In Former Soviet States, Drunkenness Prevails

At the crack of dawn this morning Nathan crept into my room and woke me up. I don’t mind; these early morning sessions where we go downstairs before Mommy and baby wake up are among my most cherished. Before I was made to play kid’s games on the laptop, I recalled a book that I’ve been speeding through while at the gym.

It’s Murderers in Mausoleums, by one of my favorite authors, Jeffrey Tayler, and it’s set in his adopted home country, Russia. It’s about a trip he took out of Moscow all the way across the former Soviet states to Beijing. It doesn’t take long before the pervasive drunkenness and lawlessness begins to get to him. But his tolerance for difficult situations is legendary, like when he floated on a raft down the Congo River, and journeyed on a tiny motorboat all the way up the Lena River in Siberia to the Arctic.

Part of why I love Tayler’s stories is this invincibility, that as a middle class white guy he endures with class. His secret weapon is his ability to speak both Arabic and Russian, startling the locals as the words come out of him. His drivers are drunk and smoking cigarettes nonstop, but the road is so dusty he can’t open the windows. They pass and weave and scare the hell out of him as he closes his eyes and hopes for the best.

He has contacts far out in these hinterlands, who have arranged to host him, and thus, he’s obligated to drink more than any Westerner would ever want. Just as the early morning light is coming from a night of ferocious vodka consumption, it’s time for one more party–ugh–he can’t take another drop. Then he endures Dagestan’s infuriatingly obtuse train system, where it’s amost impossible to buy a ticket yet he weedles his way through with a small bribe. In the compartment, for the next ten hours, he is joined by an old drunken Russian woman and there is no air conditioning in the sweltering summer heat. And the windows have been welded shut.

Tayler contemplates the many paradoxes in the countryside…”Stalin’s various campaigns of violence almost wiped the Kazakhs of the map in the 1930s, yet Aliya had given her life to defend his regime. The obvious paradox left me dumbstruck. “We have many such heroes,” explained his host.