The ‘Jaws’ of Victory
That spring of 1988 was a spring like no other. At the end of March, the elderly Minister of Defense issued his bi-annual decommissioning order. It was published in all the major newspapers — a small and inconspicuous looking item at the bottom of the back page of the Izvestia or Pravda, or that idiotic army paper that we loved to mock (the Red Star?). However, for those of us who had been drafted in the Spring of 1986, it wasn’t so ‘small’. My best friend and fellow infantry sergeant, Yurik, used his connections outside the base to procure multiple copies of the papers carrying the order that heralded our freedom. We then carved out the tiny squares — to be ironed into plastic sheaths and carried around in the breast pockets of our fatigues, a symbol of our enhanced social standing, and a memento to be preserved for future generations.
Yes, technically we were still soldiers but only barely; we were more like civilians in waiting. Even the officers, especially the young lieutenants, began to treat us with certain respect and consideration. We were дембеля, the ones on the brink of discharge, inhabiting a liminal space between serfdom and emancipation. The ambiguity of this status was a source of both excitement and anxiety. The days dragged on. We smoked a great deal in silence. We tried to read but couldn’t. We hung around with the Uzbek kitchen cohort at the canteen. In the after hours, the Uzbeks grilled pork. Makhsudbek, the head chef, assured us that it was lamb. Not pork, no. Pork was not halal and he would never touch it. Only he did, of course. Yurik delighted in observing Makhsudbek’s contortions and played along, praising his magic culinary touch and the delicious ‘lamb’. I remember thinking how easy it was to manufacture one’s own truth, to turn fiction into reality by giving it a name.
Those final weeks — they crawled. Some of us were counting the days; the more anxious souls were counting hours. In the meantime, in those rare moments when we could find it in ourselves to pause our dreams of freedom — of home-cooked meals, sex, and family reunions — certain thoughts and questions crept in. Something strange was afoot beyond the fenced-off perimeter of our sleepy military town. In early March, a huge fight broke out between the Azeri and Armenian privates of the 3rd mechanized infantry battalion. Apparently, the brawl’s origins could be traced to an interethnic conflict unfolding in a mountainous region some 2500 kilometers away from our base. Afterwards, our company commander, a wounded Afghan vet, looked worried: “Not a good sign; when this sort of hatred bubbles up to the surface, countries fall apart. Trust me, I’ve seen this shit happen in real time.” Captain Oganesian was a kindly psychopath, damaged by the horrors he witnessed during the battle of Zhawar. An ethnic Armenian, he was a pleasant enough guy when sober.
There were some other indirect signs of a seismic shift occurring in the vast country beyond our garrison town. In his regular letters to me, my father started making constant opaque references to “something new that I’ve read, something that could have never been published before.” In one of his last letters to me he mentioned a vacation he was planning for my post-discharge weeks. We would go to a Lithuanian resort, famous for its sandy dunes, but more importantly, for its public library, which was well stocked with subscriptions to Moscow’s literary magazines. “We’ll read,” my dad promised. “We’ll read and read and read. There’s so much to read now.” All this sounded disorienting. After two years of isolation, I harbored less ambitious expectations.
And then there were letters from my girlfriend, a prolific and emotive writer. During her previous semester she had gone on a study abroad trip to East Germany and had returned overwhelmed by the experience. In her letters, she kept referencing locations with strange-sounding names: Leipzig, Halle, Jena, among others. Apart from some of my commanding officers, who had fought in Afghanistan, Angola, and Central America, she was the only person I knew who had been abroad. “It’s almost as if you are dating a foreigner,” opined the all-knowing Yurik, who in his twenty-two years on earth had never crossed the borders of the Vladimir region. Before serving in the army, he had done eighteen months for aggravated battery in a penal colony for delinquents. The charges resulted from a battle royal between Yurik’s ‘crew’ of local thugs and a group of artillery cadets. The two factions clashed on the hardwood dance floor of Vladimir’s most dangerous spot — the Park of Culture and Rest of the Toilers, named after the city’s namesake, Vladimir Lenin.
The park, and especially its famed dance floor, were central to Yurik’s personal story and identity. It was on this sacred turf that Yurik’s homeboys and the cadets vied for the affections of a trio of Ukrainian yarn spinners, who happened to be on a summer training assignment at a local textile factory. It was certainly not his first fight at Lenin Park, but it was one that went particularly badly for Yurik: blood was spilled, and the militia caught Yurik literally red-handed (his hands all bloodied), since he was in possession of a well-sharpened metal object of some unknown industrial origin. Predictably, the cadets were let off the hook, while Yurik, who was not a future Soviet army officer like them but rather a disposable local hoodlum, was turned into a handy scapegoat. The battered artillerists moved on with their army careers. Meanwhile, Yurik was sent to a juvenile detention center, conveniently situated just outside Vladimir’s city limits. So no, there wasn’t much globe-trotting in his case. Besides, Yurik’s geographic ambitions were modest, and he most certainly never expected to set foot, for example, inside the German State Library of the University of Jena (Thüringer Universitäts- und Landesbibliothek Jena), first founded in 1558; or even anywhere near this famed library — on the cobblestones of Jena’s old town, where, in 1806, emperor Napoleon triumphantly rode his grey Arabian past the philosopher Hegel.
Besides the serialized travelogue, my girlfriend’s letters contained other intriguing cues, pointing to a world apparently changed beyond my immediate recognition. Take the Belgian exchange student, for example, and his mad crush on my girlfriend. In several of her letters, she went to great lengths to describe the ups and downs of their relationship. ‘Ups’ for her due to the excitement of being pursued by a bespectacled native French-speaker; ‘Downs’ for him, I assumed (naively, Yurik thought), because of my continuing, albeit long-distance, presence in her life. The Belgian’s heartache was of little interest to me — far less interesting than the mere fact of his corporeal existence: a flesh-and-blood Belgian was walking the streets of my city, wooing my girlfriend. I had never met a Belgian before, but I did have a one-franc Belgian coin in my collection, which bore the image of a young woman, depicted in profile, wearing a headdress. The coin was minted in 1976, the year I started elementary school. Before the army, I considered it one of my cherished possessions. The Belgian student probably had a pocketful of such coins — loose change for him, no doubt.
It occurred to me that it would’ve been nice to meet him in person, to become his friend. It was a strange aspiration on my part, but the perceived end of history can be a time of moral confusion. “I told you,” Yurik said, “dating your girl is totally like dating a foreigner. It’s almost like being a foreigner. Remember those Cuban lieutenants, who were assigned to the second battalion for training last year? It’s probably sort of like that, like being around them. Fun!” Yurik’s associative thinking often left me scratching my head.
It was Yurik, of course, who first got wind of the opening of the first ever ‘commercial’ video salon in town, on the premises of the workers’ canteen at the railroad depot. The canteen was one of our favorite spots in a drab garrison town that had few gastronomical options. Once a week we would sneak off the base for a couple of hours and head down to the depot, where Galina the cook, whose long-suffering and callused heart always softened at the sight of Yurik, treated us to a generous meal of meatloaf and mashed potatoes, followed by a glass of sour cream.
We usually showed up at the depot soon after the lunch hour rush to avoid unfriendly witnesses (some of our officers’ wives worked at the railroad yards), and the even less friendly black-striped patrols from the tank division, who had a thing for us red-striped infantrymen. Galina watched us eat with motherly tenderness, giving most of her attention to Yurik and making sure that his glass of sour cream remained at least half-full. “You little soldiers,” she would sigh, “you silly little soldiers. Don’t they feed you at that base of yours?” An invisible but powerful bond connected her to Yurik, or rather, as she herself put it, to “his kind.” The two of them understood each other without exchanging too many words. They came from similar places and shared the same lane on life’s journey. She was not unkind to me, but I was clearly a stranger (and strange) to her. Not Yurik though. She’d sigh (she sighed a lot) and she’d point at Yurik with a wet kitchen towel: “Your buddy here will be alright. He’s a city boy, a student. But you sweetie, ah, you’re trouble. I just know, know your type, seen too many of you.” Sadly, she was right. Our meal was usually bookended by the passage of the Gorky-Leningrad express, which sped by without slowing down because the station was too insignificant even for a 5-minute whistle stop. I’d look on longingly at the tail-end of a quickly disappearing train. In fifteen hours it would pull into Moscow Railway Station in Leningrad, just a 10-minute walk from my apartment. In fifteen hours the train would arrive in a city that I missed very much, a city where my girlfriend was busy with her classes while also tending to the broken heart of an exchange student from Belgium.
The canteen didn’t entirely abandon its primary purpose, but its backspace was suddenly taken over by a couple of heavy-set individuals, clad in black leather jackets. The two were men of few words and direct action. Within days they erected a partition, cordoning off this back portion of the dining hall by means of heavy black drapes. Behind the drapes they lined up a few chairs in front of a plastic café table, flimsy and unstable on its rickety aluminum legs. A TV monitor was placed atop the table, elevated on a pile of sawed-off plywood boards for a better viewing experience. The monitor was connected to a device that Yurik told me was called a ‘vidak’. I had never seen a video player. The contraption, when described by Yurik, sounded futuristic. The men in black, as I now think of them, were the harbingers of a brave new world awaiting us in the months and years ahead; they were ‘guests from the future’, who alighted on the dirty linoleum floor of this decrepit canteen to show us the way, and guide us toward the flickering lights of the end of history.
We planned our first visit to the video salon meticulously. Yurik engaged one of his numerous contacts to secure a copy of the hourly schedule of the patrolling units, especially the notorious ones from the tank and artillery regiments (both black-striped and therefore potentially hostile). The staff officer on duty that day was an amicable drunk, temperamental but otherwise not a threat. Yurik sweet-talked him into a minor dereliction of his responsibility of immediately reporting any discovered absentees from the base. The kindly major agreed to look the other way for a couple of hours, and a pack of Bulgarian TU-134 cigarettes sealed the deal. Most of the officers were conveniently absent from the barracks, practicing their BMP-driving skills on the slopes of the tank range by the river. The roar of the engines echoed from afar, the distant sound mixing soothingly with the chirruping of spring birds fluttering above the deserted marching grounds. That springtime of 1988 felt like peacetime, a time of renewal.
Around midday Yurik and I scaled the fence and sprinted as quickly as we could towards the muddy alleys of the civilian district. We aimed to put some distance between our uniformed bodies and the heavily patrolled perimeter of the base. We reached Abelman Street in record time. For some unknown to me reason half of the streets of this sad garrison town bore the names of slain Jewish revolutionaries; perhaps not surprisingly, ideological zeal and provincial naivete were co-features of the local municipal government.
Abelman Street was no Nevsky Prospect, but it did offer a few reminders of civilian life: there was a trolley route, a fire station, a movie theatre called Little Star, and a café with the same name. The street stooped down to the main square by the train station, bypassing a brutalist administrative building that also housed a one-room post office.
For me, the post office had a special significance; every couple of weeks, I would leave the base and head down Abelman Street to the post office, where I would try and call my girlfriend in Leningrad from one of the two wood-panelled phone booths that occupied half of the waiting area. Sometimes the telephone gods smiled and the calls got through. On such occasions, Yurik stayed outside and on the lookout for the black-chevroned military patrols. He was really good at spotting them, and every so often his shrill warning whistle pierced the grey concrete and forced an unceremonious end to my static-ridden attempts at wooing.
But this time around we didn’t stop at the post office. We didn’t even slow down. Instead, we marched past the station and on to the depot.
“It’s an American film,” Yurik had explained before we left the base.
“What kind of an American film?”
“Who knows. It’s American alright. Galina told me it was about a dinosaur, a kids’ movie, but funny. She’ll reserve two chairs for us, at a ruble per head.”
“Do you remember the name of the movie?”
“Who cares? What’s with all these questions? But actually — wait. I do remember. I think that it sounds like something dental…”
“Yes, something like a ‘fang’.”
“Oh, like Jack London’s White Fang?”
“Jack who? Never heard about him, but yeah, something like that. Wait a minute —actually, no, not ‘White Fang’. It’s a different word. It’s —.” Yurik furrowed his brow and looked pensively into the distance. Then he fished an unfiltered Prima out of his inside pocket and lit it expertly with a match. He took a long careful drag on the cigarette and slowly let out the smoke as a series of tiny shapely rings. Apparently, the exercise cleared his head, because suddenly he remembered: “It’s called Jaws! Yes, JAWS. I told you it had something dental about it. I have exceptional memory for such things. It’s an American movie about a dinosaur.”
About ten minutes into the film I began to suspect that we were not dealing with a kid-friendly dinosaur. It had to be a different, far deadlier beast. There were eight of us, seated on plastic canteen chairs arranged in two rows in front of the TV screen. I did some quick math in my head: eight rubles per screening, probably five screenings per day, would yield 40 rubles. This was a princely sum — about half of the monthly salary my mom earned as a kindergarten teacher.
The owners of the ‘vidak’ knew what they were doing; they were part of a new mysterious cohort that captured the spirit of the time. They had arrived from the future and that future smelled like money. It also smelled a little bit like Galina’s signature meatloaf, and almost imperceptibly like the sea breeze caressing the sandy beaches on Amity Island, off the coast of New England. The moviegoers watched the horror unfolding onscreen in total silence — so serious and set in their determination to persevere that one would think we were attending an organ recital at the Philharmonic. Everyone was smoking, Yurik excessively. Now and then he shifted uneasily in the chair and swore under his breath. It was strange to see him so tense and uncomfortable in these surroundings. In the course of the last two years of our friendship, I had come to believe that nothing, nothing at all could throw Yurik off balance. He was a fearless thug, a seasoned dance floor brawler, a battle-scarred risk-taker, who knew how to hold the world in his cold stare. Nothing could faze my friend. He had never sidestepped a fight. At the age of seventeen he went to prison and emerged from it unreformed in terms of his addiction to danger. Who would’ve known that in the late-Soviet dusk, sitting on a rickety plastic chair, enveloped by cigarette fumes and the stale aromas of the railroad canteen, he’d finally meet his match.
We lasted until the moment when oceanographer Cooper discovered the half-devoured body of Gardner, the fisherman. Suddenly, Yurik leaned into me, breathing hard, his heavy-lidded brown eyes full of angst and terror: “Fuck it, just fuck it. Let’s go!”
I was only too happy to follow suit. On the other side of the partition we bumped into Galina, who was peeling potatoes, dropping the skins into a misshaped aluminum basin. She examined us with vague curiosity. “How is the film?”
Yurik waved his hand, “What film? These Americans are a bunch of sickos. And that’s their idea of a kids’ movie? Fuck that. We’re out of here!” Galina gave him a look of tender concern, sighed, and proceeded to peel the potatoes. I figured she had never stepped behind the black curtain. Just like us, she was not of that particular future.
Outside, we smoked for a while silently until Yurik asked, “Do you think they are doing this on purpose?”
“Who is doing what on purpose?”
“What do you mean ‘Who’? Who! The Americans, of course! Setting up these fucking video salons, destroying our morale, bringing the country to the brink, one fucked-up movie at a time.”
Frankly, I didn’t believe we needed any outside intervention to extinguish our morale. A few years later, Yurik would come to Leningrad on the eve of my impending departure for the United States to say goodbye. He didn’t look all that great and showed signs of wear. His drinking habit was all too obvious. It was a sad and memorable day. By the time I was able to load him up on the Leningrad-Gorky express he was too weak with booze to talk. I hugged him for the last time, since I knew I’d never to see my friend again. As Galina had said: “Trouble, trouble.” She knew his kind only too well.
But that would happen later. For now we were still smoking outside the canteen, exhaling our fear in tiny, perfectly rounded white rings. The light wind, coming from the river, carried off the smoke towards the slopes of the driving range, where the miniature (at that distance) tanks moved across a familiar obstacle course. At this remove, the tanks looked like toys — as if some invisible toddlers were playing war.
“Look at them,” Yurik said, pointing at the distant range. “What a fucking waste of time and diesel. Moving around like some stupid chafers, and it’s not even May.” ‘May’ held a special meaning for us. It was the month of our promised discharge.
At the corner of Abelman and Sverdlov streets we were sighted by an artillery patrol. The officer hung back, but the two soldiers accompanying him gave us a lazy chase. When they got closer, I could tell by the look of their ill-fitting uniforms that they were young recruits, the ‘spirits’ as we called them. We had nothing to fear, as they clearly had no desire to catch us. We trotted unhurriedly along the perimeter fence until we reached a convenient spot to climb over it. Our two pursuers, now out of their officer’s field of vision, paused and motioned to us, indicating their preference to see us escape.
Yurik’s mood had apparently brightened. “Poor fuckers,” he pointed his chin in the direction of the stationary patrol. “Black-striped, but still good guys despite this obvious handicap. And the saddest thing is that we’re almost free, and they got another two years of bullshit ahead of them.” We smiled knowingly at each other, waved a thank-you at the recruits, and approached the fence. It was a spring like no other, the last spring of service. The snow had almost entirely melted and only remained in darkened dirty patches along the banks of the river and by the tank tracks of the driving range. The Cold War was drawing to an end and its history’s last chapter was upon us. Only we didn’t know it. Not yet.
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Maxim Matusevich has published extensively as a historian, but in the last few years has also begun to write fiction – mostly in English, but occasionally in his native Russian. His short stories, essays, and a couple of novellas appeared in the Kenyon Review, New England Review, the Bare Life Review, Transitions, San Antonio Review, MumberMag, Anti-Heroin-Chic, BigCityLit, the Wild Word, Foreign Literary, ReLevant, East-West Literary Forum, and a number of other publications.