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The Russians' Personality

Update: March, 02/2014 - 18:06

Illustration by Doã Dung

by Le Ngoc Minh

Acting on the advice of one of my close friends, every day I regularly drank two small cups of liquor made of some precious medicinal herbs before every meal. My goal was to improve my sexual vigorousness and keep my hair black without dyeing it, although I was on the wrong side of fifty. After three months, my strength remained nearly the same. But unfortunately for me, I also developed a stout body, chubby cheeks and drooping eyes. Owing to my swollen eyes, I was suspected to be a terrorist. Everything happened as follows:

One morning, while I was putting three fresh red roses on the little war memorial at the entrance to Odinsovo Village, about 30 kilometres southwest of Moscow, I was checked carefully by two young guards in uniform. One of them was a corporal and the other a first-class private. Frankly speaking, I greatly admired their clever and quick reaction. In a twinkling of an eye, my hands were tightly locked behind me, my flowers were separated from the existing floral tributes on the surface of the monument and my travelling bag was taken away.

"You came here from Dagestan or Grozny?" the corporal asked me insolently.

"No, from Viet Nam, sir," I replied.

He asked me once again and I replied the same. They kept on looking at me doubtfully. In response, I stared back defiantly.

"Really?" the corporal blurted out and took a secret glance at his inferior.

"Am I free to go now?" I asked.

"Not yet, mate," they said, shaking their heads.

The first-class private searched my whole body.

"What do you have in your bag?" he asked me.

"Nothing but some ingredients for Vietnamese food," I answered sincerely. Immediately, he swept his mobile phone-like device over my bag.

"Ring, ring!" His handset sounded loudly. Putting on his gloves, he slowly took a tiny bronze drum out of my bag.

As I was about to explain the matter to them, the first-class private silenced me with a strong push with his elbow. The corporal told his man to lead me to the police station while he continued inspections.

"I'll let you go freely. But if you try to run away, I'll fire at you without mercy," he warned me.

"Thanks," I said to him in an icy voice.

When we arrived at the station, a sergeant on duty with an arm band asked his inferior curtly, "A Chechnyan?"

"No, a Vietnamese," answered the private.

"They're all the same, anyhow!" the sergeant said, without paying attention to my passport. "Have you checked him carefully?"

"A bit cursorily, sir."

"Do it again carefully," ordered the sergeant.

Again, my hands were locked and the first-class private searched my body. My bag was inspected very carefully. From it he took out several more things: four packets of phong tom (*) chips, two packets of rice sheets, one bundle of dry vermicelli, two packets of fungi, a small parcel of onion, garlic, basil, one bottle of lua moi rice wine, a small box of eggs and a bundle of chopsticks. Except for the small bronze drum, everything had been bought at the stall of a Vietnamese dealer in Moscow. The sergeant picked up everything in turn to inspect it, then glanced at the packet of chips.

"What's this? Narcotics?" he asked me. I explained that no, they were indispensable items for Vietnamese food: "The cakes are really special. When we put them in boiling oil, they expand, becoming four or five times bigger."

"You've brought them all with you from Grozny, haven't you?"

"No, on the contrary, from Viet Nam! May I try cooking some pieces for you to see?" I suggested. They looked at each other inquisitively. The corporal read my passport carefully. Suddenly, I saw him glancing at the private, who at once unlocked my hands before entering the checking post. A few minutes later, he took out an electric cooker, one bottle of olive oil and a large cauldron.

"Try cooking some of your so-called chips for us," the sergeant ordered.

Slowly, I put the cauldron on the cooker. When it turned dry completely, I poured a few spoonfuls of oil into it. After the oil had started boiling, I dropped a handful of shrimp chips into the boiling liquid, then stared at the policemen. They were clearly taken aback.

"Come on, please," one of them urged me. I put some more pieces into the oiled cauldron. Soon, they were all getting bigger and bigger and sent off a sweet fragrance.

"It's a miracle!" they shouted.

All of a sudden, a major rode his side-car to the gate of the post. Taking his police helmet off, he observed, "Magical chips! What are they?"

"They really are Vietnamese shrimp chips, sir," the corporal told him.

"You come from Viet Nam, right?" the major said.

"Yes, sir," I replied, nodding. "Your men here arrested me because they suspect that I'm a Chechnyan."

"Please, you shouldn't address me that way, mate. Just call me comrade, as we often called each other dearly in the period of the USSR," he said.

"Thanks so much," I said to him and decided to cook some more. Finishing half of the packet, I displayed the fried cakes on a large plate.

"Please, help yourselves to the cakes," I invited them.

We began enjoying the delicious food. They had a high opinion of them.

"We'd better eat this amount only and save the rest," said the major. "Please sympathize with my young men. We were ordered to hunt for several terrorists who just infiltrated our locality. As for my young men here, they're all inexperienced. Please forgive them. You're visiting the family of Alioskin Prokophi Iakovlevits, aren't you?"

"Quite right, sir. I haven't seen them for over twenty years."

"Unfortunately, the old couple passed away last year," he said. "The old man was quite a wonderful figure."

At his revelation, I heaved a sigh and reproached myself for my lateness.

After that, he explained to his inferiors that in the village of Odinsovo, old Professor Alioskin was a greatly respected man. On many occasions, he was invited to the professor's place, where he often enjoyed Vietnamese magic cakes and drank lua moi liquor. The professor had a lot of foreign students.

"You were one of them, weren't you?" he asked me.

"Yes, officer," I said.

The three young policemen came to me and asked for forgiveness, shaking my hands and explaining that many foreign terrorists had infiltrated their area to conduct sabotage and I looked like a citizen of the region of Caucasus.

Afraid that I would forget the professor's address, the major showed me the way to his place and explained everything to me very minutely. He was also sorry that the Russian law did not allow any policeman in uniform to enter a resident's dwelling-house without good reason during office hours. What's more, he was busy going in search of the terrorists. I thanked them all and made for the bus station.

While waiting for the bus, and at the sight of the beautiful scenery of the locality - multi-coloured clove blossoms sending off a sweet-smelling odour, little birds' merry chirps and doves cooing to one another on the lawns - I made up my mind to walk along the path that my professor used to see me off as far as the station of the Odinsovo inter-region trains.

***

Actually, Professor Alioskin Prokophi Iakovlevits was not my real teacher. While I was still a freshman in university, he temporarily replaced my ailing history professor to attend our year-end examination. That substitution made my class, especially the Russian students, greatly bewildered.

"With Professor Alioskin the Crocodile in the role of an examiner, we'll be in great trouble," exclaimed one of the native students.

Later, I found out that the terrible nickname came from his role as a columnist at the comic periodical Crocodile. Rumor had it that the professor had caused the Minister of Railways to be transferred to another post and a vice-minister of Agricultural Economics in the Marine Product-Processing Branch to be toppled. Russian students also told me, a foreign freshman, that he did not pay much attention to the topic, instead requesting candidates to answer some comprehensive questions about the entire historical stage and talk for an extended time about world history.

When the examination started, I was the first one to be chosen: the "sacrificial lamb" to the pyre, as Natasha, a fair-haired Russian girl, declared.

I breathed deep to get some confidence and stepped into the examining room. That day Professor Alioskin, a tall man with a ruddy complexion and sturdy-looking stature in a well-tailored grey suit and a dark-brown polka-dot tie, was seated behind a large table.

"Please select one card. Good luck," he told me softly, pointing at a box full of topic cards.

"Thank you very much, Professor," I said before picking up one piece. Then I let him see my paper with my two hands to show my respect.

"No need to do so, my dear student. You'll have fifteen minutes to answer," he said to me.

The card instructed me to write a story about the insurrection of heroic slave Spartacus. Luckily for me, I had carefully read a chapter of a history about this valiant figure. Moreover, the day before, I had watched the eponymous film about him made by a well-known American director. So in less than five minutes, I could complete my short answer in a 10-point outline.

"Now, present me with your sketch. You look very confident," he encouraged me.

Without looking at my paper, I replied all the subject items in a chronological order. Not until the sixth point did he tell me to stop.

"OK. I want to ask you another question," he said.

"I'm ready, Sir."

"Do you remember what important historic event happened in your country 195 years ago?"

In my mind, I made a simple substraction. The year he was referring to was 1789.

"Sir, in that year, King Quang Trung of our nation crashed and arrested a Qing army 200,000 strong. According to our lunar calendar, that was the Year of the Chicken," I said to him.

"Or one could say the Year of the Cock," he remarked humorously, then smiled broadly.

"Yes, sir."

"I give you five points (**). Congratulations on your successful beginning."

"Thanks so much," I said, walking out with my mark-book.

"You've failed, haven't you?" they asked when they saw me walking out with a crest-fallen appearance.

"Clearly, he's awfully foolish to step on the pyre first," observed one student.

"Who dares to go in now?" another guy asked.

"Who's next, please?" the professor said loudly from inside.

When the examiner had closed the door, the rest of us stared at one another excitedly. All of a sudden, I burst out laughing.

"Here's my mark-book," I said in a loud voice while opening it.

They all sighed in relief. Natasha pinched me strongly on the ear.

***

Later on, I often saw the professor around campus. Sadly, he did not recognize me, although I made lots of signals and gestures. Perhaps for us Asians who looked much alike, he could hardly tell one from another.

Then on May 9, 1984, the 39th anniversary of Victory Day, I said goodbye to my first experience with the inclement winter of Russia. Together with my roommate Le, I took the metro on a tour of Moscow. We got off at the Belorussia station to proceed to the city outskirts to get some cast-away things from a few junk shops.

At a local station nearby, we witnessed a magnificent sight: hundreds of veterans dancing and singing in groups. We were told that formerly they belonged to Regiment 57. In 1941, after attending a troop review at Red Square, they reached that station before going to the western frontline. As a result, every year on May 5, they came back to that place to meet one another in a warm, cheerful and exciting atmosphere, no matter where they had been living. Finally we stopped at a lawn where a number of veterans, male and female, were dancing and singing a ditty that we had learnt by heart. Immediately, I recognized my ex-Professor Aliosin, ranked captain in the uniform of the Patriotic War with a lot of medals and badges. After re-introducing myself, I reminded him of the sweet memories I had of taking exams under his control. At once, he recognised me. Then he asked everybody in his group to stop dancing and introduced us to his former comrades.

"These two men belong to a wonderful country, where their forefathers conducted a 60-km per day operation," he said to his friends.

"Where did their secrets lie?" they asked us.

After listening to my account of our famous sovereign's unique tactics, they clapped loudly with great praise.

"When I was a young intelligent soldier in the prime of life, I could walk 50 kilometres a day at the most," my old professor told them. "Later, when I learnt world history, my teacher told us that except for Vietnamese Emperor Quang Trung's 60-km/day operation in 1789 together with hundreds of thousands of warriors, no other could reach such a great speed."

That day Le and I were invited by Professor Alioskin to visit his home in the village of Odinsovo, about thirty kilometres from the Belorussia railway station. At his house, when I asked him for permission to cook some Vietnamese dishes like spring rolls, wet vermicelli with chicken and phong tom chips and serve them with a bottle of lua moi rice wine, he agreed at once. More than ten Russian veterans were present. His wife Alioskina, a village teacher, and his son Vladimir Alioskin, whom everyone called Volodia, were preparing many Russian dishes. Our three dishes of phong tom were served to high praise.

After the party, Vladimir was ordered to set up two tents, spread with flowery carpets, in the middle of their garden: one for males and the other for females.

"For many years, this has been the tradition of us intelligent agents. We always sleep in tents on Victory Day in memory of our hardships in wartime," Professor Alioskin told us. While Volodia and some others were setting up the tents, he told Le and me to visit his special little museum. It was a 20-sq.m. room adorned with birch and oak planks, and looked ancient, secluded and quiet. In his museum, there were numerous exhibits relating to his military career and many other cultural and historical things he had collected during his history teaching. I paid special attention to two piles of Crocodile magazines. Coming closer to me, he told me that the right one contained his own articles, whereas the left one held all its regular issues. Out of curiosity, I asked him whether he had toppled two high-ranking State officials by virtue of his interesting and meaningful articles, but he just smiled. A moment later he told us an account of the slowness of Russian trains when he had to go to Kiev. At the Kazan station, he bought a ticket and waited for his train. Sadly, his train was two hours slow, which meant that his trip would be three or four hours delayed. While he was walking to and fro on the platform, he heard a lot of announcements about the slowness of trains on different lines. Many waiting passengers fell asleep, while many others just sighed in despair. He came nearer to the electrical notice-board hung in the middle of the station. Its figures showed a lamentable fact: 15 trains would arrive at the Kazan station somewhat late. All of a sudden, he thought of a humorous story about a forlorn girl in love. After praying to be beside God as soon as possible, she lay on the nearest pair of rails in the hope that the first train would enter the station soon and closed her eyes to wait for Death. Five minutes elapsed. The loudspeaker announced that the train would be two hours slow. In low spirits, she came to the second, third and fourth platform. On the notice-board she read that all the trains would be slow. Hopelessly, she left the station. At the sight of her splendid surroundings, everything vividly illuminated by the early sunshine, she found herself wanting to live longer. She silently thanked the slow trains. The professor's sarcastic article in an issue of Crocodile magazine made the Railways Minister resign.

In another story he wrote for the magazine, a man bought a box of dirt-cheap fry to feed his cats. When the box was opened, instead of the fry, it contained only black caviar that was so expensive that only high-ranking officials of the Kremlin under the Soviet Union could consume. The lucky man was afraid that he might get in trouble, so he returned it to the female fishmonger. In her turn, she did not dare to accept the box of fish eggs for fear that she would be accused of having traded illegal things, so she threw it away. Master Alioskin told me that it was a true story about one of his neighbours. Finding it weird, he wrote it and had it printed in the magazine. By chance, an officer of the economic section of the public security read it. Immediately, the head of his branch began launching a nationwide investigation. At last, an aqua product-processing establishment was found guilty and its chief lost his position.

Since that important day in May, Le and I became close friends to the professor's family. On major holidays we visited them to cook familiar Vietnamese dishes.

***

I left Russia during the days when Boris Yeltsin ordered his artillery men to pound at the Russian white house and his armoured cars and tanks blocked all the entrances to the megacity. Thanks to the journalist card of Professor Alioskin, I could get in Sheremetyevo Terminal Two fairly easily. That international airport was really in a state of chaos. Military policemen were like evil geniuses. They were ready to cudgel honest people who tried to enter the airport at any cost to seek shelter. My ex-professor stood motionless. Welcoming an elderly policeman, he showed his journalist card and gave him an issue of Crocodile that contained a caricature of him in honour of his 70th birthday. The policeman stared at the periodical for a little while he cringed before my old teacher. Finally he led us through a special gate to make formalities for me to get in.

Saying goodbye, he hugged me tightly. "Hung, don't worry. Everything will turn normal and we Russians will return to living as we did before," he said to me in a moving voice. Choking back my tears, I said farewell to him. When my procedures were complete, I held up my hands high to say goodbye to him and he did the same. I kept on watching him until he disappeared into the crowd.

After returning home to Viet Nam, I made contact with my old teacher often, especially on Tet and Victory Day. He also sent me letters and e-mails of congratulations for several years, then fell into silence. In 2005, Le came back to Russia on business. Thanks to his help, I sent the professor a present that I thought he would be very fond of. It was a statue of Emperor Quang Trung on horseback in marble with a great scimitar.

When Le returned home he told me that my old teacher was very happy with my gift. He called his veterans to come to his place to enjoy lua moi, nem (***) and phong tom cakes that Le had brought along with him. In his last letter, my old teacher told me that due to his trembling hands, he could hardly write anymore but that he always looked forward to seeing me in Odinsovo. He also sent me the latest issue of the magazine with his last humorous story.

***

Now, I was standing in front of the gate of House No 5, Hamlet 2, Odinsovo Village. That was Professor Alioskin's dwelling. Drawing a lesson from my trouble at the village war memorial, I took out my passport and held it high, then pressed the doorbell.

A man appeared. I recognized Volodia at once.

"Hi, Volodia. I'm Hung from Viet Nam," I said, holding up my passport.

"Hello, Hung. Yes! I know, I know. Congratulations on your return to Moscow."

I guessed that the major had informed him of my presence in Russia.

"Taking advantage of my business trip, I came here to visit you and pay homage to your deceased parents."

"You're too late. My parents passed away one year ago. Anyhow, it's very kind of you to visit us."

I followed him in. In a Russian home, there was no altar. Instead, there was one photo of the deceased person with his or her years of birth and death written below. I kowtowed in front of the pictures of the Alioskins and I asked for permission to visit the little museum, where I put a small bronze drum on a pedestal, close to the statue of Emperor Quang Trung on horseback. Under the figure of our hero were the congratulatory cards I sent to him on Victory Day.

I spent one night at Volodia's place after a magnificent party with his two close friends and the major in plain clothes. During the get-together, two bottles of lua moi and three bottles of Putinka brandy were consumed. Before the dinner, I suggested inviting some veterans living nearby to join us, but Volodia shook his head sadly.

"Tomorrow morning, on Victory Day, I'll take you to the Belorussia railway station to meet some of them," he said.

"Surely, many are still alive?" I asked.

"Just a few," he answered in a sorrowful voice.

The next afternoon, he drove me in his Mercedes through a forest full of clove blossoms in the vicinity of the town.

"How do you find Russia today after your long absence?" he asked me.

"Things have changed a lot, of course. Your brand-new luxurious car is proof that progress has been made."

"Our Russia must be modern, yet the Russians remain the same." His reply reminded me of my old teacher's remark at Sheremetyevo Terminal Two in those chaotic days.

We reached the Belorussia station about thirty minutes later. On the platform, I saw just a few veterans of former Regiment 57. Although they were very old and weak, but in the uniform of the period of the Patriotic War, they looked lively, singing and dancing in harmony with the music of an accordion.

A big party of foreign tourists in blue caps followed two female Russian guides, both carrying blue flags in their hands. They were proceeding to a waiting train. Suddenly, they stopped short and stared at the frolicking veterans and took some photographs of the ex-servicemen, even though their guides were in a great hurry and urged them to continue on.

(*) banh phong tom: a round chip made of powdered shrimp mixed with ground rice.

(**) five-point scale: a system of marks in which 5 points is the highest.

(***) nem: a spring roll stuffed with pork, vermicelli, lettuce and bean sprouts and pan-fried.

Translated by Van Minh

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