Red Ticket: Smoker's Paradise
Robin Whetstone's Moscow memoir takes a dark turn
Robin Whetstone is back with two more chapters from her memoir of studying in Moscow in the early ‘90s. Sure, Moscow’s a smoker’s paradise where you can get a carton of Marlboro Reds for $5, but the dorms are no joking matter. If you need to catch up, go back and read chapters 1, 2-3.
I’d learned in college that because birth control was scarce, Soviet women had an average of nine abortions each. So before I left Florida, I visited the lobby of the local Planned Parenthood. “I’ll use these to trade,” I thought, ignoring the stares as I emptied the free basket of condoms into the drawstring bag that used to carry my Girl Scout canteen.
Now I stuffed a few more of these condoms in my coat pocket and suited up for the 14-degree weather outside. There was no food anywhere in this building that I could find. I’d have to go outside.
It was three in the afternoon, already starting to get dark. The light as I walked up to the metro station was purplish, like a bruise. The snow blanketing the ground glowed a pale blue. Everything else was gray, and concrete. It felt satisfyingly not-American, like an Ultravox video.
At the metro station there was a kiosk, a small metal box containing items for sale and a person to sell them. Kiosks were an early symptom of Capitalism in Russia, erupting in clusters around the mouths of metro stations. The bigger the station, the larger the outbreak of these rusty little buildings. My station, Prospect Vernadskovo, had only one in front of the entrance closest to my dorm.
The man inside the kiosk ignored me as I stood in the snow and looked at what was displayed in the grimy windows. Judging by the merchandise, Muscovites were a hedonistic bunch. Sparkly dildos, pornographic playing cards, videos of deadly car crashes, cheap mohair-trimmed stilettoed boots, and pack after pack of cigarettes filled the kiosk’s windows. The only thing to eat was a sticky pyramid of Toblerone chocolate.
“This is ridiculous,” I thought. “Where’s the food?”
I decided to buy cigarettes. In my coat pocket was a 100-ruble bill that I’d brought with me into the country. When I’d last been in Moscow, two years ago, a hundred rubles had been worth about $30. I’d surely be able to buy a pack of cigarettes with $30 worth of rubles. But, I realized as I stared at the prices, 100 rubles weren’t worth $30 anymore. Inflation had rendered the ruble worthless. Now, according to this kiosk, one pack of Marlboro Reds cost 450 rubles. I’d have to smoke the 60-ruble, Russian-made “Cowboy” brand if I couldn’t make a deal. I pulled a wad of stuff out of my pocket and spread it out on the little counter in front of the hole in the Plexiglas. The man in the kiosk stood up, interested all of the sudden.
On the counter lay the 100-ruble bill, a wad of one-dollar bills and change from my layover at Heathrow, and five Trojan condoms. “I don’t have enough rubles for a pack of Marlboro Reds,” I said.
The man did not hesitate. “Devushka,” he said, “Give me your dollars and I’ll give you a carton.”
I stared at the man. I had…five dollars? Six? Didn’t he know that Marlboros cost $18 a carton in Florida? Was this a scam? Should I take advantage of him by basically stealing his Marlboros?
But then, wait.
I’d brought dollars with me into the country as well as rubles, and if Marlboros only cost $6 a carton, I could afford to buy a lot of them. And Marlboros, I knew, were just like money. One man had actually parlayed a single pack into three tons of raw crude oil. Bam! Instant oligarch. I wasn’t planning on buying oil, but I did know that I could trade these Marlboros for something much more valuable. I gave the man my dollars and he gave me a “bank” (carton) of Marlboros, which I hid under my coat. We nodded at each other, each of us pleased with the deal.
Back in my dorm room, I opened the carton and spent a long time arranging and re-arranging the cheerful red-and-white packs on my desk. After a while, I settled on a large, 12-pack pyramid in the back corner. I stepped back and looked at my work. It was stupid, I knew that, but it did brighten up the room a lot. I hadn’t found food on my outing, but there was a silver lining. Cigarettes were cheap, so I could smoke as many as I wanted. I could smoke more than one at a time. I reached for a pack.
“Better get started,” I thought.
5. The Attack
By the next morning, the novelty of living in a smokers’ paradise had worn off. I was down to my last can of tuna fish, and there were still four days before school started. I wanted someone to talk to, something to eat. I decided to go down to the lobby phone and call my friend Betsy.
Betsy and I were college friends, and we moved to Moscow at the same time. She was staying near the city center with Lars, a Danish banker she knew from an earlier trip. Lars lived in one of the seven Stalin buildings that hulked over the city like concrete vultures. I was eager to visit Betsy and see how she was faring. I went downstairs and called her, making a date to visit later that afternoon. I hung up the phone and took the elevator to the 23rd floor.
I’d been in my room for no more than 10 minutes when I heard the outside door to the hallway open. I put down my pen and sat at my desk, listening. Whoever was out there – and from the sound of it, it was at least five men – was making no effort to be stealthy.
“Hey, Oleg!” yelled one of them, trying the handle of my door. “You got the key?”
I stared at the door handle as it moved up and down, trying to think. If they had a key, they were going to get in. Better for them to get in on my terms, I decided. I got up and opened the door. “Shto,” I said, “What do you want?”
The teenaged boys standing there in their paint-splattered overalls looked scared. “Akh, inzvenitia!” said the one in the front, who was holding a paint can. “This is the wrong – hey, are those Marlboros?”
I looked behind me at the red and white pyramid of cigarette packs I’d stacked on the desk the night before. “Marlboros?” said the rest of the boys, crowding around behind their leader. “You have Marlboros?”
“Da,” I said, unsure of what to do. We all stood there for a second, looking at each other. “Ny, i shto teper?” I thought, swinging open my door and stepping out of the way, “Would you like to take a smoke break?”
“Klas!” they yelled, rushing past me and positioning themselves on the edge of my cot and on the wide windowsill. “We love Marlboros! They are our favorites!”
I sat down in my desk chair, opened a pack, and handed out the smokes. The boys said they were recent high-school graduates, and were lucky to have found jobs as workmen. They described a life that was grim and difficult, one where most people their age were either un- or underemployed, and had few hopes for the future. I felt like a bad host, asking questions that only had depressing answers. I decided to change the subject.
“What do you guys do for…” I tried to think of the Russian word for “fun,” and realized that I had never learned it. Was that even a thing here? “I mean, what do you do when you are not working? On the weekends?”
The oldest one started laughing. “We do vint.” He rolled up his sleeve and held his arm out to me. The inside of his arm was covered with needle marks: mottled yellow and purple bruises, scabs in various states of healing.
“Oh,” I said, looking around at the other boys. They nodded as if to say, “Yep, that’s what we do.”
“Da,” said the boy, rolling his sleeve back down. “We make it in the bathtub. It destroys us! We can get you some if you’d like to try it.”
“Oh, ha, that’s okay,” I said, like I was refusing a drink refill. I wondered what they were thinking. Was I judging them for shooting up whatever vint was? Were they angry? Was I scared of them? Should I be?
“Hey,” I said, “Would you guys like some Marlboros to keep for yourselves?”
I gave each of them their own pack of cigarettes and they thanked me the way that I might thank someone who had donated me a kidney. They smiled and waved and left my room. I locked my door and sat down at my desk, listening to them working in the room next to mine. After a while, I heard the outer door to the hallway bang, and then there was silence. Relieved, I opened my spiral notebook and started writing.
After about 45 minutes, I heard the outer door open again, and the voices of the boys in the foyer. They were quiet now, whispering about something. They lurked, not knocking, outside the door to my room. I stood up and stared at the door. The boys had talked it over and had decided that no one would miss a single American girl here by herself at the end of the deserted wing of this building. They’d hit me with their wrench and bundle me into a drop cloth, and I’d wake up days later chained to a radiator in a peeling room on the outskirts of town. I opened the door a crack and peeked out. Whatever was going to happen, I wanted to get it over with.
“Robin!” they yelled, pushing past me and rushing into the room, “We have brought you gifts to welcome you to our country and to thank you for your kind offer of cigarettes!”
The older boy set a small sack on my desk and began pulling things out if it. He held up item after item, showing it off to me and explaining what it was. “A batik scarf. Posmatri, it has the colors of spring! A matryoshka doll, a real Russian art. A small calendar with a funny cartoon pickle rowing a boat. And (the boy pulled something from under his coat with a flourish) a loaf of real Russian bread!”
“Bread!” I said, forgetting my anxiety and snatching the bread out of the boy’s hands. “Where did you get this? Where did you find this bread?”
“From the metro,” said the boy. “A truck comes sometimes.”
I cradled the bread in my arms like a baby. “Oh, thank you,” I said, “Thank you so much.”
The boys laughed and patted me, amused at my response to a loaf of coarse brown bread. They wished me well and left, warning me to lock the door behind them. I spent some time arranging the gifts they’d brought me. The cigarettes had done exactly what I’d hoped when I bought them. I’d used them to make friends and to find out where to buy bread. I was ready to brave the snowy streets of the city beyond the metro kiosk, ready to see what else I could do. I tied my boots and shrugged into my coat, then left my room and walked down the hall toward the elevator.
“I can live here,” I thought. “I can barter, and share what I have. This is going to be possible.” This is what I was thinking on the afternoon of my second day in Moscow, as I stepped off the elevator into a lobby that was crowded with students.
The exit doors were in the far corner, on the other side of several couches that were grouped in the middle of the big room. Six men were sitting on the couches, probably waiting for class to start. I cut to the side a bit to detour around the couches and the men stood up. They surrounded me before I even knew anything was happening. I stood in the middle of the circle they made and flinched away from them as they touched my hair and plucked at the collar of my coat.
“Hey, devushka,” said one of them. “What’s your name? Where are you from?”
“Get away from me,” I said, trying to push past them. Behind the one in front of me I could see the doors leading outside. Students streamed around us, on their way to class or back to their rooms. The dejournaya, the old lady who sits in the lobby, was sitting at her desk reading Krokodil. Nobody even made eye contact. Nobody did anything at all.
“Where are you going? Why don’t you stay with us?” The man picked up a length of my waist-long hair and held it in his palm. His fingers were split and dirty.
“I have to go outside,” I said, stepping backwards straight into two of them. They picked me up by my elbows and hustled me forward toward the lobby doors.
“Yes, good idea,” said the men, “let’s all go outside.”
I rocked backward hard on my heels, abruptly shifting my weight toward the floor. My arms yanked out of their grip and I fell, then scrabbled to my feet and ran before the men had time to react. I plunged toward the crowd at the elevators, pushing myself into its middle. I stood there, shaking like a rabbit, trying to make myself as small as possible. “Come on,” I whispered as the elevator creaked its way toward us, still on the 12th floor. “Come on.”
The elevator took whole minutes to arrive, but the men never came. “Maybe they didn’t want me,” I thought. “Or maybe they’ll just wait down here.”
I would make them wait. I’d ride this packed elevator to the 23rd floor and stay in my room for four days until school started and someone came looking for me. I could make one can of tuna and a loaf of bread last that long. Finally, a car arrived and the doors slid open. I stepped on the elevator with the other students and the six men pushed their way through the crowd still in the lobby and into the car.
“Wait! Pomogite mne! Help!” I yelled as all of the students immediately got off the elevator, eyes on the floor. The doors slid shut, and one of the men held his finger on the “door closed” button.
“Kakoy etaj?” he asked, grinning. “What floor?”
No way was I going to push the button marked 23, no way was I going to let them know where I lived. I pushed button 18 instead and stared straight ahead as the men circled around behind me.
The door opened on the 18th floor and I bolted out of the car, running blindly down the corridor. I ran around and around through the maze of hallways, trying to throw off the men. The corridors were dark and interconnected; I couldn’t remember where I’d already been, where the elevators were. The spit in my mouth tasted metal-sharp as I ran and ran, slick with sweat and fear.
At last I stopped running. I slowed down, listening. There was no echo, no sound. The men weren’t behind me. I walked silently, so carefully, through the halls until I found the stairs. When I did I took them two at a time, hurrying without a sound to the 23rd floor. I opened the stairwell door into the corridor and darted around the dark corners. I turned into the last corridor, at the far end of the wing, and there stood the men. They were waiting for me at the end of the hall, right in front of my door.
“How did they know? How did they know?” My brain started jabbering as time slowed to a grainy, syrupy crawl. I had a minute to consider.
I could not turn around and run. The second I ran, they’d chase me and catch me and that would be it. The only option was my room. That was it then, I decided, I had to get into my room. I would open my foyer door the merest crack, slip in like smoke, and then slam it shut. I would do this thing. It was the only thing to do. I walked straight toward the group of men, keeping my face absolutely still. I was not afraid of these men and the situation was not out of control. I ignored them as I stuck the key in my foyer door and turned the lock. The men were still and quiet, watching me. Everything was okay, it would be okay. I pushed the door open and they sprang.
“Devushka,” they cried, “Let’s go have fun!” One of them grabbed me from behind, wrapping his arms around my chest and waist and pushing me toward the door.
I spread out my arms and legs and braced myself against the doorjamb, like a cat. I screamed the only word I could think of, over and over. It screeched and cawed and cracked and spewed from a person inside me I hadn’t yet met. “Motherfucker!” I screamed. I wrenched myself out of the man’s arms and crashed to the floor at his feet, writhing and twisting and flailing my arms and legs. I growled and bared my teeth like a dog. I wanted them to think I was having a seizure, or had gone insane. I wanted them to think it was too much trouble.
The men started laughing. “Look at this crazy American girl,” they probably thought. “This is what they’re like?” All of them took a minute to stand there and chuckle. Then they bent down and grabbed my ankles, and my shoulders, and my hair. I was on my stomach and I tried to twist away from them, clawing at the floor.
A noise that could only have been a gunshot tore through the hallway. The men froze and I froze and we all looked in the direction of the sound. It was Hussein, my Moroccan neighbor. He had slammed his door as hard as he could, and was standing there with his hand clutching the doorknob. “Leave her alone,” he said. “I have called the police.” We all knew this was a lie. This was 1993. The only phone was downstairs in the lobby.
As a group, they let go of me and advanced on Hussein. I scrabbled to my feet and staggered in the opposite direction, down the hall. Then I stopped and looked back. They had Hussein up against the wall, and they were stabbing at his chest with their fingers, and smacking him in the side of the head, and saying things. I looked around. What should I do? What could I do?
Hussein turned his head to the side and saw me still standing there. “Pobegi!” he yelled. “Run!”
I ran. I ran down 23 flights of stairs and straight out of the lobby and into the freezing black night. I ran the four blocks to the metro and only when the doors of the center-bound train slid closed did I think that I might be safe.
An hour later, I sat at a modernist dining table eating Planters cheese balls and telling my story to Betsy. Her roommate Lars shook his head and got up from the table, walking over to a sideboard in the dining room and returning with a newspaper and a thin leather briefcase.
“Look,” he said, pushing the paper across the table toward me. It was the Moscow Tribune, an English-language newspaper geared towards the 25,000 westerners living in the city. I looked down at the headline, which was something like, “Roving Gangs Rape, Rob in Moscow State’s Dorms.” I thought about Hussein as Lars pulled a gun from his briefcase.
“Those dorms are not safe,” said Lars. “You will be killed if you live there. You should take this gun.”
I picked up the small black pistol, getting orange cheese dust on its textured grip. “A gun. You’re giving me a gun?”
“Yes,” said Lars. “My company gave it to me for protection. You can borrow it until you find a better place to live.”
On the train back to the dorms I read the article Lars had shown me about the raping dorm gangs, which were made up mostly of men from Azerbaijan.
The republics that made up the Soviet Union, like Azerbaijan and Armenia, had lived together relatively peacefully for decades, united in their fight against external enemies like the Nazis, and the United States. But when the USSR collapsed, the republics were seized with war. Ethnic Russians who’d lived for generations in places like Tajikistan and Georgia were murdered by their neighbors, who now saw Russians not as fellow Soviets, but as interlopers, oppressors. Old hatreds flared as Ossiettans and Georgians, Badakhshanis and Tadjiks, Chechens and Ingush fought both pro-Russian forces and each other.
Millions of people fled the wars to Moscow, the capitol of the country they’d lived in quietly, unremarkably, up until now. But the USSR wasn’t a country anymore, and Moscow did not want and could not handle these refugees. They lived there illegally, in basements and tunnels and train stations. In dorm rooms. They became victims, and perpetrators.
The gangs mentioned in the Moscow Tribune article were mafia-type outfits that terrorized the dorm residents. These gangs worked with customs officials at Moscow’s airport to find their targets. When a foreigner came into the country, they had to declare what they had on them, and where they were going. For a cut, or maybe to avoid being murdered, the customs officials would say “a 22-year-old girl landed today, carrying dollars, bound for Prospect Vernadskovo,” and off the gang would go. The university authorities were bribed and threatened into silence. And as long as the men stuck to assaulting foreigners, they reasoned, it wasn’t worth making a fuss. According to the article, the victims usually left the dorms after their attacks and almost never reported anything to the police.
I fingered the gun in my pocket as I read another article, about the proliferation of guns among foreigners in Moscow because of the exploding crime rate. After 35 minutes the train pulled into my station. I walked across the lightless boulevard toward my dorm, boots crunching on the snow. It was late, nearly midnight, and I was the only one on the street. When I entered the lobby, finger curled around the trigger in my coat pocket, it was empty save for the snoozing dejournaya, the same one as before. I took the elevator up to my room, looking around the hallway for signs of what had happened to Hussein as I unlocked the outside door. I went into the toilet, which was in the common foyer. When I opened the door to come out, three dark shapes stood between me and my room. I screamed and yanked the gun out of my coat as one of the shadows reached over and turned on the foyer light.
Standing there were three Koreans, a man and two women. They were gospel singers, they said, and had just arrived in the dorms that evening. They’d come out of the room right next to mine to greet me when they heard me come in, because they were so eager to meet me. I mumbled my apologies and slunk into my room. I sat on the edge of my cot, staring at the pistol in my lap. After a long time, I got up and turned out the light on my second day in Moscow.
Read the next chapter here, and subscribe so you don’t miss out on the story.
I would like to pay respect to those we lose along the way. If there is someone you would like to be remembered in future newsletters, please post links to their obituaries in the comments section or email me. Thank you.
How we’re getting through this
Taking our kids on safari.
Looking for small wins every day.
Finding new uses for delivery robots.
Asking these questions instead of “How you doing?”
Reading about America’s moral compass in this time of trial.
What I’m reading
About the rise in support for collective bargaining.
Not going to the movies anytime soon.
From the HBR, how to persuade people to change their behavior.
Got some reading suggestions? Post them in the comments section, and I might include them in the next newsletter. Have a book to promote? Let me know in the comments or email me.
What I’m watching
I lived in Moscow around the same time Robin did and was struck how hedonism quickly filled the vacuum created by the collapse of social structures. And now we’re here… Let’s just say Babylon Berlin is landing a little squarely these days.
Got suggestions? Post them in the comments section, and I might include them in the next newsletter.
What I’m listening to
You might need this: “The Best Day” by Atmosphere.
Every day can't be the best day
Do what you can right now, don't hesitate
That's why we try to make love and get paid
Take the bad with the good, now let's play
Brendan Benson of the Raconteurs is out with a new solo album. The single, “Good To Be Alive,” is a good example of the curve balls he’s throwing.
And they haven't found a cure for it - yet
But they're trying to, I'm sure of it
And the closest we'll ever get
Was filmed on a Hollywood set
Pitchfork likes “Innocent Country 2” by Quelle Chris and Chris Keys. So do I. It’s relaxing, almost dreamy. They dropped the lead single, “Sudden Death,” in late January, but it’s well-taken now.
It must not seem like sudden death
It must feel like much time is left
So first times first comes second best
Just get the most from what is less
But life ain't perfect
Got suggestions? Post them in the comments section, and I might include them in the next newsletter.
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