“Help me, sonny!” the old man said, holding out his hand as he lay on the landing outside the door of our Moscow apartment.
I reached down to help him up.
“No, rubles! Give me r-r-rubles!” he slurred angrily.
He was stinking drunk, with a spent vodka bottle by his side, but he still wanted more alcohol. His wife, or even his beautiful, bashful daughter, had likely turned him out for liquoring up, as had happened many times before. He drank several times a week, often becoming so intoxicated that he couldn’t remember the code for our entrance door, and collapsed on the sidewalk just outside, his crotch blotched dark with urine.
A couple of years passed this way. One summer evening, an ambulance pulled up and took him away.
His death was the first of many during our time in our building, a five-story apartment block—sturdy, brown-brick, and Soviet-era—in central Moscow, near Belorussky Station, but placidly situated on a park. Russia’s well-known demographic decline stems from a low birth rate (1.4 children per woman, one of the lowest anywhere) and a short life expectancy (the average age of death for men is 59.8; for women, 73.2). Heavy abuse of alcohol and tobacco are mostly to blame. But the statistics still shock. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union 20 years ago, the population has dropped by more than 5 million, to just under 143 million, and according to one projection will fall to 116 million by 2050. This decline has been personal and deeply moving for me, a resident of Moscow since 1993 and of the same apartment since 2001. The Muscovites who have been “declining” have been my neighbors, if not my friends.
In our pod’yezd (entranceway), the mix of tenants reflected the Soviet collective ethos of decades past: a doctor, a university dean, manual laborers, a cleaning lady, a military family, and a lanky, auburn-haired teenager named Oleg who lived directly beneath us. (To protect the privacy of my neighbors, I have changed their names.)
Oleg was one of the first people I remember meeting in our pod’yezd. Standing in the grimy green-and-white stairwell where he would go to smoke, he was always smiling, with an amiable, almost vulnerable, air. He had recently lost his father, or such was the pod’yezd scuttlebutt. In any case, he lived alone.
Once or twice a week, Oleg and two of his teenage buddies would gather by his door and smoke and drink beer and chat and laugh. In his kitchen, directly beneath ours, they would listen (at full volume) to cassettes of the ballads wrenched out in a hoarse baritone by the Soviet Everyman’s bard of despair and disillusionment, the late Vladimir Vysotsky. But over the course of a year or two, Oleg and his friends exchanged beer for vodka and began drinking more frequently, and Vysotsky was heard no more. A resident of the second floor, a stentorian-voiced pensioner with a long, lined face and a regal air, joined them. Around 2004, the ruckus grew intolerable, at times lasting till dawn. I called Oleg’s phone and knocked on his door to complain, but without result. They were all, apparently, too drunk to answer or to care.
One day, medics carried away the corpse of one of Oleg’s boon companions. He had drunk himself to death and expired on Oleg’s couch. Shocked and sobered, Oleg swore off booze and told my wife of his grief when they passed each other on the landing. But a few weeks later, he was back at it. A lengthier interruption followed the alcohol-related death (also in his apartment) of his second companion.
Silence ensued, but only temporarily. One blizzarding winter night in 2006, I chanced upon Oleg in the stairwell. Now in his early 20s, he had the look of a washed-out ex-con: eyes, sunken in blackened sockets, staring unfocused; bruised knuckles; a greasy shock of hair; and breath reeking of peregar, the sour stench of booze. “Can we have some quiet tonight?,” I asked. “You know, we sleep at night and work during the day.”
“Yeah, yeah,” he said, looking down, his voice weak. He coughed consumptively and took a drag on his cigarette.
Early one morning a few weeks later, an ambulance pulled up. Oleg had died drunk, of heart failure, in his sleep. The apartment beneath us was now empty.
Across the street, in a similar building, I maintain an office in a room my wife owns in a kommunalka (communal apartment). Over there, things were not much better. Gosha, a retired policeman in his 50s, took turns smoking in the shared bathroom with his apartment-mate Nadya, a nurse his age with a quasi-violent son given to vodka binges. Jovial, balding, and burly, with a loose lower lip and wide, watery eyes, Gosha drank vodka sometimes throughout the day, passing his pension years in a stupor of spirits and smoke, prone to torturous fits of dry coughing. I pitied his much younger wife, Vika, and his soft-mannered daughter, both of whom had to share a room with him.
One evening two years ago, I was proofreading a manuscript, trying to ignore Nadya’s tearful protests to her son (“Please, no! I beg you, I’m your mother!”), delivered via the phone outside my room, when there came an urgent knock on my door. It was Vika.
“Please help me! My husband’s just had a stroke!” she declared, her fists clasped beneath her chin, as she burst into tears. In their room, Gosha lay on the floor in his underpants, a giant human rag doll with limbs in weird disarray, drool seeping from the corner of his mouth. He stared up at me as if astonished, pleading.
Two medics came. Assessing Gosha’s huge frame, one flicked aside his cigarette. “We’re not taking him down the stairs, he’s too big. Bring him out yourselves.”
I ran out to knock on apartment doors in the pod’yezd until I gathered three other men. We rolled Gosha onto a blanket and used it as a stretcher, carrying him down and outside to the ambulance. Several weeks later, Vika brought him home in a wheelchair, much shrunken, half paralyzed, speechless and sullen, his gaze oddly accusatory.
“We did what we could for him,” Nadya told me one day, emerging from the bathroom trailing smoke. Some months later, I noticed her speech was slurred, her gait unsteady. She had suffered a minor stroke, but she kept smoking as avidly as ever. When the holidays came, she left for her hometown south of Moscow.
She never returned.
“Nadya has had a heart attack and died,” Vika told me a week after she left. “They’ve buried her in her hometown.”
Within a couple of months, Gosha followed Nadya to the grave, leaving Vika alone (the daughter had moved out). But not for long. Nadya’s son, a stout brute with a shaved skull, and his wife moved into Nadya’s old room. He honored his mother’s memory by bingeing on vodka. He often forgot his keys and rang the front-door buzzer, cursing and shouting for his wife to open up, and fast! He would stagger in, bouncing off the walls as he berated her in wildly rising tones. “Blyad’ [whore]! Were you going to leave me out there all day?”
This past winter was brutal and dark, with weeks of subzero temperatures and boundless blowing snow. Several times, I’ve found the sole surviving drunk of our pod’yezd, the regal elder from the second floor, blotto, variously curled up by his door, spread-eagled on the stairs, or swaying outside in the cold, incorrectly punching numbers in the entrance keypad. Somehow, though, at least when sober enough to stand, he manages to retain his dignity and even a sense of humor. On many mornings, as I’m running down the stairs on my way to the gym, I pass him standing by his door. He raises his hands to me and releases a resounding salutation: “Hail the great sportsman of our noble pod’yezd!” I thank him and hurry past.
But amid the decline, at least in my corner of Moscow, all is not lost. Over in the kommunalka, Nadya’s son has rented her room to a quiet couple in their 20s who always greet me happily. In our building, a Muslim family from the Caucasus has moved in beside us, and their three toddler boys cheer up the stairwell with their laughter. A couple of teens have appeared, and neither has taken to drinking, at least in public. Just beneath us, where Oleg and his buddies partied themselves to early deaths, a young moneyed family with three children has moved in, after extensive, European-style renovations. I pass the mother, a tall, shapely redhead who invariably smiles at me, and wonder if she knows the sad history of her apartment. I certainly have no plans to tell her.
Image: Jeffrey Tayler