The Crimson Pelican
by Vladimir Voinovich
Chapter 1: The Tick
So I went for a walk in the woods, picked some mushrooms. Came home, ate, slept, watched TV. In the evening, felt some kind of itch on the right side of my belly. Scratched it, forgot all about it, until the itch came back and gave me a reminder. Around midnight, just before bedtime, thought I’d take a look in the mirror. Oh no! There it was, a round spot about two inches wide, something like a tricolor red-orange-yellow target — and, right in the bull’s eye, a fat black dot. I looked closer, and what do you know: the dot was alive and moving its tiny legs. A tick!
Having heard a great deal about the trouble that can come from an encounter with this parasite — the morbid outcomes and the mortal dangers — I got on the Internet and quickly acquired a wealth of terrifying knowledge about tick-borne encephalitis and Lyme disease (also known as borreliosis, not to be confused with Berlioz the composer or the character in the Bulgakov novel). Everyone knows about those, but there’s a lot more: babesiosis, rickettsiosis, granulocytic anaplasmosis, monocytic ehrlichiosis, all sorts of other horrid stuff. However, I decided to focus on the first and worst two — did I mention encephalitis and Lyme disease? I scrolled down the list of symptoms: severe headache, vomiting, light sensitivity, fever up to 40 Celsius…and that’s just for starters. Other conditions on the way to the lethal finish line include delirium; hyperemia of the mouth, the whites of the eyes, and the epidermis; dyspeptic disorders; paresis and paralysis of the neck and the upper extremities; and drooping of the head.
I admit it: I’m a bit of a hypochondriac. Whenever I hear about any kind of medical symptoms, I immediately find myself to be afflicted. If someone says that I look unusually red in the face and wonders if it could be a sign of high blood pressure, that same blood pressure will instantly go up to the suggested level. Or down, if the suggestion is that it might be too low. Mention a flu epidemic when I’m around, and my body will promptly respond with coughing, sneezing, and fever. So at this point, if I did not notice any signs of hyperemia of the mouth and eyes or of dyspeptic disorders, it was only because I had no idea what those things meant. If I’d known, they would have showed up right on cue. But I did start to feel like the lights were too bright, and as for the drooping of the head, that happened at once. The moment I saw that nasty thing, down it went — my head, that is.
I didn’t waste any more time on delving into the symptoms and moved on to the instructions for getting rid of the unwanted guest. It sounded easy enough: press a cotton-ball soaked in vegetable oil to the affected area and keep it there for about fifteen minutes, until the parasite starts to choke and comes up for air. I did exactly that. Fifteen minutes passed, and it still didn’t come out. Thirty minutes, forty minutes — the tick stayed exactly where it was. Obviously a tough one. Maybe even some sort of endurance champion among its species, worthy of an entry in the Guinness Book of Records.
By the way, to give you at least a general idea of the chronology, let me explain that the saga of the tick ended just the other day, and began… Who the hell knows when it began! Back when we still had peace and quiet, when the country was preparing for the upcoming Olympics; when we were slowly unbending our creaky knees, keeping up friendly trading relations with hostile fraternal neighbors, and casually settling down in previously conquered territories. If I could only have foreseen what was to happen later, I probably wouldn’t have bothered writing about a mere insect. But back then, it was still a peaceful, uneventful, and therefore boring time when even edgy story ideas were scarce, and literature was withering away for want of plots. More than that: back then, life seemed so comfortable that there was no longer any need for anything resembling serious literature. What a misfortune to be happy all the time! And what a misfortune to be a writer living among happy people! Worse yet, to be a satirist. Had Saltykov-Shchedrin come back to life and lived among us for a while, it is entirely possible that he would have looked around, found nothing to interest him, and willingly returned to his own familiar world. I was suffering from the same shortage of worthy topics back in those days, and that’s why I decided to focus on that miserable tick — with the excuse that, despite its small size, it did cause me considerable alarm. All the more so since its invasion of my body was one of my few recent experiences of physical contact with the real world.
You see, when I was much younger, I used to lead quite an active life. I spent winters in the city and summers in the countryside; I traveled all over Russia, visited factories and collective farms, wandered in the Siberian taiga with a group of geologists, watched gold prospectors at work in the Kolyma, braved the Sea of Okhotsk in a leaky fishing vessel, made it all the way to Antarctica, and was generally reputed to be one of the foremost experts on Russian life. But then there came a time when I, as they say, lost touch with reality.
Age, laziness, poor health, declining energy, waning interest in travel, people, and geography — as well as diminishing material resources — turned me into a homebody.
Now, I stay at my country house the year round and only rarely make trips into town, when absolutely necessary. I have virtually no contact with anyone except my wife, our housekeeper Shura, and occasionally one of the neighbors when I go out to walk the dog. Time was, I used to believe I’d accumulated enough experiences and impressions to last a lifetime of writing — but apparently, I had accumulated less than I thought and lived longer than I’d planned. And so there came a day when I, who had always kept hundreds of story ideas in my head, suddenly realized I had nothing to write about. I’m holed up in my house all the time; I don’t even go shopping, I have no clue how much things cost. The hundreds of human interest stories I once knew have slipped away, the multitudes of impressions have faded. And where do the new ones come from? Why, from television! During the day, I’m busy with whatever work I can manage; but in the evening I sit down in front of the “box,” and that’s where I get all my fresh knowledge. As does my highly educated wife, and my housekeeper who never made it through seventh grade. We know all about Galkin, Pugacheva, Kirkorov, Malakhov, Bezrukov, Khabensky, and other TV hosts, singers, soap stars, tycoons and their wives and mistresses. Who got married, who got divorced, who bought a villa on the Cote D’Azur, who got busted for especially grand larceny. As for real life — I know nothing about it, and neither does anyone else. In bygone days, old women sitting on benches in front of apartment buildings were a ubiquitous part of the urban landscape. They spent their days watching people come and go and discussing their neighbors: what they’re buying and what they’re wearing, which one drinks and beats his wife, which one has a lover coming over when her husband’s away on business. Nowadays, it feels like no one actually has a life anymore: we’re all glued to the “box,” following the characters from our favorite shows. We envy their successes, we sympathize with their failures, we get more emotional about them than we do about ourselves. And I, too, spend my evenings staring stupidly into the box like most of my fellow citizens. I live in that box — and would still be living there if it weren’t for that damned tick.
At half past one, I woke up Varvara, my wife, and asked for help. Here, I said; help me, get this thing out. Of course, she had never done anything like that in her entire life — hadn’t even seen anything like it in Dr. Golysheva’s medical program on TV. She picked up the pincers and put on her glasses, and the way her hands were shaking you’d think she was about to perform major surgery, not remove a tiny little insect. Mind you, not only does she have no medical training, she actually faints at the sight of a drop of blood drawn from her finger for a test. So, she poked and poked at the creature with the pincers, and then I poked at it myself, and still it stayed exactly where it was — though I do hope that we at least caused it some discomfort. Kind of like the joke where the old woman asks some fellows to slaughter her pig and they come back to report that they didn’t manage to kill it, but at least they gave it a good beating.
Then, we got Shura out of bed. Talk about hopeless! She took one look and held up her hands. “No no no!”
I asked her, “No no no what?”
“I’m a-scared of it.”
“Of that.” And she motions with her eyes, still holding up her hands.
“What’s there to be scared of?” I say to her. “You lived in a village, you probably used to cut the heads off chickens…”
“Chickens, for sure.” She nods in agreement. “But this — this ain’t no chicken, it’s…”
She still can’t quite formulate what “this” is, but it’s clearly something horrible.
Fedor, who’d been sleeping on a rug in the hallway, woke up next and padded into the room, yawning broadly and shaking his shaggy head. He looked us over, trying to figure out what had caused such a late-night commotion; then gave up, jumped up on the sofa, stretched out, put his head down on his front paws and waited to see what would happen. Fedor is our Airedale terrier who recently had his sixth birthday.
Taking over from the women, I picked up the pincers myself — but all I did with my clumsy efforts was push the insect even deeper under my skin. While I was laboring, Varvara mustered the courage to pick up the telephone and rouse a doctor friend of ours from his sleep. He told her, yawning into the phone, that since we hadn’t gotten the tick out right away we could only trust the rest to the specialists. Because if a non-specialist leaves even a small piece of that nasty thing in me, it could have all sorts of unfortunate consequences, like the ones I mentioned above.
Now, all of this happened in the early morning hours on Sunday. Just our luck: whenever anything bad happens to Varvara and me, it’s always in the early morning hours on Sunday, when no one is working anywhere and all the doctors we know turn off their cell phones and get drunk. Internists drink the ethyl alcohol they smuggle from work, surgeons the French cognac they get as a gift from patients. Varvara said we should call an ambulance. I tried to argue but then agreed in theory — thinking that an ambulance wouldn’t come over for a tick bite anyway, but we might get some helpful advice over the phone. Usually, from what I’ve heard, they’ll ask you a hundred questions, relevant and not, before they dispatch an ambulance. Does it hurt? Where? How badly? Are your feet cold? Are your hands blue? And how old are you — meaning, maybe you’ve lived long enough as it is and sending an ambulance for you would be a waste of gas, especially when the state is already spending way too much on old-age pensions?
[An ambulance arrives, bringing over a paramedic named Zinulya — who believes that Americans use adopted Russian children for body parts and scatter infected ticks over Russian forests from satellites — and a cynical driver named Pasha. After making some calls, Zinulya informs the narrator, Petr Smorodin, that he needs to go to a Moscow clinic. During the long drive, things turn increasingly strange, between conversations in which Zinulya hints at shocking truths about the country’s leader — Suprex, or Supreme Executive — and dreams that merge with reality.]
Chapter 16: Ivan Ivanovich
I woke up and saw Varvara leaning over me.
“You didn’t bang your head, did you?” she asked worriedly.
“Don’t think so,” I said. “Why would I bang my head?”
“Shit, Pashka hits the brakes way too hard,” chimed in Zinulya. “Good thing you’re strapped in.”
“Well shit, what else am I supposed to do when the tire…” Pasha used the opposite of a euphemism to convey that the tire was flat and then added as he got out of the cabin, “’Least it’s the front right wheel; shit, if it was the front left, car could have skidded across the center line and then we’d all be…” — done for, he meant to say.
I followed him out of the car and kicked at the tire.
“Yep,” I said, “it’s a flat. Where’s your spare?”
“My spare? Well shit,” Pasha spat out. “Sitting at the warehouse, that’s where it is.”
“Meaning what? Meaning I haven’t got a spare, they didn’t give me one.” And he added a few more words with which I couldn’t help but agree. Just then, a pleasant young man with a felonious look about him appeared before us, sporting a braid and blue overalls with an oil stain on the chest. He was carrying a jack.
“All right, chief,” he said, “got a flat?”
“Got a flat,” Pasha grumbled.
“Sure enough, it happens. Happens to everyone in this spot. Give me the spare and half a grand, we’ll fix it right away.”
“Haven’t got a spare,” Pasha said glumly. “Haven’t got half a grand either, and it’s two more days till payday.”
“I knew it!” The man with the braid sounded annoyed and disappointed. “What are you people thinking when you get on the road?”
“Look who’s talking,” Pasha said. “What are you thinking? You can see it’s a government car, and you still go putting nails under the wheels.”
“It’s not nails, it’s spikes,” the young man corrected him. “Sure, it’s not a nice thing to do, but I’ve got a family to feed. So I’m working here, helping folks change tires on their cars. For government transport, there’s state road assistance.”
“Somebody ought to give you a good whack on the head.”
“Don’t even think about it,” the tire-spiker warned benignly. “I’m not working here on my own, you know. We’ve got a whole team — a mob-style workers’ collective, so to speak.” He motioned toward his partner, who stood by the street lamp holding a crowbar, and then headed across the street to offer more flat-tire service to drivers going the other way. His partner trudged after him. Pasha expressed some strong opinions regarding all tire-spikers, unprintably but without extending his critique to the government, and then went back to his seat, picked up his mobile phone and started calling the road assistance service to ask for a spare tire.
Meanwhile, I took advantage of this unexpected break to stretch my legs and get some fresh air.
The asphalt, wet from recent rain, reflected the lights of street lamps in puddles of melted yellow butter. The lights of cars that sped by were reflected in stripes that stretched out, shrank and vanished in an instant. The weather was unexpectedly warm for that time of the year and the night. I unbuttoned my jacket and strolled back and forth along the sidewalk, hands behind my back. When I was making my second trip forth, someone called out my name. I turned my head and saw a shortish man getting out of a black Mercedes. He wore a gray coat with a black velvet collar and a felt bowler hat with a curved brim — the kind of headgear that I believe they used to wear in the nineteenth century.
“Good evening,” said the man and extended his small, sweaty (or so I thought, for some reason) hand, with a wedding band on the ring finger. Before returning the gesture, I took a closer look at the man before me. He was of indeterminate age and cucumber-like shape, with a face that did not have a single distinctive feature — though that was precisely why it seemed very familiar.
“I don’t believe I have the honor,” I said coldly, rejecting the proffered handshake.
“Come now, my good sir!” said the owner of the bowler hat, apparently imitating some literary character from the distant past when such headwear was in fashion. He lowered his hand very slowly, probably hoping that if I changed my mind he would not have to expend much effort on raising it again. “You and I have indeed met. And even had quite an extensive conversation, you might say.”
“We’ve met?” I peered at him even closer and then exclaimed, without joy but certainly with surprise, “Ivan Ivanovich!”
“The very one.” Ivan Ivanovich grinned smugly but decided not to risk extending his hand again.
Meanwhile, I looked at him and wondered why I hadn’t recognized him right away. Of course his face was in no way memorable; but, believe it or not, it was precisely this absolute lack of any memorable qualities that made one remember it. By now I had recognized him, of course. It was the very same Ivan Ivanovich… of course, Ivan Ivanovich wasn’t his real name. Whoever made it up hadn’t made much of an effort — not that the task called for any real effort. Back then, and probably today as well, they all went by Ivan Ivanovich, Petr Petrovich, or Vladimir Vladimirovich, the easier for us to remember and for them to keep straight. And so, this was the same Ivan Ivanovich who questioned me in a stuffy office on a hot summer day in a year long gone by. Well, not exactly questioned — just asked me some questions (officially, it was not an interrogation but a prophylactic chat) about why I was writing what such, in his opinion, decadent texts. Somehow, he told me, life in your stories always seems so depressing and unromantic; your heroes have no wings. Yet in reality…. And then he educated me about our achievements, our military might and our conquests in space, offered to help me gain a more optimistic outlook on life, and threatened regrettable consequences if I rejected his help or told anyone about our conversation.
“But I beg your pardon,” I said, “when we met, it was barely past the midpoint of the last century, and back then I thought you were at least in your fifties.”
“You have an excellent memory!” he complimented. “I was, in fact, just over fifty. And I still am, more or less.”
“But how can that be?”
“Just like that.” He spread his short arms slightly. “You’re a wise man after all, and you take such an interest in people of my profession; surely you could have noticed a long time ago that we — how shall I put it — don’t age, we just change with the times. And that is why, as they say, you folk come and go while we stay. We can’t help it: it’s the kind of job that doesn’t let you quit. We’re much too busy to get old — and there’s no reason we should, my good sir. But enough about me; let’s talk about you. Where are you headed, if it’s not a secret?”
I willingly told him that I was going to the Sklifosovsky Institute, that I had no secrets and no antigovernment thoughts in my head (that was a lie, of course), because at the moment I had other things to worry about.
“What’s wrong?” He bought it and was clearly startled by my lack of antigovernment thoughts, admittedly something of an unusual condition for me.
I told him about the tick.
“Aha, so that’s it! At last you noticed. Surely you must realize that this tick has been stuck inside you for a very long time. Why are you staring at me? Isn’t it the truth?”
“No, it isn’t,” I said. “You’re talking about a symbolic tick. I’m telling you about a real one, an insect that bit me here on the belly and got under my skin, not in a symbolic way but in a very physical one.”
“Oh, that’s nothing,” he said with a hand-wave. “The nurse will get it out in a few seconds. But the other tick, the one you’ve got up here…” He tapped his forehead. “Even we can’t do anything about that one. Well, we can, but it doesn’t always work.”
“You have my sympathy,” I said. “On the other hand, if people like me didn’t exist, you would all be out of a job.”
“That is true,” he sighed. “But actually, I observe and reflect on things for the sake of pure knowledge, not for personal advantage. You know, you folk, all the way back to the narodniks, keep criticizing the state and worrying about the people — but the people aren’t asking you to do that.”
“They aren’t asking because they don’t understand what’s good for them.”
“Of course they do,” retorted my old acquaintance. “They understand it much better than you do. What’s good for them is that everything should stay as before, as it has been since ancient times. The people know that this is how the world runs: there’s them and there’s the masters, or the authorities — those who do the hard work of thinking for the people and governing them. Telling them how to live, how to feed themselves, how to die. The people are entirely satisfied with such a division of labor. Yet there you are, since forever, trying to forcibly drag the people toward something they don’t understand — which is why the people are always willing to hand you over to us. Remember how the narodniks went into the villages and taught the peasants literacy so they’d be able to read proclamations — and then the peasants turned them in to the police? That’s how it was, that’s how it is now. Starting with Radishchev, in just over two hundred years, thousands of brave souls who fought for the so-called happiness of the people have perished — laid down their lives, as the saying goes, for less than a pinch of tobacco, and the people never even noticed. So tell me, are all your efforts worth such a price? Far better to think of yourself. What more could you really ask for? Right now, you personally have everything you need. Your books get published; of course, if it were up to me, I’d still cut a few chapters and ask you to rewrite a few things, but we don’t do that sort of thing nowadays. As for the people — in case you haven’t noticed, they’re fed, clothed, and satisfied with the government. They’re always satisfied, or at least the government can persuade them that they are. You keep shouting that the people live in misery, but they don’t; they just live modestly, the way they’re accustomed to living. Bread, potatoes, a nice pickled cucumber, a bottle of vodka on payday, and they don’t care about anything else — just as long as there’s no war.”
“That’s just it,” I said, “as long as there’s no war. But you can’t do without war. You’ve been waging war on your own people for a hundred years, and as soon as you get an opportunity — or think you’ve got one — you start poking your nose in our neighbors’ affairs, trying to put their house in order. Why do you have to go barging in? What’s your business there?”
“Why,” he said, “we’re simply restoring historical justice. We’re uniting the entire Russian world, and we’re going to unite it whether you like it or not.”
“You’re going to unite the Russian world? What for?” I asked, leaving him stumped.
“What for? What for? What for?” He repeated my question three times while pondering his rebuttal. “What do you mean, what for?” he asked a fourth time, then replied with a question of his own: “What about the fact that we’re the most scattered nation in the world, and that twenty-five million Russians have to live outside Russia’s borders? That doesn’t bother you?”
“Why should it bother me when I live inside those borders? Anyway, if you’re so concerned about the fate of these twenty-five million, invite them here! It’s a lot cheaper than grabbing them with the lands where they live. We’re a big country,” I added, “and a sparsely populated one. We could easily settle fifty million, and people would barely notice. So go ahead, invite them.”
Ivan Ivanovich was somewhat flustered, and his face darkened.
“We already have.”
He scowled and said grudgingly, “They won’t come, the bastards. We promise them everything. New housing, guaranteed jobs. But they’re still scared we’ll deceive them.”
“So? They have good reasons to be scared! You promised us communism and built us a Gulag. Of course your scattered Russians are afraid you’ll build them the same thing all over again.”
“Nonsense,” he said. “The Gulag is in the distant past, no need to keep bringing it up. That time is over, and now you’re doing just fine. Your books are getting published, the money’s coming in — go ahead and live life to the fullest. Go to the seaside, swim, sunbathe on the beach, read, enjoy nature; you could even take up drawing or photography. Those are safe hobbies. Remember, life is short and irretrievable, so try to get what you can out of it and love it as it is. Because if you don’t come to your senses, then…”
“You’ll send me to prison?”
“No,” he winced, “the last thing we’d want to do is send you to prison. Imprisoning you would be stupid and, as clever people say, counterproductive. Of course we could do it if the occasion is right, but think of all the noise! However, there are all sorts of other ways to — how shall I put it — get rid of a bothersome person. Radical, entirely quiet, suspect but unprovable.”
“Yes, I mean exactly what you think I mean. Anyone could have a heart attack or a stroke. Or drown, or die in a car crash … or, if it comes to that” — a lewd smile played across his face — “that little tick of yours could still turn out to be a carrier of encephalitis. But for now, I wish you good health. Speaking of which, I think the help you’re waiting for is here.”
And indeed, an orange minivan with the words ROAD ASSISTANCE on its side had pulled up.
“We shall meet again,” said Ivan Ivanovich and jerked his right hand, apparently about to extend it to me. Then he recovered, stayed his hand and got back in his Mercedes.
Meanwhile, two athletic-looking young men jumped out of the roadside assistance van. They wore brand-new bright blue coveralls, with the names “Vasily” and “Nikifor” embroidered in yellow thread, and off-white mesh gloves. Without any superfluous talk, they promptly removed the wheel, took it apart, vulcanized the tire, put the wheel back together and back in place, and looked meaningfully at Pasha but quickly realized they wouldn’t get anything out of him.
“Oh well, never mind,” Vasily said.
Nikifor offered some advice. “Take any road you want, old man, but look where you’re going. And stay away from the Kreshchatik — it’s all blocked. The Ukros are raising hell on the Maidan, setting tire covers on fire.”
The two guys drove away while I tried to make sense of what they’d just said. What was that about the Kreshchatik and the Maidan? As far as I could remember, both of those were in another country and another city — and although the highway we were on was named after that city, we were approaching the Moscow Auto Road, not a that-other-city auto road. “This is crazy,” I said to myself; but, just in case, I told Pasha to play it safe and go via the Borovsk and Minsk highways to the Mozhaisk Highway, which will definitely not take you to that city where they’ve got the Maidan.
Chapter 20: We and the Greenies
[“Akusha” is a close friend of the narrator’s who appears in an earlier chapter.]
“You know, old man,” Akusha says once in a while, “you and I need to either change our way of thinking, or get the hell out of here before it’s too late.”
Getting the hell out was a popular idea in the 1970s; it’s even more common today. Back then, there was still some hope that the existing regime would collapse and something good would come in its place. What came, however, was chaos. Out of that chaos quickly hatched whatever the hell we have now, entrenched for God only knows how long. And now, once again, it’s either fight or get the hell out. But for some reason leaving doesn’t appeal to me, and fighting appeals even less. Especially since I’m not sure who I’d be fighting against, or what for. In the old days, idealists used to fight for the people’s happiness in the hope that someday, the people would understand and appreciate them. Back then, it was customary to love and respect the people. The general belief was that the people were wise and would figure things out in time. In time, it became obvious that the people were just a large mass of men and women most of whom were not very smart and would never figure anything out. At best, they would entrust the figuring-out to a few clever people who mainly employ their cleverness for the purpose of fooling the people. No one really knows the people, and the people themselves don’t know what they are or what they want. They can be encouraged toward something good, but the easiest thing of all is to coax them en masse toward something bad — anything bad at all.
A wise American once said that you can fool all the people some of the time and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time. He was wrong. Our experience shows that if you fool all the people, you actually can do it all the time. You could feel sorry for those who are fooled; but, having fooled themselves, they will readily treat anyone who refuses to be fooled like the enemy. If you don’t buy the lies that are being sold to the people, you have a choice: (1) openly say that you don’t believe the lies, and thus incur the wrath of the state and maybe the people as well, or (2) pretend to believe everything and tell your own lies — and keep pretending until you become just as much of a genuine liar as the ones who lied to you in the first place. The songwriter Okudzhava once wrote, “Being a fool is practical, but who wants to be one? Being smart is good — but it will end in a beating…” However, I don’t think that’s true. I’ve known people who wanted to be dumb but didn’t always manage to pull it off because they weren’t smart enough. The really smart people were those who could hide their smarts so well, they actually did look dumb. Except that sometimes, they did such a good job of playing dumb, they eventually became dumb for real.
“You know,” said Zinulya, “sometimes I wake up in the morning thinking: Zinka, can you believe how lucky you are to have been born in Russia, the best country in the world, and not anyplace else! Do you agree with me?”
“Have you been to any other countries?”
“I’ve been to Turkey and Bulgaria.”
“And that’s it?”
“That’s enough for me. Nothing good there, anyway. But here — just think of all those vast, beautiful open spaces! The fields, the forests, the rivers, the lakes! No other country is so blessed, with such nature or such people. Do you agree with me?”
“Sure I do,” I said. “But there was once a man who thought otherwise. He said, ‘What a dirty trick the devil played on me, to have wit and talent and to be born in Russia!’”
“And who was this moron?”
“Then I’m sorry,” Zinulya said simply, and I went back to sleep.
And then I dreamed that I was Pushkin, sitting at my computer and writing about a tick. Suddenly, Pushchin shows up and says, “Sasha, old boy!”
“What’s up?” I say.
“Did you hear?” he says. “We took us an island.”
“A big one.”
“There’s none bigger.”
Then I woke up and there was no Pushchin; I was in the car, the car was standing still, and Zinulya was dancing, clapping her hands and shouting to the beat of her dance, “Greenisours! Greenisours! Greenisours!” And Pasha, too, was shouting, “Greenisours!” and honking his horn in unison. I wondered what it could possibly mean. “Green hours”? Something about the environment? No, it was definitely “Green is ours.” I looked from her to him and back, then looked at Varvara, who was also watching them in bemusement; when she met my eyes, she shrugged and gestured to indicate that she had nothing to do with this wild merriment. Meanwhile, the other two kept up their crazy antics, still shouting, “Greenisours” — until Zinulya noticed that I was awake and dashed toward me.
“Petr Ilyich! Congratulations!” she cried. She hugged me tightly and, undeterred by Varvara’s presence, gave me a full kiss on the lips — with such passion that, had I been a slightly younger man…oh my, I can’t even tell you how I would have reacted. But at the moment I simply stared at her, astonished and utterly confused.
“What is it?” I asked. “Congratulations on what? Another flat tire?”
“Forget about the tires, Petr Ilyich!” Zinulya shouted. “All four of them can go flat for all I care! Greenland is ours!”
“Greenland,” she said. “You know the island, right?”
“I’ve heard of it,” I said. “I remember from my geography class. The world’s biggest island, belongs to the Kingdom of Denmark…”
“Used to belong. Now it’s a part of Russia.”
“Am I delirious again?” I asked. “Is this a symptom of encephalitis or Lyme disease?”
“Sure,” Varvara confirmed. “The whole country has encephalitis and brain fever.”
“Maybe it does,” agreed Zinulya, “but Greenland is ours.”
And then she and Pasha, talking over each other and almost babbling, started telling me about the squadron of “polite little men” in green: apparently, while I was asleep, they landed in Greenland and organized a flash mob to defend the island from the fascist Danish clique which had been planning a genocide of the Greenlanders — or, as we affectionately call them, “Greenies.” Since Greenland is a large island, no one had ever had any intention of either attacking or defending it, and the little green men seized it without a single shot. As soon as this happened, all the Greenies flocked to their main square — not to resist but to get a look at their brave Russian liberators, since they had never seen any liberators before. Meanwhile, the liberators informed the Greenies that their island was henceforth a sacred and indivisible territory of the Russian Federation, and they were all Russian citizens from here on. At that point, the Greenies balked and started asking the liberators some inappropriate questions in their local dialect; but once they were assured that they’d get a big hike in pensions and salaries, they immediately voted “Yes” — failing to realize the hike would be in rubles — and, all at once, started speaking Russian.
After hearing this news, I turned on my iPad, got on the Internet, and found yet another broadcast hosted by Vladlen Indyushkin — featuring the same lineup of Semigudilov, Ponosov, and Vladik Kokteilev, as well two Greenies who had fled Greenland and one pro-Russian Dane, or Den as we call them. From them, I learned all the details. It turns out that the Greenies had been suffering for years because their Dennish oppressors forbade them to speak Russian, a language they loved dearly despite not knowing a single word of it. Kokteilev argued for the irrefutable historical fact that the Greenies were Russians just like us, except that they spoke a different language. To this, Ponosov replied that the Dens themselves were also Russian, and as soon as we liberated them from themselves they too would speak Russian and be happy. Then everyone clasped hands in a circle, with the studio audience joining in, and began to whirl in a round dance, chanting loudly, “We and the Greenies are one people! We and the Greenies are one people!”
The jubilation started in our car as well. Zinulya and Pasha clasped hands; to my surprise, Varvara joined them too, and they started spinning inside the ambulance, repeating, “We and the Greenies are one people!” At first I gaped at them as if they’d gone crazy, but then I too was swept up in the joyous mood. And, forgetting where I was going and why, I wedged myself into their circle between Varvara and Pasha and began to shout, “We and the Greenies are one people!” Together with them, I tumbled out of the car and found myself in a crowd of jubilant fellow citizens who had formed a torchlight parade, or more of a boisterous carnival procession with torches. Thousands of people were walking somewhere, the stream of humanity flowing around our ambulance. They pranced and sang merry songs as they moved forward, while banners with portraits of their beloved Suprex and slogans, “We and the Greenies are one people!”, flew over their heads. I too walked with them and rejoiced that we were one with the Greenies and the Dens. Then it suddenly occurred to me that we were one with every nation in the world, and that other nations which refused to recognized their oneness with us were separated from us by just one flaw: their inability to speak Russian. All our problems would be solved if they only stopped being so stubborn and learned Russian — especially since Russian is a lot easier to understand than any other language. As proof, consider the fact that we’ve got a hundred and forty million people in this country, and almost all of them, even the dumbest, master it quite easily.
This thought seemed important enough to make a note of it; but I was feeling very drowsy, and once again I drifted off, hoping that I wouldn’t forget what I’d seen by the time I awoke. But I could hardly forget it: even in my sleep, I dreamed of Greenland and its people who were rejoicing in anticipation of high Russian retirement pensions. As I dreamed on, I continued to rejoice with them, but at the same time I felt a nagging worry: What are we going to do with this territory? Invite tourists? Slaughter walruses? Import snow for the ski lanes in Sochi? Then I woke up as the car braked abruptly once again. I was pressed against the back of the seat, and I felt as if the motion had caused the tick to burrow even deeper into my flesh.
“Well?” I said. “What else is ours now? New Zealand?”
Zinulya gave a start. “New Zealand? What are you talking about?”
“Well, if we’ve taken Greenland…”
“Greenland? Us? Petr Ilyich, what are you saying?”
“What’s wrong with what I said? We’ve taken Greenland, haven’t we?”
“How could we possibly take Greenland? Do you even realize where Greenland is and where we are?”
I was lost in thought and stayed there a minute or two, or even more. Then I snapped out of it and asked, “So, you’re telling me we haven’t actually taken anything?”
“Well, that’s a bit extreme. Why does it have to be it either Greenland or nothing at all? No, we haven’t taken Greenland and we never had any intention of taking it, because it’s huge, cold and covered with ice, and no one really wants it — not even the Greenlanders themselves. But we did take Crimea.”
“Crimea?” I repeated.
“Yes, Crimea. It’s not as large as Greenland, but it’s warm, it’s got the Black Sea, it’s got Yalta, Alupka, Alushta and other nice things. It’s got beaches, palms, and cypresses. Greenland, he says!”
“He just got them mixed up,” Varvara said in my defense.
“Strange,” remarked Zinulya. “How could you get Greenland and Crimea mixed up? Petr Ilyich!” she yelled suddenly in my ear, startling me. “We’ve got a little business!”
“You don’t need to shout, I’m not deaf. What kind of business?”
“There’s a man here that needs a ride. You don’t mind, do you?”
“What, he’s got a tick too?”
“No, he’s got a gun. He needs a ride to the Kursk Train Station, it’s practically on our way. Can we take him along?”
“Take him along? What do you mean?” I asked, somewhat shocked. “This is an ambulance. You’re taking a sick man to the hospital.”
“Well, you’re not that sick,” Zinulya said judiciously. “And it’s practically on our way, anyhow. We’ll just make a small detour — do you really have a problem with that?”
“It’s not about whether I have a problem with it or not. This is an ambulance, it’s not there to pick up random people and take them to random places. You’re supposed to get me to the hospital. We’re losing time while my life can still be saved.”
“Oh come on, what are you so worried about? Encephalitis has a seven-day incubation period. We’ll definitely get you there in seven days, one way or the other.”
I ignored the gibe about seven days but still grumbled that an ambulance really shouldn’t double as a car service.
Zinulya didn’t dispute that. “You’re right, it shouldn’t. But if you knew how much we get paid, you’d be amazed that we still bother with sick people at all. Anyway, we’ll just make a small detour, and Pavlik will make a bit of extra money and buy me a chocolate bar.”
[More adventures follow, including an encounter with another “Ivan Ivanovich” and his American counterpart, “Johnson and Johnson.” In the meantime, Zinulya wakes Smorodin from one of his dream visions to convey the alarming news that Suprex has gone missing — and then wakes him again to announce that he’s been found.]
Chapter 29: The Traffic Jam and the Crimson Pelican
When I asked how she knew he’d been found, she motioned her eyes toward the huge column of cars whose tail stretched far beyond the Moscow Auto Ring Road. “See the traffic jam? That’s a sign.”
I tried to argue. “But a traffic jam could happen for all sorts of reasons.”
“This kind of traffic jam can only happen for one reason.”
Her words were confirmed by a traffic cop who came up. He said traffic was being held for the expected passage of Suprex.
“So what are we supposed to do?” Pasha asked, disconcerted. “I’ve got a patient, he’s got a tick…”
“I don’t care if he’s got a dick,” said the cop, showing a propensity for rhyming. Then he added, “You suffered while he was gone, didn’t you? Well, now you can suffer in traffic jams.”
“So where was he, anyway?” I asked, curious.
“In his secret love nest,” Varvara suggested. “With Lenka Makayeva, the ballerina.”
“Come on,” scoffed Pasha. “On a drinking binge, most likely.”
“You’re all talking nonsense,” responded Ivan Ivanovich.
It turned out I hadn’t dreamed him after all; there he was, quite real, real enough to touch, huddled in a corner of the back seat and smoking into the partially open window.
“Nonsense,” he repeated. “Our Suprex doesn’t drink, smoke, or shoot up, and he’s definitely not interested in any ballerinas, or any other people. He believes that human beings are the most destructive of pests from an ecological standpoint. You know how there are various noxious pests in the natural world: locusts, Colorado beetles, bark beetles, and so on. But nature has no creature more noxious than humans. Humans cut down forests, drain rivers, poison the seas, pollute nature with nuclear waste; they’ve torn a hole in the ozone layer and put the planet at risk of either ruinous global warming or a new Ice Age; they ruthlessly destroy the animal kingdom. Of course Suprex can’t just sit there and remain indifferent. So he is busy saving nature from humanity itself and teaching survival skills to tigers, leopards, whales, boas, sea lions and other endangered species. He trains tigers to hunt, dolphins to swim, wild geese to fly, and now…” He paused. “Now I am about to tell you something very big — a state secret of the utmost importance. Top secret, as our American partners say.”
I perked up. “Sounds fascinating!”
“Oh, it’s fascinating all right,” said Ivan Ivanovich. “But first you have to sign a non-disclosure agreement.”
I had never signed any such agreements in my life and had always steered clear of state secrets. You learn a secret, sign an agreement, and then suddenly you can’t travel abroad, can’t talk to foreigners, can’t even confide in your wife — and I had promised her, even before the trip to the registry, that I would never have any secrets from her. One time, I got an offer to cooperate with a certain secret agency in exchange for the publication of my complete works and a special food package every Thursday. I can’t, I told them, because I promised my wife I will never keep anything from her. What’s the big deal? they replied. We all hide something from our wives. To this, I had vehement objections. It’s no big deal for you, I said, because for you the interests of the state come first. For me, it’s my wife. That’s what I told them back then, and they left me alone. But this time, I was seized with such curiosity that I agreed at once — especially since my wife was right there next to me.
“Well, then,” said Ivan Ivanovich, having collected our signatures and put them away in the left pocket of his camouflage jacket. “I can tell you confidentially that Suprex is saving all animals from extermination and extinction, but at present his top priority is the crimson pelican.”
I was skeptical. “Is there really such a bird?”
“They’re pink when they’re very young, but as they grow they turn a bright crimson. It’s a nearly extinct species, listed in the Red Book. They don’t nest in this country, and hardly ever reproduce in captivity. But the Swan Islands off the western coast of the Crimea, in the Karkinit Bay of the Black Sea, are populated by a variety of birds Suprex is concerned about: mute swans, Pallas’s gulls, Caspian gulls, herring gulls, Caspian terns, cormorants, herons, flamingos, and pelicans.”
“Crimson ones?” I asked.
“All kinds. White, pink, orange… but there are lots of those, and there’s only a pair of crimson ones left. The species was on the verge of extinction, especially with the kind of government they had in charge until recently. You see, we gave them the Crimea, and what did they do to protect its environment? Nothing! Humans, animals, birds — all were neglected, and crimson pelicans were actually cooked and eaten for breakfast by the former Ukro president. Suprex watched it all happen and felt terrible, but still he suffered in silence. Finally, when things got so bad that nearly all the crimson pelicans were gone, he lost patience and decided to retake the peninsula and save these rare birds from total extermination, along with the Russo-Crimean Tatars. That was why he asked our Senate for authorization to send in the little green men.”
“To save the pelicans?” I marveled. “But I heard it was to prevent an invasion by NATO troops.”
“Well, that too, of course. But why? Because the NATO aggressors intended to seize Crimea, steal the pelicans, and use them for nefarious purposes — or, in the worst-case scenario, even wipe them out. Also, to enslave the local populace and turn all the people into draft animals.”
“I couldn’t care less about the populace,” I remarked casually. “But those crimson pelicans… I hope they’re out of danger now.”
“Sadly, that is not the case. They used to be in danger of extermination; now, they’re in danger of total extinction. They were subjected to such overwhelming and constant stress under the rule of the fascist junta that they lost the instinct to reproduce. And so Suprex decided to undertake a truly superhuman task: to save these rare birds, whatever it takes.”
Here, of course, I inquired what the rescue plan was and how it was being carried out.
“Suprex is training them personally,” he replied.
“Training them to fly? Like the geese?”
“How can you even compare!” Ivan Ivanovich said indignantly. “Geese are just dumb birds. They know how to fly — they just don’t want to. Suprex tried to inspire them, to lead by example, but it was hopeless. As for the crimson pelicans, getting them to fly isn’t the top priority right now. It’s a question of survival, increasing their numbers. Which is why Suprex is training them to…”
“To do what?”
Ivan Ivanovich moved the curtain and looked in the window to make sure no inquisitive ear was pressed to it, then looked up to check the roof for bugs or hidden cameras, and finally said, lowering his voice, “Since you’ve been granted access to top-secret information, I will tell you. He is training them to reproduce.”
“What?” I exclaimed in disbelief. “The supreme executive of the state is teaching pelicans to reproduce? But how?”
“Very simply — the old-fashioned way.” Ivan Ivanovich dropped his voice to a whisper. “He’s sitting on their eggs.”
I don’t know how many question marks would suffice to express my amazement. But Ivan Ivanovich went on to explain it all.
“You see, the Kiev junta reduced them to such a pitiful state, they’re not even laying eggs anymore. There are just two eggs left — but the pelicans have also forgotten how to incubate the chicks. Now they have to be taught from scratch, and who could be entrusted with such a thing? No one, of course, except… Think about it: If not him, who? Who else would be capable of devoting himself to such a task day and night, never leaving his post? No one! And that’s why he decided to do it. Once again, leading by example.”
“And he is really doing it himself, day and night? Never leaving his post?”
“Of course he is. Who else could do it for him?”
“Surely there must be someone! After all, we’ve got members of the State Duma, we’ve got the Council of Federations; if nothing else, there’s Depusex.” [Deputy Supreme Executive, the novel’s nickname for Dmitry Medvedev.]
“What a naïve person you are,” lamented Ivan Ivanovich. “You’ve been around a long time, and still you haven’t figured out that in this country, you can’t trust anyone with anything really important — anyone at all except the big man himself.”
[The ambulance remains stuck in an endless traffic jam, next to another ambulance carrying a screaming woman in labor, a car full of gypsies on their way to a funeral, and a van carrying a psychiatric patient who claims to be a member of the Duma abducted by Russia’s American occupiers. At one point, Smorodin leaves the car and walks down the line of traffic until he spots a van with diplomatic plates and an inscription in English, STATE DEPARTMENT OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA.]
Chapter 32: The Price of a Question
As I’ve already told you, I can get by in their language a little bit when the need is pressing enough. And so, when I saw that inscription on the minivan, I immediately realized that this had to be the infamous State Department I’d heard so much about — or rather, one of its mobile units. Imagine that: here it is, standing right in the middle of the street in Moscow, and the police and the FSB are just letting it slide. Maybe that loony who claimed to be a deputy was right when he said we were under American occupation? If that’s the case, no wonder there’s a mobile State Department in Moscow. Nor was I surprised to see a line of pathetic-looking men and women waiting outside the van. They all wore T-shirts with portraits of the American President, some with an American flag, others with inscriptions: “I love America,” “I love American cookies,” and “Obama is great.” And all sported identical baseball caps with the words “Foreign Agent” in Russian.
I was saddened by this sight, thinking that the line was so long I’d never make it. At that very moment, however, someone recognized me and whispered to the next one, and then a murmur ran down the line as my name was passed along. Then they all turned toward me, applauded, and offered me to go ahead of the line. I won’t deny it — sometimes, it’s nice to be recognizable. Not just for the sake of natural vanity, but also because, thanks to my renown and reputation, people frequently offer me all kinds of useful tokens of appreciation; sometimes they even let me have a seat on the metro. It was all the more gratifying to get such attention from known allies — in the sense that, while I am not formally considered a foreign agent, I have essentially been one de facto for a long time, by dint of spreading subversive rumors that people over there live better than over here. But before taking advantage of the generosity of the people waiting in line, I asked them a general question about Crimea. “Not ours!” they replied in a chorus, and then I finally moved forward.
At the door of the van, I ran into a distinguished-looking gentleman with a large graying beard, wearing an old-fashioned long coat with a lambskin collar and carrying a thick, heavy cane with a dog-skull handle. His face was wet, apparently from tears; something must have happened to him. I thought I’d seen that man somewhere, perhaps in the flesh, perhaps in the movies or on television — I didn’t know for sure. I even wanted to say hello to him but tarried, not knowing whether to address him in English or Russian; however, he turned away from me, covered his face with his free hand, and quickly strode away toward a vacant lot overgrown with weeds. Now I really wanted to find out what he’d been doing in that minibus, who had brought him to tears, and why. Out of old habit, I looked around to make sure I wasn’t being watched. But it was hard to tell: all these undesirable foreign agents might well have had desirable domestic ones in their midst, standing here in the guise of undesirable foreign ones. Utterly confused, I slipped quickly into the van. It was warm and cozy inside, with soft music being piped in from somewhere; seated in a comfortable armchair in front of a low, coffee table-like desk was a tall man in orange jeans and a T-shirt of the same color, with an electronic cigar in his mouth and a glass of whiskey in hand. I had a feeling I’d already seen him somewhere — a feeling that, I must note, I get quite frequently. Maybe I’d seen this person in orange pants in some political cartoon from the 1940s, or maybe in real life… I saw that he was wearing a badge on the right side of his chest, with a familiar name: Johnson and Johnson.
“Hello, Mr. Johnson and Johnson,” I said in English. “How are you today?”
“Hi,” he replied, without removing the cigar from his mouth. “And who exactly are you?”
I introduced myself, expecting him to gasp, throw up his hands and exclaim, “Of course, of course! What an honor!” — or maybe even tell me he had read Winter’s Summer in translation. However, he did not bat an eye and merely said through clenched teeth, “Hi. What are you looking for?”
“Nothing really,” I said. “Just came in to say hello and ask if you had any kind of work for me.”
“What do you mean?” he inquired.
“Well,” I said, “I’ve heard that you people supposedly pay a lot of money to members of the so-called opposition — you know, the ones that sell out the Motherland, go to traitors’ marches, refer to the State Duma as the State Dummies, curse the supreme executive of our state and ridicule the deputy supreme executive. So maybe you’ll have a little something for me as well?”
He gave me a rather sarcastic look and chewed on the end of his cigar, making it sparkle and crackle.
“Why should we pay you, then?” he says. “What can you do for us?”
What an ignorant man — he clearly didn’t know anything about me! I had to explain.
“Anything you want. I can subvert the foundations, damage the state’s prestige, weaken the fighting spirit, and make a mockery of anything I lay my eyes on.”
At that, the double Johnson perked up, told me to just call him John, and even offered me some whiskey.
“With water or with ice?” he asked.
“Just whiskey,” I said. “Make it a double.”
He clicked his fingers, and a young black woman in a white apron appeared at once. She brought me a bourbon, more than half a glass, and a small plate with pistachio nuts on it; when she turned to leave, I realized that the apron was her only piece of clothing. I offered a toast: To President Obama, the American State Department, and the eastward expansion of the aggressive NATO bloc.
We clinked our glasses and munched on some pistachio nuts.
“So,” he said, “how, specifically, can you do all those things?”
“The ones you were just saying you can do. Subvert, damage, weaken, mock…”
“You don’t know?” I said, surprised. “I’m a writer, a satirist. And a fairly well-known one, too,” I added, just in case.
“Oh … I see,” the American drawled, clearly disappointed. “A satirist… I just had a colleague of yours in here. Also a satirist, and I daresay better-known than you.”
“Who could that be?” I asked jealously, racking my brain but unable to think of anyone better-known.
“What’s his name …” The American strained to remember. “Shchedrin.”
I felt better.
“Shchedrin is not a writer, he’s a composer,” I corrected him.
“Not Shchedrin then — Saltykov.”
“Even worse,” I said. “Saltykov is a film director, and besides, he couldn’t have come to see you because he’s been dead for ten years.”
“No, no,” the American waved his hand in frustration. “Not Shchedrin, not Saltykov, but as they say, two in one. You know who I mean?”
“Saltykov-Shchedrin?” Then I remembered the teary-eyed man I’d encountered on my way in, the one in the coat with the lambskin collar.
“The very one,” said the American, glad to be finally understood. “Your satirist and classic author.”
“A classic author without a doubt,” I said. “But he’s been dead for a really long time — even longer than Saltykov, the film director.”
“That’s just it…” The American shook his head. “I also thought he was dead. But he says that as long as Russia remains the way it is, he’s immortal. I’ve noticed for a while,” he added, puffing at his cigar, “that Russia has quite an extraordinary number of immortal dead people.”
I was compelled to agree. “Well, that’s for sure; if there’s one thing we’ve got plenty of, it’s the undead. They almost outnumber the half-dead. And there’s also that forever living one at the Mausoleum. Say, did Saltykov-Shchedrin offer you his services, too?”
“He did. He said he could write a sequel to the ‘The City…’ What’s it called… ‘City of Stupidity.’”
“A sequel to The History of a City? And you turned him down?” I exclaimed, indignant.
“No, we didn’t turn him down. I just sat him in front of the television, popped in a DVD with a recording of a session of your Duma, and told him, ‘There’s your city of stupidity.’”
“I can imagine,” I said. “I can only imagine how he spat in disgust.”
“No, not at all!” said the American. “At first, he laughed a lot. Then he wept. And wept, and wept. And admitted that he didn’t deserve to be paid anything. Don’t waste your taxpayers’ money, he said to me. Don’t hire foreign agents. Don’t fight this regime. They’ll do everything you want and more, without your help. They will subvert the foundations, damage their own prestige, weaken combat readiness, plunder everything, and make themselves and their country look so ridiculous than not even the greatest genius of our genre could match them. Not Swift, not Gogol, not even I. I spent so many years perfecting my satirical mastery, he told me, and many people still think I’m a great writer. But what sort of writer am I, compared to these people? What is Foolstown, he said, but a pitiful imitation of what they’re doing now? I made up the mayor with a music-box mechanism for a brain; I invented townsfolk who butt heads and ring the church bells for a dead pike. But the Tsar flying at the head of a flock of cranes? I would never, ever have the imagination to come up with such a thing, he said and wept even more bitter tears. I wanted to give him some money, at least for a metro fare, but he just waved me aside and ran off.”
We sat silently for a few moments. I finished the whiskey.
“More?” John asked.
“No thanks,” I said and looked at him expectantly.
He shrugged, spread his arms, and muttered, “I really must apologize, but we have such a budget deficit right now, such a foreign debt… I’m sorry.”
I realized this was a polite rejection. I was upset, of course. I wasn’t angry at the Americans, but at the Duma members, high-level officials, and church dignitaries who do such things, produce such ideas, and give such speeches that a satirist can, at best, only copy them. They have such imagination that my homespun efforts inevitably come up short. As for enemies of the state and our foreign agents, there’s simply nothing left for them to do — except rub their hands gleefully, watch the state do their work for them, and pine for the grant money they won’t be getting.
I already had my hand on the door handle when Double Johnson suddenly called after me.
“Hey!” he shouted out. “Mister — Mister — ”
“Smorodin,” I prompted him.
“Yes, yes, Mr. Symordin. Here, I have a question for you. How would you like to make a revolution in your country?”
“What?” I said. “A revolution? How do you mean?”
“A revolution is when a lot of people come out into the streets, burn tire covers, smash glass and throw Molotov cocktails.”
“Yes, I know, I know, I’ve seen it on TV. Would I like to make one? What are you talking about?”
“If you wanted to make and lead a revolution in your country, then we would help you. We cannot involve ourselves in your internal affairs, of course; but if you did make a revolution, we would be glad to help you behind the scenes.”
It’s hard to describe the storm that was suddenly raging in my soul! I was hot, I was cold, even my ears were sweating. I sat down and asked for more bourbon. He poured me half a glass. I gulped it down and, just in case, asked him point blank, “So you want me to start a revolution in my country?”
“We’ll pay you, of course.”
“But you have to understand, this isn’t my line of work. I’m no revolutionary. I only work with words. Blah blah blah, and that’s it.”
“Don’t underestimate yourself. Not that long ago in this country, what you call blah blah blah could earn you a hefty prison term, and there’s hope that things are headed that way again.”
“Entirely possible,” I agreed. “Word have a lot of value here. Sometimes people even get killed over words. But a revolution in my own country… No, really, don’t even try to talk me into that.”
“But we’ll be paying you really well.”
I didn’t think I’d agree no matter what the sum, but I still asked, out of pure curiosity, “How much?”
He had a stack of square notepaper on the table in front of him. He took a sheet from it, wrote a figure, and showed it to me. Whoa! I was so shocked I actually let out a whistle. Nonetheless, I asked carefully, just to make sure, “Rubles or greenbacks?”
He chuckled. “Any currency you like.”
If you had seen that sum, you would have felt dizzy too. I think that if such an amount had been offered to any of our patriots — be it Semigudilov, or Polkanov, or even Bugi-Wugin — they would have agreed immediately.
I decided to clarify: What kind of revolution do you want? Rose, or orange, or…? Any color you want, John said, as long as it’s a real revolution, with barricades, rock-throwing, tire covers, and Molotov cocktails.
“All right,” I said, “in principle, I don’t have a problem with it. But whom do I recruit to make a revolution? Of course, I could just try it on my own…”
“That’s not a revolution,” he said, “that’s a one-man picket. You need to get the public out into the streets, not just yourself.”
“Ha,” I said. “Easy for you to say. Where am I going to find you a public?”
“What do you mean, where? You’ve got a hundred and forty-six million people in this country. If you can get even half of them out…”
“That’s no public,” I said, “it’s just a population. They don’t take to the streets. When they’re not at work, they at home drinking vodka and staring into the TV.”
“So? Your neighbors across the border have the same kind of population.”
“That’s no population; that’s a public. They come out on the Maidan at the drop of a hat and overthrow rulers they don’t like. Crazy people. One person gets killed, and the whole country gets worked up about it.”
“And in your country?”
“In our country, it’s only the netizens who get worked up. They put on white ribbons, go out for a stroll and smile at each other, hoping that the regime will crumble from their smiles. But for the whole population to become a public — to rouse itself, to feel righteous fury — you have to either get them really angry or make them feel aggrieved and insulted.”
“That’s your job, then. From what I’ve heard, you’re pretty good at both.”
Aha — so he had heard of me, after all! And at first he’d tried to pretend that he had no idea who I was. All right, let’s pretend that I hadn’t noticed his slip-up. I explained to him that my talent wasn’t quite as versatile as he might think.
“It all depends on who needs to be annoyed, insulted and aggrieved. The powers that be, sure. But my people? I’m sorry, that’s sacrilege.”
“Actually, no — I’m asking you to annoy and aggrieve the population. Once they are truly your people, they’ll get angry without your help.”
I couldn’t deny that Johnson and Johnson’s words had a certain logic to them. And when I took another look at the figures he had scribbled, I found this logic sufficiently persuasive.
We shook hands on it and wrote up a protocol of intent, and Double Johnson proposed drinking a whiskey double to our success. We proceeded to do just that. Then I asked him for an advance payment. He told me that they don’t do advance payments, just a lump sum on completion. I didn’t like the sound of that. My publishers tend to dislike the word “advance,” which they think smacks of something foreign. They always offer royalties instead, a cut from each copy sold after publication. Except that, of course, I know that when I ask about royalties later on, they will ignore my question and pretend that they find the word “royalties” too foreign as well.
I had stepped into a minivan, yet now I stepped out of what seemed to be some sort of a building. Stepping out was easy enough — but then I could go no further, because my path was blocked by a group of vicious-looking elderly ladies who formed a large semicircle by the front entrance. They were holding placards with statements like “Maidan will not pass!”, “Yankee go home,” and “NATO is SHITO”; a short rhyme, “Better radish or raw beets than the State Department’s sweets”; and, “Obama, hands off my pension!”
And, standing among these women, I saw…who do you think? — our very own Shura, with a cardboard placard that said, “Obama sucks!”
When she saw me, she looked startled and scared and tried to hide behind the woman next to her.
Naturally, I stepped toward her, moved the other woman aside, and asked, “What on earth are you doing here?”
She stood silently. I repeated my question.
Finally, she recovered. “Oh, you know, just standing around. How about you — got that nasty tick all taken care of?”
“Don’t you try to change the subject. Never mind the tick. I want to know what you’re doing here and what you’ve got written on that cardboard. Do you even know who Obama is?”
“Well, you know…the one that…”
“The one that what?”
Not a word.
“Well? Can you tell me anything about this Obama?”
“What sort of question is that?” interceded the one that wanted no part of State Department sweets. “It says right here: ‘Obama sucks.’”
“Actually,” I said, “I wasn’t asking you.” And then to Shura, again: “How did you get here?”
She shuffled her feet and said uncertainly, “Well, I went out for a walk, then I saw a crowd of people and, well…”
“Sure. You went for a walk, walked twenty kilometers, and saw a crowd of people. So, once again: what is this slogan you’re holding?”
She made an innocent face. “I don’t really know. They gave it to me.”
“Who gave it to you?”
“Oh, you know… what’s his name… Timofey Sergeyevich.”
“Semigudilov? And he paid you?”
“Said he would.”
“A hundred rubles.”
“And that’s it?”
“So? I’m just a simple woman, raised in a village, uneducated. They won’t give me the kind of money they give you.”
She began to cry and tell me she was sorry, and I started scolding her. “You stupid, stupid fool! How could you leave in the middle of the night, with no one to watch the house? The dog is locked up all alone, maybe it’s scared and howling in the dark, and you’re standing here with that stupid piece of cardboard for a hundred rubles!”
I kept scolding her and she kept sobbing, and finally I felt sorry for her.
“All right,” I said, “get rid of this junk and go home, and throw the hundred rubles back in Semigudilov’s face. I’ll pay you double when we get home.”
I don’t even remember how I reached the ambulance. Back there, everything was still the same, with our vehicle stranded in traffic. Meanwhile, gathered by the traffic light was a rather large crowd for such a late — or maybe early — hour. Lined up along the side of the road were handpicked members of the working class and the business community, students who had been promised two hundred rubles for the outing, military men without their stripes who’d been promised a hundred, sour-faced Russian Orthodox activists — and also in the mix, women with children. Young and old, mothers, aunts, and grandmas, with boys and girls aged four to fourteen.
“What are you doing here?” I asked one of the older women.
“Oh, I brought the little one, Ilyushka, my grandson; and all the others have brought their young ones too, children and grandchildren and little nephews.”
She readily explained that our Supreme and Beloved Leader would be soon passing by and he might take notice. He’s got this habit, you see — if he spots a little tyke with a cute tummy along the way, he’ll stop at once and kiss the child on the bellybutton. And It’s something like a holy blessing, almost as if the babe had been consecrated into the heavenly host of angels.
“All right then,” I said, “keep waiting and hoping.”
I went back to the ambulance. Inside, it was like a sleeping kingdom: Varvara asleep, Pasha snoozing at the wheel, Ivan Ivanovich snuffling in the corner. Zinulya was weeping quietly, her face turned toward the window. I asked what was wrong. It was just as I’d expected.
“She’s dead. That woman who was having a baby, she died.” Still weeping, Zinulya whispered through tears, “I hate them! I will never forgive them! I hate Obama and Hillary Clinton!”
“But why?” I asked.
She wiped her tears with the cuff of her sleeve and gave me a baffled look.
“What do you mean, why? A woman died, practically before your eyes. And that doesn’t bother you one bit?”
“It bothers me a lot,” I said. “But what do Obama and Clinton have to do with it?”
“Are you telling me they have nothing at all to do with it? A young woman, twenty-four years old. Can you imagine?”
“Yes, I can. But what’s the connection to the Americans?”
“That’s just it! There isn’t one.”
“I don’t get it.”
“All right, let me explain it to you slowly. A woman, twenty-four years old. Had her whole life ahead of her. And her baby, dead before it was even born. And you’re asking me, what’s the connection to Obama!”
At these words, I was out of it again.
[Smorodin and his companions watch the passage of Suprex and his cortege, which includes mobile medical and veterinary units as well as a cash-in-transit armored van. Suprex himself rides a motorcycle; to Smorodin’s shock, he sports a coat of pink feathers and a large beak.
After some more increasingly surreal experiences, Smorodin at last finds himself outside Suprex’s office waiting for an audience with the leader, whose staff includes Zinulya’s husband.]
Chapter 40: An Unforgettable Meeting
Zinulya’s husband came out the door and said loudly as we passed each other, “You may come in.” Then he added in a whisper, “If you see that Their Supreme Excellency look somewhat unusual, don’t be surprised; they’ve been transformed again.”
It’s a good thing he said it in advance. I went in and saw another decent-sized hall brightly lit by several multilevel chandeliers, with a conference table long enough to seat a crowd. The far end of it abutted a huge ebony desk decorated with carvings of various birds; above the desk, gazing down from the wall, was a large gilded or perhaps even entirely golden bird with emerald eyes and two heads. But it was not an eagle. Unlike a two-headed eagle, this bird had five-foot-long beaks that protruded in different directions like the blades of open scissors. And sitting at the desk was another pelican — not with two heads but with one, and that head with thin pink fluff at the top was attached to a human body dressed in a suit jacket, a white shirt and a dark tie. You will tell me this is crazy, and I won’t argue. It looked like a nightmare, or a daymare to be exact. It was a creature with a human body and a pelican’s head, but with a face — if you can imagine it — looking very much like the one you and I have seen on so many posters and magazine covers, the face that we see on our television screens more often than we see ourselves in the mirror.
Yes, it was him, our dearly and eternally beloved, with the head of a pelican. You could remind me that I had already seen him speeding through the streets of Moscow on a three-wheel motorbike in another delirious vision. But here’s the thing: back then, I had thought that it was simply a masquerade, a human head with a fake back — but now, close up, I could see that both the head and the beak were entirely real, not glued on, not affixed with screws or wire, but growing naturally, or rather unnaturally, from a human body. He peered at me, batting his half-transparent eyelids and twitching his beak, which lay across the desk and occupied its entire width.
To tell you the truth, the sight of it all was quite unsettling. But even without those pelicans, at the desk and on the wall, I would still have felt intimidated. I just generally feel intimidated by high-level officials. Entering an office where such a high-flying man executes mysterious affairs of state that are often beyond my understanding always fills me with inevitable and uncontrollable trembling. But now, I was downright feverish and shivering all over. My legs felt weak, my hands were shaking as if I’d had a run-in with Grandpa Parkinson. Having walked approximately half the distance from the door to Suprex’s desk, I stopped in my tracks; my feet were simply refusing to go any further. But then came a familiar soft and friendly voice that said, “Well, what are you waiting for? Don’t be shy, come right over.”
It’s easy to say “come right over” — but try actually coming over when you can barely lift your feet from the floor, as if they were covered with glue. Nonetheless, I somehow managed to come up to the desk. He held out his hand without getting up from his seat. It was an ordinary human hand, with a palm, but with webbed fingers. He could not get up from his seat because he was — I can barely bring myself to say it — sitting with his bare behind on some large eggs. Pelican eggs. The seat of his armchair was a woven willow-bark basket with three or four large eggs in it — which is why Suprex, who is exceptionally polite in his normal state, greeted me sitting down. That’s when I remembered the tale Ivan Ivanovich had told during the night. Of course I became quite agitated at seeing such a thing. When I stretched out my hand in response to his greeting, it was shaking quite badly. Not even shaking but jiggling like a dog’s tail. Maybe it was a symptom of borreliosis. I just couldn’t get that jiggling under control and make contact with his hand. But he grabbed mine and gave it a pretty hard squeeze, trying to stop the convulsions that kept it from connecting with his extremity.
“Calm down!” he said crossly. “Why are you shaking like that? Have you got a high fever or something?”
I began, “Not at all, your Supreme Excel-”
He openly winced at this. “No need for that. Just call me Ivan Ivanovich.”
I felt embarrassed. After all, it’s rather foolish for a man of my age and my social status, such as it is, to get so intimidated by a mere Ivan Ivanovich. Even if he is not just any kind of Ivan Ivanovich. Even if he’s the biggest Ivan Ivanovich of them all. He apparently picked up on what I was thinking and responded with an observation of his own.
“Yes, I am the top Ivanovich. But I am also a simple Ivan Ivanovich and, indeed, a very accessible Ivan Ivanovich.”
He said it in a very kindly tone, and it suddenly seemed to me that there was really no reason to be scared and that nothing terrible was awaiting me in this place.
Here’s a thing I don’t understand. Take mammals, animals that are built more or less like us, and sometimes more than less. How is it that none of them can imitate the sounds of human speech, while birds — parrots, crows, starlings — can do it so easily with their beaks? I used to have a parrot by the name of Kiryusha. He could mimic any sound he heard — including a barking dog, running water, a jet engine, and the ringing phone — better than any comedy impressionist. And the way he mimicked my voice, my wife mistook him for me occasionally when she thought I’d had too much to drink.
But I digress. Realizing that Suprex seemed to be in a friendly disposition toward me, I gradually calmed down; meanwhile, he offered me to sit and pointed his beak toward an armchair on the side of the desk, since the front of it had that long conference table butting up against it.
“You want something to drink?” he asked courteously.
“No, thank you, I don’t want anything,” I replied, hoping that our conversation would be a short one in any case and that I would get to leave this office alive and well.
“Well, I, for one, feel like a snack,” he told me. Then he dipped his beak in a bucket, pulled out a carp which glistened in the electric light and gulped it down in an instant while I followed his movements with fascinated eyes.
“Would you like one as well?” he asked, misinterpreting my fascination. “Help yourself.” With a lightning-fast motion of his beak, he snatched another carp from the bucket and threw it on the desk, where the poor little fish lay quivering the way I had been a couple of minutes ago.
“No, no.” I drew back just in case. “Pardon me, but I don’t eat live fish.”
“That’s too bad,” he said as he snatched up and swallowed the second fish, and I thought I could actually see it slip down into his stomach, curl up inside and lie still. “Definitely too bad,” he repeated. “Raw fish contains many useful fats, vitamins, and microelements.” He fell silent and withdrew into himself, listening to his own digestive process. Then, some lofty thought snapped him out of it. (Heads of state always have lofty thoughts, you see — never base ones the way we do.) “So, what brings you to me?”
I was at a loss. Under the presents circumstances, it would have been pretty foolish to say that I wanted to started a revolution. So I decided to play dumb.
“Oh, nothing really. Well, except for the tick.”
“A tick?” He raised his eyebrows. “What exactly do you mean by that?”
“Just what I said, Ivan Ivanovich. I was hiking in the woods gathering mushrooms, and — to make a long story short — I’ve got a tick stuck inside me right here. But I’m sorry, I never could have had the nerve to bother you over such a trifling — ”
“But why not?” He smiled indulgently. “People only ever come to see me about trifling matters. That’s the kind of country we are: no one can get anything done without the supreme executive of the state. Can’t sow, can’t harvest, can’t buy, can’t sell, can’t hold an election, can’t start a war. They can’t even take over some little peninsula on their own. No, they have to come running to me: to take or not to take? What is the question? Everyone’s a freaking Hamlet. And it’s not just people, either: even wild animals are getting spoiled! Everyone’s trying to shirk their responsibilities. Tigers in the taiga don’t want to hunt anymore — chasing their prey is too much work. They’d rather sit in a cage at the zoo and have ready-to-eat meat thrown to them every day. Birds don’t want to reproduce. Now there’s a single pair of crimson pelicans left in the entire world, and still they can’t be bothered to sit on their own eggs. And no one else can be entrusted with the job. So here I am doing it myself and gradually transforming. I know you think I’m mismanaging the state, stifling democracy, doing nothing about corruption. But when am I supposed to do my proper job when there are so many distractions?”
It’s not as if I could argue with him: look at who he is and who I am! Still, I remember that I’m a citizen, and when such an opportunity suddenly presents itself it is my duty to remember Gavriil Derzhavin, who spoke the truth to monarchs with a smile. And so I smiled and spoke.
“Your Most Exalted Highness,” I began, “our dear Leader and Father of the Nation, Ivan Ivanovich. I agree with you fully and completely. Our animal world isn’t as it should be, and let’s face it, our people too are lazy and incurious. Can’t get anything done right. Though, if needed, always ready to lay down their lives for whatever it is — for you, for instance, in the absence of anything else worthwhile. But they are what they are, and you, as the father of the nation, should show some concern for people and not just pelicans. When you’ve got a spare minute, you really ought to get out of your nest and get a bird’s eye view of what’s going on in our country. Horrific corruption, bribery, thievery. Political murders and ordinary drunken murders. Women get drunk and get pregnant and then dump their children in orphanages — and that’s the best-case scenario. Sometimes, would you believe it, they dump them in the garbage chute. And there’s worse. We’ve even got cannibals. I read about this one guy who raped and murdered women, and then made various dishes out of their flesh and served them to guests. And the inequality! Some manipulate millions, others count the small change in their pockets. Drinking, drugs, low birth rates, high death rates. And lawlessness, too. One man steals a sack of potatoes and goes to jail, another embezzles billions and builds palaces.”
He glowered and crunched his beak. “Embezzles billions… Are you alluding to me?”
“No, certainly not, Ivan Ivanovich! No allusions. Although I did read on the Internet that you have either forty or a hundred and forty billion dollars.”
“And you believe that?”
“I would, if I could imagine such an amount.”
“You can’t imagine it?”
“No sir, I really can’t.”
“How strange,” he said. “I was told that you’re a writer and even dabble in science fiction, and yet you have such a limited imagination. Can’t you count at least to a trillion?”
I was so won over by his courtesy that I grew bold and decided to open his eyes to certain things that aren’t always obvious to heads of state.
“Dear Ivan Ivanovich,” I said to him, “our great, wise, and beloved Suprex…”
I could see that he liked the beginning, and continued.
[Smorodin tells Suprex more about the sorry state of Russia and explains to him that he can only gain genuine respect and a real place in history if he does something to fix those problems, to which Suprex replies that nothing can be done as long as the people remain so passive and apathetic. Smorodin suggests that perhaps what’s needed is a revolution — not a violent one, he hastens to add, but a revolution of minds. The only way to do that, counters Suprex, is to make people’s lives so awful that they will finally rise up in outrage — and no matter how he tries to do that, he can’t push them far enough. “I’m sure you could do more,” says Smorodin — and, to Suprex’s sarcastic retort, “Maybe you could?”, he recklessly replies, “I could if I was in your place.” Suprex testily replies that running a country like Russia requires special ability. But, having lost all caution, Smorodin points out that “all sorts of fools, morons, and paranoid loons” have been able to do the job in the past.]
“Very well,” he said, his beak squeaking a little. “If you think that any moron could run our country” — at this, he gave me a sarcastic look — “let’s give it a try.”
He lowered his translucent eyelids and sat very still for a while, apparently lost in heavy thought. Then he suddenly stirred, shook himself, and resolutely banged his beak on the desk.
“All right,” he said. “I agree. I declare you my successor.”
“Me?” I could not believe my ears. “Are you joking?”
“Not in the least. You know, there are a lot of envious people who would love to take my place and who whisper to each other that I will never give it up voluntarily and that I should therefore be ousted, jailed, or even killed.”
“What!” I cried out indignantly. “Who are these vile people?”
“Ah, if I only knew,” he said with a wistful sigh. “You see, when you reach my position, you immediately find yourself surrounded by people who show you nothing but love, devotion and admiration. They admire your appearance, your stature, your wisdom, the decisions you make. No one dares question your words or actions, no one dares challenge your intentions. And so from day to day people meet you with big smiles, shower you with compliments, praise you to the skies. It’s not until you get booted from office that you find out what was going on behind that façade and what sort of plots were being hatched behind your back. Then you’ll realize that no one loves you, no one admires you, no one will say a kind word or show you any sympathy. And if they drag you off to be executed, chances are it’s your fiercest enemy who will risk his well-being to say, ‘Hold on, that’s going too far!’”
I must admit that before I had met Suprex in person, I had never had any affectionate feelings toward him and had not particularly believed the testimonials of people who had met him earlier. Those lucky few claimed that, face to face, Their Supreme Excellency came across as an exceptionally modest, open, charming person. Now I had experienced his charm myself, and my chest swelled with tender sympathy for his plight. And then I wanted to say to him — and I did: “Good Lord, Ivan Ivanovich, why have you surrounded yourself with such untrustworthy people?”
“Ha,” he said and made a stork-like glub glub, or maybe a pelican-like glub glub (I had never heard a pelican make sounds before). “Once you take my place, they’ll surround you before you even notice, encircle you, and stop anyone who’s not like them from breaching that circle. If you only knew how sick I am of them all.”
“You mean, your entourage?” I asked.
“I mean people of your race.”
Surprised by his candor, I quickly said, “But I’m not Jewish.”
“And I’m not anti-Semitic,” he parried at once. “I don’t mean Jews; I mean the human race, which only ever had one member worth talking to: Mahatma Gandhi. Unfortunately, I was born at the wrong time. Our lifetimes didn’t overlap, and here I am, living alone among humanity.”
I was about to take offense and ask, But what about me? All right, so Gandhi’s gone, and talking to me counts for nothing at all?
But I didn’t get a chance to pose this question to him, because he got so wound up by his own words that he banged his beak on the table and raised his voice as he went on. “I hate them! I hate these two-legged creatures, these cowardly, false, thieving, perfidious beings who flatter you, smile and pledge their loyalty even as they are always ready to deceive, betray, kill you and pluck you. Many have noticed my interest in wild animals and birds and perceive it as an eccentricity. But think of it what you will: I respect wild animals and birds because they truly love freedom, because they don’t kill their own kind and don’t pretend to love the creatures they do kill. If wild animals and birds show you their love, that means they really do love you. And that is why I am willing to leave the human world behind and go away to — well, you know what I mean, or you’ll know soon enough. So there you go: I’m willing to yield the throne to you. Or maybe you don’t want it anymore?”
To be quite honest, I got a bad case of cold feet. “Well, I’m all right with it, really,” I said carefully, hoping he’d change his mind, “but I don’t have any experience.”
“Aha!” he exclaimed with glee. “So you do need experience after all! Well, don’t worry, you’ll get on-the-job training. Especially since, as you said yourself, any moron could run the state. It’s all yours. But on one condition.”
“I can guess. You’ll have full guarantees of immunity. Just in case, I’d advise you to get plastic surgery — but then again, you don’t need it. In your current shape, you can build a nest someplace like New Zealand or the Cayman Islands, tell no one who you are, and devote yourself to incubating eggs and hatching chicks; you’ll be entirely safe, unless, of course, you accidentally run into some poacher with a rifle. I can even let you take a couple of billion with you, though I can’t imagine how you would be able to use them.”
I think he liked my offer on the whole. He haggled until I agree to let him have two billion more, which put him in a good mood and made him smile (just try and imagine smiling with a beak!); he told me his favorite joke — the one about what it would take for grandma to be called grandpa. And then he said, “Very well, then; as they say, so be it!”
He clapped his hands, and right away, to the sounds of the anthem which I had disliked before but which I suddenly found quite pleasant, a squadron of tall, square-shouldered Kremlin guardsmen marched into the room, carrying the presidential flag. The squadron was followed by men in civilian clothes carrying some sort of attributes of supreme power and by two naval officers bringing the nuclear suitcase — which I immediately told them not to shove in my hands because, God forbid, I could press the wrong button. I may not be a saint, and I may be all right with revolution, but certainly not with nuclear war.
No words would suffice, however, to describe war that was now raging in my soul. For all my vanity, not even my wildest dreams had ever gone beyond having my books published with a massive print run, translated into every language, and read by all of humanity. But to have this kind of power fall into my hands… I was bewildered and scared. All that responsibility — how could I possibly cope? Maybe it’s best to say no? And yet another thought was swirling around in my mind as well: This really is a one-of-a-kind opportunity, one that will never present itself again. I fleetingly remembered Johnson and Johnson: well, I thought, now I will really make the State Department pay! Collect the presidential salary, and double the amount I wrote on a sheet of paper back there in the van.
[After taking over as president and attending cabinet meetings — where everyone has to wear a pink pelican mask with a beak — Smorodin realizes that the everyone in the government has been deliberately trying to start a revolution by worsening the people’s misery beyond endurance. However, nothing seems to be working. After a discussion of various ways to push the populace to the breaking point, Smorodin’s interest is piqued by a story of a police detainee being sodomized with a shovel shaft. He decides that a sure way to spark revolution is to make every citizen undergo such a procedure.]
Chapter 42: The Great Shafting Revolution
In dreams, as I’ve already noted, events often unfold much faster than in reality. In real life, the deputies would have taken a long time to dither, argue, offer arguments for and against, and fine-tune the details in various committees. But here, the proposal was immediately approved on first, second, and final vote, and I immediately signed a decree to implement it, without postponing the matter until the next time I fell asleep or blacked out. The universal shafting of the adult population was to be carried out in special medical centers by trained experts (doctors and police officers), with local anesthesia and Vaseline. The Vaseline was needed to make sure the patients remained alive and capable of intense outrage — of which, as everyone knows, the dead are definitely incapable. I also added a warning about sanctions against citizens who try to evade the procedure: The decree stated that persons without a certificate of shafting could not collect their salaries, access their bank accounts, or travel abroad. And there were some incentives as well: the first one million people to undergo the procedure would get a free bottle of vodka and a small jar of foie gras, domestically produced.
After that, the proposal was extensively discussed on every TV channel. I was certain that this particular measure would strike people as so insane and so demeaning that they would finally feel profoundly outraged, and would rise up and make a revolution rather than submit to the ordeal. But in order to keep the wave of popular anger from getting too out of control, I asked our most-watched TV hosts — Kislov, Indyushkin, and Golovastik — to do several talk shows where guests would argue both for and against universal shafting, and to arrange for the “pro” side to win but by a fairly small margin. However, I had underestimated the abilities of these outstanding journalists. They conducted their programs so brilliantly that the overwhelming majority — 89.5 percent of the citizens of the Russian Federation — agreed that shafting was absolutely necessary, was being undertaken for their own good, and would accomplish the important goal of immediately confounding the Pentagon, NATO, Barak Obama, and Angela Merkel. Moreover, the shafts, inserted under medical supervision and with the use of Vaseline, would help straighten the spines of all those who underwent this unique procedure.
To be quite frank, the survey results left me shocked and chagrined; however, I told myself that people had simply gotten into the habit of automatically approving of any decision made by those at the top, and that once we got down to business a massive surge of anger among the population was guaranteed.
Many years ago, as a boy, raised in the spirit of those times, I often regretted that I was born too late and never got a chance to take part in or at least to see the Great October Socialist Revolution. But now, at least, I was confident that the Great Shafting Revolution was not getting away from me. I’d have stories to tell my children and grandchildren if I got out of it alive. I had no doubt that our great, freedom-loving, tax-paying, ever-patient people would refuse to submit to the humiliation prepared for them and sweep away the hated regime in a surge of righteous wrath. Unfortunately, I’d be swept away along with it, but what was there to do?
In my distant youth, when my brain was still soft and my mind still full of romanticism, I recall that I also dreamed of dying for the Motherland — dying for some lofty ideal on some barricade, with some flag…no, not just any flag, but a red flag flying high over my head. Now, I was also willing to die in principle, if it was really necessarily; yet I suddenly found myself wondering whether it was necessary. But how to protect myself from the people’s wrath? Memory offered an example from history: back in 1917, Prime Minister Kerensky had fled from the Bolsheviks in female disguise.
“Zinulya,” I said to the nurse, “would you by any chance have a spare dress with you?”
“Well…the thing is, I’m a bit of a transvestite.”
Zinulya looked puzzled. “Say what? What kind of transit?”
She turned to Varvara, and Varvara to me. “Petya, are you delirious again?”
I did not reply; just then, I heard a noise outside and looked out the window — and saw huge throngs of people with torches, banners and posters stampeding toward downtown Moscow like a herd of wild animals. There it was, the revolution about to sweep away everything in its path, the revolution I had so often imagined in my perverted daydreams!
“This is no revolution,” chimed in Ivan Ivanovich, who seemed to have sprung up out of nowhere to be a wet blanket.
“You’re here again?” I asked, surprised.
“I’m always with you.” He sounded sad, for some reason. “And always will be.”
“You’re just like a tick,” I sighed.
“I may be a tick,” he replied, “but this is not a revolution.”
“What is it, then?”
“Why don’t you take a look for yourself.”
I looked again and, would you believe it, saw that Semigudilov and my maid Shura were leading the crowd. They walked in front of the column, carrying a huge banner with a slogan in old-style decorative Slavic script: “TAKE A SHAFT TO NATO’S VAIN HOPES!” Others had placards hanging from their necks or posters in their hands, with portraits, drawings, cartoons, and texts assailing sanctions, same-sex marriage, and NATO expansion. “Hurray for Universal Shafting!” was the marchers’ main slogan. One sign proclaimed, “Universal shafting is our answer to European sanctions.” And there was a poster depicting a Russian Civil War soldier, his finger pointed sternly as he queried, “Have YOU joined the head count for universal shafting?”
Zinulya remarked on a discrepancy between the text and the procedure. “Why a head count for shafting? They won’t be implanting those shafts in people’s heads.”
I agreed that “head count” wasn’t quite the right word, but I strongly doubted the media oversight committee would allow Zinulya’s suggested alternative.
By now the head of the column was far ahead of us, and its tail far behind. We were moving right along the column, and I was able to lean out of the window and talk to some of the marchers. I asked them whether they were, in fact, choosing to undergo shafting consciously and of their own free will, and whether they felt any revulsion at the thought of such a degrading procedure. Fortunately, no one recognized me; they all answered the first part of my question in the affirmative, and the second part in the negative. Yes, they said, we must respond to Western sanctions and to the eastward expansion of NATO — even if it is, as one well-informed citizen put it, an asymmetrical response. They saw nothing degrading in the procedure. You’ve got to do what you’ve got to do. I talked to a few more people. I suggested that it might be painful and that they might find it uncomfortable to sit or walk after the insertion of such an unusual object. That’s nothing, they said; our grandparents survived the war, the blockade of Leningrad, perestroika, privatization, collateral auctions, sanctions and countersanctions, and we’ll do anything to ensure stronger stability. However, a few did admit that they were just in it for the free lunch — or rather, free vodka and domestically produced foie gras.
Meanwhile, we were approaching our destination. We crossed Sakharov Avenue and Sukharev Square, took a turn on Peace Avenue and from there on Grokholsky Lane, and finally pulled up at the Sklifasovsky Clinic — which is where the marchers were going as well.
Pasha stopped the car. I came outside, took a gulp of fresh air, stretched, and tried to figure out how to get inside the hospital lobby. The line streamed in through the glass doors, only one half of which was open, and rounded the corner to the right. What to do? Look for the end of the line, which, I was told, stretched all the way out to the Kapotnya district by now? No, that would be too much. Especially since Pasha said that his shift was over and he was headed straight from here to the garage, once he’d done a few more pickups. I tried to slip through the glass doors past the others, but was caught in the act by some vigilant citizens.
“Hey, grandpa, where do you think you’re you going? There’s a line!” several voices shouted at once. Embarrassed, I stopped in my tracks.
“Sorry, folks,” I said, “but I’ve got a special case, an emergency.”
“Everyone’s got an emergency,” retorted an elderly woman who was holding an umbrella, even though there was no sign of rain.
“Special case or not, it’s the same line for everybody,” a wiry man in a dark coat and an equally dark hat remarked sententiously.
“But I’ve got a tick,” I tried to explain.
“Oh, well,” said the man, “anyone that’s got a tick, we just terminate them.”
I saw a gun in his hand and froze.
“So.” The man smirked crookedly. “This is it?”
“This is it,” he replied in Pasha’s voice, and once again I woke up.
“Hurry up, Pyotr Ilyich,” Zinulya rushed me, “we’re already behind schedule.”
“Petya, take it easy,” cautioned Varvara and got out first to help me out of the ambulance.
I stepped out, looked around, and saw that we were standing at the same glass doors where, moments ago, there’d been a bustling crowd of citizens lining up to get shafted. But now there was no line. Where did it go? I wanted to ask Varvara; but then, with some mental effort, I figured out that it must have been another vision, and kept my mouth shut. A man and a woman, both fortyish and wearing green gowns, were standing at the now-wide open doors having a smoke. Must be painters, I thought. They eyed us curiously, and the man asked, “What’s the problem?”
Very well, I thought; he might be a painter, but if he wants to know, I’ll tell him. And I told him everything just as it happened: I went for a hike in the forest, got bitten by a tick… He took no interest in the details and interrupted me. “From which district?”
I started to say, “I’m from…”
He cut me off again. “Not you. The tick, which district was it from?”
“I’m not sure,” I said, “but I think from Naro-Fominsk.”
“Shouldn’t have bothered coming in, then,” said the woman as she dropped the cigarette butt and stamped it out.
Her partner explained that encephalitis-carrying ticks are not found in the southern part of the region — only in the Taldomsky and Dmitrovsky districts in the north, while the ticks in the south and the southwest are entirely harmless. I finally realized that the duo were doctors, not painters, and asked what I should do about my harmless tick.
“Nothing,” the man said with a shrug. “Just wait for it to croak. It’ll decompose and come out with the pus.”
That was annoying: after all the drama, the visions and the adventures I had experienced on my way here, it turned out that everything could have been so much easier. I turned to Zinulya and was about to let her have it for dragging me all the way out here, but she was already gone.
“All right, then,” I said, “since I’m here, maybe you can still take the tick out?”
“Sure we can,” the doctor said nonchalantly as he spat on the cigarette butt and tossed it in the corner. “Follow me to the treatment room.” And they both walked down the hallway, with Varvara and me bringing up the rear. In the treatment room, the man sat down at a desk and started leafing through some sort of notebook while the woman asked me to pull up my shirt, took one quick look, and extracted the insect using an instrument that looked like a knitting needle, without even bothering to sterilize it. Then she casually dabbed the now tick-free spot with green disinfectant and said matter-of-factly, “All done! Take care.”
When Varvara and I were leaving the clinic, daylight was breaking. I had conflicting feelings. It was embarrassing that the doctors had watched me arrive in an ambulance with such a trifling problem, when someone with a real emergency could have needed help. Naturally, I was mad at that idiot Zinulya, who gave me such a scare and pushed me into undertaking this absurd journey. But, of course, I was also glad to be relieved of the anxiety that had tormented me, in one way or another, on the ride to the clinic.
The doctors were very nice to us and even offered a car to drive us back; but we decided to make our own way home and left the clinic on foot. We made it to Sukharev Square and then to the Garden Ring Road, and strode briskly toward the Red Gates.
It was a lovely late-summer dawn. The sun had not yet risen above the city skyline, but its rays had already bathed the spires of the high-rises and the domes of the churches in golden light. Hand in hand with my wife, I walked toward the rising sun and smiled. For some reason, I recalled the song lyric: “Pleasant chill under the collar…” Meanwhile, there were multitudes of people walking past in both directions — young, fresh, full of vigor, cheerful and smiling, just like me. They walked, each on some business of his or her own, their backs and shoulders straight — as if some invisible rod helped them maintain their posture. I felt happy, perhaps because my tick had not been infected, or because I was finally rid of it. Then again, it wasn’t so much the tick as the fantastic visions it had indirectly caused. Visions that had tormented me all night, in dreams and delirium and the glimmers of reality between delirium and dreams. I walked on and pondered what a strange thing human consciousness is, and what fantastic visions can haunt it. Sometimes, those visions feel so tangible that even an entirely sane person, with no psychiatric abnormalities whatsoever, can find it difficult if not downright impossible to distinguish what he dreamed, hallucinated, or fantasized from what really happened.
My reflections were interrupted by some sort of whirring sound overhead. I looked up. Straight above me in the pale dawn sky a large crimson pelican was flying eastward, its long beak stretched out, its wings flapping lazily. It was flanked by two K-52 helicopters of the Russian Air Force. And it was also tailed by several more choppers, one behind the other: the security guard, the medivac, the veterinary unit, and the cash-in-transit.
 Berlioz, a literary critic, is a character in Mikhail Bulgkov’s 1930s classic The Master and Margarita.
 Mikhail Saltykov-Shchedrin, major 19th Century Russian satirist.
 A 19th Century revolutionary populist movement; from narod, “the people.”
 A main avenue in Kiev.
 The poet Ivan Pushchin, a classmate and close friend of Pushkin’s.
 In December 2013, Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland, on a trip to Kiev, handed out cookies and sweet rolls to protesters on the Maidan. Since then, “American cookies” became a staple of Russian propaganda — a symbol of alleged U.S. payoffs to dissidents.
 An allusion to Mikhail Bulgakov’s 1930s classic, The Master and Margarita, in which Woland, the devil who visits Moscow in the guise of a “foreign consultant,” has a similarly clad maid.
 The History of a City, the 1870 novel by Saltykov-Shchedrin, chronicles the history of a fictional city called Glupov, or Foolstown — a satiric allegory for the Russian empire and its bureaucracy.
 A reference to the poem “Monument” by Gavriil Derzhavin (1743–1816), Russia’s preeminent 18th Century poet, in which he credits himself for having dared to “speak the truth to monarchs with a smile.”