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Ruski Business

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April 7, 2009

During the Cold War, the son of an American journalist, soon to be jailed, spends his Moscow nights drinking, smoking, and black-marketing with Russian metalheads.

daniloff250.jpgSummer, 1981. Colin Gallagher was a few months older than me and spoke gorgeous Russian. I envied his smart Soviet school uniform with the epaulettes and painted silver buttons. On weekends, when we kicked around his courtyard on Kutusovsky Prospect in our cut-off shorts, sneakers, and T-shirts, he was as American as the kids with whom a few months earlier I had been duckpin bowling and tossing D&D dice back in Washington, D.C. I was eleven and my family had just arrived in the Soviet Union. Colin had been in Russia three years already. We were both the sons of journalists stationed in Moscow; his dad was with the Chicago Tribune, mine with U.S. News & World Report. Some might have considered Colin a bit of a nerd with his dark socks, matchstick arms, and utter disinterest in football. But by simply moving his mouth and tongue, his breath, he could morph into a Muscovite. He could parse word problems in Russian, give metro directions, and dream in a thirty-two-letter Cyrillic alphabet. I can’t recall a word he spoke all those years ago, but the world that flowed from his lips like a turned faucet was something to behold. He was two people at once. Magic. As a finger-sucking, bed-wetting kid with a sniffing tic and big ears, I wanted to pull off that trick more than anything. And I would. I took it as far as Colin, and then some. A whole lot more some, in fact.

It helped that I had a Russian surname. Daniloff, which every teacher back home had mangled on the first day, and other kids had derided as “Dandelion” or “Dani-Loaf,” now sang sweetly off Soviet tongues—Daneelov, just the way it was intended. The way it had been uttered for generations, before my great-grandfather, a military advisor to Tsar Nicholas II, saw the bloody writing smeared on the wall in 1917, and sent his kids out of the country; six months later, the royal family was shot and bayonetted in Yekaterinburg, spilling blood and hidden jewels onto a cellar floor. Upon settling in America, my grandfather lopped off the ending of his last name and cauterized it with a pair of “f”s, then found a job in Detroit’s auto industry and married an American. He never looked back except to spit and curse at Lenin and the new regime. Despite my Kryptonite roller skate wheels, REO Speedwagon albums, and worn catcher’s mitt, there was already more Russian in me than I realized. I even received a patronymic—Nikolayevich—like all Russians. So in a matter of weeks after moving into an apartment on the sixth floor of 36 Leninsky Prospect, I became Kaalyeb Nikolayevich Danilov. A boy poured into a new vessel, with a new label everyone could read, and not a drop spilled. I lost my sniffing tic.

We arrived in Moscow seventy-four years after my grandfather was exiled, and ten months after the 1980 Summer Olympics, which President Carter had boycotted because of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. The residue gave Moscow an abandoned feel: images of the Olympic mascot Misha the Bear still decorated chocolate bar wrappers, sweater patches, and plastic shopping bags. But the crowds and cameras had long since packed up. Orange Fanta and Marlboros brightened the windows of street kiosks. Rows of new drinking-water machines lined the low red granite wall overlooking Lenin Hills, near Moscow State University. A large ski jump, used even in warm weather, launched athletes toward the onion domes, grey ministerial buildings, and idle construction cranes in the distance. They landed in hay.

Moscow’s warm summer air was laced with the smell of spoiled milk and sprinkled with white fluff that skimmed the sidewalks and covered park benches. In the nineteen thirties, Stalin planted thousands of poplar trees to green up the city, but they were mostly female, so now every summer, their seeds carried by cottony tufts, or pukh, swarm the air, gathering in corners and along curbs, and landing on tongues. It was like living in a shaken snow globe.

I wasn’t allowed to join the young Pioneers, the communist organization for schoolchildren, though I longed to have my neck splashed with that crimson scarf and tied in a special knot, just like my classmates.

I was thrilled to learn that, like many American families in Moscow, we would have a maid and a driver. We went from rattling along in a loaf-shaped VW bus back in America to stealth-rolling through the streets of the Soviet Union in a sleek Mercedes that belonged to the bureau. From our sixth-floor balcony, I watched knots of boys crowd the luxury sedan, cupping their faces to the windows and tracing the hood ornament with their fingers. It was as if we’d won some alt-universe sweepstakes. I’m up here, I wanted to shout. On the streets, in the courtyards, I was covered in stares from disapproving dough-faced babushkas and open-mouthed teens as I sped up and down the tree-lined boulevards in electric blue roller skates, a blur of color against the drab, grey apartment blocks. I loved being looked at, and I didn’t have to do much of anything to widen Russian eyeballs. Just getting dressed was enough. Anyone worth observing must be special, I thought. It was common knowledge that the apartments of Americans were bugged—listeners sometimes clicked in and out during phone calls—which heightened the sense that someone, somewhere, was paying attention to us.

Moscow was a safe place, especially for foreigners, and particularly for Americans. We were KGB territory, and no Russian wanted to be brought within their purview. Interactions were usually driven by curiosity or kindheartedness, and any street harassment was held off by the wave of our blue passports. So during our five-and-a-half years in Moscow, my parents let me wander around unfettered. I rode the subway from Yugo-Zapadnii station to Sokolniki, hailed taxis, and bargained with golden-toothed gypsy cabbies. I idled for hours on courtyard benches or down by the train tracks, roamed Gorky Park and the city’s swimming holes. The whole place was mine, as long as I was home by a certain time, walked our dog Zeus twice a day, and wasn’t grounded. Which was often.

Most American kids in Moscow went to the Anglo American School, where the halls were lined with western lockers, the classrooms filled with glossy textbooks, and the computer lab always busy. To help me learn the language and culture, my father enrolled me in Russian school. School No. 80, as it was called—six-hundred Russian students and one American in Soviet school uniforms. I wasn’t allowed to join the young Pioneers, the communist organization for schoolchildren, though I longed to have my neck splashed with that crimson scarf and tied in a special knot, just like my classmates. “It wouldn’t be proper,” the school principal told me when I tried to make my case. I was there, but not all the way. Still chuzhoi, a stranger.

The teachers—all women—wore scratchy wool jackets and stiff skirts, and they pulled nylons over their unshaved legs, the hair on their shins splayed beneath the see-through fabric like storm-flattened crops. Some of my worn and faded textbooks dated back to 1958 and abacuses sat on the shelves of the mathematics rooms. I, like the rest of the students, had to stand when answering a question, or when another adult entered the classroom. Some teachers called on me, some didn’t. Because I was an American and my Russian was still under construction, I didn’t receive proper grades. I was given a dyevnik though, a daily grade book to record the quality of classroom answers, test results, and disciplinary problems, which my parents had to sign every week. The pages were mostly blank except for the fives in English and physical education. I envied all my friends’ marks and the flourishes of teacher signatures, but was just as happy to read Tintin books in the back of the room and pass notes to my new friends. After my first politinformatsiya, or political information class, where topics included the East Bloc cities U.S. warheads were sniffing at and the fastest routes to the school’s basement tunnels in case of attack, my homeroom teacher, Yelena Nikolaevna, told me I could go home instead. The irony of being denied the plan to escape my own missiles was lost on me at the time. I was just psyched to skip out early.

Also because I was American, and so a portal to all things western, the older boys at School No. 80 soon wanted to be friends. Lyosha, Sasha, and Max, all in the grade above, invited me to the boys’ bathroom where they wasted time between classes. I watched in awe as Sasha sparked a match off the wall and cupped the flame in both hands like some precious jewel as each boy bowed his head, dipping a fat, tar-thickened cigarette into the glow. “Vot tak,” Sasha said, showing me how to use the matchbox to block out the wind. Rather than verb conjugation and case declensions, I began honing my maht, the art of Russian swearing. I peppered my sentences with the word blyad, or whore, which conveyed countless meanings, from simple pause filler to indignation to disbelief, depending on intonation and placement within the sentence. I knew I had found something in these boys. They were given wide berth in the hallways. They had swagger. Over several months, they taught me to blow smoke rings, open bottles with my teeth, spit for distance, and wolf whistle five different ways. Real skills, not book stuff. Performing these small feats transformed me, and, over the next few years, I built on them—stealing money from my parents, selling blue jeans, skipping school, swearing like a drunken sailor—an absentee Soviet machinist in the making. My accent was pure street.

After school, they took off their Pioneer scarves—they weren’t playing that game—and the four of us, all equally bare-throated, gathered between floors in apartment building stairwells, smoking and playing kozyol, a popular card game. Max loved to show off. He could roll a lit cigarette back in his mouth, close his lips, then roll it back out with his tongue, the tip still burning. He could down the contents of an entire bottle in one long slug—by opening his throat, his hard, bobbing Adam’s apple guiding the liquid down. Once, he emptied an entire seventy CL bottle of vodka in seconds, his large-knuckled hands gripping the neck. I was utterly impressed. Here he was, fourteen years old and already a matros, or sailor, synonym for one tough son of a bitch. I practiced at home with Pepsi and Fanta, but usually ended up with orange soda coming out of my nose. Hanging with them helped give me a different kind of confidence. We drank barmatukha, rotgut wine. That helped even more. I felt loose, energized, in from the cold in my shit-brown Soviet track suit and rabbit-fur hat. I was becoming nashii, one of ours. The big-eared, bed-wetting boy I had been when I arrived became harder to see; we didn’t even speak the same language.

At the request of my new friends, I came back from trips to Finland or England loaded down with sneakers, jeans, and Black Sabbath tapes—Lyosha, Sasha, and Max now dressed more like me, and me like them. None of them had fathers at home; one was serving time for stealing from his factory, others had run off or been lost to alcoholism. Their cramped apartment households were run by mothers and grandmothers. This made sense to me, as my own father was absent most of the time, always working his sources and stories. When we did speak, we didn’t communicate, a one-armed rowboat trying to avoid a stiff-sailed clipper. He seemed appalled that I slept until noon and my clothes smelled like smoke.

I spent most of my free time with my new Russian comrades, with occasional excursions into American territory. The U.S. embassy issued each diplomatic family a movie projector, and they could sign out recent-run films like Poltergeist and An American Werewolf in London. I loved the sound of the metal canisters clashing together, the whir-click-click of the projector kicking on, the cone of light picking out the dust before the first images appeared on the wall or screen. I was always thrilled to be invited over to someone’s apartment for a flick, but I learned not to show up in my shapeless school uniform. The swagger that I had possessed at school No. 80 was useless in their homes. As a correspondent’s kid, I had to wait to get my burger and fries at the embassy snack bar until they, the children of diplomats, got theirs. Hundreds of them dwelled in foreign compounds around the city. They sported feathered hair-dos and had good skin, poured themselves into snug Levis, and listened to the latest music on Sony Walkmans. They ate Fritos and Fruit Loops. I coveted their Adidas hoodies and goose-down vests, things I had easy access to a few short years earlier.

Most saw their parents’ dreary Soviet Union assignment as a bummer, two deadwood years before packing up for the next, undoubtedly more glamorous post. These kids floated outside Russian culture; even the language seemed to bounce off them. Most of the Russian they knew was swears, some of which I taught them. Listening to them prank call some confused citizen with an “idi na khui,” literally “go to dick,” put a sick look on my face, mostly because their accents were so bad. Only the stink of Moscow seemed to penetrate their bubbles, which they complained about—stale sweat, salami breath, wet wool, the way the trolleybus I took to gymnastics practice often smelled. “You reek worse than a Russian,” ranked high among insults. In their stairwells, I went from superstar to low man, just like that.

After Mikhail Gorbachev, who foolishly pursued an anti-alcohol crusade, changed the drinking age from sixteen to twenty-one, aftershave became a staple, which went down like dish detergent and made my mouth taste like soap the rest of the night.

One evening, the Walters, a military family who lived across the street from us, aimed their projector unit out of their sixth-floor living room window and cast The Shining onto the neighboring Soviet apartment building. The image was diffuse, but you could make out Jack Nicholson’s face moving across windows and drainpipes. Everyone was laughing, Colonel Walters, drink in hand, was pleased, and his kids at the open windows mesmerized. Within Nicholson’s massive watery grin and crazy mountainous eyebrows, startled citizens appeared on balconies and in windows like some live-action advent calendar, trying to figure out what was going on. I knew Russian kids who lived in that building. Their mothers had served me tea and biscuits. I slinked back in shame just in case they could see me.

Sorok pyatii.” Those words were enough. Just uttering that phrase, that identification, gave most people pause, to think twice, to back off. It was almost as potent as flashing my passport. Sorok pyatii, or 45, meant you were affiliated with the compound at 45 Leninsky Prospect. The Soviet apartment block, comprising scores of ten-floor stairwells, had a feared street reputation in Moscow’s October District. Lyosha lived at L-45, and Max, Sasha, and I spent many of our waking hours there. We wasted time on a bench in the courtyard, near a wooden play fort, merry-go-round, and soccer field. A myent, or Moscow militiaman, was stationed outside the lone American entrance, but he never bothered us. I’d stopped going to that stairwell; the kids I once knew there were gone, their parents relocated. I watched their replacements toss a Frisbee in the parking lot, and a young mother in leg warmers push her Hasbro stroller toward the sandbox. With my school uniform and nicotine-stained fingers, they had no idea that I was an American, too. I was as unnoticed as most Russians, a spy who could care less.

There were various tiers of players at L-45. We were the maleesh, the young ones. Above us was Rustam—a half-Tartar reputed to know karate—and his crew of sixteen- to eighteen-year-olds. Followed by the twenty-somethings who were back from their two-year military conscriptions, some said to have served in Afghanistan. At the top of the heap were the starshii, or elders, men in their thirties and forties. You never saw them until late at night or on Sunday mornings when they came out to play a rowdy game of soccer, following by hours of drinking. Or when they were rallied to settle a score. Out came the pipes and sticks. They had melon bellies, beefy arms, and cold, hard eyes. They rarely spoke to us, though some wore sneakers and jackets I had brought back from abroad.

Over time, the shopping lists got longer. My family vacations had turned into trips to the mall. It went from a few pairs of Nikes and a couple of Levi’s jackets to moon boots of various sizes, fur-lined winter parkas, skirts, ten pairs of jeans, and every Led Zeppelin album. I was scolded for bringing back a pair of Adidas sneakers a size-and-a-half too big. “Durak, now I’ll have to stuff newspapers in the toe.” When a VCR appeared on the list, I could no longer deny that my value lay not in my Moscow accent and jokes, or my hockey and card-playing chops, but in my easy access to foreign countries and skill navigating western department store aisles. I was L-45’s golden goose, its prized commodity. Here, I realized, I would always be “chuzhoi,” never “nashii.”

When my father was thrown into jail, though I didn’t recognize it at the time, I’d arrived at the pinnacle of the Soviet experience—political arrest, expulsion, exile.

I started avoiding L-45, and took up with some Soviet metalheads named Kot and Kolya whom I’d met through an Iraqi friend in my stairwell. They plugged their East German guitars into scratchy amplifiers in a cramped, basement room with no windows. The only thing they asked of me was guitar strings and picks. They taught me some chords, and we played music; I translated their songs into English and helped write lyrics for a Russian heavy metal opera that involved lots of skulls and blood and mayhem. On summer weekends, we camped in the woods outside the city. They didn’t have fathers, either. Kolya lived in a communal apartment, seven of them in all, sharing a kitchen, bathroom, and a rusty tin can stuffed with newspaper squares for toilet paper.

The three of us drank. A lot. Wine and vodka mainly. And after Mikhail Gorbachev, who foolishly pursued an anti-alcohol crusade, changed the drinking age from sixteen to twenty-one, aftershave became a staple, which went down like dish detergent and made my mouth taste like soap the rest of the night. And since scoring drugs—that other staple of metaldom—in Moscow was difficult, Kot, Kolya, and I started huffing, climbing the fence behind the dry cleaners, spiking the chemical detergent barrels with a nail, and filling our empty Pepsi bottles. We’d spend the next few hours sprawled out on a stairwell windowsill, rags to our faces, vanishing beneath a pinprick haze, cigarettes falling from between our fingers.

We were sometimes joined by a kid named Kiril, a sweet guy who never asked for anything except for tales about America. Kiril was a statistical anomaly. He was almost seventeen, but had somehow been overlooked for compulsory military service. He never received his conscription notice, his birth not on record. It was as if he didn’t exist, giving him almost a special glow, something I recognized. But I could tell Kot and Kolya were starting to look down on him as their date neared. Specialness is not a trait highly valued by Russians. Kiril and I got along well, comrades in cursed advantage.

When my father was thrown into jail, though I didn’t recognize it at the time, I’d arrived at the pinnacle of the Soviet experience—political arrest, expulsion, exile. Before we went to visit him, we got advice from Tania Z., a Soviet refusenik friend of my parents, who had visited plenty of dissident pals in prison. She told us to slice the cheese and chocolates into smaller portions so that if the guards had a problem with the weight it could be adjusted by removing packets; same with medicines. And bring a variety of reading materials, she said; many will be rejected. Only ask questions that will give you hard information about his condition and state of mind that can be passed onto the press, she said; the guards may halt the meeting at any moment, so don’t waste time with emotional exchanges.

At the time, it was an international scandal, and a month-long superpower showdown between Cold War adversaries Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev with the 1986 international summit in Iceland at stake. We arrested one of theirs. They arrested one of ours, albeit on false charges. Initially, the KGB had planned to snatch the New York Times correspondent, but he was out of town. Instead, Misha, a Soviet friend and source on Afghanistan, had called Pa for a farewell meeting; after more than five years, our tour was wrapping up in a few weeks. They met in Lenin Hills, where Misha pressed a packet of newspaper clippings on my dad and hurried off. Before Pa could open the envelope, which later revealed documents marked “sekretno,” a van pulled up, a couple of bulls spun him into handcuffs and sped him off to Lefortovo Prison, one of Stalin’s old go-to jails. It was late August and I was sixteen, about to head back for my second year at boarding school in western Massachusetts. After months of skipping classes and learning more about Lenin than Lincoln, my parents had yanked me from School No. 80 and stuck me in the American school for a year, but it only went up to ninth grade.

My mom was distraught, the phone glued to her ear. On the other end were embassy officials, journalists, dissident friends. But I never feared for Pa. By this time, years of attrition and distance, both physical and cultural, had so weakened our emotional bond that the situation didn’t spark in me much worry. Plus the whole thing seemed so staged and clumsy. People expected me to be upset. I wasn’t. I had been arrested by Moscow police three times myself, on drunk and disorderly, and released each time within an hour. When Gorbachev went on Vremya, the Soviet news station, and called Pa a spy, caught red-handed, he was unconvincing. So I still took to the streets at night, drinking and huffing, trying to meet girls. I returned to Massachusetts with Pa still behind bars.

When I arrived back on my New England campus, I had the Soviet Union firmly in tow, as if I’d pulled out from the gas station with the nozzle still in my tank. A hard-drinking metalhead in Kot’s stinky pleather vest with an affinity for thugs. Reporters were camped outside my dormitory. Oprah, Letterman, and Carson’s people all faxed over interview requests. Girls I didn’t know dedicated songs to me on the radio. When my dad was released and we were invited to the White House to visit with Ronald and Nancy Reagan, a news helicopter landed on the school playing fields to fly me to the nearest airport. They put a picture of me taking off in the yearbook. Pot, mushrooms, acid, and ecstasy were now easy to come by, and I took advantage. I was given third and fourth chances in a two-strikes-and-you’re-out school. Special all over again.

In the end, I wound up being kicked out of high school—on my own graduation day—for “cruising,” or sneaking off campus after curfew, my fifth and final offense. Pa was the keynote speaker. He cried in the woods, wondering where he went wrong, and gave his speech anyway while I was held in the infirmary as a suicide-watch precaution, a school policy for those waiting to depart for good. Pa told my classmates about the value of pursuing a life apart from the crowd and quoted the final lines from Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken.” But he didn’t mention anything about feeling your way through a dimly lit forest. I told myself I didn’t care and accepted my fate. I had come to embrace expulsion, my Ds and Fs, my arrests, my failed relationship with my father; it all validated me somehow. I had never been so Russian. Finally, back on American soil, my assimilation was complete.

G

Caleb Daniloff lived in the former Soviet Union from 1981 to 1986. He later attended the University of Vermont and earned an MFA from Columbia University’s Graduate Writing Program. He has worked as a journalist, book reviewer, copywriter, and radio commentator. His work has appeared in Runner’s World, Publishers Weekly, the Boston Globe, Vermont Public Radio, and National Public Radio. He was the winner of the 2005 Ralph Nading Hill, Jr. literary prize. He lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

To contact Guernica or Caleb Daniloff, please write here.

Vintage postcard courtesy of Postaletrice via Flickr.

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One comment for Ruski Business

  1. Comment by Maxwell on July 3, 2013 at 10:18 am

    I really enjoyed this piece. It very much reminded me of the four months I spent in Cuba in 2012- longing to blend in, picking up a street accent, navigating the weird position of envoy to the outside world. A beautiful remembrance with a fantastic ending.

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