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The early 80’s. A military outpost in a small northern town surrounded by endless snow-covered flatlands. In the summer, the white nights would start, the snow would thaw, and the flatland would turn into a mossy slough where you couldn’t make a step without a pair of rubber boots. Even tractors could get stuck in it so hard that you had to use two other tractors to get them out – I saw that happen myself. Mosquitoes flew in swarms so thick that they literally covered the sun. I remember that as I went outside in the first summer days, I itched like crazy, and my skin looked like I had eczema or something worse. However, I would quickly get used to that and I’d only lazily wave my hand seeing another little bastard trying to bite me.
But that was the summer, and the thing I want to tell you about happened in the winter, when everything turned into a lifeless white wasteland. Thanks to Wikipedia, I can even tell the precise day – 15 November 1982. I was 5 years old back then. My family lived in a ramshackle barrack on the edge of the outpost. There was no district heating, and we heated our home with black coal its large heap sitting near the house. My father spent the whole days at the service, and my mother worked as a teacher in a local school, so six days a week my parents would leave me home alone for the whole morning. During the winter? I wasn’t allowed to go outside on my own – they were afraid that I’d go away to tundra (it happened to the local kids sometimes) or that predators would turn up nearby (it also happened). As my choirs I had to close the chimney once the coals burned out to keep the heat in the house and to get the fresh warm bread from the bakery delivered to the servicemen’s families and left in small boxes near the houses. I was a calm kid who never sought troubles on his ass, so my parents were not afraid to leave me alone.
That day there was a rough snowstorm. Wind howled in an almost human voice, and snowflakes were covering our windows. I looked through the clearances as the wind pinned smoke from our chimney to the ground. We often had such a weather in our place, and I felt no fear. I knew that there could be a blackout any moment which would also happen quite often. I was just riding a tricycle that my parents had given me the last New Year, played with my toy soldier and threw a ball at the wall to catch it myself – I had as much fun as I could. My mother left our TV on before leaving, so I wouldn’t be lonely. That day both central channels were broadcasting the most important news – the funeral of Secretary General of CPSU Central Committee Leonid Iliytch Brezhnev. The government announced the mourning, but it didn’t concern the military, and my mother had to take part in a school event dedicated to the elderly secretary’s death, thus I was left alone just like always.
At first, I didn’t understand what was on TV instead of usual morning entertainment shows, and I didn’t care. But the broadcast gradually caught my attention. The whole solemnity filled me with a thought that it was something important, tragic and possibly fatal. By that time I already knew Brezhnev – he was “a grandpa from the TV“, a part of my life as usual, as mom’s borsch at Sunday. As I looked at his huge portraits carried by soldiers in the head of the procession, I thought that the old man would start reading something on a paper as he always did. But I actually saw him just lying in the coffin, his eyes closed. It seemed like he was just sleeping, but the gloomy orchestra playing Chopin’s March made me think that something terrible had happened. I didn’t know yet what death is, since no one I knew had died yet. That cold day, sitting before a TV-set with a small screen, I encountered death for the first time.
I remember standing on my knees in front of the TV and cried. I felt sorry for Brezhnev who would never again climb the tribune and read his paper, but I was even more sorry for myself and my parents. I understood through an inconceivable childish intuition what the thing that had happened to Brezhnev concerned everyone, and sooner or later I would also lay senseless and motionless/ People would carry my portraits, and this slow unsettling music would play again. One day the same thing would happen to my parents. I was filled with a razorsharp terror of realization of my own mortality. When they started to put the coffin into a grave, I almost got mad with fear. Why did they do that? First, they praised the man and then they put him in the hole and covered him with dirt. It was beyond my comprehension. I was weeping drying my wet cheeks with my hands and the snowstorm outside was echoing my crying.
I don’t remember how my mother reacted to seeing me crying – perhaps, when she came hope, I had already taken hold of myself. Children often overreact to things, but in the same time they can easily forget them. I think I also forgot my grief for the buried secretary and the primal fear I had felt that snowy day. For some time.
It happened the next year, two months after the funeral. After another day – dad went to the caserne, mom made a pilaf – I went to bed. I quickly fell asleep, but in two hours I woke up in tears. I dreamed about seeing the funeral again, but this time I was on the other side of the screen. I walked along with the procession somewhere in the second line. The orchestra played Chaupin, people were silent and the red walls of Kremlin looked like blood. At first, there was nothing to fear, as it usually happens in the dreams, I didn’t feel like it happened to me. But then they started to put the coffin into the grave, and I suddenly appeared right in front of it. The casket wasn’t closed… and Brezhnev was looking right at me. It was a look not of a man, but of some otherworldly creature, maybe, the death itself. As the coffin was being put deep into the grave, the dead man moved his orbs fixing this terrible look on me. My horror reached the peak, and I woke up screaming and weeping. The lights turned on, my mother ran to me and started to calm me down, and I was still shaking, unable to get a hold of myself after that piercing inhuman sight.
My father didn’t come home. At work, he suddenly felt dizziness, sat down on a nearest box, grabbed at his temples and collapsed on the floor. He had cerebral aneurysm. The scariest nightmare of my childhood became reality – I had to come to the real funeral, to see someone close to me in the coffin and to see him taken to the graveyard people carrying his portrait at the procession.
After my father’s death, me and my mother moved to her native Yekaterinburg. Three years later she got married again. My stepfather drunk a lot, but he wasn’t a bad man, and he didn’t abuse me. However, we didn’t become friends. I went to a normal school, played with boys outside, pulled girls by their pigtails, cheated at the tails – in other words had a vivid school life. I got some friends who were really important to me, and I would fight against anyone for them. One of my best friend was the red-haired Seryoga who lived in two houses from me. We would go to school and back together. He was better in school than me, and often helped me then I couldn’t (or didn’t want) to do the homework. His parents were high-ranking officials, so Seryoga oftentimes had some rare sweets which he would generously share with me.
In the spring when I was finishing the third grade, the familiar dream repeated again. I’ve seen one more time the walls of Kremlin, the solemn faces of the members of the government (most of them had already kicked the bucket by then), shoulder straps and caps, heard the mournful music. And again, I turned out to be near the former ruler’s casket. I was even closer to him than the previous time. Just like before, Brezhnev raised his old eyelids and stared at me with a look of a creature from the undiscovered country. I woke up again shaking and sweating, but this time with no screams. For the rest of the night I was tossing and turning, but couldn’t fall asleep.
The following day Seryoga got hit by a car on his way to the art school…
So it became a tradition – I would see the childhood nightmare every time on the eve of a tragedy with my friends or relatives. Thank God, it didn’t happen too often: for all years after Seryoga’s death I’d see that dream only three times. The first time a good friend of mine died (he got mugged on the street in the lawless nineties. He tried to stand back for himself, and the thugs shot him in the face.) The second time it was my girlfriend (the infamous plane crash near Irkutsk in 2001), the third time it was my mother. That wasn’t unexpected: she had a cirrhosis and ended up in a hospital, but I’ve seen the dream precisely on the eve of her death. It’s impossible to tell what I felt when I woke up knowing that a tragedy was going to happen soon, but had no idea how, where and to whom of my loved ones. Plus, it seems that their deaths were predestined and inevitable, even if I tried to warn everyone. The creature that stared on me had its own ways, inconceivable for a mere mortal.
But the weirdest thing is that each time I would end up closer and closer to the coffin. The night before my mother’s death I stood right on the edge of the grave, in about 20 centimetres from the hole. I think I know what’s going to happen when I’ll into the grave in my dream.
That was my story. To be honest, I can’t find any sense or moral in it. I can only assume that that snowy day in the far north when I was watching the secretary’s funeral, my childish terror before the inevitability of death somehow made a connection between that memory and a supernatural feeling of Grim Reaper standing at the door. So it happened that for me, a harbinger of the approaching tragedy was “personally Leonid Ilyitch“.