Biography owes to impressions.
Impressions are bestowed on us by Fate. How it happens isn't so important. The important thing is that you never know what Fate is going to toss your way.
If somebody had told me in my adolescence that I would one day be serving on submarines, I would have laughed in their face. I would have laughed with both lungs. But that's exactly the way Fate arranged things, grabbing me by my stiff-collared education and dragging me on a tortuous path toward a life underwater.
And to ensure that the impressions I received along the way were as full-bodied as possible, Fate sent me first to the Naval Academy where I would spend five years in the Chemistry Department gaining impressions.
In the chemical department we were trained to become military chemists. And yet my deepest impressions of this period didn't come from chemistry at all. For me the most indelible impressions came from our mess hall, with its carts and trays, bowls and plates, cooks and pantries, showers and locker rooms and waitresses... and with them the inevitable behind-the-scenes peeping in search of food for our impure thoughts.
And of course, the countless rows of mess tables with aluminium pots arranged at an even pace: four cadets to a pot.
When everybody was seated at the tables, someone would start divvying up, in other words, ladling the gravy from the pot onto the plates, and everybody else would do their best to look disinterested, all the while watching to make sure the server wasn't spooning out the meat for himself. Meat was a commodity that was rationed conscientiously and fairly. Everybody remembered who'd eaten it the last time out. Never mind that it was more reminiscent of an over-boiled dishrag. We didn't care about that. The only thing we cared about was the simple fact that there was meat to be eaten... or that there wasn't.
Meat at the mess hall came from the country's frozen stocks, and when we were on kitchen duty we could make out the year it was processed by the faded blue stamp on the lid, and if the date coincided with the year we were born we announced that we were eating an old childhood friend.
And we ate it with vigour. We ate because we were hungry.
During our meals music played in the background; this helped to stimulate our digestive juices.
When going to the mess hall, we proceeded in formation, heads high, in perfect step and spirits, and reminded each other that our service had already begun, that the time spent here would be counted toward our pensions. In front of the mess hall were buckets of chlorine resting on wooden stools. Without breaking stride we would dunk our hands into the buckets. And for a long time afterwards, the smell of chlorine evoked a complex emotion suggesting both mess hall and communal head.
Another impression that has stayed with me is how we used to eat condensed milk. In those days the country had a lot of condensed milk and so we did our part to eat it: we'd buy a can, make two holes in the top, and then putting our trembling lips to one of the holes, knock it back with a mighty sucking action that brought a burst of sweet milk in our mouths. And at that moment the only thing we wanted was for it to last forever.
Drinking a can of condensed milk requires a certain physical intimacy. But if for some reason the relationship didn't work out, it was considered a nice gesture to save the last swallow for a friend.
Only one day a month - cadet's payday - were we able to eat to our heart's content. But then we ate as if there would be no tomorrow: condensed milk by the can, sausages by the meter, and beer by the gallon in special firefighter's buckets that enabled us to sneak it in through the fence. In our junior years we smuggled beer in at night; in our senior years, by day. And during exams we carried it into the classrooms right through the parade grounds.
Another thing that I used to do was to lie in the Infirmary. I liked lying in the Infirmary because that was the only place where you could get a good night's sleep, and getting a good night's sleep was something that I hadn't done since I was seventeen years old, specifically, since my delicate ears first recoiled at the command "Outta your racks, squirrels!!!"
In the Infirmary we were fed the same organic substances as in the mess hall, the only consolation being that you always got an extra portion.
But nobody - not even the heavily medicated - would eat bigus.
Bigus was a special dish designed in defiance of all humanitarian and gastrointestinal norms consisting of potatoes boiled with sauerkraut and seasoned with liquefied animal fat and tiny pieces of pork lard.
After poking my fork around in some bigus, I would walk outside into the corridor between hospital wards and slumping against the wall call out gutturally:
"What's the matter, son?" a nurse would jump out.
"Thanks a lot, nurse," I would say gravely and walk back into the ward.
Artistry! That's what future officers should be taught. Otherwise, how could they expect to stand in front of a formation of subordinates, each of whom is looking with wide eyes and yearning, just yearning, for some of that artistry to wear off. Sure it's important for subordinates that you give a command, but it's every bit as important how you give it. It's important for them how you arrange your face while giving it, how you hold your arms, and the positioning of your legs. It's important how much of your soul you put in a "Right face!" and how much compassion you convey in your "Atten-tion!"
For some reason it's assumed that if a person can't do anything else in this world then he is qualified to teach other people.
How many times I've been instructed while in formation, and how many times I've seen the same picture: turns out, it's enough to shout, "Arms up! Legs out! I can't hear your feet! Petrov! Dammit-to-hell...!" - and voilà: you are a teacher.
And then you see him. Your new company commander. His face, strangely enough, shows signs of civility. His eyes say that he has just returned from the fleet, that there's not a damn thing he's afraid of, that he's done his time, and that he's not one to suck up to the system like a lackey to his master.
"I'm tired of all this formal education," he says, and from that moment on you begin to study his speech, his face, his walk, the way he carries himself.
In time he taught us what you won't find in any textbook, what you can't be handed upon graduation, what you can learn only when it has coursed through you.
He taught us life.
My after-graduation leave came and went like a stranger's face in a window, and a month later I was flying north to receive my assignment, inspired, impeccably-trained, and happier than is otherwise advisable.
"Where do you want to go..." someone from the personnel division is asking the new lieutenant in front of me. "Rosta village or Port Vladimir?"
Not up on his current naval geography, the lieutenant picks Port Vladimir only to be whisked off to a place where three dilapidated wooden buildings - the whole of civilization's defense against the elements - are fighting an uphill battle for respect.
What a sucker!
But by the time my turn came around no immediate openings were available. Not that the Northern Fleet doesn't need a new lieutenant; of course it does - just not as eagerly as his self-esteem would have him believe.
After a two-week ordeal, I was finally sent to a special chemical defense division nicknamed ChemDiz. Back then if a wayward sailor was lucky enough to avoid the brig, then he would serve in ChemDiz, a place infested with a wide array of miscellaneously afflicted souls: one-eyed drunks, two-headed vandals, three-fingered thieves, liars, pimps, triggermen, and enough social outcasts and misfits to populate any man's navy.
"Don't worry, lieutenant," they told me. "We don't hurt children."
And I didn't worry - they kept their word. Although in between keeping their word they did hang the son of the Zampolit* on a fence. Strapped him up by his belt loops. For two hours the six-year-old boy just hung there and cried...
...Fifteen duties a month. Twenty-four on, twenty-four off.
"What's the matter, lieutenant? On duty again? Well, just stick it out - we've all been in your place. We've all gone through it."
...Crowded quarters and bunks, and slimy foul-smelling heads...
After a month of this, I felt like a bittern, a bird that bears a striking resemblance to military personnel: at the slightest sign of danger it'll freeze in its tracks, standing at perfect attention; but once it feels trapped, it screams like a wounded bull.
And I screamed. Rather, my impeccably trained soul screamed at the injustice. It screamed all day and all night. It screamed and screamed until finally the idea of nuclear submarines had taken firm root in my hierarchy of values.
But when I shared my idea with the brass, they seemed to be taken aback by my disillusionment with the status quo. They referred to my condition as "playing romantic games" and were quite explicit as to where I should go to play those types of games in the future. Then they declared that for me to receive permission to transfer to the sub division ("and it ain't easy, my boy, it ain't easy at all") I would have to spend the rest of my waking hours eating shit: ("for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.")
From that day on, I ceased to serve the navy - and began to eat shit. And I did so for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
And in those rare moments when I wasn't eating shit, I moved cement from one place to another and dumped it into different holes.
It should be mentioned that in ChemDiz there most certainly was enough shit for the eating. An amazing amount of it. Acres and Acres. Although, in all fairness, I can't claim to have been the first to engage in this activity. In fact, quite a bit of it had been consumed by others before me.
New Year's Eve
On December 31st, I was on duty again, standing watch for our unit. On this most festive of nights there was only one sober person in the unit, and that sober person was me. All the others had gotten drunk long ago and were now involving themselves in a massive brawl: chairs flew across the room, bodies were everywhere.
And I separated the warring parties. Or, rather, I tried to do so.
At some point the telephone rang. I made my way through a heap of bodies and flying fists to answer it. After identifying myself, I heard our Zampolit's voice:
"Well, how's it going over there?"
"Fine," I said. "Everyone's in a huge drunken brawl."
"I trust they're not mussing each other up too badly?"
"Oh, of course not..."
"When they get tired and collapse, line them up and congratulate them for me."
And that's what I did: when they finally collapsed I lined them up and congratulated them.
December 31, 1975. The day my transfer to the nuclear sub division was signed.
Subs, Subs, Subs...
Less than a month after my transfer was signed I stood in the corridor of the nuke division headquarters, which was located on a FLUB (Floating Utility Barracks).
Five minutes later I already knew where my cabin was and in another five minutes the better part of my hair had been dismantled.
And I started to live on the FLUB.
The FLUB deserves some special mention. On the first deck of the ship, with the propeller, was the headquarters; on the second, third, and fourth decks lived the crews. Below was the ship's hold with a dripping ceiling, protruding cables, and huge rats the size of Darwin's Origin of the Species.
The rats lived in the ship's hold, but roamed everywhere. If a group of sailors saw one approaching along a corridor, they would take great pains to fling themselves against the walls to get out of its way; as a rule, only the most intrepid ever dared to challenge a rat directly.
One morning our cook discovered a whole colony of the beasts in one of his huge empty kettles: he opened the lid and there they were looking up at him.
The cook clamped the lid shut and marched to the garbage heap where he rounded up the biggest and dirtiest stray cat he could find and brought it back to the ship.
The cook threw it to the rats and sealed the kettle. The feline howled in horror. When the cook finally removed the lid, the cat shot out like a bullet. A graveyard of corpses lay scattered on the bottom: the cat had butchered them all. Of course you can't blame him; it was his life he was fighting for.
Afterwards, the cook threw out the rats, washed the kettle, and boiled lunch as usual.
The FLUBs that we lived on were designed and constructed in Finland, and when they were ready for use they would begin the long journey to the Russian North. Each of them came complete with chandeliers, rugs, dishes, liquid soap, faucets, carved handles, and even toilet paper in the bathrooms.
As soon as they were moored, it all disappeared - right down to the toilet paper in the bathrooms. The last thing that managed to vanish was the patterned curtains from the cabins, which the sailors used to sew swimming trunks during the warm summer months. Not until much later, when they began turning up in the military hospitals with shaggy groins and severely bloated scrotums, did they learn that these curtains had been made out of fibreglass.
In the Russian Navy, floating barracks can serve as long-term residences not only for submariners, but also for their families: wives and children and baby strollers.
One time it happened that a strategic nuclear sub was dispatched from the North to a new base in the East. Dropping everything, the wives rushed there by ship. Well, as military life would have it, the base was there, but the housing wasn't... at least not yet.
Lieutenants were allocated double-bunk accommodations: hers on top, his on the bottom. Or vice versa. Each set of bunks was separated from the others by a bedsheet - a white one at that.
And have at it!
Initially, people were embarrassed at these living arrangements. But their fastidiousness quickly gave way to more practical considerations, and in no time at all a wondrous squeaking could be heard throughout the quarters...
My crew arrived at the FLUB a month later. It had just returned from training. In those days all crews could be divided into three categories: those that were constantly being trained, those that were constantly being repaired, and those that were constantly performing active assignments.
The system was flawless: if you needed to send a crew to be trained, well, you might as well choose the one most qualified for the chore at hand; if you had to ship a boat off to be repaired, you could simply designate the one that had just been there; and if you had to send somebody out to risk their lives on yet another assignment, well, God be with them...!
But sometimes these crews had difficulties metamorphosing from one state to another. Our crew, for example, had arrived at the base in order to undergo the difficult metamorphosis of becoming an active crew.
Crewmembers were stationed on the same FLUB where I was staying, and one day I noticed that I was sharing a cabin with the ship's Zampolit. He didn't have any family in sight, and addressed me in a simple folksy manner:
"Well, son, anybody ever tell you your first year of service was gonna be easy?"
"That's right. So get your ass in that upper bunk."
From that day on I lived in the upper bunk, and Ivan Trofimovich lived below me.
Of all my Zampolits, Ivan Trofimovich was the only one that I would actually bother to greet standing up. With all the others I would do so sitting, or in some cases even lying on my back.
But if I said that the rest of my Zams were absolute scum-of-the-earth, it would be a departure from the truth. In all honesty, they weren't that kind of scum. Still, I don't particularly care to talk about them.
Winter and Spring
In the winter and spring, all submariners desiring to heighten their combat readiness - every single one of them, from big to small - grab crowbars and shovels and head for the snow and ice. Here in a flurry of military precision they break it up into smaller pieces and toss it aside. In this way, their combat skills are constantly sharpened, and in this way they are able to make a smooth transition to a state of combat readiness.
Three sailors and some shovels are better than any snow plough. Those aren't my words, those are the words of experience. And, as we all know, there's no substitute for someone else's experience.
Still, you shouldn't think that our rank-and-file sailors were the only ones out everyday playing around in the snow. Even greying captains, their eyes filled with tears from the wind, would take metal shovels and with a compelling grunt heave the snow to the side.
Under these conditions of exertion the only thing that saves you from heatstroke is the special slit in the back of your overcoat, which provides the necessary ventilation. This is a very wise slit. Historically, it served two vital purposes: (1) to cover the side of a rider's horse; and (2) to make it possible to take a dump in a field. Really, I don't know which is more important. All I know is that this overcoat is what we'll be wearing when the time comes to do battle.
Of course, we could have asked the country to supply us with a bulldozer. (I mean for clearing the roads. For me the word "battle" immediately and uncontrollably calls to mind the image of a crowbar, then snowdrifts, and I begin to dream of bulldozers.)
Of course, we could have asked the country to supply us with a bulldozer, but the country might have raised its eyebrows. "Bulldozer?" the country might have asked. "What could you sub guys possibly need a bulldozer for?" And the country would have been right.
So with that, we would grab our crowbars and head back to the ice.
Eventually, though, we did get a bulldozer. In our division there was this guy, Neperechitailo, who was responsible for all classified documents. The guy was unbelievable. He could simply lose classified material, I mean just drop a whole briefcase of secret documents overboard, and then write them all off because he had connections anywhere and everywhere: friends and acquaintances and fellow sailors.
Of course sooner or later the briefcase would wash up on a beach somewhere in Kildin; but not until much later, when Neperechitailo had already received his discharge to the reserves.
He had the most innocent blue eyes you'd ever want to see.
The Division Commander would simply tremble when he saw the son-of-a-bitch. He would stop his car, call him over, and start chewing him out. The commander would chew him out for all things past and present. And future. He would chew him out so that feathers flew. He would chew him out in full view of the whole radioactive zone where our subs were stationed, where the ice-covered road lay covered in ice, and where we just happened to be standing in our overcoats with our crowbars.
Neperechitailo stood at attention and listened silently to this diatribe, and then, when he could listen no more, he spoke up:
"Commander, sir! Permission to fetch a bulldozer?!"
"Bulldozer?!!" the commander stopped his diatribe in mid-chew. "What bulldozer?!"
"Well, to clean the base..."
"And what would it require?" said the Division Commander without missing a beat.
"I'll need a can of pork sausages and your car..."
Our division commander understood the implications almost before they were implied - that's why he was our commander. He got out of the car, took Neperechitailo's briefcase with classified materials, and stood there to wait.
Neperechitailo climbed into the commander's car and drove off to get a bulldozer. Along the way he stopped in to the mess tent for a can of pork sausages.
Thirty minutes later he drove up in the car, and behind him was a bulldozer that he'd hired for the can of pork sausages.
And now we've reached the point for you to learn that in the Russian Navy military chemists are called 'tox.'
But why? you might ask.
Well, the Russian Navy would answer, because they poison people.
As a chemist, I was responsible for training my crew to use a POD - the Portable Oxygen Device designed to isolate the respiratory organs from the effects of an unfriendly environment.
Early PODs were nicknamed "Preventative-Oxygen Devices" due to a slight glitch in their design; it seems the POD's oxygen-release device, which in theory should have stimulated the device's regeneration of oxygen, sometimes caused this oxygen to come out in a prolonged violent burst.
I only ever saw one person who was able to last more than two seconds under these conditions. It was our Lieutenant Commander Utochkin, head of the Special Services department.
I'd warned him beforehand that upon deployment of the device there might be some complications and that the given situation was probably not the most appropriate for demonstrating antiquated ideals of military stoicism.
"If you wanna live, you gotta take it like a man!" he said.
I couldn't think of anything to say in response. Utochkin turned the device on and gave me a big thumbs-up in a sign that everything was going as smooth as silk. Whenever I see that things are going "as smooth as silk" I start my stopwatch and take a reading.
After a full five minutes had passed, I looked up from the stopwatch at Lieutenant Commander Utochkin. His eyes were glazed and hollow.
Still another ten seconds passed before Utochkin finally smacked his lips and unscrewed his mouth. A stream of smoke spiraled out.
"Hey, fuck this," he said, the end of his phrase hitting the highest of C's. "I can't take it any more!"
And then came summer. The military wives left and the village emptied. The period of summer debauchery was formally and informally inaugurated. Throughout the village, packs of aimless souls wandered the streets until the wee hours of the white nights.
What navy in its right mind works during the summer? Nobody works during the summer! Well, except perhaps to pick up the cigarette butts off the ground. But aside from that, all you do is sit on the pier with your Eastern indifference: listlessness and languor in your limbs; sluggish complacence in your desires and thoughts and genes; torpor and lethargy in your very posture...
The Ministry of Defence and the Fleet Admiral!!!
As if from a long hibernation, everybody springs to their feet: in an instant the lake is cleaned, turf is rolled out, trees are planted, sidewalks and lawns are painted. Posters with slogans and political insinuations are draped in places where they have never been draped before. Those houses that face the commission are given special attention.
Ah, yes! Inspection! The only time when every man woman and child in the navy would rather be at sea performing a perilous mission.
"When and how are they coming?"
"By helicopter in two hours."
"Has the landing pad been cleaned?"
"Like a baby's butt."
"Is everybody in their place?"
"Well, then, we'll just wait for the signal..."
Two hours later, without receiving the signal:
"There's no word..."
Ten minutes later the word comes:
"Drop everything! They're coming by boat!"
And then in a frenzied waltz:
"The gangway party! Where's the gangway party?!"
"No, not gangbang party - gangway! We need a gangway party! And make sure they're no shorter than five-ten. And a ramp with a red carpet."
"Wait a minute - what colour should the gangway party be?"
"Red, you moron! The carpet should be red! And the gangway party no shorter than five feet ten inches tall!"
"But where am I supposed to find a gangway party no shorter than five-ten?"
"How the hell would I know... on the FLUB somewhere..."
"Oh, and don't forget that thing for the Fleet Admiral... you know, for when he steps onto the pier... what's it called?"
"The step block?"
"Yeah, right. Don't forget the step block for the Fleet Admiral. We don't want him jumping off the ramp and breaking his legs like everybody else..."
But, as it turns out, everything is locked away: the ramp and the step block and the carpets. The person-in-charge, as always, is off somewhere celebrating his Eastern indifference - and with him is the only key.
"Let's break in! Let's break down the door!"
"On the count of three...!"
"One... two... TH-REEEEE...!"
And they break down the door, trashing everything in the place until at last they find what they are looking for - in the farthest corner.
Whew! That was a close call!
But there's no time for self-congratulation: an orchestra still has to be found. And an officer in dress uniform. And a car.
In a few minutes everything is in place. In fact, the only thing that isn't ready is the gangway party.
"They were just here... I saw them a few minutes ago...?!"
And indeed, a few minutes ago they were here. But a young warrant officer was put in charge... and he and his gangway party had been intercepted by someone and sent to the garbage dump to do some last-minute tidying-up.
After letting out this scream, the Chief of Staff pauses to regain his composure - then rushes through the halls of the FLUB, personally rounding up a makeshift gangway party; if worse comes to worst, they will do. And, indeed, worse really has come to worst: the most imposing of them is five-six, tops. But wait! Somebody's missing! The chief of staff is starting to sweat. One person's not here! Just then, the last of them comes running into formation: a diminutive office secretary about four feet eight inches tall. This latest insult is more than the Chief of Staff can bear: grabbing the secretary by the collar so that his legs dangle lifelessly over the ground, he yells in anguish and at no one in particular:
"WHY'S. . .HE. . .SOOO. . .SHORT!!!"
Eventually, the inspection arrives:
We welcomed them, and greeted them,
And carried them in our hands.
And licked and licked and licked some more,
A thousand different glands...
And then they leave.
As soon as they are gone, the base lets out a collective sigh of relief. Summer returns. Once again the warm soft glow of abundance spills over the land. The sun shines. The smell of beauty fills the air. And, as before, the familiar drone of torpor and lethargy settles back into your very posture...
We received our sub in the fall.
It was so amazing! As soon as we got it I went down and made my way from bow to stern. Words can't do it justice! Could it be that the whole thing really moves? Could it be that it submerges and surfaces an equal number of times? But it does, by God! If you ask me, it looks like it should just sink right there at the pier, together with all of our professional training. But no!
It really is a miracle!!!
Open up the panel of a French sub, and what'll you find? One part made in Japan, another in Sweden, the third in Germany, the fourth in the US, the fifth in France - the world at your fingertips.
Open a Russian panel and your fingertips will take you to another world entirely: Uzbekistan, Kirghizstan, Lenkoran, Leninakan, Ufa, Kzyl-Orda! The whole of what used to be the USSR is sailing with you. Set sail, my son! Sail on and on...!
And for years they do sail, submerging and surfacing an equal number of times. What's the secret? A thousand different alloys. Alloys designed by the best minds, carved by the best hands, and propelled by the best national and geo-political interests.
And then, suddenly, one of them sinks. Then another. And in its wake, a third. But wait a minute! It can't be! I mean, how could they possibly sink? I mean, who could have expected it? Could you have expected it? No, we couldn't have expected it either - after all, each of them had met the absolute strictest standards of military and ideological preparedness.
Really? Well in that case, hats off...
And everybody removes their hats for a moment of silence, wreaths are cast into the water, funeral music plays over the loudspeakers.
Is it over? Okay, then all the rest of you put your hats back on and get out there to pick up the slack. You heard right, get back to sea!
But you know what? We conducted an informal survey of the survivors, and all of them - every last one - still wanted to serve on submarines.
What is a navy? A navy is people. And what else? A navy is "iron." And what else? A navy is people who have become one with this iron.
So what more could you wish for them?
Wish them a safe return.
A patrol is like a woman: if she's your first, you're going to remember her for a long, long time.
Any vacation that happens to fall right before a patrol will invariably be spoiled - as overshadowed as a condemned inmate's final meal.
Loading, inspection, rockets, torpedoes...
"Even if it kills us, men, we've got to do it! Even if it kills us..."
And it does kill.
Sometimes before an extended patrol they'll do a special test run to check the level of readiness. The boat is sent to sea, and for ten days it goes back and forth. And inside this boat are people living in a constant state of alert. Alarms sound every two hours, and all too often one alarm rubs noses with the next...
That's where I learned to sleep standing up. You just stand there and sleep standing up. And you don't wake up until your chest slumps against the control panel; big black bags form under your eyes. After a few days of this, all you want is to be at sea. You want it more than anything...
But as soon as you get back, the process begins again, this time in reverse: unloading, unpacking, undoing...
"Looks like we've got a fine collection of gear on the pier here. An entire skyscraper."
"Listen up, men! Nobody will be dismissed until there's not a single box left on this pier!!!"
Of course everyone will be dismissed. There's no doubt about that. And twenty-four hours before setting out for patrol, everybody will be quartered on the boat, and at the foot of the pier they'll put an armed guard to make sure nobody runs off, I mean, hey, you never know with these philistines...
A Quick Digression
Let me say for the record that the navy likes to drink. And when it drinks, it prefers pure grain alcohol. And when it prefers pure grain alcohol it does so slowly and in large quantities. Nowadays, of course, they're trying to take certain measures, certain steps, but back then... oh, mama!
That being the case, there were always a few individuals who despite the guards and all the preparations would slip away from the ship the night before a patrol - prompting an all-night manhunt in their honour. Their limbs slackened from the alcohol, they would eventually surrender, after which they would be placed on children's sleds and dragged back to the boat. Along the way they'd fall asleep and have to be carried on board in wheelbarrows. And not until the third day, when they were already miles from their native shores, would they regain some shreds of their former consciousness.
But there were also a few who couldn't be found in time, and so, to fill their shoes, the brass would requisition the first person in sight. I remember one time they snatched this young lieutenant right off the pier and the guy's wife spent the next three days looking for him; but she must not have been looking in the right places because she wasn't able to find him no matter where she looked.
Digressions notwithstanding, sooner or later we'd end up at sea. And as soon as we were there we'd immediately proceed to the first order of business: studying the ship's equipment.
Leave it to Russian submariners to wait until they're already at sea to start studying the thing they're sailing on!
But that's exactly what happens: everybody receives a checklist and all of a sudden the whole crew starts going over the boat's equipment, moving from compartment to compartment as if in the Louvre, looking for this or that valve. The boat's already sailing and there we are just starting to explore it!
Well, what other choice do we have? In our navy the only time you can study a ship's hardware is when you're miles away from home. At home, nobody will let you do any studying. Instead, they'll think of countless other distractions: shovelling snow, or digging ditches, or standing an astronomical amount of watches.
But just watch what happens if a sub sinks. If a sub sinks the country will be immediately divided into two parts: the first part, the one that thought up all the watches and snow and ditches, will be silent - while the other will begin a grueling interrogation of the survivors in an attempt to find the guilty party.
It's timeless. And inevitable. You can't change it. Of course there have been people who've tried, but some things are just too timeless and inevitable.
And besides: we're used to studying this way. We're so used to it, in fact, that even if you freed us from all the digging and shovelling and standing watch, and even if you gave us the chance to study on shore, we'd just sit down and do nothing, we'd just sit there looking off into the distance, telling the world to kiss our collective ass and waiting for the next trip to sea so that we could begin the studying process for real.
And I was no exception: as soon as we were at sea I received my own checklist and began studying it carefully and unexceptionally. I studied it over and over until the blindfold had been lifted from my eyes and every last pipe was as familiar and friendly as an old family friend.
For a long time after I passed my qualifying tests, I couldn't shake the thought that with the slightest nudge, with the lightest jab of a finger into the side of our sub, the whole contraption would just slip helplessly and silently into the depths.
I mean, of course we're going to fight to the last... don't get me wrong: we'll run from compartment to compartment sealing ourselves in, we'll send in compressed air and rise to the surface, we'll do all of that good stuff and more... but it's still going to sink in the end - if not this time, then at some later, even more surprising, date.
I don't know why it is... but after you take your qualifying exams on the ship's hardware these thoughts tend to follow you in an especially relentless way. Sure, the impression fades over time, but in the beginning all this knowledge can simply curdle your blood.
But, hey, enough about this. That's the last time I'm going to refer to the fact that a submarine can sink. I've mentioned this fact a few times already, but I was just mentioning it so as not to mention it any more.
And besides, we don't sink nearly as often as we might.
Saint Among Saints
For those of you who haven't had the honour of serving in the Soviet Navy, let me introduce you to one of its most curious exhibits: the Zampolit. In theoretical terms, Zams are Party-endorsed puppets thrown onto the backs of hardworking submariners to enforce discipline. In practical terms, they are, at best, hopelessly removed from anything connected with the actual operations of the boat, pseudo-sailors with little or no qualifications and commanding even less respect among the crew. And that, mind you, is at best! One of the few "responsibilities" that they do answer for is the crew's morale - and God help the person who tries to take responsibility for my morale...
After perestroika started, our Zams started to come and go like blackheads. Not that they would hang around all that long before either - but with perestroika they began to change with even greater frequency: a year and a half - a new Zam; another year and a half - another new Zam. And before you could even get used to him - the next one would come to take his place.
One time they sent us this Zam straight from the Academy. They sent us this new Zam and the first thing he did was to declare war. On the crew's drinking habits, that is. It got so bad, in fact, that pretty soon he had all of us on our heels.
"It's perestroika," he would say to us. "Don't you get it?"
And we would sip our officially allotted rations of alcohol - fifty grams of wine per sailor per day - and wax rueful about perestroika.
And that's how the days passed - until we went out on our next patrol. This was the Zam's first time at sea with us, and throughout all the compartments, as if in an art gallery, he hung up posters, slogans, charts, tables...
On that mission we were transporting our Division Commander, Rear Admiral Batrakov, famous throughout the navy as Big Bad Ivan. Sometimes people called him Petrovich.
The thing about Petrovich was that he couldn't sail without his daily dose of wine. By then he had nothing to lose - an admiral with more than twenty patrols under his belt and his pension already in the bag - and so he took this liberty. Sure, perestroika may have been raging back in the capitol, in the rest of the world for that matter - but as far as Petrovich was concerned, one thing not subject to such political fashions was his daily alcohol intake: a pitcher of wine three times a day.
And everybody understood very well that they should do their best to see that Petrovich received his three pitchers of wine per day.
Now Petrovich was a little guy, but he could knock back a whole bucket. And once he'd knocked it back, he would turn into a real softie.
The first day out, the quartermaster dropped into the Captain's to see about getting some wine for Petrovich. But the captain just waved him off: go ask the Zam.
Obediently, the quartermaster went to the Zam:
"Permission to take a pitcher of wine for the Division Commander?" he said.
"What do you mean - a pitcher?" The Zam couldn't believe what he was hearing. "A whole pitcher all at once?"
"That's right," said the quartermaster loyally. "He always downs a pitcher of wine at one sitting."
"What do you mean - at one sitting?" said the Zam in disbelief. "It's perestroika! Don't you get it?"
"Yeah, we get it," said the quartermaster, standing before the Zam and not daring to leave. "But you'd better just give it anyway, sir. Or else..."
In fact the quartermaster had been sent by the Captain on a secret mission: to secure the wine for Petrovich. Otherwise, there would be hell to pay.
"What's that supposed to mean - or else? Or else what?"
"Aw, come on, sir," the quartermaster began to whine. "Just let him get drunk..."
"What? Just let him...? Now look here, who are you to tell me...?" And the Zam kicked the quartermaster out.
When the quartermaster came back the third time, the Zam finally gave in. To hell with it, he conceded, let him get drunk.
So they brought Petrovich his wine the first time; then a second... and a third. The fourth time, the Zam put his foot down.
"He's had enough," the Zam declared.
Now remember what I told you: if Petrovich doesn't have his daily drink, it's going to be a long long day for everybody else.
And so there was Petrovich sitting sober and disgruntled in the Captain's chair in Central. And who do you think he sees? Lo and behold, he sees the Zam walk right into Central with his navy cap fitted neatly on the top of his head. The Zam felt that during a patrol a true submariner should wear his beanie at all times; Zams were prone to such things - they tended to have seen too many war flicks.
Anyway, there was the Zam making his way down Central in his beanie. And Petrovich liked Zams about as much as a Rotweiler likes his muzzle. He'd ridden our last Zam mercilessly every time we'd gone to sea. Plus, by this point someone had squealed that it was the new Zam who'd dared to cut the cord on his wine. As soon as he saw the Zam, his face lit up:
"Hey, you! In the beanie," he shouted to the Zam. "Slide on over here."
The Zam walked up and gave his name and rank. Petrovich looked up at him with a clouded eye, like a bear at a bunch of grapes:
"You take any exams on the ship's hardware?" he grunted.
"Yes, sir," said the Zam.
"All right, then, what is this...?" and Petrovich poked his finger into the Zam's POD.
The Zam stood looking at the device as if he were seeing it for the first time - and didn't say anything.
"What about this?" Petrovich poked the oxygen-regeneration mask. "How do you turn it on?"
Again the Zam couldn't answer.
"Aha!" said Petrovich, his eyes filling with bad blood and his head burrowing into his shoulders. Here it seemed that the Zam had finally begun to understand what everyone had meant by or else.
Petrovich stepped up into the Zam's face and said calmly:
"Alright, you bald pigeon, let's take a little run through the ship's hardware."
And they set out on their little run. They started running in the first compartment - which, as it turned out, was exactly where they finished. The Zam proved to be a total zero: he didn't know anything. He was so pure and innocent - a real saint among saints.
At the end of the conversation, Petrovich turned beat red, and puffing up like a bulging hose, started to roar:
"What did they teach you in that academy of yours? To read newspapers? To hang up those damn posters? To pull slogans out of your ass? Huh, you good-for-nothing puke? You no-good vermin!
"Is that why you're coming to sea? To sit around all day with a valve up your ass? While everyone else does all the work? You're nothing but dead weight! A drag anchor! A stowaway! A statue! Maybe you'll permit me to wipe the dust off your pedestal? Would you be so kind?! Maybe I'll just take out a rag to dust you off? You piggy-backing blood-sucking leach!
"Why should we waste good food on a tapeworm like you? Just for you to shit it all back out? To clog up the head? And who, pray tell, is going to clean up after you? I mean, you don't know how to work that device either, do you?!
"Dammit, you better know this boat!! Like everyone else!!!
"Or maybe you think this isn't a submarine? Maybe you think this is a fashion show? Huh, you little faggot?! And if there's a fire, perhaps you'd like for me to carry you out first? Allow me to take you by the hand and rescue you! And, while I'm at it, let me kiss you in the crack of your ass! You look at me when I'm talking to you, you sack of shit!
"How are you going to lead people? Where are you going to take them? And what if you have to walk into fire? And what if you have to give your life? There's no way you're gonna give your life! No-oooo! You'll make other people give theirs instead! Look at me when I'm talking to you!
"And you have the nerve to wear this uniform! You pampered little prick! Who gave you these stripes? Who said you could wear those combat pins? Who the f... let you onto this submarine, anyway?
"Look at him! Standing there in his beanie! In his little navy cap!!
"You know where people like you oughta go? To the cavalry! The cavalry!! At least there you can lick the sweat off the horse's balls..."
The Zam left the compartment that day with his hat in his hand, his body wet enough to wring. He must have forgotten what real naval language sounded like. Or maybe he never really knew to begin with.
That evening Petrovich received his pitcher of wine. He drank it as usual. And as usual, having drunk it, he turned into a real softie.
If you're looking for something to rest your eyes on, then just take a look at Captain First Rank Platonov: a small unassuming grandfather-type, bespectacled, with the facial expression of a cunning mischievous child. No way would you ever guess that this was a legendary submariner, a sub captain famous the world over for his crazy manoeuvres and unconventional decision-making at sea - and stunning pranks on shore.
One time in a resort town Platonov thought for a while, then got stone drunk and decided to take a little swim, butt-naked, at the local beach, stripping to his original state right there on the sand. Seeing this, shocked bystanders grabbed him, wrestled him down, put his arms behind his back, hit him over the head, and dragged him to the Commander's office, where he stayed for less than an hour before escaping through a hole he punched out in the bathroom.
(Not that these types of drinking sprees were all that common for Platonov; in fact, they were the exception rather than the rule.)
Another time during a training exercise his sub had surfaced to cruising position when, suddenly, an unidentified helicopter flew right over its rocket deck and just hung there. Helicopters don't fly over submarines all that often, at least not often enough to make heads or tails of them.
"Must be American," Platonov decided. "Or maybe English. Probably their Sea King."
Immediately, he sent everyone down and climbed up the conning tower. When the rest of the crew was out of sight, he dropped his pants, and then, bending over deeply, proceeded to demonstrate his blue rump to the whole of World Imperialism. For a good minute and a half he bent and flashed and gyrated, grabbing his buttocks and shaking them furiously at the enemy.
At the very height of this display, a tired voice rang out from the helicopter; the voice belonged to the Commander of the Northern Fleet:
"Platonov! Put your pants on! Do you hear me, Platonov! And for not knowing friendly craft, you're going to report to me, personally!"
Still another time, during his briefing before a patrol, this legendary persona asked what to do when receiving a distress signal from a foreign vessel?"
"Not a damn thing," the commander answered him. "Got it?"
"Yes, sir!" Platonov said. And sure enough - on the way back to base at the end of the mission, they picked up an SOS while surfacing: a Norwegian freighter was sinking, a fire had broken out and it was taking on water.
The sub surfaced, sailed up to the freighter, an emergency team jumped on. They put out the fire, started the engine, patched up the holes, gave them some fuel... and see ya...
Back at base Platonov reported the incident to Command.
"Aha!" the brass yelled. "A covert mission! What about secrecy? You jeopardized the whole mission!" And they began the process of discharging him to the reserves.
Meanwhile, the Norwegian sailors, understanding how things work in our neck of the woods, wrote some letters to their diplomats asking that the captain of K-420, Captain First Rank Platonov, be awarded for his assistance at sea.
"We already awarded him," was the answer they received from our official organs.
"Well, if he really has been awarded," the Norwegians didn't let up, "then send us written confirmation of the award, and we'll send a reporter to interview him."
The whole affair could have blown up into an international incident. So they had to leave Platonov on staff: with one hand they slapped him with a reprimand, and with the other they awarded him a medal of some kind.
The Norwegians didn't rest until their own government had given him a medal of its own.
Not long after this whole affair Platonov went for the first time in his life to a health resort for military personnel. Here he was pleasantly surprised to find that his health was such an object of interest: a man in a white coat would come up, check his pulse, and ask him if he had any special aches or pains to report.
After enjoying a sauna one day, Platonov exited, put on a white robe that was hanging on a nail in the dressing room, and donning a serious countenance went from cabin to cabin checking all the women's pulses, and asking them if they had any unusual aches or pains to report. The women were surprised and moved at such constant and dutiful attention on the part of the medical staff.
The Commander's wife was the first to smell the coffee: she knew that this face was vaguely familiar, that somewhere she'd seen this gnome before. And after they crossed each other's paths in the cafeteria, there wasn't anything that could save Platonov from being discharged to the reserves.
"So what's it like?"
Very often people ask me:
"So what's it like out there?"
"Out where?" I respond.
"You know, out there... at sea... underwater..."
"Well, fine, I guess: I mean, you stand watch, then sleep, then another watch, then sleep again - and, in between, there's the Captain and the Zampolit. If they're busy, the second-in-command and his assistant. And that's basically how you spend your patrol, never lacking for entertainment."
Women usually ask if you can see fish through the portholes, and are very surprised to learn that submarines do not have portholes.
"So how do you sail without portholes, without seeing anything?"
"Well, we sail like this... with our eyes squinted... and from time to time these long sliding devices jut out which help the sub feel its way through the enveloping darkness. The projectile comes out, feels around, then pulls back in... and this is repeated over and over: ...in and out... in and out..."
"Reaaalllly?" these women will murmur thoughtfully, and it's clear to everyone that they are carried away by the impending allusions. After a few pensive moments, a knowing silence comes over them. Only the most treacherous will continue:
"But how do you deal with your 'needs' - you know, for such a long time?" And their very essence while asking this question leaves no doubt as to which of our 'needs' they are referring to.
"Well, you see...," I tell them, "in order to provide a natural outlet for our needs, we submariners take part in a multitude of specially organized events and activities including - but not limited to - political discussions, lectures, theme parties, debates, talent shows, I mean hey, if worse comes to worse, there's always blindfolded charades..."
After the part about blindfolded charades they usually leave me alone, and finding myself left alone, I fondly remember my second-in-command. Always, on the twenty-third day of a patrol, he would burst into the dining quarters and demand loudly:
"What do I have to do to get a woman around here?" After which he would slump into a chair and insist that someone show him a movie with a woman.
The second-in-command is one of my favourite literary figures. When I look at him I recall that even a herd of baboons has its own recognized leader.
Some people think that the second-in-command is the ship's designated bully: a bully by definition; a bully by nature; a bully by air, land, and sea.
But I beg to differ. It's just that being rude saves time: the shortest way to a person's soul isn't through politeness, after all, but through boorishness. And when you've got more than a hundred of these souls, and you've got to deal with them day in and day out, and when you have to convey to each of them the will of the higher command... well, I'd like to know how you can get by without being rude?
Of course there are other ways that we submariners entertain ourselves. For example, there are any number of Russian amusements.
What are Russian amusements?
Well, Russian amusement is when a sailor is picking up something off the ground, his torso bent over in a position in which the most elevated part of his body is his behind; all that's required to turn the given situation into a hotpot of infectious mirth is to put your foot square into this behind. Of course the person who does this is highly advised to start running, for he will most definitely be chased by the person into whose behind the foot has just been placed - and more often than not, the recipient of this foot is not a happy sailor. Meanwhile, the first person sprints like lightening from compartment to compartment and, as he goes, slams the doors behind him. At that exact moment, someone else, sensing the opportunity, leans a broomstick against the other side of the closed door. The offended party, in pursuit, rips open the door and charges forward. The broomstick falls as he pulls open the door and catches him right in the stomach... or a bit lower. As a finale, everybody bursts out laughing.
Another good one is waking up in the morning to find your boots resting peacefully on your pillow next to you - and dangling from the upper bunk, about an inch from your nose, somebody's filthy sock.
And for those people who, after washing and undressing, like to do a back-first dive into their bunks, it's always good to put a little something between the springs and mattress: like a metal can or the leg from a chair. Then, they will lay themselves flat out and with all their weight come crashing down on this can. (The most edifying thing in this whole scenario is to watch their reaction upon crashing; traces of utter astonishment will be visible in their expression for the rest of their natural life.) Or you can simply remove the springs from under the mattress. To the naked eye the bunk will look good to go, but as soon as the person jumps onto it, smiling at the prospect of a long sweet sleep, the mattress will give way and this person in a fraction of a second will find himself looking up from the hard floor.
And now that you've been properly introduced to Russian amusements, we'll tell you a heartwarming story about how we got a rise out of our Zam.
It was on one of my patrols when I was occupying a four-person cabin with Lenchik Krivosheev, our Division Commander, and two navigators, Venya and Karasik.
We'd just eaten breakfast after our watch and hit our bunks to try to get some sleep. Outside it was about ninety-five degrees with a dead oppressive air in all the compartments. No circulation. Too hot to sleep. The cooling system wasn't managing the heat.
In that kind of swelter we always slept naked, just barely covering ourselves with a corner of our sheet, leaving the rest of our body as exposed as possible to what little fresh air it could get.
Suddenly, down the corridor we heard our Zam's voice. He was a nasty character, spent the whole patrol hunting for people who'd drunk more than their share. He'd walk right up to you and start sniffing your breath for alcohol.
The whole thing was Lenchik's idea.
"Alright, men!" he said. "I propose that we organize a little show for our beloved Zam. We'll give him something to sniff! Here's what we do..."
And he explained what we needed to do.
Taking scissors, we cut out a circular hole right in the middle of each of our bed sheets. Then we lay back in our bunks and covered ourselves with the sheets, positioning the holes so that they lined up perfectly with our "little buddies," which we stuck out through the sheet. After applying a little elbow grease, the stage was set: there we were covered from head to toe by the sheets, with only our little buddies sticking up out of the holes in full military salute.
And we began to lure the Zam, singing and shouting and carrying on in loud drunken voices. This scene lasted a good ten minutes. At last the Zam took the bait. We could hear his footsteps coming down the corridor.
The door opened and in stepped the Zam. With the light from outside filtering into the dark room he could just barely make out the four white sheets on the bunks - nothing strange about that - but in the middle of each sheet something unfamiliar sticking out.
The Zam looked. Then looked again. Not understanding what was going on, he leaned over Lenchik - who, I might add, had something to look at - and put his face right up close to get a better view, about an inch away. For a few seconds he just stood there, hunched over, staring and trying to make out the object right in front of his face. When he realized, he almost lost his lunch.
"Yuck!" he said. "That's disgusting!" And stormed out of our cabin.
When he'd gone we laughed so hard we almost choked on the sheets that we'd stuffed into our mouths to keep from making noise.
But all things must end. By this I don't mean Lenchik Krivosheev and his little buddy; by this I mean the patrol itself. Sooner or later the patrol ends like everything else in this world.
Time is like a lumbering pedestrian. Submarine time is also a pedestrian - except that this pedestrian starts off at a slow crawl, then gradually picks up speed until, toward the end, it is lumbering and tumbling at breakneck speed.
Right. And in order to help that pedestrian get off on the right foot, a series of unofficial activities are organized to keep submariners entertained during their free time.
Not that we don't have other things to keep us busy. It's just that rehearsing our survival skills (this is when you're woken up in the middle of the night and made to run from compartment to compartment in an oversized gas mask circa 1959) is not necessarily every man's idea of great fun.
Now what is every man's idea of fun - and it is necessarily so - is home-spun concerts, trivia nights, group reading hours, Twenty Questions, tag-team crossword-puzzle tournaments, Specialist Days, Neptune balls, and singing all twenty-seven verses of Varyag in three-part harmony.
And the one behind all this fun and revelry? None other than our Zam. Our partymeister. Our master of ceremonies. Our good-time jockey. He's the one that makes sure we submariners are constantly being entertained... and also that we submariners are the ones doing the entertaining.
A good friend of mine, an old-timer with a long history of concerts and Twenty Questions, once put it this way:
"Oh Lord, please spare us from the scourge of industrious Zams. Protect us, Heavenly Father, from these originators of profound ideas. Send us a Zam who is lazy and forgetful, one who is free from occasional flashes of inspiration and creativity, or, better yet, one who will simply fall into a long deep slumber or some other debilitating state...!"
And you know, I couldn't fault him for it. The guy's just tired of having so much fun all the time.
By then Ivan Trofimivich, our most revered, had left for the Land of Eternal Sunshine: he'd been transferred to serve in the big city, on dry land, and so we'd been sent a new Zam. And this new Zam was just bursting with new ideas. Boy, was he ever! For the rest of the patrol it was all we could do to entertain him: we sang and danced and sang all twenty-seven verses of Varyag in three-part harmony...
And that's how the time passed.
At long last the end has arrived. The end of the patrol, that is. I realize I already said this a bit earlier, but this time, as my Zampolit used to say, I mean it absolutely.
But then something strange happens: as soon as you make the turn for home, this sense of dread comes over you. It's a strange emotion, but an explainable one: at sea, even with all the battle preparations and heavily regimented merriment, your day is more or less ordered, and you have a pretty clear idea of what's going to happen today, tomorrow, and the day after tomorrow; in port, on the other hand, you can't even say what you'll be doing later tonight or where you'll be a few minutes from now. Hence the apprehension that tempers the joy of returning home.
But the joy does win out. Especially as you're travelling the last few meters.
"Stations! Prepare to surface!" the command rings out, and you can already feel the bitter sea air wafting through the compartments.
At the pier the sub moors with the aid of the line handlers. They hold it by the elbow like grandchildren escorting an old blind woman. On the pier you can see an orchestra, the brass, and, on the other side of the fence, a whole crowd of wives.
Before we have even fully moored, the orchestra finishes playing, packs up their instruments and leaves - as if they had been playing for the boat as a whole and not, as one might think, for the members of its crew.
When they're gone, the only people left on the pier are the brass.
"Well," they say to us when we've assembled on the pier. "While you guys were out there having fun, we were back here hard at work... so now you're in for it..." And here would begin a long description of what exactly we were in for: loading stores, transporting rockets, returning to sea for torpedo trials... in short, today we won't be dismissed - instead we'll go straight to the fixed pier to load rockets, etc. etc. etc.
The stupidest among us would ask: "But what about going home?" To which they received a spiteful laugh in response.
Still, everyone was permitted to kiss their wives by the fence.
Daily interaction with your own wife can best be compared to a light drizzle that's trickling down the back of your collar. Every day you come home and there it is trickling away: at eight in the evening it's trickling; at ten it's still trickling; at twelve it hasn't let up. And when you go to bed, there it is trickling over you in bed.
Of course you can teach yourself to ignore the implications of this trickle. But by the time this day comes, how wet you are!
It's another matter entirely if you tend to be absent for long periods of time, if you're away at sea. Women can't endure such extended absences. And so when you arrive you are met by a current of love; rivers of love; streams of huge proportions; starry eyes filled with tears, and a voice tender as a bellflower, and warm hands... and before you know it she has already fallen against your chest, resting her head and sighing softly.
This alone is enough to give your life for. And how they run to meet their loved ones...
In those days I could only stand and watch how they would run to meet their loved ones. I was unmarried; and when you're unmarried all you can do is stand there on the pier like a stray dog, windblown and homeless.
But thank God for friends. And thank God there are lots of them.
When all of our underwater tribulations had surfaced and we could finally feel the hard earth beneath our feet, my friends said to me:
"Grab your stuff, Sanya, and come stay with us."
And I took everything that hadn't been stolen from my cabin on the FLUB and went to stay with my friends, even though they had wives and children of their own. And over the course of many years I would do just that, spending the night at their places, lugging my duffle bag from friend to friend.
Back then you could get a key to an empty apartment belonging to someone away on leave. You could live there for a month or two without ever knowing the people whose apartment you were occupying. There was nothing unusual in this: in fact, the practice was widely and willingly tolerated. And when I received an apartment of my own I also did my part to accommodate people I didn't even know.
"What's the matter, Lieutenant?" I'd ask when I saw a lieutenant sitting on his duffle bag next to his wife and kid in the Officers' Hall. You call him over and he explains the situation, and when you take them to your place you can't even hide from all the grateful glances.
I got my apartment after about six years of service, strangely enough, without being married. Eleven square meters.
"Look," somebody told me. "Why not let someone stay at your place? What difference does it make to you, you're at sea anyway..."
And so I handed over the key.
"Look," my guests told me later when I came back from my patrol. "You're on leave, right? I mean, I've got a wife and kid and nowhere to go. Why don't you find another place to stay?"
And I found another place to stay.
O, officer solidarity! Are you the same now as you were in my day?
I had that apartment for a year and a half, and didn't spend a single day in it. And when people began reminding me that I was unmarried and had an apartment while there were married people who didn't - "Where's your conscience, for God's sake?" - I started to feel the pangs of conscience and ceded the apartment to people who were married.
For submariners, leave isn't about calmly receiving what you have earned for your military services, but about seizing as much of it as you can and still getting away unscathed. And when you actually do receive all the leave that is owed you, you even feel a little guilty. But just make sure that you don't spend your leave thinking about returning to the service. You got your leave, didn't you? Well then, take it and run.
During my first leave I ran like everybody else. But somehow for the successive ones it became a tradition to leave me back with the crew: the officers and warrant officers all go on leave, and you're left there to spend your time with the sailors. Then when everyone comes back, they let you take your leave - not all of it, of course, but at least some part of it. But before this abridged leave is even up, they start yanking on the leash, pulling you back toward your military duty. You fight with all your might, growling and snarling and digging your front paws into the ground - but they always manage to pull harder. Back on base, they grill you:
"What was that all about?" And you immediately feel that you are wrong once again. And so, like any good officer, you shrug your shoulders and promise that it won't happen again, trying your very best to emphasize your own brainlessness.
In the navy, brainlessness is rather well-regarded, even encouraged: there's something unmistakably positive about it. Less well-received are intelligence, self-respect, a refined spiritual make-up (along with its little sister, fragility). But worst of all is honesty, which is simply not tolerated - unless, of course, it can be written off as the flipside of this very same brainlessness.
Now that everyone's back from their leave we can finally concentrate on making all necessary repairs to the ship. And as soon as we get back, everyone does just that: we concentrate and concentrate.
Problem is that our boats are disposable, which means that once you've made them - that's it. Yeah sure, we might not have any other disposable products in our vast country, but disposable boats are another story entirely. I mean, of course they've stocked us with an ample supply of spare parts; but the parts we have are all wrong - we might as well just throw them out - and the ones we need... those ones you won't be able to find anywhere. Well, except perhaps if you have some pure grain alcohol to offer in exchange. And then only in phenomenal amounts.
(You probably thought we drank it all ourselves? How wrong you are!)
And this goes on for years and years...
I've been on twelve patrols. Usually two a year. And more often than not under extreme conditions with "urgent deadlines" when an impossible job needs to be done "no matter what." When you're out in the wind and snow loading supplies; when you haven't slept for days; when all your strength has been sapped and you are so frustrated that it's all you can do not to scream; when you feel like pounding the ground with all your might; and it's not until you are at sea that you can begin the slow process of recovering...
Well, then let's change the subject. Let me tell you about how I transferred out of the sub service. That's a lot of fun. That'll pick up your spirits for sure.
Remember when I wanted to get into the sub service and was told that in order to do this I would have to maintain a strict diet representing the four basic food groups, all of which were shit - and that I would have to maintain this diet for breakfast, lunch, and dinner? Well, eight and a half years later when I first got the notion of leaving sea duty for a job on hard soil, I was informed that I would have to eat shit all over again, and that they would watch me eating, and evaluate me, and if I did a good enough job of it, if I displayed proper table manners during each meal, then they would see about making the necessary recommendations to the upper-level command...
It's no wonder our navy is so chewed-up. People are eating and eating and eating - trying desperately and shamelessly to get out. And then there are those rare specimens, like me, who actually manage to eat shit twice: first, to get onto the submarine fleet - and then to get back off.
My decision to eat my way out once and for all came to me unexpectedly one day. We were standing at a Victory Day parade, in formation, and some of our local higher-ups were making speeches on the grandstand. I stood there and looked up at them and thought, "Geez, Sanya, who are you serving with?" And I made the decision to transfer.
Holidays like this are the best time to count us. I mean military men, that is. Nobody's ever made a serious attempt to count us. But on holidays, there we are in line... all of us. Just take a look at the country from above and you'll see that we're all standing right there in perfect formation. Go ahead and count. Why bother? Just start counting... and when you're finished, then you'll understand why.
I went to the personnel office the next day. I went there and announced that as of tomorrow I had every intention of being transferred.
"Is that so?" the personnel chief perked up. "And where to, exactly?"
I answered that it wasn't my job to know where to - the specifics were his responsibility. Then I said that instead of asking me questions, he should just shake my hand, apologize for the fact that I haven't been promoted beyond Captain Third Rank, and with utmost reverence for my years of military service offer me a place where I will be free to perform my patriotic duty from nine in the morning to five in the evening - with an hour-long break for lunch. A whole five days per week.
"This is all very interesting," he said. "It's just a shame that you haven't seen how we transfer officers around here."
"Yes, I have," I said. "You don't."
"That's exactly right," he said. "You understand, after all. It's just a mystery to me where you get all these notions about 'utmost reverence' and 'shaking your hand'... There are eight thousand officers in the Northern Fleet who have already done their tour of duty. And all of them are eligible for a transfer. Eight thousand! You'll be the eight thousand and first..."
And here I lost my cool. I told the swamp toad that I had no reason to doubt the existence of his eight thousand officers and that if they continued to transfer officers at the rate they do now - one per year - then it would take at least eight thousand years... and if they transferred one per day, and if it were done by people like him, then it would take about seven thousand...
We parted on bad terms that day, with me slamming the door.
Of course the country can't do with a mere twenty submarines. No, it has to have two hundred... or, better yet, two thousand. And they should float there in the seven seas like dumplings in a bowl of cold soup. Never mind that they can barely move. Or that they limp all over the world like wounded beasts: we've got so many of them that all we have to do is start them up all at once and they'll roar so loud that the yanks won't know what to do from all the noise. And while they're standing there covering their ears, we'll creep right up to them and just when they least expect it... wipe out everything this side of the Rockies...
But why is it that these boats - our boats - roar like wounded beasts? Because they can't help it, that's why! Our boats can't help roaring like wounded beasts because the people who made them are even more wounded.
We all are. There's not a single one among us who is healthy. The only thing that sets us apart from each other is the degree of our wound: lightly wounded or seriously wounded - and the higher up you go, the more seriously and deeply it festers.
That's why people fear us. We are made strong by our wounded unpredictability, our spontaneity. Like the swagger of a drunken giant.
But in order for all this shit to get past the pier there has to be a sailor sitting inside it. And the longer that sailor sits, the better. Just lock him up for ten calendar years, and let him rot there. Which is exactly what we do. And when this shit starts to sink, it'll be us out there saving it with our bare hands.
As if to say: "Here we are! The only navy in the world that specializes in rescuing shit..."
But, then, we seem to have gotten off the subject at hand; in delving into the nature of shit we seemed to have gotten away from the original shit in question: the personnel chief. Before leaving, he'd explained to me that in order to qualify for a transfer you have to have at least ten years on board ("and you barely have eight"). Only then will anybody talk to you. Only then can you submit a petition to Command about including you in the official Transferee Order. But the Order shows its face only one time a year, in December, and that means that you actually serve eleven years, not to mention the fact that for various reasons (and here the son-of-a-bitch smiled) people may not wind up on the list... which means twelve years. And plus, you're physically healthy and that's no grounds for a transfer. Now if you were sick... if you were sick, you might be lucky enough to have contracted one of the formally-admissible diseases, for example brain cancer, but to receive this kind of diagnosis you'll have to have a spinal tap ("and you wouldn't believe how painful that is") in one of the clinics in Magadan. Oh, and did you know that an officer himself doesn't choose his new assignment, and you may end up being transferred to the low-rent district of Siberia?...
At this moment I felt like strangling him... but I still hadn't asked about the Naval Academy.
"The Academy? Of course that's an option. But, you see, you've already missed the cut for this year. You'll have to come back next year in order to apply for the year after that."
I stared at his throat even more intently. Then I remembered that I hadn't asked about adjutant's service.
"Adjutant's service? Possible, but not likely. So don't get your hopes up."
To make a long story short, I looked at him and said, "Take care, swamp toad," and slammed the door as I left.
It took me three years to get a transfer out of sea duty.
During those three long years I tried everything imaginable: I tried to go to the Academy, to Adjutant's service, to become a chemistry teacher or a division commander. I called different offices, ran from place to place, filled in forms, took medical exam after medical exam. I mailed out my biographical information... and received it when it was returned to me. I re-typed applications. I compiled lists of distant relatives and called to double-check their mothers' maiden names...
At some point it became too much. Right in formation I broke down. Without realizing what I was doing I proceeded to string together one of the longest collections of four-letter interjections ever recorded by modern man, each of which described a particular act, or emotion, or part of the body in all its graphic glory - for good measure, throwing in some five-letter interjections as well. I don't know how long the sentence lasted. Eventually, though, I must have stopped.
A long silence ensued. The whole company stood captivated by my speech.
Finally, the voice of my second-in-command spoke up:
"So you want out, do you? Well, why didn't you just say so?!"
Someone let out a stifled laugh. Then another. Soon everybody was laughing: officers and sailors - my entire crew. And me too. After that I felt better for some reason, and for the first time I truly believed that I was leaving.
The order arrived in July. It had taken three months to go from Moscow to Severodvinsk, ten days longer than Jules Vernes' much-celebrated trip around the world...
"Captain Third Rank Mikhailov!"
"Front and centre!"
"Listen up, men! Today Captain Third Rank Mikhailov is leaving us. He served more than ten years as our Chief of Chemical Services. He had twelve patrols..."
He's leaving us... as if I were dying or something. Which, I guess, is about right: once you've left you might as well be dead.
"And now... according to tradition... he's going to say goodbye to us..."
I walked from one side of the line to the other, shook hands and smiled. My fellow sailors embraced me, clapped me on the shoulder, and said: "Take care of yourself, Sanya." And I did. I took care.
And then what?
And then straight to Leningrad: wide streets, traffic lights, to work by bus, twelve duties per year, "nine-to-five", two days off per week, and on the weekend... time with my family. My family. My family.