Notable in Russia – and absent in America – is the frequency by which one encounters old women begging. “Помогите, помотиге” – “Help, help,” numbly repeated one tiny old woman, standing still amongst a swirling crowd. Though her voice grasped at the limits of its pathetic strength, still it was barely audible, even a foot away. The crowd moved past her. She seemed to be partially out of her mind.
One man occasionally begged at a particular, highly traveled spot along my path to school. I called him The Captain – within, of course, my own mind alone. The Captain wore a single set of camouflage military fatigues, and a blue soldier’s cap with a Soviet emblem. Both of his legs were amputated below the knee and both of his arms were amputated below the elbow. He had (somehow) constructed a pair of thick wooden curved boards, strapped to his legs with layers of cellophane; with these, he was able to move. The Captain was destitute.
The Captain’s face, despite its coarse skin and deep wrinkles, featured a serene perfectness evocative of a 1950’s family magazine. Who had he been? He stood under the well-travelled archway, propped with his wooden supports; his posture was perfect; his expression was peaceful. Looking into the huddling, grey crowd, a slight smile was visible through his clear blue eyes.
I gave The Captain a pocketful of change once, and placed a single 10-rouble note into the small pouch he’d industrially managed to strap to his waste. I bent slightly at the waste to drop the note in; he returned a torturously kind, self-effacing smile. He hadn’t seen the denomination of the bill. I hadn’t deserved that smile! Ten roubles corresponds to only about 30 cents, and though in Russia this is enough to buy a loaf of bread, most bills are worth at least 100 roubles.
Later, I gave him a 100 rouble note. He gave me the same smile again. It occurred to me that the smile was fake. I cursed myself for entertaining this petty thought! “So what if it is,” I thought. “He deserves a fake smile.”
Who was The Captain? Had he been drafted into the impossible, futile 1980s’ Soviet-Afghan War? Had he been a soldier, or a platoon leader, a casualty of a rocket or a mine? Had he been abandoned, subsequently, by the Russian government? Who had he been?
Or, were his amputations unrelated to war altogether; were the fatigues a sham? Were his lost limbs the results of infections caused by drug injection? I doubt it. His calm, composed expression belied drug use.
I became determined to talk to him. “Как вы потеряли ваши ноги?” I rehearsed. “How did you lose your legs?”
Three days before the semester ended, I saw The Captain while walking home alone. I paused from a distance of twenty feet. “Should I talk to him?” My heart raced.
I couldn’t do it. He looked too stately, standing there with perfect posture, serene. He had already survived too much. He didn’t need peering inquiries and questions. He needed a pot of hot grechka, he needed… well, I don’t know. He needed a new start; he needed his youth and his legs. What could he have been? Who knows what he could have been.
Right now, it’s 10:00am in Moscow; the sun just rose and it’s 10°F outside. Is The Captain still with us? I think he is.