Zyama pulled out his military ID, stuck it in the guard’s face and ordered to open the door.
We stepped into a sun-lit square surrounded by two- and three-story buildings. An alley on its far-end side led deeper into the garrison.
We walked to a building on our right, climbed two flights of stairs and reached a wooden blue door at the end of a long dark corridor.
“The colonel is a nice guy,” Zyama said when we stopped in front of the door. “Don’t open your mouth unless he asks you a question.”
He knocked and after a muffled yes from the other side, we walked in.
An obese frog of a man with large bags under his eyes sat behind the desk. It had stacks of manila folders, printing paper, and a crystal ashtray full of cigarette butts. The colonel was about to add one more to the heap. He held it next to his puffed lips between two fingers, face behind a smoke screen.
“Kapitan,” he said blowing smoke out of his mouth. “What brings you here?” He pointed at the chair next to his desk and said, “Have a seat.”
I followed Zyama as a dog on a leash. He sat down, crossed his mile-long legs and capped his hands on top of a knee.
“This young man here,” he nodded toward me, “his coach doesn’t want him anymore. Wants his career to end. He wants him to rot in the army.”
“Is he in my garrison?”
The colonel looked me over from the feet to the top of my head as if a fashion model walked into his cabinet.
“How long he’s got to go?” he said.
“This is an anti-missile defense training unit, Captain, and you bring me a ghost? What am I supposed to do with him?”
“I’ll take him back in two or three weeks.”
“I thought you wanted him to rot in the army.”
“His coach does. I don’t. I want him to race.”
“You and your bloody super stars, Captain. What are we teaching these kids? How to con the Motherland?”
“C’mon, Colonel. You like watching them winning Olympic Games, don’t you?”
“I don’t give a rat’s ass about your games. We’re here today still standing because Stalin didn’t play games. Too many players nowadays, Captain, not enough heroes.”
He paused, lit another cigarette, and said, “If he’s still here after two weeks, I’ll have to get rid of him. He’s of no use to me.”
“Don’t worry,” Zyama said.
He picked up a receiver, dialed two digits on the rotary phone and said, “Send Sergeant Beregovoy to me.”
Sergeant Beregovoy took me to the barracks after the Colonel explained the situation to him. One was painted pink, the other was lemon-yellow. We entered the pink one.
“Yellow barrack is for salagas,” Sergeant said. “You’re in your second year, right?”
“Sorry. Yes, sir.”
“I don’t need your sorry. Yes or no, that’s all I need to hear from you.”
The vestibule we entered had two doorways on its left and right sides. A meter-tall face of Marshal Sokolov, the USSR’s Minister of Defense, stared at me from the back wall when we walked in. The doorway on the right led to the toilets. We turned left and entered a dormitory half the size of an Olympic swimming pool. Rows of bunk beds divided into two isles by a three-meter wide passage in the middle filled the room. A lot of daylight flowed in through four human-height windows. A TV hung on the far-end wall with a white bust of Lenin mounted on top of it.
“See that bed in the corner? With no boots next to it?” Sergeant said. “It’s yours.”
He told me I could sit but not lie down on my bed until otboi at ten o’clock. “I catch you lying in bed between six in the morning and ten at night, you’ll be cleaning toilets for a week,” he said.
Another rule was to never turn the TV on. “TV is for the I Serve the Soviet Union program on Sundays. That’s it. Don’t touch it.”
“Can I go outside?” I said.
“No. You go outside when I tell you to go outside. You sit here and wait. I need to organize you some uniform.”
He left the dorm in military stride booming every time he landed a foot on a wooden floor.
I sat next to a window and looked at men in khakis coming in and out of buildings on the other side of the square.
When Sergeant Beregovoy returned, I was lying on the floor. Pillow under my head, eyes closed, counting sergeant’s steps between the doorway and my bed.
“Soldier!” he yelled. “Get up.”
I stood up with arms to the hips.
“What did I tell you about lying in bed?”
“You said not to lie in bed between six and ten.”
We stood and looked at each other, his lips tight, eyes glowing with hate. Angry words about to burst out of his mouth.
“Listen to me smart ass,” he said. “You can have an easy two weeks here or I can make it a hell for you. Take a pick.”
“Easy two weeks,” I said.
“Good. Now, I checked with our supply people, we don’t keep uniforms here. Have to order them from the main warehouse. Meantime, you’ll wear this. Borrowed it from a dembel who owes me a favor.”
He opened a sack he held in his right hand and pulled out a tired pair of breeches and a gimnasterka jacket.
“Had been to Afghanistan these two. You damage them, you die.”
In the Soviet Army’s bullying hierarchy, dembel was the highest caste a soldier could reach. You start your two-year conscription as a slave, a dukh (spook) in the army’s slang. You either submit to slavery and get your face and the guts smashed only a few times, or you get your face and the guts smashed all the time and then submit anyway. You can also hang yourself. Your choice.
Three or four weeks in, after you take the oath to die for your country and Communism, you become a soldier and move up to the salaga (rookie) caste. The beating and the abuse might stop at this point depending on how you fared as a dukh. If you’d put up a fight, you might enjoy some peace now. Or not. Depends on the garrison you’re in or how crazy the cherpaks and the officers are.
After a year, you’re cherpak (ladle), a human again. You begin to recover some of your dignity and thank yourself you’d brushed off suicide as an option when life felt and smelled like shit.
The last six months, you’re ded (grandpa). You run the show, tell cherpaks what to do—who pass the orders on to salagas—and spend your time getting ready for dembel.
In the spring and autumn, Defense Minister issued a special order to conscript and release male citizens from the Soviet Army. The day the order went out, your two-year term was up. Even though you could have been stuck in the army for some time after the order, as a legal entity, you were a free man. A dembel. You either chilled or slept all day waiting for the bureaucratic machinery to cough up your ticket to go home.
“Everyone will be here in half an hour,” Sergeant said. “Change. Too many Adidas logos on you.”
“What about the boots?” I said and took the uniform.
“I’ll find a pair tomorrow. Oh, and if some hard-ass doesn’t like your outfit, don’t fret. Tell them Beregovoy authorized it.”
“Yes, the dress code. We don’t enforce it on the dembels. They can wear whatever they want as long as the clothes aren’t civilian. Well, almost. Anyway, it’s a privilege, they’ve earned it. What you’re going to wear today not even a dembel can wear. It’s unheard of. Someone might feel a little jealous, you know what I mean?”
Thirty minutes later I heard the sound of a roaming herd of bison in military boots rushing into the barrack. The soldiers spilled into the dormitory all at once in one pack, shouting, laughing, and cracking jokes.
I sat on my bed in washed-out khakis, white socks, and Adidas slippers waiting for dress code Nazis to grill me.
He’d been eyeing me for a minute from his bed near the window. He stood up, hands in the pockets, walked to my bed as if he had an hour to do it and sat next to me.
I said nothing.
Short, black hair, dark eyes, an eagle’s nose, a deep scar running across the cheekbone on an olive skin. I could bet my last ruble he was from the North Caucasus.
“You’re in my suit,” he said with an accent. Chechen. He was a Chechen.
Our peoples spilled each other’s blood for centuries. Tens of thousands would die again in nine years from now in the next round of bloodshed. If there was someone on the planet I wouldn’t want to mess with, it would be a Chechen.
I said nothing.
“How long in the army?” he said.
“Cherpak,” he said.
I said nothing.
“Where from?” he said.
He paused and said, “Joking?”
“Nalchik-city, the State of North Caucasus,” I said.
No one outside of the North Caucasus would call Nalchik a Nalchik-city. And no one would say ‘the State of North Caucasus.’ We used to say that to make it sound like Nalchik was in America. An inside joke.
“Russian?” he said.
He touched his chin, thinking, and said: “We have four Caucasians here. Two Chechens, a Dagestani, and a Circassian. We’re one. Understand?”
“Yeah,” I said.
“Don’t ruin my uniform. It’s from Afghan, you know?”
“Yeah, I know.”
“What’s your name?”
“Kolyan then,” he said.
“Yeah, that’s what they used to call me in Nalchik.”
“I heard you’re a champion.”
“Strong legs,” he said. He patted me on the back, stood up, and said, “Don’t go to dinner by yourself. You go with me.”
He stuck his hand out and said, “Aslan.”
I got up and shook his hand, he turned around and walked back to his bed.
I strolled out of the dorm toward the toilets with two dozen eyes glued on me watching my every step. Some with malice, others confused by a handshake between a Chechen and a Russian.
A tall guy with unwashed, wheaten hair stood in the dorm’s doorway. He looked at me with a derisive smile on his pimpled face when I entered the narrow corridor on the way out.
He said, “Pee-pee time?”
“Piss off, asshole,” I said.
“What was that?”
I stopped and left a two-meter buffer between us.
He said, “Repeat, soldier.”
The footsteps behind my back discrete as only the Soviet-made military issue kirzachi can make, they were for me. The first blow ripped into my right kidney and knocked my legs out of function. On the way down the pimpled face kicked me in the stomach with the tip of his boot.
My lungs froze. Without air the daylight dimmed all around me, eyes lost focus. I landed on my bum with one arm blocking my face from the next blow.
He leaped like a wild animal, squatted down next to me and grabbed my head by the hair.
“Repeat, you bitch. I said repeat,” he yelled with his fist raised, ready to strike.
“Break his nose, Benya,” the guy who hit me in the kidney said.
I heard more footsteps rumbling from afar. Heavy army boots hammering against the floor, getting closer.
Aslan’s kirzach went into Benya’s face with the velocity of an eleven-meter football penalty kick. The pimpled face slumped onto his back with both arms thrown wide apart. Blood spilled on the floor out of his mouth. Benya’s friend was on his knees when I stood up with a knife to his throat held by the second Chechen. Most of the platoon was in the corridor now, watching, scared to death to get in the Chechens’ way.
Aslan’s foot was on Benya’s face, smudging the blood all over it.
“He’s from the Caucasus, you filthy dog,” he said and squashed his boot’s outsole against Benya’s face. “You got that?” He squashed harder, on his throat now. “I asked you a question,” he said.
“Yes,” Benya said.
“Repeat,” Aslan said.
“Yes,” Benya said.
Aslan walked to Benya’s friend and kicked him in the stomach. He lifted his head by the hair after the guy collapsed and smashed it against the cement floor. He waited for the blood to start pouring from the nose and said, “How about you, filthy dog?”
“We didn’t know,” the guy said.
At dinner, the five of us ate at the same table. Two Chechens, a Dagestani, a Circassian, and a Russian taking turns, interrupting each other’s stories about what life was like in North Caucasus. How we missed the mountains, the shashlyk (shish kebab), the water cascades clean as tears. The smell of white apples in early summer.
“Benya is a dog,” Aslan said. “Never smelled gunpowder in his life. Dogs like him go home in caskets from Afghanistan. Cowards.”
“You’ve been long in Afghan?” I said.
“Crap,” I said. “How did you stay alive?”
“By killing every damn Muj I saw,” he said.
Sergeant Beregovoy’s first order to me the next morning was to stay in the barrack until my uniform and the boots arrive.
“Not everyone knows your slippers and white socks are temporary,” he said as I sat in bed, processing where I was. “You’ll get in trouble cruising around dressed like a clown.”
“Where is the phone around here?” I said. “I need to call someone today.”
“What do you think this is? Kremlin? You’re in the army. No phone calls unless someone blows your head off.”
Aslan told me that for a pack of cigarettes the guards would let me outside the gate once the officers had gone home. A phone booth was across the road.
“Make sure you buy them Kosmos,” he said. “Spoiled bastards.”
“Where do I buy cigarettes?” I said.
“Canteen. If they have any.”
As Aslan said, having canteen was one thing, buying something you need was another. They had no cigarettes when I went there after breakfast.
“Try next week,” an overweight saleswoman in white apron said.
Nothing to lose, I said, “I’ll pay triple if you sell me one pack of Kosmos.”
She hesitated and said, “I don’t have Kosmos. Temp. Do you want Temp?”
“Are they as good as Kosmos?”
“They’re a ruble a pack. You don’t smoke, do you?”
“Have to make a call?”
“Here,” she said and pulled out two packs from under the counter. “Three rubles.”
I called Elizarov that night and told him how stupid I was and how this army thing did its job. I can see where I was and where I’m now.
“I should be training, not getting my kidneys pulped,” I said.
“You’ve missed your train,” he said. “You’d been on it going where most people don’t even dream of going, you got off, and it’s gone now. You had a shot, you missed. It’s over.”
Beep, beep, beep.
Zyama kept his promise. Two weeks after I’d been dug out from the wonderland and dumped into a pit, he showed up in his Lada with a rusted out hole on the floor. He took me to Titan’s service course in Kiev where our dormitory was. He told me everyone had gone to Crimea for the last stage race of the season. He’d been talking to Ukrainian state team about getting me in. Instead, the Army-ran CSKA had told him to send me to their first training camp next month.
“You know they swap riders between CSKA and the national team, don’t you?” he said.
“It’s one stable more or less. You’re still paid by the national team, right?” he said.
“They might forget to cancel your salary. Elizarov had been stressing out the last couple of weeks.”
“Did they crack the two-hour mark in a team time trial?”
“No. Two hours flat and some seconds.”
“How many teams on this planet can do two hours?”
“Don’t know, don’t care.”
“One of those days there’ll be no one to pull you out from a pile of shit you like to always walk into.”
“I’ll be good.”
“Hope so. You know where your first training camp with CSKA will be?”
Terskol village was a lazy three-hour bus ride from Nalchik. Two thousand meters above sea level, this is where you’d set up a base camp if you wanted to climb Mount Elbrus. All 5,642 meters of it.
Every team in the country with funds to burn was on the innovation path in the 1980s. I raced track in January with the national team the year before. Now the CSKA wanted to spend a month at altitude early in the season. Skiers’ and mountaineers’ Mecca, no one ever before held a cycling training camp in Terskol. Not in November. No bikes, they said.
Snowflakes danced in the air when I boarded the coach and hit the Caucasus Highway. Twenty kilometers out of Terskol, the snow storm had slowed it down to a crawl. Two hours late, the bus stopped half a kilometer away from the hotel stuck in the snow.
“Walk straight to those lights over there,” the driver said pointing to half a dozen flickers in the distance. “It’s your hotel.”
We ran, hiked, pranked, and pigged on food for the next four weeks. One guy kept talking about an assault on the Cheget Peak, a 3,600-meter mountain a short hike away from the hotel. We told him to go and try it solo to challenge himself.
I flew to Kiev in early December to pick up my winter bike for the next training camp in Tajikistan. Like the national team, CSKA was a composite team but made up of riders in the military. Elizarov was still my boss, CSKA or not. Zyama had told him I was out the boots he put me in, training again. If he wanted to, he could pull me out of CSKA any day and send me back to the army. I was a soldier with a year of service still owed to the Soviet government. Training camps, races, travel, this was a privilege hinged on Elizarov’s will to let me back in or end my career.
He let me back in. I hadn’t seen him in Kiev for two days between the flights until he turned up at the restaurant one night where Titan ate. He loved chastising us in front of everyone in the team.
He came over to my table and said, “I hear one squeak from Aleksandr Gusyatnikov about you, I’ll bury you three meters deep with a shovel.”
I’d been staring at my plate since he walked in.
He said, “This is not a threat. One squeak and no one will ever hear your name again.”