By Caleb Daniloff
When I was twenty, I set off from Boston on an ill-fated cross-country trip with two of my closest friends at the time. There was a weird vibe from the outset. Maybe it was the odd-man-out feeling. They had history and I was relatively new to the friendship. In Texas, I backed the VW Vanagon into a tree, and since the engine was in the rear, this led to breakdowns. In Austin, we got burned in a drug deal. In New Orleans, I dropped way too much money at strip clubs. By the time we reached California, I was broke and had to send for a plane ticket home. As my two friends drove back east, the engine caught fire and the van burst into flames, destroying most everything inside. Fortunately, they were unharmed. But I was blamed. We all remained friends for a while, but things never felt the same. I’ve sometimes wondered whether if we had sat in silent contemplation before the journey—what the Russians call sidets pered dorogi—whether we and our bond might have been protected.
A few years earlier, when I returned to the United States from five-and-a-half years in the Soviet Union, the son of an American correspondent, I brought with me a handful of Russian superstitions—a bag of Slavic juju that had served as glue among my Moscow pals, little counter spells to keep bad luck at bay. But I couldn’t get them to work with my new American friends. If a person or object, say a lamppost or car, separated us while walking together, I was met with a blank look when I reached for a reunifying handshake. I cautioned fellow smokers from lighting a third butt off a single match. Death was known to take notice. Over time though, along with my Russian dreams and Moscow street slang, these pieces of magical thinking flaked away.
But they bubbled back up recently after a New York Times article this month described pockets of hysteria across Russia over the Mayan prophecy of konets sveta, that the world will end on Dec. 21. Female inmates, trembling with panic, were breaking out of prison, according to the article. There were runs on matches, candles, kerosene, and portable stoves (though their value in the post-extinction era is unclear). Things were getting so bad, the government and Church stepped in to try and restore calm, urging, among other things, that TV stations not air any more reports about the doomsday scenario.
My great grandfather, a military advisor to Tsar Nicholas II, saw the looming Bolshevik surge and spirited his teenage sons out of the country. The boys ended up in the States, on Harvard scholarships created for refugees of the Russian revolution. And 50 years later, I ended up an American.
While much has changed since my years in the grim-faced U.S.S.R.—the jettisoning of fourteen republics, ostentatious displays of capitalistic wealth, renamed streets and cities, dismantled statues, Starbucks, homelessness, disease, terrorism—picturing mighty Russia in near panic struck me as odd. Pessimistic and fatalistic yes, paranoid and superstitious check, but hysterical? Surely if the skies start blackening and the earth opens up, President Putin would take a moment from throttling a wild Siberian boar to roundhouse kick the apocalypse back to 250 A.D. I sent the Times article to a couple Russian friends. They dismissed the situation as a commercial ploy to sell more goods and services. Of course. Russia doesn’t get extinguished. No, Russia is the one that extinguishes. Russia is the prophecy. It had certainly ended my world. Several times over.
Call it a family curse. In 1825, my great, great, great-grandfather, Alexander Frolov, was sentenced to eternal exile for his part in a plot to overthrow Tsar Nicholas I. Branded a Decembrist, he was shackled and shipped by sled from his privileged St. Petersburg existence to toil in Siberia’s silver mines, then live out his days farming the tundra. Some 80 years later, in 1917, my great grandfather, Yuri Danilov, a military advisor to Tsar Nicholas II (somehow, we got back in the royal good graces), saw the looming Bolshevik surge and spirited his teenage sons out of the country. The boys ended up in the States, on Harvard scholarships created for refugees of the Russian revolution. And 50 years later, I ended up an American.
I was an anxious, shame-filled boy, who still wet his bed in the sixth grade. I had an annoying sniffing tic, increasingly deep and repetitive as if trying to inhale all the contents of each room. In the pockets of my Tuffskins bounced bottle caps and 20-sided D&D dice; underneath were skinny thighs that smelled vaguely like urine. I snacked on dry cat food. Toss in my big ears and a growing love of gymnastics and I was fast-tracking to Nerd Town; school lockers waited to receive dents the shape of my back and shoulders.
Russia put an end to all that. My dad, compelled to do a second journalistic tour in the land of his fathers, moved us to Cold-War Moscow in 1981. My 11-year-old world was scythed off at the neck. Thwack! No more Daredevil comics, no more hit points and broad swords, no more BJ and the Bear, no more Mello Yellos, no more Halloween. And no more older sister, who stayed behind to start college, rendering me, for all intents and purposes, an only child. But more curiously, and most amazingly, no more bed-wetting, no more tic, no more anxiety. I was born again, even given a Russified name. Caleb Daniloff, meet Kalyeb Nikolayevich Danilov. I didn’t know who I was, and now I was someone different.
But just as Russia had snuffed out the light of my various worlds, it had shown me that the same force could be channeled for rebirth.
My new home was a land that, beneath its dour grey apartment blocks, black Revolutionary statues and red street banners, pulsed with death and upheaval and foreboding, soaked with centuries of spilled blood and tears. Spread across nine time zones and bordered by multiple countries (read enemies), Russia was ravaged by the Mongol hordes in the 13th century, invaded by Napoleon in the 1800s (Moscow was burned upon his arrival), turned upside-down by the bloody 1917 Revolution and Civil War, paralyzed by Stalin’s wave of terror, staggered by the Nazi invasion, and shattered by the Soviet Union’s eventual collapse in 1989. It’s not surprising that the superstitions I later picked up were only a handful of the hundreds Russians have at their disposal to gird against bad times.
In homage to our Russian past, my parents knotted a crimson scarf around my neck and sent me to Pioneer camp, then dressed me in a Soviet school uniform when I returned. I rolled with it. And in exchange, I was rendered wildly popular at School no. 80—an exotic novelty tittered over, stared at, sought after, untouchable. Naturally, I went native, donning brown cotton track suits, a padded workman’s jacket, and rabbit-fur hat, spitting sunflower seed shells from my lips. I learned to shoot smoke rings, down bottles of rotgut wine in a single gulp, and huff cleaning fluid in dimly lit stairwells. The shy, skinny kid with his head buried in baseball stats and bags of Roy Rogers french fries was as diffuse as blood in water. For the next five years, all was more or less good.
Until Pa was arrested by the KGB on bogus espionage charges and jailed in Moscow’s notorious Lefortova prison. After some intense international diplomacy and blistering media coverage, he was released and our family deported. Thwack!
I arrived back on America soil, a 16-year-old stranger in my own land, with a budding drinking problem that would soon turn chronic, shot through with any drugs I could get my hands on. That’s the thing about Russia: it always leaves a mark. Blurred vision, blurred roads, blurred morals became my normal. I got myself kicked out of high school. Thwack! Fired from work. Thwack! Sabotaged my romantic relationships. Thwack! Thwack! Thwack! I grew used to radical world change, to exiling myself from my own life. For years, this is how it went, my fate, the prophecy.
But just as Russia had snuffed out the light of my various worlds, it had shown me that the same force could be channeled for rebirth. At age 29, worn out by coke-fueled benders, a perpetually jackhammered skull, and a mess of anemic bank balance receipts, I took a scythe to my own guilty and lonely existence. I finished my final morning beers and—Thwack!—just like that, I exiled myself from the world of hangovers and broken relationships and self-loathing. In a field of debris, I slowly began rebuilding another one. Surprising even myself, I became a runner, a marathoner, gripping the road as tightly as I once gripped the bottle. Through running, I changed my body, my mind, my spirit. I put distance between me and the cynical, narcissistic drunk I’d been. As I grind out soul-soothing miles along the river near my home, I sometimes think about this tumultuous path; it was never quite of my own choosing. I think about fate and prophecy. To this, Russia might say, simply, gruffly, be quiet and be grateful to have suffered. That’s where strength is born.
I am grateful. I truly am. And I’ll still spit three times over my left shoulder just to make sure it doesn’t come back anytime soon.
Caleb Daniloff is a Boston-based writer and author of Running Ransom Road: Confronting the Past, One Marathon at a Time (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Oct., 2012), his memoir about using running as a sobriety tool.