Tuesday, May 20, 2003

Only fools die for ideals.
(Bora Djordjevic, RIBLJA CORBA)

The Bosnian boy spoke reluctantly – either because he didn’t trust me, or because he was shy. Or both. He was reluctant to give me his full name, too. He was one year my junior.

When I was growing up in the Soviet Union, those of us who had a chance to visit his country, Yugoslavia, were considered lucky. It was almost like going to the West. Those lucky ones returned wearing absolutely enviable shoes. Even Italians used to buy Yugoslav-made footwear, cheap and of superb quality. The 1984 Winter Olympics in Sarajevo, broadcast on our black-and-white TV, was such a wonderful childhood memory, too.

I’ve never been to Yugoslavia. I met the Bosnian boy in Iowa, briefly, in 1998.

He went to war when he was 15. Four years later, in 1994, a landmine blew off his leg.

He started out with the Bosnian government troops. Then, he switched sides and joined the rebel forces of Fikret Abdic, a Bosnian businessman and politician. “The leader of the mosque would tell us: ‘You have to go there and fight, and you have to die, today. And you’ll be born again: in three months, you’ll be the same person.’ Stupid. In five years, I didn’t see anyone who woke up.”

After the landmine accident, he migrated from one refugee camp in Croatia to the next, and then all the way to the Midwest. In the refugee camps, he said, “seven years are like 100 years, and one night is like one year. Every day is the same. Every day is the same. You just think it’s your life.”

The war is about friends: “I am Muslim, but we fought each other because we wanted to be nice with Christian people. I fought for my city, home, friends. Not for religion or politics. For freedom. I couldn’t watch my friends leaving the city. When the war started, I still had friends who were Christian, but they had to leave because it was dangerous to stay in the city. Someone made them leave.”

War friends are different from peace friends: “You have a friend in the war and you share with him. Maybe he saved your life, maybe you saved his life – you know what I mean?”

Refugee camp friends are like war friends: “We helped each other. We had to say four times a day, ‘Take your pills. Take your pills.’”

One of his refugee camp friends, a tent-mate, had had a brain injury, and they all tried never to contradict him: “Whatever he said, we had to say, ‘Yes, that’s right.’ Like, ‘This is a chair,’ and it had to be a chair, not a sofa.”

Many people in the camp thought the Bosnian boy and his friends were the happiest among the refugees – because they always had something to laugh about: “We were so strong because we made jokes all the time. One year we spent in a joke. We didn’t even think of anything, just lived for today and tomorrow. We made jokes about politics. We made jokes about people without a leg, like myself. We made fun of each other because we could understand each other. We made jokes because refugee camp was hard.”

Once, the Bosnian boy’s mother made an attempt to leave the camp and return to their house – she found nothing there but holes in the walls. His friends made similar attempts, too, and some got killed: “It’s kind of like a gang. If you fought for my side and you went back, and if some people knew, they’d kill you or hurt you.”

But, if he ever did return, he said, he’d try not to miss the performance of his favorite Serbian band, Riblja Corba (Fish Stew). They played political songs, he said, and their lead singer always got arrested.


I have no idea whether the Bosnian boy has risked taking a trip to his homeland – but Riblja Corba made it to Waterloo, Iowa, this past Saturday!

Tuesday, April 29, 2003


KYIV (October 5, 2000)

Chestnut trees are shockingly beautiful on this Indian summer evening - like redhead women on a stroll, oblivious to all but their own electric universe. Tomorrow, they may turn back into rusty decorations, stuck all over the city to remind us of the ugly November. Today, they rule.

The last thing I wanna do now is look for a vacant park bench. But I've come here to wait for Ilyusha, and I know I may have to wait for him till next morning.

This is a crowded archipelago of wooden benches swarming with all kinds of people - the young ones, some with beer or kids, and some kissing ardently; the elderly ones, some with newspapers or grandkids, others napping quietly. I want a bench of my own, a desert island of a bench, to wait for Ilyusha and see what happens while I wait for him this time.

I love Ilyusha. Once, we were at a birthday party in an obscure Kyiv neighborhood, and at midnight he decided there wasn't enough liquor left to last us all till dawn. So he went outside to buy more and disappeared. At first, I was worried sick about his fate, but then someone or something told me he must've caught the last bus back home. I relaxed and soon befriended a guy who was into rockabilly and had forsaken his normal-sounding Ukrainian name for a more enigmatic one, Billy. (I think Billy was the birthday boy, but I may be wrong.) At 7 a.m., we all awoke to a non-stop ringing of the doorbell: Ilyusha returned just in time for breakfast, looking slightly more disheveled than usual. In one hand he held a half-finished bottle of wine, in the other - a crumpled piece of paper with a detailed map of the neighborhood, sketched for him by some kind strangers from a beer-and-snacks kiosk: School, Lake, Kindergarten, Forest and, finally, the Crescent-Shaped Apartment Building, huge but so elusive that Ilyusha had to wait for the morning sun to track it back down again. Six years have passed since then.

I manage to find a bench I like, but before I even have time to open a beer, an old woman - starushka - sits down next to me. I light a cigarette, hoping to smoke her out - but she acts as if we're sitting in parallel universes, as if I'm invisible and second-hand smoke is a joke. All she sees right now is a man a few meters away: he's finishing up his beer. The moment he puts the empty bottle down next to his bench, she plunges towards it. She leaves her plastic bag behind, with four or five bottles already in it. But she's in a competitive business and, out of nowhere, another starushka appears. They both grab the same bottle, tug at it fiercely, and my starushka wins. Her defeated competitor curses loudly at her; she retorts with as much rage; their verbal fight is getting quite bloodcurdling - and I find myself begging them to stop, promising to donate a bottle when I'm done with my first beer. The old woman returns to our bench and carefully places her newest trophy into the plastic bag.

I realize all of a sudden that I have so much compassion for my starushka, I'm ready to adopt her. I offer her one hryvnia (a paper bill of the lowest denomination; to earn it, she'll probably have to gather at least ten empty bottles), but she refuses. "Then I'll give you three full bottles of beer in addition to this empty one - if my friend doesn't show up in 15 minutes," I insist. The starushka smiles and sighs. She tells me her daytime job is to sweep the park and the area surrounding it. This place is truly her turf - but collecting bottles and exchanging them for money is as "Great Game" as any, and intruders abound. She gets up to leave after a while. "Don't worry about the bottles, take your time - the weather's so lovely," she says. I ask her to please accept that one hryvnia from me, and eventually she concedes, blessing me profusely.

With enough blessings to last me a lifetime, I continue waiting for Ilyusha. Janitors love him, too. One winter day, Ilyusha's mother was approaching their apartment building when a local janitor intercepted her: "You have such a wonderful son! Last week, he helped me so much: he shoveled away all the snow for me - at 6 a.m., just to sober up," she exclaimed. "An amazing boy!"

Amazing he is. Thanks to him, my own mother once had a birthday surprise for me. I left them in one room for five minutes and when I returned, she announced: "I'm going skydiving with Ilyusha when it gets warm! He says it's totally safe - and so breathtaking! I wanted to keep it secret from you - until I actually did the jump - but then I thought that if something goes wrong, God forbid, you'll have a heart attack if you hear about it from someone else... So I decided to prepare you." She meant it, and Ilyusha just sat there, nodding supportively. It took another dear friend, a kind-hearted journalist, and a graphic description of a hapless parachutist he'd seen, to dissuade my mother.

I finish the first beer and put the bottle down on the ground. The natural light is already faint and the sky is barely distinguishable through the leaves and branches above; but the darkness is faint, too, because in the distance, the first streetlights have been switched on. No one rushes to pick up the bottle; it'll probably have to wait till morning. Ilyusha's still not here.

Two polished and perfumed young women take the starushka's place on my bench. Both are blond and wear all black. I'm eavesdropping on their conversation: "So it got me thinking: he's getting himself all these cell phones and cameras, but he's not buying anything for me... He said he wanted us to celebrate my birthday without guests, just the two of us, and I was like, does he understand that if he's got no money to pay for it all - I mean, we'll go out to a restaurant, right? - does he understand that I wouldn't stand looking at him after that again?"

If only Ilyusha knew what he's putting me through. But waiting for him's never been easy, and he's doing it to everyone. Ilyusha and I once stepped out to a nearby store, telling his sister and her boyfriend that we'd be right back. On our way across the street, we kept running into Ilyusha's numerous friends, and a few invited us to come over to their apartments for tea, and then, several months later, Ilyusha's sister angrily told me that she got pregnant that night and we were the only ones to blame.

The blond girls have left and I'm done with the second beer. A man and a woman of indefinite age - no more young, not yet old - place themselves in the parallel universe by my side. They cuddle happily and start talking about copywriters and Leonid Kuchma. My third beer distracts me from full-scale eavesdropping.

Soon, Ilyusha arrives. It turns out he's bought a car, recently. And he has to park it. So he leaves, promising to be right back.

I am waiting for Ilyusha, again.

Tuesday, April 08, 2003


It rained on the morning of my commencement in June 1996. And there was no hot water in our building. I took an umbrella, a bottle of shampoo, a toothbrush and a towel and ran over to Danil's place across the backyard, for a quick shower.

My parents and I must have walked to the university, five minutes uphill, that morning. I can't say for sure now whether we walked or took a cab, but five minutes of downpour and a nice hair-do are incompatible, and I don't remember applying any styling mousse. I just put on some red lipstick matching my skirt and the flowers on my yellow blouse.

The university auditorium was packed: parents, professors, friends, and ourselves, the graduating students. Solemnly, we were receiving our diplomas on the podium and, as soon as we were through with that, we hurried to the back of the huge room, past the applauding crowd, to grab our last stipends, a few millions in Ukrainian currency, or some 20 U.S. dollars, a few months overdue but still very welcome.

The rain stopped soon after I officially graduated. Enough reasons to get drunk, and this I remember surprisingly well: a few beers at a low-key place near the university; Guinness at the Cowboy Bar; Corona at the billiards place; cognac at home; more beer at the beautiful park; Madeira straight from the bottle on a bench at some unlit playground; red wine straight from the bottle at 4 a.m. by the fountain in front of the Ukrainian Drama Theater.

Then, a blackout for a few weeks. After which I got packed and soon left for the United States for the next two years.


In late November 1998, I was at the cashier's office of my Kyiv alma mater, waiting for a friend, a pregnant Ph.D. student. Originally, we had been planning to meet at her place but someone told her she could finally receive her stipend for September and October, and she didn't want to postpone what had already been postponed for so long.

The cashier's office opened at 2 p.m., and she suggested that we meet at three. Suspecting nothing, I promised to pick her up at 2:15 p.m.

I came on time. I intended to look for her in the room I remembered from my own, relatively recent, student past: two windows, four tiny openings in the wall (framed with patterned grates), four women handing out cash (caged in these openings), annoyingly dim lighting and way too many people.

But I didn't get as far as that. I found myself stuck in a small rectangular lobby, from which I could only watch the crowd in the adjacent room, the treasury. My friend wasn't visible anywhere. After 15 minutes of trying to break through and watching I began taking notes.

By 2:30 p.m., not a single person had emerged with the money yet. But some clarity had been established: theoretically, post-graduate students were to receive their stipends first, then - graduate students and finally, undergraduates. In reality, however, everyone wanted to be the first, nobody cared about the seniority principle introduced by the university officials, and the hullabaloo went on.

A middle-aged, overweight clerk pushed herself through the jam and made a cheery announcement: "Don't worry, we're going to give out the money till everyone gets it, all right?" "Right, right, right," gloomily echoed the students in the lobby.

Inside the cashier's room, one window was open and the cold, steamy air was coming in, refreshing students dressed for the snowy season. I saw two guys floating above the rest, but that was just an optical illusion: they had placed themselves on the windowsill to draw attention of friends who were being late.

In the lobby, some were sitting on scratched wooden benches and chatting, others were looking through their class notes and poetry books. One student was reading a paperback by John Grisham. "You came for your stipend, too? There's murder in there," I heard someone greeting a newcoming classmate.

At 2:55 p.m., I was still waiting for my friend. I felt I was getting a sore throat, perhaps even flu.

I went outside and spoke to a graduate student ("aspirant"). He was not very hopeful about getting his money that day - but there were two more days to do this, and then he'd be taking a train to the Carpathian Mountains to backpack and ski for a couple of weeks there. His two-month stipend of slightly more than $50 seemed sufficient to him.

People outside smoked and discussed lots of issues, including the floods in Transcarpathia and frequent electricity shut-offs in Kyiv, as well as their classes and private lives. I asked one undergraduate student ("studentka") how much money she was fighting for, and she explained that undergrads with straight A’s were getting approximately $4.30 a month while those with lower grades could expect no more than $3.70.

By 3 p.m., the first few individuals left the cashier's room, with or without their money. Some sighed heavily or had problems breathing, others had their tongues hanging out or laughed hysterically. I even saw a woman with bloody nose.

"I don't remember anything like this," said a lucky one with some cash secured in her fist.

"I knew there'd be a line, but not this awful," exclaimed a not-so-lucky one.

"I can't believe we're out of there," said an exhausted one and sighed with relief.

"She can't get out...What a madhouse," complained a girl who had lost her friend.

I didn't see my pregnant friend anywhere in this mess, either, but I was curious enough to stay a bit longer.

The crowd in the cashier's room began cheering, or screaming. From the lobby, it was hard to tell what was going on inside, but the sound reminded me of my neighbors who lived a thin wall away and often watched dramatic football games on TV. When the screams came again, I thought someone stepped on a cat. Then the door squeaked, and that sounded just as human, or feline.

I went outside again and saw an ambulance parked nearby - but that was just a coincidence.

Finally, at 3:30 p.m., when I was ready to leave, my friend and her husband showed up, looking fresh and happy but nowhere near as excited as I was. They apologized for being so late. I thanked them for letting me witness something I didn't remember vividly anymore: a slaughterhouse similar to the Soviet-time lines at grocery stores.

I found out that my friend came to receive approximately $122 for two months, which seemed so much more than what undergrads and grad students were getting. Our government did value intellectuals and their work, after all.

And perhaps the notorious "brain drain" could easily be prevented - if only the university officials somehow managed to emphasize to the undergraduate students that if they worked truly hard, they'd eventually ascend to grad school, and their miserable $4.30 a month would sooner or later turn into the glorious $61. Being paid so well, who'd want to emigrate?

Sixty-one dollars might be enough to feed yourself and your family humbly but decently for almost a week. Or, on the other hand, if you saved it up for a year ($61 multiplied by 12), you could buy yourself a plane ticket to the United States.


My friend's baby boy must be 4 now. I think they still live in Kyiv. I don't. But I really miss it.

Thursday, April 03, 2003

MOSCOW (March 20, 2002)

Mishah came home with two cell phones: one his own, another a brand-new tiny black thing that he had found by a bus stop on his way from the office. He wiped it carefully with a napkin and washed his hands as carefully afterwards.

“I picked it up from the mud, it’s raining now,” he explained.

“We’ll have to find its owner,” I announced enthusiastically, taking the phone from Mishah.

Then a terrible thought crossed my mind: what if the phone’s owner was a syphilitic, or a terrorist had stained it with invisible anthrax spores and placed it in a public place as a trap for unsuspecting commuters? I hurried off to the kitchen to wash my hands and finish cooking our dinner.

“I was thinking of giving it to the cops on duty nearby,” Mishah said at the table, ”but there’s no way they’d ever want to part with it. I think you’re right: we should try to locate the owner.”

There were only two cryptic entries in the phone book of the stray phone, RLM and Zin. Immediately, I imagined a young, clean-shaven boy with a neat haircut: a student, perhaps, who had been skipping lunches for several months to save pocket money. His thriftiness must have finally allowed him to buy this coveted item of every boy’s and girl’s outfit. Before he lost it, he must have been trying to figure out how to enter his friends’ names and numbers. He must have also been searching for that unique tune, which wouldn’t send everyone around him on a bus reaching for their phones when it was his that was ringing. He must have still been enjoying the feel of the yet unscratched new plastic friend - when all of a sudden the friend was gone.

Mishah dialed one of the numbers in the phone book. As he began talking, I nodded at his every word and smiled: in my mind, I still saw that poor student who, for once, was lucky to have encountered a genuinely kind person in this ruthless city.

“Yes, I’m at home now, at Kalashnyy… Aha...if you’re there…from Pushkinskaya, walk along the Boulevard Ring to the TASS building, then turn to Bolshaya Nikitskaya… No, no, the other way, towards the Conservatoire…”

Here, I thought, Mishah was making a mistake, for how would a boy like this know what and where the Conservatoire was? Towards the Kremlin, that should have been the next point in navigating the boy.

“Yes, call me when you are by the Japanese Embassy and I’ll come down,” Mishah concluded and hung up.

“A nice man, polite, sounds educated,” he said, turning to me. “It’s his wife’s phone. They were returning from a concert at the Conservatoire, and when I called, they had just realized that the phone disappeared.”

Half an hour later, the man called back and Mishah took the phone and left. I stayed, responsible for watching the Juventus vs Arsenal UEFA Champions League game for him. The commentator’s eloquent chat was distractful and I turned the sound off. The game suddenly turned lethargic, and my thoughts wandered back to the phone’s owner's new incarnation: an absent-minded female, a classical music fan, accompanied by her refined husband. If I were them, I thought lazily, I’d give Mishah a chocolate bar – at least – as a reward. My ever voracious mind kept fantasizing about edible remunerations we could receive for our act of kindness (Pickles? Pastrami? French cheese?) - until Mishah returned, a solid book in his hand.

“A very pleasant middle-aged couple. They asked how much they owed me and I protested. They decided to give me a Joseph Brodsky book instead,” Mishah said.

I could see he was very moved, no less than I was myself.

“I didn’t want to take it, but they asked, quite ominously, ’What? Perhaps you don’t like Joseph Brodsky?’ So I gave in."

Mishah handed me the book of Brodsky’s poetry and essays, a new hardcover edition. When I opened it, a leaflet from the Svyatoslav Richter Memorial Concert slipped out and landed on the carpeted floor.

Tuesday, April 01, 2003

MOSCOW (April 4, 2001)

I took a trolley instead of the Metro to get to the movie theater. It was a peaceful ride: all seats taken, a few people standing, the garden-less Garden Ring outside the window, no traffic jams in sight and our vehicle actually moving forward.

As always, I had my trolley ticket punched. Ten cents a ride; one could play a potentially non-suicidal Russian Roulette by riding ticketless and hoping that the hand of Fate would avert a kontrolyor from this particular trolley. If the kontrolyor did appear, the fine imposed would be no more than 35 cents (whereas to see In the Mood For Love cost $4.15).

But I was playing a different kind of Russian Roulette - I was preparing to live in Moscow in violation of the mayor's unconstitutional directive, which required non-Muscovites like me to register with the police within three days of our arrival. I was beginning to learn to dodge the cops in the streets and to have a trolley ticket ready, to avoid unnecessary contact with Moscow's authorities.

I sat next to a woman with a tabloid and furtively scanned through reports of fires, car accidents and maniacs, and the gory pictures accompanying them.

Suddenly, a fatigue uniform-clad man on my right turned around.

He must have stood there for a few minutes after entering the trolley, inconspicuous, an ordinary passenger. He could have easily passed for a retired but still devoted marine, or a bank guard, perhaps. But as he turned around, he reached into the inside pocket on his chest and drew his kontrolyor’s license out - with the speed, grace and menace of an undercover cop drawing his weapon in an American movie.

“Your tickets, please,” he announced in a thunder-like voice.

None of us passengers blinked – dumbfounded rather than unimpressed – and all had a ticket to show. Conscious of the effect his dashing unmasking has had, the kontrolyor blurted out a self-praise at one of the unseated passengers – “Ha! Ain’t I cool, eh?” – and resolutely proceeded to the other end of the trolley.

...I took the Metro back home from the movie theater and saw another camouflaged man there. He was strolling along the station, with an unleashed German Shepherd running in front of him. Hundreds of pushing, reading, laughing, cursing, drunk and just gloomy people waiting for the train didn't bother these two: one was surveying the station for suspicious individuals, the other was sniffing for a bomb that might have been hidden under one of the benches.

“In the mood for love, in the mood for war, in the mood for a walk,” I thought, elbowing my way into the train car.

Saturday, March 29, 2003

ST. PETERSBURG (October 13, 2002)

Mollie's Irish Bar

Mishah returned from the bathroom with yet another confirmation that this city is Russia's "Cultural Capital" (as opposed to Moscow, which is just the capital):

In the bathroom, three men were peeing next to Mishah, and two of them were talking.

"Why did Alexander III dislike England so much? What do you think?" asked the one who looked like a Russian mafia guy (leather jacket-training suit-thick golden chain uniform, his pale hair trimmed too short, which, in a different situation, would have been a sure sign of lack of imagination and excess of discipline).

His friend, who resembled a legendary Russian rock musician Yuri Shevchuk (bearded, bespectacled and unkempt), paused, looking at his dick, and replied: "Perhaps they just forced him to say so?"

The third man (the gentlest of them, a lookalike of Valeriy Meladze, a pop singer) continued to urinate in silence.

One thing Mishah and I are still wondering about is which Alexander III they were discussing:

Alexander III, Czar of Russia, had strained relationship with Britain because of "the Russian expansion in Central Asia."

Alexander III, King of Scotland, "quarreled" with Henry II "over the old English claims to overlordship in Scotland."

Alexander III, a Roman Catholic Pope, had to defend "the rights of the Church during the quarrel between the two impetuous Normans, King Henry and St. Thomas Becket, though many a time exciting the displeasure of both contestants."

As I said, we're still wondering.

Wednesday, March 26, 2003

I pretty much know what kind of place I want Neeka's Backlog to be - but it doesn't seem right to just start posting, without providing some sort of introduction. So here's a brief mission statement, which is also a memo to myself:

I keep running into stuff I wrote a while ago - typed and printed out; typed and stored on the computer; handwritten in notebooks and on napkins; in English and in Russian; finished and unfinished; never published and never sold. Random fact and random fiction, some of it keeps surprising me when I re-read it - and I really love it when it does. What I would like to do is to "deal with" this "backlog" - by posting it here and reducing it in my head and around me.

As recently as a week ago, it seemed highly unlikely that I'd ever blog. But on March 20, the day the war started, someone directed me to Salam Pax's page - and now I'm hooked. I'm used to the format by now; I have forced myself to try to figure out the most basic HTML stuff; I'm excited about the relative lack of rules here and I hope that my inner censor will go to hell for a while.

I also hope Salam survives this war. I hope that as many people as possible survive it - and that it ends real soon.