Anton was on a commuter train to Moscow when we touched down in Sheremetyevo airport from Paris. The cloned housing estates rushed in the opposite direction outside the train window. He turned his head away from the moving buildings and gazed inside the packed car.
Most people were reading. The intelligentsiya — books and literary journals. The gapota, the plebes — newspapers and illustrated magazines. What the hell could you be reading on these pages cooked up by the spin doctors of the propaganda machine? It’s mind-numbing to even look at the headlines. New Era in the History of Humanity. Great Heroism of a Great People. Mighty Wings of Our Motherland. Everlasting Principles of Marxism-Leninism. Who writes this? They must be insane, those writers. How can they write this and not go mad?
He cradled his face with both hands, rested the elbows on the knees and looked at the floor through the holes between his fingers. He saw a rolled up newspaper under the seat, jiggling in unison with the train. From what he could make out of the masthead, it wasn’t a Pravda or Izvestiya. He picked it up to snigger at the imbeciles’ doublespeak and spread it open in his hands. It was a fresh issue of Sovetskiy Sport, the least poisoned newspaper out of Moscow. Still full of drivel, the Party’s minions hadn’t figure out yet how to distort sports’ results. A score is a score and seconds and minutes are the same everywhere, you can’t bend reality too much in sport.
The first few pages analyzed FC Spartak Moscow’s chances in the upcoming first round of the UEFA Cup. They played a Finnish team and all experts predicted Spartak will walk all over the Finns. Not a huge football fan, he flipped through the paper looking for something to read. At the end, a sentence caught his eye. He flipped back a page, scanned it and saw what it was. A short report about four Soviet cyclists “crushing American team in humiliating defeat” at junior worlds. He read the story again and jumped out of his seat. Arms in the air, he screamed into the car crammed with passengers, “My brother is a world champion!”
He turned to his sleeping friend in the next seat to shook him.
“Liosha! Wake up, Kolya is a world champion!”
“What?” Liosha said.
“Kolya is a world champion!”
“Kolya, my bro.”
“My bro, you silly, my bro.”
If not for cycling, someone like Anton and I could have never become friends. He was the only son of a school principal raised alone by his mother on Chekhov and Dostoevsky.
My mother was from a small village on the Volga river. She quit school at the age of fourteen after the war to help raise the family. She was an accountant when I was growing up and my father was a plumber.
I drank Georgian tea from a half-liter mug. Anton’s place, Ceylon tea brewed and served in imported china. He wore Levi’s jeans and Yugoslavian shoes to school. Me, I wouldn’t dare to ask my mom to buy me jeans because you could only buy them on the black market for the insane amount of money. She’d laugh in my face if I asked. He was two years older than me, a big gap when you’re twelve when I met him.
I had an older brother who disappeared from my life when I was six. Eleven years older than me, I can’t say we hung out together a lot. Every time we did, I’d replay over and over in my mind the time he spent with me, every word and every joke he said.
He bummed around with the wrong crowd since he was a kid. One day he didn’t come home. Day after day we waited for him to turn up but he wouldn’t. We thought he was dead. My mother wept every night in the kitchen and her anguish echoed in my bones.
He loved horses and she heard a rumor he’d been living on a horse farm in the mountains. Mom and I boarded a bus and rode to the village where people saw him. She found him but he refused to come home, something to do with the police. I was too little to understand.
One morning the door opens and Sergey, my brother, walks in. Dad was standing not far from the door ready to go to work. Sergey walks in and they look at each other for a second.
Dad, a sturdy man sculpted by muscle chunks, swings back his torso, uncoils, and lands a blow on Sergey’s face. The jab sends him down to the floor as if someone pulled a carpet from under him. He lands with blood pouring from his nose all over the face. The punch knocked him out. He laid on the floor with our shoes, jackets, and coats scattered around him as he crashed into a wardrobe.
I sat on the floor and cried while my mom nursed Sergey back into cognition. Blood on his face and chest, this was a rebel, a prodigal son who got his reward for the trouble he’d made. On the floor in a pool of blood, this is me fixed on not to obey force, not to yield to authority in whatever form it came.
When Sergey said he’s getting married before he turned eighteen, my parents didn’t protest. They reasoned marriage would settle him down. It didn’t. He got into a fight with a wrong guy and they locked him up for three years nine thousand kilometers away from home. When Mom heard the verdict, she kneeled on the floor and wept.
Months later, I wake one night to go to the toilet. Mom’s in the living room sitting alone at the dinner table with Sergey’s six-by-four portrait in her hands. Tears running down, she says, “Lord God, punish me. Punish me but please spare my boy.”
Anton’s friendship patched the hole Sergey left when he’d gone to jail. We lived two apartment buildings from each other and rode to our cycling club together to train. On the way back, we’d start riding with a few other boys and they’d split as we went along through the city. We lived the farthest from the club.
It is on these rides we polished our bike handling skills. The wheelies, braking with the front brake and lifting the rear wheel as high as possible. Undoing each others’ quick releases. And, the mother of all skills, riding with your feet on the handlebar.
We sprinted to street signs and light poles on these home rides. No one cared for these sprints except me and Anton. He never lost a sprint and I couldn’t rest until I’d beat him. We’ve had hundreds of these sprints and I’d never won once.
I tried to trick him on these low speed, short, small-ring sprints. I’d mark a light pole fifty meters away, pick up some speed from behind and yell “Finish at the pole!” and he’d detonate a blast and beat me to the imaginary line with arms in the air. I tried hitting his rear shifter with my hand to overgear him and then sprint. It never worked, he’d beat me overgeared or not.
Years later, when he stopped racing, we went for a ride around Nalchik on one of my visits home from Titan. He rode my old winter bike in slide sandals with a cigarette in his mouth. In good shape after a block of racing, now was my chance to beat him in a sprint. He was overgeared for the speed we were rolling at. I clicked into an easier gear and tightened the pedal straps, grabbed the drops fifty meters from a light pole and yelled “Sprint!” He caught me with five meters to go and threw the bike to the ‘line’, undercutting me by half a wheel.
“Dude,” he said after he got his breathing back. “You made me lose my cigarette.”
When Anton called me bratka, little brother, for the first time, a word only a close, blood brother would use, I thought I’d do anything for him. He moved to Moscow to study and I went to Kiev and haven’t heard from him for over a year. I forgot about my friend like I forgot everything else that wasn’t relevant to the goals I set out to achieve.
He too wasn’t the same kid from a small, provincial city in North Caucasus. He was a moskvitch, a Muscovite, swimming in bohemian waters of Moscow’s eccentric hangouts. He even picked up the Moscow’s accent, an annoying idiosyncrasy I couldn’t stop myself laughing at when we met again in Nalchik.
Titan sent me home to wind down after the championship and Anton came to Nalchik for a couple of weeks. They told me to ride for at least two hours a day. I didn’t bother to unpack the bike and hid it under my bed away from my eyes. Fiesta time.
Ukrainian State Committee of Physical Culture and Sports gave me two thousand rubles for my efforts in France. You could live for a year in USSR with this money but I wanted to burn some of it with my friend.
Anton and I boarded a twenty-four-seat Yak-40 jet and forty-five minutes later landed in Sochi.
We took a cab from the airport and went straight to Chaika restaurant in Sochi’s seaport terminal. Chaika was the kind of a place where you had to bribe maître d’hôtel to get in even if no one was dining inside. A neo-classicism Stalinist style building with columns and ten-meter-high ceilings. It’s where you go to burn cash in style.
They served everything from beluga to pizza in Chaika. Special guests could order export-quality vodka from the freezer.
I gave a chetvertak, a twenty-five-ruble note, to the maître when we walked in and asked for a table on the veranda. He took the money and slid it into the vest’s pocket with two fingers. He nodded at an effeminate-looking waiter in a burgundy bib apron and a crisp white shirt who stood as a sphinx next to him waiting for the maître’s command. The moment he saw the nod, he took us to a spot with the view on cruise ships anchored a hundred meters away.
We sat down and ordered iced Stolichnaya and black caviar. The waiter came back with vodka in a crystal decanter, a bowl of caviar, and a plate of marinated red pine mushrooms.
“From the chef,” he pointed at the mushrooms with a smile. “Call me when you’re ready to order.”
By the evening, overweight government executives and underworld characters filled the restaurant. The hours fled by as we talked and laughed. We always laughed. We made up jokes nobody would understand. We laughed at people around us, laughed at ourselves for goofy stuff we’ve done.
“Hey, do you remember…” was often an opening remark to an anecdote that would end in a laughing storm.
We finished the dinner and ordered a bottle of cognac to go, paid the bill and headed outside to find a cab. A trip to Sochi wouldn’t be a trip to Sochi if we hadn’t swam in the Black Sea.
A crazy Armenian cabbie drove us as if he had only an hour to live. He took us to a deserted beach in Dagomys where we swum naked, drank cognac to keep ourselves warm and laughed.
“Hey, do you realize what you’ve done in France?” Anton said after we got dressed and found a place to sit down on a wave breaker.
“Won the worlds?”
“No, I mean yes, you have, but — ” he paused and looked into the moon lit horizon.
“You’re a world champion now. Do you understand that?”
“I told everyone in Moscow my best friend is a world champion and no one believes me.”
“They think they breed you guys in labs at secret locations next to the cosmonauts. But here you are, a bonehead from Nalchik with a rainbow jersey. Freaks me out.”
“Don’t get carried away,” I said. “It was only a junior championship.”
“Who cares, junior-shmunior. A world champion is a world champion. It’s a title for life. Thirty years from now, you still be a world champion. Do you know what kind of doors this title will open for you?”
“You’re stupid, you know that?”
“No, I’m serious. Tell me what kind of doors it will open for me?”
“I don’t know. All kinds. From now on, introduce yourself as Nikolai Razouvaev, a world champion. See what happens.”
We laughed again.
“Let’s finish the bottle and get out of here,” Anton said. “It’s getting cold.”
By the time I came back to Kiev after the break, the city was deep in the autumn. Frosty mornings, fog everywhere, chestnut trees turning rusty yellow. Titan had gone to Crimea to prepare for the Sotsindustriya stage race. The season was over for me and I wasn’t going to race it but I couldn’t stay in Kiev and do nothing either. Elizarov told me to fly to Simferopol, join the team and spend the next few weeks riding in warm weather.
I went to our service course to pack my bike for a pick up in the morning on the way to the airport. I did an average bike-packing job and spent an hour talking trash with the team mechanic. I decided to catch a cab instead of waiting for a lift to the hotel and walked out on the street.
The buildings were casting long shadows over the cobbled Krasnoarmeyskaya Street. The chilled, moist air was pleasant to breathe. I wanted a Kashtan ice cream from the shop on the Kreshchatik street before catching a cab. A ten-minute walk.
I saw a black Volga parked ahead, facing me with a rear door opened. A man in an unbuttoned taupe trench coat stood next to it, looking at me. I kept walking, wondering if he was staring at me because he had nothing else to do or there was something else to it.
When I approached, he stepped away from the car and pulled out a red korochka from the coat’s pocket. He stuck it in my face and said, “Nikolai?”
I looked at the ID. It had the guy’s black and white photo on the left and the KGB header on the right with rank, name, and authorization to carry a weapon below it.
I couldn’t read the surname, something long and convoluted. Before he closed the korochka, I caught his first name, Bogdan.
Crap, what’s going on, what did I do? I made a quick mental inventory of my pockets. No dollars, nothing illegal. What do they want?
Bogdan nodded toward the rear seat of the Volga, and said, “Get in, we need to talk.”
I climbed into the car, he shut my door and walked around, got into the seat next to me and said to the driver: “Poekhali.” Let’s go.