Alisa Z., advertising manager,
35 years old
I went to St. Petersburg to get a different story but came back with this one. I’d struck up a conversation on the train . . .
A friend of mine killed herself . . . She was a strong and successful woman. Tons of friends and admirers. We were all in shock. Suicide? What is that? Cowardice or an act of courage? A radical transformation, a cry for help, or self-martyrdom? An exit . . . a trap . . . a punishment . . . I want to . . . I can tell you why I’ll never kill myself . . .
Love? That’s not even an option . . . I’m not against all that happy shiny stuff, but you’re probably the first person to say that word to me in ten years. It’s the twenty-first century: It’s all about money, sex, and two smoking barrels, and here you are talking about feelings . . . Everyone finally got their hands on some dough, for the first time ever . . . I was in no hurry to get married, have kids, I’ve always put my career first. I value myself, my time, and my life. And where did you ever get the idea that men are looking for love? Ooh, love . . . Men consider women game, war trophies, prey, and themselves hunters. Those are the rules that have been developed over the course of centuries. And women aren’t looking for their knight in shining armor to come galloping in on a white horse—they want him on a sack of gold. A knight of indeterminate age . . . even a “daddy” will do . . . So what? Money rules the world! But I’m no prey, I’m a huntress myself . . .
I came to Moscow ten years ago. I was wild, fired up, I told myself that I was born to be happy, that only the weak suffer, and modesty is nothing but adornment for the weak. I’m from Rostov . . . My parents work at a school, my father’s a chemist, and my mother’s a Russian language and literature teacher. They got married when they were in college, my father only owned one decent suit but had more than his share of ideas. Back then, that was enough to make a young girl swoon. They still love to remember how, for ages, they got by with one set of linens, one pillow, and one pair of slippers. They’d spend their nights reading each other Pasternak—by heart! “Anywhere is heaven with the one you love!” “Until the first frosts,” I’d laugh. “You have no imagination,” my mother would reply, hurt. We were your typical Soviet family: For breakfast, it was always buckwheat or noodles with butter; we only had oranges once a year, on New Year’s Eve. I can still remember how they smelled. Not now, but back then . . . it was the smell of a different life, a beautiful life . . . Summer vacation meant a trip to the Black Sea. We’d go to Sochi as “savages”—without reservations—and all share a single nine-square-meter room. But we had something to be proud of, something we were very proud of: We were proud of our favorite books, which came from the underground, through some major connections. And the greatest joy of all: complimentary passes to premieres! My mother’s friend worked at the theater. The theater! The eternal topic of conversation in decent company . . . Today, they write about the Soviet Union being one big penal colony, a communist ghetto. A world ruled by cannibalism. I don’t remember anything scary . . . I remember that it was naïve, that world, very naïve and clumsy. I always knew that it wouldn’t be how I was going to live! I wanted none of it! They almost kicked me out of school for that. Oh! You know us . . . “Born in the USSR” is a diagnosis . . . You’re branded for life! We had home economics classes, for some reason the boys were taught how to drive while the girls had to learn how to make meat patties. I’d always burn those damn meat patties. One day, the teacher, who was also our class teacher, started lecturing me: “You don’t know how to do anything! How are you going to cook for your husband?” My snap reaction: “I’m not going to make anyone meat patties. I’m going to have a housekeeper.” It was 1987 . . . I was thirteen . . . What capitalism, what housekeeper?! Socialism was still in full swing! They called my parents in to the principal’s office, told me off at the general class assembly, then, at the council meeting of the school druzhina. (1)
They wanted to kick me out of the Young Pioneers. The Pioneers, the Komsomol—it was a huge deal. I even cried . . . Even though I’d never had any rhymes in my head, only formulas . . . never rhymes. When I was left home alone, I would put on my mother’s dress and heels and sit on the couch reading Anna Karenina. Society balls, servants, aiguillettes . . . romantic trysts . . . I liked everything up to the part when Anna throws herself under the train: What did she do that for? She was beautiful and rich . . . for love? Not even Tolstoy could convince me . . . I liked Western novels better because of the bitches in them, the beautiful bitches that men would shoot themselves over and suffer for. Fall at their feet. The last time I cried over unrequited love was when I was seventeen—I spent the whole night in the bathroom with the tap running. My mother consoled me with poems by Pasternak . . . I still remember, “Being a woman is a mighty feat, / To drive men mad— heroic.” I didn’t like my childhood or adolescence, I was always waiting for it to finally end. I pored over my textbooks and worked out at the gym. I was faster, taller, and stronger than everyone else! At home, they kept playing the same Okudzhava tapes: “Let’s take each other’s hands, friends . . .” Not me! That’s no dream of mine.
To Moscow . . . oh, Moscow! I’ve always seen her as a competitor, from the moment I got there, she inspired a sporting rage in me. My kind of town! The crazy pace gets you high! A city big enough to spread my wings in! I showed up with two hundred dollars and a few lousy rubles in my pocket. That was it. The roaring nineties . . . My parents hadn’t been paid in ages. We were so poor! Every day, Papa would repeat: “We need to be patient. Just wait and see. I trust Gaidar.” It took a long time for people like my parents to realize that capitalism had already begun in earnest. Russian capitalism, young and thick-skinned, the same beast that had been put down in 1917 . . . [She falls into thought.] Do they understand it today? It’s hard to say . . . There’s one thing I know for sure: Capitalism was not what my parents ordered. No two ways about it. It’s what I ordered, it’s made for people like me, who didn’t want to stay in the cage. The young and the strong. For us, capitalism was exciting . . . Adventures in enterprise, risk . . . It’s not just about money. The mighty dollar! Now I’ll reveal my secret: For me, capitalism, I mean modern capitalism, not Dreiser, is more interesting to read about than the gulag or Soviet shortages. The informants. Oh! Oh! Gosh, I’ve trod on the sacred. I wouldn’t dare breathe a word of this to my parents. My lips are sealed. How could I! My father remains a Soviet romantic. August 1991 . . .
The putsch! They started playing Swan Lake on TV that morning . . . Tanks filled Moscow like it was Africa. So my father and around seven other people, all of his friends, took off from work, heading straight to the capital. To support the revolution! I sat glued to the television . . . The image of Yeltsin on the tank stayed with me. The empire crumbled . . . so let it crumble . . . We waited for my father as though he were coming back from a war—and he returned a hero! This must have been his shining hour. After however many years, I realized that this was indeed the most important event of his life. Like my grandpa . . . His whole life, he kept telling the story of fighting the Germans at Stalingrad. After the fall of the empire, life grew boring for Papa, he’s lost all interest—he has nothing to live for anymore. Mostly, they’re disappointed . . . His generation . . . they feel like they were defeated twice over: The communist Idea was crushed and then, what happened afterward is beyond them, they don’t want to accept it. They wanted something different—if capitalism, then capitalism with a human face and a charming smile. This world isn’t for them. It’s an alien planet. But it is for me! It’s all mine! I’m happy that the only time I ever see Soviets is May 9, Victory Day . . . [She is silent.]
I hitchhiked to the capital—it was cheaper. The more I saw out the window, the more riled up I got. I already knew that I would never return from Moscow. Not for all the tea in China! To either side of the road there were markets . . . People selling tea sets, nails, dolls—back then, everyone was getting paid in goods. You could trade frying pans or irons for salami—meatpacking plants paid workers in salami—candy or sugar. There was a fat lady sitting next to a bus stop wearing a bandolier full of toys. It was like a cartoon! When I got to Moscow, it was pouring rain, but I went to Red Square anyway. I just had to see St. Basil’s Cathedral and the Kremlin walls—that power, that might, and here I am! In the very heart of it! I walked along limping. Shortly before I had left, I’d broken my little toe at the gym, but I was still in high heels and my very best dress. Of course, fate is just luck, the luck of the draw, but I also have good intuition and know what I want. The universe never grants you anything just because . . . for free . . . Here you go! And for you! You have to really want it. And I really did! All my mother brought me were little homemade pies, and then she’d tell me about how she and Papa were going to all the democratic rallies. The ration cards allotted each person two kilos of grain, one kilo of meat, and two hundred grams of butter a month. Lines, lines, lines; numbers scrawled on people’s palms. I don’t like the word “sovok”!
My parents aren’t sovoks, they’re romantics! Toddlers living adult lives. I don’t understand them, but I love them! I went through life alone, all on my own . . . It wasn’t a cakewalk . . . And I have good reason to love myself! Without any tutors or money or patronage I got into Moscow State University. The journalism department . . . In my first year, a boy from my class fell in love with me. He wanted to know: “Are you in love with me back?” My reply: “I’m in love with myself.” I did everything for myself. Myself! My classmates didn’t interest me, the lectures were boring. Soviet professors teaching Soviet textbooks. Meanwhile, non-Soviet life was roiling all around us at a fever pitch! The first used foreign cars appeared—awesome! The first McDonald’s on Pushkin Square . . . Polish make-up, the creepy rumor that it was intended for corpses. The first commercial on TV, for Turkish tea. Everything used to be gray, but here came the bright colors, the eyecatching billboards. You wanted it all! And you could have it all! You could be anyone you liked: a broker, a hitman, gay . . . Ah, the nineties! To me, they came as a blessing . . . an unforgettable time . . . The era of technocrats, bandits, and venture capitalists! Only the stuff stayed Soviet, the people had a new agenda . . . With some luck and a bit of elbow grease, you might end up with everything you’ve ever dreamed of. What Lenin? What Stalin? That’s all in the past, there’s an amazing new life ahead of you: You can see the whole world, live in a gorgeous apartment, drive around in a luxury car, eat elephant steak for dinner every night . . . Russia’s eyes darted in every direction . . . You could learn more on the streets and at parties, so I transferred to the distance-learning department and got a job at a newspaper. I started loving my life from the moment I got up in the morning.
I was looking up . . . to the top of the tall ladder of life . . . I never dreamed of being fucked in stairwells or saunas in exchange for expensive dinners. I had a lot of admirers . . . I didn’t pay any attention to my peers—we could be friends, go to the library together. It was unserious and safe. I preferred older, more successful men who had already made it. They were interesting, fun, and useful. But I attracted . . . [She laughs.] For a long time, I was pegged as a girl from a good family—from a house full of books, where the most important piece of furniture is the bookshelf. Only writers and artists ever paid any attention to me. The unrecognized genius type. But I wasn’t about to devote my life to some genius who’s only acknowledged after his death, gently doted on by his followers. On top of that, I was already sick of all of those conversations from constantly hearing them at home: communism, the meaning of life, the happiness of others . . . Solzhenitsyn and Sakharov . . . They weren’t my idols—they were my mother’s. The people who read books and dreamt of flying, like Chekhov’s seagull, were replaced by those who didn’t read but knew how to fly. The entire former repertoire of gentlemanly charms fell by the wayside: samizdat, whispered conversations in the kitchen. How shameful that our tanks had entered Prague! But look: Today, they’re in Moscow! Who are you going to impress with that now? Instead of your samizdat poems, show me a diamond ring, expensive labels . . . It was a revolution of desires! Wants!! I liked . . . and still prefer bureaucrats and businessmen. Their vocabulary inspires me: offshore accounts, kickbacks, barters. Internet marketing, creative strategies . . . At editorial meetings, my editor would tell us, “We need capitalists. We have to support Yeltsin and Gaidar’s initiative to create capitalists. Urgently!” I was young, beautiful . . . They’d send me out to interview these capitalists: How did they make their fortunes? How had they earned their first million? Could socialists become capitalists? I had to describe this phenomenon . . . For some reason, it was the number “one million” that sparked the imagination. To make a million! We had gotten used to the idea that Russians don’t want to be rich, they’re even afraid of it. So what do they want then? The answer is always the same: They don’t want anyone else to get rich. That is, richer than they are. The magenta sports coats, the gold chains . . . that’s all from films, TV shows . . . The people I met had steely logic and an iron grip on reality. They were systematic thinkers. All of them were learning English. Management. The academics and postgraduates were leaving the country . . . the physicists and lyricists too . . . But the new heroes, they didn’t want to go anywhere, they liked living in Russia. This was their time to shine! Their big chance! They wanted to be rich, they wanted it all. Everything!
And that’s when I met him . . . You could say that I loved him. This sounds like a confession, doesn’t it? [She laughs.] He was twenty years older than me, married with two sons. A jealous wife. He lived under a microscope . . . But we drove each other crazy, the ebb and flow was so strong . . . He told me that he started taking two sedatives in the morning so that he wouldn’t burst into tears at work. I also did crazy things, I would have jumped out of an airplane for him. It was all . . . it’s just how things are in the candy and flowers phase . . . before it starts mattering who’s lying to whom, who’s pursuing whom, and what anyone wants. I was very young, twenty-two . . . I would fall in love . . . and fall in love again . . . Now I see that love is also a kind of business, everyone is taking their own measure of risk. You have to be ready for new configurations—always! These days, few people go weak in the knees for love. Everyone saves their strength for the leap forward! For their career! In our smoking room, the girls gossip about their love lives, and if any of them has real feelings, everyone feels sorry for her—like, what an idiot, she’s head over heels. [She laughs.] Idiot! I was such a happy little idiot! He’d send his driver home, we’d catch a cab, and we’d roll around nighttime Moscow in some Moskvich that reeked of gasoline. Kissing and kissing. “Thank you,” he’d say. “You’ve made me a hundred years younger.” Flashes of episodes . . . flashes . . . I was stunned by his pace . . . the pressure . . . I’d get a phone call in the evening: “We’re going to Paris tomorrow morning,” or “Let’s swing by the Canary Islands. I have three days.” We’d fly first class, get a room in the most expensive hotel—the floor would be made of glass, and there would be fish swimming around under it. A real shark! But the thing I’ll remember as long as I live is the Moskvich reeking of gas, rolling aimlessly through the streets of Moscow. And how we’d kissed . . . like mad . . . He’d get a rainbow for me out of a fountain. I fell in love with him . . . [She is silent.] He was turning his life into a party. For himself . . . Yes, just for him! When I hit forty, maybe I’ll understand . . . One day, I’ll understand him . . . For instance, he never liked watches when they worked, he only liked them stopped. He had his own special relationship with time . . . Yep! Uhhuh . . . I love cats. I love them because they don’t cry, no one has ever seen their tears. People who see me on the street think that I’m rich and happy! I have everything: a big house, an expensive car, Italian furniture. And a daughter I adore. I have a housekeeper, I never make meat patties or do laundry, I can buy whatever my heart desires . . . Mountains of knickknacks! . . . But I live alone. And that’s how I like it! I am never as happy with anyone else as I am by myself. I love talking to myself . . . first and foremost about myself . . . I’m excellent company! What do I think? . . . What do I feel? . . . How did I see this yesterday and how do I see it today? I used to like the color blue, now I prefer lilac . . . So much happens inside each one of us. Inside. Within ourselves. There’s an entire cosmos in there. But we barely pay any attention to it. We’re all too busy with the surface, the external stuff . . . [She laughs.] Loneliness is freedom . . . Now, every day, I’m happy I’m free: Will he call or won’t he, will he come over or not? Is he going to dump me? Spare me! Those aren’t my problems anymore! So no, I’m not afraid of loneliness . . . What am I afraid of? I’m afraid of the dentist! [She suddenly loses control.] People always lie when they talk about love . . . and money . . . They’re always lying in so many different ways. I don’t want to lie . . . I just don’t! [She regains her composure.] Excuse me . . . please forgive me . . . I haven’t thought about any of this for a long time . . .
The plot? A tale as old as time . . . I wanted to have his baby, I got pregnant . . . Maybe it scared him? Men are such cowards! Whether they’re bums or oligarchs—makes no difference. They’ll go to war, start a revolution, but when it comes to love, they’re traitors. Women are stronger. “She’ll stop a galloping horse in its tracks, run into a burning building.”(2) According to the clichés of the genre . . . “But horses keep galloping and galloping. And buildings keep burning and burning.” . . . For the first time in my life, my mother gave me some sound advice: “Men stop developing at the age of fourteen.” I remember . . . It went like this . . . I broke the news to him before I was supposed to go on a business trip, they were sending me to the Donbass. I loved traveling for work, I loved the smell of railway stations and airports. It was always a pleasure to come back from a trip and tell him about it, discuss what I’d seen. Today, I realize that he not only showed me the world, amazed me, took me to mind-boggling boutiques, showering me with presents—he also helped teach me how to think. Not that he did this intentionally, it just happened on its own. From observing him, listening to him. Even when I thought we were going to stay together, it wasn’t that I was planning on permanently moving into someone’s abundant shadow and settling into a well-fed and glamorous life. You’ve got to be kidding! I had my own plans. I loved my job, I was quickly building a career. I traveled a lot . . . That particular trip was to a mining village. It’s a gruesome story, but probably typical for its time: At a mining enterprise, the best miners had been awarded stereos, they were given them as holiday presents. That night, the entire family of one of those miners was murdered. The killer didn’t take anything else—just the stereo. A plastic Panasonic! A box! In Moscow, there were luxury cars and supermarkets, but just beyond the Garden Ring, people marveled at the most basic stereo. The local “capitalists” that my editor had dreamed of walked around surrounded by men with machine guns. They wouldn’t even go to the bathroom without a bodyguard. So what if there’s a casino here and there. The rare privately owned little bistro. The nineties . . . that’s what they were like . . . The notorious nineties . . . I was gone for three days. When I got back, we saw each other. At first, he was excited—we’re going to have . . . we’re going to have a baby soon! He had two boys already, so he wanted a girl. But words . . . words . . . They don’t mean anything, people hide behind them to protect themselves. It’s the eyes! And in his eyes, I saw fear: Decisions had to be made, he’d have to change his life around. At that . . . he suddenly clammed up . . . There was a breakdown in communication. Oh! There are men who leave you right away, going off with their suitcases full of socks and shirts still damp from the wash. And then there are men like him . . . Coochie-coo, blah blah blah . . . “What do you want? Tell me what you want me to do,” he’d plead. “Just say the word and I’ll get a divorce. Just say the word.” I’d just look at him . . .
I’d look at him and my fingertips would go cold, I had started to realize that I could never be happy with him. I was young and stupid . . . Today, I would have flayed him like a hunter skins a wolf, I know how to be a predator and panther now. Sewed him up with a steel thread! Back then, I just suffered. Suffering is a dance; there’s bitterness, weeping, then acceptance. Like a ballet . . . There’s a secret to it, and it’s very simple: It’s unpleasant being unhappy . . . humiliating. I was at the hospital overnight for a check-up. In the morning, I called him to tell him to come pick me up, they were going to discharge me by lunchtime. With a sleepy voice, he told me, “I can’t. I can’t do it today.” And didn’t call me back. That day, he went on a ski trip to Italy with his sons. December 31 . . . New Year’s Eve. I called a cab . . . The city was blanketed in snow, I walked through the snowdrifts clutching my belly. Alone. Actually, no! The two of us walked together. My daughter and I. My little girl . . . My darling! I already loved her more than anyone else in the world! Did I love him? Like in a fairy tale: they lived happily ever after for a long, long time and then died on the same day. I was suffering, but I wasn’t like, “I can’t live without him. I’ll just die.” I haven’t yet met a man who has made me feel that way . . . So yes! Yes, yes, yes! But I learned to lose, I’m not afraid of losing . . . [She looks out the window.] I haven’t had any major relationships since then . . . a couple of flings . . . I’ll go to bed with someone pretty easily, but that’s not the same thing, that’s something else. I don’t like the smell of men—not the smell of sex, but the smell of men. In the bathroom, I can always tell if there’s been a man in there . . . even if he wears the most expensive cologne and smokes expensive cigarettes . . . I am filled with horror when I consider how hard you have to work to keep someone in your life. It’s like breaking rocks at a quarry! You have to forget about yourself, reject yourself, liberate yourself from yourself. There is no freedom in love. Even if you find your ideal partner, he’ll wear the wrong cologne, he’ll like fried meat and mock you for your little salads, leave his socks and pants all over the place. And you always have to suffer. Suffer?! For love . . . for that harmony . . . I don’t want to do that work anymore, it’s easier for me to rely on myself. It’s better to just be friends with men, have men as business partners. I rarely even feel like flirting, I’m too lazy to put on a mask and start playing a game. A trip to the spa, a French manicure, Italian hair extensions. Makeup. It’s like war paint . . . My God! Good Lord! Girls from Bumblejekistan . . . from all over Russia—to Moscow! To Moscow! Wealthy princes await! They dream of someone transforming them from Cinderellas into princesses. They expect nothing short of fairy tales! Miracles! I’ve been through that already . . . I understand the Cinderellas, and I feel bad for them. You know, there’s no heaven without a hell. Pure heaven . . . there’s no such thing. But they don’t know that yet . . . They’re blissfully unaware . . .
It’s been seven years since we broke up . . . He calls me sometimes— for some reason, it’s always at night. He’s not doing well, he’s lost a lot of money . . . says he’s unhappy . . . He was dating this one young girl, now he’s with another one. He asks to see me . . . What for? [She is silent.] I missed him for a long time, I’d turn off all the lights and spend hours sitting in the dark. I’d lose myself in time . . . [Silence.] And then . . . after him, it’s been just flings. But I . . . I’ll never be able to fall in love with a man from a dormitory town who doesn’t have any money. From a prefab ghetto, from Harlem. I hate people who grew up in poverty, their pauper’s mentality; money means so much to them, you can’t trust them. I don’t like the poor, the insulted and the humiliated. All those Bashmachkins and Opiskins (3) . . . the heroes of great Russian literature . . . I don’t trust them! So what? Does that mean that there’s something wrong with me . . . I don’t fit the stereotype? Just wait . . . nobody knows how this world really works . . . I don’t like men for their money, it’s never just for their money. When it comes to successful men, I like the whole package: the way they walk, the way they drive, the way they pursue you—everything about them is different. Everything! Those are the ones I go for. And that’s why . . . [She is silent.] He calls me up, says he’s unhappy . . . What hasn’t he seen, what can’t he buy? He and his friends . . . they’ve already made their fortunes. Big money. Crazy money! But all that money isn’t enough to buy happiness, that same love we were talking about. Love shmove. A poor student can have it but they can’t. There’s injustice for you! But they feel like there are no limits to what they can do: They fly their private jets anywhere they want just to see a football match; they’ll jet over to New York for the premiere of a musical. They can afford it all! Take the most beautiful model to bed, or bring a whole plane full of them to Courchevel! We all read Gorky in school, we know how the merchants party—breaking mirrors, lying face down in black caviar, bathing babes in champagne . . . But then they get sick of all that, it starts to bore them. Moscow travel agencies offer these kinds of clients special entertainments. For example, two days in prison. The advertisement even says, “Would you like to be Khodorkovsky for two days?” They pick them up in a police van with the bars in it and drive them to the city of Vladimir, to the most terrifying prison, Vladimir Central. Then they dress them up in prisoners’ uniforms, chase them around the yard with the dogs and beat them with rubber clubs. Real ones! Pack them like sardines into a filthy, reeking jail cell complete with a shit bucket. That’s what makes them happy—new sensations! Three to five thousand dollars will buy you a game of “bums”: Clients are changed into costumes, made up, and driven around the streets of Moscow, where they stand, begging for change. Although they always have bodyguards around the corner—their personal ones and the ones from the agency. There are even more titillating packages for the whole family: The wife plays a prostitute and the husband, her pimp. I know a story . . . One night, the modest, Sovietfaced wife of the richest gourmet food merchant in Moscow got the most clients out of anyone. He was so proud of her! Then there are the amusements that you won’t find in the brochures . . . Top secret stuff . . . You can arrange for a nighttime hunt for a human being. Some unlucky homeless guy is handed a thousand bucks—these dollars are yours to keep! He’s never seen that kind of money in his life! All you have to do is pretend to be an animal. If you make it out alive, that’s fate, and if they shoot you, no hard feelings, please! It’s all fair and square! You can rent a girl for a night . . . Let your imagination run wild, the darkest parts, things the Marquis de Sade never even dreamed of! Blood, tears, and semen!!! That’s what they call happiness . . . Happiness Russian-style, going to jail for two days so that you can get out and realize how good you have it. Awesome! To not only buy a car, a house, a yacht, and a seat in the Duma . . . But also a human life. To be, if not God, then a minor deity . . . An übermensch! Indeed—there you have it!!! Everyone was born in the USSR, everyone is still from over there. That’s their disorder. It was all so . . . that world was so naïve . . . They dreamed of creating a good man . . . They promised: “With an iron fist, we’ll chase humanity into happiness . . .” All the way to heaven on Earth.
I had this conversation with my mother . . . She wants to quit working at the school. “I’ll get a job as a coatroom attendant. Or a security guard.” She tells children about Solzhenitsyn . . . tries to teach them about heroes and righteous men . . . Her eyes burn with passion, but the children’s don’t anymore. My mother is used to children’s eyes lighting up at her words, but today’s children tell her, “We’re interested in how you used to live, but we don’t want to live like that. We don’t dream about performing great feats, we want to live well.” They’re reading Dead Souls by Gogol. The tale of a swindler . . . That’s what they taught us in school. Today, the children are a different breed: “What makes him so bad? Chichikov is like Mavrodi (4), he built a pyramid scheme up out of nothing. It’s a cool idea for a business!” For them, Chichikov is a positive character . . . [She is silent.] My mother is not going to help raise my daughter . . . I won’t let her. If she had her way, my child would only watch Soviet cartoons because they’re “humane.” But when the cartoon is over, you have to go out on the street, into a completely different world. “I’m so happy I’m old,” my mother confessed to me. “I can just stay home. In my fortress.” Before, she used to always want to be young, she’d do tomato juice masks, rinse her hair with chamomile . . .
When I was young, I liked to toy with my fate, to tempt it. Not anymore: I’ve had enough. My daughter is growing up, I need to think of her future. And that means money! I want to make it myself. I don’t want to ask anyone else for it, or take it from anyone. I have no desire for that! I quit the newspaper and went to work for an advertising agency, the pay is better. It’s good money. People are interested in the beautiful life, that’s the most important thing happening today. It’s what’s on everyone’s mind. Just turn on the TV: The political demonstrations . . . Even if tens of thousands of people are going to them, what the millions are doing is buying elegant Italian plumbing fixtures. No matter who you ask, everyone is renovating and fixing up their homes and apartments. Traveling. Russia has never been like this before. We’re not just advertising goods, we’re selling needs. We create new needs—we are the ones who teach people to live beautifully! We run this era . . . Advertising is the mirror of the Russian revolution . . . My life is stuffed to the gills. I’m not planning on getting married . . . I have friends and all of them are rich. One got fat on oil, another on mineral fertilizers . . . We meet up and talk. Always at an expensive restaurant: a marble hall, antique furniture, expensive paintings on the walls . . . Doormen that deport themselves like nineteenth-century Russian nobles. I love being surrounded by sumptuous decorations. One of my closest friends is also single, and he doesn’t want to get married, either. He likes being alone in his three-story house. He always says, “Sleep next to someone, but live alone.” By day, his head swells from the fluctuations in base metal prices on the London market. Copper, lead, nickel . . . He has three cellphones, they ring every thirty seconds. Works thirteen to fifteen hours a day. No weekends, no vacation. Happiness? What happiness? It’s a different world . . . Today, single people are the ones who are happy and successful, they’re not the weak ones or losers. They have everything: money, careers. Being alone is a choice. I want to keep moving forward. I’m a huntress, not docile prey. I am the one making this choice. Loneliness is a kind of happiness . . . That sounds kind of like a revelation, doesn’t it? [She is silent.] Really, it’s not you I wanted to tell all this to, it’s myself . . .
(1) A Voluntary People’s Druzhina is a civil police organization that had the right to perform citizen’s arrests for petty offenses such as hooliganism and drunkenness.
(2) A line from Nikolai Nekrasov’s 1863 poem “Red-Nosed Frost,” which has become a proverbial description of the Russian woman.
(3) The Insulted and Humiliated is a novel by Dostoevsky. Bashmachkin is the main character of Nikolay Gogol’s story “The Overcoat.” Opiskin is a protagonist in another novel by Dostoevsky, The Village of Stepanchikovo.
(4) Chichikov is the protagonist of Dead Souls. Sergey Mavrodi (1955–) is a businessman and former deputy of the State Duma famous for his massive, unapologetic pyramid schemes, successfully perpetrated in Russia, India, China, and South Africa.
From the book SECONDHAND TIME by Svetlana Alexievich, translated by Bela Shayevich
Originally published in Russian by Vremya Publishing House Copyright © 2013 by Svetlana Alexievich Translation Copyright © 2016 by Bela Shayevich
Published by Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC