‘I have been fighting the whole time. I rescued pilots from a mountain when nobody else could find them. The state needs me.’”
The major had, indeed, been put forward for the country’s highest award, Hero of Russia, for his actions when a military aircraft crashed in the mountains of Chechnya near the village of Itum-Kale in June 2001. Several search-and-rescue teams went into the mountains to find the crew but without success. The commanders remembered Rinat with his unique experience of combat, his feel for the mountains, and his ability to find men by reading twigs, sticks, and leaves.
He found the dead airmen in just twenty-four hours. One body had been booby-trapped by the Chechen fighters, and Rinat made it safe. So the families have graves to tend.
The active-service officers have a saying that commanders who lose their heads in combat and in the mountains are best in civilian occupations. Rinat told Petrov, “I know what kind of a hero you were in Chechnya, always skulking in staff headquarters.” The deputy commanding officer responded, “Now you’re really in the shit, Major. For that little remark, I’ll make you a down-and-out. I’ll discharge you without accommodations. You’ll be out on the street with that son of yours.”
Petrov set about implementing his threat with a vengeance. First he humiliated the major by ordering him to decorate the parade ground and also to manage the regimental club, organizing film shows for the soldiers.
Petrov next ordered Rinat to design posters for the parade ground (he is an excellent artist), which was the job of Petrov’s wife. She simply ceased to turn up for work, and all the officers knew that Rinat was making the posters while she took her ease in that fine new block of flats.
Then Edik was taken ill and had to go to the hospital. The doctors told Rinat he should stay at his son’s bedside. Rinat was constantly asking for time off, and Petrov, ignoring the medical certificate provided by the doctors and backdating the record, took to recording him absent without leave. Petrov convened an officers’ court, manipulated the minutes, and used them to remove the major from the waiting list for an apartment. He was agitating to have Rinat summarily dismissed from the army without any privileges. In short, Rinat is in deep trouble.
“What have I done?” Rinat bows his head, aware that he is being outmaneuvered.
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