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The Renegade: Chapter 5

Trumheller offered me to ride in his car on the way back from the Maykop race. A three-hundred-kilometer trip in his red Lada instead of eight hours on a bus with the rest of the team.

We talked. We talked about why we invaded Afghanistan and he said we went in to stop Americans from taking control of a country next to us, not what the Party told us — giving a hand to Afghan communists.

“Boys a little older than you go to a country with nothing but mountains and come back in coffins because a bunch of pederasts in Kremlin want to rule the world.”

If someone wanted to hurt Trumheller and heard this, he’d spend years in gulag for polluting my mind with truth. He had the name and the pedigree for that.

His ancestors came to Russia in 1770s when Czarina Catherine II, a former German princess, invited her kinsmen to get out of war-torn Germany and settle in Russia. She promised them religious freedom, no taxes for thirty years, interest-free loans, no government interference and no military service for migrants and their descendants. More than 100,000 Germans took the offer, left their homes and built colonies along the Volga River and later on the Black Sea coast.

When Nazis attacked Soviet Union in 1941, Stalin ordered to purge the Volga region of what he saw was a fifth column sitting in his backyard as the German army flooded the country. The Nazis wanted Volga and they pushed the pedal to the floor to reach it.

The Party declared Soviet Germans enemies of the state, abolished the Volga German Autonomous Republic and ordered to deport them to Kazakh Steppe to die. NKVD shot everyone who tried to hide or disobeyed.

They put them in cattle cars. On the way to Steppe, they gave them water two or three times a week and fed them salted herring. In the train cars, prisoners piled their dead in one corner and sat waiting to die in another.

Last time the Party ran a census in the 1930s, 400,000 Germans lived in the region. They banished or shot them all.

It’s not a punishment, the Party said. We don’t punish people for not being Russian. After all, the Supreme Leader himself, Marshal Stalin, is a Georgian. It’s for your own good we relocate you away from Nazi propaganda. They have a message for you and you might forsake the Party. They’ll lure you in with their sweet talk about how Germany is great. You all know it’s not true. Germany’s not great. We’ll crush them right here in Stalingrad on the banks of the Great Volga River and we want you out of here because we think you have a dog in this fight and we can’t take chances with you.

Poshli von. Get out.

You’re a citizen one day and an enemy the next. You are who the Party says you are. You do what the Party tells you to do.

Piotr Trumheller’s parents survived and settled in Omsk in southwestern Siberia just north of Kazakhstan. Place like Omsk, if you want to do sport, you do cross country skiing or biathlon, not cycling.

Siberian climate and way of life bred quality racers. From what I knew, they didn’t ride as much as we did in North Caucasus. In Omsk, it snows six months a year and minus thirty in winter is normal. They ran and skied between November and March. Well-funded teams went to the Black Sea coast or Uzbekistan to ride bikes in the last two winter months and by the time the season kicked off in February around Sochi, they were ready to kick ass and kick ass they did.

You get into a breakaway with these guys and they never miss a bit, never sit up, never play games. Nothing like the boys from Kazakhstan. These bastards had a reputation. One minute they’re aggressive like hell and you follow their attacks and find yourself in a break and they start their drama with the usual my legs are shot or I’ve bonked or have orders not to work. Full of crap. Not everyone but if someone gave you a magic wand to pick your breakaway, you’d leave Kazakhs to rot in the peloton.

When Trumheller raced, he never won anything big. A time trial maven, he raced hard for his teammates. You need to chase down a break, call Trumheller. You need to keep a break on the leash, call Trumheller.

He came close to qualify for 1976 Olympic Games but missed the cut because the national team at the time had enough talent to send two time trial teams to Montreal.

He married a woman from Nalchik, Zina, finished a coaching degree, hung up his wheels and moved to Nalchik to enjoy warm climate and train boys to race bikes the way he raced.

This is how our paths crossed.

“Did you like the race?” he said.

In the passenger seat with my feet in white socks on the dashboard, I said, “Like it? Don’t know. It hurt.”

“What did you expect?” he said. “A walk in a park?”

A walk in a park? No, didn’t think a stage race would be a walk in a park but no one told me I’ve signed up for a pain fest. No one told me the peloton blows up to pieces the second the gun goes off because the older guys want to drop half of it and make the race safer without rookies like me. No one told me Commissaires never cancel a stage even if sleet pelts you blind as you sit in a single file trying to survive the crosswind and hit those damned holes full speed holding on tight to your handlebar and the impact sends an electrifying shock through your arms and the hands go numb and at that moment you hear someone hitting the floor, you hear metal scraping against asphalt and you don’t know where the crash is. You slam the brakes, lock the rear and go down because an asshole behind you didn’t slam his brakes on time and rammed into you like a mad rhino.

No one told me that.

“I almost quit,” I said. “I wanted to quit racing.”

“Quit?” he said. “Let’s say you quit. Here’s what happens when you quit. In two years, you’ll finish school. You turn eighteen and go to serve in the army. You might even end up in Afghanistan. You’ll either die there or come back with your head messed up. By twenty, you’ll go to work in a factory. After two years of making tractor spare parts, you’ll start drinking. By thirty-five, you’ll wreck your liver and will be good to go out of this world by forty-five. You might linger on for a while and die in your own vomit wondering what you could have become had you kept racing. How’s that sound for a life story?”

I didn’t say anything.

“Why don’t you make something good from the pile of shit we live in or even break loose from this dump.”

“What?” I said. “What do you mean?”

You don’t have to knead shit for the rest of your life, he told me. The way out is in your hands if you want out. It’s a long shot but you can do it. Train hard, give up everything and train. Your engine is good, you need your head in the right place. Forget about quitting, never think about it. No one likes pussies that quit and you have this in you — if a race doesn’t go your way, you want to quit and this is where you go wrong. You think it’s either a win or nothing. You hate finishing in a fourth group but this is cycling. You won’t win every race and right now, at this stage, you’re a kid racing against guys older than you — you won’t win anything. But that is the point. You learn how to lose before you learn how to win and when you know how to win, you are a racer and right now you’re not and you want to quit before you know how to win. You’re stupid. Learn how to win, climb up the pyramid, make it to the national team.

“And then what?”

“And then they send you to race in Western Europe and you stay there.”

Sometimes you hear something and you want to forget what you’ve heard. I wanted to forget what he said. That word stay, in that sentence meant treason if someone else heard it, a crime the criminal code had a death penalty for. You go to Western Europe and you betray your country. That’s what stay meant. You raise you hand, stick out a finger and tell the Party to go to hell. That’s what stay meant and I heard it from my coach.

He was German. He lived with a German name in a country that lost thirty million people in a war against Germany. We called Germans Nazis half of the time. We called Trumheller Fascist behind his back when we talked trash. He had every reason to stay when he had his chance but he didn’t. He told me he had a chance to stay in Italy but he blew it. He thought he’ll do it later but later didn’t come. He never went to Western Europe again and he said maybe he never did because he was German.

“Maybe the KGB smelled something or someone ratted me in, who knows,” he said. “Snitches, a lot of snitches around. Riders, coaches, mechanics, you never know who’s telling on you. They figured I could be a runner.”

He didn’t want me to make the same mistake. “Don’t waste your chance the moment you have one. Don’t wait. First Western country you go to, run like hell, don’t look back.”

This sounded like Voice of America radio station I listened to at night in my room. The authorities jammed it with pulses bounced off the ionosphere and the broadcast sounded as if they talked with an airplane on the background. On a good night, you hear a muffled voice talking about Soviet dissidents and the Kremlin’s trickery they don’t write about in Pravda. This is where I heard stories about Soviet figure skaters, a diver and a gymnast who stayed. Everyone used that word — stayed. It meant freedom for some and treason for others. A muffled sound jammed by the military except now it came from my coach’s mouth driving his car to Nalchik.


He didn’t know that, or maybe he did, I couldn’t tell, but he spoke to a teenager who lived as an alien in his own country.

Everyone lied. Brezhnev lied about economy and about peace. They played a song on the radio and the lyrics said, do Russians want a war? It went on to imply no, we don’t and here we are, slaughtering Afghans because we don’t want Americans there.

We went to Czechoslovakia, the people the Party called our brothers, and we slaughtered them too because they tried to disobey the Party. We squashed them alive with tanks on the streets of Prague. We did that to Hungarians. We did that to Ossetians, hundred kilometers from Nalchik and not a word about it on the radio or in the newspapers.

The Party talked about peace every day everywhere and everyone believed a war with America is coming. The more the Party talked peace, the more we believed a war is coming.

To live in peace, you need to go to war first to teach those who don’t agree with you what peace is. Peace is to obey the Party. That’s how you live in peace.

They don’t get it in America. We taught Germans a lesson and now it’s America’s turn. As Marx and Lenin said, you can’t stop communism the same way you can’t stop progress. Communism is progress and anyone who doesn’t get it dies. You die because you don’t get it or you die killing those who don’t get it. Either way, we clear the way for progress to live in peace once we build communism.

It rained outside the day I found out the world I believed in is fake. I came over to a friend’s place to borrow a book. His dad worked in a library. The apartment they lived in looked like a library too. The dad turned every wall into a bookshelf and filled them with books.

It is here my friend passed on to me a hand-typed samizdat copy of Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago. Turns out, the Party is a gang of thugs with no morals and no code of honor. The thugs had a code of honor, a perverse one but a code. The Party, it didn’t have that. They killed and jailed people because people didn’t look committed to progress.

In the late 1970s, to own this book, never mind landing it to friends, was a criminal offense with a long prison term.

Before The Archipelago, he gave me a magazine called Amerika. The US Department of State published it in Russian for distribution in Soviet Union. In return, the Party shipped The USSR magazine in English to the United States.

I read a story about secondhand cars in Amerika on its glossy pages with full-spread photography. The cars in the story cost hundreds of dollars. The Party made it a crime to own US dollars in the Soviet Union but we knew the dollar’s value — seventy kopecks for one US dollar. We knew this from the exchange rate set by the government and published in Izvestiya newspaper five days a week.

At seventy kopecks for dollar, thousand bucks was seven hundred rubles. You can buy a car for seven hundred rubles in America? What the hell? A beat up clunker in Soviet Union will cost you thousands and a new Lada more than ten on the black market. With an average salary between a hundred and hundred-fifty a month, it would take a dozen lifetimes to save for a car. In America, a plumber can buy a secondhand car with every paycheck if he wanted to. Either the story was too good or there was something wrong with the foreign exchange rate.

Turns out, the Party faked the exchange rate and now Trumheller tells me I can get out of here if I train hard and focus. Train and focus and then get the hell out of here he tells me.