A Typical Russian Tale

A Typical Russian Tale

By VLADISLAV SHAYMAN

Moscow

I WAS walking out of a restaurant and past the Metro station near my house. A familiar tune was playing, albeit a peculiar rendition of it. Within a few seconds I recognized Aleksandr Rozenbaum’s “Black Tulip” (“Chernyi Tyulpan”) about the Soviet war in Afghanistan.

Black Tulip was the name of the huge plane that carried dead bodies from Afghanistan back to the U.S.S.R., usually making two or three trips a day. Well over 10,000 bodies were flown on that plane — which was in fact several planes, because a couple of them were hit by land-to-air missiles.

The song on the street was performed in a curious interpretation. If Rozenbaum’s original version is somber, even morbid, this one was more melancholic, resembling a howl perhaps.

The performers were two veterans in ragged combat khakis. They were in their late 30s, so most likely from the first Chechen campaign. One of them was missing an eye, the other a leg.

They had a homemade electric piano, microphones and loudspeakers. In front of them was a red cardboard box for change.

I took out my wallet, scrambled together some change and threw it into the box. Then I walked to the side, lit a cigarette and listened to the song.

It wasn’t a bad performance for amateur artists, even somewhat talented. And as I was listening to the song and watching the two handicapped soldiers earn their money, dozens of people walked by, and roughly every second person (probably more) threw some money into the large red box.

It seemed like a good day for these street performers. The box was one-third full of metal and paper. A few of those who gave stopped, like me, for a minute or two to listen.

A number of women sighed deeply, a couple even shed a tear.

And it became obvious to me that all of them, all of us, were touched in one way or another — some more, some less — by their war or the wars that preceded and followed it.

Three officers in dress uniforms walked by. A young colonel and two captains, probably his assistants. Bright, blue uniforms, shiny black leather shoes and satchels, caps and shoulder tabs with shiny stars.

They embodied the pride of the nation. It would be an honor if a young man like that married your sister, so neat, sharp and crisp.

They marched more than walked, in complete unison, toward the nearby Ministry of Defense.

As they approached their former colleagues who were singing, the pace of the officers hastened noticeably. Without stopping, the colonel mechanically took out his cellphone and pretended to type a message.

They obviously noticed the veterans, but didn’t show it, and certainly didn’t turn their heads around to nod.

I don’t think it could even occur to them, even in their wildest dreams, to stop, throw in some change and salute their comrades. In this respect, they were in the minority of all passersby that day.

I started walking home. And as I walked, I thought: How did the young veterans end up like this, completely forgotten by the country they bravely served?

What were the young officers so afraid of?

And if I had a sister, which would I rather she married, the veteran or the officer?

And perhaps the most important question of all: Which am I more proud of?

Of bright, young officers who never once in their military careers saw combat, but were afraid to look in the direction of veterans who sacrificed their health for our country?

Or am I more proud of the veterans, who, when they turned 18, were sent into the Ichkerian mountains when Russia went to war against itself, and who are now begging for money on the street?

But then again, who am I to judge anyone? Although conscription is a formal requirement, like most other Russians of my generation, I never served in the military.

Vladislav Shayman is a public affairs professional in Moscow.

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