Guardians of the gates
October 28, 2009
Last night, I listened to a podcast of Terry Gross's "Fresh Air" in my kitchen in Moscow. Author David Hoffman was chatting with Terry about his new book, "Dead Hand: The Untold Story of the Cold War Arms Race and its Deadly Legacy." Quite a title. The deadly legacy turns out to be germ warfare experiments, sitting in coffee urns in warehouses deep in Russia's interior, getting close-but possibly not close enough-to their sell-by dates. It sounds like a fascinating read, but what struck a discordant note was Hoffman's surprised outrage that "...some military microbiology laboratories in Russia today have never opened their doors to outsiders."
Accessing anything in Russia, from a loaf of bread to a vial of the smallpox virus, requires running an exhausting gauntlet of the ubiquitous Okhraniki, or security guards.
In Russia, if you aren't smart enough to join the minor criminal classes, if you lack the connections to secure a government post, or you just can't pass the eye exams to be a traffic cop, you become an Okhranik. The good news is that there are a lot of jobs out there, and a very real possibility of career advancement. Let's follow a fictional guard, Vassily, as he rises through the ranks.
He starts at the bottom, at a rump-sprung slot machine dive, or dingy cafe: sporting faux military fatigues, and a clip-on nametag reading "VASIA." Duties include slouching in the doorway, smoking, flicking ash, yawning and talking on his cell phone. He perfects the freshman slouch, lists from side-to-side, cradling his crotch. If addressed, he shakes his head menacingly, hawks, then spits, just missing the hapless visitor's right ankle.
Advancement is found guarding the outdoor perimeter of a more upscale establishment, clad in a thick padded blue/black parka and snow pants, tucked into black boots, reminiscent of the minor fascist states of the late 1930s. Here, Vassily's sole concern, apart from getting in 16 cigarettes per hour, is to prevent hoi polloi from utilizing any of the establishment's designated parking spots. This, he achieves solely by means of rubber pylons and limited sign language, crossing his arms in front of his chest to form the letter X.
Vassily could get promoted to guard the doors of four-star hotels, upscale shops, and business centers built before 2005. He wears a shiny dark blue suit with overlong sleeves, under which he conceals his all-important prop, the walkie-talkie, which, along with the photo ID stating his name as IVANOV, V.D., indicates journeyman status.
Thrusting Vassily progresses to Class A buildings, housing foreign banks, law firms and Starbuck's. Vassily Dmitrievich, as he is now known, is fully equipped with the modern Praetorian Guard gadget line: metal security turnstiles, magnetic ID checks, and a battalion of black-clad subordinates with discreetly concealed truncheons, and quasi-military insignia, reminiscent of the more successful fascist states of the late 1930s. Vassily Dmitrievich now operates with the élan of one, calmly confident of his invitation to the annual bank Christmas party, but his real focus is clear: He holds the entire bank of eight elevators open at lobby level, when mini-garch owner of the building shows up, calmly indifferent to the burgeoning crowd of rent-paying investment bankers and account managers anxious to get back to their desks. This is, after all, how Vassily Dmitrievich got where he is today.
Jennifer Eremeeva, a longtime resident of Moscow, is currently at work on her first book.