A novel by Zakhar Prilepin
Translated from the Russian by Mariya Gusev, Jeff Parker and Alina Ryabovolova
Published by Dzanc Books
They were denied the stage.
Sasha looked down: his eyes tired of red flags and gray military coats.
Red fluttered around them, brushing their faces, sometimes stirring the odor of musty fabric.
Gray stood behind the barrier. All identical conscripts—short, grimy, weakly gripping billy clubs. The police had heavy faces, burgundy from annoyance. The indispensable officer glared defiantly at the crowd. His insolent hands on the top rung of the fence separating them, the guardians of the law and of the whole city, from the protestors.
Around them stood some mustachioed lieutenant colonels, lavish bellies under their military coats. And somewhere there should also be the most important and officious of them all, the full colonel.
Sasha always tried to spot this one, the rally’s chief security officer. Sometimes he was a lean man with ascetic cheeks, squeamishly bossing around the porky lieutenant colonels. Sometimes he was like the lieutenant colonels, a bigger, heavier version yet at the same time more agile, more spry, with a smile on his face and good teeth. There was also a third type—absolutely tiny, mushroom-like, moving rapidly behind the rows of police on his quick little feet….
Sasha hadn’t seen him yet, this full colonel, stars on his shoulders.
A little farther away, behind the fencing, cars buzzed and squeaked, heavy metro doors clanged shut, dusty bums gathered bottles and surveyed their rims in a businesslike manner. A Caucasian man sipped lemonade and watched the protest from behind the backs of the policemen. Sasha accidentally met his eyes. The Caucasian man turned and walked away.
Sasha noticed some busses bearing the coat of arms with a fanged beast. The curtains in the bus windows trembled. People were sitting in those busses, waiting for an opportunity to step out, to run out, clutching rubber mallets in tough fists, looking angrily for somebody to hit, and to hit them with flourish, to knock them down and knock them out.
“You see this, yes?” Venka asked Sasha. Venka had not slept. He was
hungover, his eyes swollen like overcooked dumplings.
Their hope hadn’t panned out. The OMON unit was here.
Venka smiled as if there weren’t a bunch of camouflaged demons awaiting their cue but rather a brigade of clowns handing out balloons.
Sasha wandered into the crowd gathered behind the fence.
Fenced them in like lepers….
The fence was composed of two-meter sections along which the conscripts stood at equal intervals.
Venka followed Sasha. Their crew gathered at the other end of the plaza, and they could already make out Yana’s voice as she lined up the formation of boys and girls.
Sasha studied the unwell and poor as he brushed up against them. Almost all of them were deeply and irritatingly old.
Some sort of despair showed in their demeanor, as if they had gathered their last reserves of strength to get here and now wished only to die. The portraits that they carried in their hands and clutched to their chests depicted their leaders as younger than most of the people here. The face of young Lenin, smiling softly, an enlarged photo familiar to Sasha from his first grammar book. Then the calm face of Lenin’s successor, held up by trembling elderly hands. The successor wore a military cap and the epaulettes of a generalissimo.
Thin newspapers printed on gray paper were being handed out. Sasha outright refused, and Venka rebuffed merrily.
The scene was a simple mixture of pity and anguish.
Several hundred or maybe several thousand people gathered in this plaza two to three times a year, united in the unrealistic certainty that their presence would somehow expel a government they hated.
In the years that passed since the bourgeois takeover, the torchbearers became definitively old, and they didn’t scare anyone anymore.
Then four years ago, Kostenko, a former officer and also, oddly, a philosopher, a wily and original thinker, led into the plaza a crowd of brazen and angry youths who didn’t exactly understand what they were doing among the red banners and elderly people.
Within a few years, this group expanded and gained infamy for its brazen acts and noisy brawls.
By now Kostenko’s party attracted so many motley youths that a metal fence was needed to contain today’s rally. So that none of them spilled out….
Robust, sharp old men periodically surveyed Sasha and Venka with interest, hope, and skepticism.
A representative of the patriotic house faction shuffled in place at the podium. Even from a distance, one could make out his smooth pink face—the face of a person who ate well and a face that set him apart from all the other gray and anxious faces gathered nearby.
The representative was wearing a black, expensively cut coat. He took off his sheepskin hat and stood before the people with his head uncovered. Someone from the valetry held this hat for him.
Banners with clumsy messages hung along the stage. These would never motivate anyone towards decisive action.
Sasha cringed as he read them.
There was no time for them to present, and they were denied the stage. Sasha, standing on the second to last step, looked up at the administrator. The administrator pretended to be distracted by other business:
“Let’s go guys, let’s go. Another time.”
“What’s happening with Kostenko?”
Sasha heard the deep, clear voice of the representative as he descended the stage. The representative had noticed Sasha’s red armband and posed this question to the administrator, who had already turned away, relieved.
“He’s locked up.”
There was a hint of malice in his voice that quickly disappeared when the representative shot back: “I know he’s locked up.”
“They say he’s going to get fifteen years,” said the administrator. Now his voice belied slight regret for Kostenko’s fate.
In the short time this conversation took place, Sasha stood still on the steps of the narrow ladder and blatantly eavesdropped. One step down from him stood an elderly woman, waiting to ascend the stage.
“Well, you’re coming down, or what?” she asked. Sasha jumped off the ladder, and onto the asphalt. “Go scream down there,” she said to him. “You’re too young for the stage….”
Venka waited for Sasha at the bottom. He quickly understood everything, and
asked him nothing. It seemed Venka didn’t care whether they were allowed on the stage or not.
Venka fingered several dozen firecrackers in his pocket. At times, he pulled them out, one at a time, and twirled them in front of his face, almost as if he didn’t know what they were.
“Got a smoke?” Venka asked Sasha.
“I already told you…”
“You did?” Venka smiled, puzzled. “What did you tell me?”
Once again, they emerged from the crowd to join their crew, already in formation.
Yana, raven-haired, wearing a short elegant jacket with fur-trimmed hood and sleeves, marched up and down the ranks, looking absolutely charming.
Sasha knew that she was Kostenko’s lover.
Kostenko was in pre-trial detention, yes, under investigation. He was arrested for buying firearms, just a few automatic rifles, and now his crew, his pack, his gang stood in nervous ranks, black headbands over their faces, foreheads sweaty, eyes bewildered.
They came from all over the country. Youthful outsiders, freaks, malcontents united by who knows what, maybe just some black mark placed on them at birth.
Matvey, who led their faction in Kostenko’s absence, was not among the ranks today. He stood on the sidelines, watching.
Yana lifted the megaphone to her face and raised her arm.
Her voice was swallowed by the collective scream that answered it, and only her very first rolling, sonorous syllable remained.
Having not yet found his place, Sasha stood near the ranks, his mouth wide open. With his peripheral vision, he could see the frightened pigeons leaving the asphalt, an officer twitching nervously, the sluggish hands of the conscripts standing near the fencing as they fondled their batons. As Sasha shouted along with the others, his eyes filled with that requisite void, which, throughout the ages, always precedes an act of violence. They were seven hundred souls, and they screamed the word “Revolution.”
“Tishin!” They waved Sasha over. “Come here!”
He joined the left front rank next to Venka, whose hung-over eyes, previously doughy, were now red, almost burnt, as if they had been sautéed in a piping hot skillet.
“Go away, granny!” Venka laughed.
An old lady stood near the formation, and Sasha heard her voice in the brief pause between shouting: “Fools! Provocateurs! Your Kostenko goes to prison to become famous! The Jews brought you here!”
Yana walked by, not paying any attention to the old lady, her face bright and exposed, like an open fracture.
“Heathen!” screamed the old lady into her face, but Yana was already walking away indifferently.
Granny’s sharp eye found Sasha.
“The Jews brought you!” she repeated. “You’re a Jew! A Jew and a Nazi!”
Sasha was gently nudged in the back by those standing behind him, and the formation began to move.
The chant “Re-vo-lu-ti-on!” trembled and vibrated across the whole plaza, overpowering the deep voice from the stage, the police radios, and the voices of the other protesters.
“Founding Fathers! Guys!” The voices from the stage appealed to them. “You didn’t come here to scream! Let’s behave ourselves….”
The formation waved red and black flags and moved past the stage in the direction of the enclosure. The screaming was loud enough to puncture eardrums.
“The President…,” shouted Yana. The protesters responded with seven hundred throats: “Should be drowned in the Volga River!” “The Governor…should be drowned in the Volga River!”
“Well, will somebody please do something, gentlemen,” the speaker pleaded helplessly. And Sasha noted the out-of-place usage of “gentlemen,” and it might have even made him smile if he wasn’t too busy screaming, hoarsely and tirelessly, until his teeth chilled: “We loathe the government!”
The other sounds in the plaza fell into a rhythm with this scream, the squeal of the metro doors, the conscripts fussing with their gray military coats, the hiss of portable radios, the honks of car horns.
“Love and war! Love and war!”
“Love and love!” Sasha improvised, when he caught another glimpse of Yana as she turned sharply in front of the first rank, her jacket’s hood rising and falling.
How sweetly this hood smells, like her head, thought Sasha accidentally, and then he pushed the thought away.
Like a Tula gingerbread. He didn’t even understand why he was thinking this.
“You’re ruining the rally!” a woman screamed and tried to grab Yana by the sleeve.
“Founders!” the woman said, trying to look into their eyes. “You call yourselves ‘Founding Fathers!’ What are you founding? You’re destroying is what you’re doing!”
“Did you come here to protest? In this paddock?” Yana asked her, removing the megaphone from her face. “Go ahead and protest. We’re leaving now.”
They were already standing near the railing, and Sasha could see the shifty eyes of the policemen and the officer, who was yelling into the portable radio.
“Yes!” he yelled. “Send in the OMON. These fucking FF are coming through.”
“We are maniacs and we will prove it!” shouted the formation in chorus, devoutly, on key, stamping their feet and waving their flags.
Venka turned to face the formation, his back to the police and the enclosure, and he quickly distributed the firecrackers to the next rank.
“Fire ‘em up!”
The stage went silent; everyone was looking at the mass of chanting protestors.
Several firecrackers blew at once, an explosive bag flew at the police next—it plopped down next to a frightened officer, spitting out dirty smoke.
Sasha saw one officer’s cap fall off when he, confused by what was happening, turned and ran away.
“Re-vo-lu-ti-on!” The voices resounded, nearing a hysterical pitch, as the formation stamped along in their trainers and worn combat boots.
Several fireworks lit above the protestors at once.
Sasha already had his hands on the fence and pulled it towards him. From the opposite side, a policeman frantically held onto it.
Another swung a club at Sasha’s head.
Sasha let go, ducked, and then, carefully, as if it were hot, took hold of the fence again.
The officer shifted the club to his other hand and landed a sideways blow on Venka’s cheek, which immediately erupted in a puffy, crimson welt.
“The staff!” Venka yelled, looking back with a demonic smile. “Give me the staff!”
Someone passed him a flag. Venka tore off the material and powerfully swung the staff at the officer, who was busy shoving his club into someone else’s face and didn’t see it coming.
The officer’s cap slid down the back of his head, and the blood began to flow in a thin stream down his forehead to the bridge of his nose, where it parted and spread in a canopy across his brow, cheeks, and eye sockets.
The officer looked up, his eyes bulging, as if trying to see the wound.
Another staff landed on Sasha’s shoulder, the flag flapped. Out of the corner of his eye he saw the other flags on other shoulders, like spears, their tips pointing at the policemen and the conscripts holding together the enclosure.
Again, Sasha was pushed from behind so strongly that he fell forward, and as he fell, he pushed his hands into the chest of a conscript who held his club up and began to blink anxiously—either he didn’t know how to swing it or he was too afraid.
Sasha managed to stay on his feet, pushed the conscript away, and lifted the section of enclosure above his head.
The tirelessly screaming mass broke through the pen. The policemen backed away, staring at the protestors. Someone led the officer with the busted head toward the police car.
“Guys, I beg of you!” someone shouted too late from the stage.
Hefty troops in camouflage, the OMON, arrived.
Three, registered Sasha. For now just three of them.
Sasha threw the fence at them, nearly tearing his arms from his joints. The fence rumbled as it hit the asphalt, falling just short of the OMON unit running toward him. They stopped and yelled angrily, but Sasha couldn’t make out the words. They began advancing again, and Sasha threw another section of fence.
One of the OMON guys fell crookedly underneath the crashing metal. The two others tried to free him.
“Please retain your composure!” the stage shouted. “Continue the rally!”
The formation tore forward, along the avenue. The police stood helplessly, like the honorary guard, overlooking the young, happily howling horde entering the city.
The plaza spilled into a pedestrian street, and the first thing that bore the brunt of the freed crowd’s fury was a taxi stand and several stalls selling flowers.
The women merchants grabbed armfuls of flowers and ran off. Not yet deliberately, still by accident, the protestors knocked over one basket with roses, tulips and carnations—and right away they liked it, right away got hooked. When Sasha came through, the whole street was covered in crimson, yellow, pink, burgundy. The flowers crunched underfoot, and the stems snapped.
For some reason Sasha gathered up flowers, maybe three or four bouquets from a flower rack not yet thrown to the ground, and for a short time he ran with them, fully realizing the uselessness of his act.
As he passed the taxi stands, he saw a scared taxi driver hit the gas pedal—his passenger didn’t have time to get in fully and she held on to the door, screaming bloody murder as the cab dragged her a few meters.
The other taxis blew their horns and braked erratically, trying to get out of there.
Sasha showered flowers on an impoverished refugee from Bumblefuck sitting on the asphalt with the requisite baby in her arms, and he almost knocked down Venka, who was stopped in front of a store window shopping, it looked like, for the right weapon.
Venka found a garbage can, and one moment later it crashed through the store window.
There were still a few regular people out on this Sunday morning. The occasional pedestrian scattered, rushed away and didn’t look back. A man in a blue coat ran out of a store and trotted up the street. For a moment a security guard in a black jacket appeared, then immediately disappeared into the doorway, yelling something into a cell phone.
A beautiful foreign car parked on the wrong side of the street—someone parked it here in defiance of the guardians of the road and the rights of pedestrians. The car’s alarm squealed, which is probably what irritated the raging crowd. Several boys turned it on its side with surprising ease, and then flipped it upside down.
A little farther down the street, there were more cars, and shortly boys and girls were jumping up and down on top of them with a wild, almost animal glee.
Looking for something to break—to break loudly, with a crash, to smash to pieces—they moved down the street, each of them one-on-one against the city.
The kids didn’t raise their voices and went about their business viciously and with poise.
With a terrible metal screech, a few arcade games fell over onto the asphalt.
One of them managed to dislodge the enclosure of a summer café—snatching off the beautiful black chains and launching the enclosure through the brightly colored café windows.
One of them got cut and wrapped his sliced hand in a piece of satin drape, liberated from the café together with the curtain.
Kostya Solovy, a tall, strangely beautiful, unique type—in a white suit jacket, white pants and white shoes with pointy toes that perfectly complimented his pointy vampire ears—grabbed a black chain, and, swinging it nimbly, put out each street light he met.
No one got too close to him—the heavy chain drew pretty circles, and if it wasn’t for the dumb racket around him, it would be possible to hear the quiet wailing that the chain emitted on its circular route.
Behind the glass window of a clothing store stood thin-armed, pinheaded mannequins pretending to be beautiful women in short skirts and bright blouses.
They broke the window, and tore the beauties into pieces in the street. Those bringing up the rear were startled when they tripped over body parts.
Sasha understood that the cops had been able to block off some of the protestors after the initial break—he saw that fewer guys were left, possibly only about two hundred people. Many of them were already escaping into the inner courtyards, understanding that the free-for-all would not last forever.
“Pigs!” someone screamed, and the horde tore up the street, dropping garbage cans and crashing merchant’s stalls.
There was the continuous din of broken glass. The city’s mixed up and finely ground colors became unusually bright that morning.
Journalists with camcorders ran along with the crowd—businesslike, and, it seemed, maybe even happy about what was happening.
“Over there! Quickly!” a person with a microphone urged the camera operator.
Sasha carried on with a clear head, chasing away all feelings other than the desire to smash and break as many things as possible.
In the street, Sasha saw pink and yellow stuffed toys, prizes from a tipped-over glass “one-armed bandit,” pathetic looking, as if they’d gotten lost.
From god knows where, the short elderly mayor appeared, walking toward them.
“Stop!” he commanded, and the fear in his voice could be heard so clearly that it was obvious he didn’t really want anyone to obey him.
Venka ran and landed a flying kick in the mayor’s chest. The mayor fell, his arms splayed.
Sasha stopped near the old mayor, resisting his own desire to lift the man up, help him back to his feet, to apologize even.
The mayor grabbed at his holster with a jerky motion, not because he wanted to use his gun, but for fear of losing it, for fear of being left without it.
The mayor began calling Sasha obscene names, and he changed his mind about helping the fallen old man and even stomped on his nearby cap.
“What are you doing, you?” said the mayor, sitting up. He looked very silly like that—sitting on the pavement, no cap, already an old man.
“You yourself are to blame for everything,” Sasha said, furiously.
He turned around, and Venka immediately caught him by the sleeve and pulled him in the opposite direction.
“The cosmonauts are coming. Come on…we need to get out of here.”
They passed the Nature’s Offerings store sign with several letters hanging, half torn-off. They skirted the showcase window with beautiful zigzag cracks, flew into a piss-soaked inner courtyard, and immediately found themselves at a dead end.
“Shit, I don’t know this neighborhood!” Venka said, smiling and cheerfully babbling on. “They’re pulping everyone, these cosmonauts. A true massacre. They’re herding us down towards the cops…”
Sasha surveyed the walls, hoping to find an escape.
“A staircase,” Sasha said.
There was a fire escape ladder leading up the side of a four-story building, but it was too high up to reach by jumping.
“Stand on my shoulders,” Venka said.
Sasha smiled and looked, tenderly perhaps, at him. Because Venka did not say: “Let me stand on your shoulders.”
“And what about you? You’ll hide in the sand here?” Sasha said.
“Pretend to be a water hose,” Venka said, cackling stupidly. “Hey, lady!” He noticed her and stopped laughing. Venka ran up to a first-floor window and began to tap on it rapidly. “Lady, don’t go!”
The woman returned to the window, cocked her head: “What do you want?”
“We are being chased! There! Being beaten and chased! Open the window! Chased!”
Venka gesticulated wildly. He clearly had not yet decided what role to play: the whiny young idiot, emphasizing the “Please pity us, ma’am!” or the serious young lad in trouble with the law, going with, “Help me, woman! This can happen to anyone!” As a result, he shifted back and forth between the two, failing to elicit any trust from the woman standing behind the window.
“Damn, if only it was some granny. A granny would have felt sorry for us,” said
Venka when the woman, without replying, drew the curtains, and continued standing near the window, her heavy silhouette still visible.
“Probably her other windows face the street,” said Sasha, then cut himself
short. It was already clear that if the woman knew what they had been up to she would have never let them in.
“We got about two more minutes…,” Venka said, having missed the connection. “Sasha, check this out.” (“Check this out” was his pet saying. It could mean a million things, and in this case, it meant, “Here’s a good one for you!”) “There was a sportsman running in front of us there, a jogger. A simple athlete, right. Out for a Sunday morning run. He was the first one to come upon the OMON. In his red shorts. Man, they fucked the poor sap up. Morons, shit. Really improved his health.”
There was the sound of steps, and Venka froze with a smile on his face, and for some reason Sasha suddenly felt like sitting or even lying down.
Lyosha Rogov ran into the courtyard—a guy from somewhere in the North. From
They barely knew each other, but Sasha had already taken notice of Lyosha for his solid, non-phony composure.
“Why are you standing around here?” Lyosha asked evenly.
“Are the cops already out there?” Sasha answered his question with a question.
“Probably another hundred meters. Is this a dead end? I think the next courtyard is open. I took a stroll here yesterday.”
As they ran back into the street, they marveled at the chaos and devastation once again.
“They torched a car!” Venka said joyfully.
The air was filled with the barking of dogs, howling sirens, police whistles.
Sasha spotted two more overturned cars, one of which, about seventy meters down the street, was on fire. No one would approach it. It seemed that the police had held back because of this—they were weary of an explosion.
Ten meters away the second car rocked peacefully on its roof. The alarm wailed incessantly and nearby an alcoholic hag was doing a little dance, her face dirty and her lips moist, like the inside of a cheek. The hag smiled, revealing a toothless mouth.
Nearby stood a young man holding a briefcase and a set of keys.
That is his car, Sasha guessed.
“Hey, buddy.” He called out to the young man, whose face twitched nervously.
He turned around. “Turn off the noise. It’s irritating,” Venka said grinning and gestured as if pressing a button.
They ran into a courtyard and accelerated, jumping over benches, rounding the gazebos and the playground slides. In mid-flight Sasha bumped the rusty skeleton of a swing set and for several seconds could still hear the swings’ rhythmic creaking behind him.
Three policemen pursued them, stomping menacingly and demanding that they stop. The first one, as Sasha could see when he glanced back, strained to hold onto the leash of a German Shepherd.
Will they release the dog, or not? thought Sasha in a detached kind of way, as if it had nothing to do with him.
He decided not to look back anymore.
Leaving the courtyard, they came to a tram stop with hardly any people when all they wanted was to find a crowd and get lost in it.
A tram departed.
They ran after it, and in thirty meters they caught up with its metal carcass.
Venka ran ahead flailing his arms joyfully, shouting something unbelievable and gesticulating frantically to the driver, whose displeased face flickered in the rearview mirror.
The tram stopped, the middle door opened, the boys jumped in, and Lyosha Rogov ran up to the conductor’s cabin. Sasha noticed that he slipped her a banknote while apologizing to her, and the door closed. The tram began to move.
The policemen appeared from the courtyard; it was clear by their movements that they immediately guessed where the fugitives had gone.
Venka was giving them the middle finger with both hands as they furiously stamped around in place, and suddenly the tram stopped.
The front door opened, and five or six OMON entered.
Venka pressed the emergency exit button, and the door began to slide open, slowly and with a dissatisfied hiss, but the brutes were already upon them, and the first thing they did was slam Venka’s head into a railing.
Sasha immediately covered his head with his hands. With the help of a few vigorous knee kicks, they dragged him outside.
Outside, a strong hand grabbed him by the collar and smashed his head against the side of the tram. He saw a weak red flash. It was not too bad….
The boys were forced to assume the position—hands behind their heads, their foreheads on the iron siding of the tram, and legs spread as widely as possible. They hit them on the insides of their legs a few times to make their stances wider.
The OMON, of course, wanted more. They’d apprehended the escapees with such flair—their pumping adrenaline demanded that they immediately tear their prey apart. But the faces of several curious passengers glued to the tram windows prevented them from really letting loose.
They milled in place nervously, clutching their batons, their faces contorting.
Turning his head slightly, Sasha saw Venka and Rogov next to him, their legs spread, same as his own.
The engine of the OMON bus, which was blocking the tram rails, started, and it rolled back.
“Shall we get a move on then?” a voice said. “We should show these bastards what revolution means.”
“So, you son of a bitch! You wanted a revolution?” A voice near Sasha, but probably directed at Venka, said. “In half an hour, you’ll be pissing red revolutionary blood!”
There was a punch, then another one. One of them couldn’t hold back, exploded….
Sasha turned towards Venka and immediately caught a heavy blow to the back of the head, as if someone had been standing behind his back this whole time, just waiting to strike.
“Didn’t we tell you, keep your hands behind your head, and don’t move.”
This was when the dog arrived and with it, Sasha guessed by the crescendo of incessant profanities, the cops.
Judging by the barking and shuffling, the dog was chomping at the bit. Sasha shrunk back, expecting to have a bite taken out of his leg any second.
“You should see what these animals…did!” one of the cops said, trying to catch his breath. “Tore up the whole street…the shops…the cars…they’re animals…. We should shoot these animals right here!”
“What are you doing, you little shit?” he said to Venka, whose head was against the tram. “Huh? I asked you a question, punk! What are you doing?”
“I’m holding up the tram,” Venka said in a collected voice, a voice so collected it was unbearably cocky.
Sasha smiled into the red iron siding, which was cooling his sweaty forehead.
Sasha heard the policeman’s voice, understood that he was about to hit Venka, and snuck another sideways look at him. A club as thick as a fire hose hit his friend’s back with a deep thud.
“So?” shouted the policeman, still breathing heavily. “More? Hmm? No,
answer me! You want some more?”
“Check it out,” Venka replied loudly, and it didn’t sound like “Yes, more,” but
rather like, “Keep going, old boy, he who laughs last laughs best….”
At this point, one of the camouflaged demons decided to weigh in: “Is this how you talk to an officer of the law, kid?”
As if wielding a scythe, he swung his huge, boot-heavy foot, hitting Venka behind the knee and Venka fell, surprised, with a hoarse whimper. Another heavy boot forcefully stepped on his face.
“Hey, enough already!” Sasha suddenly cried, to his own surprise.
Probably he would have caught a few heavy ones as well, but the tram conductor diverted their attention: “Gentlemen! Please, lead these young people away from the tram. There are children in the car. We must be going!”
“Semenyich, should we load them up or not?” someone asked again.
“No. The cops will escort them back to the plaza. We’re going to patrol
the courtyards some more.”
The OMON got into their bus and left.
The cops lifted Venka up by the collar. They asked Sasha and Lyosha to take a step back. “One more step back.” The tram creaked and began to move.
Sasha looked up at the sky and felt slightly dizzy.
Handcuffs snapped closed behind Venka’s and Lyosha’s backs.
“Hands behind your back!”
Cold squeezed his wrists and made his hands go limp.
They were led down the street, hurried along by the policemen’s prodding and cursing while the German shepherd periodically barked in unison.
Venka lifted his head, sucking air in through his nose with a moist hiss, trying to stop the blood.
Sasha surveyed the fruit of his and his friends’ labor with interest.
The street was torn into like a bag of toys.
Several tri-colored flags lay on the asphalt, ripped and trampled.
Broken glass, trash from the overturned bins, and flowers thickly littered the street, giving the impression that it had rained glass, garbage, and flower petals.
Here and there lay chairs, a piece of chain.
All the street lamps were broken.
“They got Yana,” Sasha said, noticing a torn, fur-lined hood on the asphalt, its threading loose.
“Yana’s hood. They captured her by her hood.”
Sometimes people passing in the opposite direction surveyed the apprehended with interest, sometimes with anger.
I’ve been taken prisoner, Sasha thought wryly. I am a prisoner of war.
He finished his thought, this time with seriousness: And I might do some time in jail….
The burnt-out car could be seen from a distance. Firefighters were already busy extinguishing it. Water pumped from the hoses, the car emitted viscous smoke.
“What the fuck did you do this for?” One of the policemen, the fat one with emphysema, still couldn’t calm down. “The fucking fuck. Did you build any of this? What right do you have to destroy it?”
No one was in a hurry to answer his question.
Lyosha gazed calmly ahead, and you could read on his face that he didn’t feel the need to answer anyone’s questions.
Sasha could have answered, but his busted lip stung, and he kept licking the blood.
Not even a broken nose would deter Venka, who asked, sniffling:
“Did we build any of what?”
“Did you build any of this—this, all of this?”
“Who built it?” Venka asked as if he really wanted to know.
At precisely this moment someone stuck a camera directly in Venka’s face, and the policeman shoved the journalists away, cursing vigorously.
“Hey, can you uncuff me? Let me at least wipe the blood off,” Venka said, taking advantage of the situation. “Or you’ll get an earful for beating up a teenager. My nose is broken. I’m going to file a formal complaint.”
“File your formal complaint. I couldn’t give a shit, do you understand?” the policeman said. “Go ahead, write it, I don’t care. I’ll whup your ass again back at the precinct.”
Venka sniffed loudly, spat some blood on the pavement, and said nothing more.
The boys of the Founding Fathers were being led out from the courtyards—at times in groups of three or four, at times by the dozen.
Almost all the captives were beaten, covered in red, bloody bruises, their eyes swelling, their noses smashed, and their lips split.
A kid of about fourteen, completely pale, his cheeks trembling, could barely stand—the thick, muddy-red clot on the back of his head was terrifying.
The others held him up by his arms.
Their clothes were torn. Their pale, young bodies visible.
Sasha knew all of them—if not by name, he knew their faces.
Some of them were trying to joke around, but the policemen shouted hysterically, demanding that they shut their mouths.
Soon a whole crowd of “prisoners of war” had gathered, maybe sixty or seventy in total.
The majority of them were not handcuffed.
“Let’s take the bracelets off of our guys,” said the policeman with emphysema to
his cronies. He was the senior officer.
“What for?” asked one of them.
His partner shrugged his shoulders, confused—which forced his superior to explain:
“The cosmonauts beat them up, but we’re the ones who’ll take the heat. That one right there, maybe he has a broken nose—we’ll have to fill out the report. We don’t fucking need this, get it? Let’s walk them to the plaza and then—goodbye.”
They pulled Sasha, Lyosha, and Venka from the crowd.
They struggled for a time, fiddling with the handcuff keys, cursing quietly.
Sasha licked his lip. Venka couldn’t stop the dripping from his lip. Some blood had dried in his beard, forming a black crust. Lyosha moved spasmodically, looking all around, making it even more difficult to remove his cuffs. He shuffled in place and jerked his hands away.
“Stay in one place, goddamnit!” they yelled.
The order came: “Get out of here! Move!”
The guys began to jog lightly ahead towards the others in front of them, about thirty or forty meters away. The detainees were tightly surrounded by people in army coats and caps.
“Time to make legs,” Lyosha said quietly as soon as there was some space between them and the cops, who were replacing the handcuffs on their belts.
“We can try,” Venka said.
“Let’s go,” Sasha said, and once they had distanced themselves from the formation, they lightly and freely ducked down the nearest side street as if going about their regular business.
As he gained speed, Sasha felt the rush of swinging high on a playground swing.
The grass flashed by, close (he almost fell, pushed himself up with his arms like a monkey, scratching his palms on the gravel; Where did the gravel come from?), then a window, another window (the house rushed past), a baby carriage, a woman pushing it (recoiling from Venka’s messy, bloody face), a police patrol car leaving the courtyard turned the corner (…Did they see us? We could have run… right smack into them…), a bench (sideways in the road, blocking it, for some reason), a fence (can’t make the jump—too high)….
Every second, he was certain that soon, right now, the moving force behind the swing would reach its apex, and someone would grab him by the neck, and yank him back.
Sasha jumped off the fence and fell, rolling over.
Yes, it was seriously high, how did I get over it…?
Venka fell next to him, on all fours for some reason, his chin black, cracked, bloody; and only Rogov landed on his feet, squatting, then immediately straightening up.
Rogov grabbed Venka’s collar, and Venka pushed off with his feet and started running.
Wheezing and panting, long strands of bittersweet saliva flowing from their mouths, they flew through the courtyards, until, exhausted and completely dazed, they hid in the entrance of an apartment building.
They squatted, eyes clouded, mouths open, desperately, unsuccessfully trying to breathe. Stuff hung from their mouths. Someone entered the building, but they felt no shame.
“Sonny, were you…in Moscow?” His mother’s voice was resigned and mournful in the receiver.
Hearing this voice made Sasha want to claw his own face.
“I was,” he answered dully, raising his busted lip, which made his “was” sound like “wah.”
“You are all wanted by the police,” mom said, and there was just the faintest flicker of hope in her voice, hope that Sasha would dissuade her, tell her that none of it was true, and that he did nothing wrong.
“It’s all…nonsense,” he said.
ZAKHAR PRILEPIN was born in 1975. He is the author of five award-winning novels, three short story collections, and several works of nonfiction. His works have received the top literary prizes in Russia. He lives in Nizhny Novgorod, where he is the regional editor of the independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta. Originally published in 2006, Sankya is a cult sensation in Russia, where it won the Yasnaya Polyana Award and was shortlisted for the Russian Booker and the National Bestseller Prize. Sankya is the basis for Kirill Serebrennikov’s popular play Thugs. He was recently featured in a documentary on new Russian writers hosted by British actor Stephen Fry called Russia’s Open Book: Writing in the Age of Putin.
About the Translators:
MARIYA GUSEV is a writer, editor, and literary translator. She is one of the founding editors of the St. Petersburg Review (founded 2006), and her translations of contemporary Russian writers have appeared in Rasskazy: New Fiction from a New Russia (Tin House), Virginia Quarterly Review, and many other publications.
JEFF PARKER co-edited the anthologies Rasskazy: New Fiction from a New Russia (Tin House) and Amerika: Russian Writers View the United States (Dalkey Archive). For many years he directed the Summer Literary Seminars in St. Petersburg, Russia, program. His nonfiction book about Russia, Where Bears Roam the Streets, is forthcoming in 2015. He teaches in the MFA Program for Poets & Writers at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.
ALINA RYABOVOLOVA’s translations from English to Russian include British novelist Ben Elton’s Popcorn. She is currently a doctoral student in Communication at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.
Read more work by Zakhar Prilepin:
Excerpt from the title story of the novel-in-stories Sin
Website for Sin at Glagoslav Publications
Review of Sin at Literalab
Sankya official website (Russian)
Sankya is being published in English translation by the Disquiet imprint of Dzanc Books on April 29, 2014