Translated from Russian by Bela Shayevich.
[From a conversation with Aleksander Laskovich, soldier, entrepreneur, emigrant, interviewed periodically between the ages of 21 and 30.]
When I was little, we had a tree in our courtyard… this old maple… I’d talk to it, it was my friend. After Grandpa died, I cried for a long time. Bawled all day long. I was five, and it had made me realize that I was going to die and everyone I knew was going to die, too. I was seized by terror: everyone is going to die before me, and I will be left all alone. Savagely lonely. My mother felt sorry for me, but my father came up to me and barked: ‘Wipe those tears away. You’re a man. Men don’t cry.’ But I didn’t even know what I was yet. I’d never liked being a boy, I didn’t like playing war. But no one ever asked me what I wanted… Everyone made the decisions for me… My mother had dreamed of having a girl and my father, in typical fashion, had wanted her to get an abortion.
The first time I ever wanted to hang myself, I was seven… The incident with the Chinese bowl… My mother had made jam in this Chinese bowl we had and put it on a stool to cool; meanwhile, my brother and I had been chasing our cat all over the house. Muska managed to fly over the bowl like a shadow, but not us… My mother was still very young, my father was in military training. And there it was: a puddle of jam all over the floor… My mother cursed her fate as an officer’s wife who was forced to live out in the back of the beyond, on Sakhalin*, where there were ten metres of snow in the winter and in the summer, the burdock grew taller than she was. She grabbed my father’s belt and chased us out into the street: ‘But Mama, it’s raining and the ants in the barn bite.’ ‘Shoo! Get out of here! Beat it!!!’ My brother ran to our neighbour’s house, and I decided to hang myself. I clambered into the barn, found a rope in a basket. They’ll come looking for me in the morning and find me dangling from the rafters – happy now, fuckers? Right then, Muska squeezed through the door… meow, meow… Sweet Muska! You’ve come to take pity on me. I hugged her, squeezed her, and that’s how the two of us stayed until morning.
Papa… What was Papa? He read the paper and smoked. He was a political commander† in an air regiment. We moved from one military town to the next, always living in dormitories. Long brick barracks, exactly the same wherever we went. Even the way they smelled was identical: like shoe polish and Chypre, the cheap cologne. That’s how my father always smelled, too. A typical scene: I’m eight, my brother is nine, and my father comes home from his shift. His belt squeaking, his calf boots creaking. In that moment, all my brother and I want is to become invisible, to fall off the face of the Earth! Papa takes Story of a Real Man by Boris Polevoy down from the shelf – in our house, it was like the Bible. ‘And what happened next?’ He starts in on my brother. ‘The plane crashed. And Alexey Maresyev crawled away from it… Wounded. He ate a hedgehog… and fell into a ditch…’ ‘What ditch?’ ‘It was the crater from a five-tonne bomb,’ I try to help him. ‘What? That was yesterday.’ We simultaneously shudder at the sound of my father’s commander tone. ‘So you didn’t read it today?’ The next scene: we’re running around the table like three clowns, one big one and two little ones; us with our trousers down and Papa clutching a belt. [A pause.] We all grew up on cinema, huh? The world in pictures… It wasn’t books that raised us, it was films. And music… The books my father brought home still give me a rash. My temperature rises whenever I see Story of a Real Man or The Young Guard on anyone’s bookshelf. Oh! How Papa dreamed of throwing us under a tank… He wanted us to hurry up and grow up so we could volunteer to fight in a war. He was incapable of imagining a world without war. He needed us to be heroes! And you can only become a hero at war. If one of us had lost our legs like that Alexey Maresyev of his, he would have only been happy. It would have meant that his life had not been in vain… Success! Everything had fallen into place! And he… I think he would have carried out the verdict with his own bare hands if I had broken my oath, if I had dared to waver in battle. A regular Taras Bulba! ‘I begat you, and I shall be the one to kill you!’ Papa belonged to the Idea, he wasn’t really a human. You must love the Motherland with your entire being. Unconditionally! That was all I ever heard, my entire childhood. The only reason we were alive was so that we could defend the Motherland… But despite all this, I simply could not be programmed for war, instilled with a puppy-like readiness to stick myself in a hole or a dike or throw myself on a landmine. I just never liked death… I’d crush ladybirds – on Sakhalin, in the summer, there are more ladybirds than sand – and I’d crush them like everyone else did. Then, one day, I had this terrifying realization: why have I made all these little red corpses? Another time, Muska had had kittens, but they were premature… I brought them water, tended to them. My mother saw what I was up to and asked: ‘Are they dead?’ And after she said that, they died. But no tears allowed! ‘Men don’t cry.’ Papa gave us army caps as presents. On weekends, he would put on his records with army songs, and my brother and I were forced to sit there and listen as a ‘modest manly tear’ made its way down our father’s cheek. Whenever he got drunk, he’d tell us the same story: the enemy had surrounded ‘the hero’, he valiantly defended himself, shooting at them until he was down to his last bullet, which he’d saved for shooting himself in the heart… At that point in the story, my father would fall over cinematically, catching the leg of the stool with his foot, which made it topple down with him. That was always really funny. Then, my father would suddenly sober up and turn stern: ‘There’s nothing funny about a hero dying.’
* An island in the Pacific Sea that has alternated between Russian and Japanese rule since the nineteenth century. The USSR seized Sakhalin from the Japanese during World War II.
†A political commander is a military political commissar responsible for the political education of the troops, lecturing on ideology and the Party line.
Buy tickets to see Svetlana Alexievich in conversation with James Meek on Tuesday 31 May at the Cambridge Union.