From Irkutsk it was a five-hundred-kilometer drive north. I was in a car with Charles, the safety manager from South Africa. The different places in Siberia were very beautiful, the taiga and the rivers. Charles was asking the driver to stop the whole time so that he could get another photograph of the landscape.
We arrived in the little village of Chikan and stayed in a dorm there. There’s no shower, nothing to eat, and no cell phone coverage. We bought potatoes and vodka from the only shop they had, bought elk from some locals, made a stove outside from some bricks and cooked up something on it. I have a permanent contract, with no leave, I have to work every day except Sundays, Charles has to work six weeks and then gets two weeks off.
The subcontracting companies that will work here are still mobilizing, setting up, equipment is being transported, portacabins installed, a pipe welding station, there is no real road.
There is, essentially, nothing to do, and the driver and I go off to look for a couple of women in the next village, while Charles stays to get some sleep.
We found these two women in the village, rented this sort of “shack” at a hotel, brought them there, bought vodka and snacks. The security guard at the hotel comes up to me and says, “You need to be more careful, these women had syphilis, and we don’t know if they ever got treatment.” We think, “To hell with them,” and we go home.
Some time went by, the companies arrived and the work began. Mamolyga, whom I had made friends with in Moscow, has also flown over. He turns his nose up at me, and I ask, “Why?” He says because he’s a blue blood, and we’re all just pieces of crap. “Okay I get it, the only thing I don’t get is did someone tell you that or did you decide it for yourself?” He wouldn’t say any more. Yeah, well you can go to hell too.
I found a girl, Julia, out in the country a hundred kilometers away and brought her back to the dorm. Tomorrow is Sunday and we can sleep in, we sit in the kitchen and drink beer. Grigory comes over to me from Mamolyga’s department and starts raising hell. He says I’m keeping him from sleeping, I’ve brought a woman, I’m getting drunk. I realized something was wrong, because for a start Grigory is a wino himself, and second he’s behaving too aggressively, he’s looking for a fight, definitely. I took Julia and the beer and went to bed.
On Monday the bosses come over, saying why did you bring a woman here, disturb people’s sleep and get drunk? I say, “First, where does it say I can’t invite a woman over to see me? Second, why can’t I drink beer on a Saturday? Third, no one was stopping anyone from sleeping, it was all calm and quiet.” They shoved a breathalyzer at me, I blew into it and it came out with three zeros after a period. There was nothing they could say, they all left me alone.
I caught hold of Grigory in some place where there were no other people and I ask him, “What are you doing, you jerk?” He says Mamolyga told him to go to the kitchen and start a fight so I’d get kicked off the project. If I’d fallen for the provocation, I wouldn’t have got away with having a fight.
Mamolyga writes a complaint against some paperwork I’ve delivered and puts all the bosses in copy. The bosses put together a meeting, people come in from Irkutsk and Novosibirsk, it’s a good thing someone knows a little something about welding.
I explain to everyone at the meeting that comments 1 to 20 do not make any sense because we don’t use that welding process, comments 21 to 40 also make no sense because we don’t have that kind of gas, while 41 to 58 have nothing at all to do with our project.
I go to see Mamolyga and ask him, “Why did you write this? I mean it’s all lies, your 58 comments, do you give any thought at all to the things you write?” He says he gives it a great deal of thought, but the big boss back in Moscow won’t give it a damn bit of thought. What everyone will understand is that Mamolyga has made 58 comments on my work, and whether or not they contain any truth is not important. “Well you’re a real bastard, Mamolyga, I’ve never met anyone quite like you, you can drop dead, you prick!”
After six months I started working on rotation, one month on, one month off. In other words I worked for a month, then took a month’s vacation. I picked up Julia and we traveled together to Moscow. We went out on the dinghy, stayed in the dacha, and it seemed like everything was good. We went to the village of Sychevka, a good four hundred kilometers outside Moscow, and there were these owls in the road there that just didn’t want to fly off. I honked at them and they looked at me like they wanted to say, “Why are you making all that noise, can’t you see I’m sitting here?” And then they slowly turned their round heads and reluctantly flew away.
The problem was I didn’t see Julia as a sexual being. I decided not to repeat the same mistake twice and we split up.
Mamolyga was fired from the project and dropped dead of a spinal sarcoma.
The project in Siberia lasted two years, a lot of it was good, and some not so good. But all of this was, as they say, a peasant’s life, and I was tired of it by now.