Vladimir Putin, the long-serving president of the Russian Federation and author of the brutal and unjust war against Ukraine, grew up in my neighborhood in Leningrad, on a street around the corner from where my grandmother lived for decades in a large communal apartment. This bit of trivia bothers me. It is disturbing to think that a person who, in my estimate, represents the worst of humanity walked the streets that I used to know so intimately and kicked a soccer ball in the neglected courtyards reeking of cat piss and rotting garbage, familiar and dear to me since my early childhood. Even though he and I belong to different generations, it still pains me to think that a little street urchin named Volodya was likely riding the same trams and got off at the same subway stop that I did. You don’t want to share your past with dictators and mass murderers. It’s like discovering that your lover had been in bed with someone singularly despicable, that association having the power to tarnish your love. I guess the feeling is akin to jealousy, only worse: your thoughts harden, they lose their tenderness.
Wars are great disruptors; part of their horror lies in their tendency to distort and dissolve the familiar. Bombing raids and rocket barrages disfigure landscapes and wreak havoc on urban geography. In the summer of 1914 millions of Europeans still took the stately order of their cities for granted—the tree-lined boulevards, the smooth facades of their residential buildings, the magnificence of their baroque and gothic cathedrals. Earlier that summer, European families still made plans to escape the urban hustle and bustle for the tranquility of the countryside, where they would swim in clearwater lakes and hide from the August heat in the shade of poplars. A few months later, the blossoming fields of Flanders would become moonscapes, pockmarked by ugly shell craters filled with dirty rainwater and littered with war debris and splintered tree stumps. We have all seen those black-and-white photographs, the images of melancholy, desolation, and a profound disillusionment in the future of humanity. But at the same time, a disillusionment in humanity’s past. Because what is the point of this past if it cannot guide us lovingly towards history’s happy end? What is the point of those swanky literary salons in Paris or the Mercedes-Palast on Berlin’s Unter den Linden or an illuminated skating rink in Vienna’s 3rd District, if in the course of the First Battle of the Marne (1914) total casualties for belligerents exceeded 500,000? Such a future looks very much like an Otto Dix painting. And a future like an Otto Dix painting has been severed from its dialectical trajectory and left floating in a temporal void.
I suspect that’s how my old army buddy Sergei feels about Putin’s latest war, which has turned his life upside down. Sergei and I go way back: a lifetime ago we wasted part of our youth at a drab military base some 200 km east of Moscow. Our days were filled with boredom, which we whiled away reminiscing about the imagined or greatly exaggerated glories of our previous civilian lives: the drunken escapades, the White Nights walks through the empty city, sex on a rusty roof overlooking Peter and Paul Fortress. Like myself, Sergei was from St. Petersburg, and that shared past means a lot when you’re stuck at a provincial infantry base. Especially if you’re from St. Petersburg. After military service, our lives evolved in strikingly different directions. I, like so many other Soviet Jews, left the country, but my friend, an ethnic Russian, stayed behind, excited to test the murky waters of post-Soviet capitalism. The times were exciting indeed, but also. . . brutal. In Sergei’s case, the experiment proved to be near fatal for him, as it did for thousands of other Russian entrepreneurs. During the wild 1990s, my friend lost his business to a Mafia-connected gangster and fled to Kyiv, Ukraine, to rebuild his life at a safe distance from the hired assassins’ guns. In Kyiv, he reinvented himself as a plumbing supply contractor and eventually came to own a small pipe-making factory on the outskirts of the city. Our infrequent conversations made it clear that he was generally satisfied with his life situation. He remarried, had another child, and eventually settled into a comfortable upper-middle class lifestyle, complete with a well-furnished apartment in the center of Kyiv, an SUV with fashionably tinted windows, and a sauna-equipped cottage on a lake. There was a fishing boat and a custom-designed outdoor grill, big enough to provide for an overflow of guests. Before the war, Sergei and his wife loved to host; their hospitality, he immodestly assured me on more than one occasion, was “legendary.” Every single phone conversation with Sergei ends with an insistent invitation to come for a visit. Despite his relative economic success, Sergei’s favored pleasures have remained simple. He loves to fish in the company of friends, hunt small game, and enjoy an evening in the sauna, followed by a communal cookout around the grill. Throughout all these years, he’s preserved an abiding devotion to St. Petersburg’s home soccer team Zenit, whose triumphs and debacles were like a backdrop to his life in Ukraine, hundreds of miles away from the Neva. Sergei is a proud, almost ideological beer drinker, but getting drunk for him is secondary to the sacred ritual of inebriated male bonding. In other words, he is sentimental. And that sentimentality affects his youthful memories. His romantic infatuation with the past reminds me of a ballad that became wildly popular during Perestroika. It was called “When We Were Young,” and in its guitar-strumming lyricism it captured that sense of longing and loss that somehow resonated across the age divide:
When we were young
And spouted beautiful nonsense
The fountains erupted in blue
And the red roses bloomed!
When we were young
And spouted beautiful nonsense
Back in Soviet days, the author of the song’s lyrics was considered something of a dissident, a poet of profound sensitivity and evocative and whimsical, almost childlike imagery. Now in her eighties, she pens odes in celebration of Russia’s “resurrection” and Putin’s wars of aggression. The author of some of the most beloved songs of my childhood had matured into a bard of chauvinistic imperialism. Sing, memory. . .
But back to Sergei and his valiant efforts to salvage the unsalvageable. The war really derailed his nostalgic quest. Until February 24, 2022, he had remained determinedly apolitical, not pro-Russian, no, not that, but rather unconcerned. I called him a few days before the invasion, because I was most definitely concerned. Sergei was at his dacha, and judging by the jovial sound of his voice had already started on his weekend beer sacrament. He dismissed my worries with an invisible (to me) shrug and an audible drag on an invisible cigarette: all bullshit, what war, who needs war. He was full of baroque conspiracy theories, which in all their otherworldly ridiculousness apparently served the purpose of calming his nerves. The war was not coming, he assured me. A few days later the war came and Sergei and his family rushed back to Kyiv, driving at top speed, trying to beat the advancing columns of Russian armor. And then there were weeks of missile barrages, and days spent in bomb shelters, and his daughter’s friend from Kharkiv moving in with them after the girl’s father had been felled by a piece of shrapnel. But that was not the worst. No, the worst were the phone calls to Russia—to reach out to family and friends, and the old army buddies, whose names I, rootless cosmopolitan that I am, had long since forgotten, but with whom Sergei-the-sentimentalist had been keeping in touch all these years. He wanted them to hear him out, and, of course, he desired their sympathy and something that he kept referring to in our now frequent phone conversations as “moral support.” But. . . he got none of that. No stranger to conspiracy theories, Sergei nevertheless found himself overwhelmed by the sheer volume of untruths unleashed upon him by a coterie of uncles, and aunts, and second cousins, and formerly faithful army comrades—a motley crowd of beer drinkers, pool hustlers, fellow fishermen, and paunchy Zenit fans whom he loved so dearly because he is a maudlin man with a weakness for things lost. They didn’t believe him, and he failed to come up with the right words to convince them that the war launched by their president against his family was real. He found it impossible to make them feel his terror. His “lived experience” was rendered nonexistent by the endless stream of Russian TV propaganda, consumed by his relatives and fellow Zenit devotees back in St. Petersburg.
Sergei faced this betrayal with great stoicism; he still believed that the past was worth saving. But eventually, grudgingly, he began to delete contacts from his phone. It was a slow process, pursued with significant hesitation. One name, one digit at a time he was deleting his past, his connection to our city and even to his beloved soccer team. When fall arrived, he was left with just three contacts in Russia. He simply called these three “normal people” or (a nod to my loyalty to him) “normal people like you and me.” Yet even his disillusionment was not entirely bitter but rather tinged with sadness and regret. Those friends and family who took the lying words of a mendacious KGB goon over his eyewitness account of a war that affected him on an hourly basis still pulled at his heart’s tender strings. As Russia’s long-range artillery kept destroying Ukrainian infrastructure, he couldn’t stop talking about “rebuilding the bridges” and “repairing ties”. . . To me, though, the past he insisted on evoking was not a foreign country, it was an alien planet. St. Petersburg? What St. Petersburg? Some half-imagined city a galaxy away, where the buildings, whose shapes and pastel colors I could instantly recognize even on the most blurred of photographs, were now adorned with half-swastikas, terrifying in their postmodern mockery of history—the bizarre Latin letter “Z” that the cynical Kremlin propagandists made into the symbol of the invasion. Not my city, not anymore. That pale-eyed Leningrad thug from Baskov Lane had snatched our city from us.
In our latest phone conversation, Sergei sounded tired. Beyond tired. All these months of the invasion he’s tried to keep his business afloat and even paid wages to his employees. But he is running low on funds, and renewed rocket barrages against Kyiv and on the electric grid throughout Ukraine have played havoc with the logistics. Pipes are very much in demand because so much of Ukraine’s infrastructure is being destroyed, but delivering supplies and running the factory on generators has become a real burden. These worries keep Sergei preoccupied throughout the day. By evening time, he is exhausted and slurring his words on the phone. And it’s not the beer. . . oh well, not just the beer. And what about the weekends? What weekends? What weekends in wartime? But don’t get Sergei wrong, he is still all about the weekends, and the barbeques, and fishing on the lake (“You gotta check out that motorboat, it’s a beauty. I’m one sly son of a bitch, thought of moving it in the first weeks of the war to a safe spot near the Belarus border. These assholes didn’t shell that area.”). After the war. When I come for a visit (“you and your spouse,” he always says, turning inexplicably formal when mentioning matrimony), we’ll go to his dacha and have a weekend for the ages, a weekend for the history books, just like we did in the army. We did? In the army? What is he talking about? I don’t know what he imagines, and whatever it is, it most likely has no direct connection to our past, which is becoming more distant and illusive by the minute, with each Kalibr cruise missile launched from a Russian submarine in the Black Sea.
I worry about him, and not just because the Russians have resumed their rocket attacks on Kyiv. The war is putting a strain on him, it forces him to flail around in search of meaning. He tried to sign up with the Territorial Defense Force, but they turned him away: too old, too out-of-shape, the officer at the commissariat joked about his beer belly (the officer’s belly, Sergei assured me, was bigger than his). Ukraine may be suffering from power shortages, but there is no shortage of young and able-bodied men and women willing to defend their land. The country needs the PVC pipes, manufactured at Sergei’s factory, more than it needs his exhausted body. I tell him the all-too-obvious truths: under the horrific circumstances, he is doing great; his family needs him; his employees need him; the country desperately needs the PVC pipes, which he cannot produce fast enough. In wartime, in time of tragedy, a cliché is our salvation, so I’m feeding him one after another. He seems to be grateful but still looks for a distraction. We used to reminisce, but lately. . . we don’t anymore. I try and talk about soccer, because I recall his near-religious devotion to Zenit, whose logo, anachronistically, still adorns his WhatsApp profile. I don’t follow sports, but for his sake I check the latest results of the Russian Cup. Imagine, they are still playing those matches, the fans still flock to the stadiums. There are probably fewer of them now—some have been drafted to fight in Ukraine, others fled the country or hide indoors to avoid Putin’s mobilization, yet others, likely the most ardent ones, are no more, never to return to stadium bleachers. A couple of days ago, Zenit notched up another success by defeating a rival team from Sochi. Sochi is a resort city on the Black Sea, Volodya Putin’s favored spot for hosting foreign dignitaries and the site of the 2014 Winter Olympics, whose splendor was bookended by the first invasion of Ukraine. I communicate the news of the victory to Sergei, but he is completely indifferent to it. “What’s the score?” he asks perfunctorily, exhibiting no particular emotion. I tell him the score; it was a rout. He remains quiet for a second, then sighs: “Whatever. . . Who fucking cares.”
It looks like Sergei and I have run out of memories, which means we’ll have to recalibrate our friendship. A friendship needs a center of gravity, and it occurs to me that this sickening war can become such an anchor. Or a reference point. Or a point of intersection. Of course, we’ve each experienced it very differently—he directly, viscerally, and I vicariously, but also, in all honesty, viscerally. And we share that in common—that process of alienation from our personal histories and their artifacts. Those empty autumnal streets, their asphalt rain-darkened and cracked, are now free of our ghostly presence; lots of ghosts have abandoned my city. It’s Volodya Putin’s city now, let him have it. The hoodlum wouldn’t know what to do with it or how to feel it, that miserable unloved wretch. So let him have it. He can also have Sergei’s formerly favorite soccer team, presently banned from international tournaments. We let the bullies take over what we love and then we stop loving what has been soiled by their touch. Stefan Zweig let Adolf-the-corporal have Vienna. Thomas Mann left him Munich. Or how about this quick memento, another passive-aggressive gift to the mugger: a woman, naked and slender, her silhouette framed by the window and darkened against the early morning light. “Was it supposed to happen?” she asks. “We didn’t plan for it, did we? It was not predetermined. Just happened. The White Nights. . . they mess up our routines. Look at me, I want you to look at me. I feel so beautiful. I need you to remember me—the way I am now, the way I was. . .” Yes, be my guest, raid that memory, appropriate it, too, secret it away in a safe-deposit box, laugh all the way to the bank. And the woman. . . all yours now, she loves her God and her president and roots for their victory over the godless and the impure just as passionately as Sergei used to root for Zenit.
When the war is over, we’ll have to start from scratch. We—Sergei and I, and millions of others, coming to terms with a loss of the past. If we live long enough, we may once again succumb to nostalgia, most likely we will, because the present is never enough. But it’ll be a different kind of wistfulness. I see us assembled at Sergei’s dacha, he and his wife having resumed their hosting obsession. Indeed, they are wonderful hosts—warm and generous, not skimping on life’s earthly pleasures. Sergei is in charge of the grill, which he handles with a knowing alacrity. He works it with his right hand, while the skewers of steaming shish kabobs accumulate in his left hand until they start resembling a burlesque feather fan. The table has been set up in the garden, right by the porch, and it’s now stuffed with a battery of beer bottles and plates filled with freshly picked vegetables and boiled corn. Ukraine grows some excellent corn. It is not as sweet as the corn you can expect to get in the States, but smothered in butter and sprinkled with salt, it’s still a delight. We’ll chat and laugh, and Sergei will surely try and ply me with beer, until I start refusing his insistent offerings. They will reminisce. About the war. About their life in the war. I don’t expect anyone trying to make sense of it—why spoil such a pleasant late-summer evening? Before the war. . . I don’t think we’ll have much to say about it. Those memories have lost their relevance, they are like the dusty books on someone else’s shelf that no one has touched in years. Who needs them? We have forgotten that past. We’ll live anew.