Статья: Shylock on the Neva
SHYLOCK ON THE NEVA
by GARY SHTEYNGART
Issue of 2002-09-02
I awoke one day to a phone call from the painter Chartkov, a recent graduate
of the Academy of Fine Arts, a lean, sallow fellow with a flaxen goatee and
the overearnest expression of the Slavic intellectual—yes, we all know the
kind of person I'm talking about. Bloodshot eyes? Porcupine hair? Uneven
bottom teeth? Great big potato nose? Thirty-ruble sunglasses from a metro
kiosk? All of it.
How did I wake up? I felt a sexual vibration in my pocket and realized I had
fallen asleep with my pants on, my mobilnik still lodged next to that
conclusive organ everyone cares so much about. "Af," I said to the painter
Chartkov. What else can one say under these conditions, this damn modernity
we all live in? May it all go to the Devil, especially these tiny Finnish
phones that nuzzle in your pocket all night.
"Valentin Pavlovich," the young painter's voice trembled.
"Oh, you bitch," I said. "What time is it?"
"It's already one o'clock," the painter said, then, realizing he was taking
too many liberties with me, added, "Perhaps, after all, if it's not too much
of a bother, you will still come and sit once more for your portrait as we
have previously arranged."
"Perhaps, perhaps," I said. "Well, why don't I wash myself first? Isn't that
how the civilized people do it, in Europe? They wash first, then they sit for
"Mmm, yes," said the painter. "I— You see, I honestly don't know. I've never
been to Europe. Only to Lithuania, where I have an uncle."
"Lithuania," I said. "All the way to Lithuania? Such a worldly artist you
must be, Chartkov." I instructed him to await my arrival patiently and then
turned off the phone. Do I sound unkind? A typical New Russian? Well, let me
assure the reader: I'm a very nice person, but on this particular day I was
feeling a little out of sorts, a veritable crab.
The culprit was crack cocaine. On the previous night, I had the pleasure of
meeting three Canadians at the Idiot Café, two boys and one girl. They
had been brave (and idiotic) enough to bring a few rocks of the stuff into our
drug-addled city and we adjourned quickly to my house to smoke it.
It was my first time! Bravo, Valentin Pavlovich! What was it like? Not so
bad, much like going into a dark, warm room, where, at first, some pleasant
things happened, a steady tingle to the nether regions, a flood of happy
tears and gay sniffling, and then some very unhappy sensations, probably
having to do with the miserable past we all share, the youthful beatings by
parents and peers, and the constant strain of living in this Russia of ours.
Yes, these are the sorts of things one babbles about the morning after he
puffs on the crack pipe—"Russia, Russia, where are you flying to?" and all
that Gogolian nonsense.
I retired to the parlor, and discovered that the Canadians were still there.
They were sprawled out on the divans, lost beneath thick worsted blankets my
manservant, Timofey, must have thrown over them. I could make out the shape
of the Canadian girl—twenty-one years old, and with legs and thighs as
powerful as a horse's—and hear her piercing snore. In the West, even the drug
addicts are healthy and strong. I considered falling in love with the girl,
just for some extra Canadian warmth in the morning. But what foreign girl
would want me? They're very psychologically adept, these girls, nothing like
ours, and I can't fool them with my money and good English.
So I went back to my bedroom to see my cheap, fatalistic Murka, still asleep,
coughing her way through the midday slumber, her pincerlike legs folded up.
Poor girl. I rescued her from some collective farm on a biznes trip to the
provinces a few years back. She was seventeen, but already covered in pigshit
and bruises. On the other hand, you should have seen how quickly she installed
herself in my flat in Petersburg and fell into the role of rich, urban
girlfriend—asleep most of the day, drugged out at night, weepy and sexless in
between. To see Murka with a shopping basket and a charge card at the Stockmann
Finnish emporium on Nevsky Prospekt, yelling brutally at some innocent shop
clerk, is to understand that elusive American term "empowerment," the kind of
thing the foreigners teach you at the Idiot Café. I kissed Murka
tenderly, washed myself as well as I could and called for Timofey to dry me
off. My manservant, a big Karelian peasant, beat me with a twig to improve my
circulation and then strapped me into an Italian lamb's-wool suit jacket, the
kind that makes me look ten years older than my age and fat into the bargain.
Oh, what a business is fashion!
Timofey brought around the usual convoy—two Mercedes 300 M S.U.V.s and one S-
class sedan, so as to form the letters M-S-M, the name of my bank, for, you
see, I am something of a moneylender. As we took off for Chartkov's
neighborhood, the call came through from Alyosha, my well-bribed source at
the Interior Ministry, warning that a sniper was set to pick me off at the
English Embankment. We took an-other route.
Chartkov lived on the far edge of the Kolomna district. I hasten to paint a
picture for the reader: the Fontanka River, windswept (even in summer), its
crooked nineteenth-century skyline interrupted by a post-apocalyptic wedge of
the Sovetskaya Hotel; the hotel surrounded by rows of yellowing, water-logged
apartment houses; the apartment houses, in turn, surrounded by corrugated
shacks housing a bootleg-CD emporium; the ad-hoc Casino Mississippi ("America
Is Far, but Mississippi Is Near"); a burned-out kiosk selling industrial-
sized containers of crab salad; and the requisite Syrian-shwarma hut smelling
of spilled vodka, spoiled cabbage, and a vague, free-floating inhumanity.
Chartkov shared his communal quarters with a slowly dying soldier just
returned from Chechnya, the soldier's invalid mother, his two invalid
children, and an invalid dog. The painter's studio was at the very rear, his
front door covered with a poster of the American superband Pearl Jam. When I
arrived, Chartkov was busy being thrown out of his room by a squat Armenian
landlord in a filthy nylon house gown. Remember how I described Chartkov at
the outset? The great big potato nose? The flaxen goatee? Well, picture the
same nose now dappled in luxuriant Russian tears, the flaxen goatee moist
with dread, the red-rimmed eyes working double time to produce these ample
waterworks. "Philistine!" Chartkov was screaming at the landlord. "How can
you throw a painter out on the street! It is we artists who have introduced
Russia to the world! We who wield the brush and the pen! We gave the world
Chekhov and Bulgakov and Turgenev!"
"Those were all writers!" the dying soldier screamed, peeking out of his
little hole, his invalid children clutching his leg braces as he made long
stabbing motions with his crutch. "What painters has Russia given the world?"
he shouted. "Throw the scoundrel out, I say!"
"Yes, indeed," the landlord said. "If you walk through the Hermitage, it's
all Rembrandts and Titians. Nary an Ivan in sight. Now, if you were a writer
. . ."
The painter almost choked on his considerable tears. "No painters?" he cried.
"What about Andrei Rublyov? What about the famous Ilya Repin?" he cried.
"What about 'Barge Haulers on the Volga'?"
"Is that the one where the little doggie is in the boat and he's standing up
on his hind legs?" the landlord asked, twirling his mustache thoughtfully.
Being a patriot and wanting to spare Chartkov any further embarrassment, I
decided to intervene. I proceeded to ask the Armenian the amount he was owed,
and was duly informed that it was eight months' rent, or U.S. $240. I called
my Timofey, who ran up with three U.S. hundred-dollar bills, and then I told
the landlord that no change was needed, at which point everyone in the flat
gasped, crossed themselves three times, and retreated to their miserable
I was left alone with the young painter. Chartkov turned away from me, buried
his face in his hands, brushed aside his tears, and sighed in a heartbreaking
fashion—in other words, did everything possible to avoid thanking me for my
generosity. He shuffled into his room, where an old flower-print divan from
Hungary, the kind intellectual families favored during the Soviet era, proved
to be the only furniture in his possession. A series of incomplete portraits
of what seemed to be whores from the National Hunt strip club were scattered
about the room, each girl's smile vicious and true to life.
"Here's what I've drawn thus far," he said. He showed me a full-sized sketch,
my dour, opaque face staring back at me with all the bravado of a General
Suvorov, my dark hair bleached to a Slavic yellow, in the background an M-S-M
Bank sign in old-fashioned Cyrillic characters—I looked ready to fight the
Turks at Chesme, instead of my usual daily battle with the hash pipe and the
tricky zipper on my khakis. Such nonsense!
He motioned me to the divan and proceeded to apply charcoal to paper. "So
you're a fan of old Ilya Repin," I said. "Is that what they teach you at the
Academy these days? A little reactionary, no?"
"I'm a m-m-monarchist," Chartkov muttered, scowling for no reason.
"Now, there's a popular position for a young man these days," I said. Oh, our
poor dispossessed intelligentsia. Why do we even bother to teach them
literature and the plastic arts? "And who's your favorite tsar, then, young
"Alexander the First. No, wait, the Second."
"The great reformer. And what kind of art are you interested in, Mr. Painter?
These days, I'm afraid, it's all showmanship, like that unfortunate Muscovite
who goes around the world pretending he's a dog."
"No, I don't like him at all," Chartkov confessed. "I'm a realist. I paint
what I see. Social justice for the common man, that's what I like." And he
proceeded to mumble some hodgepodge of Western art theory and comfy Russian
chauvinism. "Of course, it is the Jews who have brought Russia to her knees,"
he whispered, interrupting his work to light a nearby candle in honor of a
"And do you have a lady friend?" I asked.
He betrayed his twenty-four years by blushing crimson and throwing his gaze
in the four major directions, finally settling his eyes on the sketch of two
whores, both provincially pretty, yet one unmistakably older than the other;
one, in fact, quite old, a telltale trail of life's third set of wrinkles
forming a Tigris and Euphrates on her forehead.
"A mother-daughter act," Chartkov explained. "They're from Kursk Province. A
sad story." Sad, but rather typical. I will omit the particulars, except to
add that both mother and daughter were graduates of some local polytechnic
institute. "Very cultured people," Chartkov said. "Elizaveta Ivanovna plays
the accordion and her daughter, Lyudmila Petrovna, can quote the major
His use of their patronymics was strangely touching—I knew immediately what
he wanted to do; after all, it is the only path our young Raskolnikovs can
follow. "I will save them!" he said.
"Presumably it is the daughter you fancy," I said.
"Both are like family to me," said Chartkov. "When you meet them you see how
they cannot live without each other. They are like Naomi and Ruth."
I chose to let this comparison stand. "My dear Chartkov," I said. "I would
certainly like to make their acquaintance. You see, perhaps there is
something I can do to better their position."
Chartkov examined me through his dopey thirty-ruble glasses. "I hope you do
not mean to hire them," he said.
"Good heavens, no," I assured him. And then I proposed we cut short our
session and have dinner with his whorish friends.
On the way to the National Hunt club, Alyosha, my well-greased source at the
Interior Ministry, called to warn me of a deadly Godzilla roll set to poison
me at the Kimono Japanese restaurant on Bolshaya Morskaya. I changed our
dinner plans in favor of the infamous Noble's Nest, by the Mariinsky Theatre,
while helping Chartkov empty a small bottle of cognac in the back seat of the
Mercedes, a car to which he warmed immediately. "I compare it to the troika
of yore," the monarchist said without any irony, wiping his little mouth with
my favorite handkerchief.
The National Hunt was all but empty at this time of day, with only four drunk
officers from the Dutch Consulate passed out at a back table by the empty
roulette table. Despite the lack of an audience, Elizaveta Ivanovna and her
daughter, Lyudmila Petrovna, were up on the makeshift stage grinding against
two poles to the sound of Pearl Jam. They looked remarkably like the sketches
Chartkov had drawn. Immediately, I was reassured about the whole enterprise,
about the innate talent I believed Chartkov possessed, and about my own hopes
Mother and daughter resembled two sisters, one perhaps ten years older than
the other with naked breasts pointing downward, a single crease separating
them from the little tummy below. The mother was imparting to Lyudmila her
theory that the pole was like a wild animal which one had to grasp with one's
thighs lest it escape. The daughter, like all daughters, was shrugging her
off, saying, "Mamochka, I know what I'm doing. I watch special movies when
"You're a dunderhead," the mother said, thrusting to the sound of the
ravenous American band. "Why did I ever give birth to you?"
"Ladies!" Chartkov cried out to them. "My dear ones! Good evening to you!"
"Hi, there, little guy," mother and daughter sang in unison.
"Ladies," said Chartkov. "I would like to introduce you to Valentin
Pavlovich. A very good man who only today has given three hundred dollars to
The ladies appraised my expensive shoes and stopped writhing. They hopped
down from their poles and pressed themselves against me. Quickly, the air was
filled with the smell of nail polish and light exertion. "Good evening," I
said, brushing my dark mane, for I tend to get a little shy around
"Please come home with us!" cried the daughter, massaging the posterior
crease of my pants with a curious finger. "Fifty dollars per hour for both.
You can do what you like, front and back, but, please, no bruises."
"Better yet, we'll go home with you!" the mother said. "I imagine you have a
beautiful home on the embankment of the River Moika. Or one of those gorgeous
Stalin buildings on Moskovsky Prospekt."
"Valentin Pavlovich runs a bank," Chartkov said, shyly but with a certain
amount of pride. "He has offered to take us to a restaurant called the
"It's in the tea house of the Yusupov mansion," I said, with a pedantic air,
knowing that the mansion where the loony charlatan Rasputin was poisoned
would not make much of an impression on the ladies. Chartkov managed a
slight, historic smile and tried to nuzzle the daughter, who favored him with
a chaste kiss on the forehead.
It is no secret that St. Petersburg is a backwater, lost in the shadow of our
craven capital Moscow, which itself is but a Third World megalopolis
teetering on the edge of extinction. And yet the Noble's Nest is one of the
most divine restaurants I have ever seen—dripping with more gold plating than
the dome of St. Isaac's, yes; covered with floor-to-ceiling paintings of dead
nobles, to be sure. And yet, somehow, against the odds, the place carries off
the excesses of the past with the dignified lustre of the Winter Palace.
I knew that a fellow like Chartkov would rejoice. For people like him,
educated members of a peasant nation catapulted into the most awkward sort of
modernity, this restaurant is one of the two Russias they can understand—it's
either the marble and malachite of the Hermitage or a crumbling communal flat
on the far edge of Kolomna.
Chartkov began weeping as soon as he saw the menu, and the whores started
sniffling, too. They couldn't even name the dishes, such was their excitement
and money lust, and had to refer to them by their prices—"Let's split the
sixteen-dollar appetizer, and then I'll have the twenty-eight dollars and you
can split the thirty-two. Is that all right, Valentin Pavlovich?"
"For God's sake, have what you wish!" I said. "Four dishes, ten dishes, what
is money when you're among friends?" And to set the mood for the evening I
ordered a bottle of Rothschild for U.S. $1,150.
"So, let's talk some more about your art," I said to Chartkov.
"You see," said Chartkov to his women friends. "We're talking about art now.
Isn't it nice, ladies, to sit in a pretty space and talk like gentlemen about
the greater subjects?" A whole range of emotions, from an innate distrust of
kindness to some latent homosexuality, was playing itself out on Chartkov's
red face. He pressed his palm down on my hand.
"Chartkov is doing those nice paintings for us," the mama said to me, "and
we're going to use them for our Web page. We're going to have a Web page for
our services, don't you know?"
"Oh, look, mama, I believe the two 'sixteen dollars' are here!" Elizaveta
Ivanovna cried, as two appetizers of pelmeni dumplings stuffed with deer and
crab arrived, both dishes covered by immense silver domes.
"We're talking about art like gentlemen," Chartkov said once more, shaking
his head in disbelief.
The evening progressed as expected. We drove to my apartment, taking in the
sight of the city on a warm summer night—the sky lit up a false cerulean
blue, the thick walls of the Peter and Paul Fortress bathed in gold
floodlights, the Winter Palace moored on its embankment like a ship
undulating in the twilight, the darkened hulk of St. Isaac's dome officiating
over the proceedings. Here was our Petersburg—a magical set piece of ruined
mansions and lunar roads traversed by Swedish tourists in low-slung,
futuristic buses—and we all had to sigh in appreciation for what was lost and
Along the way, we took turns hitting the driver with birch twigs, ostensibly
to improve his circulation, but in reality because it is impossible to end an
evening in Russia without assaulting someone. "Now I feel as if we're in an
old-fashioned hansom cab," said Chartkov, "and we're hitting the driver for
going too slow. Faster, driver! Faster!"
"Please, sir," pleaded my driver, a nice Chechen fellow named Mamudov, "it is
already difficult to drive on these roads, even without being whipped."
"No one has ever called me 'sir' before." Chartkov spoke in wonderment. "Opa,
you scoundrel!" he screamed, flailing the driver once more.
I got the call from Alyosha, my well-placed source at the Interior Ministry,
and instructed Mamudov to avoid the Troitsky Bridge, where a prospective
assassin awaited my motorcade by the third of the cast-iron lamps. Why do so
many people want to kill me? I'm a good man and, it should be clear by now, a
Back home it was the usual seraglio—my Murka in a half-open housecoat was
dancing with herself in front of the wall-length dining-room mirror; the
Canadians had fed crack cocaine to my cook, Evgeniya, and the poor woman was
now running around the house screaming about some dead peasant Anton, crying
black tears over her wasted fifty years. The North American culprits
themselves were sprawled around the parlor listening to my collection of
progressive-house records, recently airlifted out of Berlin's Prenzlauer Berg
As soon as they caught sight of the mother and daughter, the two Canadian
boys and the one Canadian girl understood the unique sexual situation before
them. Chartkov began to protest and cry against this "inhumanity," reminding
the Canadians that the mother played the accordion and the daughter could
quote Voltaire at will, but I quickly took him into my study and closed the
door. "Let's talk about art," I said.
"What will become of my girls?" the painter asked. "My poor Elizaveta
Ivanovna and Lyudmila Petrovna," Chartkov said, eying the multitude of
English and German volumes that graced my bookshelves, abstruse titles such
as "Cayman Island Banking Regulations," annotated, in three volumes, and the
ever-popular "A Hundred and One Tax Holidays."
"Enough of this whimpering," I said. "Chartkov, do you know why I hired you
to execute my painting?"
"Because you slept with my sister Grusha," Chartkov surmised correctly, "and
she recommended me to you."
"Yes, initially so. But over the weeks I've come to appreciate you as, mmm, a
Christ-like figure. And I use the term loosely, because our language has
become as impoverished as our country and it's often hard to find the right
term, even if you're willing to pay hard currency for it. See now, you alone
can paint a picture of me, Chartkov, that will guarantee my immortality. The
problem is, it has to be real. Not this General Suvorov nonsense. I mean,
what next? Will you portray me in a tricorne hat, riding a white mare to
victory? Let's be realistic. I'm a young moneylender, aging swiftly and, like
all Russian biznesmeny, not too long for this world. Also, in case you
haven't noticed, I have dark hair and a broken nose."
"But I want to make you better than you are," Chartkov said. "I want to
restore Christian dignity to your battered soul and the only way to do so is
. . . the only way—" I could tell his attention was occupied by the piercing
Russian "Okh, okh, okh!" coming from the parlor, accompanied by some
heartless Canadian grunting.
"That's precisely what you don't want to do," I said. "I'm a sinner,
Chartkov, and I am not too proud to admit it. I am a sinner and as a sinner
you shall paint me! Look deep into my hollowed-out eyes, try on my disposable
Italian suit, smoke from my musty crack pipe, befoul my summer kottedzh on
the Gulf of Finland, stuff yourself with my deer-and-crab pelmeni, whip my
manservant, Timofey, until he begs for his life, wake up next to my ruined
provincial girlfriend. And then, Chartkov, paint exactly what you see."
Chartkov wiped some more of his infinite tears and helped himself to a bottle
of sake that I now pressed into his hand. "Will this get me drunk?" he asked
shyly, examining the strange Asiatic lettering.
"Yes, but you mustn't stop drinking it even for a second. Here, it goes with
this marinated-squid snack. And in return for your work, of course, I will
pay you, Chartkov, pay you enough for you and your Ruth and Naomi to live a
comfortable life forever. Perhaps you can even 'save them,' if that's indeed
"Eight thousand dollars!" Chartkov cried out, grasping at his fragile heart.
"That's what I want!"
"Well, I would think considerably more." I was, in fact, expecting to spend
at least U.S. $250,000.
"Nine thousand, then!" Chartkov cried. "And I shall paint you just as you
like! With horns and a yarmulke if you so desire!"
What could I say? If only I had been a Jew there would have been no need for
Chartkov's services. Our Jews are steeped in familial memory and even when
they die, for instance when their Lexus S.U.V. gets blown off a bridge by a
well-armed rival, they remain locked in the dreary memories of their progeny,
circling over the Neva River for eternity, dreaming of their herring and
onions. I, on the other hand, had no progeny, no memory, and really very
little chance of surviving this country of ours for more than a few more
Why deceive myself like the rest of my New Russian compatriots? My wealth
notwithstanding, Chartkov's was the only eternity I could afford.
"Well put, Chartkov," I said. "So we are in agreement. And now let us not
keep our company waiting. I shall send Timofey out to fetch an accordion.
That way the beautiful Elizaveta Ivanovna can entertain us with her other
"God bless you, Valentin Pavlovich!" cried Chartkov, pressing my hand to his
The next afternoon I woke up with the usual tinnitus in my left ear, a series
of duck flares going off in my peripheral vision. The crack-cocaine pipe—the
"glass dick," as the Canadians had called it—stared at me accusingly through
its single eye. My pillow was covered with alcoholic slobber and what looked
like little crack mites dancing their urban-American dance. Meanwhile, coiled
up next to me, my Murka was making tragic whistling sounds in her sleep,
shielding herself from phantom childhood punches with one upraised skinny
It was a fine moment to be a St. Petersburg gentleman. I called Timofey on
the mobilnik and he came ambling in from the next room, already dressed in
his morning frock. "Did you deliver the painter Chartkov to his digs?" I
asked of him.
"Yes, batyushka," said Timofey. "And a great one he was, that painter.
Soused, like a real alkash, and easy with his fists, like my dear dead Papa.
I had to carry him up to his flat, and once I laid him out on the divan he
started hitting me with his belt. Then we had to get on our knees and pray
for a good half hour. He kept shouting 'Christ has risen!' and I had to reply
'Verily, he has risen!' Such people I do not understand, sir."
"The ways of artists are beyond us, Timofey," I said. "And did you give him
nine thousand dollars in ninety consecutive bills of a hundred dollars each?"
"That I did, batyushka," said Timofey. "The painter then took off all his
clothes and touched himself in many places with the American currency, while
whispering batyushka's name most reverently. I was so scared, sir, that I
spent half the night in the alehouse."
"You're a good manservant, Timofey," I said. "Now go tend to our Canadian
friends while I spend the day frolicking about."
I meant what I said about frolicking. Being a modern moneylender is not a
difficult occupation. Armed with computers and bookkeepers and hand grenades, I
find the work pretty much takes care of itself. My most pressing duty is
showing up at the biznesmenski buffet at the T Club every Thursday and
glowering across the swank airport-lounge décor at my nearest
competitors, the ones that keep trying to blow me off the Troitsky Bridge.
On this warm summer day, the Neva River playful and zippy, a panorama of gray
swells and treacherous seagulls, I walked over the bridges to the Peter and
Paul Fortress. But unless one gets very excited about third-rate Baroque
fortifications, there's really nothing to see, so instead I followed a group
of young schoolchildren. In their own way, the children were sublime:
destitute in their lousy Polish denim and Chinese high-tops, scarred with
acne and low self-esteem, members of the world's first de-industrialized
nation but still imbued with our old cultural deference, a Petersburg child's
mythical respect for Dutch pediments and Doric porticoes. I watched them fall
silent as the tour guide intoned about an occupant of the fortress's
ramshackle prison, a revolutionary who once wiped away his tears with
Dostoyevsky's handkerchief, or some other such luminary.
Can it really be true, as the sociological surveys tell us, that only five
years hence these tender shoots will forsake their cultural patrimony to
become the next generation of bandits and streetwalkers? To test this theory,
I looked into the face of the prettiest girl, a dark little Tatar-cheeked
beauty with a pink, runny nose and flashed her my standard Will-you-sell-
your-body-for-Deutsche-marks? smile. She looked down at the monstrous Third
World clodhoppers on her feet. Not yet, her black eyes told me.
Saddened by our children's plight, I doubled back over the Palace Bridge and
pushed through the long line of sweaty provincial tourists at the Hermitage,
shouting all the while about some obscure Moneylender's Privilege (droit du
dollar?). I wangled a self-invented Patriot's Discount out of the babushkas
at the box office by pretending I was a veteran of the latest Chechen
campaign, then ran straight up to the fourth floor, where they keep all the
early-twentieth-century French paintings.
I stood before Picasso's portrait of the "Absinthe Drinker" and marvelled at
the drunk Parisian woman staring back at me. How many Soviet years have we
wasted here on the fourth floor of the Hermitage, looking at these portraits
of Frenchmen reading Le Journal, pretending that somehow we were still in
Europe. In our musty felt boots we stood, staring at Pissarro's impressions
of the "Boulevard Montmartre on a Sunny Afternoon" and then, out the window,
at our own dirt-caked General Staff building, its pale semi-circular sweep
forming the amphitheatre of Palace Square. If we squinted our eyes, or,
better yet, took another nip out of our hip flasks, we could well imagine
that the General Staff's delicate arch was somehow a portal onto the Place de
la Concorde itself, its statue of six Romanesque horses harnessed to Glory's
chariot really an Air France jetliner ready to sail into the sky.
And, let me ask you, For what all that suffering? For what all those dreams
of freedom and release? Ten years later, here we were, a hundred and fifty
million Eastern Untermenschen collectively trying to fix a rusted Volga sedan
by the side of the road.
You know, it was best not to think about it.
So I returned my gaze to Picasso's absinthe drinker and this time discovered a
previously elusive truth. The drunk Parisian had not been staring at me all
those years, as I had romantically, egotistically supposed, but solely at the
blue bottle of absinthe, her face radiating as much slyness as despair, a
careful contemplation of the heavy poison before her. I do not know a great
deal about Western art theory, but it seemed possible to me that this woman,
this absinthe drinker, had what the American louts at the Idiot Café
Cheered on by my deductions, I sneaked a mouthful of crack cocaine in the
men's room, then sailed out of the Hermitage, through the arch of the General
Staff building, and out into the hubbub of Nevsky Prospekt. I wanted very
much to buy a warm Pepsi for eight rubles, just like the common people drink,
and a piece of meat on a skewer. But, as I approached a food stand manned by
a fierce babushka wearing what appeared to be a used sock on her head, my
mobilnik vibrated with a text message from my friend Alyosha at the Interior
Ministry: "Beware the meat skewers of Nevsky."
The next few weeks were manna. I drank, I smoked, I wrestled with warm-bodied
Canadians. I came down with an awful itch in that conclusive place we all
talk about, but what can you do? And then I got a call from the painter
Chartkov. "Patron!" he cried. "Your likeness is almost ready!"
I had not expected such haste. "But we haven't even had another sitting," I
"Your physiognomy is imprinted on my brain," Chartkov said. "How can a moment
pass when I do not think of my savior? Please, let me stand you for a drink
at Club 69, and then we'll examine what I call 'Portrait of the Raven-Haired
Moneylender; or, Shylock on the Neva.' I know you'll be pleased with me,
I agreed to an immediate viewing, and summoned Timofey to fetch the cars. Could
it be? My mortality giving way to an oily doppelgänger's
Anyone who can afford the three-dollar cover charge—in other words, the richest
one per cent of our city—shows up at Club 69 at some point during the weekend.
This is without doubt the most normal place in Russia, no low-level thugs
in leather parkas, no skinheads in swastika T-shirts and jackboots, just
friendly gay guys and the rich housewives who love them. It brings to mind that
popular phrase bandied about at the Idiot Café: "civil society."
Chartkov showed up, wearing a colorful sweatshirt several sizes too big and
imprinted with the logo of the Halifax Nautical Yacht Club. He'd grown
plumper in the last few weeks and shaved off his flaxen goatee to reveal a
little hard-boiled egg of a chin. "Looking good, Mr. Painter," I said.
"Feeling good," he said. "Hi, Zhora." He waved to a slinky boy behind the bar
filling a bucket with grenadine. "How's life, cucumber?"
"Zhora's going to Thailand with a rich Swede," Chartkov said to me. "Let's go
upstairs," he added, "and I'll buy you a hundred and fifty grams of vodka.
Oh, how we'll celebrate!"
We sat beneath a statue of Adonis and watched a submarine captain trying to sell
his young crew to a German tour group. The seventeen-year-old boys, sporting
heroic cosmonaut faces and hairless scrotums, were awkwardly
trying to cover their nakedness, while their drunken captain barked at them to
let go of their precious goods and "shake them around like a wet dog." I
suppose civil society has its limits, too.
"Look what I bought today at Stockmann," Chartkov shouted. "It's a Finnish
hair dryer. It has three settings. And look at the color! Orange! I'm going
to do a lot of work with orange now. And also lime. These are the colors of
the future. Is there an electrical outlet here? This machine not only blow-
dries your hair; it sculpts it."
"What about your lady friends?" I said. "Lyudmila the philosopher and her
mother with the accordion. Weren't you going to save them?"
"You know," Chartkov said, handing me a vodka from a passing tray, "you can't
really save somebody until they want to save themselves. In the past few weeks
I've been peeking around the English bookstore on the Fontanka.
There's this one volume on how to deal with people, 'Hand Me My Cheese!,' or
something of the sort, that has made a great impression on me. The problem with
the modern Russian is that he is not . . . Ah, what's that word? He is not
"Also, he is frequently drunk," I added, raising my glass. "That's another
problem. Well, here's to us modern Russians. May God save us all!"
"God won't save us until we save ourselves," cautioned the former monarchist.
"We've got a lot of work to do in this country. We've got to start by looking
seriously at our 'core competencies'—"
I grabbed Chartkov by the shoulders. "Enough," I said. "Let's go to your house."
Chartkov blanched. "Please, sir," he said. "I am not a pederast. I merely
come to Club 69 for the atmosphere."
"The painting!" I said. "I must see it at once."
"Very well," Chartkov said. "But I paid three dollars a head for the entrance
fee, so together it is six—"
"Look here, painter," I said. "If your rendering is as good as I think it is,
I'll give you another nine thousand U.S. dollars on the spot!"
"We must hurry then!" Chartkov cried.
The hallway of Chartkov's communal flat was littered with paint cans, and
spent bottles of Crimean port wine. "I bought the whole floor of the building
for seven thousand U.S. dollars from that awful Armenian," Chartkov
explained, "and the first thing I did was throw the dying soldier and his
whole invalid family out on the street. That'll teach them to blacken the
name of the Russian painter, may the Devil take them all! When this place is
finished, I want to create a multimedia studio. I met this French guy at Club
69, and together we're going to offer painting seminars and a hatha-yoga
"Just please hurry!" I cried as we raced through the long communal hallway.
The painter opened the door to his old room.
The first thing I saw was my own jutting lower lip, the one that had
given me the nickname Flounder in Pioneer camp; then my eagle nose bent
at several junctures from years of schoolyard beatings and
domestic scrapes; then my hazy dark eyes, two dim ovals set way back into my
skull; then my arms thick and corded, bulging with implied
violence, one raised to strike my manservant, another hovering over my lap to
protect myself from life's intimate dangers.
My skin was yellow and black in places, my forehead crossed by a monumental
green vein. I was caught off center, staring joylessly into an empty corner
of the canvas, where the painter had added his own initials.
He had me, Chartkov. He had done well, the poor idiot. There were some excesses,
to be sure: I was sporting a pair of Hasidic side curls, while a
copy of the "Protocols of the Elders of Zion" floated incongruously
in the background, a ten-ruble note sticking out in the form of a bookmark.
There was no point in telling Chartkov that I was, in fact, not a Judaist;
rather, a mixture of Greek and some kind of Siberian mega-Mongol. If he was
inspired to paint me in this manner, so be it.
"Here's what you must do, Chartkov," I said.
"What is it?" said the painter. "Should I put on some Pearl Jam? Fetch my
patron some tea?"
"Just add a little detail," I said. "Paint a mobilnik pressed to my ear."
"Of course," the painter said. "It will be done first thing in the morning!
Oh, but now my mind is filled with questions of an embarrassing nature—"
"Timofey will bring you another nine thousand U.S. dollars," I said.
Chartkov threw his arms around me and wept convulsively. His body felt thin and
reedy compared with my own. I smelled American herbal shampoo on him,
along with the stench of stale Parliaments. "If you wish," he whispered in my
ear, "you may also take me from the back."
I woke up the next morning to the familiar cellular vibrations in my pocket.
Alyosha, at the Interior Ministry, was warning me of a prospective
assassination on Leninsky Prospekt. The day had come. I kissed sleeping Murka
goodbye, leaving her the number of a colleague who would treat her no worse
than I had. I climbed past the Canadians in the parlor and ordered my driver
to set off for the southern suburbs.
I had spent my entire adolescence on Leninsky Prospekt. A wide Soviet boulevard
filled with nineteen-seventies apartment blocks that might as well have landed
from the Andromeda galaxy—long, cumbersome rows of flats, a
grayish, intergalactic color, flanked by ten-story towers on which the words
"Glory to socialist labor!" and "Life wins out over death!" used to lord over
us in fantastic block letters.
As soon I got out of the car, my phone rang once more. A strangled sound
emerged from the earpiece. On the far edge of the Kolomna district, in the
studio of the painter Chartkov, my immortal double was calling out to me. He
was singing a childhood song in a boy's sweet voice, breathless with
Let it always be sunny,
Let there always be Mommy,
Let there always be blue skies,
Let there always be me.
I breathed in the real and imagined smells of Leninsky Prospekt, the factory
coal fumes, the Arctic frost, the black exhaust of my mother's cardboard
cigarettes. Two figures emerged from behind a burned-out milk stand and
approached me. I stood there waiting for them, my hands protectively cupping
myself but my jacket open and my tie askew. I did not say a word
to them. What was there to say? I heard them clicking their rounds into place,
but my gaze fell elsewhere. I was mesmerized, as always, by the orange-yellow
aurora of pollution hanging over the horizon of the contrived city, that
juncture where snow banks and apartment towers meet to form nothing.
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