Len­ingrad Redact

“If we paid pro­tec­tion money to the KGB, there’d be noth­ing left for salaries. And we call it the FSB now”

Geist - - Geist - Evel Econo­makis

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.

“Great.”

“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

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