Two Days in the Life of Alex Lavrov,
an Average Russian
by Viacheslav Iatsko
The First Day: holiday presents, 1987
“What are you up to?” Lena pushed Alex off. “There is no sex in this country, don’t you know?” She was citing the notorious statement made recently during a space linkup between Russians and Americans.
“And how do babies appear, I wonder?” grumbled Alex. “Was our Nick found among cabbage heads?”
He realized that this morning the wife was in no mood to fulfill her spousal duties and got up discontentedly. The telephone rang.
“Take the receiver,” murmured Lena, falling asleep at once. She was lucky to get up two hours later to give the third lesson at school.
“Speaking,” said Alex into the receiver.
“Hi, pal,” sounded the cheery voice of Boris Kirilov, a chum with whom he worked at the Manufacturing Plant. “Got up already? Do you remember that today the trade union committee will give us holiday presents? There will be skimmed milk, chocolate bars, smoked sausage, and even a bottle of cognac.”
“I know,” said Alex.
“Okay, and do you know that the presents will be distributed after the gala meeting? The boss warned that those absent at the meeting wouldn’t be given anything. The meeting will take place after work at 5.30 p.m. in the concert hall.”
“Damn it,” cursed Alex.
“See you later, pal. Send my love to your pretty wife,” finished Kirilov.
Alex put the receiver, glanced enviously at the wife who was deep asleep, and headed for the bathroom. While shaving he was thinking over a plan for the day. Three times a year, on New Year’s Day, on May Day (the day of international solidarity of workers), and on the seventh of November (anniversary of the Great October Socialist Revolution) the Communist Party and the Soviet Power petted ordinary citizens by giving them the opportunity to get products that were in short supply and were impossible to buy in shops. To attend the meeting, which would take place after work, meant wasting about an hour, but to miss it and not get presents meant having a quarrel with the wife. “Damn it all,” thought Alex, “I shall have to go.”
The concert hall was decorated with red flags, a big slogan that said "We Are On the Way To Perestroika and Democratic Reforms,” and an enormous portrait of Lenin. The chief manager came up to the rostrum.
“Dear comrades! Let me congratulate you on the occasion of the anniversary of the Great October Socialist Revolution!” he commenced, cheerfully smiling, his bald head reflecting the light of a big chandelier hanging right over it. “Since the beginning of this year the staff of our plant have accomplished serious achievements...”
Nobody was listening. Alex heard Kirilov telling funny stories to two pretty blondes, the girls giggling from time to time. Two elderly ladies in the back row took out balls of yarn and began deftly manipulating it with knitting needles.
The speaker at the rostrum began comparing the present-day level of production with that of 1913 and 1961, giving numerous figures.
A man sitting in front of Alex suddenly placed a sheet of paper on his attaché case and thoughtfully began writing something. "Incredible,” thought Alex, “is he taking notes on the speech?” Alex leaned over his neighbor’s shoulder and read: “...two bottles of vodka, a kilogram of sugar, two dozen eggs, two loaves of bread...” The man was making up a list of products to buy for a holiday party.
The chief manager at the rostrum paused, took a glass filled with liquid, which looked like water, and emptied it with one gulp. “Nevertheless, we must admit that there are some separate shortcomings in our work,” he proceeded, more cheerfully.
It was clear the speech was drawing to a close.
Coming back home, Alex handed the presents to the happy spouse, who immediately disappeared into the kitchen. He switched on the television and began listening indifferently to the newscast.
“...Negotiations on arms control and reduction... Plenary meeting of the Communist Party Central Committee... New factories being built... Construction of the railroad in the Far East completed... Presentation of a new fighter plane... Birth rate increased... Live report from Red Square about the parade and demonstration of working people...”
A spotted bald patched head of the General Secretary appeared on the screen.
“We are on our way to a safer world, better life, to a socialism with a human face. We are on our way to perestroika and democracy,” self-assuredly declared the General Secretary.
“Switch off that freak,” cried Lena from the kitchen, “I am sick and tired of his chatter.”
Alex switched to a second channel.
“Be a happy people, happy forever; Soviet Power has so much strength,” sounded the lines of a holiday song.
A Second Day: an encounter, 1998
“This is a present from Americans,” said the captain, dialing the code number of the safe with his big hairy hand. Alex noticed thick black circles of dirt under the long nails, evidently not touched by scissors for the last several weeks. Having opened with effort the massive door, Rousakov inserted his whole arm inside the safe and discreetly drew out a half-filled bottle of Stolichnaya vodka and a surprisingly clean glass. In the darkness inside, Alex saw a dried piece of bread and two pieces of garlic. A strong odor indicated regular use of the safe for storing alcoholic beverages.
“Works perfectly,” commented the captain, “better than a refrigerator.”
He opened the drawer of his table, took out a second glass, which seemed not as clean as the first one, and began filling it. When the liquid reached the rim, he filled the other glass in the same way and offered it to the guest. Alex was watching the captain’s actions intently. To pour less vodka into his glass would be an offense.
They were in Captain Rousakov’s office at the local police station.
“Let’s drink to our meeting,” suggested Rousakov. “For how many years haven’t we met?
“Fifteen, I guess,” said Alex.
“Yeah, since that meeting of former schoolmates. Let’s drink to our meeting and to all the guys from our class.”
They clinked glasses and emptied them at once. Rousakov lifted to his nose the edge of his uniform’s sleeve and took a deep breath. Alex leaned, seized a piece of garlic from the safe and bit into it.
“Awfully glad to see you,” said the captain sitting down and motioning to Alex to do the same.
“So am I,” replied Alex. He had good reasons to rejoice. An hour and a half before, he had been caught during a police raid on the market where he was selling Turkish leather jackets. Though it wasn’t for the first time, the experience was rather disgusting. Policeman equipped with Kalashnikov submachine guns made all the sellers lie face down, hands on the backs of their heads. Then everybody was searched, and those without licenses or identification papers were arrested and taken to police station, Alex among them. If Rousakov hadn’t noticed and picked him out of the crowd, he would have to spend the rest of the day in a cell at the police department and pay a big fine.
“I am your debtor,” added Alex.
“Forget about it,” captain waved his hand; there was a patronizing tone to his voice. Alex had made better progress at school and Rousakov was pleased in a way to find himself in a superior position now.
“How are things? I would never have thought you were in this selling business. “You graduated from the Technological Institute and worked at the Manufacturing Plant, didn’t you?
“That’s right, but the plant went bust when the chief manager ran abroad after taking two million dollars of credit allotted by the federal government. I had to take up something, struggling for survival, you know,” answered Alex reluctantly. “And what about you? Have you happened to visit the States?
“That’s a special story.” Rousakov unbuttoned his uniform. “Three years ago, there was a kind of exchange program. American cops came to us to learn about our work, we went to them. Of course, our delegation consisted of the bosses’ relatives, and such simple cops as I were not admitted; but two days before departure our general’s son got drunk, wrecked his car and broke both his legs. I went instead, because they remembered I knew some English.”
Rousakov stopped, took the empty bottle of vodka, scrutinized it with regret, then switched on the walkie-talkie and ordered coffee and sandwiches.
“When patrolling in New York,” he proceeded, “I helped catch a gangster who was on Interpol’s list, and they decided to give us a car as a present. The car, of course, went to our general’s son, but the central department sent this safe as a bonus; a useful thing, as you see. Made in Germany. The general’s son wrecked the car in a few days and broke his neck, by the way. Do you remember Stogov?”
“Yes. He’s the one I arrested in New York. Have you met any other pals from our class?”
“Yeah, I recently ran across Nick Misin. Lent him some money. He made a career at the university, got a Ph.D., became a full professor. But they didn’t pay salaries for several months. And you? Seen anybody?”
“As far as my job is concerned. Ivan Potin graduated from the military academy, was promoted to major, got glommed for selling weapons from his regiment’s arsenal. Caught red-handed selling shoulder launchers to some Caucasians. There was news about it in our situation reports. Marina Redkina married a businessman, who was shot recently. Natasha Morozova became a call girl and was stabbed during a hoochfest.”
“And what about Gorin?
“You mean Steve?
“That loony jerk who failed the final exam in English?”
“That fart with whom my wife ran away?” roared the captain striking his fist on the table.
No sooner had his fist touched the surface of the table than there came the sound of explosion, broken window glass, and the room was filled with clouds of smoke and dust. Shots of submachine guns were heard in the adjoining room. Three men in spotted paratrooper uniforms rushed into the room.
“You, gumshoe,” cried one of them seizing Rousakov by the lapels of his uniform and not paying any attention to Alex.
“If you again arrest my men I, Gorin, shall tear off your ears and say that you were born that way. What do I pay you drugola for every month?”
He hit the captain’s face with his weapon. Rousakov collapsed on the floor. The men disappeared.
“I’d better make tracks for home now,” thought Alex and jumped through the empty window frame.
Entering his flat, Alex crawled to his spot on the bed and mechanically switched on the idiot box. Subconsciously he perceived pieces of a newsreel.
“...A federal government minister arrested on suspicion of bribe taking... Four billion dollars allotted by International Monetary Fund disappeared from the Central Bank, sure to have been stolen... Two prominent businessmen and a well-known journalist killed; hit men escaped... Military arsenal explodes, nuclear weapons not under control... Miners go on strike and cut off railway connections... Birth rate is the same as during the world war... Unrest in some regions...”
Suddenly on the screen appeared the familiar reddish, big-nosed face of the President.
“There is no crisis in the country. The government is working out a program of stabilization measures,” stated the President experiencing obvious difficulties in controlling his organs of speech.
Alex stared blankly at the screen. Life was going on.
Copyright © 2004 by Viacheslav Iatsko