Major Problem

Snowflakes are mesmerizing, tiny cold kisses from heaven. I’m watching them dance across Romania as I talk to my mother by phone. She’s in the UK, boasting about a blizzard, the worst for 18 years:

“It’s a major problem,” she says, “roads blocked, people stranded.”

She sounds pleased that British weather is finally worth talking about. After we say goodbye I stand at my window, watching the wispy whiteness and smiling to myself. Because her words remind me of another major problem, years ago.

In 1997 I was working in Yekaterinburg, central Russia, just east of the Ural Mountains. Founded in 1723 and named after St. Catherine, it’s where the Bolsheviks executed Czar Nicholas II and family in 1917. Under Communism it became an industrial centre – Stalin based his munitions factories there and tested anthrax. In 1960, an American U2 spy plane was shot down over the city. In the mid ‘60s, local boy Boris Yeltsin wooed his lady behind the marble columns of the Technical University and in 1991 was elected first president of the Russian Federation. In short, Yekaterinburg is Russian, heart and soul. However, by 1997 it was also full of gangsters, prostitutes and pissheads. For example…

The Major lived in my bloc. He had a big belly, a loud voice and a passion for vodka. Every morning, he would settle in the yard in his wooden chair and tell tales of Afghanistan. He had a few of those but only one leg: “Left the other one in Kabul, damn it!”

We’ll come back to him later. For now, let’s get to work. It’s 08:15 and I have a 40- minute walk in temperatures of minus 42, through snow-bound streets where stretch limos with black windows splash muddy water on pensioners selling potatoes by the side of the road because we are all democrats now.

I arrive at BBC School where twelve young Russian journalists are eager for training. “Let’s watch a British documentary about Stalin,” I suggest, slipping a video in the machine. They grin from ear to ear. “It’s British,” I add. They look puzzled.

Soon they are all glued to the screen as the documentary explains how Stalin transformed Mother Russia into Mother F****r. He helped stop the Nazis; he built cities; he dug canals; he collectivized the land; he deported 3 million citizens; he starved the kulaks and sent you to the Gulag for 20 years if you stole a loaf.

One of my trainees – a chunky blonde – leaves the room. She seems upset so I follow her into the corridor. She paces about, weeping now. I offer a tissue and comfort.

“Tanya, I know history can be painful, but focus on the journalism, how it balances the story: national progress plus state terror, yes?”

She lights a cigarette and snarls at me: “How dare you show anti-Soviet propaganda! Stalin is our greatest leader. He won the Great Patriotic War! What is your problem?”

My eyes pop as I consider my reply.

“Tanya, think! As journalists, what should we say about the Gulag?”

She sucks her Kent and replies: “Crime deserves punishment!”

“How are old you, Tanya?”

“Nineteen,” she snaps, her pretty blue eyes devoid of doubt. I pass another tissue. “You don’t have to watch it,” I say, walking back to my class.

“Good,” she grunts.

It’s dusk and dark and bitterly cold when I reach home. Snow falls thick and fast in a wild wind. As I approach the bloc, two of the Major’s drinking buddies stumble past in the opposite direction: “Good night, English!”

Then I spot the Major lying in the snow, face down, dead still. I roll him over. He is unconscious, snow on his beard, his breathing quick and shallow, smashed out of his skull. I watch his friends disappearing into the blizzard. There’s no one else around. This is not good.

Because the Major lives with his ancient mother and she rarely leaves their flat. He has no wife, no kids, and perhaps no help. He could easily freeze to death here. It happens all over Russia, every winter. His face is no longer alcoholic red. It’s turning corpse grey.

I shout for his friends. They return and we lift the Major up and prop his crutches under his arms then frogmarch him into the bloc and up three flights of slippery steps. There is no elevator. He weighs half a ton and keeps falling down. It takes us twenty minutes. He wakes up en route, tells me he adores Winston Churchill, then blacks out.

His mother opens the door. Their tiny flat has fruit crates for cupboards. I point to an old bed but she points at the linoleum floor: dump his ass there. Then she makes a puking gesture: she doesn’t want vomit in the bed.

Next morning at 08:15, the Major is back outside as usual, drinking vodka. I smile and say Good Morning. He stares at me with pink eyes as if to say: who the f*** are you?

In December 2008, Russians voted Stalin their third greatest countryman ever, above national literary hero Pushkin. I know two people who would drink to that, no problem.


(First published in FHM, April 2009, by S.C. Sanoma Hearst Romania SRL).

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