Hand Grenade

Bones, teeth and hair gel—the life of a ma­teriel ma­rauder in Rus­sia

Geist - - Contents - Evel Econo­makis

My nerves were frayed and I needed a change of scenery. Walk­ing my dog on St. Peters­burg’s Nevsky Prospect in the sum­mer of 1997, dur­ing Rus­sia’s vi­o­lent, hel­terskel­ter tran­si­tion to the free mar­ket, I’d wit­nessed the as­sas­si­na­tion of the city’s deputy mayor by a hit man fir­ing a Ger­man-made Blaser R93 tac­ti­cal sniper’s ri­fle from an aban­doned loft. So when my friend An­ton, a ju­nior edi­tor at Kom­so­mol­skaya Pravda, in­vited me to join him and some friends for a week­end in the woods, I agreed.

I went to An­ton’s flat, where he treated me to a break­fast of fried eggs and pork fat be­fore we pulled down a tent, two sleep­ing bags, a khaki back­pack from the top of a chest of draw­ers and a spare fu­faika, a thick cot­ton-filled jersey worn by work­ers in Soviet times, which he had me wear in­stead of my Canada Goose jacket. We loaded the gear into the side­car of his heavy Dnepr-650 mo­tor­cy­cle, and rode to the city out­skirts, where we stopped at a gas sta­tion and filled the tank with 76-oc­tane fuel. Soon a green Lada pulled up and four guys piled out. I shook hands with Igor, the long-haired driver, who looked a lit­tle less hun­gover than the rest, a wildeyed, por­cu­pine-haired guy named Oleg, an­other Oleg—this one clean­cut, and a Kostya.

We headed out of town and joined the Mur­mansk high­way, one of the long­est, straight­est roads in the world, which pointed north­east. It was cold with the wind-chill, but bear­able in our fu­faiki. I was glad I wasn’t in the cramped car that fol­lowed be­hind. The ride was smooth and An­ton’s boxer twin hummed con­tent­edly. The land­scape was pleas­ant to look at: for­est in­ter­spersed with patches of meadow, and clus­ters of quaint farm build­ings.

When we reached Lake Ladoga, we turned into a rut­ted, rock-solid dirt road that led into the for­est. Blackand-grey crows cir­cled their nests in the trees. The woods went from mostly fir and birch to a sparser pine. Be­fore us, a snow-cov­ered dell opened up; a frozen stream me­an­dered through it like a white snake. An­ton down­shifted to first gear and stopped at the far side of the meadow. “We’re here,” he said.

The car parked be­hind us and the guys spilled out. High in the pines, a mag­pie shrieked. After we smoked, we tossed the butts into the snow and stomped on them. Then we got the gear from the side­car, and two Soviet army metal de­tec­tors, three shov­els and two axes from the Lada’s trunk.

Soon we ap­proached what looked like a di­lap­i­dated hunter’s lodge. But it wasn’t what I thought. This was an un­der­ground dwelling built at the cen­tre of a Z-shaped ditch. The dugout was a lit­tle big­ger than two phone booths, but not that much more to shout about. Its floor and walls were made of soft, rot­ted birch.

We started out in two teams. Antsy Oleg and I fol­lowed An­ton. The oth­ers fol­lowed Igor. Zigzag­ging back and forth, we cov­ered ter­rain about forty me­tres wide. The Red Army had fought hor­rific bat­tles in th­ese woods against the Wehrma­cht and its al­lies be­tween 1941 and 1943.

Half an hour later, An­ton broke step. “I’ve got metal,” he smiled over his shoul­der, and called the oth­ers over.

Three of us be­gan dig­ging. The earth was soft be­neath the frozen top­soil. My shovel slid into it like caramel. Then, with a ping, it struck some­thing.

“Yes!” ex­claimed Oleg, and he got down on his knees, blink­ing ex­cit­edly. He dug with his bare hands un­til he pulled out a Ger­man hel­met with a bul­let hole in it, dis­carded car­tridge belts, pots, a gas mask and an empty blue-and-white tube of tooth­paste that said Dr. Hit­tel’s Blen­dax Zah­n­pasta on it. Some­thing strange, too: hair gel.

“The Ger­mans needed hair gel in th­ese god­for­saken woods?” asked straight-laced Oleg.

“Yes,” nod­ded An­ton. “It made them feel hu­man. It wasn’t just louse pow­der the Nazis kept. And they drank dark beer and cof­fee, and smoked pipes in­stead of cig­a­rettes.” “Why pipes?”

“Kept their hands warm,” he ex­plained. “But to­ward the end, they used dried cab­bage leaves laced with nico­tine ex­tract.”

“Let’s move on,” Igor said with a frown. “This is a garbage heap.”

About an hour later, the other team sig­nalled us over. Kostya had un­earthed an un­ex­ploded Soviet F1 hand grenade. “Wow!” leered mad-hat­ter Oleg. “Care­ful with that thing,” said An­ton. He took it from Kostya, wiped it care­fully with a cloth and put it in his ruck­sack, clev­erly plac­ing it in­side the hel­met. If the grenade went off, it might not kill any­one.

“I’m starv­ing,” said Igor.

“Okay,” said An­ton. “Let’s bivouac for lunch.”

Us­ing an axe on dead branches, I helped gather fire­wood. When we had the fire go­ing, we sat around it on fallen logs. Igor put sausages on a grill and Oleg cracked open a bot­tle of Moskovskaya. I thought he looked like a char­ac­ter out of a comic book. Hair cut un­evenly, with an ex­pres­sion of per­ma­nent sur­prise.

We passed the bot­tle around un­til it was empty. When the sausages split on the grill, An­ton handed them to us. Oleg pro­duced a sec­ond bot­tle. Our stom­achs filled with meat and drink.

Our kom­mandir, as the oth­ers called An­ton be­cause he’d been a ma­teriel ma­rauder the long­est, told us that ev­ery day in 1942 thou­sands of sol­diers had died in th­ese woods. He said the bod­ies were stacked high on the plat­form at Mga Sta­tion a few kilo­me­tres away. He told us he’d once dug up a young Ger­man lieu­tenant who looked like he’d just died or fallen asleep, he was so well pre­served after all those years in the mud. Then, when his body made con­tact with oxy­gen, it be­gan to stink like a corpse. Two hours later, he said, only the lieu­tenant’s bones, teeth and fin­ger­nails re­mained in­side his uni­form.

An­ton then told us about a trench he’d once found with five dead Ital­ian sol­diers in it. He said it was queer be­cause there was no jew­ellery on any of them, not even watches. Walk­ing away, his metal de­tec­tor went wild. He dug down and solved the mys­tery. It was an­other dead Ital­ian with all his dead com­rades’ valu­ables in his pock­ets.

Oleg went off to re­lieve him­self. The wind had picked up, and the leaves rus­tled. The trees were whis­per­ing tales of gore, I fan­cied darkly.

Now An­ton re­counted the most grue­some of his finds: a group of eight Red Army corpses scat­tered not in a trench but in a small open field with a large hole in its cen­tre. None of the bod­ies had any legs. His guess was that the men had been sit­ting around a camp­fire, rest­ing and warming them­selves, when Ger­man ar­tillery scouts spot­ted them and ra­dioed their co­or­di­nates to a bat­tery. The shell must have sliced into the soft clay and ex­ploded di­rectly un­der them, blow­ing their legs off.

“They died a hellish death, bleed­ing, crawl­ing about and scream­ing,” An­ton said. “We found all of them with their mouths wide open.”

Oleg re­turned. In­stead of sit­ting back down at the fire, he went over to one of the bags—an­ton’s—and pulled the hand grenade out of its nest in the hel­met. That made me ner­vous, es­pe­cially when he be­gan to pick at the clay that was caked on it.

I wasn’t the only one. “Hey, ge­nius!” Kostya snarled at him. “Go far­ther away if you’re go­ing to mess with that thing.”

“Re­lax, I just want to take a look,” he grunted.

“Put it back into the fuck­ing bag!” Igor shouted, track­ing him with an­gry eyes.

Sec­onds later, a dull thump filled the air, fol­lowed in­stantly by Oleg’s pierc­ing yells as he jumped up and down like a jackrab­bit, curs­ing flu­ently and clutch­ing his right hand, blood spout­ing for­ward like wa­ter from a gar­den hose.

“Shit!” yelled Igor, who was the first to reach him. “His hand’s gone! The id­iot un­screwed the grenade and the primer blew his fuck­ing hand off!”

I didn’t care to see what the grenade had done to him, but I re­moved my belt, grabbed a piece of wood, and

gave both to Igor and the oth­ers, who ap­plied a tourni­quet to Oleg’s arm.

The dif­fi­cult part lay ahead. In ag­i­ta­tion the guys de­bated whether or not to re­turn to the car and drive Oleg out of the for­est, which they fig­ured would take us at least an hour. Igor sug­gested we walk him out. From the oc­ca­sional sound of ve­hi­cles in the dis­tance, we knew there was a paved road about two kilo­me­tres away.

Igor’s view won out. Now we had to carry Oleg. But he solved that prob­lem him­self. Look­ing like an elec­tro­cuted car­toon char­ac­ter, he called us all gomiki—ho­mos—and took off in the di­rec­tion of the road, mov­ing very fast. We jogged after him through the snow-cov­ered thicket for about fif­teen min­utes be­fore we came to a one-lane as­phalt road. There were no ve­hi­cles on it, but the sound of a car en­gine reached our ears.

“Fuck!” said An­ton, who spot­ted it first. “It’s the po­lice!”

The UAZ jeep’s door was flung open and a mili­tioner jumped out be­fore it had come to a full stop. “What the hell are you do­ing out here?!” he yelled at us, eyes ablaze. “You’d bet­ter not be dig­ging!”

“We need to get him to a hos­pi­tal right away.” An­ton pointed to Oleg. “He’s lost his right hand.”

An­other cop climbed out of the jeep. “Eh, par­ti­sani!” His lips didn’t ex­actly form a smile. “The war ended over fifty years ago, haven’t you heard?” Then, still shak­ing his head at us, “We’ll take your friend to Mga clinic.”

“I’ll come too?” This from An­ton. “Get in.”

“One sec­ond.” An­ton winked mean­ing­fully at me and gave me the keys to his bike, along with his li­cence and reg­is­tra­tion.

We made our way back to the ve­hi­cles. The Dnepr wouldn’t start. I fid­geted with the fuel pet­cocks and gave it about fif­teen kicks on the starter be­fore it came alive.

A small blue hole had formed in the sky. The clouds would get lighter soon. High­balling down the trail, I held the throt­tle pinned wide open. Soon a frozen lake opened up be­fore me. In the dis­tance I made out grey patches of as­phalt beyond the tree line, and saw cars: Mur­mansk high­way.

Evel Econo­makis is the au­thor of sev­eral books in English, Greek and Rus­sian, in­clud­ing From Peas­ant to Peters­burger, pub­lished by Macmil­lan. Econo­makis con­trib­utes po­lit­i­cal com­men­tary to the New States­man (UK). He lives in Greece, where he teaches his­tory in high school and works con­struc­tion.

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