Friday, March 7, 2008

Russian Affair, Part 5

Few people at our sister newspaper, the Kuznetsk Worker, spoke any English, so Boris, one of the editors, asked his brother, Lev, to interpret for us. Like so many Russians, Lev was younger than he looked. Life expectancy for men in Novokuznetsk, a city the size of Pittsburgh and with air quality as poor as Pittsburgh's 50 years ago, is 59 years. Lev was in his early 50s then, but looked 10 years older. Tall and still athletic, Lev's craggy, handsome face was almost permanently cracked in smile. Within him was a much younger, more mischievous man.

No one could tell us what Lev did for a living. He would only admit that he worked as a translator for the government. Tom and I liked to think that he was once a spy for the KGB, as unlikely as that seemed. But he did enjoy some uncommon privileges, like his collection of guns.

During our first visit and another in September 1997, we went on manly outings: bathing in the Russian banya, gathering mushrooms in the forest, eatings chunks of meat on skewers and drinking vodka around a campfire, and target shooting with Lev's Kalashnikov carbines. Through all of these activities, Lev behaved like a social director on a cruise ship. Hard to imagine, but inside him was a schoolgirl striving to create the perfect party.

Boris and Lev invited Tom and I to their apartment one day for dinner, prepared by their "sainted mother." In addition to the food and drink, Lev planned a full slate of activities, including singing and target shooting. We took turns sitting at the head of the table and firing with a pellet gun at a target on the wall on the other side of the room. "Be careful, Mother!" Lev shouted several times as the poor old woman was nearly wounded carrying platters to and from the kitchen. Later, he hung medals around our necks that he had made from string and cardboard, carefully painted.

Lev's childish nature was magnified by alcohol. Clearly, he had a problem, like most Russian men, sadly. It must have gotten worse, because even though I returned to Novokuznetsk four more times over the next seven years, I never saw Lev again. When asked, his friends told me he was working, or living in another city. Finally, someone responded with that Russian gesture - a flick of the fingers against the side of the neck - that indicated he had surrendered to the bottle.

Everyone who has knocked around this life for a while has known a Lev. We are richer for it.

No comments: