The Communist

Ivan, Secretary of Agitation and Ideology
Khabarovsk Bureau of CPRF, the Communist Party
of the Russian Federation

As we, меsто47 team (photographer Georg and writer Marina) stroll around Khabarovsk, an enormous red Soviet flag draws our attention. “Khabarovsk bureau of the Communist Party of the Russian Federation” reads a sign on the door. We try to catch a glimpse through the window, and the interior looks like museum of Soviet history: there is a huge Lenin poster on the wall, calling for hard labor as a direct highway to socialism and a shiny, almost brand new bust of Stalin . After some debating, doubting and hesitation, we decide to walk in.

The first thing we see is a portrait of Stalin, a huge stack of freshly printed newspapers and a bunch of flags, rolled up and put in the corner. The man at the reception desk asks us what we want. We ask for a brochure, but he instead he suggests to talk to Ivan, who welcomes us with a smile and an introduction of himself and his long title,

“Nice to meet you, I am Ivan, Secretary of Agitation and Ideology, for Communist Party, Khabarovsk Bureau”.

We are surprised by how young he is, he should be under 30. We explain the concept of Mesto47 project as a collection of human stories, and he agrees to an interview.

“Just wait here for a bit. I need to finish writing couple campaign slogans and will be right back with you.”

While we are waiting, a man in a suit, on his way out of the office asks us who we are and what we want. After a quick explanation, he turns to Georg and – in perfect German and very direct – tells him that he hopes that Georg knows that Austria is only what it is now, because of the Soviet Union, as the other allies in WWII wanted to split it, like Germany. We later find out that he was a diplomat in the soviet embassy in Germany.
The wait gives us freedom to look around the room and study all objects. Communist brochures. Endless photos of Lenin. Printed slogans. Schedule of party regional and national meetings. Party newspaper and rulebook. Like we rode a time machine back to the USSR.

After twenty minutes, Ivan calls us in, lets us turn on the recorder and starts telling his story.

Ivan: I was born in Khabarovsk, I have lived here all my life. In Russia, family history is important.

I am very proud of my grandparents and great grandparents from mother’s side. During Tsarist times, my great grandfather killed a manager of his landlord, because the manager wanted to take everything from his family and starve it to death. He was sent to Kursk by force. My grandfather fought in the Second World war, he was a partisan during occupation. After the war he was a director of production on a big factory in Khabarovsk which exported its products to Japan, Saudi Arabia and eastern Europe. He was awarded the Order of Friendship of Peoples (ed. note: a Soviet order, awarded to people for strengthening international friendship and cooperation). My other great grandfather was a sovkhoz chairman.

Ivan looks at Marina, trying to find an english equivalent of the word “sovkhoz”. They both laugh, trying to come up with a suitable term. It is one of those words that sounds so natural for a Russian who was born in the USSR (even in the last months or days of its existence), but it would take a while to explain to a foreigner who is not familiar with daily lives and bureaucratic acronyms for things in post-Soviet Russia. These terms come up all throughout our conversation. Sovkhoz, a state-owned farm. Komsomol, the All-Union Leninist Young Communist Leage, a political youth organization in the Soviet Union. And many, many others.

Ivan continues,

My parents were also born into a working class family. My father was a firefighter. My mother studied engineering, but during the 90’s, because of the USSR’s collapse and difficult economic times, she worked almost everywhere she could find work: selling goods at the market, in the fire brigade on a call line.

Of course, everyone had a different childhood, but childhood in 90’s Russia was very different from the one children are having today. It’s this feeling when you don’t know whether you will have something to eat tomorrow.

There were many gopniks (ed. note: young men of lower class suburban areas). Every day, when I was walking to school, the gopniks were picking on me, whistling and telling me to approach them. They were sitting in garages in their Puna and Abibas (ed. note: chinese knock-offs of big brands) suits, teen gangs trying to get money.

I had a Dendy (ed. note: Nintendo clone, produced exclusively for the Soviet and later Russian market). Happy childhood (smiles). And a lot of books. And books made me a communitst. I read a lot. There was a cult of knowledge in my family. When I was a boy, my mother taught me about art, she showed me works by Vereshchyagin, the famous Russian war artist, and the Renaissance period. She read Russian poetry and Russian classics to me. But most books of my childhood were encyclopedias. When you read a lot, you shape your view of world economy and society. The leftier the book I was reading, the more coherent it seemed to the reality I saw around me. And I read, read, read. In high school I was a liberal, but slowly and steadily I was becoming left.

I became a communist after my 10-days trip to North Korea in 2015. I visited both Pyongyang and the north of the country. The capital is a magic destination. The countryside is poor, but clean. It’s in order. It’s a simple life. They are not rich, but they are not dying or starving to death. The korean countryside looks better than in Russia. Russian villages have run down houses, many ruins reminiscent of the Soviet era.

They do say that in North Korea they only take you to Potemkin villages, but it is hard to do that, when you take alternative routes from one city to another for thousands of kilometers. As you ride, you see painted clean houses and many fields.  And it makes you think that socialism is not so bad. When I returned, I applied for Khabarovsk Komsomol, and a year later I became a member of Russia’s Communist Party.

Marina: So they brainwashed you very well in North Korea?

Ivan: The beer was excellent, yes (laughs).

Georg: Did ever you visit a western country?

Ivan:  When I was in school, I was in Finland and one day in Stockholm. Of course I admire the economic standard of western countries, like USA and Japan, or South Korea. But I think that a lot of those standards are paid for by unfair trade and workers from other countries. There is an inequality in international trade and exchange of goods, that’s why some countries gain more and some countries get less.

Even liberal people who study Korea, say that if the two Koreas will end up together as a market economy, it will be a catastrophe for North Korea, due to the lack of  employment opportunities for North Koreans. It’s a hierarchical society, and North Korean people will end up at the bottom.

Georg: So what exactly are your responsibilities?

Ivan: In Soviet times the word “propaganda” in my title stood for “education” or “enlightment”. I define the direction of election campaigns. Should we be more like “old CPSU (ed. note: Communist Party of the Soviet Union)  is back” or ”We are simple people like you”  to win the election.

Georg: Isn’t it all a bit outdated, the image and style? Are you not planning to modernize it? To get the ideas better into the 21st century. If you propose a new, technologically developed communism, why are we greeted here by Stalin and Lenin?

French people still sing La Marseillaise and they still relate to Robespierre as a great revolutionary even though he is considered an incarnation of Revolution’s Reign of Terror. Two centuries later, the French Republic is a normal western country. It has implemented a lot of his original ideas, maybe in a different form with different content.

Already in the 90’s, communism has brought in computer science for better planning. In the late USSR times, there was a lot of work on combined math and socialism. The future was seen as computer planning, with no government or bureaucrats making decisions. Glushkov from the Academy of Sciences developed these theories. To put it simple, let’s say you want to open a café. You load your idea into the computer, and it calculates how it will suit the overall plan of the country. If this initiative is timely, if there is enough building material for you to proceed.

Marina: Is communist a 24/7 ideology? Do you have a portrait of Lenin at home?

Ivan: In my house I have a small Lenin portrait, in my bedroom. I have a hand-painted portrait of Mao Zedong. I personally love him a lot, not only because he was a great visionary and had great success in factory building, but I respect him as a politician and master of intrigue. And a lot of things I was reading about him in his biography were close to me. I respect him, because he achieved an industrial revolution in a country without an industrial proletariat and it’s a great breakthrough in communist theory and practice. He succeeded in leading a mostly peasant (which is a small kind of bourgeoisie) country into socialism.

My girlfriend is a communist too. It was not a must criteria for me, but it is still pleasant she shares ones political views. I met her at a Komsomol party meeting in Moscow.

As the interview is coming to an end, we stick around and chat about our trip. We show Ivan a kiss selfie we made in Ulan-Ude with an enormous statue of Lenin’s head. He approves, jokingly saying that communists embraced kissing culture since Brezhnev times. “An intimate kiss that goes into the dents”, that’s how our leader put it.

As Georg searches for a photo spot, Ivan goes to a large Stalin portrait without any hesitation and poses for a photo. We say good-bye and leave the bureau. But before we go, Ivan gives us a present: beautiful shiny Communist party pins. We thank him and put them on our jackets before we leave. Just to take them off again as soon as we turn to another street.


The Sailor

From childhood on it’s just been me and my mom: my dad died in a motorcycle crash before I was even born. When I was in school, my mother was getting her education, and from the fifth grade on I was already completely independent.

In my upbringing my grandpa played the biggest role. From the beginning he showed me his cap and dagger, he brought me up as a military man. He fought in Chechnya and told me about how terrible everything was there. How his friends were killed, how the fight for their bodies began, because the enemies often took the dead and made videos mocking the bodies. For 24 hours they would fight back just to return the bodies of the fallen to their families. My great grandma also fought from 1941, she even went to Berlin. She was injured by shrapnel in her leg and could not walk. She told me it was possible to tell children about the war and showed me her awards: three Orders of the Red Star. I am very proud of her.

Grandpa always told me that I need to serve my country and from 6th grade I dreamed about joining the navy. I’ve always loved the elements of the sea. In my room, I have sailboats and compasses painted on the wallpaper, and the clock is made in the form of a helm. After 9th grade I enrolled in the Higher Naval School. Right now I’m studying in the final course. At first it was difficult to adjust to the Navy discipline. At home I’m free but there, everything is strict: drills, training, uniform… When they give you an order, you can not argue, you just say, “Yes, sir” and do it.

One time, when as I was on guard duty, I saluted my sergeant, but it seemed to him that I had done it too quietly. He decided to teach me a lesson, and made me do guard duty one after another three times. It meant four days of standing with only four hours of sleep. I came home and fell into bed, just like that, weak and still in my clothes. Many can’t stand it, but I told myself “Bullshit, I will break through it, everything is fine!”

My first time at sea the, sensations were unusual. A complete delight. Sailors have this tradition: when it’s your first time going to sea, they pour you a glass of seawater and you drink it. That means you’re a true sailor – I tried seawater, let it flow through me. I drank the whole glass in one gulp. During my first time in a small storm, I was afraid. The boat rocked hard. It was an average storm, but the ship was small and it was enough for me as a beginner. I laid down and rolled around, I was tossed from side to side.

When I first got on a submarine, we were told, “Forget what you were taught in school”. I went over to it and thought “Wow, this is ginormous!” Nearby, it turned out to be even larger than from afar. Below the surface it goes another six meters. With my height 1, 83 cm (ed. Note, 6ft) it’s difficult. There is very very little space. You bend over all the time, people are walking around like ninja turtles. The boat may be at the bottom of the ocean for a month, during which time you won’t see the light of day. To understand if it’s day or night on the boat they regulate the lighting depending on the time of day: in the morning they turn on the light, and by the evening they turn it down. 

It’s psychologically difficult. You’re packed like sardines in a can. No portholes. You see nothing around you. My sailor friend says “Spin the globe and touch any part of the ocean – I’ve been there. I didn’t see anything”. Then you go out and see the light of god and rejoice, thinking “God, it’s so good”. Friendships made during service – they will last for your whole life It plays a big role in the collective work. Everyone interacts with each other. Nobody is alone. Therefore, we have such a trait – even if you are in conflict with someone over the little things but that person needs your help, you help immediately.

Being in the military it’s difficult to find a life partner. In 9th grade I started dating a girl. I thought that she was the love of my life. At the end of the year I proposed to her. I liked our little family: me and her. Then I had to leave for a month of training at sea. When I returned I accidentally saw a message from another man on the screen of her phone. While I was away, she met a civilian. She tried to talk to me, asked me for forgiveness, but can betrayal be forgiven? From the person you have to trust. How can I go back to sea, thinking that she will be with someone else again? I myself am a faithful person, if I say that I am with you, it will be so. I can’t build relationships without trust. You can not do it this way. 

It was very painful. But I compensated by working hard in my service and doing sports. And I survived. I don’t regret anything. It was an experience of family life. When you were making the choice, you were feeling good about it back then. The last time I saw her was at the civil registration office when we were filing for divorce. I can’t believe that I’m 21 and I’ve already been married and divorced. Hell, I’m scared to look at my passport. It feels like I’m 30 already.

I still can not find the girl of my dreams. She doesn’t necessarily need to be smart, but even just savvy. I can’t say I am well-read myself, but I’ve got common sense. The wife of an army man needs to be supportive. Her attitude should be like, “Here are the bullets, who are we shooting?” Many girls try to hit on me, military uniforms work (ed. Laughs), but in their head many girls just think about shopping and hair style products. Once I could not stand it and said to one girl, “It’s easier for me to hug a birch tree. It will be more interesting to talk with that than with you.”

I don’t get hung up on this, for me now the main thing is the service. My goal is to become a first rank captain. Most likely, they will send me to the north of the country. In the ranking system, one year of service there counts for two, which is very good. Sure, the climate there is awful and in summer, the sun never sets. The time of day there is defined as follows: if there are a lot of mosquitoes, then it’s daytime. If there are even more of them, then it’s dusk. And if they are gone – night has come. 

My grandpa is very proud of me. His eyes are shining, he is glad that I am studying to become a naval officer and that I have chosen the profession of a military man. He always says “This is my grandson – a real sailor!” At his house he has a framed photograph of me, taking the oath.

There is an old saying “If you pick up a sword, you can be sure that sooner or later you will die from it.” If you choose the military profession, you must be prepared for the fact that sooner or later you will need to fight and give your life. If you are not ready for this, then you should not even go. I hope that I will be a worthy officer, I can teach and educate my subordinates the way that my grandfather raised me.

A soldier must know what he is fighting for. I know my country is dear to me. I am a patriot of my country. This is my country, I love its territory, nature, its inhabitants, people – literally everything. I grew up here. My grandfather fought, my great-grandmother gave her life for this country. I have something to lose.


The Mother

Galina, 25 Blagoveshchensk

My mom had me when she was very young, just 18. She did not need kids, she loved going out and having fun. She would often abandon me to go to some party in some shady place. I still have a deep fear of drunk men, I just hate them. My father declined his parental rights early in my childhood, saying that my mom had me by a mere accident.

When I was four, they took me to an orphanage, and I spent there my whole childhood. Our teachers did a lot of brainwashing, “If you don’t do something, nobody will do it for you. Never rely on anybody, don’t wait for help, do everything on your own.” It stuck in my memory, and I still do everything on my own, never delegate anything. Orphan kids went to a regular high school, and even when students made fun of orphans, I never paid any attention to it.

Our teachers did a lot of brainwashing, “If you don’t do something, nobody will do it for you. Never rely on anybody, don’t wait for help, do everything on your own.”

Normally when you reach 18, you receive a personal file with details of your admission to the orphanage: who took you there, what the situation was. I started looking for my mom, but I found her already dead: in 2007 she got into a car accident. My father is alive, but I did not feel like meeting him. I don’t like when people push me away, I don’t want to impose myself. If it was him who would initiate to meet, I would do it.

I found my grandfather, but when I met him, I didn’t sense any relative connection. But I do have warm feelings towards my grandmother. When we met, she said she didn’t know that I grew up in an orphanage, that it happened. Most likely she just wasn’t interested in my destiny, despite the fact that we share the same blood. And I didn’t search for the rest of my relatives. I already had the closest person appear in my life, I didn’t need anybody else.

I met my husband when we were hanging out with the same group of people. Four years we kept an eye on each other, for a long time something was just in the way of us being together, we would get closer, but then fall apart. Then one day we realized: it’s time to stop imagining things. If we haven’t found anybody else in four years, it means it’s destiny.

When I was pregnant, I had bronchitis. My son Danil was prematurely born, on the seventh month of my pregnancy. His weight was 1 kg 660 grams and his height was 43 centimeters. Soon after giving birth I went into emergency room to take a look at my son for the first time. I didn’t feel any happiness, I just remember the sense of sorrow and pain. A tiny person was lying there, all pinched with tubes, connected to the artificial lung ventilation device. We spent three and a half months in a maternity clinic. They gave him medication for life support, said that he might not make it. They cautioned us he might be blind, as they gave him a lot of toxic antibiotics. But it was the hearing that became the problem.

First he was wearing acoustic aid. We got used to it: Danil was attending a kindergarten, my husband and I both worked, lived a normal life. But when his hearing became worse, he needed a complicated surgery. It is called capillary implantation; they install a transducer that transmits the sound to the brain. It digitizes everything and can decipher the meaning of the sound. But his hearing will never recover again.

We had to do surgery in Saint Petersburg, as we don’t have such specialists in Blagoveshchensk. Now we are on our way home after post-surgery check up. We had to go by train, six days there and six days back, 12 days of travel in total. There were a lot of expenses we could not predict because of surgery: flight, hotel, medical tests. It was less than a month between the surgery and the check up, and this time was not enough to make money for the plane, it is 25 thousand rubles per person, and there was no discount for children.

It is very tough to hear from the doctors “no progress” all the time. During moments like this you wish to have a close person next to you to support you, but my husband unfortunately is not there. He is a welder, and he has unregulated working ours, and he spends most of his time at work. Sometimes I get mad at him and tell him, “Help me”, but I understand that my husband is a man, and he should make a living, and not solve women problems.

Danil’s personality is very kind, he is a mommy’s boy. He likes to be close by. But I try to develop independency in him, always give him the right of choice. It’s a shame he has health issues.  Many doctors recommend having two children, but I don’t want that. I want to give myself fully to him. Now he is a child and it’s an excuse for everything, but later he will go to school. Teens are very complicated now, I am afraid they can start teasing him, and this could eventually isolate him.

During these five years I got used to not being able to rest in any circumstances. He is very often sick, you can never relax, anything can happen any time. I try to compensate, I want him to have things I didn’t have in my own childhood. I want him to trust me, I want to become a very close person for him. Some people compliment me, but I think that any mother who adores her child would do the same.


The Dropouts

It’s day 14 of our travel, and we leave Baikhal to Irkutsk after a-four-day stay on a beautiful island of Olkhon. As we get inside Bukhanka, a cramped old Soviet mini bus that takes us from the island back to Irkutsk, we start talking to a young couple. The oddity of this encounter is that we had been staying with them in the same hotel for entire four days, but only the magic of a long road started the conversation.

They proudly tell us that this Baikal trip is a reward they booked for themselves after completing Teachers for Russia, a program that sends talented professionals from big cities to teach at schools. To remote villages, in the middle of nowhere.  For two(!) years. Mostly for kids from difficult families.

When we asked if we could record a story, they say “yes” simultaneously. They tell us they want the story to be big, to inspire other people by their example. The recorded sound of the interview is terrible; the bumpy road, reckless driving and no seat belts at the back of Bukhanka make the microphone jump back and forth. It’s also them talking at the same time, constantly interrupting each other. Like the three-hour ride ahead of us would not be enough for them to share what they’ve been experiencing for the last two years.

Now, meet Natasha and Pasha, both 27. Their backgrounds are very similar: both were born in remote towns in Russia, but went to good universities (in Saint Petersburg and Moscow). Both went to study abroad (to Germany and Spain), securing good stable well-paid jobs in Moscow upon their return. Both had no prior teaching experience. But chose to give this all up to move to a little village to become teachers.

Pasha: I never thought I would become a teacher. This idea never came to me even in the worst nightmare, it was not prestigious and not cool. I was working in consulting.

Among my friends and ex-colleagues I had a circle of acquaintances whose priority was to make money or attain something prestigious.  Things like which company you work for and career aspiration was their agenda. And it surprised them when I abruptly decided to go, but not to “downshift” in some magic place like Bali, but to become a village teacher.

Natasha: When I was doing my Masters in Spain, I realized that it was important for me to live in Russia, a sudden feeling of patriotism arose inside of me. It became important, what is going on back home, I wanted to exist in this politics and social sphere. I didn’t care what was going on in Europe and Spain, who was their president, what the prices were. I wanted to speak Russian with Russian people. That’s why I came back.

To be selected for the program, I had to go through five steps: application, interview, competition and Skype interview. There is also a summer institute where you give your first lessons and your learn how to communicate with kids.

For a long time I was hiding my plans while applying for the program. On my birthday I decided to unveil my plan to leave for a village to my friends. I thought they would not criticize me (it was my birthday, for God’s sake), but they said I was crazy that it was horrible. My parents were the same, “What do you mean, going to the village, what if you decide to stay there?” But at that point I was sure it was necessary, and left.

Pasha: We were teaching at Moscow region school in Karinskoe village. 70 km is not a big distance from Moscow, but sometimes it felt like it was 7 000 km. As a part of the program teachers from all regions take kids to Moscow to attend a theatre festival. I can totally understand, when children from a very remote village, like Demyan Bedniy of Tambov region, have never been to Moscow. But it is shocking, when 15-year old students from this tiny village nearby Moscow have never made it to the capital. They have not been to the Red Square, they have never been on the subway, because they can’t afford a ticket for 50 rubles with a school discount. Needless to say, they can’t afford going to a museum.

When I, a hipster from Moscow, showed up at a village school, I heard swearing at a lesson for the first time. First it was not addressed to me, yet, I brought their attention to it and asked them to speak in a proper way. But later, it turned out they were just shy in the beginning. In two or three months we got used to each other and I heard “F*** you” for the first time addressed to me from a student.

Natasha: During the first three months I would call my parents, and would start crying when they asked me how I was doing. And I was doing OK, I had everything. I was healthy physically, but it was very hard from this pressure and from how personal your work is. They can tell you to go to hell, and you cannot tell, if they do it to you as a person or as a teacher. These borders erase fast.

A teacher and a student are very conventional roles. It often happened so, that I talked to students about video games during a break, but as soon as the bell rang, they interrupted the lesson. Because from this moment on, you are a teacher, and everything is your fault. It is truly unsettling.

Pasha: As you communicate with student’s parents, you often see where the roots of many problems are. I was preparing one high school student for his talk at the conference. He was an A student, but preparation was tough, because he would always devalue everything. When somebody expressed opinion (including himself), he would only say, “This is non sense. I will not speak about that. What I am saying is shit.” I started reflecting whether he gets any approval at home.

At the conference I realized what the deal was. The guy’s parents did not like the topic of video games he chose. After his talk they started to drag their own son down with questions. It must have really hurt. Are not your parents the people you would expect to support you during your first public speech? But he resolved the situation well. He looked at the audience and said, “Well, see? Typical parents situation.”

Natasha: During my first year I had few success stories. A lot of failure stories. There were many days, when I would come home, just lay in my bed, and thought, “Why am I doing this?

Children are mirroring you, they reflect you from the inside. You don’t see yourself from outside, and they can see your worst fears, complexes, they figure out your doubts and suppress them. Even if the lesson is perfect according to all standards, if you think that it will not work, it will not work. And your lesson might not be ready, but if you are confident, it might work out at the end. For me those two years were all about confidence. If I can manage to teach a lesson for a group of 16 second-graders, I can do everything in this life.

Pasha: I became more open-minded. It is very hard without it at school, it would never happen at a regular job. In the village everything is close and your personal space is non-existent. One night before an important graduation exam on social studies I came out to my balcony to have a smoke. I see my student hanging out outside. I yell at him from my balcony, “Danya, are you serious? The exam is tomorrow! Go home and sleep.”

I never liked and avoided public speaking, a mere idea of it made me shaky. Every day in teacher profession is public speaking, and in two years I mastered it. School is a big test for your resilience. Stress at school comes from different sources: from school administration, children, colleagues. You always have to be ready to communicate.

Natasha: It’s like in “For Whom the Bell Tolls”. The bell tolls for you. If not you, who else would do it? If everybody leaves Russia, what will be happing here? It’s much cooler to stay here and to contribute to the change, than to work for somebody and try to survive in a foreign country. When you leave abroad, you will always be an immigrant. You will never be a person fully belonging there. Here you belong, than why not bring a change to your home country? There are opportunities.

Pasha: I would not be preaching anybody to stay in Russia. I wanted to leave myself. And now there are moments when I feel like going away. But it has to be a personal choice. My choice has been to stay and work here. I am surrounded by my language, my literature. If I want to immigrate one day, I will leave. But I don’t feel like running away from anything.  If you are trying to escape from something, you will always end up on the run. If there is an opportunity to work in some cool pace, then come back, then go somewhere else, why not?


The Poker Player

First I was playing as an amateur, I just liked poker. When I first won 3000 rubles (ed. note, 42 euros), I thought that I would only dedicate my life to poker from now on. Once I met a man, who was surprised about the level of my game and saw talent in me. He liked the way I took non-standard decisions, and said, “Let’s play a game of poker.” We set beer as the prize for the winner, I got lucky and beat him. He offered me to study with him, and in one year I achieved great success.

Whereas I didn’t even have pocket money to buy cigarettes before, as I was playing in free tournaments, one moment I saved 40 thousand rubles ( 570 euros). Then I won another tournament with prize money of 200 000 rubles (2850 euros)! Then I started playing online, had some other big wins and saved $100 K. 2011 was the biggest year for me; I dominated all possible tournaments. Sometimes I would be in a mental state of “machine zone”, when you have dozens of thousand dollars, and you lose one, two, three and all you do is try to win it back. You get these mental states quiet often in poker. It’s important to stop the game, and to switch to something else.

The problem was also that I didn’t live a healthy way of life: constant night games, neurosis, alcohol. You are young, you have a lot of money, and you constantly want to spend it. Girls, trips, night clubs. At some point I started having panic attacks. I went to doctors, but got no answers.

I was obsessed with an idea that I would always keep winning big money and that my success is never going to end. However, five years later a lot of poker schools emerged, and people were learning how to play, but I stayed still in my poker techniques. I thought my talent was limitless, but those people who worked hard, have caught up with my abilities and even surpassed them. One day you realize it, and either you choose to improve or decide to quit and start doing something else.

I opted for option number two and decided to do science, enrolled in Master’s degree on physiology of humans and animals.

Success in poker is 80% of good luck and 20% of talent, if we talk about one day in the game. But if you measure the formula for the time period of a year, it’s exactly the opposite – 20% of good luck and 80% of your abilities. The longer the timing is, the better you get a chance to apply your abilities. In poker hard work beats talent.

It’s a delusion that pokers can read people. There is a book by Mike Caro “Poker Tells”, there are practical recommendations on how to read body language. If the person has good cards, he tends to lean back and relax, and if he is bluffing, he leans forward a lot, holds his hands next to the face, as he tries to hide something. But there are people who use this just to confuse their rivals.

Two and a half years ago my father died. He had a stroke, both me and my mom were not at home. He was lying there for four hours. It changed me a lot and pushed me to development. I started treating many things seriously, the game of poker and my goals. My father was the closest person to me, he still comes to me in my dreams, and we talk for a long time. And I know that he would have supported me 100%. He always supported me in everything.


The Taxi Driver

Ilbrus, 59 years old.

I was born in Azerbaijan and I studied in Baku. During the Soviet Union I went to study in Nizhny Novgorodat the Institute of Water Transportation. And I’ve lived here since then. Today I am taxing, but in the 90’s and 00’s, I had my own business and made good money. But from that money 80% was sent to my family. The Caucasus is the Caucasus. There education is completely different. There you have respect for the elderly and for women.

My first wife – journalist and a TV host, was the head of the department in the university, a smart woman. She wrote a book about me. We are from the same village, studied together in school. We are divorced. The first foundation for the collapse of the family was laid by her father, my father-in-law. When we got married, I said “We are going to Nizhniy Novgorod. I won’t be living in Baku”. And her father did not allow it: “No, she is a journalist and she will work in Baku.” I bought her a four room apartment there. But what kind of family life can you have long-distance? We got divorced after 4 years.

She loved and still loves me madly. She still calls me five times a day. When we divorced, she was 32 years old, a young woman. Her dad (through her sister) said “There are many young eligible bachelors, she should remarry”. After that she didn’t speak with her dad for eight months. She said, there was only one man, there won’t be another. That man I love and I will love all my life. We have a daughter together.

After the divorce I didn’t speak with them for 10 years. I left the apartment and left. All these years I never saw my daughter. First I sent them money, and then my daughter began to speak up. I want a dad, not the money. In 2016 I went there and my niece organized a meeting with my daughter for me. Ten years later. I went and sat in the car of my ex-wife and my daughter started talking about childhood grievances, that’s all she held onto for all these years. She told me everything and began to cry. I told her “Alright, daughter, are you finished? Goodbye.” I couldn’t handle when they attack me like that, it’s in my personality. 

I met my second wife in the hospital in Nizhniy, where I was when I had an ulcer, she was also a patient. She was a good woman, she loved me very much. She forgot her own diseases and cured my ulcer with her food.

I lived with her in a two bedroom apartment, there was a dacha (summer house), the Volga, a Zhiguli (Editor note: Zhiguli was a common brand of car popular during the Soviet Union.). I earned money, she had a group two disability, Rheumatoid Arthritis. She put me in her will. She persuaded her aunt, she said “you know your own mom” . In reality my mother-in-law is a rotten person. So my wife decided to give the house that her father had left to me on the condition that I buy her sister and niece an apartment. 

Then my mother-in-law took me to court. Court started as such: The black caucasian cheated a 70 year old grandma. I immediately told the judge that she won’t raise her voice at me. But when the judge found out her doctor, relatives, neighbors, everybody supported me, everything changed. After half a year we reached an agreement. You wouldn’t believe how my dead wife came to me in my dreams after that and asked, what happened. Why did I fight with her mom. I went to her and she ran away.

After her death I met my third wife. Another while she was in the hospital, I went to the cafe to eat. I saw her. She was asian, a pretty young girl, working as a waitress. I saw her and suddenly thought; how she could be my wife. Then I forgot this story.  

After the death of my wife, a year and a half, I ended up in the cafe again and saw her. I decided to meet her and sat down at the table she was cleaning. She says, sit down at a clean table, why did you sit here? I say, “Specially sat down, to meet you. I want you to serve me”. 

I gave her my number, but she didn’t call me. When I went the next day, I asked, where did she live, and after work I waited for her near her home in my car. I told her from tomorrow on not to go to work. I have serious intentions. The next day I arrived with roses, as expected, she did not show up at work. She came to my apartment, I immediately showed everything to her, I say, “Will you marry me? Don’t think for a long time.”

After a month we filed an application and got married. And now we have been together for seventeen years. The relationship with her is very difficult. I’m 59 and she is 38: 21 year difference. She is jealous of me from every pillar.

I’m a bastard. For four years I didn’t cheat on her at all, but she still is still jealous. It’s as if I’m doing it. But, it’s like I’m guilty without actually being guilty. That is when I started cheating on her. I told her, I love her, I want to be with her, she needs to understand that I do everything for my family. I’m a big family man, I work for days to provide for my family. Several times we almost got divorced, but I can’t step over the children now, they will be very worried. Especially the daughter. I already hurt one, I don’t want to hurt these children either.


The Teacher

It happened on Christmas Eve, December 25 2002. We are Estonian Lutherans, and each year we celebrate both Christmases: Catholic and Orthodox. For Catholic Christmas we have this tradition to bake an apple pie.That night my ex-husband and I took our sick dog to the vet and were rushing back to Moscow, as we needed to set the table.

We had a premonition. My dad said to us, “Stay, why are you going so late?” Our dog also had an intuition. She wouldn’t let us go for a long time, she was running around in circles, yelping, licking our hands, doing everything possible to block our way out.

The night was falling, it was getting dark, and we set off to Moscow on a curvy road. What happened next, was like in a movie. Bright light, and you wake up in a hospital room. When you open your eyes, everything around you is white and sterile. I had a cat sitting on my chest, he must have woken me up.

It was a big Siberian cat, he was living in hospital’s admissions office; he would admit new patients and accompany doctors during examinations. Nurses told us that his owner was once a patient, but they couldn’t save him, and the cat just stayed to live in the hospital.

My injury was very serious, I was in a state when I couldn’t move at all. When I started to gain my conscience, I realized that we got into head-on accident, and the so-called “street rides”, races of police cars on open roads, were to blame. Right away they started pressuring me to take my claim back. The easiest way to write off the responsibility in an accident is to claim that the other driver was under drug or alcohol influence. And I was the only witness of the accident. That’s why they came and insisted that I make a false claim against my former husband.

These were the times, when a fast-track court expert evaluation was non-existent, when blood test would take forever to come back, and if the witness had claimed that the driver was under drug or alcohol influence, they wouldn’t have even bother to conduct the test in the first place.

We, Russians, stick together. When they came to threaten me in the hospital, grandmas were chasing all New Russians (ed. note,  newly rich business class who made their fortune in the 1990s in post-Soviet Russia) away, they threw crutches into them, said that they could remember Stalin times and would never again sit back and watch injustice happen again. When an investigator called me and started asking, who came to threaten me in the hospital, I started describing a man. And then suddenly, this exact same person turns around and looks at me: he was investigator’s colleague.

They never found the guilty, as their strategy was to deliberately put off the trial and make it long. The court hearings were taking forever, and when the period defined by law passed, they evenutally stoped the trial.

Now I have a strong fear of driving. I tried to pass a driving license exam 15 times, but after finally getting it, I drove from Khimki back to my home, and never sat at the driving wheel again. Up until today, when I pass the spot of the accident, I get panic attacks.


The Coin Collector

Vitaly, 42 years old

I was born and live in Reutov, Moscow region. I collect coins. At five I found my first coin while playing in a sandbox in kindergarten. I remember seeing it for the first time: five zlotis with a hole inside, in a doughnut shape. Somebody must have worn it, on a keychain or around their neck. At school I learned that a sister of my classmate collected coins too. Through this acquaintance I added some more coins to my collection and a Tsar banknote from the period of Nicholas the Second . I thought, “Wow, it is so beautiful!” and got addicted to it.

I didn’t like school. There were many things I didn’t like about it, especially having to wear a uniform and to study the subjects I hated. I am an absolute dummy in math. I didn’t like sciences: chemistry, geometry. I liked humanities more. I liked history, I always had As and Bs in it.

I studied accounting at vocational school number 90 in Reutov. Everybody thought I am a future accountant, but it just didn’t work out. I attended university to study audit and economics, but didn’t finish it. It led to nothing good. In my lifetime I worked as an accountant for three days in total. I saw how much paperwork it was, how much I needed to sort out and quit. Now I think I should have stayed in that job.

In the 90’s I earned my living by helping people move. I owned a GAZelle (editor’s note: Russia-produced light pick up truck) I put leaflets up on houses, people called me and I helped them move food and furniture. The economic situation was not the best, and in 1999 I sold my car. At the moment I am unemployed, I don’t have any means to make my living. I occupy myself exclusively with collecting coins. My mother approves of this hobby. The most important thing for her is that I keep myself busy instead of just pointlessly hanging around.

I came up with the scheme for collecting coins during FIFA World Cup in Russia. There were many foreigners in Moscow. I still remember June, 19 when Mexico won… all of Red Square was in fans’ green colors. First I came up to them and asked if they wanted to exchange. Some gave me a couple of coins, others were saying that they don’t have change or didn’t understand what I wanted. Then I tried writing down a short note on a piece of paper in different languages, asking to exchange coins. Since then, I have been handing foreigners this note to read it in their native language and they decide whether they want to exchange or not. I started addressing them in the line to Lenin’s Mausoleum. Where else can one find so many foreigners in one place in Moscow where they are not rushing and can take time to read my note?

First I was offering expensive 10 jubilee ruble coins. Then I had another idea. I have 10 kilos of Soviet change at home, so I decided to give it a try and see if exchanging cheaper coins would work. I brought that change here, to Red Square and it worked! I started coming every day, even in winter, when it’s 20 degrees below zero. If I come, I stand on Red Square very determined not to go back home without new items for my collection.

Foreigners react differently when I talk to them. Some are interested, and some just don’t care about coins, they say they don’t have change with them. Indeed, why would anybody carry around change from their home country while travelling abroad?

Sometimes I buy coins. Recently I bought a 1924 silver ruble with with Worker and Kolkhoz Farmer for 1000 rubles (editor’s note: a common symbol in socialism that – in 1937 – was made into the famous sculpture of two figures, with sickle and hammer, raised over their heads, for the Paris world Exhibition. It is now in Moscow)

Everything is changing now. During Soviet times people could not travel abroad, if they did, it was mostly to countries of the socialist bloc, like Hungary, Bulgaria, Poland, or the Czech Republic. One could change stamps for coins from those countries. Then people started exchanging wrappers from chewing gum and I did that too. I have never found any interesting coins myself, but my uncle, who lives in Pereslavl Zalessky, found a quarter-kopek piece from 1734 and gave it to me.

I have never travelled abroad, I have only been to Ukraine one time. By collecting coins, I study the geography and history of these states. Coins are very representative of the region they are from. It is fun to look at who made it to their design: sometimes animals, fish, fauna, flora, flowers. Some coins have contemporary events depicted on them. It could be the conquering of foreign land or have a sports theme: champions or competitions.

Sometimes I can’t help thinking. If the coin is not new, it was used… Who held it, what kind of a person was it? Just curious. Sometimes you hold a Russian coin from Tsar times and you get a feeling that this coin breathes history. It is saturated with old spirit.

There are several thousands items, coins and banknotes, in my collection from 196 countries. 180 of them are countries with existing currency. 16 out of them have disappeared. It’s Czechoslovakia, the German Democratic Republic… They disappeared, but their money stayed. The oldest coin in my collection is a quarter-kopek piece of Peter the Great of 1707. Before 1725, coins had years aggravated in letters, it was called Slavic. And after 1725 Peter the Great introduced a civil year with numbers.

I have almost all American quarters. I am only missing a quarter from Northern Mariana Islands. I have quarters of all national parks, except for the last two. It is difficult to get them at the moment. They produce five coins a year. In 2019 I collected three and have two more to go.

I specialize in coins of England and its Commonwealth. Isle of Man, Gibraltar, Jersy, Guernsey, Fiji. England had many colonies. I also have Cypriot coins with portraits of Elizabeth or with Georg V, VI, but I like coins with Elizabeth better. One of my friends says, “You have a crush on Elizabeth”. No, I just like coins with her. And Georg is kind of ugly, he is bald. It’s easier to acquire coins with Elizabeth, as some are still in use.

There are coins that would never make it to my collection. There are only a couple of those in this world and they all are in museums. For example, a coin of Anna with chain from the time of Anna Ioannovna’s rule, 1730-1740. Such a coin is worth 15 million rubles, there are only a handful of copies.

 I think coins will continue to exist, I don’t think credit cards will push them out completely. Not everybody can use cards. What about the generation of our grandparents? They will still prefer coins to cards…


The General’s Wife

My husband was a military pilot. He had a hard life, and since I was sharing my life with him, mine turned out to be a complicated one too. We lived together for 45 years. We lived in Georgia, Azerbaijan, Russia and Uzbekistan.

He dreamed of becoming a pilot since he was a child. Back then, when Chkalov successfully completed a non-stop flight from Moscow to Vancouver in 1937, all boys wanted to become pilots, and he also applied for a flying school in Kharkiv.

We met when I was 17 years old. He was on vacation from his military service in our village in Ukraine. He stood out: a pilot, all dressed up like a rooster in a parade uniform with a dirk, forage cap…

His brother Boris asked me out for a dance party. We danced just one song, when my future husband approached us and said, “Boris, go rest a bit, I will dance with your girlfriend.” We danced the whole night, and he walked me home. It was May 9th, and on the 24th we already registered our marriage. I can hardly remember that day, it’s almost like everything was in a thick fog.

First they didn’t want to accept our application for marriage, because I was not 18 yet. They said that my mom should come, but my husband insisted and pulled some strings, and they let us get married.

I didn’t know anything about family life, I was completely ignorant about sex. There was indeed no sex in the USSR. Everything was so hidden, that kids didn’t know anything. When I was getting married, I thought that you have sex just once to make a baby. Sometimes girls in the village would say “There are three kids in your family. Wow, you parents have done it three times!”

We could only understand how things worked by watching animals in the village. If a cow had something with a bull, children saw a calf being born. That’s why I thought that we would wait for some years and just live like a brother and sister.

When we went to bed, he tried to approach me. It was a nightmare, he was afraid that I would start screaming on top of my voice. He also had no sexual experience. Two nights we slept together, and nothing happened, and then his vacation was over and he left for Azerbaijan.

When he arrived at his service point and reported to his regiment’s commander that he had married during his time off, they started cursing him, “Holy shit, you are seriously going to bring a 17-year old child here. It’s Azerbaijan, prairie with horrible conditions, there is nothing here. Are you out of your mind?”

One of their officers had previously married a girl from Moscow. She came, looked at everything and ran away two days later. That’s why, when I came, all the regiment was watching us. Everybody was interested what will come out of it. And I wasn’t scared. The thing is, I got pregnant really fast. We had a lack of food, ate mostly canned fish, and my milk disappeared. We had Azerbaijani women bring buffalo milk to us.

This was a time, when Azerbaijan was the wildest country. As soon as you appeared in the city, a crowd of men started following you. That’s why we’d have to be accompanied by a soldier with a rifle even to buy fruits in the market.

Pilots are a special breed of people. We buried many people in the course of our lives. When we looked at his graduation photo, every third person died in a crash. It was almost like a routine, yesterday your comrade died, today you bury him and tomorrow you go on flying. Just before my husband took his obligatory vacation days, he would fly in a special zone to loopings in the sky. Just so he can live through a month without flying an airplane.

When we moved to Germany in 1960, I was dying to see how Westerners were living. My friend and I ran away to Berlin on a day, when our husbands had night shifts and were to come back after midnight. She could speak German, we were pretty, stylish, and it was impossible to tell us apart from German women. If somebody had found out about it then, we’d would have been deported to back to the USSR within 24 hours.

Western Berlin astonished us. We were strolling around the city, sat in a restaurant. Suddenly a waiter brings us two glasses of wine. We didn’t order wine. He points at men at the table across us, they bought it. We had a dilemma, what do we do? If we drink it, they’ll think that the contact is established, and if we don’t drink it, we might hurt their feelings. The wine is standing there, and we don’t know what to do. We had our meal fast, paid, chugged the wine and ran away.

My husband and I almost divorced two times. The first time is connected to my son. In the 60’s the army lacked recruits due to a demographic pitfall of the 40’s. The government started recruiting boys from universities, some men were recruited from prison to join the army. At that point my son was a freshman, and my husband, who had a high rank in the army, would have no difficulty in finding his way to protect his son from the army. But he was a patriot and told our son to serve the country.

On the first day of his service, they took off my son’s sports shoes, jacket, took away his clothes, razors, shampoo. The abuse of new recruits by higher ranks was horrifying. During that period of time I aged a lot, and the situation almost resulted in a divorce.

The second time happened when my husband had problems with his blood pressure, and they didn’t allow him to fly anymore. I was so happy I could not hide it. I didn’t have to wait with my heart sinking each time when a motor roaring suddenly stopped. And my husband hated me for my relief. It was the most difficult period in our life, but he loved me and with time we were able to move on.

It’s been twenty years since my husband is gone. I almost don’t remember the year when he died. He was never sick, and suddenly they diagnosed cancer. He was sick for seven months, and I was with him alone day and night. Later, when he passed away, my son said that they were afraid I would leave with him.

In my life I wouldn’t want to change a single day, even though there were some hard moments. In comparison with my husband, I put my children first. He raised them with this mindset, that I, a mother and a woman, am the most important person in a family. My children treat me this way up to today.

I felt love and deep respect my husband, but not to the same extent, as he did for me. He adored me. They say that in a family one person loves and his spouse lets his husband or wife love him. I let him love me.