I don’t bear the army any grudge. I think they did right to beat me.
Photo by Susan Sermoneta
Yashka showed up in Yelsk in April 1982. On that day, Matiushin was late—he’d had a couple of drinks and he arrived in time to feel the air of invisible devastation in the home, the desolation, as if someone had just died. The father was in a bad way and the mother was fluttering around him, giving him something to drink to make him feel better. Grigorii Ilich was lying in an armchair with his head thrown back, looking up at the ceiling. And the first thing he said, in a pitiless, even boastful voice, was this:
“That’s it. You don’t have any brother. If he shows his face here, don’t open the door, let me know immediately, I’ll come. I’ll fling that lousy dog out so hard, he’ll forget the way back here and never show his face again!” The mother shed a few tears, and the father flew into a fury and shouted: “Shut up, I’ve spoken! Who are you weeping for? Who’s thrown away everything that was ever done for him in this life? A drunkard, a degenerate, a deserter, a bastard… Let him rot, the lousy dog, he’ll never set foot in my house again!”
“But how can you, Yegorushka…” the mother sobbed quietly. “Have pi-ity, forgi-i-ive him… Our little son…”
“It’s over. He’s finished. I’ll give the order to the commandant’s office, to the militia, let them catch him and put him in jail, the deserter. He’s no son of mine.”
However, he couldn’t bring such shame on himself. He waited, realizing that Yakov might come back, preparing himself for the meeting. Matiushin also waited, in torment, although he couldn’t understand what was happening. But Yakov didn’t come. The father stayed at home and wouldn’t let anyone leave, as if he were afraid. Yakov didn’t come the next day either, or the day after that, when the father stayed to stand guard over the home again.
“Yashenka’s run away from the army… His Liudka left him for someone else. She took Alyonushka away from us, took away my only granddaughter… Yashenka took to drinking… And your father drove Yashenka away…” the mother wailed. But she kept silent when the father was there.
In a flash, the two photographs on display in the china cabinet disappeared. Matiushin kept looking at his father, amazed at how calm he was. The only thing that mattered to the father now was to banish Yakov from his sight, to erase Yakov from his memory. And Matiushin had to forget everything too. On the third day, the father recovered. He felt even better than before, had a good sleep, and ate his fill. He was so certain that Yashka was no longer in his life, or that in Yelsk, there was no more talk about him.
The hat, coat, and shoes aged him and made him look pitiful. His shirt collar stuck out like a dislocated wing. His tie dangled from his neck like a boa constrictor, orange and thick—a style that had been out of fashion for years.
The doorbell rang, the mother went to answer it, and there was Yakov. Maybe catching the smell of food from the kitchen, he lumbered in as if he owned the place and sat down at the table, dressed just as he was. Matiushin fell silent with his plate in front of him. His brother reeked of drink and the stubble on his face made it look dirty, even repulsive, as if Yakov had sprouted fur. He was wearing civilian clothes. But the hat, coat, and shoes aged him and made him look pitiful. He didn’t take the coat off, just sat there like that. His shirt collar stuck out like a dislocated wing. His tie dangled from his neck like a boa constrictor, orange and thick—a style that had been out of fashion for years.
“I see you’re still stuffing your face,” Yakov said tersely to his brother and stared dismally into Matiushin’s half-emptied plate.
Then the mother recovered her wits and said timidly:
“Why don’t I give you some, Yashenka? Will you have some borscht?”
“Serve it up, mother! I love your borscht: no one in the world makes borscht like our borscht, the real article! Where’s father, why isn’t he at home?”
“Why, he hasn’t come back yet.”
“Well, well, the old man’s still serving, he just can’t settle down. Give me the thick stuff now, good and thick. Don’t be mean: there’ll be enough for everyone. It’s three days since I ate last!”
The mother didn’t say anything, and he went into a daze. Then he attacked the soup, gulping it down like a navvy digging, and after he’d dug a great hole in the plateful, he said:
“Come on, mother, serve me some more! Seconds!”
She answered him without moving from her seat.
“I haven’t got any seconds, Yashenka. There’s only enough left for your father. Go away, or he’ll be here any minute now. Don’t get him roused. You know your father: he doesn’t want to see you.”
“What does that mean, he doesn’t want to? Aren’t I at home then? Am I sitting in some strangers’ house, eating strangers’ borscht?”
“You go back to your home, that’s all. You’ve eaten for the journey, so go on. Afterward, who knows: your father might forgive you and calm down.”
“So that’s it then. You’re telling me to fuck off, your own son?” he screeched and started weeping shrilly, then, suddenly, hammering on the empty table, trying to crush it and smash it with his fist. “Take that! Take that! Get out! Get out! Go and rot! Go and rot!”
The blood spurted. He held the hand in his other one, stretching it out, showing it the way a child shows a little cut, and intoning in a meek, quiet voice:
“What have I done? Who have I killed, to be condemned like this, to have everything taken away from me? I love them, I love my father, I love them all! So why are they all killing me? She wanted to study, but I wouldn’t let her, but this other one will let her, he’s smarter, the child’s not his, he doesn’t mind… He’s got fine manners and I haven’t. He’s got the right approach, he read her poems, the snake, but I didn’t! Why, ma, why? Why did you have me? Why didn’t you and father get divorced? Then I’d have a different life, I’d be different, everything would be different!”
“Yashka, listen, don’t you get started, do you hear me? You’ve done enough shouting. Stop it, or I’ll forget you’re my son,” the mother said harshly. “Your wife left, and now look at you, sitting there bellowing, drunk. You’ve done what you’ve done. You’ve got to understand that. And there’s no point bellowing, you can’t undo it. You have to live as things are, the way they’ve turned out. And why, why do you want to go chasing after her? Have you lost your mind? You got your fingers burned once: do you want to get burned up completely? Live, there’s no one stopping you. Just live. If you want to croak, then you will. You know you don’t need a father or mother to do that. Get out of my sight, stop tormenting me.”
Yakov wept, quiet now, almost radiant. The mother found a bandage and silently bound up his swollen hand. He asked her pitifully:
“Ma. What should I do? They’ll court-martial me now. I had no right to abandon my post…”
“Well now, we’re all equal before the law, and you left your unit voluntarily, you have to understand that,” the mother reasoned seriously. “You go back, confess everything, tell them it was like this and that, admit your guilt, say it won’t happen again. Only don’t disgrace your father: don’t let the whole town know about it. And if you don’t go away, he’ll hand you in himself. But if it’s voluntary, with a confession, they’ll forgive you, and no one will even notice. You’re not some private after all: you’re an officer, they won’t want to disgrace themselves. You haven’t spent all your money on drink, have you? Have you enough left for a ticket? Well, look here, I’ll give you some for the train, but if you spend it on drink, don’t you come back, I won’t open the door…”
Three years later, a zinc coffin arrived for burial in Yelsk from a foreign war too far away to be heard: that was how they found out that all that time, Yakov had existed, lived, and fought.
The sight of this hunted man who was called his brother roused a scornful disbelief in Matiushin, as if he knew this man was only pretending and wasn’t in pain at all. He couldn’t forgive his brother for the words he had blurted out so thoughtlessly, and he sat there waiting for this unwelcome, drooling man to be gone from the table and the house.
Yakov vanished from their turbid period of hard times. Three years later, a zinc coffin arrived for burial in Yelsk from a foreign war too far away to be heard: that was how they found out that all that time, Yakov had existed, lived, and fought. Liudmila disappeared without trace: the family heard nothing more about her and Alyonushka after Yakov came to Yelsk and was cursed by his father. When they got the death notice, Grigorii Ilich was shocked to think that his son had turned out to be a hero. But the coffin arrived without any military decorations, and the accompanying letter said he died in the course of performing his international duty.
The mother’s grief was breaking her heart, but she couldn’t sense the body of her son through the zinc: she didn’t know, and so she couldn’t believe that he was lying in that zinc container. It seemed as if at any moment, Alexandra Yakovlevna would fall silent, stop crying, come to her senses, and move away from the coffin. Matiushin understood that a terrible calamity had occurred, that his brother had been killed, but nothing stirred in his soul, and that made him fearful: his soul was living its own life, and it felt bleak and cold inside him. People kept doing things around him, as if Yakov had been dear to them. Matiushin stood there, feeling nothing but weariness—how hard and dreary it was for him to stand. His father kept a strict, stern face, standing near the coffin, but even now he couldn’t bear to be closer than two steps to his son.
He was buried in the “Soviet” cemetery, as the people called it, where they buried Party people and those who had served in the armed forces. The military commissariat was supposed to pay for the funeral, but the father wouldn’t demean himself and refused.
From then on, Grigorii Ilich cut himself off from his family. While previously they used to at least see him at the table, a new order was suddenly adopted in the house, under which the father ate alone. First the mother laid the table for him, then, when he went away, they finished up after him. And everything was like that. Matiushin had the feeling that he wasn’t living but had sunk down underwater, where everything was murky and green, as if he were seeing it through bottle glass. Now the despondency could stifle him for months at a time, making anything he did or any thoughts he had dreary and meaningless. And he lived without doing anything, not even knowing where the time went. From somewhere he remembered the ineffable light of life, its joy and the clarity, but when he tried to remember where the light came from, a bleary haze drifted up in front of his eyes, and what he knew wasn’t that, but something different, and in that life of theirs, battened tightly shut, there wasn’t even a chink through which to glimpse the light, and there was nowhere he could run away to from these four walls: he just lived inside them.
That spring, when Matiushin turned twenty-three, he suddenly received a notice summoning him to the military commissariat for a medical. When the two elderly medical commission doctors rejected him again, all he understood was that he had been declared finally and completely useless.
That spring, when Matiushin turned twenty-three, he suddenly received a notice summoning him to the military commissariat for a medical. When the two elderly medical commission doctors rejected him again, all he understood was that he had been declared finally and completely useless. He walked out of the commissariat, but he couldn’t go home. His wanderings led him to the station, and there he found himself in the same buffet where he had once said goodbye to his brother. He recognized the buffet and ordered a bottle of vodka, as his brother had done then, drank as much as he could, then set off back to the commissariat.
In the doorway, he started yelling that he wanted to serve in the army—but they wouldn’t let him in, drunk as he was, so he rushed about, smashing and shattering everything in sight. Everyone on duty came running to grab him, even the commanding officer got involved. He calmed Matiushin down and led him into his office. The commander knew whose son he was, he knew his brother had been killed carrying out his international duty—but if only he could tell which decision would suit Grigorii Ilich and which wouldn’t… He would probably have to guess.
“Is it really true a strapping hero like this can’t be any use? We’ll send him to the artillery: who needs keen hearing there?” he said, trying to sound cheerful. “It’s a family of heroes, a guardsman’s dynasty, you might say, and we’re blocking the lad’s way. I’ll settle it, I’ll settle it… You stay at home and wait for the papers.”
Thinking that his father wouldn’t find out, Matiushin decided to keep quiet about everything at home. He lived those days lightheaded with impatience, even haste, waiting for the call-up papers, but hiding from his father. One day Grigorii Ilich came home, weary and taciturn, and without even taking his coat off, just removing his shoes, called for Matiushin.
“I’ve heard that down at the commissariat you… You want to join the army? Get well away from here? Why, you fool.”
Matiushin’s heart sank.
“Do you hear that, mother?” the father asked in a gentle, singsong voice filled with indifference. “It’s happened at last, they’re taking our boy into the army. They’ve declared him fit. His call-up papers have arrived!” And he pulled the notification out of the pocket of his greatcoat and slapped it down on the table: “There, take it…”
Matiushin resigned from his odious job and in the week that remained to him, he did nothing. His mother didn’t know what to do with herself. Alexandra Yakovlevna understood whose word had decided everything, but Grigorii Ilich never changed his decisions. And he responded to her weeping and screaming with a deathly silence, and remained silent until the next day. It was only then that he summoned his son to his room and recalled his own youthful days with him and how he himself joined the army, then grew emotional and gave him the watch off his own hand as a keepsake—the one that he hadn’t parted with for ten years, the one he had bought for himself in Moscow, when he bought one for Yakov too, but that one had disappeared with his elder son. Only, left without the watch, Grigorii Ilich missed it, and in the morning Matiushin couldn’t find it, but he didn’t say anything: he felt sorry for his father.
In the morning, Grigorii Ilich stayed at home to see his son off to the conscription center. They didn’t drive, but walked. The father was dressed in civilian clothes: gray and flabby in his raincoat, he didn’t recognize himself and he felt timid. The recruits were being shipped out so early that they walked alone through the frozen, empty town into the gentle, twilit depths of the little streets. Alexandra Yakovlevna fussed over her own concerns, trying yet again to remember if she had put everything into the knapsack when she was packing for her son. She whispered:
“Listen, Vasenka, your father’s going to give you twenty roubles from us. When you go to up to him, say goodbye nicely.”
Outside the military commissariat, tipsy couples were jostling, music was roaring, everyone was saying goodbye. Grigorii Ilich strolled around off at one side, on his own, even striking up a conversation with one of the people seeing off a recruit, and waited. Alexandra Yakovlevna hugged her son, laid her head on his shoulder, and wouldn’t let go. They stood there like that until a non-commissioned officer as genial as a hostess invited the recruits to start getting into the bus. At that, everyone clumped together in groups, people banked up like small snowdrifts, and all the mothers started crying… At the last moment Matiushin’s father hugged him hastily, awkwardly allowed himself to be kissed, shamefaced, pushed the money into his son’s hand, and said:
“Serve well, son. Be worthy of your brother’s memory!”
As night came on, the bus arrived somewhere. In the darkness, not much could be seen except some tearful little lights: we’d stopped inside the fence of a distribution point. Inside, it was like a hostel, divided into little rooms. Every one had beds with un-stuffed mattresses and a table in the middle.
An officer walked in briskly with a red armband on his sleeve—there were lots of them striding about with those armbands, looking like volunteer, public-order militia. He ordered us to move from one room to another. Lots of young guys crowding the corridors, sitting along the walls, standing in queues at some of the doors, smoking nonstop, jabbering, and it’s hard to believe it’s night. They took us for the medical. And then, in the middle of the night, to be fed. We didn’t touch the boiled grain, but we guzzled all the watery tea, as if we’d been brought here to drink, not eat. We tried not to get lost anymore, bunching up tight together. The waiting was wearing us out: we wanted to be on our way already—anything but carry on waiting. We weren’t even let out for a breath of air. Men jabbering on all sides, wherever you stand, striking up little conversations. The call suddenly rang out: “Anyone from Kuznetsk! Over to the door!” Everyone fell silent, and the crowd didn’t move while every man in it figured out thickheadedly whether he was from Kuznetsk or not, and then whoever was got up in silence, escorted by hundreds of already indifferent eyes.
An elderly officer with a jaded air appeared in the room, a captain by rank, looking like a frog in his uniform.
“Is the Yelsk contingent here?” he asked, glancing round as if he didn’t know what he ought to do and was trying to guess. “Krivonosov, Konstantin Vladimirovich, is he here?”
A disgruntled voice answered from somewhere:
“That’s me… Here…”
The captain brightened up and glanced at his paper again, hunting out the elusive, unfamiliar names like little fleas.
“Is Matiushin, Vasilii Grigorievich, present?”
“Rebrov, Ivan Petrovich?”
The captain sighed in relief, and said in a calm, almost indifferent tone:
“Now, those men I named, follow me with your things.”
They were waiting for a train, but the recruiting officer stubbornly refused to say where he was escorting them, or even what branch of the forces they were going to serve in.
Matiushin straightened up and got to his feet, hearing the others get up too. They got up and walked out, not believing that this was really serious, as if they had no faith in the power of that dusty, froggy little uniform. Now they had to get up and follow it, walk after this little stranger wherever he told them to go. But they only marched about a dozen meters. Selected by some mysterious will, seemingly following some kind of schedule, they found themselves in another room, where there were about twenty other men with their things. The recruiting officer flickered erratically into and out of sight, disappearing and then surfacing out of the corridor with his catch—a new recruit—holding a roll call every now and then to settle his nerves. All the bureaucratic dithering made it hard to breathe, we were rapidly getting sick of all this waiting about. But the end of our time at the distribution center was probably getting closer: to get us to trust him, no more and no less, the captain told us his name and patronymic and ordered us to prepare our things for inspection. He laughed when he found someone’s T-shirt and underpants. He chuckled as he sniffed someone’s eau de cologne. He was amazed by the food, all the different kinds of sausage, saying he’d never seen this kind or tried that kind.
They saw in the dawn at a railway station where they had been watched over in a half-empty waiting room for the rest of the night by the captain, now in subdued mood. They were waiting for a train, but the recruiting officer stubbornly refused to say where he was escorting them, or even what branch of the forces they were going to serve in.
The little island of the blackly deserted station building was submerged in nocturnal darkness. Matiushin drank in the night, gazing out into the cold, anonymous expanse. Thrilled by the thought that no one in that expanse knew he even existed, he even stopped breathing—it felt so sweet to be aware that there was only him.
Anxious, perhaps even afraid that they would run away from him, as morning arrived, the captain ordered them all to line up. There was dozy jostling, another dreary roll call of names—by this time the word “here” repeated in different voices was like a drill, boring through Matiushin’s head. When the roll call was over, the captain led the ranks out onto the deserted platform. He ordered them to sit in a row along the wall and started striding along the row like a sentry, waiting for the train.
It was already as bright as day on the platform, but they couldn’t even hear the sound of birds twittering yet. Some smoked a bit, listening to this dead morning silence. Some dozed, slumped back against the wall, with their legs sprawled out across the asphalt, as if they’d been torn off.
Matiushin didn’t remember their train arriving or how he ended up in the carriage. There was some kind of corporeal fire baked into his memory. He was woken by loud laughter in the hard-bunk carriage—for some reason everyone was calling it a “berth.” And immediately he could feel that he was completely soaked in hot sweat. Jam-packed with men, the berth was like a furnace.
Streaming with sweat, semi-naked, his unsolicited friends were laughing loudly. And it turned out they were laughing at him: for sleeping like a log. They’d all got chummy with each other by this time, they were pals already, and they treated him the same way. It turned out that there was a bottle of vodka in their berth, and they’d already drunk their share, but Matiushin’s was still waiting for him. One young lad was bellowing loudly, acting more brashly than the others. Matiushin remembered him: he was from Yelsk, the recruiting officer had picked them out and led them off together at the distribution center. Lanky and stooping, with a zero trim already, wild, ravenous eyes, dressed in absolute tatters.
Trying to fight the hazy weakness in his head as he heard about the vodka and realized he was on his way, in the train, Matiushin clambered down off the upper bunk. The berth fell silent. The Yelsk lad held out the bottle, thrusting it into Matiushin’s hand. Warm from the heat, the vodka went down like boiled water. Or else he just imagined it was like water. All he wanted was to get blasted; he wasn’t feeling anything anymore. Instantly, everything in his head blurred, the laughter thundered in his ears, and he started shouting something and laughing with the rest of them.
“My old man serves under yours…” the Yelsk lad said out of the blue. “My old man respects yours… So now we’re going to serve together. You ask to be put in with me. Rebrov’s my name!”
“You’ve got the wrong man. I don’t have any father!” Matiushin chortled, and his new acquaintance went quiet: Matiushin couldn’t hear him anymore.
The drunkenness and the heat and the little men all seemed like a single evil. They were being dragged off somewhere helplessly—this evil was being dragged off somewhere. Tormented by the evil, or so it seemed to him, Matiushin climbed back up onto his empty bunk and sank into oblivion, his forehead thrust against a partition that felt as cold as ice. He cooled off and fell asleep.
Rebrov shook him awake with devoted zeal, as if Matiushin himself had ordered him to do it. There was a dull glimmer of light. The sky outside the window receded in a uniform twilight blur. The train hurtled straight on, soundlessly, as if flying through the air. Rebrov had woken him to eat.
They were eating everything they had with them. They gobbled and drank without pausing for breath. The little table was piled high with sticks of sausage, pieces of chicken, cans, feeble May vegetables. There was wine and beer and vodka as well— they weren’t trying to hide, they weren’t even hiding the bottles. This insanity must have started back in the afternoon, with that specially saved bottle of vodka, and then all the food and all the money had been thrown in. Hungry and only half-awake, grabbing at everything indiscriminately, Matiushin threw himself on the other men’s food, swallowing lumps of something warm and fatty and then flinging down his own ten-rouble notes on the common table when he remembered his father had given them to him for the journey. Rebrov topped up his glass and egged him on:
“Drink up, to Yelsk, our hometown! And let them drink too. Do you hear me? Everyone drink to Yelsk!” he shouted to someone and swung the bottle through the air, losing his drunken balance and collapsing onto several bodies.
Then suddenly he understood quite clearly that they were all afraid, afraid… That was why they were staggering about without any sleep, thrashing about in a sleepless, gluttonous fever, because they were afraid.
The buzz of the inebriated carriage cheered Matiushin. After the food and the vodka, he was feeling like a smoke, and Rebrov decided to lead him to the vestibule at the end of the carriage, clearing the way and acting pushy:
“Move aside! I’ll clout you!”
Their squad occupied half the carriage, jumbled up together with civilians. There were lots of old men and women, all neatly dressed, strange, foreign, not Russian… They sat there, huddled in the corners, gazing with timid smiles at everything that was going on—at this gang of young, drunk Russian lads. Passing along the narrow passage, Matiushin and Rebrov entered the dead end of the carriage, where the captain had taken up position, on duty at the door of the vestibule.
His hair neatly combed, almost slicked, he was sitting at an empty table without any food, reading a stale, well-thumbed newspaper on an empty stomach. His corner was full of the kind of secluded, strict order of which there wasn’t even a trace in the open space of the blind-drunk carriage teeming with men. The captain probably had nothing to eat, he’d blown all his money. Free now after escaping from the restraint of his tunic, he looked more homely and younger; in his officer’s summer shirt but locked into the captivity of the journey, he looked like someone on a business trip who definitely had nothing to do with the recruits.
“Comrade Captain, Fyodor Mikhailovich, we’re off for a smoke! Permission to go out into the vestibule? Look, I’ve met a guy from my hometown,” the Yelsk lad declared in sham delight, almost pressing up against the captain and reeking grossly of drink.
“Go and smoke…” the captain muttered dourly and stuck his nose angrily into his newspaper, trying not to see their drunken faces.
The vestibule was packed with no end of people. They were roaring themselves hoarse, palling up, rejoicing at being taken off to serve in the forces—now that they’d realized they weren’t going anywhere in the North or into the navy, but to somewhere warm—although the vestibule was as black and lonely as a deep pit. Matiushin listened, unable to see any faces through the tobacco smoke… Then suddenly he understood quite clearly that they were all afraid, afraid… That was why they were staggering about without any sleep, thrashing about in a sleepless, gluttonous fever, because they were afraid. Grabbing a bottle from someone, Matiushin took a gulp of vodka, but no matter how much he poured into himself after that, he couldn’t get drunk—it all just seemed to evaporate. Even the reason he was feeling jolly wasn’t the drink, it was because everyone around him wasn’t sleeping but yelling, gorging themselves—going insane in their fear. Like seeing a crowd of naked people, and it’s funny because they’re naked, but still prancing about.
In the vestibule, a non-Russian guy, one of those civilians, attached himself to Matiushin. He asked for a cigarette and started reminiscing about his time in the army… He was faceless and smooth, as if his face had been planed off. The only bright spot Matiushin saw was his mouth, which flared up crimson when the guy took a drag on the cigarette. Short, the height of a child, but stocky and barrel-chested.
“I’ve got two scars on my body from the army, and they knocked out my front teeth. But I don’t bear the army any grudge. I think they did right to beat me. First, I’m an Uzbek, and lots of Uzbeks can be stupid. It takes a fist to make them understand anything, so they post them to a construction battalion. And second, if they hadn’t beaten me, I wouldn’t have done anything. If someone’s beaten me, I respect them. I respect strong people.”
“An Uzbek! An Uzbek!” laughed Matiushin, delighted that now he knew who was talking to him, slapping the man on the shoulder. “Come on then, tell me about it! I love Uzbeks!”
It didn’t bother the man at all that Matiushin was giving him orders. That was what he wanted—to be needed, to hook on to someone. His speech was clear, pouring out from somewhere inside him. But his face, with its stony jaw muscles, was silent with a cool tension, not even human, and it guttered like candle wax in the glimmers and glints of transparent twilight from the blind end of the vestibule.
Matiushin started getting the kind of warm feeling he hadn’t had with anyone for a long time. Drawing on this feeling of benevolence for the Uzbek, he felt a spiritual calm so strong that now even the stinking vestibule lulled him like a cradle. In this tenderhearted condition, he dragged the Uzbek after him back into the berth and tumbled out all his provisions for him. But the Uzbek kept talking on and on, telling only his own story and nodding dolefully, as if beating his head against an invisible wall.
For half the night, they staggered from the vestibule into the carriage, from the carriage into the vestibule. And they weren’t alone: no one was sleeping. Those who had drunk up all their money pestered those who could stand them a drink—and they didn’t know what they were going to eat and drink tomorrow. Only the dirt-cheap cigarettes didn’t run out. The hungry tobacco smoke swirled all around, as if the carriage itself was quietly smoldering, going up in smoke. The night stretched out, vastly longer than the day: it was impenetrable somehow. Its immensity made everything seem immense to Matiushin—the jagged, opened food cans, gaping like jaws; a gigantic human eye, flitting past as if under a magnifying glass; the vast space of the vestibule; huge two-legged people—and all the words that were uttered came hurtling out, flew through the air and fell like massive stone blocks.
He says that in minus forty Celsius, they were forbidden to use the earflaps on their caps: supposedly that wasn’t cold enough for them to tie their caps shut. And that, says the Uzbek, means you’ll freeze your ears, they’ll suppurate and stick to your head. Oh, so cold, oh, so cold!
He had long ago wearied of peering at the Uzbek and trying to make him out; he just heard his voice, sometimes distant, sometimes close… Some night or other, but a different one, not his night. A filthy, dark barracks; winter. A tunic has to be washed—a man has to be cleanly dressed. The Uzbek lays out the damp tunic, secretly washed after midnight, under his sheet and sleeps on it, drying it with his body, ironing it—he says that in winter using your body is the only way to dry things. Reveille. All around sleeping men jump up, tumbling off their beds like dried peas and dressing on the hop. The tunic’s still damp, but it’s smooth. The important thing is that it’s clean and smooth—no one will see that it’s damp. They’re driven out into the frost to line up. The cold is terrible, ferocious. But for some reason the Uzbek is glad. Soon the tunic will freeze under his greatcoat, and then he’ll stop feeling it and won’t even notice that in the afternoon it’s completely dry. That means the frost can act like the sun, can have the same power—so does that mean that heat and cold are the same thing? But the tunic really is dry on him, and he got the idea of making a lining out of white oilcloth, and no one even noticed. At night he just wiped it with a rag, and the lining was as good as new—he managed to find a piece of this non-transparent oilcloth somewhere. He says that in minus forty Celsius, they were forbidden to use the earflaps on their caps: supposedly that wasn’t cold enough for them to tie their caps shut. And that, says the Uzbek, means you’ll freeze your ears, they’ll suppurate and stick to your head. Oh, so cold, oh, so cold! The most terrible thing, he says, is what the winter does. He cut a little pair of wings out of his greatcoat, where no one would notice, and sewed them to his cap on the inside so that he could pull them down when he needed to and warm at least the tips of his ears, and no one spotted them. He says that when he was on mess detail, he was so hungry, he used to grab food straight out of the boiling cauldron with his hand. If the cook’s attention wandered, he dipped into the cauldron, grabbed something, stuffed it in his mouth quickly and swallowed it, hid it in his stomach. Waited. Grabbed. Stuffed. Swallowed. The important thing was not to be afraid of swallowing a boiling-hot piece, because if you burped it up or took too long, the cook would look round, and then all the cooks would fling themselves on you and beat you to death with their ladles.
That was the way he wanted to live, the way that he lived, Matiushin repeated over and over to himself, unable to understand: live so that no one notices you’re alive? But the Uzbek carried on talking. Even if someone asks you to bring them a mug of water, refuse, don’t do people any kindnesses. If someone falls, don’t help him up, let him lie there, that way they’ll bother you less. Think about how not to fall, not about how to interfere and be better than others. If you eat bread, think that you’re eating shit, and if you eat shit, think that you’re eating bread. Do the work you’re told to do with a good will, be patient, but don’t let them force you to do that work. Matiushin heard more and more fuzzily: don’t have a lot of things, spend all your money as soon as you get your hands on it, give it all away so no one can take anything from you by force or make you give it away. Respect the strong, acknowledge them, let yourself be beaten. If you don’t respect them, they’ll make you wish you were dead or kill you. You have to live, think about nothing but living day and night.
Even though it seemed to Matiushin that in listening to the Uzbek, he had penetrated a secret that no one else in this carriage knew, all this still remained alien and unnecessary to him. He felt sorry for the Uzbek, but all he could do was say nothing, calm in the knowledge that everything would be different for him, the way he wanted it to be: it couldn’t be any other way.
The vestibule and the berth emptied—lots of people were sleeping now. Those who weren’t asleep kept on waiting and waiting for something, although there’d been no point in waiting for ages already, no one had any inner strength left. That night, the train crossed a multitude of bridges, trundling over rivers. Almost every hour, there was that heart-stopping, airy rumble, as if they weren’t riding but flying high up into the sky.
The next twenty-four hours of the journey were over strange land—across the steppe. After the wild, drunken night, the bewildered men in the carriage gazed out of the windows, not recognizing this land. Gray bushes and clay hills, clay hills and gray bushes. The captain said nothing about when they would arrive and where, as if he were keeping an important secret. They guessed in riddles:
“We’ll get there when we need to… Wherever we’re going, that’s where we’ll get to…”
And then Matiushin suddenly realized with relief that the recruiting officer was calmly getting a good night’s sleep because their destination was already close.
Those who had saved some money started hanging on to it, and the implacable heat started driving everyone crazy. Men dropped on the spot without warning. The others poured water on them and they revived. Someone said they should drink more water, and the men dashed to drink not water but vodka, moonshine: they weren’t interested in enjoying themselves, they just wanted to get blasted. That night fights broke out. In their drunkenness, they smashed the windows in their carriage—to get some air. A bloody brawl started up, but the captain didn’t interfere, he remained stoic and said nothing. Clumping together for a smoke in the vestibule, three or four men who were still on their feet and had lost sight of sleep marveled at the captain’s good nature. Why did he put up with it? Why didn’t he take any notice? He only went once to the conductor who was selling the booze, and he couldn’t even frighten him. He’d made up his bed early and was lying there, sleeping. But would he report everything when they reached the unit? They could court-martial you for drunkenness now, couldn’t they, but could they court-martial everybody?
And then Matiushin suddenly realized with relief that the recruiting officer was calmly getting a good night’s sleep because their destination was already close. With that thought, he dragged himself back to his berth and lay down on his bunk, although he didn’t feel sleepy. But he did drop off, just for a moment—and woke up when men were already jostling in the passage and the berth with all their things, and the train was moving slower and slower. Shouts tore through the carriage, chasing each other along:
It was cool, almost cold, the sun wasn’t even on the rise yet, and a breeze as delicate as frothing cream quivered in the fresh-milk, steamy air. Matiushin’s bag seemed empty without any food, and he left it in the carriage, although his razor, toothbrush, soap and a lot of things that seemed worthless just then were still inside it. Solitary trees with dusty, gray skin like an elephant’s. And standing at a distance, white and gauzy: the station.
People drifting by, indifferent… Only an hour later they were being driven along in a covered army truck through smooth, even heat, as pure as breathing.
They offloaded somewhere in the backstreets—in a corner formed by whitewashed fences with bulging coils of barbed wire along the top and bitty little buildings with no windows that looked like storehouses crowding in from the sides, as squat as if they had been hammered into the dried-up earth blow by blow. The small open space was scorching in the hot sun. They stood in a crowd beside the truck. Fresh, neat officers flitted in and out of sight, questioning the captain, who looked at them respectfully, no doubt waiting to be dismissed. Soon, about ten sergeants were herded into the space from somewhere else and began standing guard, and the moment the officers went away, dirty little streams of soldiers started trickling through the sergeants’ sparse line of security. Armor-clad faces, sunburned black, stared insolently, only it wasn’t the Russians they were sizing up, but what they were wearing. There weren’t enough officers to impose order. They’d hidden from the blazing sun in the patch of shade on the other side of the barracks, where little green trees stood like sentries and the parade ground, scorched to desert whiteness, began. There behind the barracks huts, a semi-naked, half-wild crowd had come running and gathered on the parade ground, and the officers allowed it to gape at the new arrivals and bawl and yell on the small, sweltering hot islets of asphalt. From the parade ground, the crowd could see what the officers had hidden away from on that side of the barracks: soldiers menacing the guards and working away furtively once they got in behind them, not wasting a moment to grab their booty, accosting the recruits who were better dressed, intimidating them more and more brazenly by raising their fists and each snatching what he could.
And still, the soldiers kept on demanding more and more, as if it were all theirs. One who ended up with a shirt tossed it onto the roof of a hut and went back to trying to scrounge or steal something else. Shirts, T-shirts, shoes, cigarettes, jeans, wristwatches—they took all these and then fought in screeching frenzy over who would get what.
Then the Russians showed up, looking for men from their own parts. They had white teeth and a sickly sweet smell of eau de cologne. The officers let them through, probably because they knew them all by sight. The Russians had an aura of calm and self-confidence. Sitting down by the recruits, quizzing them crudely about where they were from, they struck up conversations and helped themselves to cigarettes, even if they couldn’t find anyone from back home. They said they served in some kind of special platoon, the only Russian platoon in the regiment—there weren’t any more Russians, only Ukrainians from previous drafts serving in the prison camp companies, and they’d been scattered around. That this was some kind of escort regiment. No one would have it easy in this regiment. And if anyone was put in the special platoon, he should soap up a piece of rope, that was that, they said, grinning: we won’t beat you on the first day, that’s our custom, but afterwards go hang yourselves, you’ve had it, guys. They started driving home the very sensible idea that it was best to give any money to them now. After all, they were Russians, their own kind.
Oleg Pavlov is one of the most highly regarded contemporary Russian writers. He has won the Russian Booker Prize (2002) and Solzhenitsyn Prize (2012), among many other awards. Born in Moscow in 1970, Pavlov spent his military service as a prison guard in Kazakhstan. Many of the incidents portrayed in his fiction were inspired by his experiences there. The Matiushin Case will be published by And Other Stories in July 2014. To learn more about their books, visit their website or become a subscriber and support great books from around the world.
Andrew Bromfield has been a full-time translator from Russian for more than twenty years. He is a co-founder and original editor of Glas, a journal of modern Russian literature in English translation. His numerous translations include most books by Victor Pelevin and Boris Akunin, Mikhail Bulgakov’s A Dead Man’s Memoir: A Theatrical Novel and A Dog’s Heart: An Appalling Story, Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace: Original Version, and the two-volume Russian Criminal Tattoo Encyclopaedia.