Tell Them, Please Tell Them

Fear slowly consumed Sasha, until terror was all that was left of him
More

Twelve years ago, before I emigrated to the United States, when I was an inmate on the psychiatric ward of the Northern Fleet Hospital, in Murmansk, Sasha was brought to Unit A after he chopped off his thumb with an ax. This was 1987, north of the Arctic Circle, on the Kola Peninsula, where winter gales blew off the Barents Sea, whipping the port like a cat-o'-nine-tails made of ice. In boot camp Sasha had been ordered to split logs, but instead he got down on his knees and put his right hand on a stump and chopped off his thumb, which went flying in the dirt like a wood chip and was never recovered. Try as I might, I can't shake Sasha's anguished gaze from my memory. Although I barely knew him, we had gone to the same high school back in Leningrad, and we were from the same neighborhood. In the navy these coincidences were enough to make me feel as though I had encountered a dear and long-lost brother. Now, whenever his face re-emerges from my memory, a hollow coldness grows in my stomach, and I must concentrate to avoid drifting into the whirlwinds of my past. Today the numbing warmth of a bottle of Scotch isn't enough to keep me from drowning.

I remember his journey from Leningrad better than my own; perhaps it was no different from my own. When I returned to civilian life, I blocked out what I could—I didn't talk about it, tried not to let my mind wander back there. Even now, as I close my eyes and track my memories like a hunter, going deeper and deeper, I see a huge camp swarming with men in black from all walks of the Soviet Union, men going, men returning, men with incredible stories. How I got there, I remember from sitting next to Sasha's bed. I listened quietly, and he stared at the ceiling as his words poured out.

On that early-morning walk to the neighborhood military precinct, Sasha told me, the May light on the slumbering city had never been more painfully beautiful and sad. Each building took on the solemn beauty of what you love but can no longer possess. Leningrad reveals her splendor when the days are gray; the yellows, greens, and blues of the buildings make her look like a watercolor postcard, and here and there a golden dome shines like a surrogate sun. Sasha's feet were heavy, as if the streets conspired to hold him back, and his throat was so tight he couldn't swallow. Except for a small toy elephant and a piece of fur in a plastic bag, he had left everything behind, even his hair, yet he had never felt so heavy.

In the precinct's yard Sasha and thirty other boys with freshly shaved heads waited for the roll call. Some, still drunk from the night before, ran for the bathroom to vomit; others took swigs from flasks hidden in their vests. This was the end of their freedom for two or three years. Sasha knew no one, and kept to himself—he couldn't believe he was there. Until the previous morning he had assumed all along he'd been deemed unfit for service because of his asthma. He was studying Russian literature at the university when he received an official letter ordering him to report at once to the precinct with his medical records. At first he was sure it was only a formality, but the officer there glanced at his file and laughed. "Young man," he said, "you'll be just fine. We'll take you in spite of your imperfect lungs. Get a crew cut and report here tomorrow at six."

Sasha gaped. "But what about my asthma?"

"Sometimes Mother Russia makes exceptions for promising young soldiers like you," the officer said with a smile. "We'll find you a spot somewhere, don't you worry."

Sasha was speechless, disbelieving. The officer slapped his back and sent him on his way.

A draft official came out of the building and took the roll call; then he marched the recruits to a train station. The recruits lined up in the military waiting room, and the official told them, "You're all navy men now." Sasha's heart sank even lower; he was in for a full three years. He slumped on a bench in a corner and felt sorry for himself. The other boys were pale and worried too. Sasha reached for the piece of fur and held it tightly; then he closed his eyes.

His mind wandered to Galya, his first love. It was an exceptionally bright and sunny day, and the Neva River shimmered like rattling diamonds. She was with him, and together they walked along Sadovaya Street until they saw a crowd at the fish market. Quickly they got in line; something had arrived, but they didn't know what. Galya asked, but nobody knew. They stood in line for an hour and a half, his arm around her shoulder. Sometimes they kissed, her lips on his like velvet. When they got to the counter, little pink sticks of imitation crab wrapped in transparent plastic bags were on display—imports from Sweden. They bought what they could, and ate as they wandered in the city, licking each other's fingers, so happy at their unexpected luck, at the beautiful day. Then they went to her apartment, into the small room she shared with her grandma, who was out. Next to the bed was a plastic elephant that she turned to face away from them. "It would otherwise blush," she said. Then they made love, and afterward, as he lay on his back, she took a little piece of soft white fur and gently rubbed his cheek. Later, when he was drafted, before they parted she gave him the fur and the shy elephant wrapped in the imitation crab's transparent bag, which she had carefully washed.

As Sasha spoke, he drew a touching picture of life back home, and I clenched my teeth: I couldn't help thinking about my own girlfriend, my own departure. Those farewell days were hard. Military service in the Soviet Union was a very serious matter. When you turned eighteen, it was time to go—being a university student didn't help. When your name was called, there were no excuses, no extensions, no exceptions. I was hoping for the army—two years I could handle. But the navy, a full three years—that was a bit much. So when the official draft letter came, my hands shook slightly. Two years or three years? I put the letter in my bedroom dresser and didn't tell anyone about it. After a couple of days and six shots of vodka I tore it open. The navy. That was a big disappointment.

My girlfriend, Natasha, was the first one I told. That night we drank two bottles of Soviet champagne and then made passionate if brief love in her small room. Lying next to her, our sweat spicing the air, I told her slowly, It's the navy. She said nothing, just held me tighter and sighed. Three years; she wouldn't wait for me, and I didn't blame her. I didn't want to wait for me either.

In a culture without Prozac or Valium, we had little but drinking to console us, so my friends and I drank ourselves into oblivion the month before the draft took effect. We drank and drank, especially those who had been drafted. We were university students; we thought ourselves refined and cultured intellectuals with a bright future, not meant to be military grunts. Tolya and Misha studied mathematics with me; Boris and Andrei were immersed in Russian literature; Dima and Vadim were finishing their first year of medical school; and Mulya was a promising violinist at the Leningrad Conservatory. When I looked at us as a group, I wanted to cry with self-pity—we were so frail in our pride, our faces going blank with terror if we weren't careful to keep laughing. But we couldn't do otherwise; we had much we didn't want to think about. For one thing, no one knew where he would be assigned. The Soviet Union was large enough that when some waked, others went to sleep. And differences within the empire were always sufficient to produce a military hot spot; at the time, it was Afghanistan. Military service was not merely a chore; it could be fatal. Even those who came back from peaceful areas said hardly a word. When prompted, they'd say something about being cold and hungry for a couple of years, maybe something about eating a dog. We all knew of the hazing, but no one cared to talk about it. And we, the young ones, weren't sure we wanted to know very much—like patients kept in ignorance of their disease for their own good. With the help of alcohol we managed to forget, even to laugh at our plight.

I was first taken to a temporary camp outside Leningrad, where we got our haircuts and waited for our assignments. I was not vain, but I had been keeping my hair on the long side, and listening to the Beatles. I was astonished by my shaved head. Whenever I caught a glimpse of myself in a mirror or a window, I was startled by my foreign reflection. Natasha took the train to visit me one last time before I was dispatched for good. When she saw me, she cried in my arms, and I joined in; I was soon to be off into a new and distant world. My next three years were still a mystery. I would find out what lay ahead only when I got there.

But now I am in Brooklyn, drinking alone. From the window of my apartment I can see Manhattan disappearing in a shroud of fog as the day wanes. I'm supposed to work the night shift, but driving a cab in this weather is never good business, and my neck is tense, signaling the onset of a migraine. I pack a bowl and have a smoke; then I sink into the couch, flipping through the channels. I catch a movie in which a boy doesn't get a date for the prom. The prom! Poor puss. I switch to MTV and it's The Real World—The Real World! I kill the box, and in the growing darkness I see Sasha's anxious stare. I close my eyes, and suddenly I am back in Murmansk by his bed, the smells of formaldehyde and ether saturating the air.

In the late afternoon, he told me, their train pulled into the station, and Sasha and the other young recruits squeezed themselves on board, still not knowing where they were going. Next to him a skinny fellow who had some smoked fish said he'd heard that the train's final destination was Murmansk. Since they could be dropped off anywhere along the way, his information didn't mean much except that they were headed toward the Arctic Circle.

The entire night Sasha slept in the train as it labored northward. In the morning they arrived at the Murmansk railroad station, where a dozen brown buses waited for them. They piled in for an hour-long drive to Severomorsk, the largest base of the Northern Fleet. The buses parked on a wide blacktop, their diesel engines idling loudly, while a couple of hundred eighteen-year-olds, still wearing civilian clothes, formed ranks. Sasha was lost among them, and they were lost together, their faces vacant with fear. They marched into the enormous camp, to a rectangular one-story building. Inside, officers sat behind rows of tables that had been set near the walls, ogling the fresh recruits as if they were meat. Sasha walked among the befuddled recruits, passing in front of the officers, who called out to men at random—"You! Yes, you. Come over here. What's your name?"—and enlisted them in their respective battalions. Sasha was threading forward, thinking he was in a slave market, when an officer called to him from the left.

"Hey, sailor," the officer yelled, pointing at Sasha. "Are you afraid of heights?"

Sasha answered that he wasn't.

"What's your name?"

"Alexander Primak," he said.

"You are Sailor Alexander Primak!" the officer corrected. Then, glancing down the aisle at the secretary, he shouted, "Give me the Primak file." To Sasha he said, "Go wait outside, Sailor Primak."

In the yard, as Sasha waited with some others, three older sailors in uniform walked over to him. "Give me your watch," one of them said. Before Sasha even understood the request, he was punched in the stomach. He crumpled to the ground. When he looked up, the sailors were gone, and so was his watch.

The officers came out of the building and started calling the names of their recruits, and a big commotion occurred as the men ran around searching for their battalion leaders, confused by the growing cacophony. Finally they regrouped around their respective officers; then they marched to a square and formed a line in front of a long, narrow, windowless structure.

The line coursed in sporadically, and Sasha, among a group of twenty or thirty, reached the building's first section. Huge bins full of shoes, pants, and shirts ranged along the right wall; to the left was a check-in booth. An officer yelled for them to check their valuables, quickly get naked, and throw everything into the bins. At the counter Sasha was given a brown paper bag, in which he placed a few rubles and the plastic bag with the elephant and the fur. Then he stripped down and tossed his clothes into the overflowing bins before he was pushed on.

The next room had a cement floor with a drain in the center; above, raw, rusted pipes hung like snakes. The room looked like a gas chamber. The doors were shut, and tepid, brownish water spurted out of the pipes. The room had no showerheads, faucets, temperature controls, or soap—and Sasha, like the others, stood under a stream of water. No one spoke. Some attempted to wash, rubbing their bodies; others just stood in a daze, the water pouring over them.

Through a door at the far end they went on to a third room, where bins full of folded towels awaited them. They had a few minutes to dry themselves before being pushed on to the next chamber, where, on the right, sailors sat behind long counters distributing articles of the navy uniform: underwear, caps, shirts, belts, boots. As Sasha walked along, pushed by those behind and pushing those in front, the sailors at the counters, after a brief visual evaluation, tossed various garments at him without asking his size. The pile he carried got taller and taller, until he could hardly see in front of him; then he missed his pair of boots, and the whole pile toppled to the floor. Naked, he bent over to pick everything up, and no one behind even laughed.

Arms laden, they funneled into the fifth chamber, which was narrower, with wooden benches along the walls, where they tried to figure out what to wear, and how. Here they needed to do some trading, because nothing fit quite right, especially the boots. Men shouted their sizes to one another, and what they had. Some laughed—a forced, dry laugh—when their boot sizes were so far off that it seemed a joke. Sasha was barely dressed when they were pushed into the last chamber, where he picked up his valuables and then exited into another square, where the officers waited. When Sasha looked in the brown bag, he felt as though a needle had been jabbed into his heart. Nothing was in it but a pair of dirty socks. The elephant and the fur in the plastic bag were gone. He couldn't understand why anyone would steal his worthless few belongings from home, his last reminders of Galya. As he marched in line with his battalion and looked around, he suddenly realized that the entire camp—the streets, the sidewalks, the buildings—was delineated by barbed wire. Coiled, rusted barbed wire was the fabric of his new life.

Meanwhile, I was in the psychiatric evaluation ward. Civilian life was a distant blur; even the sailor's life was an ominous rumble in the background. My world was a new and peculiar one. We were nearly one hundred in a facility conceived for sixty, all converging from the Northern Fleet for different reasons into this one ward. My companions included drug addicts, thieves, homosexuals, would-be suicides, and genuine freaks, along with a few rational, self-committed shirkers. Some people were losing their minds in the navy. Oleg sported a red scar across his neck, where he had attempted to slice his jugular. Alyosha was such a queen that even in the ward, where surveillance was constant, he was beaten daily. Sergei was a desperate junkie, who drank a concoction of shoe polish and floor cleaner and then banged his head against a steel pole until his cranium showed. Others had two-digit IQs, didn't even speak Russian, or came from lost villages in distant republics beyond the Caucasus.

Our stay in the ward was an excruciating trial, albeit in the guise of a medical evaluation, that used scientific props to punish and then determine the fate of those committed. Three outcomes were possible: discharge from the navy with a more or less severe diagnosis of insanity (everyone's hope); being sent back to your battalion (where, as a shirker, you'd be worse off than before); and the Disbat—short for "disciplinary battalion." There you would be as good as dead, at the mercy of your guards' whims, cannon fodder dispatched to the most dangerous places—suicide operations, toxic-waste removal, minefield clearing. The omnipresent threat of being whisked away to the Disbat gnawed at us like maggots on carrion.

When I arrived on the ward, I was put under twenty-four-hour surveillance in Unit A, a spacious room partitioned into smaller cubicles. This was the suicide watch. Patients there wore underwear only and were required to stay in bed except during meals. The time should have been stressful; I didn't know what to expect, and some patients went straight to the Disbat from Unit A. But the nurses and the doctors shot me up with various antipsychotics, most often Aminazine. I slept most of the time, roused only to eat or to be interrogated by two doctors under the supervision of three officers. That period remains a blur; I vaguely remember one interrogation at which I said, "I'm so drowsy I can't concentrate on your questions."

"All the better," one doctor said. Then I sank into a purple fuzz.

After one week they gave me fewer tranquilizers, and I lay awake in my bed most of the day, worrying. What would come next? What had I said under the influence of the drugs? One morning two doctors and a nurse went into the cubicle next to mine. A couple of minutes later the nurse appeared in my doorway. "The doctors need your help," she said. "Follow me." Next door, my neighbor slumped in a wheelchair, his jaw hanging open and his pupils dilated.

The two doctors led the way, and I followed, pushing the wheelchair. We walked out of the ward and into another section of the hospital, to a bare room with a metal chair in the middle, above which loomed what appeared to be a huge lamp attached to an articulated arm. One of the doctors ordered me to help the patient sit astride the chair. The other gave me a heavy rubber apron to wear and then told me to face the patient and hold his arms against the backrest. The first doctor took a syringe with a long needle, stuck it into the base of the man's spine, and extracted some spinal fluid. Then, without removing the needle, he switched syringes and injected what seemed to be air. My saliva thickened. The second doctor reached for the lamp and set it so that the patient's head was inside. Both doctors left the room and shut the door. I heard several clicks coming from the lamp, and then they came back in and said the procedure was over.

Less than a week after I wheeled the patient back to his bed, my assigned doctor explained that before I could be transferred to Unit B, they needed to do one last, small surgical procedure. However, he first needed my consent in writing, because it carried a small risk of paralysis. The procedure was a spinal tap and a pneumoencephalogram. My mouth went dry, and I said no. "As you wish," the doctor replied. He jotted something down and shut my file. "Without this test we cannot complete your evaluation, so I'm sending you back."

"I'll do it," I stammered. As I signed my name, I felt it was my soul I was surrendering—the inner me I thought untouchable.

When they wheeled me back from surgery, the nurse propped up the foot of my bed with a chair, so that I lay on my belly at a thirty-degree angle, head down. The doctor warned me not to move or roll over for the next three days, or I might have permanent brain damage. "If you're bored," he added with a chuckle, "just think about girls!" The nurse set a tin bucket in front of me. "If you're going to puke, do it here," she said. "Don't make a mess!" After they left the room, I threw up for a couple of hours, and then endured the three longest days of my life, before finally being transferred to Unit B.

I spent five months on the ward without brushing my teeth, without outside contact or news, avoiding the procedures intended to break me down. The mildest rule infringement, the wrong tone of voice, laughing at a joke too loudly, or not obeying quickly enough was construed as a reason for treatment, which in most cases was two or three injections of a few cc's of sulfur. Sulfur shots burn like hell and then make your temperature rise, giving you splitting migraines and nausea, followed by vomiting. I've seen 200-pound men cry in their beds for a day or two after this. Another favorite treatment was immobilization: a nurse would pull the mattress from your bed and then, with the help of a volunteer orderly, strap you to the bare metal frame in such a way that movement was impossible. You were released only for toilet needs, and faking was not possible, because the nurse carefully watched your production with a smirk.

We were all paranoid, fearing the Disbat, displaying our insanity as well as we could; some simulated new suicide attempts, a few spoke to themselves or stared at a bedpost all day, others went into fits of hysteria in the middle of the night. I was depressed and quiet, telling my psychiatrist over and over that life wasn't worth living, whether here or at home. To my mind, returning to my battalion and going to the Disbat were one and the same: both meant death. So I was careful, keeping my seething anger in check.

After a few weeks in Unit B we could volunteer to becomeorderlies in exchange for cheap cigarettes, and since we had absolutely nothing else to do, we volunteered eagerly. In this world cigarettes were the only valuables; a nonsmoker like myself couldn't trade them for anything else. Thus I became a smoker.

An orderly's job was to assist the nurses and doctors with treatments and to help with the twenty-four-hour watch in Unit A. After a shift the nurse would decide how many cigarettes you deserved—as few as one, as many as six. We would have to conceal them, however, and smoke surreptitiously, because smoking was forbidden. Most of my sulfur injections were the result of being caught smoking.

After a few months I was the senior patient on the ward, and a seasoned orderly. One night I was on watch in Unit A when a new patient was brought in. While I was on my rounds, checking that all the patients were lying motionless in their beds, the new patient called weakly. I approached him, and my stomach sank—it was Sasha. "Are they letting me go home?" he whispered, his eyes glazed from Aminazine. "Am I going home?" He didn't recognize me, thinking I was part of the hospital staff, because orderlies wore red armbands to temporarily distinguish them from the patients.

"I don't know," I said. "I'm just an orderly, a volunteer."

"I can't go back," he said. "I just can't go back." His right hand was bandaged, and his eyes were lost in anguish. I leaned closer.

"Sasha?" I said. He didn't answer, just mumbled, and I walked away.

The following night, when I went on my rounds, he asked again: "Are they discharging me?" This time I got close to his face, and he recognized me. "Vanya!" he exclaimed. "Is that really you?"

And here began our friendship—a burden I carry to this day. At first our meeting brought us joy, but almost immediately he asked me again: "Are they going to let me go home?"

"I don't know," I said.

He looked at me anxiously and grabbed my hand. "Tell me what you think," he insisted. "In your opinion, are they going to let me go home?"

"I really don't know," I said, but I had a bad feeling about his case.

In the days that followed he needed to talk, to tell his story to someone. He had been brooding about it for weeks, in the isolation of his boot camp full of dense men. I became his confidant, and during the long nights of my shift, with the nurses' chatter and the occasional moans of nightmare-ridden patients in the background, Sasha told me his tale.

He had been recruited to be a crane operator on the docks of Gremikha, but before his battalion was sent off, they went to one of the boot camps of Severomorsk for three months of training. The first night, while he lay in his bunk, an older recruit came over and asked him where he was from. Leningrad, he replied. The soldier was shocked, because Sasha had dark eyes and full brows, and his nose was large and a bit hooked—this wasn't a Russian look. "I thought you were Georgian," the man said.

"No," Sasha said, "I am Jewish." This was a tragic mistake that nothing could mend. Jewish! The soldier couldn't believe it. He thought Sasha was joking. He left promptly and returned a few minutes later with a dozen older recruits. They started asking Sasha many questions; they were rural fools who had never seen a Jew. Their questions ranged from "Why are you Jewish?" to "Is it true Jews eat their children?"

From that day on Sasha was called "the Jew," and he became the preferred target of the seniors. He was beaten daily, and forced to chew on dirty socks and lick shoe soles. At night he'd be awakened by blows and then dragged out of bed to do cleaning chores. His drill instructor took a dislike to him as well; he was the black sheep of the battalion.

The most common beating in the navy was the third-button blow. The navy uniform vest was fastened with thick copper-shank buttons, and the third of these buttons was the universal target for punches and shoves, thrusting the shank into the victim's sternum. As the days went by, that area became bruised and excruciatingly sensitive; the slightest shove would make you wince. Although everyone was beaten, some were picked on more than others, even killed. Once I watched a Ukrainian get beaten to death with shovels for refusing to surrender his girlfriend's picture to three older recruits. Although Sasha wasn't that unfortunate, he stuck out in his battalion like a flapping chicken in a pack of wild dogs. His sternum was so bruised that he could sleep only on his back, making him snore, which brought the wrath of his barracks neighbors.

One night, during the last roll call before bedtime, the drill instructor said to him, "Sailor, one step forward!" Then he dismissed the battalion and told Sasha to follow him to the bathroom. There he pointed at the urinal, which was simply a wall with a gutter at the bottom, and told him to clean it.

"But I don't have anything to clean it with," Sasha said.

"Oh, yes you do," the drill instructor said with a smile. "Your toothbrush." So Sasha scrubbed at the filth for hours, running back and forth between the sink and the urinal wall with water cupped in his hands and then using crumpled toilet paper to dab the area dry. But the wall still looked dirty. Finally, very late into the night, he gave up and squatted in a corner, dozing off. The drill instructor dropped in and scowled. Sasha scrambled to stand at attention.

"Sailor!" the instructor snapped. "How dare you sleep on the job?"

"I'm finished," Sasha said meekly. The drill instructor grabbed him by the shoulders and pressed his face against the urinal wall.

"If it's so clean, lick it!" he said. Sasha gasped and said nothing. "You see," the drill instructor said, "it isn't clean yet." He let go of him and walked out.

Sasha rushed to the sink and washed his face, and then continued his hopeless scrubbing. It was an impossible task. As the night moved on, he became so tired that he fell asleep holding his toothbrush against the urinal wall. Finally, the drill instructor came back in and expressed his satisfaction with a yellow smile. Then he dismissed Sasha. As soon as Sasha stepped out of the bathroom, the morning call sounded, and another day of work began.

That morning a few men, including Sasha, were ordered to dig a trench for septic pipes. At first Sasha carted a wheelbarrow back and forth between the trench and the mound of earth they had dug up, which stood by the fence, getting taller as the day went on. It was late June, sunny and humid, the cotton grass in bloom and the air full of pollen. Sasha had terrible allergies. Before setting the pipes in the trench he had to insulate them with glass wool, and his hands were so full of it that he couldn't even wipe his nose or rub his eyes. He was exhausted. The day was long and torturous, and when it finally ended, at the last roll call, the instructor again had Sasha step forward.

This time, in the company of five other unfortunates, he was assigned to peel a mountain of potatoes for the entire camp. The kitchen was a filthy, windowless room at the back of the dining hall. It reeked of spoiled vegetables. Using dull table knives, the men peeled semi-rotten potatoes and tossed them into large tubs filled with black water. The night went on, occasionally interrupted by visits from a few seniors who came to beat them up and stuff potato peels into their mouths. When they were finally finished, the floor was entirely covered with potato peels. A red-eyed Sasha began to start at voices and moving shadows.

After two nights without sleep, after the frequent beatings, yet another busy day of work began in the camp. First the recruits washed the barracks, and then they marched around the square for two hours, singing,

O Russia my motherland,

Your rivers and fields,

How dear you are to the soldier!

Sasha could barely stand up; his eyes burned, and as soon as he closed them for a few seconds, his head would drop and he'd snap awake. When the marching was over, Sasha's orders for the day were to chop wood. As he made his way to the woodshed, three seniors called after him, "Hey, Jew, come over here."

Sasha tried to ignore them, but they ran over. He looked at their smirking faces. The biggest guy said, "I want you to ..." but Sasha turned his back and walked away. He felt a sharp blow in his back, and he crumpled. Feet flew at his face, his torso, his groin. Then it all stopped, and they were gone.

Sasha lay there, eyes closed, until the drill instructor shook him and pointed at the shed where the logs were. The world became a dull and worthless hum. He stood up and limped to the shed, grabbed an ax, and then fell on his knees and chopped off his thumb. The blood squirted, and he ran like a maniac, running and running, shaking his hand, all the way to the mound of earth he'd dug up the day before. He climbed up it and jumped over the fence, and ran and ran, hearing voices calling. He entered a building and clambered up the stairs and banged on a random door. A short man wearing a robe opened the door, and Sasha began to bawl. The man let him in and showed him to the bathroom, where he sat on the toilet and waited, staring at the blood streaming out of his stump. He overheard the man, his voice impatient and annoyed, on the phone with the MPs. "Come get this sailor—he's bleeding all over my carpet ... Yes, my carpet!" That's how Sasha got to Unit A in the psychiatric ward.

At first I spent a lot of time by Sasha's side, listening to him, glad to be close to someone from home. Conversation with an educated and intelligent being was a treat: most sailors didn't even have a high school diploma. His articulate and mellifluous Russian was like a lullaby evoking the civilized ways of Leningrad. He made me homesick. Even in his bed he spoke with delicacy, and his gestures were polite and controlled, like those of an aristocrat. It wasn't merely his Jewishness that brought so much abuse upon him, it was the poetic beauty of his words, the thoughtful kindness of his face.

Sasha had a phenomenal memory; he could recite countless Pushkin poems, even some by Baudelaire and Verlaine. Sometimes we fell quiet, unable to talk, our breathing synchronized, our hearts pierced by yearning for home, tears so close that we were afraid to blink. Then he would whisper a poem, and his hushed tones would carry me away from our sorrow, until all that remained was the shimmer of his words. I'd shiver, feeling a brotherly love I couldn't express.

But as our friendship grew, and the nights passed, his anxiety became more apparent, his questions more pressing. Because I didn't answer, he finally stopped asking. His eyes sank deeper, and he began to stare at the ceiling, shriveled in dread. His question could not be answered; so many young Russian men tried to dodge the service that strict laws and severe penalties addressed such attempts. Self-mutilation in order to avoid serving was punishable by the Disbat. To me, cutting your thumb off clearly fell into that category. I couldn't tell him.

Like Sasha, I had spent some time in Severomorsk, in the temporary barracks of those awaiting rides to their permanent stations. I was waiting for a ship to take me to Gremikha. Years after I emigrated to the United States, I learned that radiation in parts of the Kola Peninsula was several times the safe level, and that Gremikha was one of the world's largest nuclear dumpsites. Back then I had only heard rumors that radiation on the peninsula was above normal. When I got to Gremikha, on a two-deck icebreaker, I found that my job would be to service nuclear submarines when they came in, by disposing of the spent nuclear fuel and then replacing the rods. I was to be an electrical engineer in the most toxic link of the nuclear-waste-processing chain. After three years of such work I would be bald at thirty, possibly sterile or likely to have deformed offspring, and sure to develop cancers or other degenerative diseases before the age of forty. My life expectancy would be a lofty fifty.

At first I didn't know what to do, but I had some time to ponder, because no submarines were expected for a couple of months, and I was in training. Unlike Sasha, I was not picked on in particular. I received small beatings in the latrine, and my girlfriend's picture was stolen immediately; I was furious to think that some jerk was jacking off looking at her.

I was the only Russian in my battalion, and the only recruit who had been to college. My battalion mates were Ukrainians, Georgians, Kazakhs, Uzbeks, Azeris, Armenians, and Turkmen, who stuck together in tightly knit groups and spoke in their own languages. Some of these people actually seemed to enjoy the navy, a break from life in a hopeless village in the steppes or the Caucasus.

While I was trying to figure out what to do, the seniors picked on us, bossed us around, made us do all the chores. I was always working; I had time for nothing but work. We were allotted six hours for sleep, but the seniors would wake us up to do chores. New recruits had black eyes, bloody noses, or swollen lips. Some were even rumored to have been coerced into giving blowjobs, so I carried a razorblade in my pocket; beyond a certain threshold I was ready to slash.

The food there was by far the worst I had ever eaten—inedible stews made of gobs of fat and rotten meat. We were at the very end of the food-supply line, the last stop before the North Pole. Alone overlooking the Barents Sea, we got the oldest, worst food in the USSR. I had dysentery for the first ten days.

The seniors warned us about winter, the never-ending polar nights and the howling glacial wind coming from the sea, covering the entire base in ice. Sweeping operations in the mountains were orchestrated to hunt down Norwegian and Swedish spies, they told us, during which soldiers' fingers, toes, and testicles sometimes froze off. The most unfortunate ones got lost in the thick gray haze, and were found thawing in the spring, sometimes as close as half a kilometer from the base.

At night, in the vast barracks, after being awakened by the bullies, I often listened to the wind and to the sounds of fifty men sleeping—snores, coughs, muffled whimpers. Sometimes I thought about home and my quiet bedroom, about my stereo and tapes, about Natasha alone in Leningrad, at the mercy of some maniac. I missed her, fantasized about her every night, imagined her naked in bed, asleep, her breathing slow and peaceful, perhaps dreaming about me. If only she missed me as much as I missed her, then she would wait—of that I was sure. When I wasn't thinking about her, I tried mostly to come up with a plan for a way out of this place. The more I pondered, the more I realized how random and dangerous any undertaking would be, and the more fear crushed my chest like a bag of cement. I couldn't take action; I couldn't even take a deep breath.

During that time sudden migraines had me scurrying to the infirmary, where only aspirin was available. One time in particular my migraine felt like a drill going through my brain, as loud as a train. I thought I might die, my head bursting. I was wiggling in the infirmary bed, sweating, when two big Uzbeks came in. I couldn't see well—the pain distorted my vision. One of them told me to go clean the latrines, but I couldn't move, I couldn't pull my hands away from my head, I couldn't stand up. So they beat me, their fists flying at my head, each punch like a grenade blowing up in my brain.

That night I couldn't sleep. I was wide awake, my mouth burning with pulsing pain, feeling terribly sorry for myself. By now I wasn't worried merely about the long-term health problems I would incur by staying there—I couldn't bear to waste three years of my life on this miserable base. I could think of only one way out. My hands shook when I reached into my nightstand and pulled out the razorblade. I had once been told that if you aren't in a hot bath when you slit your wrists, you won't bleed to death. Oh, did I hope that was true when, hands trembling, I slashed my left wrist and then, with less strength, my right one. I sprinkled blood all over—better to be tragic—and then lay in my bed, watching the growing blots spread on my sheets like darkness.

In Murmansk an ambulance was waiting for me on the docks. I was driven to the psychiatric ward of the Northern Fleet Hospital, where I was committed. Somehow I understood I had to demonstrate that my suicide attempt was not the result of serving under harsh circumstances but, rather, a pre-existing tendency of my deranged psyche, going back several years and likely to recur, thereby creating an unhealthy atmosphere in my battalion that must be avoided by discharging me.

Fear slowly consumed Sasha, until terror was all that was left of him. He became quiet, sometimes mumbling to himself. I tried to bring him back, to soothe him with lies, to ask him about his plans once he got out of here. I even begged him, for my sake, to take us away with poetry. All to no avail. When I stepped into his room, he stared at me with apprehension. He looked at me as if I were a stranger. I couldn't bear his eyes; they made me feel terribly guilty, and I was afraid that my own eyes reflected a pity that could be cast only on someone about to be sent to the Disbat. That is when my strength began to wane. First I only stood in the doorway and looked in on him, sometimes waving and conjuring a smile. But his eyes smoldered deep in his skull; they kept me from stepping in. Then, at night, came occasional whimpers, maybe prayers, and I passed his room without glancing in but felt the weight of his gaze on me, a weight I feel to this day.

I decided that he had already gone into another world, that he was no longer fully conscious or aware. But one night I heard him call from his room, "Vanya, Vanya, please come." I heard sobs. Then again, "Vanya, please come to me."

I couldn't bear seeing him again on his deathbed, and I covered my ears and closed my eyes like a terrorized child, wishing he were already gone. I had resisted the assaults of the system; I had been strong. But suddenly I didn't have the strength to go sit by his bed and listen, maybe hold his hand.

In late December I was finally discharged, and I stepped out of the ward into a gray and frozen world swept by an icy wind. Because I had been officially declared insane, an officer was assigned to escort me back to Leningrad. Together we walked the streets of Murmansk the day before our train arrived. He was a nice fellow, very happy to get a weekend in Leningrad, where a girlfriend awaited him. He took me to a tavern for some drinks, and when he grew louder, I asked if I could go for a stroll outside, since I had spent so much time indoors. "Sure," he said, "do whatever you wish—just be sure to meet me at the station."

Outside, a black sky welcomed me, although it was only three o'clock. I walked briskly through the city, my face numb in the wind. I felt a terrible emptiness; I couldn't quite believe I was in control of my wandering, of my destiny.

When I returned to Leningrad, my father did not ask me a single question, although I was back from the navy two and a half years early. He didn't want to know, was afraid that my story would be an embarrassment. I was a weakling, a coward, a shirker, a good-for-nothing. He had always spoken fondly of his time in the service, and told me it was where he became a man. So when I left for the navy, he had been proud, even happy, telling me that it would form my character and finally make a man of me.

The day after my return I called Natasha. A man answered the phone, and I was so startled that I hung up. I dialed again later in the afternoon. She answered. "I'm back," I said. She was silent. "You found someone else already?"

"We must talk," she said. "It's more complicated than that."

The next afternoon, when I went over, she was alone in her apartment. She gave me a long, sad look that kept me from even kissing her hello. Although she seemed tired and tense, she was even more beautiful than I remembered. She sat on her bed and lit a cigarette. I pulled out a bottle of Moldovan wine that I had brought. "Drink?" I said. She nodded.

We drank and smoked in silence for a while. Below her apartment, trams squealed by, making the windows vibrate. I stared at her. Something was different—she was more of a woman, and the way she sat, legs crossed, was forbidding and enticing at the same time. She wouldn't look straight at me. In the quiet I could hear her breathe, and I remembered my dreams of the past months, in which she breathed evenly in her sleep, and I wanted her so badly my teeth hurt. Now I was in the same room, craving her even more in spite of the remoteness I sensed. My penis swelled and throbbed painfully. When we were starting to feel a little drunk, she turned to the window and finally spoke.

"I got an abortion," she said.

I said nothing.

"I wanted to keep it, but we were both too drunk that night. Remember?"

I remembered everything. It had been the last weekend before I left, after my farewell party. We had all been drinking since noon, and when everyone else left, the two of us made love the way condemned people might, greedily, somehow knowing it would be the last time, too drunk and desperate to use protection.

"Anton helped me through it," she said. After a long pause she added, "We're going to get married."

I was too crushed to speak. I was beyond empty. I was frozen inside. She didn't know where I had come from. My eyes burned. The world felt so old, so shabby, so unfair, that I didn't know where I fit anymore. She sat next to me and placed her hand on the back of my neck. "I loved you," she said. She ran her fingers through my hair, making my scalp shiver, and the next thing I knew, I had jumped on her like a beast. She tried to resist, to push me away, but I was wild. I felt like an animal. I felt I could kill her. I felt that nothing mattered anymore, and nothing could stop me.

The following month I wandered around the city, searching for some direction, for something to do. I would come home late, when my parents were already asleep, and wake up after they'd gone to work; I couldn't stand seeing them. I would start drinking early in the day, and then I'd often get into fights. Worse, I kept on running into Sasha's sister. The first time I saw her, she was coming down Kotov Avenue, chatting with some girl. I felt a jolt, and rushed across the street to avoid her. But from that day on, after a few drinks my legs invariably led me to Sasha's street, in front of his parents' apartment building. I would sit in the park across the way and watch as his mother, father, sister, or grandmother walked out. I watched his sister, Alyssa, in particular—she was a high-breasted, cute seventeen-year-old with shoulder-length curly hair as black as ink. I imagined that the whole family looked shabby and sad, but maybe they didn't. Or maybe they did—maybe they already knew about Sasha. Was he alive? Was he dead? Did they think he was just doing his service? I couldn't bring myself to go and speak to them, yet I couldn't stop seeking them out, spying. I wondered if I truly was going insane.

I was obsessed with Alyssa, because she had Sasha's eyes and his manner of speech. I wanted to speak to her, beyond the exchange of a hello, yet at the same time I was afraid to. One afternoon, as I sat on the bench across from their apartment, she walked out of her building into the park, and sat down next to me. My hands turned clammy. She said hello. Then she said she'd heard that I had just returned from the navy, where her brother was now. She asked me how it was. I blushed. I didn't know what to say. "It's a tough place," I finally said.

"Where were you?" she asked.

"On the Kola Peninsula," I said, lighting a cigarette. My hands shook slightly.

"I don't know how my brother is doing," she said. "He promised he'd write, but we haven't heard from him in a long time."

"It's not easy to write from up there," I said. "I didn't write. I had nothing to say."

"But Sasha—you know Sasha a little, right?"

I nodded, looking straight ahead of me at some chestnut trees, and took a long drag from my cigarette.

"He's a poet," she said. "Not a soldier."

I was silent for a while. "I'm sorry," I said. "It's painful for me to talk about the navy."

She looked at me gently and put her hand on my leg. "I'm sorry," she said. "I didn't realize. I'm just so worried." Our eyes met, and it was as if I were looking into Sasha's eyes, back in Murmansk. Her hand lingered on my leg, and we looked at each other in silence. "I'm having some friends over Saturday night," she said. "Would you like to come?" I had never both wanted and not wanted something in this way before. I was torn, wanting to run away, but I stayed. I decided to decline, but I said yes.

On Saturday evening I found myself drinking cognac in the Primaks' dining room, among Alyssa's friends—a few classmates, a cousin, and some neighbors. A smooth jazz quartet spun on the record player, making the room cozy and warm. The apartment was a spacious pre-revolution, with three bedrooms. It was furnished with taste, and stocked with a large library of leather-bound classics and also modern authors, Russian and foreign. On one wall was a picture of Tolstoy, and on the opposite one a picture of Hemingway. I was impressed. Alyssa's parents were out, and the grandmother was in her room; I didn't see her.

Later, as we drank more, the dining-room table was moved to the side, and some guests began dancing. I didn't feel like dancing. Although these people were interesting and pleasant, I suddenly needed to leave—I felt completely out of place, and my mood was darkening. It was Sasha, not I, who belonged here. How could I be so insensitive? I thought. Am I a complete bastard? Just as I was about to get up and leave, Alyssa came over and led me by the hand to her bedroom. I followed, my mind blank. "You look so very sad," she said, standing in front of me. "Are you all right?"

"I've got to go," I said. "I don't feel well." She cast her eyes down. "I'm sorry," I said. She looked up, her face very close.

"Are you sure?" she said. I couldn't help it—we kissed, we hugged, we touched each other standing there in the room, she bit my ears, our teeth clinked. We flopped on her bed. When it was over, I noticed that the wall above her bed was covered with poems—Sasha's poems. I was nauseated and rushed off into the night, like a thief.

The next morning I resolved to emigrate to the United States. I couldn't deal with my world anymore; I had no place in it. More important, I hated myself—I wanted to disappear, start a new life, become a new person, and forget everything. While I went through the tedious and lengthy immigration-application process, I avoided everyone—especially Alyssa, although I longed to see her.

When I told my father I was leaving, he said nothing; he just stopped speaking to me. My mother, although she tried not to show it, was a little excited—she already envisioned herself visiting me abroad.

Eventually the time came for my departure. My father and mother drove me to the airport on a sunny June day. He still wasn't speaking to me, and I watched him drive, his jaw clenched; next to him, my mother was looking at me, squeezing my hand, and sighing.

In front of customs I hugged my mother as she wept; then my father and I shook hands. "Take care of yourself," he said stiffly. "Don't forget where you come from." After I passed through customs, I glanced back at both of them standing behind the glass door, my mother clutching his arm, her makeup smeared—and my father crying as well. I was stunned; I had never before seen him cry. He stood tall and straight, ignoring his tears, and that is how I remember him now. He's been dead eight years; he died before I got a chance to see him again.

The Manhattan skyline is turning purple; dawn can't be far. I'm alone, my ambitions gone, my faith in mankind and myself withered. I am content with simple things, such as having a place of my own, where no one tells me what to do. This could be enough if Sasha's voice weren't calling at the edge of my conscience, disturbing my peace.

Sasha was taken away to the Disbat the morning after I wished he was gone. He never returned to Leningrad, and I never told anyone I had seen him in Murmansk. But as I lie in bed, sleep eluding me as it often does, I can't help regretting that I didn't listen to him.

When sleep finally comes, the truths I cannot face emerge in my dreams. I'm in Unit A when the MPs come for Sasha. At first he begs for mercy, and then he screams for help, eyes wild, but his cries are ignored. He sees me hiding in a doorway, and I look down. "Vanya!" he shouts as the MPs drag him away. "Tell them, please tell them ..." Then he breaks into loud sobs.

I wake with a start, my mouth tasting like a handful of pennies. Nothing I could have said would have changed his fate, but sometimes I think uneasily that he meant something else. Perhaps his last wish was for me to tell his family—but I couldn't, I just couldn't.

Now my friends are all gone, scattered around the world, immigrants here and there. Russia, my Russia, is in ruins. Only emptiness remains, nothing worthwhile saving, and as I contemplate the scars on my wrists, I know that I will need a hot bath.

Jump to comments
Presented by
Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

Adventures in Legal Weed

Colorado is now well into its first year as the first state to legalize recreational marijuana. How's it going? James Hamblin visits Aspen.


Elsewhere on the web

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Adventures in Legal Weed

Colorado is now well into its first year as the first state to legalize recreational marijuana. How's it going? James Hamblin visits Aspen.

Video

What Makes a Story Great?

What makes a story great? The storytellers behind House of CardsThis American LifeThe Moth, and more reflect on the creative process.

Video

Tracing Sriracha's Origin to Thailand

Ever wonder how the wildly popular hot sauce got its name? It all started in Si Racha.

Video

Where Confiscated Wildlife Ends Up

A government facility outside of Denver houses more than a million products of the illegal wildlife trade, from tigers and bears to bald eagles.

Video

Is Wine Healthy?

James Hamblin prepares to impress his date with knowledge about the health benefits of wine.

Video

The World's Largest Balloon Festival

Nine days, more than 700 balloons, and a whole lot of hot air

Writers

Up
Down

More in Entertainment

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In