Install

Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Once a Fat Cat, Now Living in a Communal Flat

Someone once said that the ideal combination of character qualities would be American efficiency and Russian razmakh. Literally translated as "sweep" or "spread," the word "razmakh" sums up all of the marvelous, crazy, often self-destructive excesses of the Russian soul.


I suspect, however, that American efficiency and Russian razmakh may be mutually exclusive.


Take my dear friend Fedya, who has gone from Soviet bureaucrat to high-rolling New Russian to, recently, down-and-out victim of his own razmakh.


I remember Fedya in the old days, with one pair of pants and a worn blue sweater that was a bit too short in the arms. He was not much inclined to vodka swilling, so his razmakh was all channeled into sexual conquest.


He was a charmer. Young, old, Russian, foreign -- Fedya could woo them all. He took me once to a new restaurant in town. We ate and drank for hours, amassing a hefty bill of 300 rubles. It may not seem like much now, and with my inflated Western salary it would barely have made a dent in my taxi fare for the month. But Fedya insisted on paying, plunking down what was, for him, the better part of a month's salary.


Now that's razmakh, and would seem admirable if we didn't know that Fedya was supporting a wife and baby at the time. That's russky razmakh.


In his "New Russian" phase, Fedya abandoned sexual conquest for the pursuit of filthy lucre. He became richer, but was not nearly so much fun. He still knew how to spend money, though -- in one two-week trip to the United States he managed to blow $20,000 on clothes.


Fedya almost had me convinced that he had traded in his Russian love of excess for something approaching the dry, cost-effective American approach to life. I remember sitting on a beach with him, gazing at the sea and feeling romantic, while Fedya toted up the amount of interest he was accumulating on his capital every day.


"My money is working, so I don't have to," he intoned solemnly. He was wearing one of those skimpy little bathing suits that Russian men seem to favor, but he sounded like he had on a three-piece business suit. Chalk one up for American efficiency, I though sadly. Scratch Russky razmakh.


I cheered up the other day, though, when Fedya came by for dinner. He was a bit subdued at first, but a few gin-and-tonics loosened him up. He had come to borrow $20 so he could eat for the rest of the month. "I'm really sick of pelmeni," he confessed dejectedly.


"What happened to all your money?" I asked incredulously."Well, I loaned $15,000 to Lyosha, another $15,000 to Pasha, another ..." the list went on for quite a while. It seems that Lyosha, Pasha and company have also gone belly-up, and Fedya's money has evaporated like snow in July.


I was sympathetic and tried to help, thinking of ways that Fedya could recoup some of his losses.


"It doesn't matter," he finally said bravely. "I can live in a communal apartment, eat in workers' cafeterias, I could drive a taxi for a while."


He would, at least, be the best-dressed taxi driver in town.


"Or," he added, with a the air of one prepared to go to the limit, "I could sell my vacuum cleaner. It cost over $2,000, but I really don't want to part with it."


Well, at least he'll be able to keep that communal apartment clean.