Smashed in the USSR: Fear, Loathing and Vodka on the Steppes

To Andrei

… there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so: to me it is a prison.





The phone rings late on Sunday evening. A man’s voice speaks in Russian. He introduces himself as Slava, a friend of Ivan Petrov’s.

“I’m with the police at Ivan’s flat,” the voice falters. “He died this morning. We found your number in his book. The police want to know if you will interpret for us.”

Ivan is dead. The words sound strange. Like a lie.

Constable Astwood’s careful English voice explains that there will be a post mortem. Automatically, in words that come from somewhere beyond my conscious mind, I relay the information to Slava in Russian.

Slava reassures me that Ivan died in his sleep.

“Was he drinking again?”

Another pause. “He was.”

Constable Astwood is back on the line. “There is one more thing…”


“I notice the deceased had a lot of books. Is there anyone who might take them? If not, the council will only burn them.”

I struggle to absorb this kindness. “Yes, yes of course. I’ll arrange it. Tomorrow. Thank you.”


I first met Ivan in 1996. He contacted me after reading a book I had written about life in provincial Russia.
He was here as a refugee, he said, seeking political asylum. He wanted to talk to me. I knew where he came from and he liked what I had written.

In the early nineties I had gone to live in the Samara region of Russia where Ivan’s home town of Chapaevsk lay. My fascination with the country had been sparked by an introduction to Dostoevsky in my teens; with the fall of the USSR I was free to explore it. Samara’s military installations had closed the area to westerners since the end of the Second World War. Many parts of the region were also off-limits to locals, apart from those with special permits. I wanted to know what life had been like behind that inner iron curtain. I arrived in 1992, just after the collapse of Soviet power. Compared to Moscow and other more accessible regions, the area was slow to change.

Chapaevsk was an industrial satellite of the city of Samara. I made several trips there to visit friends, and each time I returned with my head throbbing from the polluted air. Founded in 1911 and built up around a gunpowder factory, the town began as Ivashchenko, became Trotsk from 1919 until Trotsky’s exile in 1929; and ended up as Chapaevsk in honour of the Civil War hero. It was, in my friends’ words, “a town of death” – a contaminated pit of chemical and pesticide plants, ringed by secret military installations.

“Everyone was horrified when Chernobyl blew up,” they said, “but we have absorbed this poisoned atmosphere all our lives.”

Their daughter was in hospital with a blood disorder. We would stand in the hospital grounds while she lowered a
basket on a rope to receive books and foodstuffs. She was not allowed visitors for fear of infection. Later I was taken to the local orphanage, where many of the children suffered from skin diseases and serious developmental problems.

In the 1920s Chapaevsk began manufacturing chemical weapons for Germany, which was banned from making its own under the Treaty of Versailles. During World War Two, phosgene, mustard gas and Lewisite were produced for the USSR’s own use. After the war the plants were converted to the production of the now-banned pesticide lindane and its derivatives, liquid chlorine and other chlorinated chemicals. Emissions from these plants contained highly toxic dioxins. Slow to degrade, they lingered in the environment and accumulated in the food chain. In 1994 a United Nations special commission called the town an ecological disaster zone.

I was touched by the spirit of the people who lived in this forlorn, devastated region of smokestacks and phosphorescent green lakes.

“You’ve seen a lot,” Ivan said, when we first met at the
Centre on Grosvenor Place, “but I will tell you much more.”

A short, bearded man, he walked with the aid of a stick. His right leg scythed backwards, giving his whole body an impression of concavity. He had the squashed nose of a prize fighter, sparse teeth, and intelligent blue eyes. A crude sailing ship was tattooed on his forearm just above his wrist. In his early sixties, he looked ten years older.

“You want to know what it was like growing up there?” he grinned. “Well I’ll tell you! Do you mind if I smoke?”

We walked outside onto Grosvenor Place. Propping himself
against the railings, Ivan hooked his stick over his arm and rolled a cigarette. I strained to catch his Russian above the roar of traffic. “You see,” he cupped the flame of a match against the wind, “I was born in 1934. During the years when I grew up, it made no difference which side of the barbed wire you lived on.” He leaned back and exhaled. “Prisoners in camps, collective farmers, factory workers – it was all the same.”

Across the road barbed wire clouded the walls around Buckingham Palace gardens.

“You had a choice,” he continued, “you could carve out a career for yourself as an informer or bureaucrat; or else seek a way out.”

“And what did you do?”

“I was a sailor, a meteorologist in the Siberian taiga, a labourer in the Tien Shan mountains, but first and foremost I was a drunk.” He beamed. “Not an ordinary, drink-up-your-
drunk, or even a flog-your-house-and-furniture drunk, but a vagabond and a beggar.”

I was intrigued. “I thought it was forbidden to be a tramp in the Soviet Union?”

“It was. If they caught you they banged you up. I did a few years in camps. Still, I spent long enough on the road.” He pulled an empty matchbox from his pocket and tucked his extinguished cigarette end into it: “I am Ivan the Fifth!”

“Pleased to meet you. Why the Fifth?”

“You’ve heard of Ivan the Terrible?”


“Well he was the ‘Fourth,’ so I am the Fifth. Ivan the Drunk! But I am not drinking now and I want to tell you my story.”

I had already written about the lives of people of his region:
collective farmers, a wise woman who told fortunes, the new businessmen… But this man was offering to take the lid off the ‘lower depths’ of Soviet society, a world virtually unknown in the west. I had read a lot of gulag literature, most of it written by men and women from a different class of society, from the intelligentsia, or somewhere fairly close to those circles. Beside me was someone of an altogether different order.

But it went deeper than intellectual curiosity. As I stood listening to Ivan I recalled another man – also named Ivan – whom I had known in Samara. A young businessman who had been brought up in a children’s home, he had a similar enthusiasm for talking about subjects most people preferred to hide, a cheerfulness, an ability to ‘laugh through tears,’ as the Russians say. I missed that quality.

I missed the country too. Standing beside Ivan on a dusty London street, I no longer saw the red buses and black taxis. I was back on the bridge of a Volga pleasure cruiser, steering it downriver, the city on the left bank, blue steppe-land rolling away on the other. Behind me the great river wound its way back towards the gelid lakes and marshes of the north; before me it coursed for a thousand kilometres down to the Caspian Sea. Excited to have a foreigner aboard, the captain had let me take the helm. The expansiveness and exhilaration of that voyage epitomised what I loved about Russia. Life was harsher than at home but at the same time less constrained. Back then, in the early nineties, it had seemed as though anything were possible.

“What about money?” I hauled myself back to the present: “And there’s no guarantee that the book will find a publisher…” I was guessing that this man shared the usual unrealistic Russian hopes of the West.

Ivan waved his hand in dismissal. “I don’t need money; I want my story to be told.”

Like a latter-day Ancient Mariner. We never mentioned the subject of money again.

I arrived for our first session at Ivan’s address in Hackney. He lived in a substantial Victorian terrace carved up into a warren of units that sheltered the newly-arrived. I hesitated by the bell. Above it ‘Ivan the Fifth’ was scrawled in Cyrillic letters on the rough paintwork of the wall. How much of his life would this man be able to remember? He had not had a drink for a year, he told me. He had been writing down his memories.

The slow thump of Ivan’s stick approached the door. He ushered me into a communal hall where giggling Somali children tumbled over a musty carpet. We went upstairs to the two-roomed flat he shared with another asylum-seeker. An entire wall was lined with books: politics, history and classics, in Russian and English. He could read English with the help of a dictionary, he said, although he spoke it badly.

He had prepared a meal of
adzhap sandal
– Georgian vegetable stew. Then we watched a Soviet film:
The Cold Summer of ’53
, about a struggle between criminal and political prisoners. That was to become our pattern. Each week or fortnight we would spend an afternoon together, Ivan smoking and drinking strong black tea while I ate the excellent lunches he prepared. Afterwards we would discuss the work-in-progress and then watch an old film. Some, like
Cold Summer
, were about a facet of life that Ivan wanted me to understand; occasionally we would enjoy a Soviet romantic comedy that evoked a lost, more innocent age. As I left Ivan would hand me a tape with a recording of the next instalment of his story. Later, he bought
a second hand typewriter and gave me a few pages each week, which saved me the chore of transcribing words that were not always clear, consonants often vanishing through gaps where his teeth had fallen out.

As we worked, I crosschecked factual details. Later I had an English-speaking Russian check a draft of the story for authenticity, for nuances that I as a foreigner might have missed. My reader said he laughed his way through much of the tale: “That was our lives!”

Ivan’s long-term memory seemed remarkably intact. Although his drinking bouts had generally ended in blackout, he was able to describe the periods between drinking sessions, including his years in prison camps where he – usually – could not get hold of alcohol. There had also been times when alcohol failed to bring the oblivion he craved. Then he recalled his physical and mental agony in searing detail. In fact, it may have been the ‘dry’ periods – sometimes extending for a couple of years or more, that saved Ivan from developing alcoholic dementia, like those sufferers he saw in his many sobering-up hospitals.

A discrepancy emerged between the character he portrayed and the way I saw him. He was always solicitous of my
. When my computer broke down he arranged for a friend of his to sell me one cheaply and help me install it. When I was recovering from flu he brought me honey sent over from his nephew’s beehives near Chapaevsk. On the occasions when we worked in my flat he never arrived empty-handed. He brought ingredients and taught me to cook Russian dishes.

One day in December I pressed my front door buzzer to admit Ivan. He seemed to take longer than usual on the stairs. The thumps of his stick slowed. I opened the door to see Ivan
climbing the last few stairs, bent over beneath a Christmas tree he was hauling on his back: “For you, Caroline.” He always addressed me by the respectful ‘
’ form of the Russian ‘you.’

The warmth and generosity of the real life Ivan were missing from his story, but I understood that years of drinking had eroded his self-esteem to the bone. He wanted to relieve himself of his memories as honestly as he could and I trusted him all the more because he painted himself in such a bleak light.

As I listened to Ivan an understanding grew – a sense of familiarity. At first I put this down to environment. I had seen the factories Ivan described and the football stadium where he watched his local team – except by 1993 the stands had collapsed.

But it was more than that; I recognised the features of Ivan’s internal landscape: his self-destructive behaviour and his justifications for it. Over the course of two years he recounted his life with a logic I never had to question. For I was essentially no different to him; I reacted to alcohol as he did. If I had one glass I needed a dozen more, just as some people have to finish the whole box of chocolates.

There was a time when alcohol gave me a sense of elation and invulnerability – like being at the helm of that Volga cruiser with a Kalashnikov by my side. Inevitably, the effect began to diminish and it took longer to recover from drinking sessions. Work was an irritation; friends were confined to those who could match my capacity. I shared Ivan’s restlessness. He tramped the Soviet Union; I travelled the globe. When things didn’t go my way I blamed others, just as Ivan did. But I could not believe I was an alcoholic, for they were people like him who lived on garbage dumps. And I never drank anti-dandruff lotion, although I did develop a taste for
– Russian home-distilled spirits.
When I first arrived in Samara people would take me into their bathrooms and show me their stills. I congratulated myself on my choice of destination. Then one night I walked home after a dinner party, oblivious to the cold, entranced by starlight on snow. I ended up in hospital. The Kazakh urologist told me to stay off the vodka and for a while I heeded his advice.

As I pieced together Ivan’s story I recognised the rationales, the fear, the self-obsession and the compulsion. He described it all so vividly that I felt as though I were looking into a mirror.

We never drank together; neither of us wanted to drink. In our own ways we used the book as a life buoy, letting go at the end and swimming off in opposite directions.

At times it hurt Ivan to relive episodes of his life – particularly those that involved his wife and daughter. Looking back, I probably should not have been surprised when he went silent for a month. No one answered the phone. I started to worry, fearing the worst. I dreaded to think that the work we had begun might have been in vain. Finally a call came. A hoarse voice invited me round.

“Yes, I drank.” Ivan admitted. “I had the dt’s. I went to hospital. They refused to give me anything to help. They probably thought I was a drug addict too.”

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