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Life seemed so much simpler to Gavrilovich Gikalov during his youth. The Soviet regime was liberating the third world against the tyrannical US and her oppressive allies, as the radio broadcast announced on the hour. And every man in Moscow knew his place. Nobody stood out. Short men, tall men, thin men, thinner men, men with one arm, men with two … there was no greed, no envy, no snobbery or class distinction among those hardworking men of the street. The secret police saw to that.
Gavrilovich Gikalov’s uncle, Nikolay Treshchev, raised his glass at the dinner table each evening to toast the Marxist-Leninist ideals of old and then the traditional argument would break out between Nikolay Treshchev and Gikalov’s father, Fyodor Gikalov, over Prime Minister Kosygin’s suggested reforms until Nikolay’s face would flush a patriotic red and Gikalov’s father was forced to back down. Gavrilovich Gikalov’s father was an advocate of the then modernised order, and in constant fear of the nuclear threat boasted by the ruthless Americans.
As a family they would huddle around the radio and listen to his uncle’s fervent appraisals of Khrushchev’s pronouncements. And, being a young man of simple values and fettered intellect, Gavrilovich Gikalov would nod along between mouthfuls of his mother’s stew, longing for the day when he could contribute to the family’s income alongside his father at the factory.
Factory work agreed with Gavrilovich Gikalov. The work was honest; the repetition comforting; the long hours satisfying. The salary was meagre but earnest. He was amongst the most assiduous hands in the city, every man Jack of them as equal as the next. Gavrilovich Gikalov may not have been a handsome man; he may not have been a tall man; he was most certainly not a rich man; and as far as intelligence went, that too had been distributed elsewhere among the socialist state. But for all these non-attributes afforded him, Gavrilovich Gikalov was content in the knowledge that he was part of the machine … unexceptional and thus perfectly accepted.
Fifteen years inside the machine and Gavrilovich Gikalov’s life had not changed a great deal. Other than the death of his father and a brief, and ultimately unproductive, dalliance with a widow several doors down from his family home, Gavrilovich Gikalov was a reasonably contented man. Brezhnev, to Gavrilovich Gikalov’s mind, was doing a fine job. He knew where he stood in the order of things. Truthfully, he could not have asked for more. Work at the factory was continuous, dinners were regular, if somewhat unimaginative, and life in Moscow persevered at a steady, comfortable pace for Gavrilovich Gikalov, while the surrounding world spun around its epicentre at anxious speeds.
There were some changes, of course: Gavrilovich Gikalov was not blind to life beyond the inner sanctum of the factory. He noticed the effects the West was having on the young Soviets. The long haircuts and drooping moustaches were everywhere. Musicians popped up through the cracks in the pavement, torturing the old folk ditties he had grown up with. But these things were natural. Quirks of a new generation. Nothing serious. Nothing to worry about.
Gavrilovich Gikalov had never considered himself a man particularly prone to naivetë. Indeed, he had seldom given the possibility much thought. But in years to come he would find himself wondering whether the revelations presented to him following the factory’s demise might not have been solely owing to political events.
Initially, the stability of Gavrilovich Gikalov’s humble existence was thrown into turmoil by the oil glut in the Middle East. The Russian economy slumped and Gavrilovich Gikalov found himself a casualty of cutbacks. Then, much to his red-faced uncle’s abhorrence, Gorbachev’s perestroika paved the way for foreign investors, and all the false promises they brought.
Gavrilovich Gikalov had been hopeful (though he’d refrained from revealing as much at the dinner table with his uncle) of a reinstatement at the factory. With new investors injecting money into the industry he felt it would be only prudent to recall the long-serving hands whom had dedicated their lives to the work. Unfortunately for Gavrilovich Gikalov, and much to the smug head-nodding of his uncle, the American investors had deemed the factory uneconomic and the place was closed; the investment to be put to ‘better use’ according to a company representative. One that did not include Gavrilovich Gikalov.
Despite his fifteen years’ labour experience, Gavrilovich Gikalov struggled to find gainful employment in the new Russian Federation. And how, in the beginning, he longed for the old days of the Soviet State! No longer a young man, Gavrilovich Gikalov found himself unwanted in the engineering industry. A new order had been put quickly and firmly in place. Modern Western ideas of educational excellence and international practice were sought after by employers. Eventually, however, as the rest of the city blossomed, Gavrilovich Gikalov secured himself the position of doorman of one of the newly built members’ clubs to the north of the Kremlin. And it was during this period that Gavrilovich Gikalov began to question his own understanding of human nature.
Being a humble man by nature, Gavrilovich Gikalov had little or no concept of class distinction. And certainly it had never before come to mind to be ashamed of his employment. And yet, in this new age, this new Moscow, he found himself mortified by the impropriety of the patrons. They would lounge in their expensive suits, tilted hats, gold watches, paying Gavrilovich Gikalov little heed except when boredom took them and they looked around in desperate need to project their frustrations and found Gavrilovich Gikalov awaiting their ridicule.
“You there, take my coat.”
“Out of the way, little man.”
“My god, see how ugly the gnome is.”
“And how ignorant!”
“A relic. Thank the West for leading us into a world of opportunity.”
“Quite right. Privetstviya.”
It was quite a shock for Gavrilovich Gikalov to be treated in such a manner. Like a Chechen, he thought. And by his juniors too. Was respect a thing of the past? he asked himself. Or had it always been this way? Did people really perceive him in such a dim light?
“Think nothing of them.” His uncle said. “Vulgar capitalists, the lot of them.”
Gavrilovich Gikalov could see the colour rising to the surface of his uncle’s aged countenance.
“But remember this …” his uncle continued, waggling a crooked finger in front of Gavrilovich Gikalov’s face, “you will do better to treat all comrades equally, regardless of their ill-conceived pomposity.” He adjusted his belt. “This country was built on unity and respect and it’s imperative to stick to our traditions.”
Gavrilovich Gikalov took his uncle’s words to heart and every day, amid the constant cajoling and flippant disrespect he endured, he did his best to adhere to the old ways. Ignoring the jibes and the insults and thoughtless shoving of him aside when one of the new order of Muscovites wanted to pass, Gavrilovich Gikalov held his position with a modicum of pride and did his duty.
This was all well and good but, not being a man of letters, there were times when Gavrilovich Gikalov suffered greatly at the hands of those it was his duty to serve. Ridicule seemed at its harshest when he felt the ridiculer was vastly superior to him in both intellect and prominence. And there was one man in particular whose joy in belittling Gavrilovich Gikalov was unrivalled. That man was Nikita Morozov.
A portly man in his forties, loud and sprawling, Nikita Morozov was by no means an attractive man (albeit not as unattractive as Gavrilovich Gikalov) but he was wealthy, ostentatious and quite tall. Young, stick-thin women clung to him as he paraded up and down the street. In spite of his height the women, in their heels, towered above Nikita Morozov, marching him along like stylish bodyguards, never smiling, and keeping vigil behind their huge dark glasses. Nikita Morozov, when passing the club in company of these women, took great pleasure in humiliating Gavrilovich Gikalov.
“And how are you this fine afternoon, doorman?”
Gavrilovich Gikalov would bow his head and mumble an appropriate reply.
“Speak up man. Or has age shrivelled your brain as well as your body?”
Gavrilovich Gikalov would not respond, but stand, head bowed, listening to the cracking sounds as the women forced a smile.
“Here wretch. I suppose you are at least trying to eke out an existence, rather than those filthy creatures in the gutters down in Butovo.” And he would toss a single rouble to the floor beside Gavrilovich Gikalov, laughing all the while at his own wit and superiority.
It went like this for several years. Gavrilovich Gikalov endured his job. But he was miserable. He longed for the old life. He longed for respect. But most of all, for the first time in his life, he longed to be somebody else. His uncle’s advice no longer held water and he even turned his grievance toward his deceased parents. Gavrilovich Gikalov was a very unhappy man.
Out of the blue, fortune shone down on Gavrilovich Gikalov’s bald pate. His uncle died, and Gavrilovich Gikalov inherited a bit of money. As it transpired, a friend of Gavrilovich Gikalov’s uncle had struck a deal with an American consortium over fishing rights in the Caspian Sea. And Gavrilovich Gikalov’s uncle had purchased a number of shares in the company. Ironic, thought Gavrilovich Gikalov, that his uncle had choked on a piece of toast topped with caviar. Though fitting, he considered, that the caviar was red.
Although hardly the impetuous type, Gavrilovich Gikalov, with the aid and advice of his uncle’s solicitor, Mr Symoneyev, decided to invest his windfall in an idea over which the aforementioned Mr Symoneyev had long since been in discussion with Gavrilovich Gikalov’s uncle, in the one area where tradition and modern capitalist values had been successfully married: the banya. There had been a resurgence in the city, insisted the wily old solicitor. Some of the modern gymnasiums and leisure centres so popular in the West had incorporated a sauna into the schematics for those hard working businessmen in their dark suits and expensive shoes. Being a traditionalist people, the Muscovites had embraced these bastardised banyas, leered Mr Symoneyev. He went on to explain to Gavrilovich Gikalov that his uncle’s intention had been to purchase one of the older, struggling banyas (one not situated within a gymnasium or leisure centre) and renovate it, sticking decisively to the original make-up, and throwing in some billiard tables and other modern amenities to entice a younger generation. But on the whole, reviving an essence of old Russia … and exploiting it.
Gavrilovich Gikalov listened intently to Mr Symoneyev’s words, comprehending at least half of what the sly solicitor said. Lacking in financial perspicacity, Gavrilovich Gikalov assented to Mr Symoneyev, handing over his share with little hesitation. However, being a man of earnest dedication and humble beginnings, Gavrilovich Gikalov pressed for a single proviso, namely that he would be the one to run the place on a daily basis. Mr Symoneyev was delighted and avowed that he would not have it any other way. And so, leaving the details in the hands of his new business partner, Gavrilovich Gikalov hurried off home, grinning from ear to ear in the knowledge that he would never again have to tend to the patrons of the members’ club.
Mr Symoneyev proved himself a shrewd man indeed. Gavilovich Gikalov did not have to wait long for the sale to go through, or for the renovations to take place. And what a remarkable banya it was when all was completed. Surely, he decided (though without much frame of reference) the best banya in all Moscow!
“Well, Gavrilovich,” Mr Symoneyev clamped an arm around Gikalov’s shoulder. “You know what you have to do.”
Gavrilovich Gikalov nodded, the wonder at his new premises surrendering to an inner dread, as the reality of his position suddenly dawned upon him.
His business partner, as if coming to his senses, yanked his arm away from the little man. “Good. Good,” he said, eyeing Gavrilovich Gikalov’s poor clothing with an involuntary sneer. At least the customers won’t have to endure the little man’s shabby attire, thought Mr Symoneyev. And with a reptilian smile the solicitor bid Gavrilovich Gikalov luck in his frontline endeavours.
It took a little time, as his partner had forewarned, for word to get around and business to pick up. But Gavrilovich Gikalov was not bothered about the number of clients. He had never been so happy. Even the old factory days seemed to him dark and dreary. Never before had he felt so dignified. He was in sole charge of a beautiful establishment, humbly constructed with only a couple of columns, and barely any marble at all. But beyond the décor was the unprecedented respect his patrons afforded him.
He would hear them ascending the stairs – voices bold and bragging; high spirits among venerated businessmen, both young and old; coiffed, perfumed, gilded in both suit and esteem. Then upon reaching the top, where he greeted them in all his aged glory and received their money, the venerated businessmen dropped their gaze in reverence of Gavrilovich Gikalov, proprietor of Moscow’s finest banya. He was spoken to in civil tones, with deference, and looked to for instruction, even by those who had experience of banya etiquette. Gavrilovich Gikalov would proffer a little bow and direct the men to the changing area. And as he stood by, ready to collect any valuables in need of secure storage, for he was a conscientious man as well as an honest one, Gavrilovich Gikalov announced the order of things in his little world: the whereabouts of the primary steam room, the hottest and most cleansing in the capital, he stated; the whereabouts of the secondary steam room, for those less attuned to such searing heat; which turning to take for the heated bath; which to take for the ice bath; where to collect the thrashing branches (a choice of birch or eucalyptus) and where to dispose of them.
And once stripped of their wool and airs, the venerable businessmen, in all their newfound humility, smiled, laughed and cajoled one another throughout the magnificent building. Bathing together, beating each other, and retiring for a calming game of billiards in the upper chambers.
Gavrilovich Gikalov beamed merrily in return to the gratitude and reverence he received from those fine fellows, who insisted they would tell their friends, their clients, even their neighbours about Gavrilovich Gikalov’s wonderful banya. And this they did. So reputable had the banya become that all the wealthiest businessmen in Moscow turned up to sample the old ways of communal convalescence. Every one of them arrived in a cloud of perfumed celebrity – loud, bombastic, positively haughty – then, the minute they were greeted by Gavrilovich Gikalov, every bit the master of his castle, and disrobed, these great men of industry and fortune, as cunning and dangerous as wolves, turned quite white and woolly before his very eyes. And how pleasing it was for Gavrilovich Gikalov! And how utterly contented he was. But never more so than the day Nikita Morozov showed his face.
Gavrilovich Gikalov recognised the voice echoing up the stairs immediately.
“All I can say is, this place better live up to its reputation. I, for one, question the credentials of anywhere willing to open itself to public access.” Nikita Morozov belched to one of his cohort. “And these stairs … do these people really expect me … I’ll have a word with this infamous proprietor. Honestly, all this fuss over a banya attendant.”
At the top of the stairs Nikita Morozov dragged a handkerchief across his forehead, preparing himself to have words with the proprietor. However, when he removed the handkerchief from his eyes he was instantly struck dumb by the sight of the little man, familiar from the neck up, standing before him. Or should that have been propped up before him? Nikita Morozov’s complaints died in his throat, and for the first time in his life he found he was unable to meet the other man’s eye.
Seeing the effect he was having on his pompous old adversary, Gavrilovich Gikalov smiled broadly, and straightened his back as much as he could.
“Good afternoon, gentlemen,” said Gavrilovich Gikalov. “This way please.” And he led Nikita Morozov over to the clothes pegs where he stayed, much to Nikita Morozov’s silent consternation, waiting for the gentlemen to shed their clothing.
Eventually, after a deal of procrastination from the usually assertive businessman, Nikita Morozov and his companions were fully undressed and ready for assimilation.
Gavrilovich Gikalov, puffing out his shrivelled chest, hands on hips and standing as tall as he might, forced Nikita Morozov to meet his eye.
“As for your valuables, gentlemen, would you care to make use of our safe?” enquired Gavrilovich Gikalov.
Nikita Morozov unbuckled the gold watch from his wrist and, along with a thin credit card holder, handed the items over to Gavrilovich Gikalov. The transaction complete, the two men held each other’s gaze for a moment. It was Gavrilovich Gikalov who lowered his first, slowly. When he brought his head back up, it bore a look of superiority akin to Nikita Morozov’s old countenance, which was now blushing.
Gavrilovich Gikalov closed his fingers around the luxury items in his hand. “Well,” he said. “the safe’s quite full already but as yours is such a tiny collection, I’m sure I can find room.”
And with that, Gavrilovich Gikalov shuffled away from the reddened, shrunken form of Nikita Morozov, humming to himself an old Soviet anthem.
Dave Early is seldom smarter than the average bear.