By Pavel Andreev, translated by Tim McDonnell
"We know what war is, and about the trophies and spoils of war, and that after a war, especially a victorious one, when the war serves as an excuse for sin and shame there arises a cult of victors who carry banners reeking of victorious intoxication. Years pass, and there are those who develop a sense of having been cheated. These veterans who feel forgotten begin grumbling softly, and grow louder and louder. Veterans - they are a special breed of person. We all know that, and our war is no exception."
Lev Gumilev. "Generation of Veterans "
Summer 1982, Afghanistan:
A flock of white pigeons is flying over a square. In commemoration of a long ago victory over a British expeditionary force, they had built a modest, square shaped, coppola'd building, around which stood a collection of old English cannons. Kandahar: A city where fear and joy, luxury and poverty, intersect, like the contrast between the carefree pigeons flying over this square filled with cannons: Their symbol of freedom and independence. The war touched every aspect of every life in the city. It distorted the age-old rhythms of life; habits, traditions, even the expressions on people's faces. The war even gave new names to places, like "Black Square" in the western Kandahar neighborhood "Dand", right behind the Pakistani and Indian Consulates. It is a place of constant ambushes and violence. The war placed tanks at every intersection, and marked the bright blue sky with the burning tracer lines of entrapping fire from helicopter gun ships. "Anti-rocket maneuvers." For us, the square with the cannons functioned as a checkpoint while escorting convoys. Every time we arrived we would report "Crossed the square with cannons." Perhaps because we were pining for our native land, or perhaps it simply became habit, but gradually, the name of the checkpoint became "Pushkin Square" (translator's note: Pushkin Square is a well known Moscow Landmark, and this title no doubt results from a play on words. Pushkin's name sounds similar to the word for cannon in Russian)
The bustling hurry of the motor rickshaws, bicycles, and the occasional car disrupted the steady stream of tankers and armored personnel carriers. Thus our columns moved. The war became a part of the city's way of life. Even boys, who always and everywhere play at war, here, have devised different diversions. Right now they are looking at the tank posted at an intersection; waiting to avert possible attacks, with complete indifference.
Equipment and vehicles had already passed through the city. Surrounding and covering the blockade posts at intersections, my company is leaving the city, following the column, which is already moving through the valley. We're leaving Kandahar, where the curfew lasted from 10pm to 5am. Often during nighttime offensives we could hear streams of automatic weapons fire accompanied by the shouts of nearby patrols. Night in the city operates under a different set of wartime laws. Life takes on a new rhythm, perverted by war, leaving only the mentality of the residents unchanged.
The present and future of the city is determined by its past - the English cannons on the square. But we don't understand this yet. The former capital of one of the poorest states in the world was forcing us out, not allowing us to stay, not even for a minute. We still had not come to the realization that he who intervenes in Afghan politics for the most part only gets his hands burnt.
Pasha, Summer 1998.
I understood that I was definitely going out of my mind. My country has been continuously irritated or unsatisfied with something or another, or, the other way around would be merry at the most inappropriate moments. I have been trying to do my best to help it become satisfied with itself. Most paradoxically, I never for a moment doubted that my country was always right, but it treated it me as though I had once committed a crime, served my sentence - paid my military debt - and again, with maniac stubbornness, took an ax in my hand. (Translator's note: this is a literary allusion to Fyodor Dostoevsky's novel Crime and Punishment, in which the main character, Raskolnikov, murders an old woman with an axe.) Of course on my side it would have been foolish to make an Everest out of an insignificant molehill. My instinct told me that we must prepare to defend ourselves from our own country. Should anything happen, it was obvious that only the government, parliament, and state apparatus that would be saved. Not for that did I stand my ground within the columns, in order to be forced to my knees afterwards. We didn't return from over there as slaves.
I built my own personal world around myself, cut off from everyone by anger and discontent. Horrified by the realization that this was not the life that I wanted, I continued my desperate attempts, grasping at straws, obviously not wishing to drown in my rage. My body was functioning according to its own biorhythmic schedule, disrupting the lives of everyone around me, even those with whom I am close. That is how I managed to live with my agitated nerves, sometimes in periods of calm, and sometimes in periods of loud hysterics, if I didn't brood, and didn't jump off the train of fools after the story with Shurup.
This was not an escape, rather it was a short time to take a break and rest up. A bag that I bought became a replacement for my life; the one with lots of pockets and pens and a strap like the one on a machine gun. Everything that I needed to begin my trip fit inside it. I left behind all the things that I wouldn't need: family, war, and everything related. When the plane landed on a runway in the middle of the Negev desert it gave me the sensation that I had fallen into sandy ridges, reminiscent of Registan. I had stayed in this crumbling country, where so often you would begin explaining something in English, and end up conversing in Russian. A land where humanity was passing through the paramount epoch of its history, and where I lived, so as to understand where humanity would go in the future, and which became my new home. I had never attempted to return in my memories.
One night I got a phone call, and the silence was so long, that I thought that perhaps the connection was broken.
"Hello," - I took the initiative
"Hello," - the voice on the other end of the line said at last, - "come for August 2nd."
It was immediately clear to me who had called.
"Venya I don't know, I'll try," was all that I could manage to say in answer. I realized that at last I was opening the door on a dark and forbidden place in my past.
"Pasha, stop being so depressed, just come. Rex and I are waiting for you." Venya cut off the conversation so quickly that I didn't even have time to shut it.
With three days to go before the meeting I finally caved in and bought a plane ticket. There and back.
Pasha, 1 August, 1982, Afghanistan.
Even rows of faded, dust covered tents spread out bordering the desert, next to an American built airport complex named "Ariana". An obviously well trained brigade is meeting us, in an endless, crisp formation. We are coming back - 40 men, whose absence meant just another step from discipline towards slovenliness.
If your comrade doesn't hear something that you say to him, then you ought to know: Today he fired a grenade launcher. In these situations, laughter is both the strongest and cheapest medicine. What's the matter? Venya explains that a gloomy expression normally accompanies the first attempt at hearing. The whole mouth is held foolishly open, demanding far greater muscular exertion than a mere smile. The prescription is simple: If you've gotten a head injury, and your head feels like its ready to explode from continuous, ceaseless booming, then just smile. After all, the movement of the ears towards the back of the head stimulates blood flow to the brain, bringing a blessed feeling of relief.
That's exactly why Venya is standing there covered with dust and idiotically smiling with his whole mouth. Today he fired a grenade launcher. Trying to silence a Dushman machine gun emplacement, he killed two birds with one stone. This bastard always carries around one of those tubes for important documents. That is how he learned so quickly that no one ever passes up the opportunity to have a good laugh.
You can have a lot of fun when a dude like that is serving as your interpreter. He could translate strange words in God knows how many different ways, depending on his mood and opinion on what was being discussed. In times like these, everyone is willing to help, even the company's commander. Now Venya is picky in his friends, which is why I was forced to accompany him anywhere where facial expressions and gestures were not sufficient to achieve mutual understanding. Today we have only one goal, to have fun, because today is Paratrooper's Day. Here in a Muslim country, the new day begins at sunset, and this forces us to consider that fact, along with the fact that in the morning we will be expected at parade, on top of a pile of other sorrows.
The brashka was already ready. (Translator's note: brashka is a home brewed, alcoholic beverage intermediate in strength between wine and spirits.) In the company's small, windowless, meeting room everyone who is supposed to be there has gathered: Only the middle ranks - only specially selected people. Venya, smiling, is telling a joke especially for everyone who thinks that the grenade launcher has driven him mad.
"A Cowboy walks into the mess-hall..." Venya stretched his words out so as to draw attention to his contused head, "...and threw his money down on the table for the bartender. The bartender deftly picked up the money and replied by sliding a glass of whiskey over to the cowboy. The cowboy tried to pick up his glass with an equally smooth movement, but instead let it fall to the ground. Flustered, he once again threw his money down on the table, and the bartender's skilled hands again picked up the money, and threw down on the table a glass of whiskey. The cowboy in the same gracious manner misses it again! Upset, he left the bar and walked over to his horse, putting his leg into... what's this thing called?" Here Venya inserted his leg, and said "here, the story begins in earnest..." stretching his words mightily, and exhausting the interest of his audience. "...in there, like this..." Venya tried hard to remember the word, moving his legs to show what he meant. "stirrup?" someone suggested, when the audience could hold out no more. "No," replied Venya quietly, "horse's ass! The poor guy had no luck that day!" The thrust of the joke being, that Venya had allegedly fabricated the entire tale himself. Everyone roared with laughter and poured the first drink.
When the fifth shot had been quaffed, (minding the obligatory break following the third, of course) the head of the battalion commander briefly flashed in the window. Guessing where the sentry was, and what route the battalion commander had taken to get to us, we already knew there was no time. Everything happened quickly and without panic. Instantly the light turned off and the door latch opened. The door flew open, and in the doorway loomed the figure of the battalion commander. He stood, legs wide, against a black starry background. With his right hand he fidgeted with a bamboo cane, and this motion made obvious the sound of a lead weight sliding up and down the shaft.
It was Rex who attacked the battalion commander first. In a blind rage, he rammed his head into the battalion commander's stomach like a battering ram into a fortress gate. The commander wheezed as he exhaled painfully, and winding up with his cane above his head, he flogged Rex across the back. Rex winced, sticking his chest out from the pain in his back, and moving still faster, ran outside and was swallowed by the darkness. This turned out to be enough. Without any prior arrangement we freed ourselves, shoving our way through the door like horses streaming from a pen. The battalion commander was left alone in the small dark dimly lit windowless room with opened cans of meat unfinished roasted potatoes in the frying pan, and half eaten buns, still hot, fresh from the battalion's bakery. At the head of the holiday table, abandoned, stood Chinese fuel cans still half full of brashka.
The holiday continues!
Fifteen minutes passed before the announcement of a nighttime parade for the entire battalion. There was no sense in trying to wriggle out of punishment. The culprits in this extraordinary situation stood lined up in front of the assembled battalion. Between the ranks and the naughty boys stood the cursed canister of brashka. Our comrades looked at us with sympathy, and everything was understood without a word.
The battalion commander walked up to the formation impeccably dressed: new woolen officer's uniform, standard issue undershirt, an enormous white collar, and boots that were embarrassingly well shined. For an officer to appear this immaculate at night was as unnatural and embarrassing to us as public sex.
The political officer made a short accusatory speech - what he said was enough to have us condemned twice over. The punishment began with a punch in the mouth. Everyone got a slug in the jaw. Almost everyone fell down - the battalion commander was very good at what he did. The guy who fired the grenade launcher today, screwed everything up. Either the battalion commander's arms were already tired, or he could do no more damage to that contused head. Besides that, Venya didn't fall, but was only knocked backwards, and was quickly able to take back his place in the line, still smiling stupidly. This pushed the battalion commander into a rage. He became angry and commanded the injured man to step out of the formation. Venya went, bringing along his smile. By that point, everything that was going on in his head was like a nonsensical silent film. As if the blow he had received had turned a color TV into black and white.
"Drink" suggested the battalion commander, taking on a brotherly tone.
Venya turned his head around, towards his comrades in the ranks, looking for help, signals to help him understand what was being said, but these were not forthcoming. Without understanding the purpose of the show that he was starring in, he gently took a sip from the canister. The battalion commander heartlessly struck the bottom of the can while Venya drank, cutting his lips badly.
"Drink! Drink! What's wrong with you? Drink and we'll watch!"
Anger, and the pain in his face robbed him of the last vestiges of good sense that remained in him, and the spiteful look on the battalion commander's face was plain to him. He quaffed deeply from the canister, savoring every drop. While the battalion commander shouted in indignation, two other officers dragged Venya away from the canister, but by then Venya could not have given two shits. Just as before, he couldn't hear a thing, and his smile was childish and dumb. The battalion commander could find nothing better to do than to pour the dregs of the brashka out over Venya's head. We told him to go wash up in the irrigation ditch, where he sang loudly and romped around.
Rex, tending to a splendidly bloody wound running across his back, was annoyed at others' frivolity.
"As soon as this heals... I'll kill that cowboy if I can," said Rex every time he had to touch his back.
None of us had any doubt that after tonight our balls would be on the line, as we would be `volunteered' to lead the battalion through every minefield encountered. This had not been a very lucky day for any of us.
We had been mistaken in thinking that such an aggressive battalion commander would hold any special grudge against us. Not at all! We knew that at those moments, he absolutely did not care who was standing in front of him. Tests of strength and provocation were the rules of that life. We had taken that test long ago.
Venya, 2, August, 1998.
Tell me: Is this really life? Since I got up the day has seemed impossibly vile. There is only one problem - since yesterday evening I had planned out how I would spend the holiday. Presently, I regret it. Quite frequently, my plans tend to work better in theory than reality. Now you may wonder how I feel waiting for one telephone call. Why should I wait? After all I started the morning out disappointed! No, disappointment requires planning. Otherwise, anything could happen!
At times, I don't know myself what is happening to me. I start feeling as though I'm flying, strapped into the cockpit of a plane being flown by someone else, or on autopilot maybe. Just before the crash I try to pull the plane out of the spin, but I'm not always so lucky. Worrying and hardship usually happen when I let myself relax, or get too panicky. Often in these situations my contused head springs into action, like a Kalashnikov with the safety off. The problem with a mind like that is that it thinks things over too well and too quickly. Occasionally, I'll waste a lot of time like that, spending more time adapting myself to my wife's mood, than figuring out how to use a cell phone. There are people around me who help to create the conditions for independent decisions, which always end up changing with the passage of time. The world around me is my map, and my decisions are the multi colored arrows on this map, and my life is a result of how I implement my plans.
I get very upset when things don't quite work out as I wanted them to. One could have had themselves wiped clean with electroshock and turned into someone different, but from what I've seen, the results are not too inspiring.
You really don't want to involve yourself in sorting out your own head. Don't worry; someone else will do it for you. These were the words that accompanied me to the `dacha.' (Translator's note: In this context, dacha, the Russian word for country house, is a euphemism for an insane asylum.) Here it is a common practice: If you appear a little bit strange, they give you no choice. They pump you full of tranquilizers and stick you in a building with others like you. That is what happened to me. I was expected to `be myself again' after the treatment, as if I had a choice then.
Aside from that, I had a bad morning. With a mood like that I could waste the entire holiday, and then maybe the next week too. An excellent way of falling into depression is to start thinking about whether life is worth continuing. Could you answer, how many things are there in the world that you would like to do with the same degree of perfection? It's a dead end. Trust me. We forget so easily what we want, and that is the only reason that we get fucked over.
I've been trying to cheer myself up with ham sandwiches and vodka, but it is not enough, my mood requires a feast! It didn't mean that I cancelled our meeting; on the contrary I made the first move in setting it up. To put it simply, I relapsed, and spoke out about what I thought about this life in our most accessible and understandable Russian language, choosing words that were clear, but not necessarily the most refined. Many excuses can be found for such behavior, for example: " He was drunk and definitely in an affected state". Cursing is bad.
From the guard station they opened fire, and the floor of the kitchen was strewn with hot shells. My wife, destroyer of laundry detergent, teacher to our son, has every reason to be unhappy. However, she also is careless in terms of choosing the most refined words. This, of course is understandable, as for many years she has been straining to do keep up with her work, while patience and words have often failed her. I had already prepared myself for a difficult ordeal - poured insults on myself, sprinkled with the ashes of her ruined years, but when she looked at me, she instantly knew better than to demand perfection from people.
Everyone should know that there are certain things, which one must not do. One should become accustomed to order little by little. Personally, I have moments in which I am very susceptible to receiving only very simple commands, and at such moments I remember only two: "Stand up!" and "Shut up!" In these moments it is important for people to hold back from lashing out at me. So as to avoid reaching a deadlock with myself, and to prevent my wife from getting hysterical, I, the recovered alcoholic asked for just a little bit of attention, and took a break.
The logical decision of the family council after I returned from treatment was simple: everything, - good and bad - will become my past. I am being reborn. I had to control myself such that nothing could interfere with my personal makeover. My doctors gave me no contra-indications against helping around the house. And small provocations - endurance, meaning, and love, were out of place today. On this sacred day there was no need for me to adapt myself to her escapades. I needed some time, and a drop of patience from others so that I can kill my waking habits.
I am lucky - my wife is a person who is naturally inclined to performing courageous and unusual acts, and is perhaps more generous than I, much to my disgust. One should learn a great deal from her. She is an exception to the rule; she is a girl from the physics department. Most importantly, the best of her is the spiciness of her body, and the acuteness of her emotions. For her, family happiness is not a result, but a process, which requires a wide spectrum of emotions to deal with unforeseeable events.
I don't answer for the weather outside, or for who I am. I answer only to myself. That is why I made it known that if everything is done properly today, then I will have a chance to become a different person for a few hours, and then, those around me can be guaranteed satisfaction. I smile like a cannibal, extending the olive branch. She smiles in answer, we even kiss. It is hard to blame others for things that you do everyday.
With every passing minute my head becomes clearer and calmer; things that had seemed so important to me, now were put into perspective. I was already nearly placid. Then came the phone call for which I had been waiting. The holiday carousel had begun to spin.
Venya, summer 1982, Afghanistan.
Life in the brigade differed from life on ambushes and convoy escort duty in that escort duty was like moving from one sin to the next, as quickly as possible, and quite often, the second sin stems from the first, and so on, and you have no time to stop and wonder who is spinning this crazy wheel of events, and to what end.
Therefore: Stay out of trouble! Avoid it at all costs! If you're not sure whether or not the sapper's got his head in his ass, then just bury your head in the sand, don't pretend that you're the king of the desert, just twist up a fat one, or simply do sew something on your discharge flag.
Do you know how an Afghani sapper walks with his metal detector? His probe moves in search of the mines like a sewing machine. How do our sapper's walk? There are simply no words that can fill the pauses after every thrust of his probe. Can you imagine, people tired after a long march, loaded up with two allowances of all sorts of sapper's gadgetry: crampons, ropes, mini-grenades, and devil knows what else. Could you imagine? On top of all of that add the weighty responsibility for the safety of those who follow you. After that you'll begin to understand his fatalism and indifference towards himself. If you are offered a choice of whom to follow, definitely choose our man. There is no explanation for the masterful and intuitive way in which those guys can find the Dushmen's surprises, sifting every meter of this foreign soil through their hearts.
You get accustomed to good things quickly, but there was no time for the guys to believe that they were enjoying a hot shower when the commander roared, "wash up and fall in!" A group of young sappers left the banya, dressed, and did not conceal their disappointment. (Translator's note: a banya is a Russian steam bath.)
The brigade's enlisted men's banya was located in a standard, 5-person tent. We had just rolled in from an ambush mission, and the first sergeant swore that the banya was waiting for us. Now you understand our perfectly reasonable indignation when we saw how that someone else was using the object of our affection! Our confusion didn't last long. We quickly fell in, pretending to be a brigade that knew no freedom or weakness. Rex skillfully imitated the harsh voice of a sergeant. The confidence with which he barked out his orders quickly forced the strangers to abandon even their soap, but they obviously were not prepared to leave the banya without a fight. The way that Rex looked them over hard while we demonstrated our unquestioning submission to his commands, didn't give them a chance to assert their masculinity. An NCO strode up to lend a hand to the strangers from the banya, but Rex didn't flinch. Confidently taking the NCO by the arm, he moved away from us and towards the tent. He returned alone, and quietly gave the command to begin the banya. We were already splashing around when someone stuck their head in, and not even trying to conceal the acidity in their voice, said "Sergeant, get out here!" Before he even had a chance to undress, Rex left the tent.
Taking a few steps outside, he gave the officer who was waiting for him a look up and down, and had him figured out at once. His height, broad shoulders, and the expression on his face could bode nothing good. They looked at one another. Judging by his calloused hands, and new green uniform, this was a novice.
"What is your unit sergeant?" began the sapper angrily.
"Young" Rex finally decided, "he hasn't found out yet that one must always make a good first impression. I've been here for two minutes and I already feel uncomfortable, but this poor fellow, is with himself all 24 hours of the day! Around the clock!"
"Don't panic lieutenant. The second battalion is just finishing, and yours can start." Rex was trying to be convincingly polite.
It is important to let people know right off the bat that they can't push you around. Don't be afraid to look people in the eye boldly if you expect to keep your cool. Self-control is not about managing people, but rather circumstances. It is true however, that to become a master, you must regularly train your composure.
The lieutenant sharply pulled the soldier close to him, and raised the sergeant up on tiptoe by the belt. "Thank your battalion commander for having brought up such an insolent sergeant." Rex's feet, being raised from the ground, were shaking like jello, especially the left one, frantically seeking support.
"You're cool buddy, but I'm cooler" thought Rex, and kicked the lieutenant just as his own feet hit the dirt. The sapper fell to the ground and managed to grab Rex's leg.
"He pulled me towards himself like a horse pulls a plow through virgin soil" Rex remembered later.
Ambition and stubbornness did their work quickly. We had the chance to finish our peaceful, quiet wash, while Rex joined the sapper's trade union. According to his story, Rex's last clear memory was the face of the lieutenant before he was thrown to the ground. The rest was a blur as the world spun around him, and he fell on his head. It turned out that the sapper was a judoist, but this didn't prevent the beating from continuing. Both remained satisfied with their meeting. With difficulty, Pasha managed to drag Rex away from the officer. The sapper turned out to be a pretty cool dude, letting Rex's abuse roll off of him like water off a duck's back. As Rex stood to the side, he tried to find a position that wasn't painful.
"We shouldn't part like this," said the sapper, amazed at Rex's skill and scrappiness "we should continue this at a table."
"The only thing that saved me was that he was tired, so he just brushed me off." said Rex later, proudly showing off his torn and bloody back, and his swollen knee.
He couldn't lie down, or sit, and even standing was impossible. He reminded me of a stray cat - flinching at every new or strange movement.
When a sapper finds a mine, and can't guarantee that he can safely remove it, he puts down a marker arrow. Without interrupting the collective movement of the group, he marks danger, and demonstrates a safe detour around it, but we don't worry our heads about this, we just follow the sign: `DANGER.' To us, it seemed as though that sapper was the first to mark off Rex's dangerous area, but he failed to `demine' it. The first to realize this was Pasha.
Pasha, 2, August 1998.
I still had some free time. I didn't want to accidentally bump into anyone I knew. At the airport I caught a cab and went directly to Rex's. Taxi drivers are important representatives of a city. They form a visitor's first impressions of a city and its residents.
"Former soldier?" asked the driver, casting a glance at my bag.
"For the rest of my life." I answered.
"Then happy holiday! Soldier." He reached over to shake my hand. I was damned pleased with what he had to say.
"Do you live in Shilovka?" he asked.
"No, I'm just visiting a friend." I answered, showing him where to turn.
I asked him to stop a block from Rex's building, paid my fare, and got out. What had once been a quiet village was now a suburb. Very close to this peaceful neighborhood, just around the corner, you could hear the roar of thousands of cars on some major street. Life flows slowly in these quiet yards. Here on the outskirts of the city people are as they used to be: happy and relaxed at home. Usually neighbors know one another, and the details of one another's lives. I sat down on a bench in the courtyard of Rex's building, and began to wait for Venya. I was confident that he would take this route, as opposed to the shortest one. Venya's capacity for complicating his own life always surprised me. One way or the other, in my opinion, nature plays certain tricks. Seriously, why is it that when two people run through a puddle, one doesn't get so much as splashed, while the other is covered in filth? Why must one exert an incredible amount of effort in order to keep his life in balance, while another can do these things easily?
Take Venya for example. He joined our unit after the spring call up. He had been a tall, stringy, student. His head was pounded full of these theories that explained his world to him. All of his opinions were based on things that he had never seen even once. He had his own reality. But when he was tossed into Afghanistan he became a bit more experienced in dealing with his hallucinations, which he called `models' or `theories.' While the majority of them were destroyed by the harsh realities of war, he demonstrated his flexibility by changing those that remained, and even dreaming up new ones. He managed to change his own reality, but the real world around him, in which innocent people kept dying, remained the same.
War has a special approach. It entered into our reality, and later, pitilessly shattered it once and for all. It had many tricks for doing that. Life can be broken into a million tiny shards by war's blows. When after two years we finally get the shards back, life appears to be a construction, a game, - a model which we have actually created ourselves.
I realized all of this. At war, you learn what you need for survival. Many of the things that we learned there are quite unique. Frankly speaking, these skills are sometimes more necessary for `normal' people than for those who Venya met in the sanatorium. A significant part of the experience `enriched' by war, doesn't apply to life itself, it applies to the splinters of consciousness which we brought back from war.
We occasionally behave like freaks because our consciousness, broken by war is a hallucination that we created ourselves, beautiful holograms of our past emotional experiences. But if we make war our reality, then we become normal people! The world is shattered, and we are frantically looking for our own splinter, to try to regain some piece. In order to calm ourselves we destroy the worlds of others, convincing everyone that the fear that they feel is a normal condition. We purposely deceive ourselves, trying to reconcile the irreconcilable, their notions about life with ours.
Who doesn't know happy college sweethearts? It's a pity that of the both of us, only one could have a successful career. In this case, who do you think won? Venya took to the bottle and buried his career. His smart wife followed in her father's footsteps. He was a professor. Venya's mistake was trying to glue all of the pieces back together to form a whole, and this he did much too forced and artificially. Indifference to kin - that was the price of his experiences. Venya simply was sent for treatment. He had no other obstacles in his path besides those that he could have eliminated, had he really wanted to. I wonder how he's doing...
I stood up and walked up to the payphone on the wall near the entrance to an apartment building.
Pasha, summer 1982, Afghanistan.
The black mass of the mountain rises above our sleepy tent city. The moon is held up by the peak of the mountain, frozen in the night sky. It seems that if you climb the mountain, you can gently touch the silvery circle of the moon with your hand.
The boot camp at the foot of the mountain has many methods for raising a true soldier, and each of them is quite good at achieving their goal. Climbing the mountain at night is one of these methods. Only at first glance does everything look simple and easy. Soldiers begin one at a time. Everyone takes their tracer round, which they need to ignite at the summit before they descend. Those who fail to `touch the moon' face every possible punishment. During this attack on the summit, one is not allowed to scream, retreat, or bide their time. Everyone has 40 minutes. 40 minutes to ascend and descend, pass through the sergeants waiting in ambush on the only path that you must not cross, and they know it.
Those who claim that they don't feel fear are deceiving themselves first and foremost. At the beginning of your climb, you already know about your cowardice. Cowardice has been your wound since long ago. It causes pain, the blood sister of meanness and despair. There is no way for you to escape from it. It tears you to pieces over which you already have no control. Ascending up towards the moon via the summit, you drag along with your rock filled rucksack your consciousness too which is torn apart by fear. You are afraid, and whatever you do, your fear remains with you. You must release yourself from fear.
Nestled amid the sharp rocks and boulders, and frightened by the sound of your own heart, you sneak your way towards the summit. There it is - ambush. You've been heard, but can't be seen yet. There is a shadow to your left, and you realize that if you move to your right, there will be an ambush waiting for you there too. Suddenly, from almost point blank, you see two streams of gunfire - blanks, but the flashes blind you. All of your insides tighten up, and gathering together the rotting remains of your willpower, you quickly stand up. Thunderstruck and dazzled by the shots, you use that moment of despair to complete the last spurt towards the summit.
Summit: you hastily beat the round with the heel of your boot. Bending over to pick it up, you pull out the bullet, loosening it from its casing. After pouring gunpowder on a rock, you place the bullet tip downwards in the casing, and beat the round end of it with another stone. This sound tears at your heart. After three blows in a row to the bullet the round begins to flare up. Pressed down into its casing it angrily shoots fire from its upturned ass. The stream of fire tears open the darkness. You light the gunpowder on fire, and suddenly realize that everything that you had feared was merely wind, the moon, and night's shadows. Drawing yourself up to your full height, you eclipse the moon. Your fear, being burned by this flame, makes you a giant, casting a long black shadow towards those who hurry to disturb you. You lit your tracer! It would last for only a few seconds, but the fact that it burned will never die.
Those who have never been to the summit know nothing about it, and those who have achieved it are silent. Only the moon shines for everyone from above.
How many people couldn't find happiness, how many die only because they couldn't overcome their fear. Fear, which later on is called circumstance or fate. It is not enough to be brave in the face of danger, and to be courageous enough to live under pressure. You must know how to be patient and wait. Stubbornly, and for a long time.
Some people are patient because they are afraid. If you are afraid all the time to begin with, you start to struggle against your own fear, at least to over come its pressure. Anyone who allows others to do anything to them, because they are afraid to do anything for themselves, is a long way from true patience. A coward threatens himself with his own fear, being perfectly safe. That kind of patience is a poorly masked form of despair.
Life among tents and sand may seem quiet, measured, and monotonous. Patience shows it self in each movement of every officer and enlisted man. Such behavior can easily be mistaken for laziness and apathy. But it's not like that. That is the manifestation of the psychology of a long distance runner: the end date of your special trip is well known, that's why there is no hurry. That which cannot be changed, must be waited out. Whenever you are confident and strong, when you no longer have any doubt about it, then you can be patient. This deliberate, systematic comprehension of events, in contrast to malice and spite, is simultaneously the hardest, and most beautiful of all the things that you take away with you to remember your experiences.
The brigade changes only slightly for outsiders. Only the merciless, scorching sun in the sky is changing its location. Everything else around: sand, clay, and dingy, weather stained tents - everything stays the same for hundreds of kilometers around. As if challenging our presence there by its merciful constancy.
The desert of Registan. The only border for the sand is a dry riverbed. Towards the north, the sand dunes look like gigantic frozen waves stretching on without end. Part of the desert is a bare, rocky plateau. Low mountains form a rolling spine, reaching up out of the lifeless ravines. Paths for off-road vehicles snake between the mountains.
The first hot blast of wind pulls sand off the top of the dune creating a cloud of sand, like snowstorms at home pulling snow from the top of a snow bank. The wind drags the light sand across the dunes. The grains of sand tumble and rustle, making their way into your clothes, sticking to your body, filling every pore, and every crevice in the weapons. The finest grains of sand are blown across every surface, like snow in a blizzard, they are fine, like flour, and get into everything, even inside of optical sights, binoculars, and night vision sights. Even the weakest wind kicks up sand, making it like smoke. The dust gets into eyes, noses, and scratches over teeth. The equipment is damaged the most. It sticks fast to any greased parts, turning oil into an abrasive mixture, fatal for moving components. We wrap our noses and mouths in order to get some protection from the sand, which gets into our lungs all the same. Gun barrels are stuffed with rags; triggers are wrapped with torn dressings. In these situations, everyone's nerves begin to fray. Everyone hides, looking for shelter from the dust, which can't be found, not even in the belly of an APC. One of the drivers, habitually equipped with a machine gun and a crowbar, settles down in the sand under the engine of his armored transport vehicles. Radiators are the only source of potable water for young soldiers, who use up their personal supplies very quickly. Patience becomes the only source of strength. Jealously guarding the calm and balance within ourselves, we left for an ambush, leaving the armored group waiting for our signal.
Noon - the hottest part of the day. The heat hangs oppressively over the desert. The sky is crystal clear all the way down to the horizon. A weak southerly wind stirred up the sand, but brought with it no respite from the heat. Heated in the heart of Registan, the wind dries the skin, and burns the eyes. Artificial shade, patched together from camouflage netting and bleached raincoats, cover our bunker in the sand but can't keep us from baking. Time stands still, turning a day into eternity.
Breathing is difficult, and the body quickly loses its moisture. Sweat dries on the skin before you can even feel it, leaving behind only a delicate layer of salt on your skin. Our cammies become wooden, and are ready to break from sweat. The skin around the eyes, nostrils, and lips, is covered in small cracks, splits and scratches. More than anywhere else, the dust settles inside of these little wounds. This uneven covering of dust gives the face the ominous look of a clay mask. Pain has already been ignored. You have only one thing left. To lock up your feelings, so that they don't react to things that used to affect you, bring all of your thoughts, which had formerly risen and fallen like the tide, to a uniform placidity, in this state of quiet concentration, you must be silent, and wait patiently.
Night is always cold. The difference between daytime and nighttime temperatures can be in excess of 15 degrees. Towards evening, the wind subsides, and everything becomes absolutely silent. This feeling is especially strong when the group on a march stops to listen. Along the route, we are required to control the surrounding area out to a distance not less than 150m. Of course, that is not always realistic in our circumstances. We need to pay special attention to our `sound camouflage' as sound travels farther at night than it does in the daytime. That's why, when the group drops to the sand and you freeze in place, listening and checking your orientation, the dark desert can engulf you like an ocean. In those moments you can hear the squeaking noises of the rocks talking amongst themselves. It is as if there is no one to be disturbed, but you unintentionally begin to speak in a whisper, in fear that the beats of your own heart, or your suppressed breathing can give you away. It is empty and quiet. The rocky riverbed turns into dunes. They are identical to one another, down to the crevice, as if each had been cast from the same mold.
Cresting the top of the nearest sand dune, you suddenly see in front of you a sandy bowl, whose clay surfaces have been polished by the wind, and whose bottom is scattered with sharp stones. By the moonlight everything takes on a unique cosmic hue. The sandstone bowl is like a lunar crater. It is hard to believe that behind these dunes pressed against the star speckled heavens is a desert full of rocks, sand and wind.
Only there, in the sands of Hadokiger, with its deep, rugged ravines like the wrinkles in the palms of a local peasant can one really appreciate the value of courage, born from life full the impeccable pressure of the desert, a source of wise patience helping to build on this land eternal fortresses of hope and faith. Patience is a bandage for all of our wounds.
We abandoned our ambush site three days later. Three days of a hellish mixture of patience and tension. In order to avoid a sudden encounter with the enemy, we occasionally need to make stops. This is a routine practice when traveling at night, especially while near places that seem dangerous or suspicious. Stopping to listen and checking our suspicious places is the best defenses against ambush and unexpected contacts. For the first leg of the route, Venya and I were on patrol. Now, we are like tugboats at the end of the group, urging the stragglers catch up, and the rest to maintain the tempo of the march. It is no easier really than being out front, looking for mines. On short rest stops we are required to go up to the platoon leader so that we can agree on our every step for the next leg of the march, and to confirm our estimations of how far we'd traveled so far along the route. Along with all of this, we also have to keep tabs on how well the group is protected. The guys use these stops as short rests. Fatigue can cause the group's security situation to deteriorate rapidly. Step by step, all sense of reality starts to fade into indifference. With difficulty, through growling at them, or giving them a swift kick in the drawers, you can make the guards perform their duty.
The desert charms with its grandeur and size without limit, but at the same time, it can fill the soul with alarm by sharply reminding us that our goals are meaningless. In the day it is repressive, in the night - reassuring, instilling an almost mystic calm. The moon shines from the starry black sky. Straining his tired eyes, our platoon leader is trying to determine our position. I look at his face and understand that another foolish commander has dragged us out here again. His face is thick with stubble, and covered with a layer of fine sand. Fatigue and irritation have taken their toll during our three-day wait. The rest are no better. Exhausted, they have no life in their eyes. I force myself to calm down. The platoon leader made the decision to lead an overnight march back to our armored group. We have only a few hours until sunrise. To the armored group, according to the map is 17km as the crow flies, however our route, between and around the dunes, and along dry riverbeds will take us another 15km out of the way. We must march quickly. With every ascent we expect to see the end of our route. Anticipation always speeds time. Maintaining the tempo set by the commander, we have no choice but to move with the living rhythm of the desert: its secret - patience.
In spite of all the measures we take, we can encounter the enemy at any time. Such encounters won't leave the platoon commander time to make decisions. We were trained so that all of our actions would be automatic, in preparation for these encounters. Now our lungs can hardly accept air, which is cooler now, after the afternoon's intense heat. The platoon commander keeps urging us on constantly. Venya's back is in front of me, with his rucksack swaying rhythmically from side to side.
With difficulty, I'm getting out of a destructive stupor. Patience should not be confused with weakness.
Jeka (Rex) summer 1982, Afghanistan.
Daytime security for the armored group is organized in the following way: Patrols are at the head of the group, and the entire group is dispersed. Each is assigned its own sector of observation. The patrols are supposed to change every two hours, but all of this is only an ideal. Three days of waiting dull the feeling of danger and your sense of caution, but it is still an anxious wait. The goal of any, even the most badly planned, ambush is to catch the enemy unawares and destroy him. Often answering the question of what to do with prisoners caught in the desert required more moral strength than the process of pursuit and ambush.
The best meat that I have ever tasted was the meat of a young gazelle that I shot while Venya and Pasha were hanging out in the sand. The usual canned meat: beef with rice or pork; can never replace fresh meat. I think that even young lamb's meat is not quite as tasty as the meat of a beautiful wild animal.
Meat was fried over gas cans dug into a hole in the sand. There was absolutely no other way to do it. An ammunition box was put on top of the cans. The meat was tenderized by bayonet, salted and peppered, and cooked on both sides. Cleaning rods were used for shish-ke-bob's. It turned out great! Everyone chowed down, and nothing was left over for the guys who had yet to return. There was still more time, so I decided to do it again, and set back out on the hunt.
The motorcyclist appeared out of nowhere. Turning sharply, he tried to escape from our group by driving along the dry riverbed, and began to bear down on me. Here the desert biker's luck ran out. Trying to avoid an unexpected obstacle, he buried his front wheel in a hole, and flew into the air, past me, and as the rear wheel of the motorcycle grazed my shoulder, he came crashing back to earth. The blow was so great that the dushman's body broke the metal frame of the bike where the seat was welded on.
When the wheel hit me, everything became dark, but I managed to hang on to my machine gun. While I tied up the dushman, grinding my teeth from the pain, I felt his right side, and where there should have been ribs, there was only mush. He could expect to be grateful only for some kasha. The mudguard of the motorcycle nearly severed his right leg at the ankle, but the bone remained intact. I lifted him over my shoulder, and dragged him back to camp. We would help him, stitch up and dress his wounds, but that would be the limit of our mercy. I had failed to get a treat for my buddies and was very angry that my hunt had been disrupted. As I carried the dushman along, I pitied him that he had been wounded so badly, but in a group of young soldiers I became possessed by the instinct for spontaneous cruelty.
In the few hours before the return of the group from an ambush, we hanged the dushman, and hung his turban from the barrel of a high-calibre machine gun. The final indulgence that the Afghan's patience had earned him was the opportunity to pray before death.
The young guys with whom I was left in the armored group with constantly tried to suppress their own feelings of fear and lack of confidence. In the presence of this helpless prisoner, they became unnaturally excited. They were led by the subconscious fear: what if it was them, in the place of the captured motorcyclist. The impulses of fear that they obeyed were so strong that they left no room for common sense, or self-preservation. They couldn't stand the wait between the formulation of their desires and the arrival of gratification. The young brutes felt themselves omnipotent, and their collective understanding of the concept of the impossible disappeared. They instantly went to the extreme, and the kernel of antipathy towards the enemy exploded into wild hatred. Their aggression and their unjustified feelings of emotional tension with which they suggested hanging the captive can only be explained by their own inner weakness. It was the only reason they had: Feelings of fear and alarm over their own weakness.
"No matter what, the Koran never closes the door of mercy in someone's face, even if they are a criminal. We aren't dushmen who sin by replacing Allah's mercy, with merciless fanaticism." That young'un might have looked wicked funny at the time, imitating our political officer.
The guys giggled and chuckled, crowding and elbowing. They had their own notion of mercy. I felt sad. Sadness under such conditions is an unacceptable luxury. The danger of trying to contradict them was obvious, and so, for my own safety, my only choice was to follow the flock. When you run with the wolves, you should howl like a wolf.
"Who is going to help him?" An anxious voice rang out.
"Don't worry about that, someone take up the machine gunner's post."
This made them very happy. It's great when you have someone else to deal with your problems. Without regret I gave the command for someone to take up the machine gun. Everything that is hidden in the soul will rise to the surface sooner or later, and in the end it is for these things that you must take responsibility or seek justification. It doesn't matter what explanations we give for our actions it all reduces to one. Everyone eats well, returns home, and breathes easy and free.
At a safe distance, someone yakked beside an APC. I prefer not to describe my feelings. To try to justify what one has done is like being your own advocate before the devil.
Pasha, summer 1982, Afghanistan.
The platoon commander never found out about the hanging. They buried the motorcycle in a pit next to its owner. Sometime later, in the unit's dark meeting room, when we drank for some occasion, Rex brought up the topic himself.
"The barrel slowly slowly raises up, and his entire body stretches and the turban unravels. At first his toes touched the earth, and later they began to twitch in the air. The body became so long, the neck stretched, and his toes pointed toward the ground. Later, he suddenly jerked! The sole of his feet abruptly rose and dropped. From that motion, his right sandal flew from his foot. It sank to the dust so slowly, that to me, it even appeared that time had stopped. When we took him down his baggy pants were already soggy. They say that they come at that moment. Rex talked about it without any emotion, as if relating ancient history.
I listened to him, and could not believe my ears! Jeka appeared to have forgotten about his behavior in such situations. He had lost the ability to not speak about those things that people don't want to see, hear, feel, or remember. It was not acceptable to talk about the shit that we were all stuck in.
Apparently, one of the most important reasons for his aggression was his reluctance to see himself the way he was. He felt, thought and acted as he thought best for achieving the goal of going home, which was so desirable, and so far away. He had a definite life style, he imagined through a definite framework, he had definite beliefs, and didn't want all of that to be destroyed. His rage was born of a desire for rest, striving for total adaptation to inhuman conditions. Only by going beyond one's own moral boundaries could one make a stranger's death serve his personal interests.
Jeka found a solution. So as to not lose face, he changed his environment. He left Venya and me. After becoming Rex, he surrounded himself with a new circle of people, those who would accept him, those to whom he was useful, those who weren't annoying, like Venya. "If you're not pleasant, then people can read you" It appeared that that was what Rex decided. War divided us: Venya and I worried about our own defense, Jeka, about attacks on his enemies.
Jeka (Rex) 2, August, 1998
I didn't sleep again last night? Does it happen to you? I have to lay and think in the dark. For a long time I have had this habit, which seemed harmless, but has become unrelenting. Every morning I feel myself incredibly indifferent, and tired from all of these feelings. Do I remember the war? I don't know, I just hate it. The war comes to me by itself; as soon as I'm left alone, it blows into my life, and possesses it.
I returned from there long ago, but I keep shuddering every time my dream returns me to those narrow streets, and the labyrinth of clay dwellings. I was not destined to comprehend the city. Perhaps that is because I've never seen it in the absence of war. Kandahar is difficult to understand, and even harder to forget. I simply can't wrest it out of my heart. Years pass, slowly, step by step, my memories develop into a nagging emotional ulcer - a world of frozen moments.
Jeka (Rex) Fall 1982, Afghanistan.
Venya's malaria just got cured. His head and joints still ache, and he is constantly hot or cold from fever. His treatment was peculiar. He would babble on and on all day in an irrigation ditch in the desert, hoping this would help to ease the pain in his joints. The pain was such that he couldn't sit or lay down. When he became so weak that he could not walk, his eyesight started to fade, and his blood pressure fell, so we brought him to the medics. Turned out that he had picked up some disease. It was important to avoid stagnant water because it's a carrier of all sorts of diseases. Venya was like Ivan Durachok, who would run through any puddle, even while he wasn't a baby goat. He took so many anti-histamines that now you can be completely at ease while you're with him: all sorts of infections just leap out of your body with one look from Venya.
We're sitting with him on top of a house with a flat roof. The sun is tenderly warming our shaved heads. Discharged soldiers fly north, and our discharge is coming up soon. Our `international debt' is almost paid up, and the only thing left is to purge Kandahar of dushmen, disarm and disband their camouflaged gangs, clear all of the mines from the roads, end the massive artillery barrages, stop losing equipment and people, withdraw our troops, and be done with guerilla warfare. For three days the battalions combed the city, but with the approaching darkness, they are quickly pulled back. Constrained by our rules of engagement, we cannot fight the civilians who pig-headedly insist on joining the street fighting, so we withdraw, only to return later. On such days the generally loud and bustling city is not quite itself, its streets and alleys are empty and quiet. Only the calls of the muezzin are reminders of the indestructibility of Islamic tradition. The peaceful life of the city is buried under the debris of destroyed homes, rendered shapeless on the dusty suburban streets.
The battalion combed the city quarter to quarter, herding the mujahideen into pockets and suppressing the opposition. The dushmen escape though, like sand through your fingers. That's why we are left in the city for the night. At night we set up ambushes along commonly used routes, and in the day, we blockade and search the surrounded area. Three days ago on a routine search we got a splendid baksheesh. Combing the street with our canteens. The guys had no qualms, because in the brigade there were men with bags packed, counting days until their discharge. Normally, I did not interfere, but I took nothing for myself, but in that house, it was like the devil was at work.
The man of the house was so frightened that he hid in the woman's half of the house. (Translator's note: in many traditional societies, men and women have separate halves of the home.) When we found him there, one of his wives slipped us a wad of cash. We didn't hurt the husband, but Venya took the money. Whoever understands the dangers of war, also understands its proceeds. This wasn't the first graft like this during my time in Afghanistan. If I had taken everything that I was offered, it would have been enough for a splendid send off for me and Venya. It's a pity that Pasha was done with shooting. He should have received discharge presents too.
At that time, there was a factory in our neighborhood where a platoon had been held down, and bombarded with chemical grenades. For several days after that we hunted for those grenades. That's where Pasha took his two bullets. He was put into a rest house with other casualties. After some time there, a grenade was thrown in through the window of the room where they were staying. He only regained consciousness in an APC, heaped with dead bodies. That's when he lost his marbles. Only with great difficulty was he able to be hospitalized in Arian - he had developed a fear of enclosed spaces. Again, as had happened before, his despair helped him out. The last letter that he sent was from the hospital. He said that he is getting better, and we agreed to meet next August 2.
A KGB BRDM (armored reconnaissance vehicle) rolled up outside the gate of the house where we had created a defensive position that allowed us to control nearly the entire street. We already knew this character. For the time being, our luck was holding out. Just in case, Venya hid the Fanta, fruit and pita bread that I used to restore him to life, and dashed down to tip-off the remainder of our unit. I remained near the AGS (Automatic Grenade Launcher)
The KGB major brought with him with a `delegation' - 5 Afghanis. Two I recognized immediately. Last night while waiting in ambush, we had stopped a Russian made jeep. It was slipping down a narrow little street with its headlights off. We kept an eye on it from our night vision system armored transporter and waited for it to drive into our ambush. Those two were there. As it turned out, they were the city's deputy mayor, and his bodyguard. Although the second was obviously Uzbek, he was too Russian in brushing us off until we hit him with the butt of a rifle. I didn't know who anyone else was in the delegation.
If they came here to sort out yesterday's business, then no problem. I reported everything by the book, to the battalion commander, and without him, they have nothing to do here. We may have roughed them up a little bit, but it was after curfew, and battles were going on throughout the city. Calming myself down, I slid down from the roof and into the yard.
If I had any understanding of life, I would have understood that this was my destiny. Fate took on the face of a small, frail Afghani - dark and tense, promising nothing good. Everything that was happening around me was going completely escaped my attention.
"That's him! That's the guy that robbed my house!" Shouted the small afghani, one of the three that showed up along with the deputy mayor, pointing at me. "That's the `graft taker'
I felt like an empty shell being dropping into the hot sand.
The guys had something to say - shouting over one another, they pushed the major and the Afghanis aside. Nevertheless I could see that they had changed, as if they had suddenly forgotten how to laugh. A circle formed around me. Nearby, I saw, a streaming rivulet of sweat on Venya's face. His eyes were motionless, but his body shook from the fever. He was in a state of shock, and could not bounce back. I was no pillager; it's just that I was dealt a bad hand. Here, at war, my `international obligation' could be compared only with my love for the motherland. The only difference being that I wanted to kill this Afghani, to whom I owed something, for some reason. It was hard to come to the realization that you could be killed by a guy to whom you have an unpaid `international obligation.'
Suddenly it turned out that everything could be traced: the roads that I took, the houses that I visited, and the events that I had lived through, that I thought were hidden from outsiders. I had to follow all those roads and visit all those houses again, until the moment that my freedom shrank to almost nothing. If everything that I had learned about life was true, then my entire life was really one never-ending crime.
When fear becomes constant, it turns into malice. I was judged by cowards. It was a show trial. I took all the blame on myself. Venya was pressured and forced into publicly accusing me, as a representative of the communist youth league. On the brigade's parade ground, they tore off my sergeant's epaulettes, and I went home to the motherland, having gotten 8 years for armed robbery.
Going to prison is the only antidote for our fear of it. It proved to be a place where hatred and rage pile up, and are honed over a period of years, until they are sharp enough to be a perfect weapon. You become a hostage to your personal fury, wasting time and energy on perfecting it and then on holding it back. But it bursts out of you with the inevitability of an earthquake that can be predicted but can't be stopped.
Pasha, 2 August 1998.
Rex didn't answer the phone, in spite of my persistence. I decided to call Venya's house. He snatched up the phone in an instant, as if he had been sitting on it. His voice was agitated. We agreed that I would wait for him at the nearest pub.
I opened the door: Right near the entrance there were two guys quaffing their beers. At the next table, two princesses burst into laughter. Their delicate fingers, daintily holding their champagne flutes sparkled with gold sparkled in the sunlight. Behind the bar is a young bartender with a strangely familiar face, scrutinizing my bag with an appraiser's eye.
The walls of the former dive bar had been bleached out. The new lights are styled after kerosene lanterns, and the simple wooden tables are all crowded together. The large banquet hall is closed. The place might be as old as I am. It seems like time had stopped within the confines of these walls. Just as before, people stop by to take a breather, or for hair of the dog and then return to the grandiose spectacle, running without intermission in their quiet yards. This is exactly where they would perform the ideal knife-fighting scene, staged without discriminating between actors and audience.
As I contemplated a crack in the wall near my table, I tried to figure out where Jeka had stumbled, nearly letting his future slip out of his hands. Correctional facilities are called correctional because if you can't find a motive for your crime and reform yourself in one way, then you should try another. Searching for and fixing your mistakes must overlap: life should be a stable balance between triumphs and defeats. Only through reflection can you incorporate your past into your future. It connects our past to our futures. Experience, and his trials by fire gave Jeka the strength to rise again.
Jeka (Rex) 2, August 1998
Of course the phone rang right when I was least ready to answer it. I ran out of the shower and had to run across the entire apartment. I really wanted this call to be from Pasha. His plane had landed more than an hour ago. Prior to his departure he had written me several times. He had always supported me while I was in jail. Pasha came to visit me, but I was not allowed to see him. He never doubted for a second that I would get out of that hole.
I didn't grab the phone in time, and was upset, because in the next moment, it was Venya, my desperate benefactor who called. His every attempt to help me had been calculated only to inflate his own ego at my expense.
Where is the border beyond which my friends can't rely on me for help, and must be responsible for themselves. I am convinced that everything in human life happens as a result of circumstances. When you can't make the right choice, others will do it for you. Then you are a cog in someone else's machine. I understood that everything in our lives isn't that simple. Who could have predicted that I would catch that motorcyclist? Who knew that Venya would take the money, and that we would get in trouble right before our discharge? Who knew that that guy would punch Venya?
"Don't interfere where you aren't wanted." Some huge guy told me in the bar.
Jeka, (Rex) Fall, 1989.
...Tires shrieked outside by the window, and a car's horn blasted obnoxiously. Without waiting for the bell to ring, I opened the door and peered into the stairway. Venya climbed the stairs loudly. He tried to maintain a straight course, but staggered instead, and the sound of his weaving into the banister only added to the cacophony created by his steps.
"You aren't sleeping much." He nodded, commiserating. "Sorry it's late, that's how it goes. I need your help."
"Yeah, by the way, lets go out." Without waiting for my reply, he set out towards the exit. Throwing on a jacket, I walked after him.
We went to a nearby restaurant, and ordered fried meat.
"Don't fill up your plate with all that food like some country bumpkin. You need to enjoy your fried meat, and not just chow down on hay! Two or three reddened pieces of roasted potatoes, a couple of pickles, a pickled pear, a spoonful of horseradish, and maybe some olives too. And... vodka. Vodka Venya! At first I reply, "Venya - a glass of wine, then later on, definitely a little meat, then vodka, and then another hunk of meat right after."
Ok my lent is broken. It finally happened.
My stomach was rejoicing. For five dark years it had dreamt of the things that it has been able to receive only for the past two. I leaned back in my chair and good naturedly contemplated the people sitting in the restaurant with whom I was only connected through the arguments and facts of Venya's story, which I listened to without too much attention.
"We'll gather all these pigs around one table. We spread out a sea of vodka, and a boatload of chow. Before that, we'll saw down the barrels, load the guns into bags and put them somewhere in the corner of the room. When they're good and hammered and drool complacently, Venya, you, and I will stand up, and start busting caps. Can you imagine? The room is filled with gunpowder smoke; the grub on the table is splattered with their brains. The walls and the floor are entirely covered with their blood. They groan and writhe, empty shells roll on the floor, vodka from broken bottles steams onto the floor. You and me are standing in the middle of all this."
"And then what?" I asked, interrupting his verbal diarrhea.
"That's cool!" Said Venya, and I realized that he knew nothing of life among these devils.
"Who do you owe?" I got to work.
"Him, over there" Venya clearly pointed to the brute standing behind the bar, across from the entrance to our room.
"How much do you owe aside from the interest?"
"What?" Venya had obviously just grasped the meaning of the verb.
"How much does this freak want?" I rephrased the question.
"I owe him $300 bucks." Venya couldn't take his eyes off the bills that I counted out on the table.
"Go, give it to him, and come back."
The place was packed with young guys with no necks, instilling me with healthy optimism. Bald, freaks surrounded by clouds of cigarette smoke are crammed together to watch a video by the bar, across from our room. There are worse ways to kill some time than to hang out in a bar that has no cover charge.
I kept a close eye on Venya, who was shooting the shit with one of the muscle-bound animals. When Venya tried to pat the creditor on the back, he received a well-practiced blow to the right side of his head. Venya fell, and they kicked him while he was down. I gave the ashtray from our table a good heave, and it hit the creditor on the side of the head, and as his legs gave out from under him, he fell to the floor next to Venya. It was clear to me that I have a certain place inside of me, which I shouldn't cede to anyone, and I confidently moved towards the fighters.
"When your behavior and manners don't find welcome in one place, you should try them somewhere else." That's about how it all started.
I'm no wetback. I don't lose control of myself when I get angry, my compassion for Venya doesn't border on the hysterical, it's just that my patience with his bad luck had worn thin. This guy was really huge. Blood from his battered head streamed onto his chest. He got back to his feet, and while he wiped the blood from his face with one hand, and he drew a knife with the other. At that point I thought that he had amateur written all over him. I would be stupid to cut the clown and wait for him to bleed to death, but I also didn't want to wind up in the morgue, with my belly full of fried meat. In my hand was the knife that I had been using to cut my meat, but in his hand was a serious blade. Suddenly, he feinted, and tried to stab me with the knife. I moved back to avoid his thrust. Venya ended up trying to stand up at a bad time, and nearly got nicked.
That was the deal: In order to live tomorrow, one needs to survive today. A decision was made. Everything happened in just a few moments. Ribs aren't a real obstacle to the blade of a knife, like people usually think. That's why there was nothing special about my stabbing him while blocking his thrust from above. I learned these things from people who had done it before. If I was mistaken, it'll have to be proved.
In court, there is an inherent bias against knives. Knives are always associated with intent to kill. I got five years, and foolishly went to jail back two years after I was paroled.
Pasha, 2, August, 1998.
Crossing my legs, I added some wine to a wineglass, and leaned against the back of the chair examining the wash-worn tablecloth. The bartender came over. He was occupied at the table for a few seconds: he delivered some appetizers and drinks, then left. I had seen that pair before, and was constantly trying to remember where. Now, at any moment, my friends, who constitute the fundamental elements of my life, could appear through the doors, coming in from the glaring August sun.
I tore my gaze from the wineglass, and saw the bartender mumble something into the phone. This raised my guard slightly. "As soon as they get here we should leave." I decided.
In the next minute, Venya and Jeka walked in. I saw Venya first in this state. He walked between the tables, almost dancing. His eyes glowed like two polished nickels, and on his face hung a dopey boyish smile.
Jeka had changed a lot; he'd aged, but maintained his easy manner. His solid body and guarded, perceptive eyes gave him the look of a dangerous man. He didn't look like Venya, a windbag who was bloated with drink. Having seen me smile at Venya, Jeka's face softened in a smile, and he grabbed my hand extended in greeting, squeezing it firmly in his rough, well-trained hand. We hugged.
Venya, 2, August 1998.
Two men walked in together, and came up to us, filling up the space between the tables. I stood half turned away from them, and at the time, didn't notice the newspaper that one of them held in his right hand. Raising his arm towards Jeka and Pasha's embrace, he shot Pasha in the head, nearly point blank. It was strange how it never touched Jeka. The shot almost went unheard, just like a clap. I saw how Pasha's body went limp, and he hung in Jeka's arms. The two instantly bolted outside, jumped into a car, and darted away. I ran after them, hoping to get down their plate number. I couldn't see a damned thing. When I got back, Jeka had already laid the lifeless Pasha down on some tables that had been pushed together. The floor was littered with wineglasses, plates, and some food that had been shoved from the table. Wine, pouring from a spilled bottle, mixed with the blood dripping from the tables where Pasha lay. I started to sob loudly, like when I was a child, and for some reason, I remembered these words:
"And sayeth the Creator: It is too early to give them wings, for they will carry on them death and destruction. We shall instead give them mountains. Let some people fear them, for they will bring unto salvation others."
Pasha, 2, August 1998.
I was hugging Jeka when I saw those two walk in. One of them stood behind Venya and extended his arm in my direction. Humans have a habit of extending their entire arm when they point. This had become so habitual that the direction of the arm doesn't need substantial modification for accuracy, that's why that habit can be successfully used for quickly pointing a pistol at a target. One needs only to learn to hold it so that the barrel becomes an extension of the arm. If the barrel takes up the position of the index finger, the arm's direction gives you the chance to quickly and efficiently aim at the target. The outstretched arm, physiologically, is the most suitable for that, because the joints, and shoulder muscles, are fixed in the most stable position.
That's why a shot from a pistol from an outstretched arm increases the speed with which you can aim your weapon at the target.
That's exactly how I perceived that raised arm.
Pasha, February 1996.
"This mechanism is too beautiful to last." That's how the master commented on his work, wishing to draw our attention to what he was demonstrating.
Cracking the safe took 48 minutes and a plasma torch. The iron case turned out to be nearly empty: in it there was only a `soapdish' connected with wire to a thin metallic probe, a small pen case, and a small sack made of thin chamois, and tied shut with a golden lace.
"Does air also count towards the value of what's in here?" asked Shurup spitefully.
"The pen case is a loupe and the soap dish with the probe is a diamond tester" we were enlightened indulgently, "and in the sack are defiantly diamonds."
"What a successful raid! But I prefer safety to profit." Said Shurup as he drew his pistol.
As soon as one of the guys with us twitched, he pulled the trigger; a sharp crack announced that there had been a misfire. For Shurup it was no surprise that I turned out to be armed, and quite prepared for such a turn of events. I was ready for any scenario, including this one. That's why, when we had to use force to get back our `investment,' it came as no surprise to me.
After the misfire happened, Shurup and I were mistaken for sitting ducks, but when hunting, the targets are usually less mobile. Each type of shooting has its own peculiarities, but nevertheless, the basic principles of shooting remain the same, even for pistols, with which all of us turned out to be armed. That's why hunting can be different depending on what kind of weapons you have.
Those losers' mission was to hit moving, as opposed to stationary targets at different ranges, in conditions of insufficient illumination (after I hit one guys in the leg, and another in the shoulder, I made sure I shot out the light in the office) in a limited amount of time. They were operating under the illusion that they could rely on a chance hit, while in reality they needed to guarantee the neutralization of their targets. This turned out to be a grievous mistake. We had captured the contents of the safe. Though the diamonds turned out to be fake, it was enough to cover our expenses.
What we had done turned out to be sufficient grounds for opening an investigation. It is well known that in the course of such operations they information systems: video and audio recorders, film, and photography, and other technology. Rest assured that neither people nor the environment are damaged by any of these technologies. I didn't try to convince Shurup not to tempt fate, but I left the country, not trusting that others would take care of me. Shurup was trusting, and stayed. He was found by those whom we punished. I was also a much sought after man in those days, but time has fixed that. The majority of those involved in this story have already left this world. The fewer `brothers' remaining, the more each gets. (Translator's note: in Russia in the early 90's, members of the same criminal groups referred to one another as brothers.) All of us made money, but only for his own funeral.
Pasha, 2, August 1998.
In real life, there is no such thing as a static stance. Firing happens at extremely short distances, and is the operation is completed in a matter of seconds. The process consists of bringing the gun to the ready, aiming, and pulling the trigger. Because sharp eyesight isn't as important in shooting a pistol as a rifle, good visual memory, and a good feel for the weapon allows you to achieve markedly better results. After developing a feeling of kinship with his weapon the marksman can bring the pistol to the ready position, aim, and pull the trigger, all in one fluid motion.
This guy was outside of the line of fire, left shoulder out front, feet shoulder width apart, and torso gently inclined forward. The weight of his body was distributed evenly over his legs. That was the most comfortable way to use your legs to dampen out the recoil of the weapon. In that fashion the marksman minimizes the risk to himself.
The suddenness of the threat, and the necessity to react to it in an urgent manner, required from me an instant evaluation of the situation, while simultaneously moving out of the line of offensive fire. I had the time for neither that maneuver, nor the possibility for any kind of response, as Jeka firmly held me in his embrace. I saw the crosshairs line up perfectly. It seemed to me that something had burst, and in my head I saw a million bright flashes.
I had time to think: "Flash effect."
Jeka, 2, August 1998.