My annual pilgrimage to New Jersey this summer, where I grew up but which I no longer think of as home, had been fun despite the Mets losing to the Atlanta Brats 4 – 0 at Citi Field (aka “Two-Shea” to us purists). I stayed with my best friend of 52 years (since the 7th grade) and his family, visited with my sister, and my nephew and his family, and gained at least five pounds in five days.
On the first leg of my flight home I was traveling in my usual grand style. Call it “sardine-class coach.” Remember when flying was a pleasure? Then it became an inconvenience. Now it’s an ordeal. I had an aisle seat but it looked like the flight would fill up, and it did. The man who grunted in my direction to communicate that he had the center seat was late 50’s or thereabouts and really big, though not fat. He made up for his size by being ugly, hairy, and truly mean looking. Had I been in first class I would have suspected that I was traveling with a retired NFL defensive lineman.
Before we were deprived of our electronic devices he made a couple of phone calls. He spoke in Russian and his pleasant and easygoing voice belied his appearance. He laughed often. I was reassured by his tone of voice and as we taxied I asked him what part of Russia he was from. “Kazakhstan,” he answered with a smile.
He chuckled when I communicated my complete Russian vocabulary: Hello, no, yes, please, thank you, good-bye. His English was more than passable but he groped for subtleties so I tried to keep the conversation direct and uncomplicated. He had soldiered in Angola, been badly wounded, recovered, and was mustered out. He seemed evasive about the years immediately following his military service so I did not pursue the subject. He is now a committed capitalist, an international businessman heavily involved in recycling and cartage. He has partners is Moscow, where he is based, as well as one in Beijing and another in Houston, for which he was bound that day. I assumed that he knew little or nothing about American television so I did not ask whether his enterprises had ever brought him into contact with Tony Soprano or any of his business associates.
He spends much of his time traveling and doles out a lot of money on “bribes, kickbacks. Worst in China, next worse in Russia, but here, too,” he said with a shrug.
He has two wives. “Russian pipple get marry too young. We marry when 18. I fall in love when 22.” He showed me family and business photos on his phone. His children are naturalized Americans, including a daughter who is a physician in New York City, and another who is a musician. He seemed proud to have sired U.S. citizens. I thought: “Clobber them in the Cold War, then adopt them. It beats the hell out of mutual nuclear annihilation.” Both of his wives are stunning.
There are seven siblings in his generation. A younger brother was a career Red Army officer who sojourned in Afghanistan for several years. After the debacle there and the disintegration of the U.S.S.R. their military forces were reduced to bare bones, or less. He was — I guess you could call it — downsized. What’s a trained killer to do to keep the wolf from the door? He got an offer he couldn’t refuse to work in security for “Russian mob,” as my seatmate called it. The vicissitudes of that calling being what they are he eventually found himself in an old-fashioned gunfight. He killed four men. In the confusion of the moment he shot one of them in the back. The Russian judicial system could not tolerate this woeful professional negligence and he was sentenced to 20 years in a Moscow prison for manslaughter; the other three killings were considered justifiable homicide, a wash. He has served seven years.
There are no forests to plunder and the Moscow climate is more salubrious than Siberia’s, but what he told me about the grim conditions of his brother’s confinement are consistent with what many of us have read: overcrowding, rampant drug-resistant tuberculosis, virtually nonexistent medical care and hygiene, an abysmal diet. He sends his brother food and medicine, and money to buy more. He doesn’t have much trouble from other prisoners, or even from most guards, “Because he is much bigger from me.” His former commander in Afghanistan, a retired general, writes letter after letter on his behalf seeking clemency or parole. They are not acknowledged. My companion also sends money to the family of the man shot in the back.
A digression. Russians seem to pronounce Vladimir Putin’s last name something like “Pou-chin,” but I find it difficult to communicate in our written alphabet. The first syllable is pronounced very quickly, almost but not quite slurred. Perhaps “P’chin” comes closer. No, on second thought, it doesn’t. It’s somewhere between those two pronunciations.
I expressed my candid confusion about him: ruthless, likely a murderer, but a man who professes Russian Orthodox Christianity and has a personal confessor. I asked for his opinion. My new friend looked around quickly — I guess the ol’ KGB phobia dies hard — and snarled, “P’chin is f—–g monster!” He shook his head and fell silent. This was his only departure from standard social discourse and I was discouraged from further inquiry.
As we taxied to our gate he got a call from “my wife.” I asked which one. He laughed and said, “I call only wife number one ‘my wife.’ Other is ‘wife number two.'”
We shook hands and said good-bye in Russian.