I was born on May 14, 1971 in the city of Irkutsk. I don’t remember anything about my father, like he never even existed, since my mother divorced him when I was a year old. When I turned five my mother went to the North to earn money while I stayed behind, living with my grandpa and the old lady. In their past lives both the old lady and my grandpa had worked for the KGB, and so from the very start the direction of my upbringing was predetermined.
The old lady was no shrinking violet either, she was tough: she worked in a department of the military counter-espionage service called SMERSH and received the medal “For Valor” during the Second World War. There was discipline in everything: breakfast, lunch, dinner and bedtime all to a strict schedule. If I did anything wrong, I’d immediately get the belt.
Grandpa was retired and worked as housekeeping manager at the resort where we lived, twenty-three kilometers from Irkutsk on the way to Baikal.
When I turned seven I was sent to a residential school. This was a kind of student dorm you had to live at from Monday to Saturday. I would be taken home for Saturday evening and Sunday.
The resort was in a forest, a picturesque spot on the banks of an inlet from the Angara River. The summers meant bike rides, fishing, mushrooms and berries, while in winters it was toboggans and skis. Out of the children there were two girls from my class and the brother of one of the girls who was four years older than us. He would listen to pop music on a reel-to-reel tape recorder, he was an amateur photographer and had soldered together his own light organ.
Through him I learned how to take photographs and became a life-long music fan. I later attempted to solder something of my own, but as electronics developed it was a hobby that soon became obsolete.
Sometimes important guests would fly in to see Lake Baikal and stayed with us at the resort. The King of some African country came, the Prime Minister of Finland and other important people. I remember the pop group ABBA very well, because there was a banquet organized for them one evening, and I went out on my bike and hid in the bushes to see them. They gave grandpa some colored tie pins and he gave them to me. I did not know then that I would never live in such picturesque surroundings again.
The old lady filled me with a constant sense of dread. She was the size of an elephant and would take me out by the collar from under the bed, where I would hide from her, to thrash me with her belt. She hammered a number of ideas into me that would go on to influence my entire life. Maybe the ideas themselves were right, but what difference did it make if they were right or wrong, when because of them I wasn’t free? They were drummed into me automatically: there’s no such thing as “I can’t,” there is only “you have to”; without a struggle, you’ll never get the fish out of its puddle; cry little cry-baby if it makes your bum feel better; the bottom line would always be that I was nothing but a piece shit.
Grandpa taught me how to fish, how to build a fire, how to identify different mushrooms and berries, how to work with a hacksaw and hammer, he drove me around our homeland, to Nakhodka, Volgograd, and Chernigov, and implanted in me a couple of his own idealistic notions: one had to be honest with oneself and with others, and to always act decently; and all women were goddesses.
Life at the residential school flowed by monotonously. After breakfast came study, then lunch, independent study, afternoon tea, recess, dinner and lights out. Many of the children came from broken homes (the mother drank, the father was in prison), we lived ten to a room, and for dinner they gave us herring speckled with blood, which I physically could not eat. I studied in the first grade, and there were no more than twenty children. I had no friends at school. During recess, all the normal guys played football or elephant, in which a group of kids lines up, holding each other round the waist, and another group hops onto their backs to form a giant “elephant,” while I wandered around the school or watched the girls jump rope and elastic. Once a week we were taken to the Rodina movie theater for our cultural enlightenment.
I signed up for judo but soon dropped out because I was taller than everyone else in the class and it was impossible for them to throw me over their shoulder. I spent a month in the young naturalists’ society but gave that up too, because while it was interesting to me at first—they had a lot of different animals—what was I ever going to do there, clean up their shit? In the third year of school I joined the choir and, I thought, sang second voice pretty well. So went the first three years of my education and my first ten years of life. Before the fourth year of school began, my mother came and took me back north with her, and that was where I started the fourth year.
In 1981 Novy Urengoy was a building site. Plants were being built and they were developing an enormous gas field there. In the center of the city hung a red poster that read: “We will deliver a billion cubic meters of gas a day.” Several nine- and five-story buildings, two-story wooden houses made with plywood panels, one-story hutments, trailers, cabins and balki (stress on the final syllable; from the Russian word for ‘beam’, in this case self-built homes).
I lived with my mother in a hutment, in a square room measuring three meters by three meters. Hot water came by pipe, while for drinking water one either had to go to the boiler room or wait for the water cart. The water cart came at irregular hours, so several times a week I would take two buckets and walk to the boiler room, a distance of some three hundred meters. The toilet, an outhouse, was outside, some fifty meters from the hutment, and there was a huge heap there into which everyone would throw their rubbish. To reach the baths one had to walk a good two kilometers before waiting over an hour in a queue, and I would go there once a week. As you walked back your hair would freeze, sticking out from under your cap like icicles, while the most beautiful fluffy snowflakes turned silver on your lashes.
In the winter there was minus-40-degree frost and winds, while in the summer there was 40-degree heat and mosquitoes by the billions. In the spring, when the snow had melted, huge puddles would spread through the entire city and it was my favorite thing to do to wade through them in water boots or sail on them by raft. My mother was at work from morning to late evening, and I was left to myself.
It was around a kilometer to the school and I would walk there on foot. School was like some other world to me then, large and dangerous. Bright, noisy, lots of children, classes of forty, and there were several such classes, at least up to the letter “D.” The underlying notion that I was nothing but a piece of shit began to work away within me. This idea determined my inner disposition and engendered fear in the teachers and the other children. The teachers were important, and the children were right. And I was wrong. I detested that school and that crowd from the very first day. I would walk there as if to a labor camp, with an inner sense of dread, and waited anxiously for the lessons to end. I could not yet skip school from that same sense of dread. I absorbed nothing of the humanities, history and literature, and did not even try, while with careful evening reading I could understand mathematics.
There was a boy in my class, Danil, who came from Leningrad, and we would compete at math tests over who could solve the problems faster. I was in love with two twins from Leningrad, too. I could not tell which of them I was more in love with, I looked at them and dreamed of something all my own, something beautiful and bright. I never even tried approaching them, and they never knew of my great and pure love.
I signed up to join the modern dance group, to be where they were, but quit after the first class as I felt uncomfortable in the company of all these beautiful girls and boys. I went weightlifting a few times and wrestling a few times, but I quickly discovered that they were not for me. I couldn’t lift the same weights all the others were lifting, while in wrestling you had to embrace your partner, and I didn’t find that very pleasant. I left the chess group because I always had to hang around such a long time waiting for my turn. I went along to the radio-electronics group once, but the older guys there began bullying me, like getting me to say “Heil Gulik!” (I think that was one of their names). I tried to ease the tension and said “Gulik kaput,” everyone laughed, and I never went there again.
My mother sent me to a pioneer camp in Georgia, in the town of Kobuleti. There, in our detachment, we each had to fight one another in turn in the first few days to determine which of us was the strongest. I ended up in the middle and for a long time after I was angry at myself and everyone else; what sort of rules did this society have? And you couldn’t opt out, because that would make you an outcast and a coward. I tried out solo singing and at a concert I sang Along the Hills and Valleys. Igor from the senior squadron later said he had never heard such lousy singing. So that was it for my singing career, although deep down I was convinced that the organizers of the concert had treated me unfairly. At rehearsals there had been no microphone, then they put one in front of me for the concert and I had no idea how to use it.
In winter I went sledding on an aluminum sheet. The sheet was five meters long and one and a half wide. We would bend back one end of the sheet like a sail, choose a flat surface like a field and ride it as fast as the wind would carry us. Once when I was sledding like this, the sheet flew up into my face and split open my bottom lip. I ran home covered in blood. My mother said I needed to get to hospital right away. It was three kilometers to the hospital, and the wind outside was blowing at twenty meters per second. There was a truck parked up outside the house and mother asked the driver to give us a lift. He asked for a bottle of booze in exchange for the ride. We had no booze and ended up having to walk.
After the fifth year, my mother sent me to a pioneer camp in Crimea, and that’s where I met Dmitri. We started talking and Dmitri asked, “Do you smoke?” I said, “Of course I smoke,” although in actual fact I had never tried it. “Shall we go for a smoke then?” We sat at the far corner of the camp, near the fence, and smoked. After the first two cigarettes I began feeling really unwell, but I didn’t give up and went on choking on the smoke. After some sleep and a few more cigarettes I didn’t feel so bad. I smoked and was proud of how cool I was. Dmitri asked if I drank. I said, “Of course I drink!” After the first ever bottle of beer in my life, I was roaring drunk. It wasn’t that I particularly liked smoking and drinking, but it gave me a new sensation. I was there drinking and smoking while all around me were all these mama’s boys, afraid of their parents, afraid of the teachers, and there was no way in hell they could do it. But I wasn’t afraid of anyone and I’d show them all.
I soon became leader and would come up with all sorts of adventures specifically directed against the social order. We drank, smoked, spit on all decorum, went out in Yalta, robbed one of the school warehouses, stole apricots from some guy’s summer house, went off swimming on our own, away from all the others. They wanted to expel us from the camp and send us home but didn’t bother in the end.
When I got home, I mixed seamlessly into Dmitri’s group of friends and immediately came into my own. We walked along the street with a ghetto blaster and skipped school. And so went the sixth year, the seventh year and almost the whole of the eighth year. Dmitri was a year older than me and managed to get an incomplete secondary education (they used to take exams in the eighth year), but I never did.
Our class tutor was Cockroach, who taught history and led part of the aikido classes at the same time. He grabbed me so sharply, so roughly by the jacket, right near the throat, when he caught me smoking in the toilet, and tried to set me straight.
Pyotr was our so-called “class commander,” and did boxing and weightlifting. One day, he was trying to get something through to me about the rules of behavior at school, and I told him to go to hell: “One day I’ll see you in the street with my buddies and I’m going to pound you,” I said, and he gave me one in the chops.
After the showdown with Cockroach and Pyotr, I stopped going to school altogether.
The first time we stole money and went to Pyatigorsk, there were five of us. The cops caught us at Tyumen station and put us in the juvenile detention center. This one screw there divided us into groups and forced us to play rugby, moving along on our knees across this huge hall. The hall was covered in this scratchy carpet that cut and grazed our knees. If we did anything wrong, the screw would give us a hard flick on the head with a middle finger like they used to do in school. My mother picked me up from the detention center after a few days. The second time we stole money and went to Pyatigorsk, there were four of us. We drove through Moscow and that was where we found ourselves on May 1, 1986. I really liked Moscow, and I was enraptured by it. We drank Pepsi-Cola on the Arbat and ate sausages at Sokolniki while drinking beer. The cops caught us a few days later in Pyatigorsk and put us in the juvenile detention center. They caught us because Dmitri had decided to blab to his sister and she told on us to her uncle, who turned us in to the cops. We spent two weeks at the detention center before being taken to a second detention center in Rostov-on-Don, where they shaved us completely—because apparently we looked like punks. We were then sent to a third detention center in Novosibirsk, where in huge round caps we dug a garden the size of a football field. As a result of all these wanderings from school, I was expelled and forbidden from taking the exams. I was glad that I would never again see Pyotr, Cockroach or any of those other shitheads.
My mother would try to get through to me, explain things to me, but it was useless. My motto was “I don’t give a damn,” and I stuck to it rigidly. I hung around drunk about the town, in basements and in the catacombs (a great big square well with pipes inside).
An inspector for the affairs of minors came to my home and explained in layman’s terms my two options. Either I would start working and study at night school, or I would go to a special school, which I would not be able to leave for the next several years. This prospect did not appeal to me, and so I got a job as an apprentice steel and reinforced concrete installer and went to study at night school.
“Apprentice installer” meant digging, chiseling, lugging and kneading things. A month later, I was moved on to the second stage and received a salary of 525 rubles. I didn’t know what to do with the money; I left myself enough for wine and cigarettes and gave the rest to my mother. Occasionally I went to the night school.
I once read an article in Student Meridian magazine about the idle talk that people engage in. It went on to suggest a practice whereby you attempt to stay silent all day in order to see this idle talk for yourself. I practiced this and decided to listen more and talk less.
Rumi defines five stages in the evolution of Man: Mineral, Plant, Animal, Man and Angel. I suspect that at that moment I was at the Mineral stage. Of course, I didn’t know anything about the existence of a Mineral stage at that time, but I had started thinking about the meaning of life and I couldn’t find it anywhere or in anything.
I truly wanted to find the meaning of life. God heard my request and led me through a thousand scenarios to help me find that meaning, to discern it and, crucially, to live by it.
Dmitri had left school after the eighth year and got a job as a carpenter. We worked from Monday to Saturday, then on Sundays we tried to make the most of our time by robbing something. It was normally a warehouse or a vegetable store. It was interesting, busting the ventilation or smashing the roof in then climbing down on a rope. Sometimes we had to make a tunnel or climb through a window. I worked out a detailed plan, tried to take all the little details into account so that the theft would go smoothly and we wouldn’t leave fingerprints anywhere.
On 1 December 1986, the cops came to my work, handcuffed me in silence, took me away and put me in a cell. Two weeks later I flew by prison transport to Tyumen, to a so-called temporary detention facility. In the first few minutes of my arrival at the detention center, I carefully read the inscriptions on the door and on the walls and examined the drawings, of which there were many.
I sat down on the bench, took a drag on a cigarette, and realized that my childhood was over.