I took as much vacation as I could in Yamburg and flew back to Moscow. And really I was flying to escape the torturous sorrow of all those wasted years—I was sure that in Moscow I would never feel sorrow again. I flew into Vnukovo airport with a briefcase, a couple of shirts and a sweater. At the airport, I put the briefcase down on the pavement, lit a cigarette and said, “Hello, Moscow. I’ve come back to see you and I’m going to live here.”
There is a law in mysticism that I have only recently grasped. But if I hadn’t quite grasped it before, does that mean it wasn’t working back then? It was always working away regardless, everything that happened for me happened regardless and everything was right and I couldn’t possibly have come up with anything better myself. The law says that when we do something, God bears witness, but when we bear witness, God will do everything through us himself.
I arrived at the hotel, leafed through a newspaper, called up a plant and got myself a job as a grade six welder. They gave me a dorm room and a gasoline blow torch that cut through iron—something very few people in Moscow were working with at the time. I took the blow torch and cut through all that could be cut. The foreman said he’d spent two years looking for a welder who wasn’t afraid of the thing.
Everyone at the plant drank like crazy. Everyone’s working day began in the locker room with a couple of bottles of vodka and ended the same way, but back then I wasn’t drinking and never even thought of alcohol.
I waited a month before approaching the foreman to ask his help in getting me into one of the institutes and he told me it would be a cinch as he knew the rector at the place where he had studied himself.
We went to see the rector, I went into this whole performance about my registration, about the evening school, about how I hadn’t taken the exam and would they let me into the preparatory department? The rector said that, first off, I was already a real, working welder, and second, in 1993 they had a shortage at the institute, with one student for every six places, and he was very pleased someone else wanted to study there. So write a paper for us, he says, to begin with, then take your math exam and we’ll see how it goes from there. I got an A on the essay I wrote, but only solved two of the four math problems. The professor said he’d give me a C overall, which gave me a passing grade and meant I could celebrate my acceptance at the institute. But it is up to you, he said, to do the learning—you can’t buy anyone around here. You don’t know me, professor—I’ll get my degree with honors!
I strolled along the avenues to the VDNKh amusement park, where I met Ksenia, a princess with plaits down to her waist, young and beautiful. I wasn’t too badly dressed myself back then, in my black leather raincoat and white scarf. Ksenia was walking with a friend and asked me for a lighter. I gave her my lighter and invited her and her friend to the local bar. We got to know each other, became friends, it was all wonderful!
Everything would have been fine, but my money had run out and the vacation pay from Yamburg was coming to an end. My wages from the plant didn’t save me either—they paid practically nothing. I wasn’t ready to eke out some pitiful existence in Moscow, and I couldn’t ditch the institute. I would have to come up with something, but I didn’t know what, and then it came to me. No way in hell could I have come up with it myself, it just came.
I went to a correspondence college and told them I was already enrolled at the institute but I needed to get out of there quickly, that they had no option for distance learning there, only evening classes. The dean of the faculty sent someone with me to the institute, I picked up the paperwork and passed it on to him. In short, I got moved from one higher education institution to another and it turned out to be very straightforward. That just left my job at the plant and the conversation I would have to have with the foreman. I realized it was a terrible thing to do when he had worked so hard for me. I resigned in silence, the foreman looking at me like I was a complete bastard.
I went to see Ksenia, told her I was flying up to the Far North but I’d be working on rotation, after two months I would fly back. She said she hadn’t told me this before because she wasn’t sure how serious our relationship would be, but the time had come to tell me she had scoliosis, curvature of the spine. When we were going down into the subway on the escalator, she stood facing me from the step above and said I could feel her back if I wanted. I felt her back, I was horrified but said nothing. Strange, why hadn’t I noticed it before? My grandfather’s idealistic notion that all women were goddesses had become automatic and I just said the scoliosis wasn’t a problem for me.
I took my first semester at the college, took Ksenia to Yamburg and got her a job as a nurse at the hospital. I divorced my first wife and married Ksenia.
The most useful thing I learned at that college could probably be summarized in a single example. I had to take an exam in Building Materials. I leafed through the textbook, didn’t understand a thing but thought, what the hell, I’ll take the exam anyway. A group of students gathered, twenty of us, and we went into the exam. This athletic-looking professor arrived in a leather jacket, with a pager, looking like a real tough guy. He asked us if we’d solved the “technical question,” meaning had we studied the subject we were about to be examined on? We made a big noise about how we hadn’t slept the whole night, we’d done nothing but study his subject. He asked us if we’d solved the “political question,” meaning had we registered for the exam at the dean’s office? We answered no. He said in that case there was nothing more he could do there, he put on his jacket and left.
Now, in everything I do I solve the “political question” first, and the “technical question” usually solves itself.
So two years went by and I completed the first two years of college. Once again I had a decision to make, studying as I was in a discipline I knew nothing about.
Distance learning was no kind of learning at all, just a lot of time wasted getting an accredited degree. I got that for someone working already as a big boss, all he needed was that degree, but that wasn’t the case for me—I needed a start in life, some real knowledge. I needed to fly to Moscow and live there. I needed to transfer to the institute I had been enrolled at before and study something I knew—welding—at evening classes there. And that meant I’d have to quit my job and live in Moscow on no money.
As I contemplated this thought, trying to convince myself it was the most important thing I had to do, the decision was made for me by God. I was unloading a dump truck of oxygen cylinders and one of the cylinders fell right on my leg, after which I spent fifty-two days in hospital.
I took some vacation and flew to Moscow. I picked up the relevant paperwork from the correspondence college and transferred back to the institute I had originally enrolled at. I flew back to Yamburg, went into the personnel department and got a paper to say they were sending me to study welding. I picked up Ksenia and off we flew.
Ksenia's parents had a four-room apartment. One of the rooms became our own family nest for four years. I bought everything we needed at the time, a kettle, TV, video-player, stereo, and we began living there. At first I tried to find a job, but without a permanent residence permit for Moscow you couldn’t find anything decent. Ksenia enrolled at the biology faculty in the pedagogical college.
I got a paper from Yamburg saying if I wanted I could study at the British College of Banking & Finance and I’d get a bursary of one hundred dollars a month, so off I went. The teaching was in English, and it was very difficult for me. I went to college in the morning and to the institute in the evening. After half a year of studying like this I was so screwed up I got confused one day and went to the institute in the morning. I’d have to choose which place I wanted to study at or I’d go out of my mind, so I ditched the college and stayed on at the institute.
The college taught me one important thing. I had an exam in Business Administration. I somehow managed to write something down and got the C I needed. There was a girl there who did such a great job it was worthy of an A, but she got a D. She was crying, but the professor said although she had no doubt her work deserved an A, she’d handed it in an hour late, so it was no good to anyone. Imagine, she says, that you have a meeting starting at 10am and you prepare a report by 11am—what good is that to anyone? Hence the D.
My mother sent us a hundred dollars a month and we lived on that. I studied with great difficulty, struggling to get the information through to my brain. I wrote and re-wrote, read and re-read, took several exams a number of times, and there was a worry that they might expel me. The welding topics began at the end of the third year, and I started to comprehend them. I got my first A in metallurgy; after that the fear vanished and studying became easy.
Problems began in our family life as I no longer viewed my wife as a sexual being. I no longer wanted her at all, with her scoliosis. My sexual dissatisfaction grew and pretty soon I was ready to pounce on any girl. I tried to control the situation with my mind but it didn’t do much good and I began pushing all this sexual desire down within myself. What they call “frustration” began building up inside me, this state of anxiety where there is no outside cause for anxiety but inside that state of anxiety persists.
It was right around this time that we began studying Sociology at the institute. The lectures were delivered by a lady, the professor, and she talked about the desires a person is for some reason unable to fulfil. Various solutions were proposed for dealing with such desires. You can either deceive yourself—you don’t really want it—or compensate, do something else to convince yourself that it was really this that you wanted. All you have to do is get your head around the situation so that you can consciously reject that desire. One solution, the most dangerous, was the one that I had taken, which is to simply take your desire and push it down, chase it away, don’t even think of it. When you suppress a desire, or several desires, and do so many times, that’s when the frustration starts.
Perhaps these things work in certain scenarios. For example, a lady wants a mink coat but she doesn’t have the money for it. She buys a sheepskin coat and tells herself she doesn’t really need fur because the sheepskin is more practical. Or she buys a fur coat, but one made from mink tails only, and convinces herself that it’s the same as one that’s made from the whole thing. Or she takes the situation apart and consciously tells herself she’s not going anywhere, she’s going to stay at home—the down jacket she bought ten years ago is the best thing for her. In my case, none of these things worked, because when it comes to powerful sexual desires, there’s not a damn thing sociology can do about it. I asked the professor how I could deepen my knowledge of her subject in this area. She suggested a number of books for me to read like Berne’s Games People Play.
I had read Berne before, way back in Novy Urengoy. He explained to a patient the meaning of the phrase “Here and Now.” As in, take a look at something from this point of view then try and see. I remember summoning all my strength, energy and will trying to see a teapot on top of the refrigerator “Here and Now.” I saw fog all around me and a brown drop of tea hardened on the side of that teapot. I took a rag, wiped the droplet off and thought of how tomorrow it would no longer be there; tomorrow’s teapot would be a different teapot altogether.
I spent months scanning through these books very carefully, I re-read Berne, with his patient, but none of it helped to solve my problem. I sought out the professor and asked what you could do if you were overcome with frustration. She replied that once you have abandoned everything to that state of frustration, it is no longer a question of sociology, but of psychiatry. A person may be put under hypnosis to talk about their suppressed desires. They’d also have to externalize those desires by using either deception, compensation or conscious rejection and then the frustration would magically disappear of its own accord.
I thought about this for a long time, and I can always tell the truth from lies. I had neither the money nor the desire to undergo hypnosis. Even if I were to talk about my suppressed desires, what was I meant to do with them then? I couldn’t externalize them, or compensate for them when they first appeared—what had changed?
I didn’t want my wife, I never would want her, and there wasn’t a damn thing that could compensate for that. She would be jealous of any woman, even without good reason. If not for the viciousness of this nasty jealous streak, I could have found myself a mistress and solved the problem. But my suppressed desires grew like wildfire and the frustration held. I wanted to go to a bar and find a beautiful woman, or better yet two, to stumble into bed with them at some hotel and not crawl out of there for a week. I wanted my own apartment in Moscow, somewhere on the Arbat, a job with a beautiful secretary where I’d get paid a stack of money, and vacations abroad. Instead of that I had to live in a single room with my wife, who I needed like a hole in the head, with a mother-in-law and a father-in-law who’d had enough of me, and all this for a hundred dollars a month.
I came to the conclusion that all these sociologists and psychiatrists didn’t understand a damn thing because they’d never been psychotic themselves. They’d read everyone’s books at their prestigious universities and now they were going about with this important look on their chops as though they understood everything. And the ones who wrote the books had also read everyone’s clever books back in their time and had also gone about with that important look on their chops.
My mother flew over, she was staying at the Moscow Hotel, and I went to visit her. We had a long chat about all sorts of things, and she bought me some glycine tablets. These are tablets that make up for a lack of glycine in the body, and you take them under the tongue. When a person becomes nervous and anxious, glycine is used up very quickly and cannot be replaced with more food as it is broken up in the stomach. The person starts to become more nervous and anxious, and the glycine is used up even faster, and so the cycle continues. I began taking these tablets and got to a more or less normal state.
I became interested in psychiatry, and it turned out there were certain drugs that would suppress the nervous system to stop a person wanting something so desperately. They start living in a kind of fog and become indifferent to everything. I decided against taking these things, I would just be a moron living in frustration.
I began studying different temperaments in more detail, and there was one particular explanation that appealed to me. A man has bought a cake and is going to a birthday party. He arrives at the subway station, puts the cake down next to him and waits for a train. Someone then walks past and sits down on the cake. The Sanguine will demand money for the moral injury; the Choleric will start shouting and fighting; the Melancholic will start crying; the Phlegmatic won’t be bothered by it.
When I turned twenty-five my mother bought me a computer and I started learning how it worked. I bought a bike and began cycling from Prospekt Mira to Sokolniki, riding through the parks on the way.
I decided to study English. I’d cut out a strip of card six centimeters by four centimeters from a sheet of album paper. On one side I’d write the Russian word, and on the other side the English translation and transliteration. I’d study, working through and turning over these cards, from Russian into English and English into Russian, gradually taking away the ones I’d learned. After a couple of months I’d go back to them and repeat. I’d take three hundred cards, get on my bike and ride to Sokolniki, then sit on the lawn there studying. In the evening I’d buy a bottle of good beer, drink it and go home.
This was the latest solution to the problem of frustration, if you could call it a solution, of course. There was no change in the desire, but the energy of that suppressed desire was being directed towards accomplishing something else. So there was no sex, but I was learning English and approaching that process in a creative way. You could paint a picture or write poetry or a book, or you could sit on a dating site writing love letters all night. If you keep doing this, you might come up with a work of genius, whether it’s a picture or a book. During the lives of such geniuses, of course, no one understands them and they die in abject poverty or take their own lives. For anyone in a state of frustration, this is a sort of temporary escape because the creative process allows you to live out your own daydreams and fantasies for a time. If you keep on substituting your energy like this then it will completely destroy your psyche.
This was how I passed my time until the end of the fourth year. My mother got me a four-week trip to England so I could learn English there, and I flew abroad for the first time in my life. You had to live with an English family there and study at the school. In the evenings, after classes, everyone would go to the bar to drink beer and then the disco. The country was strange, the people were different, the mentality was nothing like our own, the beer was good. The tyranny there was of a different kind, they weren’t crooks. If I called a girl to the bar, she’d say I was a cool guy and she’d love to come but, as luck would have it, she was busy today because she had to prepare for an exam. I was blown away by England, I hung out in bars, drank beer, danced, went on excursions, and I didn’t forget about learning. My fear of society evaporated there and I returned to Moscow a new man.
As an experiment, when I was traveling home from Sheremetyevo, I said something to a girl on the subway like, would you come out with me to a bar tonight? She called me a moron and said I should take a look in the mirror more often.
I would never stop at anything again. I considered, I didn’t really know my own suppressed desires, so I should just do everything that came into my head. I drank beer and vodka, went to student parties, night clubs, staggered about drunk along the Arbat, and cheated on my wife at every opportunity. I wanted to scorn anyone who thought anything about me, to scorn my wife’s jealousy. They could all go to hell, it was my life and I didn’t want any of these frustrations. After all, what was more important to me—a decent mental state or some stupid woman? I’d get rid of the damn woman and that would be it.
I wanted to get divorced, and mother said she’d rent a studio apartment for me. My wife was also at college and asked me to wait, as she had no money and needed to get her degree. We came to a sort of agreement that I would live with her, while she would live on the money my mother sent and not bust my chops too much.
I passed the fifth year and flew back to that same school in England again for five weeks. Nothing was the same as it was the first time I went there—you can’t go into the same river twice. I drank beer in moderation, tried to learn as much English as I could.
I returned to Moscow and graduated the sixth year with straight A’s. I knew welding inside out now and could answer any question on the subject. I defended my thesis and received my degree with honors. I celebrated for a few days, went to Saint Petersburg and hung out in bars there for a couple of weeks. Eventually I had to make a decision on where and how I would live from then on.
While I was studying in England I had got to know a Spanish guy named Pedro. I wrote to him asking him to help me emigrate to Canada. It is a necessary requirement for all immigrants to Canada that they have ten thousand Canadian dollars in the bank. I didn’t have this kind of money, and neither did my mother. Pedro replied saying I should fly to Spain and he would help me from there. I filled out all the necessary immigration forms, booked myself a week in Spain and flew out. To begin with I stayed at a hotel, drank wine, swam. The week ended, I threw away my return ticket and went to see Pedro. I got the money from him, transferred it to an Austrian bank, flew to Vienna, looked up the Canadian embassy and submitted my documents. The next thing was to wait until they called me in for an interview, perhaps a year or a year and a half.
The hotel room was one hundred fifty dollars a night. I estimated my finances—I had around two and half thousand left. I realized this money wouldn’t last long but I had no intention of going back to Moscow. The visa ended after three weeks, and I decided to stay in Vienna. I went to the station, put my bag in a locker and began living on the streets. I wanted to spit on everything. I slept on a bench at the station, went to the locker room in the morning, picked up my bag and took a shower for twenty shillings, the cost of a packet of cigarettes. I had a wash, brushed my teeth, shaved, took all the cold cuts and kolbasa out of my bag and bought two bottles of beer. After breakfast, I put my bag back in the locker and took a walk. I soon realized I didn’t have to sleep at the station, I could sleep where I liked. This was freedom! For instance, I went to see a castle, and I went roaming about on the streets. I would get tired, sit down on a bench, drink a beer, put my rucksack under my head and drift off into a sweet sleep, it was warm out, there were no mosquitoes.
Once I got woken by the police. I showed them my passport with the visa in it. They asked me to take off my sneakers or the bench would get dirty and then someone would sit on it. I said someone would steal the sneakers while I was sleeping, and what would I wear on my feet then? They laughed and told me Vienna wasn’t Moscow. That was certainly true—at night I saw open stores you could go into, take everything you wanted and then leave money at the counter. I lived that way for two weeks, and then I got tired of Vienna.
I took the train to Bratislava. The Austrians checked my passport and stamped it. The Slovaks checked my passport and held onto it: what the hell do you want in Slovakia? I’m going to take a look at your caves then I’ll move on. And do you have money? I showed them the two thousand dollars. Have you declared this money? They don’t do declarations for two thousand, go to hell. If you don’t have a declaration then it means you’re smuggling this in. They took me off the train at some village and locked me up in a cell. I sat in the cell for half an hour then called over one of the guards and asked, “What do you want?” He said fifty dollars would do. I gave him the money and he unlocked the cell.
It struck me that this had been a good experience, because if I should ever end up on the federal wanted list again then I could somehow make my way out of Russia to this village. I would then cross the river and it would be thirty-five kilometers to Vienna on foot. There would be no more borders—all of Europe was mine, and I could go where I liked. The train would be in twenty hours and I spent them in a bar with two women.
I went to Prague, where a couple of police immediately laid into me, like, “Clear off back to your Moscow or we’ll put you in a cell.” I went to the airport and flew back to Moscow.
I’m riding in the minibus from Sheremetyevo and I realize the minibus is jumping over bumps, the driver is swearing away and all the people are furious. This is the country I’ll be living in now and there’s nowhere else for me to go.
I found a job in Moscow as floor manager at the ZiL automobile plant, I had a talk with the chief welder, the chief engineer, they take me on, tell me go to the personnel department and sign up there. I went to the personnel department, they were all really polite, checked my passport and sent me on to the workers’ department, and there everyone began barking at me—had I misunderstood something, what was wrong with me? We have instructions here—we can only take on people with temporary residence permits as laborers, we can’t take anyone on as floor manager without a permanent residence permit. I went back to the chief engineer. Option two was either sign up as a grade six welder but work as floor manager, or ask my wife to register me for permanent residence. I didn’t want to be a welder—or what was the point in graduating from the institute? I went to see my wife, and my mother-in-law balked at the suggested—no way, never!
To hell with them all, I flew to Yamburg.