I skipped town that night to a neighboring city where the Pur, a major shipping river, flows through. I bought two bottles of vodka, went over to a barge and offered the captain a drink. I told him my situation, and it turned out he was on the level, he says, “Spend a night or two here for now, and then we’ll see.” I stayed a couple of days with him at a dorm near the barge. He said he had a vacancy and would arrange for me to work as a welder at least for the time being, but this was no solution for me—life on a barge was a kind of stagnation and the wages came in kopecks. This year the barge was going nowhere as the ice hadn’t melted, but it might be going to Omsk next year. Movement meant life; stagnation would mean death.
Tanya worked as a waitress at a bar and I proposed to her one day. She immediately broke up with the other one and only beloved lowlife in her life. I had money, which she loved, but I needed somewhere to run off to and hide. We came to an understanding and left for sunny Bashkiria, where her sister lived. That wife of mine was just no good. You couldn’t eat a damn thing when she cooked and you couldn’t talk to her about anything. I’ve completely forgotten what the sex was like. Some things you’re better off not knowing, and others are best forgotten. She would lay on the sofa and watch TV, wash the dishes and fly into hysterics at having ruined her hands on account of me. I had no alternative then, I just had to put up with it.
Her sister Toma was fifteen years old. We would take walks in the forest together, go out on the boat, and then chatter away with each other at night if I wasn’t out fishing. I found work of a sort—they paid almost nothing—and spent my time fishing with a co-worker. We caught fish at night and sold it at the market the next day for six rubles a kilo.
Tanya and I traveled to Irkutsk, hoping to find happiness there. I rented a room from some wino for forty rubles a month, paid him for a year upfront and got a job as a welder in a cooperative. The wino had this racket going, and it worked a treat. He would rent out a room in a two-room apartment, take a year’s rent in advance and then create the sort of conditions for his tenants that meant they would be out of there as quick as they could. Getting your money back was unthinkable, living in the same apartment as the wino was impossible, we had no desire to look for another apartment, and we decided in the end to return to Bashkiria.
While we were living together in Irkutsk, the old lady had taught me a course in surviving on the wrong side of the law using KGB tactics, and I had picked it up pretty well.
When we returned to Bashkiria, I left my wife there and went to Yakutia, thinking I might find a job in a goldmine. It turned out that it was impossible to get a job there without a permit, but you couldn’t get a permit without a job. This law was designed, of course, to keep the people in servitude to the state. I had no permit and essentially no way of getting one.
I returned and went on catching fish, this being at least an interesting task and one that brought in a little money. We caught the fish in a net. We would pick out a patch on the river stretching two kilometers, thirty from the town and five from the road. We’d go along the river in daylight clearing out driftwood, sticks and logs. We would then dig a hole on the riverbank every five hundred meters and lay down grass at the bottom of it.
We would put on woolen tracksuits that covered the whole body, and gumshoes on our feet. Normal sneakers wouldn’t work for fishing because they’d fall off.
We’d start fishing downstream as it got dark. One would go into the river up to his chest while the other would walk along the bank. The one in the river would walk faster than the current drawing the net along the bottom at his side. We’d get out onto the bank wherever we could every twenty to thirty meters. We’d take the fish that we’d caught out of the net and pack them into our rucksack. The rucksack would be carried by whoever was walking along the riverbank. This operation would be repeated several times up to the first hole, where we would pile up the fish from the rucksack. We would continue in this way until the end of our little patch before walking back to the beginning with our now lightened load. There we might eat, have a smoke, and even get a couple of hours’ sleep. At four in the morning we would wake up and begin a second round. When the fishing was done, we would walk to the beginning of our little patch and collect all the fish from the holes. We’d then change our clothes and head down to the city to sell our catch. We would rest until evening before setting out again for more fishing.
Around six months later my mother helped me get a job as a welder in Yamburg, a workers’ settlement in the Far North. I traveled up there and took my wife with me.
Outside of the work, I began doing press-ups, squats, bench press and a whole range of stretching exercises every day. To begin with, I’d do the press-ups using my palms and keep going till I got to fifty; when that became too easy I began doing it with my fists, also up to fifty; and when that got easy I started doing it with my fingers, the phalanges perpendicular to the floor, again fifty times.
I stopped there, but if I had carried on then the plan would have been as follows: tuck the little fingers away and do the press-ups on four fingers, and then on three, on two and then finally on just the thumb. Then you move on to using the whole palms, but this time doing the push-ups with your back and heels against the wall. Then moving on again to fists, five fingers, then four, three, two and finally the thumb.
It looked great, but how could you ever do that? I had a book that said this was a genuine exercise they practiced in Japan, but in order to do it correctly you needed to develop your inner energy or “Qi” (in some places written as “Chi”). I found an exercise for developing that inner energy in another book on martial arts: Sit cross-legged, with the tongue pressed against the roof of the mouth, the right hand held to the left ear, and stay like this for five minutes; then hold the left hand to the right ear and again sit like that for five minutes; then with both hands over the ears, arms crossed, the right arm on top, and again sit like this for five minutes. During this exercise, direct your attention to the dantian focal point, in this case the second center.
I practiced this exercise for several months, my energy levels increased a lot; sometimes I reached a state close to orgasm and felt an inner calm.
In Yamburg, I would go fishing in the Gulf of Ob both summer and winter.
In summer we’d wear dry suits, lay down netting every fifty meters perpendicular to the shoreline, chasing off the gulls till morning to stop them pecking at our fish. Come morning, we would draw in all the nets and head home.
In winter we would have to lay down the netting under the ice—and this was real backbreaking work. We would wait until the ice had frozen thirty centimeters thick, choose a day when there would be a strong blizzard, put on a white camouflage cloak—in order to avoid being arrested—and at five in the morning we would walk out on the ice and lay down our netting. We lugged all our equipment behind us on sleds. Placing the netting underneath the ice was itself an art, which I won’t go into the details of here.
If, for instance, tomorrow we ended up on the federal wanted list, anything that was of any significance to us today would suddenly become irrelevant. We couldn’t live at home, friends and relatives would cease to exist. Or rather, they’d exist somewhere but it just wouldn’t be feasible to openly arrange meeting up with them. No one could come visit us or their neighbors would immediately call the cops; people have a tendency to feel real bad when others are doing okay. There would be no legitimate work for us again. We’d have to avoid train stations like the plague and wouldn’t be able to use the airport for at least a couple of months. And if we did have to fly somewhere urgently, we would have to hitch a lift to a neighboring city and fly out from there. We’d have to get to the airport just as the check-in was finishing, when everyone would be rushing around and the gates were about to close. We’d have to calculate all of our actions several steps ahead and would always need to keep a few escape routes in sight. We would need at least two different telephone booths for making any calls, and these would have to be on different streets at least a few kilometers apart. We’d use one booth to make the initial call, say a pre-agreed phrase, and wait to hear the pre-agreed response, then immediately move on to the other booth. From the other booth we could talk for about fifty seconds before having to get as far as possible away from there. Taxi drivers, waiters, barmen, cloakroom attendants, lawyers and other legal professionals, hotel staff, prostitutes and traders would give us up for thirty pieces of silver without a second thought, so if we had to speak with them we would do so briefly and politely. All of our expensive—and even cheap—clothes would have to be put in the trash, we couldn’t wear caps, or walk with our hands in our pockets. We would smoke only in designated places, only cross the road when the light was green. No more slang, not to mention swearing, always on our best behavior. Where large crowds gather—protests and demonstrations—keep away. Forget night clubs, restaurants, discos, dark alleys, evening walks in park. We’d have to stay away from anywhere we might be asked for our documents, or where someone might give cause for our documents to be checked. We could only drink alcohol at home, and then not go out afterwards. We couldn’t look anyone in the eye. When dealing with other people we’d have to play dumb, allowing them to feel superior. We’d have to put ourselves in other people’s shoes, try to understand their thoughts and actions. We’d learn all we could to help us survive, and not waste time on anything else. No further decisions would be made by the mind—it could no longer help us—we would learn to live on our animal instincts. The main thing for us to wrap our heads around as far as possible would be that no one gave a damn about us anymore.
Almost three years went by. I was with my wife in Saint Petersburg one day and there was a green outfit she really liked in one of the stores. I didn’t want to buy it and she flew into hysterics. I knew that if I bought her the outfit we’d have hardly any money left, and we would have to take the train from Tyumen to Novy Urengoy, which was a huge risk. But I no longer trusted my wife at that point, and she could have turned me in at any moment. I just wanted for it all to be over one way or the other, even if it meant yet another penitentiary. And then, when I got out, perhaps I could live normally? So I bought the outfit—enjoy wearing it, my dear wife, one day this manhunt will be over and I’ll divorce you, you vile woman.
At Tyumen station I was surrounded by cops and found myself in a cell.
The people and the attitudes in the strict prison were far better than those at juvie. Quiet, calm, no showing off. One person would be reading, another writing a letter, someone else would be brewing chifir, everyone just living peacefully, as all serious people should. If you give your word to something then keep it or don’t give it in the first place; I mean, no one’s got you by the tongue, have they?
I had with me a carton of Magna cigarettes and said I’d start exchanging it that evening for tea once the coast was clear out on the walkway. I was immediately invited to try some other, Prima, cigarettes, and told to smoke as many as I liked. That evening around midnight, I suddenly sensed that something wasn’t quite right in my cell. There was this mounting hostile energy. I spent that day thinking it over and realized what was causing it. I knocked on the food hatch, spoke to the commander, and everything was hunky dory, I gave him two packs of Magna, and he gave me a couple of brews’ worth of tea. The hostile energy immediately evaporated from the cell—chifir anyone?
This “businessman” was released, about fifty years old, some very fine people had been squeezing him for his restaurant in the center of Tyumen. At first he didn’t want to sell, so they put him behind bars and now that he had agreed he was immediately given back his freedom. I never asked him for anything and never thought of doing so, but he gave me a carton of cigarettes and a green sweater, as it was cold at night in the cell in just the white shirt.
They sent a convoy for me—such a polite lot, everything strictly by the book—and I flew to Novy Urengoy. The investigator plied me with tea on the way. Why the hell, he says, did they send you to me? It’s been three years, and that’s no joke in the criminal world. People have been killed, or disappeared, or fled—there are no witnesses and even if there were, what could you possibly prove after three years? You sit here in prison a couple of weeks, he says, while I consult with the intelligent people. He called on me two weeks later and said that honest to God if I were to give him the slightest excuse he’d have me back there so fast it would make my head spin. But there was no excuse, because how the hell are you going to find anything after three years? Sign these papers, he says, and get the hell out of here, stay out of our way, get the hell out of town, don’t leave so much as a trace of yourself behind and if you ever end up in front of me again you’ll only have yourself to blame.
I went to my evening school, passed all the remaining exams and got my certificate, then filed for divorce. One evening my wife’s sister, Toma, came to visit me, she had recently arrived from Bashkiria. I’ve loved you, she says, since the age of fifteen, and we reminisced about sailing on that boat.
Together we went to see Dmitri, my partner in crime from our younger days; he must have been released by then. We sat with him in his kitchen drinking vodka. Dmitri had gone to the adult facility and was meant to be taken to Tyumen, but at the place he was being held while awaiting the convoy, there was this tough looking gangster. He told him that when the convoy came for him, Dmitri should take his place and go to Solikamsk, while the gangster would go to Tyumen in Dmitri’s place. They would sort things out later on in Solikamsk. But Dmitri was never sent back. So he stayed out the rest of his sentence there, working as a cook, and made friends with the Uzbeks from the Gdlyan-Ivanov corruption case.
Dmitri brought his fiancée with him from Pyatigorsk and lived with her and his father in a studio apartment. He had a look about him as though he’d just returned the day before from a war in which everywhere and everything had been blown to bits.
Dmitri asked me not to visit him again because he was starting his life over with a clean slate. His father was also in the kitchen and echoed his words. Could he really have decided that all the problems in their life were down to me?
I thought it was a little unjust to blame me for everything. After all, who was it who taught me to smoke and drink? Why had I begun running away from home to go burgling? Why had I served three years and spent another three on the run? It was you who brought all these things on me—and now you’re casting blame!
Fine, I won’t come to see you again, every man is the master of his own misfortune.
Dmitri’s father later fell asleep smoking a cigarette in that very apartment. He suffocated and burned to death.
Dmitri went to Pyatigorsk and was stabbed to death in a drunken brawl.