Chapter Five

A few days before the coordinated global lockdown was forced upon the human race (holy shit, this is really happening), I had managed to rent a grand old apartment between Pushkin Square and the equivalent of 5th Avenue in Saint Petersburg. If I was going to be cast in this drama, I was going to play my part in a city of historical consequence, not some still tawdry Soviet-style backwater village. 

Like most apartment buildings in this Baroque neighborhood, this one had a wide stone staircase with ornate wrought-iron railings. In the 1800s when the building was erected, each floor had a single apartment for a wealthy family, and during the Soviet era, each apartment housed multiple families. Now most of the spacious apartments had been cut up into two or three, but I had the entire top floor, more room than I needed, but it was dirt cheap by New York standards.  The rooms were filled with old Turkish rugs, mismatched antiques, massive and imposing cabinets, heavy-legged tables and throne-like chairs from the days of empire, all of which had probably been looted from their original owners by Bolshevik mobs. Gaudy variations on a fleur-de-lis themed wallpaper in each room reinforced the sense of nostalgia that one felt everywhere in this city, a longing for the return of the aristocracy.

Here we go again. Peasants against the Feudal Lords. Proles against the Party. Populists against the Plutocrats. All humans against the Technocrats.

Octopus had called in all contractors from distant churches and old libraries and they commanded me to prepare to return home, despite the fact that the US State Department website flashed a bright red DO NOT TRAVEL advisory. All my ex-patriot and foreign national friends working for other corporations were also called home. It was a major resetting of the chessboard and all the pieces, particularly the pawns, had to be put in place, I guess.  At that time, New York City had the highest number of infections, and I didn’t see the point of flying right into it. Gertrude said she was perfectly fine upstate on the farm with plenty of preserved foods and spring chores to keep her busy. I told headquarters that I preferred to stay put for the time being, instead getting on an airplane with hundreds of respiring bodies. I was reprimanded, then subtly threatened. I got calls from headquarters twice a day asking me for my flight number and departure date. Every day I told them I was staying put. Finally, they decided to leave me alone. I got a letter advising me that they would take no responsibility for my visa nor would they provide me with any protection should I get stranded in Russia for an extended period of time. Looking back now, I realize that Octopus knew full well the lockdown wasn’t going to last just a few weeks. 

For about ten days my Russian neighbors and I gave the lockdown a serious go. Initially the few people on the street were strictly heading for the grocery store or apothecary as prescribed. I suppose we were all pretty anxious to find out who had been infected by the bioweapon and who had not. That the virus came from a lab, not a bat cave, seemed to be the default assumption among Russians straight away, and when we were instructed by officials not to speculate about any lab origins under threat of imprisonment, that settled the question.  The only question that we did ponder, discreetly among friends, was which category of person it was designed to infect and which category would be spared.

Because I learned about state crimes against humanity first hand at the tender age of eighteen, I was actually expecting some new catalyzing event to further enlarge government powers and constrict the people in ever narrower cells within the panopticon. So as soon as the lockdown went into effect, I knew not to trust what any news announcer said.  Although I was pretty certain SARS-CoV-2 was a bioweapon, I also knew that “they” weren’t quite stupid enough to release a bioweapon that might kill “them” as well.  It wasn’t long before I was satisfied by the death statistics coming out of China that the virus had a pretty precise target: people with compromised immune systems, hypertension, diabetes or obesity.  Surprisingly, I noted, people with asthma were under-represented in the death toll, probably because they were on anti-inflammatory medication. I bought some corticosteroids.

Soon it became clear that the elderly were getting the brunt of it. Nevertheless, as the seventy-fifth anniversary of the end of World War II approached, the survivors of the siege of Saint Petersburg appeared to scoff at the viral assault. They had beat Hitler and Stalin, after all.

Ancient women were known to stand/sit on busy street corners selling bouquets of fresh herbs. They came in by train from outlying regions (old people ride free in Russia). When the lockdown commenced, they disappeared for a week or so, but soon they were back. Every time I passed the babushka on my corner, I made a point of buying out her entire stock so that she could go home. If I didn’t get to her during the day, I might find her standing with her last sprig of wilted dill, using it to cover a yawn, as the night came on.

After about ten days, people were running low on patience if not food stocks, and the grocery stores became unusually crowded. Since food shopping was about all we allowed to do, we all did it often. Though we may have been quarantined from co-workers, we all met up in cramped stores. It wasn’t just the housewives who did the shopping now; the whole family came out for it. My corner store, Диксси, affectionately known to me as the dinky store, was furnished with crates of vegetables and packaged grains stacked on the floor, leaving less than two feet of space to maneuver around the wares. In the midst of the greatest pandemic the world had seen in a hundred years, we pressed our bodies together to squeeze by the citrus fruit crates and breathed on the backs of each other’s necks in the check-out line. Stores functioned as a bottleneck where we came in direct contact with dozens of people and indirect contact with thousands. Had we been able to do as we pleased and go where we wanted, we might have spread out more and not concentrated our pathogens in one place.

On about the fifth day of lockdown, I was choosing dirty carrots from a big bin on the floor (like Gertrude the Russians store them with the dirt on to keep them fresh), and I was trying to open one of those flimsy plastic bags to put them in. Having forgotten that I had used my index finger to press the button to unlock the door to my apartment building in order to exit (every door worked this way, with an electric lock system), I licked my finger in order to open the bag.  That did it: I was exposed. Dozens of others had pressed the same button that day over the course of their comings and goings.  There was no point in trying to be careful anymore. It was a liberating realization.

My main contacts during this time, besides the strangers at the grocery store and in the stairwell of my building, were my landlord and landlady. I had paid in cash for three months in advance. “By the way,” said Anton as he was leaving me to my new home, “if anyone from the government comes by asking for—” and he mentioned two Russian names I couldn’t recall a second later, “—tell them they live here, but they’re just out for the moment.” I agreed and asked no follow up questions.  Anton liked that about me.

Lada and Anton were western-leaning capitalists, who envied rich Americans, and they took me to be one. Lada said that the people of Saint Petersburg looked across the water at Sweden and had decided to follow their commonsense approach. Beautiful Lada—with those Asiatic eyes, ridiculously high cheekbones, and, as was the fashion, tattooed eyebrows and lip color, as well as semi-permanently installed false eyelashes—declared that the Russia people take care of each other. “We don’t wait for government.” Her husband, who was at least ten years older, pewter gray, shockingly blue-eyed, let her do most of the talking.  They both wore the clothes that American teenagers would have worn a decade or so before, distressed designer jeans and hipster jackets. They came over about once every couple of weeks to unclog a sink (Anton was handy, despite his pretensions of being in the investor class), reconnect the pirated WiFi, replace a part on the water heater, or to sort other such domestic emergencies.  Afterwards we sat at the banquet-style dinning table together, talked politics and health, drank wine, and ate sunflower seeds. 

Lada had the whole thing figured out immediately. She said to me that the state was trying to kill off the elderly (she had taken her mother out of the nursing home as soon as they heard the lockdown coming), and the oligarchs wanted to put people like Lada and Anton out of business so that they could own everything.

The Russian people weren’t stupid. They remembered totalitarianism. Despite the many threats of fines and even imprisonment for being caught out of bounds, speakeasies opened in apartment building hallways and on rooftops. Business owners papered over hair salon and restaurant windows and kept right on working. Walking down Nevsky Prospekt one day, I caught a glimpse through a gap in a papered over cafe window, and peering in, I saw diners there with dirty plates, drinking wine. Now every Russian was out on the streets going for day-long walks. Since the government allowed coffee shops to remain open supplying coffee to go, every antique shop and dress shop outfitted itself with a cappuccino machine and opened its doors. While waiting for my coffee to be made, I was able to scan the merchandise and purchase some things, only if I was very discrete. (I bought a multi-colored silk scarf for Gertrude, which by the way, I ended up wearing in lieu of a mask when I finally went back to the hospital to talk to the coroner.)

By the end of two weeks, the whole population had reverted to their Soviet era methods of dealing with illegitimate authority. The Russian people had already lived Orwell’s 1984, and they were not inclined to let the boot get back to stomping on their faces. Every Friday evening, the Saint Petersburg police put caution tape across park entrances, and early every Saturday morning, parents pulled down the tape and let their children in to play. I was surprised to find that some of the police only pretended to enforce draconian rules. One day a cop tried to flag me down to tell me I wasn’t supposed to be out jogging, so I sped up. He half-heartedly chased me for about twenty steps before he gave up and hassled an old man for sitting on a bench instead.  For those lockdown months, offices, museums, libraries and schools may have been closed, but the people rubbed shoulders on the crowded streets and in the parks.  It’s not that we weren’t afraid of the virus—we were—but we knew it could not be contained, so we faced it head on.  Soon tens of thousands of Russians with heart disease or hypertension would be dead, as well as more than a few doctors and nurses who’d had to wade through a barrage with viral particles, but herd immunity would be gaining ground, at least in the cities.

After three weeks, every Russian had learned more about how to treat this virus than the average American doctor. The neighborhood apothecary, Marina in my case, supplied us with all the official and unofficial remedies that were in circulation then. Gertrude and I shared news about treatments. Her protocol was very like the one that had been adopted by the Saint Petersburg hospital, which didn’t have many ventilators, luckily for them.

My Russian cell phone was no longer making calls. Octopus hadn’t paid the the bill, unsurprisingly, so Lada set me up with a Telegraf account that I could use with WiFi to contact her and her husband. I was not to use Octopus for anything, ever, she said. She told me the Russians were now using Telegraf for all their communication, no phone texting, no American social media for them.  I agreed it was not wise to write anything online, lest it be stored forever in some server in Utah, scanned by the all-seeing Artificial Eye.  The handle Lada chose for me was the name of the old dissident, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, plus 8376, because that handle was in high demand.

I subscribed to a few channels that she suggested to keep up with alternative news to see what the United States was up to. But that shitshow was just too hard to watch: the managerial class were zoomed in from their comfy homes, while many at-risk, obese, and diabetic sacrificial workers were forced to report for work to supply the needs of relatively healthy and financially secure. The politicians were all about ventilators and PPE, and the numbers and the charts. There was no talk of remedies, as with the Russians. Astonishing to Lada and Anton, the independent American cowboy put up no resistance. Only a brave gym owner in New York and a courageous hairstylist in Texas seemed willing to make a stand. Who would have guessed these would be the heroes on the forefront of the battle against global fascism.

A more notable exception seemed to be the American billionaire, Felix O’Brien. Because of the time difference, when the insomniac posted, “FREE AMERICA NOW,” I was awake and had been the first to comment.  I shared with him (and with another channel called White Rose) an anti-lockdown street poster, which I’d seen in the neighborhood, of a masked bloodied-knuckled Covid cop, the caption reading in Russian, “How did you run away from home, Dear.”  O’Brien had liked it immediately and followed me back. After that, he periodically liked and commented on my posts making sarcastic remarks about the effectiveness of the lockdown. I had an oligarch as a fan.

I found it interesting that O’Brien didn’t want to know how many people had died of Covid each day. He wanted to know how many people in total had died each day from all causes, so that he could compare that number to the average. It was not an outrageous question. Surely determining a cause of death was more complex and time-consuming than just checking to see if someone was dead or not. No one else seemed to be asking this obvious question in America. 

But O’Brien was a puzzle. He was constantly hyping AI and warning us that we were close to the singularity, and yet here he was noting that, even with all our computerized interconnected databases, doing something as simple counting dead bodies was too hard to track.  He was a member of the Inner Party, receiving all sorts of privileges and cheap money like the rest of his class. In addition to Quixote, O’Brien’s wind energy company, he was developing in situ-resource utilization for a moon colony with Space Force subsidies. So he was very much one of them. But he was constantly acting out.  Was he a real resistor? Or was he even more corrupt than the others? Scrolling through his channel one day, I discovered that Quixote had jumped into the ventilator manufacturing line, producing over a thousand machines in a matter of weeks, and sent them to fifty different hospitals, including some in New York. Later I would wonder if it was one of his giant squids that had sucked the life out of my mom.

By the end of May, I knew every Saint Petersburg street, park, and graveyard within a three-hour walking radius. The days were getting long and hot. When I got the bad news from my mom, I was ready to go home anyway. With summer coming on, the urge was growing strong in me to help her on the farm, as I had done most of my childhood. 

Russia was opening back up with a pretty low death count considering that almost no one had obeyed the quarantine rules. Anton and Lada had short-term summer tenants lined up who were willing to pay a lot more than I’d been paying. We promised to stay in touch, although we wouldn’t. Anton pressed a big banknote into my hand like a godfather. “Don’t hesitate to pay someone off, if you need to,” he said.  Lada kissed me firmly on the cheek before I bowed into my Uber.  Looking at my reflection in the driver’s rear view mirror, I confirmed my suspicion that the deep scarlet color on her lips must have been tattooed.

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