The New Year’s Eve table in my family’s Moscow living room is festive, with fish salads, black bread and sliced meats for 10, a number that was rounded up at the last minute to include my wife’s grade-school sweetheart, Nikolai Stepanovich Belinsky. He had nowhere else to go.
Belinsky, a large man who walks with a cane, limps in with a laugh and a huge strawberry cake. He gets off to a poor start by gregariously telling crude jokes in his thundering basso profundo, while addressing everyone with the overly familiar ti rather than the more respectful vi. He rubs his eyes frequently and keeps booming out vo, short for vot, a colloquial expression meaning “and so it is.” He says this with a gesture of one hand slicing through his neck like a knife.
The other guests — students, music teachers and tech administrators — speak softly and listen politely. They would probably have been more receptive to Belinsky’s eccentricities were it not so obvious that this New Year’s Eve dinner was, for him, just another leg in a marathon drinking binge.
After an hour or so, Belinsky decides that I, who have never met him before and who am the only American in the room, am his dearest friend.
At one minute after midnight, as is the New Year’s custom here, all eyes tune in to the dour face of President Putin on TV congratulating Russia for making it through another year and proclaiming that the government exists to help the needy. That said, he reminds his countrymen that the strength of Russia comes from the strength of its families. A Russian flag flutters in front of the Kremlin, accompanied by a moving choral rendition of Russia’s national anthem.
Shortly after, Belinsky and I are alone in the tiny kitchen. He’s chain-smoking and drinking gin, confiding in Russian that his wife has thrown him out, cutting him off from his two sons, ages 4 and 14, whom he says he cherishes. Belinsky shows me their photographs. The snapshots also include his wife, a slender brunette whom he says he adores, and his father, a rotund KGB colonel wearing a flak jacket. Belinsky’s been living with his dad since his wife evicted him three months ago. When she tossed him out, she told him that he doesn’t match her status, though she works as a salesperson.
“She knew I was a carpenter when she married me,” Belinsky says. “Just back from the war in Afghanistan. She knew who I was, what I’d been through. After 20 years of marriage, how could she say that?”
“Do you think she’s found somebody else?” I ask tentatively.
“Vo,” Belinsky says, nodding. “Years ago, one day she came home at dawn. I say, ‘Tell me, bitch, have you been out fucking somebody?’ She was quiet for a very long time. Then, softly, she said, ‘No.’ Then, just as softly, she told me to go fuck myself. After that, we had our second son, and neither of us ever mentioned that night again.”
When Belinsky flips open his cigarette lighter, the AK-47 of a Jean-Claude Van Damme–like action figure starts flashing in red to the rat-tat-tat of a machine gun while a voice repeats, “Fire, fire, fire.” Belinsky tells me he loves Van Damme and Clint Eastwood movies and Oliver Stone’s Platoon.
“Vo,” he says, kissing the tips of his fingers. “There are friends, but in the army, in war, it’s — what’s your word? — brothers.”
My wife enters the kitchen and asks Belinsky if he was in combat, and for a moment he goes slightly berserk: “I was never there! No! It didn’t happen! It never existed!”
A moment later, he calmly says one had to be on heroin to survive the sight of friends being shot and burned alive.
It’s now 8 a.m. New Year’s Day, dawn is breaking, and the guests have all left. Belinsky and I are still in the kitchen. He’s still drinking and smoking and is in the middle of an insane diatribe against all Arabic nations and peoples. Like a child, he imitates Van Damme.
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After a brief silence, Belinsky pulls out English words from the shed of his memory, taking remarkable care with the grammar and meaning: “Our . . . life . . . is . . . shit,” he says.
Returning to Russian, he asks if things are better in America, if there are Van Dammes winning battles for goodness and justice. Is it any different, or is it all shit, like in Russia?
At 11 a.m., we go to sleep — he on a couch two floors down in the apartment of my wife’s mother. At 4 p.m., as though in a dream, I hear “Fire, fire, fire” and voices from the kitchen. I stagger in to see that Belinsky has moved from gin to tequila.
Finally, at 7 p.m. New Year’s Day, I return from walking the dogs to see a figure hunched over a cane, a backpack draped over one shoulder, limping down Fortunatovskaya Street in the lamplight.