When I first moved to Russia, St. Petersburg to be exact, I spent a lot of time hanging out on the streets with homeless folk. It was a good way to practice my Russian, and the vagrants and drunks I met were a lot more interesting than the people I was working with at the time.
For example, I’d never met a one-eyed, heroin addict, Afghan War veteran before until I bumped into Vasya near the city’s main train terminal one day. We were both stopped by the same bribe-hungry cop and after we had passed over the going rate, we started chatting.
“You not Russian then?”
This was my standard reply at the time. Latvians, as former Soviets, weren’t seen as at all interesting, and I could avoid the usual tedious questions about The Beatles and the Queen. I had even learned a smattering of the language in case anyone tried testing me. I’m not really sure if Vasya believed me though.
I had nothing better to do, so we bought a bottle and hunkered down in that peculiar semi-squatting way that Russian provincials and drunks have. And then Vasya introduced me to the gang.
Gosha had “1970” tattooed on the knuckles of his right hand, and I initially took this to be the date of his birth, attributing the discrepancy between his age and his looks to the well-documented wasting and aging affects of alcohol, watered down medicinal spirits, bootleg vodka, perfume or whatever it was he had guzzled in his life. But I was wrong.
“What d’ya mean? That was the year I killed my first man,” he told me.
“Are you joking?”
“No,” he said, and lit a cigarette.
(Actually, what he really said was, “Da-net.” Or, “Yes, No,” a bizarre Russian expression that is best translated as a laconic ‘Nah.’)
I was kind of impressed. I’d never met a killer before. At least, not knowingly.
The second “permanent” was Artyem. Short and stumpy, hair shorn out of a basic lack of imagination rather than any political leanings, he was semi-lame, and used a stick to get around. He was slightly younger than me, yet the only indication of his relative youth was the high-pitched toothless giggle that he occasionally let out, like the sound of an over-excited schoolgirl, incongruous and deeply irritating.
And then there was Marina, a head taller than me.
And what a head it was.
Squashed, tugged in all directions by some unknown force of nature, her skull looked as if it had been squeezed in a vice for a protracted period of time and that then someone had attempted to reshape it. Her upper teeth jutted out, causing her to resemble nothing so much as a cross between Bugs Bunny and a vampire.
She also had a speech defect that was so severe that the first time I had heard her talk I assumed that she was speaking another language – Uzbek or something, one of those guttural Central Asian tongues that I know nothing of. I found it hard to communicate with her, usually relying on one of the others to “translate” her words into Russian for me. As far as I could make out, she had been brought up in a children’s home, and then kicked out at the age of sixteen, spending most of her life since on the street.
I can’t say we became great friends or anything, but I would hang out with them a few evenings every month that summer. I picked up a lot of good stories and some cool swearwords, as well. There were others, but they were less permanent, and drifted in and out of the group, mere binge drinkers, with homes and perhaps even (un)steady jobs, or characters who had gone so far that they were unable to be a part of any group, a squiggle on the face of reality, ever-shifting forms that it was impossible to focus upon.
I must have been less sensitive to smells back then, because while they may have been good company, they really did reek. I would return home, take a long shower and wash my clothes, only for the stink to cling to me somehow. Resolute and resilient, it was more than a smell. It was a statement, an olfactory coded rejection of society and all it had to offer.
I haven’t seen Vasya and his gang for over a decade now, but I still catch a whiff of that scent from time to time. Frequently, of late, from a group of hardened drinkers who hang out near the Old Arbat in central Moscow. While I recognize the smell, and what it represents, I no longer have any desire to spend my evenings in the company of drunks and vagrants. I guess that’s a sign that I have matured somewhat. Which must be a good thing. Right?
From lurid tales of oligarch excess to scare stories about Moscow’s stranglehold on Europe’s energy supplies, the land that gave us Roman Abramovich and Vladimir Putin is very rarely out of the news. But there is much more to modern Russia than billionaire tycoons and political conspiracy. Marc Bennetts’ weekly column, Deeper Than Oil, goes beyond the headlines to explore the hidden sides of the world’s largest, and often strangest, country.
Marc Bennetts is a journalist (The Guardian, The Observer, The Times, and more) and the author of Football Dynamo: Modern Russia and the People’s Game (Virgin Books).