Zyama pulled out his military ID, stuck it in the guard’s face and ordered to open the door.
We stepped into a sun-lit, hundred-meter wide square surrounded by two- and three-story buildings. An alley on its far-end side led deeper into the garrison.
We walked to a building on our right, climbed two flights of stairs and reached a wooden blue door at the end of a long dark corridor.
“The colonel is a nice guy,” Zyama said when we stopped in front of the door. “Don’t open your mouth unless he asks you a question.”
He knocked and after a muffled “yes” from the other side, we walked in.
An obese frog of a man with large bags under his yes sat behind the desk filled with stacks of manilla folders, printing paper, and a crystal ashtray full of cigarette butts. Colonel was about to add one more to the heap holding it next to his puffed lips between two fingers, face behind a smoke screen.
“Kapitan,” he said blowing smoke out of his mouth. “What brings you here?” He pointed at the chair next to his desk and said, “Have a seat.”
I followed Zyama to the desk like I was on a leash. He sat down, crossed his mile-long legs like he always did, capped his hands on top of a knee and said, “This young man here,” he nodded toward me, “his coach doesn’t want him anymore. Wants his career to end. He wants him to rot in the army.”
“Is he in my garrison?”
Colonel looked me over from the feet to the top of my head like I was a fashion model.
“How long he’s got to go?” he said.
“This is an anti-missile defence training unit, Captain, and you bring me a ghost? What am I supposed to do with him?”
“I’ll take him back in two or three weeks.”
“I thought you wanted him to rot in the army.”
“His coach does. I don’t. I want him to race. He was born to race, he doesn’t belong here.”
“You and your bloody super-stars, Captain. What are we teaching these kids? How to cheat the Motherland?”
“C’mon, Colonel. You like watching them winning Olympic Games, don’t you?”
“I don’t give a rat’s ass about your games. We’re here today still standing because Stalin didn’t play games. Too many players nowadays, Captain, not enough heroes.”
He paused, lit another cigarette and said, “If he’s still here after two weeks, I’ll have to get rid of him. He’s of no use to me.”
“Don’t worry,” Zyama said.
“Why would I? Thing is, Captain, the only unit I can send him to from here is our other garrison in Donetsk. You know what I’m talking about?”
“The one where second-year soldiers are trained for Afghanistan. It’s how it is. Can do nothing about it, as I’m sure you know. This will be the end of his game, I can tell you that.”
He picked up a receiver, dialled two digits on the rotary phone, and said, “Send Sergeant Beregovoy to me.”
Sergeant Beregovoy took me to the barracks after the Colonel explained the situation to him. One was painted pink, the other was lemon-yellow. We entered the pink one.
“Yellow barrack is for salagas,” Sergeant said. “You’re in your second year, right?”
“Sorry. Yes, sir.”
“I don’t need your sorry. No one does. Yes or no, that’s all I need to hear from you.”
The vestibule we entered had two doorways on its left and right sides. A meter-tall face of Marshal Sokolov, the USSR’s Minister of Defence, stared at me from the back wall when we walked in. The doorway on the right led to the toilets. We turned left and entered a dormitory half the size of an Olympic swimming pool. It was filled with rows of bunk beds divided into two isles by a three-meter wide passage in the middle. A lot of daylight flowed in through four human-height windows. A TV set and a white bust of Lenin on top of it were mounted on the far-end wall.
“See that bed in the corner? With no boots next to it?” Sergeant said. “It’s yours.”
He told me I could sit but not lie down on my bed until otboi at 10 o’clock. “I catch you lying in bed between 6 in the morning and 10 at night, you’ll be cleaning toilets for a week,” he said. Another rule was to never turn the TV on. “TV is for the I Serve the Soviet Union program on Sundays. That’s it. Don’t touch it.”
“Can I go outside?” I said.
“No. You go outside when I tell you to go outside plus breakfast, lunch and dinner. You sit here and wait. I need to organise you some uniform.”
He left the dorm in confident, military stride making a loud noise every time he landed a foot on a wooden floor.
I spent the next hour between my bed and a window, looking at men in khakis coming out and disappearing into different buildings on the other side of the square.
When Sergeant Beregovoy returned, I was lying on the floor, pillow under my head, eyes closed, counting Beregovoy’s steps between the doorway and my bed.
“Soldier!” he yelled. “Get up.”
I stood up with arms to the hips.
“What did I tell you about lying in bed?”
“You said not to lie in bed between 6 and 10.”
We stood, looking at each other, his lips tight, eyes glowing with hate, words, angry words just about to burst out of his mouth.
“Listen to me, smart ass,” he said in a hushed voice. “You can have an easy two weeks here, or I can make it hell for you. Take a pick.”
“Easy two weeks,” I said.
“Good. Now, I checked with our supply people, we don’t keep uniforms here, has to be ordered from the main warehouse. Meantime, you’ll wear this. Borrowed it from a dembel who owes me a favor.”
He opened a sack he’d been holding in his right hand and pulled out a well-worn pair of breeches and a gimnasterka jacket. “Had been to Afghanistan these two. You damage them, you die.”
In the Soviet Army’s bullying hierarchy, dembel was the highest caste a soldier could reach. You start your two-year conscription as a slave, a dukh (spook) in the army’s slang. You either submit to slavery and get your face and guts smashed only a few times, or you get your face and guts smashed all the time and then submit anyway. You can also hang yourself. Your choice.
Three or four weeks in, after you take the oath to die for your country and Communism, you become a soldier and move up to a salaga (rookie) caste. The beating and the abuse might stop at this point depending on how you fared as a dukh. If you’d put up a fight, you might enjoy some peace now. Or not. Depends on the garrison you’re in or how crazy the cherpaks and the officers are.
After a year, you’re cherpak (ladle), a human again. You begin to recover some of your dignity and thank yourself you’d dismissed suicide as an option when life felt and smelled like shit.
The last six months, you’re ded (grandpa). You run the show, tell cherpaks what to do—who pass the orders on to salagas—and spend your time getting ready for dembel.
In the spring and autumn, Defence Minister issued a special order to conscript and release male citizens from the Soviet Army. The day the order went out, your two-year term was up and even though you could have been held in the army for some time after the order, as a legal entity, you were a free man, a dembel. You either chilled or slept all day, waiting for the bureaucratic machinery to cough up your ticket to go home.
“Everyone will be here in half an hour,” Sergeant said. “Change. Too many Adidas logos on you.”
“What about the boots?” I said and took the uniform.
“I’ll find a pair tomorrow. Oh, and if some hard-ass doesn’t like your outfit, don’t fret. Tell them Beregovoy authorized it.”
“Yes, the dress code. We don’t enforce it on the dembels. They can wear whatever they want as long as the clothes aren’t civilian. Well, almost. Anyway, it’s a privilege, they’ve earned it. What you’re going to wear today, not even a dembel can wear. It’s unheard of. Someone might feel a little jealous, you know what I mean?”
Thirty minutes later I heard the sound of a hundred military boots rushing into the barrack like a roaming herd of bison. The soldiers spilled into the dormitory all at once in one pack, shouting, laughing and cracking jokes.
I sat on my bed in washed-out, withered by the Afghan sun khakis, white cycling socks and Adidas slippers, waiting for dress code Nazis to come close and start grilling me.
He’d been eyeing me for a minute from his bed near the window before he stood up, hands in the pockets, walked to my bed like he had an hour to do it and sat next to me.
I said nothing.
Short, black hair, dark eyes, an eagle’s nose, a deep scar running across the cheekbone on an olive skin background. I could bet my last rouble he was from North Caucasus.
“You’re in my suit,” he said with a heavy accent. Chechen. He was a Chechen.
Our peoples spilled each other’s blood for centuries. Tens of thousands would die again in nine years from now in the next round of bloodshed. If there was someone on the planet I wouldn’t want to mess with, it would be a Chechen.
I said nothing.
“How long in the army?” he said.
“Cherpak,” he said.
I said nothing.
“Where from?” he said.
He paused, and said, “Joking?”
“Nalchik-city, the State of North Caucasus,” I said.
This was a give away, a signal I wasn’t joking. No one outside of North Caucasus would call Nalchik a Nalchik-city or say “the State of North Caucasus.” We used to say that to make it sound like Nalchik was in America, an inside joke.
“Russian?” he said.
He touched his chin like he was thinking about something, said, “We have four Caucasians here. Two Chechens, a Dagestani and a Circassian. We’re one. Understand?”
“Yeah,” I said.
“Don’t ruin my uniform. It’s from Afghan, you know?”
“Yeah, I know.”
“What’s your name?”
“Kolyan then,” he said.
“Yeah, that’s what they used to call me in Nalchik.”
“I heard, you’re a champion.”
“Strong legs,” he said. He patted me on my back, stood up, and said, “Don’t go to dinner by yourself. You go with me.” He stuck his hand out, said, “Aslan.” I got up to shook his hand, he turned around and walked back to his bed.
I strolled out of the dorm toward the toilets with two dozen eyes glued to me, watching my every step. Some with malice, others confused by a handshake between a Chechen and a Russian.
A tall guy with unwashed, wheaten hair has been standing in the dorm’s doorway, looking at me with a derisive smile on his pimpled face when I entered the narrow corridor on the way out. He said, “Pee-pee time?”
“Piss off, asshole,” I said.
“What was that?”
I stopped and left a two-meter buffer between us. He said, “Repeat, soldier.”
The footsteps behind my back, discrete as only the Soviet-made military issue kirzachi can make, they were for me. The first blow ripped into my right kidney and knocked my legs out of function. On the way down the pimpled face kicked me in the stomach with the tip of his boot. My lungs froze. Without air the daylight dimmed all around me, eyes lost focus. I landed on my bum with one arm blocking my face from the next blow. He leapt like a wild animal, squatted down next to me and grabbed my head by the hair. “Repeat, you bitch. I said repeat,” he yelled with his fist raised, ready to strike.
“Break his nose, Benya,” the guy who hit me in the kidney said.
I heard more footsteps rumbling from afar, heavy army boots hammering against the floor, getting closer.
Aslan’s kirzach went into Benya’s face like it was an 11-meter football penalty kick. He slumped onto his back, both hands thrown wide apart, blood spilling on the floor out of his mouth. Benya’s friend was on his knees when I stood up with a knife to his throat held by the second Chechen, Kadyr. Most of the platoon was in the corridor now, watching, scared to death to get on the Chechens’ way.
Aslan’s foot was on Benya’s face, smudging the blood all over it. “He’s from Caucasus, you filthy dog, from Caucasus,” he’s been saying, squashing the stiff outsole of his boot against Benya’s face. “You got that?” He squashed harder, on his throat now. “I asked you a question,” he said.
“Yes,” Benya said.
“Repeat,” Aslan said.
“Yes,” Benya said.
Aslan walked to Benya’s friend and kicked him in the stomach, lifted his head by the hair after the guy collapsed and smashed it against the cement floor. He waited for the blood to start pouring from the nose and said, “How about you, filthy dog?”
“We didn’t know,” the guy said.
At dinner the five of us ate at the same table. Two Chechens, a Dagestani, a Cercassian, and a Russian taking turns, interrupting each other’s stories about what life was like in North Caucasus, how we missed the mountains, the shashlyk, the water cascades clearer than tears, and the smell of white apples in early summer.
“Benya is a dog,” Aslan said. “Never smelled gunpowder in his life. Dogs like him go home in caskets from Afghanistan. Cowards.”
“How long you’ve stayed there?” I said.
“Crap,” I said. “How did you survive for so long?”
“By killing every damn Muj I saw,” he said.
Sergeant Beregovoy’s first order to me the next morning was to stay in the barrack until my uniform and the boots arrive. “Not everyone knows your slippers and white socks are temporary,” he said as I sat in bed, processing where I was. “You’ll get in trouble cruising around dressed like a clown.”
“Where is the phone around here?” I said. “I need to call someone today.”
“What do you think this is? Kremlin? You’re in the army. No phone calls unless someone blows your head off.”
Over breakfast, Aslan told me that for a pack of cigarettes the guards would let me outside the gate once the officers had gone home at the end of the day. A phone booth was across the road. “Make sure you buy them Kosmos,” he said. “Spoiled bastards.”
“Where do I buy cigarettes?” I said.
“Canteen. If they have any.”
“Lucky I had a five-rouble bill in my pants yesterday. That’s seven phone calls.”
As Aslan said, having canteen was one thing, buying something you need from it was another. They had no cigarettes when I went there after breakfast. “Maybe next week,” an overweight saleswoman in white apron said.
Nothing to lose, I said, “I’ll pay for three if you sell me one pack of Kosmos.”
She hesitated and said, “I don’t have Kosmos. Temp. Do you want Temp?”
“Are they as good as Kosmos?”
“They’re rouble a pack, the most expensive in the country. You don’t smoke, do you?”
“Have to make a call?”
“Here,” she said and pulled out two packs from under the counter. “Three roubles.”
I called Elizarov that night and told him how stupid I was and how this army thing did its job and how I see where I was and where I’m now.
“I should be training, not getting my kidneys pulped.” I said.
“You’ve missed your train,” he said. “You’d been on it going where most people don’t even dream of going, you got off, and it’s gone now. You had a shot, you missed. It’s over.” Beep, beep, beep.