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VODKA has served Russia's entertainment needs for centuries, especially in the hinterland, where there is often nothing to do but drink. There it replaces theaters, cinemas, operas; it binds men together in fraternal stupor and provides an escape from soul-numbing winters of darkness and slush. As a result, and not surprisingly, alcoholism has always been one of the countryside's most lethal afflictions. In Ozyory it is a scourge that nightly turns the elevator in Svetlana's building into a pissoir, provokes fights in the courtyard that often end bloodily, and, judging by the screams and plate-smashing one occasionally hears while walking around town, sparks domestic violence in kitchens up and down the otherwise placid lanes. It is only fitting that Russians have dubbed vodka -- ever tempting, finally destructive -- the zelyonyi zmey, or "green serpent."
During a previous stay in Ozyory, Vera had told me, "We call pyatnitsa [Friday] pitnitsa [drink day] here!" She was cheerfully foretasting the serpent's venom, it seemed, when I stopped to greet her in the stairwell one frigid Thursday. "You should go out and do the town tomorrow," she added.
The following night I took her advice and strolled over to Soviet Square. Blue-gray clouds of birch smoke hung in the icy air above the wooden houses. A militia car -- the only vehicle on the road -- chugged up alongside me and slowed down; the officers looked me over before accelerating. Time seemed suspended, hanging as still as the smoke, as frozen as the forest that came right up to the edge of town.
Soon I fell in behind the threesomes and foursomes of teenagers who were ambling up and down Lenin Street, carrying boom boxes and bottles of booze, swearing like stevedores, smoking and spitting and tussling and guzzling. I ended up across from a pivnushka, or beer bar. Strongly illuminated inside, the pivnushka was a cynosure of white light in the smoke and soft dark. I stuck my head in. Near the counter a fat woman was dancing on one leg, hopping around and hooting with drunken laughter. A teenage girl was slurping beer out of a murky stein and wiping the froth moustache off her upper lip with her sleeve. At the kiosk next door I asked the saleswoman what there was to do in town on a Friday night.
"You must be from Moscow. Our restaurant and café closed down after '91. All we have now on weekends is the Saturday-night dancing party in the Oktyabr' movie theater," she said.
I put off my outing for a day.
SATURDAY night the No. 2 bus was jammed with excited teens heading down Lenin Street to the dance. The boys among them were already three sheets to the wind, and some of the girls had taken on the role of nursemaid, keeping their dates upright as the bus bobbed and bounced down the pitted road. Mat -- swearwords -- resounded all the way; it was as if the kids had just been released from reform school. Their lurching, expletive-filled horseplay had a vaguely threatening quality.
We arrived. Volgas idled in front of the movie theater; thick-necked mafiozy stood under a streetlamp with their fur-clad molls, smoking cigarettes and hawking phlegm into the snow. Inside, a sign reading NO ALCOHOL ALLOWED hung above the entrance to the dance, which was to be held in a hall above the theater proper. Taking Vera's advice, I had hidden two beers in my bulky overcoat. A nail-tough woman stood at the door and extracted from me and the rowdy youths what amounted to a one-dollar cover charge.
The hall was unheated -- and it was twenty below zero outside. On the dance floor a legion of animated mummies -- revelers in parkas and furs boogying to Euro-pop -- puffed white breath into the red-lit gloom. Lining the walls were rows of wobbly seats that seemed to have been torn out of an Aeroflot jet. On the stage an Arizona license plate was nailed to a pole around which two women were doing a dance, running their hands seductively up and down their minks. Empty vodka bottles littered the floor. I sat down and took out my beer.
"Mind if I have a sip of that?"
A youth who looked no older than nineteen was standing over me. I handed him the can.
"Name's Sasha. Just got done with my army service. Two years on an island near the Kurils. They hardly had food to feed us. Almost starved."
He gulped some beer. He still had his service crew cut.
"So what are you going to do here?" I asked.
"What can I do here? Join the mafia."
Even in indigent Ozyory the underworld takes its cut from the few people who are in business, and its well-heeled thugs enjoy a measure of prestige among young people. Sasha took another swig. His friend Sergei showed up, staggering drunk and surly, and they both glared defiantly at the militiamen on duty. They had barely survived their tours, they said. No one in the military or the government gave a damn about them, and there wasn't a hope of finding work in Ozyory.
As I listened to them, a swarthy, petite woman walked past me, and our eyes locked; she looked to be in her mid-thirties, and was as out of place amid the teens as I was. With her mittened hands clasped in front of her and her head cocked coyly to one side, she introduced herself as Ilona. "Won't you invite me to dance?" she asked.
Saying good-bye to Sasha, I led her onto the floor. Among the patrolling militiamen and gyrating mummies we shimmied to "Scatman," our breath clouds mingling. After an hour or so we noticed that almost all the males in the place were slumped chin to chest in the Aeroflot seats, spent vodka bottles at their feet. We sat down; the boy next to us thrust his head between his knees and upchucked a florid stream of vomit onto his shoes.
Ilona winced with disgust and jumped up. "I hate all this," she said. "I can't stand it anymore. May I invite you home?" A fight broke out nearby: a pair of teenage boys in parkas and fur hats were swinging at each other, missing wildly in their drunkenness, and the militiamen on duty, brandishing their clubs, came running.
We walked out, picking our way through the crowd of lurching drunks, and then proceeded down Lenin Street, eventually turning up an unlit lane overhung with aspens, our boots crunching the fresh snow. The one streetlamp in the neighborhood was enveloped in a hazy white orb; the air twinkled with frost. Under the candy-striped tower of one of Ozyory's defunct factories we came upon a century-old green wooden house, and Ilona took me inside, to the room she rented there, where she seated me on the sofa. She worked for the city bureaucracy, she said. After clattering around in a credenza, she pulled out an album chock-full of yellowing black-and-white photographs.
"All that's left of my family is these photos. I was married once, but my husband turned out to be a drunk. I've long since lost track of him. I never knew my father -- he left my mother and disappeared. My mother moved away and remarried."
She made tea and showed me the pictures. There she was: in her toddler's Octobrist uniform at camp on the Black Sea; at the May Day parade on Red Square in 1974; with friends in Abkhazia. She had no interest in politics, but the participation in political life that was obligatory under the Soviets had given her security and people to socialize with, and she reminisced volubly about the Brezhnev years. But then she dropped her eyes.
"I won't marry again -- all the men here in the glush' are drunks or mafiozy. No one needs me anywhere else. The only place I could go would be Moscow, but you have to have friends to give you a job and papers there or you'll end up on a street corner. So I stay here and live out my time."
After tea we said good-bye, and I left. Snow had begun to fall, hissing as the wind swept it through the aspens. Rows of wooden houses stretched ahead of me until the murk absorbed them. Ozyory was only a few hours' drive from Moscow, yet a smothering pall of futility lay on the place. I found myself thinking that if anything sends Russia hurtling into anarchy or back to totalitarian rule, it will be despair bubbling into fury over the contradiction between what 10 million Muscovites see as the fruits of the new system, shriveled though those may currently be, and what 147 million other currently voiceless Russians see. In the same way that Lenin played on widespread discontent with czarist Russia to mobilize support for a revolution whose ideology the masses could hardly understand, in the same way that Pugachev could count on a reserve of serfs' rage in the countryside to fuel his devastating peasant uprising of the eighteenth century, so might a demagogue come to power riding the crest of the legitimate grievances of those residing beyond kilometer 101, impoverished and forgotten, now more than ever, by Moscow.
WHENEVER I arrive in Moscow from Ozyory, it is as if I am returning from a Lethean interlude. Invariably, as the bus nears the capital's outer districts, the visages of people from the countryside -- set in a permanent cast of despondency and distrust -- give way to the expressions of haste and preoccupation that might be seen on faces in any big city in the world. The deeper we penetrate the metropolis, the more we see garments of shining black leather, swatches of Day-Glo phosphorescence, gold and jeweled earrings glinting amid the flowing sidewalk seas of weather-beaten wool and flannel. When I reach the center itself, I often find something new being built -- a boutique, a restaurant -- that signals change for Moscow. Seeing this, I am reminded that I can count on the capital to continue growing steadily as much as I can expect Ozyory to remain depressed and silent -- for now.
Jeffrey Tayler lives in Moscow. His book Siberian Dawn will be published this month.
Illustration by Andrea Ventura
Copyright © 1999 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; February 1999; Exiled Beyond Kilometer 101; Volume 283, No. 2; pages 18-25.