Russia in turmoil: a short story set in the Moscow of the early 1990s.
This is an story I wrote back in the early ’90s, when I was stationed at the British Embassy in Moscow. I wrote several short stories and even a novel about Russia in those days. This is one of my favourites.
Novy Bor (it means “new forest” in Russian) is set at in the winter of 1991-92, when the Soviet Union ceased to exist and the new country of Russia was plunged into turmoil.
Street scene near Kyiv Station, Moscow, 2005. Photo: Leigh Turner
It was a period of uncertainty and corruption in Russia: as the narrator observes: “with more dollars sloshing around in what people are beginning to call Russia than at any time since 1917, only a saint would have nothing to hide, and saints don’t make it big in Russian politics.”
“Novy Bor” is not at present available in full; but I might publish it on this blog sometime, if anyone says they’d like the read the rest of it. You can read a taster here. Let me know what you think via the “Contact me” page.
Novy Bor (excerpt)
A short story
The piece about the Russian rocket boffins and the Pyongyang vacation jobs catches my eye in some guy’s copy of AIDS-INFO as I step onto the platform at Lubyanka. I see it over his shoulder – I’m pretty tall – but read only a line or two before the usual crowd of jostlers sweeps me up off exitwards. Shoving back against an elbow in the breast I break my knee on a crate of oranges on wheels which is being pulled along like a dog on a string by an old man in a black coat who chooses this moment to stop dead.Under the chandelier at the foot of the escalator I buy my own copy of the grubby news-sheet from a kid with greasy hair and come-on eyes. Why they call it AIDS-INFO has me beat; it’s gossip for the semi-literate, a class that never made it into Moscow’s statistics until the Yeltsin putsch freed up the press. On the cover a naked woman is panting at the feet of some leather trousers holding a whip.
Hell knows what that’s about.
The story I’m interested in is called “Rocket Wizards”. It’s an interview with some great brain at an engineering design office in a place called Novy Bor, way off in Siberia. According to the brain, a plan has been foiled whereby the North Korean government, which the article describes politely as “supertotalitarian”, is seeking to entice to Pyongyang, that’s their superStalinist capital, a bunch of top-notch ballistics and aerodynamics specialists to help them build a working nuclear weapon. Only sharp work by the authorities has thwarted a development with incalculable implications for world peace, etc etc. The scientists are now back in Novy Bor, happily getting on with their work.
Now this is a strange story, not only because it appears without a by-line and Russian journos, like their western colleagues, like to see their name in print. Much stranger and rarer is see such a sensitive subject as the defection of nuclear scientists appearing in the popular press in Russia – even in these days when we are all friends together. So I am keen to find out more details of this story for my own journalistic purposes, quite apart from any residual professional interest from my old job, which I have had to leave two years before, working at the US Embassy here in Moscow on certain security issues.
As I am riding the moving stairs back up to street-level a fake suede jacket standing by me checks out the panting girl on my front page and grins my way, all dark eyes and gold teeth. I smile and spit as near his bogus Guccis as I can, futile spittle on the wooden escalator slats. I can tell Mr Gold teeth can’t stand women spitting, but he can’t do a thing with all these innocent bystanders standing by. Plus if he tried, I’d break his arm.
We have to ride another hundred seconds side by side before the cold air hits us. February in Moscow.
It is mild, this winter of 91-92, and the streets are filled with ice puddles making like sidewalks. Take me, they tempt, lying flat enough to walk on in amongst the piles of snow and ice which no-one is clearing this winter, walk on me, go for it. Slava bogu, thank God for my stick of Vermont maple, three feet of balance and a handy weight in my hand. I’m missing my rod like a stolen child, but what can you do? Steen told me when I left the Service: ‘No more guns for you now, Ace.’ He was right. I might shoot someone. And then where would I be?
At the metro exit they are selling roses, hothouse blooms in plastic boxes lit by candles to stop the petals freezing. A long-haired army greatcoat is standing in a panic, locked into a purchase by the high heels who has him by the arm. Her lips are big and Russian red, pursed beneath a pointed powdered nose: too much gloss, a mismatch for the greatcoat. ‘Better scram, butt-head,’ I say in English, but he is deaf with fear.
A cracked old handbag grabs my arm, frail claw locking on. I think she wants money and try to shake her off, but she wants to ask where TSUM is. That’s this big store that’s uglier and less famous than GUM: the -UM bit, it turns out, means department store po-russki. All around us winter coats are streaming into the great white funnels of Lubyanka metro, barging through the heavy swing doors and piling up round the break-your-pelvis machines that guard the entrance to the deep.
‘Ne znaio,’ I say, keen to see the Tatar. ‘I don’t know.’ I shake her off. Let her try and find someone with two spare seconds in the Moscow metro. Not me.
Outside, the clock on the old KGB building shows 8.30, handy spot for a clock, though it would have been behind old Iron Felix until August ’91. I take a right, past the Aeroflot office and the State Statistical Committee and stop at a sign saying “Alltrade”. Inside, the lift is still broken, so I run up, two by two, three floors. Alltrade has a punch-code lock, fancy still for Russia, but this needs fixing too, so I just pull open the steel door and walk right in. Gorby pokes his head out to see who it is, sniffs approvingly, and ducks back inside.
I ignore him – Gorby expects this – and go through the first door on the right. One desk, with a telephone, and a lap-top, and a printer, and a fat Tatar eating the world’s greasiest piroshki. This is my office.
‘What do you have on the Novy Bor rocket story?’ I ask the Tatar. He likes it straight, the Tatar: none of your beating about the bush, so to speak. Plus, he knows everything that goes on, even if he doesn’t understand it. That’s why his job is to know and mine is to figure out.
The Tatar takes two bites of piroshki, sighs, and throws a greasy morsel over my shoulder. There is a scamper and a kind of wet chewing sound as Gorby does his scavenging bit. ‘Novy Bor.’ The Tatar sighs again. ‘Story by Gennadi Stepanovich. Chekhov to his friends. Want I should call him?’ He is already dialling.
The Tatar has a lot of friends.
Two hours later I am standing at a zinc-topped table in the Cafe Express. You know how the heroine in Jean Rhys books always sits at zinc-topped tables in cheap Paris restaurants? Some top old commie must have had the hots for Jean, because every one of the worst stalovayas in this town is fitted out with that self-same zinc, all ready for the one-swipe greasy-cloth wipe-down. Anyhow, there I am chewing on my pre-sweetened coffee when in walks this little leather jacket with short blond hair cut deutschemark-smart.
My first thought is that the leather jacket has the brightest grey-green eyes ever to liven up a city girl’s Moscow winter morning. My second is that he has a mouth I might want to explore a little if other circumstances were right. It has a few friendly wrinkles round the corners, nothing disastrous, just a bit of I Have Lived. My face has one or two of those wrinkles, also, not that you’d want to point them out to me. He sees me right away and without saying a word takes me by the arm and steers me outside onto the street, down the underpass, up through the car show-room in the Children’s World superstore and into the bar at the Savoy.
Fact is, I let him take me by the arm. If he had a different shape of mouth I might make clear I can find my own way down the underpass.
All this time I’m waiting for the leather jacket to speak. Not wishing to part my lips first lest I appear too keen, which I am; and seeing right away that I’m dealing here with a class act. He orders two pints of John Bull bitter – anyone know why they serve that stuff in the Savoy? – and joins me at the one of the snug tables upstairs.
‘Don’t touch it,’ he says. You always remember the first words. Then he takes a sip of his beer; and without waiting for me to do more than raise my glass, tells me the story.
The guy, Gennadi Stepanovich (‘Call me Gennadi, Umberto: anything but Chekhov’) is a journalist and what the Russians refer to as a commercially active person, ie what we might call a man who works for a living. Three weeks ago today he is sitting in his freezing apartment listening to Radio Nostalgie and wondering where his next story is coming from when the ‘phone rings. Of course he does not answer it, for his friend Bogdan is trying to get hold of him for some not-so-soft loans outstanding for the purchase of an imported Japanese motorcycle a few weeks previously: so Chekhov lets it ring. At the twenty-seventh ring or thereabouts, however, he begins to get curious, since Bogdan usually has no time to let ‘phones ring when collecting overdue debts, preferring more direct methods such as the ever-effective fist-in-the-face; so Chekhov picks up the receiver and listens.
This too a wise precaution, as the fellow down the wire is not seeking to ‘phone the obscure freelance hack Gennadi Stepanovich Medvedev, known as Chekhov to his friends, but the well-known top journalist Alexei Sergevich Medvedev, internal affairs writer for the Nezavisimaya or Independent Newspaper, which at this stage is still a bastion of liberal thinking and good political taste. This more notable Alexei has the misfortune to share a surname with Gennadi Stepanovich and so to appear on the same page of the 1987 edition of the All-Union Gazetteer of the Writers’ Alliance, which people outside the business still have to rely on to figure out who’s who.
‘Alexei Sergevich’, the caller says, ‘is that you? I have to talk.’
Chekhov of course can hardly believe his luck. Alexei Medvedev is famous for filing top-notch exclusive stories. So Chekhov coughs up a lungful of stale phlegm and croaks as indistinctly as he can without being totally incomprehensible, ‘I hear you.’
What follows is not the usual suitcase-full of evidence of corruption in high places Chekhov is expecting. Corruption is great news: every reader identifies either with the mercenary politician (‘How did he work it out?’ ‘What car does he drive?’ ‘Where’s the money?’) or the innocent victims (‘It’s a racket.’ ‘No-one could con me that way.’ ‘If they did, I’d track them down and kill them’.) With more dollars sloshing around in what people are beginning to call Russia than at any time since 1917, only a saint would have nothing to hide, and saints don’t make it big in Russian politics. But this is not the tale the fellow on the ‘phone has to tell.
No, the story the guy starts giving Chekhov is about a bunch of eggheads sitting in this Siberian rocket institute in a town by the name of Novy Bor, too small and far away from anywhere for anyone ever to have heard of it even if it wasn’t so secret. This is one of these great Soviet science camps where piles of boffins are crammed together with no distractions and told to invent space travel or anthrax or whatever the Politburo has decided is needed.
It seems the boffins are minding their own business for a pocketful of roubles and wondering gloomily what will happen now the Politburo and indeed the Soviet Union no longer exist when all of a sudden someone cheerful turns up.
The man is Chinese and he is called Harry Li.
I hope you have enjoyed this short story about Russian in turmoil.
For a complete short story set in the Russia of the early 1990s, see The Second Phial. Russia in turmoil, indeed.
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