“If we paid protection money to the KGB, there’d be nothing left for salaries. And we call it the FSB now”
I’d been in Russia three months and my money was running out. It was time to stop letting grass grow under my feet. An ad caught my attention in Neva News, an English-language weekly. They needed an editor, so I applied. It was a long way out, on the very northern outskirts of St. Petersburg near the forests, and I had to take the metro and two different buses to get there. The last bus I hopped was rickety and packed. Squeezing into it, I must have stepped on at least two people’s feet, and they muttered insults. A stumpy, foul-breathed man had his right shoulder in my chest, and my face was edged in a taller guy’s smelly armpit. The pressure on my chest made breathing difficult. I tried to push my way off but only managed to get out four stops later, when a pack of people behind me surged toward the door shouting profanities at everyone in their way.
The editor-in-chief of Neva News, Alexander Ivanovich, who was also the newspaper’s owner, was a tall man with a beard but no moustache. He looked like Abraham Lincoln. His English was nonexistent, which was queer for an Anglophone newspaper. But I impressed him with my Russian. He asked me if I could touch-type and I said yes, 110 words a minute. That created a moment of confusion, and he regarded me with a gluey, deliberative eye. He said that in Russia they counted the number of letters rather than words. So he had me go into a narrow room with no windows and sit at a computer. I spoke with a man named Andrei Kamilevich. Bespectacled, limp-shouldered and pushing sixty, he spoke English quite well, and he was also fluent in French, Italian and German. He talked rapid-fire about Russia and the West, about history, politics and the arts, the smell of liquor on his breath.
“Well, then,” said Andrei Kamilevich. He handed me a paragraph-long text about St. Petersburg’s Mariinsky Ballet, the former Kirov. “Please translate this.”
When I’d finished, he checked his watch and asked me to type the text.
“Yes, very fast.” He leaned forward to look at the screen when I was done. “Hm, and no mistakes.”
He walked me back to the boss’s office and praised my performance.
“Okay,” said Alexander Ivanovich, “You begin tomorrow.”
Back in the street, I congratulated myself with a gin and tonic at a kiosk. I’d finally landed a full-time job, one I imagined would lead to bigger and better things. The salary was about ninety dollars a month but I didn’t mind. With English lessons on the side, I was certain I’d manage all right. So I let my imagination run riot. The paper would open doors. I’d use it as a platform and turn Neva News into a high-quality publication.
The next day I knocked on the office door up on the eighth floor. Andrei Kamilevich opened up, exhaling fumes of alcohol. He led me to the computer room where he handed me an article to translate about St. Petersburg’s bid to host the Olympic Games. It was an incredibly dry text, running over with statistics of the number of hotel rooms in the city. Exasperated by the article’s obtuse bureaucratic language, I took it to the boss.
In his office, Alexander Ivanovich was busy leafing through documents. Standing by his side was the cute secretary, a beautiful, spry and talkative brunette from Minsk named Alla.
“Alexander Ivanovich,” I said, “this piece would be much better if you let me throw in some colour.”
He peered at me over his reading glasses, bushy eyebrows jutting out like open drawers, and shook his head. “No changes, no stylistic editing of the Russian text,” he said.
“But this article’s so dry it could put an insomniac to sleep.”
He shook his head again.
“Trust me,” I said.
“Since when do Americans who’ve never worked as journalists—you told me so yourself—know how to write newspaper articles for a Russian newspaper?” he said.
“This is an English-language paper,” I said. “Our target readership isn’t Russian.”
“I said no,” he said.
In a sulk, I returned to the computer room and conveyed my disappointment to Andrei Kamilevich.
“Let me tell you a secret,” Andrei Kamilevich said. “Alexander Ivanovich is an imbecile who’s not only terrible at selecting the newspaper’s material, but quite incompetent at the business side of the enterprise as well.”
His breath was foul. I moved a few inches back, but the old man just came closer again. “The boss doesn’t care where the money comes from,” he said.
“But there’s good news.” He winked knowingly. “Since he doesn’t read a stitch of English, he can’t be aware of the stylistic and other changes we make.”
“Andrei Kamilevich, I like your way of thinking.”
So I went ahead and redid the article, adding flavour and cutting out absurdly inane sentences. When it was ready, I showed it to Andrei Kamilevich. “Excellent,” he said. “What do you say we go for a cigarette break?”
We left the office and followed a winding passageway until we reached a balcony. It was next to the building’s