Thought I’d do him in with my own hands. They brought him to us: here, he’s all yours, rip him apart. He just stood there saying this wasn’t his fault, that he had nothing to do with anything. Was it him, was it not him? Just like our boys had nothing to do with anything. They were pure, crystal pure, and they are all gone now. I looked at him: is this what they send to us — against us? What am I supposed to do with him? He answered my questions: fatherless, motherless, meaning that his parents exist somewhere but they abandoned him at birth or he is raised in an orphanage. So this is who they send to us, against us. First, they go to an orphanage, then, the army, or else straight into the zone, behind bars. Orphanage, army, prison – it’s all one huge zone. His commander had traded him for weed. Nobody would be looking for him, and, even if they would, it would be easy enough to say that “Chechen villains” had captured him and are keeping him as a slave in one of their pits.
He looks creepy. To kill a man like this one would be to do him a favor, but I don’t want to sully my hands. There is not much life in him, to begin with – he is one of those born half dead. Leaky pimples all over, short, scrawny, with a warped head. He doesn’t understand a thing, he only knows fear and hatred. If he is scared now, he will hate later; he will be scared later if he hates now. Go, I say. He doesn’t move. Can it be that he doesn’t believe me? Go, go, I say again, we don’t need you here fool, just leave. He turns but keeps standing. Then it dawns upon me: he has already been paid for, he has nowhere to go. Our guys still wanted to do him in, but when it came down to that, no one was willing to do it. They told me he was mine since he had been given to me as part of an exchange. So, I just left him alone, as if he wasn’t even there. Slavery did not matter to him. He was born into it. So, he stayed in our village, hiding, never venturing out. We are not very gentle folks; our hearts have been hardened, but what was he good for anyway? Somehow, he managed to feed himself. Even gained some weight. The sun healed his pimples. So that’s how he’s been living – neither a cat nor a dog, with no one to stroke him, and no one to kick him. We got used to him and stopped paying him any attention. Several years had gone by. Then, after this war was over, we told him to get lost. Nobody felt like being responsible for him. He cried – there was no place for him to go. He was afraid of his own people. We exchanged him back anyway, even though his commander had been transferred, and no one could remember anything about him anymore. Yet, it all somehow worked out. He is gone. I don’t remember his name. Have I ever known it? Our guys called him “the captive of the Caucasus,” like in Pushkin or Tolstoy. But I just called him “this one,” that’s it.
Translated from Russian by Julia Lavilla-Nossova
The original of this story was published in Я не умею убирать, a collection of short stories by Yelena Matusevich, in Russian.
Yelena Matusevich has a Ph.D. in French and a second doctorate in History. Professor of French and History at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. In 2020, her book of short stories in Russian “I Don’t Know How to Clean” was published by “Sem’ Ikusstv” [“Seven Arts”] in Hannover, Germany.
A book of poems in Russian by Victor Enyutin (San Francisco, 1983). Victor Enyutin is a Russian writer, poet, and sociologist who emigrated to the US from the Soviet Union in 1975.
This collection of personal essays by a bi-national Russian/U.S. author offers glimpses into many things Soviet and post-Soviet: the sacred, the profane, the mundane, the little-discussed and the often-overlooked. What was a Soviet school dance like? Did communists go to church? Did communists listen to Donna Summer? If you want to find out, read on!
“Cold War Casual” is a collection of transcribed oral testimony and interviews translated from Russian into English and from English into Russian that delve into the effect of the events and the government propaganda of the Cold War era on regular citizens of countries on both sides of the Iron Curtain.
Julia Wiener was born in the USSR a few years before the Second World War; her youth was spent during the “Thaw” period, and her maturity coincided with the years of “Soviet stagnation”, which, in her case, ended with her emigration to Israel in the early 1970s. Her wartime childhood, her Komsomol-student youth, her subsequent disillusionment, her meetings with well-known writers (Andrei Platonov, Victor Nekrasov, etc.) are described in a humorous style and colorful detail. Julia brings to life colorful characters – from her Moscow communal apartment neighbors to a hippie London lord, or an Arab family, headed by a devotee of classical Russian literature. No less diverse are the landscapes against which the events unfold: the steppes of Kazakhstan, the Garden of Gethsemane, New York, Amsterdam, London.
Julia Wiener’s novels focus on those moments when illusory human existence collapses in the face of true life, be it spiritual purity, love, old age, or death.