Vlad Men, Part Five – A Russian Winter

Part 5 - A Russian WinterBy David Michael Newstead.

Danik Drapushko was alone in his kitchen, lost in the bottom of a bottle. He was holding a photograph, while outside another ruthless winter descended onto Moscow. For Danik, every sip of alcohol brought back old memories buried in the recesses of his mind. He was forty–two years old now. It was November 1969 and he sat there drunkenly trying to recollect his life and the events from the past decade.

Last year, Soviet tanks crushed dissidents in Czechoslovakia.

Last year, the cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin died.

Danik’s eyes were bloodshot as he took a swig of vodka. On days like today, he often thought about his parents. He remembered growing up in the orphanage and the familiar feel of his SVT–40 rifle during the war. It was all so long ago now, but he could look back and see each iteration of himself as a man and how one gradually morphed into the other – the child, the adolescent, the soldier, the artist, all the way to middle-age.

He drank almost every day now and he did so with a fervor and a trembling necessity that he hadn’t possessed before.

At home, his wife barely spoke to him and their marriage had become a tense, decades’ long conflict characterized by icy relations and mutual distrust. She hated Danik.

At work, his supervisor was a petty and detestable man who refused to transfer him or promote him. Worse than that, the man reveled in stifling people’s creativity. He poured derision on art projects and yelled at his subordinates for amusement. In fact, every morning he would walk by Danik’s desk and grin at him with a smug and spiteful expression across his face, gloating.

Sitting in his kitchen, Danik alternated between drinking and long sessions where he stared at the black and white photograph in his hand. Then, a few minutes would pass and he turned away from it again. For some time, he just gazed out the window at the snowstorm blanketing the city, silently reflecting on everything that had transpired.

His bookshelf, he realized, was filled with Russian authors who’d since been sent to prison for their literary work and their social criticism. Danik had heard the rumors about other dissidents as well – people who’d gone into exile or were sent to psychiatric wards. Again, he thought of his parents.

It was as if the openness of years passed had not only been reversed, but forgotten. It was a distant memory! Meanwhile, Stalin’s legacy had been resurrected from the beyond the grave. Once again, the deeds of their great leader were glorified by the state, filling children’s textbooks and decorating a few posters at the Ministry of Culture.

To Danik, the whole country seemed trapped in a stagnant and oppressive malaise that couldn’t be confined to just politics. Every day, paint chips would fall like snow from the walls of his neglected apartment block. The heat in the building only worked intermittently now, while the plumbing was a poorly maintained nightmare. And throughout the USSR and the Eastern Bloc, the situation was the same – a slow decay replicated across innumerable lives.

From his window, he watched as everything turned gray in the frigid onslaught of winter. Still though, he held onto the photograph as he drank.

Laid out in front of him, the pages of a Soviet newspaper were spread chaotically across his kitchen table and they told a story. In it, American planes bombed Vietnam day after day. Soviet troops fought bloody battles against the People’s Republic of China, while the rest of the world was being strangled from the East and the West. Every chance for peace, it seemed like, every opportunity for progress had been missed, Danik thought. Instead, what prevailed was a soulless status quo, a bureaucracy that suffocated the human spirit in Soviet Russia and beyond. In 1969, every step forward in the world had been invariably forced back and the thrill he’d once felt about the Space Race was now dimmed by the walls and the wars and the bombs that proliferated the Earth. At the same time, Danik’s belly had gotten sizable over the years. His hair had started to retreat from view and he’d gone gray. Recently, he’d even taken his old posters off the wall of his home, sickened by the thought of what he’d made. Disgusted with himself. All he could do then was drink himself numb and try to blot out the worst parts of the past – the nightmares that would bubble to the surface of his mind.

The only hope for his country, Danik thought, now lay with his children. The photograph he had was from some years ago, a small black and white print in the palm of his hand. His son and daughter were much younger then. In the photo, little Masha sat between Danik and his wife. His son, Boris, was still an infant perched on Eliza’s lap. And Danik’s wife, Elizaveta, smiled confidently into the camera, her arms wrapped around her new baby. All that remained was Danik Drapushko, grinning awkwardly as the flash captured that moment in time forever. But years had passed since then and things had irrevocably changed. His children had grown so much. Danik understood that their future was going to be far different from his own life, but he couldn’t say what that would look like.

In the meantime, a long and unforgiving winter had just begun.

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