All Firman’s friends knew very well that if he called after nine in the evening it meant he had some really important news. It meant something really must have happened. They also knew that Firman would under no circumstances tell them the news over the telephone. He wouldn’t even hint at whether it was something good or bad. He would just hang up and wait for you to come to his place, even if it meant you had to walk across the whole city.
Lima was usually fine with walking the almost fourteen kilometers (he had checked it once on Google Maps) to Firman’s place. That night, Firman called after midnight when Lima was already falling asleep. Public transport in Makiivka doesn’t run that late, so there was no chance of catching a bus. He got dressed quickly, charged up his MP3 player, smoked a cigarette on the balcony while listening to the nighttime city and gazing at the lights of the nearby power station, and only then set off.
He turned his music on and walked through the housing estate to the district’s main street. Almost immediately, he noticed a stray late-night minibus-taxi careering toward him. He smiled to himself, raised his hand, and within seconds he was being rocked gently in the darkness of the bus. To catch one of these lone late-night minibuses was a rare piece of luck. Lima had walked the length and breadth of Makiivka at night countless times in his life, so he knew all too well when his luck was in. He was immensely satisfied at having saved both his time and his energy.
After about half an hour he arrived. Firman lived in one of the quietest, greenest areas of the city, not far from the train station and the wild fruit orchards that grew on the old allotment cooperative. Lima liked the look of Firman’s building—a grand, solidly built Stalin-era block. It was large and relatively old—some of the residents had been there for four generations. They all knew one another, and, to an outsider, they looked like one big, sprawling, though not always terribly happy, family. They suffered losses heavily and they didn’t forget their own easily; new residents and strangers were viewed with suspicion.
Lima wasn’t exactly desperate to be accepted into this community, although he’d been visiting the building regularly for fifteen years and knew all the convoluted relationships between the residents better than they did themselves. The cats trusted him and rubbed themselves against his hands, the women in the nearby shops gave him credit without asking questions, the young florist from the fourth floor in Firman’s stairwell sometimes asked him for a cigarette, and the housewives regularly called on his services as a witness or consultant in their interminable squabbles. Lima didn’t get too involved, he just observed from afar, the way you might observe the lives of ants in a jar. He felt like a stranger there and, wary of the precariousness of his status, feared upsetting the delicate social balance.
Lima went up to the third floor and, so as not to cause a racket on the stairs by ringing the bell, knocked gently with one finger on Firman’s door. Firman opened it immediately, as though he’d been standing waiting right by the door. Lima quickly understood from the look on his friend’s face that nothing bad had happened. Firman was beaming with happiness; you could see the adrenaline coursing through him. Lima, without saying a word, walked through to the kitchen, from where he could hear two hushed voices. Firman carefully engaged all the locks on the door, looked through the peephole to make sure nobody was lurking on the stairs, and, jumpy with impatience, followed Lima to the kitchen.
The first thing Lima noticed when he entered the kitchen were the joyful, glowing faces of Jack and Romka. Confused, he turned to Firman, but Firman kept mysteriously silent.
“Enough already! What’s happened?” Lima snapped—theatrics always made him tense.
“Notice anything new in my kitchen?” Firman asked cheerfully.
“You got a new fridge, or what?” Lima mumbled, looking around the familiar room.
Jack and Romka burst out laughing, and it was only when Lima looked back at them that he saw something that made his jaw slowly drop. On the worn-out kitchen table, underneath the table, and on the windowsill around Jack’s shoulders there were bundles of banknotes, all piled up in untidy stacks.
“Is that . . . cash?” Lima whispered, unable to believe his own eyes.
“Cash, my friend, mountains of it!” Firman slapped his buddy on the shoulder and set about making some coffee for the new guest.
“Where did you get this?”
“You won’t believe it,” answered Firman triumphantly.
“Did you get a job? In the state gas company? Or what?”
“You married an oligarch’s daughter?”
“You took out a loan?”
“Oh, come on!”
“Guys, you didn’t rob a bank, did you?” Lima guessed. “That’s not good.”
“Wrong again, friend!”
“So where’s the money from?” Lima was at a loss as he tried to figure out how much money there must be lying around the kitchen.
“We toppled Lenin!” exclaimed Firman after a dramatic pause.
“What, again?” Lima asked sarcastically. “We toppled him last year already, don’t you remember?”
Firman and Jack screwed up their faces at this, as though suffering from acute toothaches. Of course they remembered. That was the sort of thing you remember until your dying day:
The Lenin in their neighborhood had been cozy, familiar. He was four meters tall and painted silver. He didn’t get in anyone’s way, nor did he particularly offend people with his presence. Even the priests from the Orthodox church that was located just thirty meters away from Lenin seemed to have gotten used to him and forgiven him for all he had done, or ordered be done, to servants of God. Only Firman had not forgiven Lenin. He had his own bones to pick with the leader of the world proletariat about things that nobody else could really understand. Something to do with the Civil War and Firman’s family. Lima never asked too many questions about all that. He couldn’t care less about Lenin, Lenin inspired absolutely zero emotions in him, so he treated all his friend’s ideas about vandalizing the monument as expressions of banal hooliganism, devoid of any ideological meaning.
The previous year, at around the same time, in July, Firman had eventually persuaded Lima, Jack, Romka, and another one of their friends, Chekist, to pull down the monument. They had gathered, like now, at Firman’s place, and he’d explained his simple plan: they would throw a long cable around Ilyich, tie the end of it to Firman’s old Lada Sputnik, and hit the gas. As Lenin gazed, as always, down the long, straight, even street, he would be wrenched from his pedestal.
The whole business took less than five minutes: Romka and Lima wrapped the line around Lenin’s torso, while Jack stood by the car and Chekist, as a qualified mechanic, attached the other end of the line to the rear bumper of the car. Firman sat behind the wheel and smoked intensely. Lima gave the signal to Chekist, who gave Firman the go-ahead, and Firman, crossing himself, stepped on the gas.
Chekist confessed to what he’d done only later, when it was almost morning and they had started to beat him. He confessed that, as well as being an asshole, he was a communist, although he found it difficult to explain the difference between these two concepts, just as he found it difficult to explain how exactly the Communist Party of Ukraine, which he consistently voted for at every election, actually had anything to do with communist ideology. But anyway, as a communist, Chekist had had no choice but to resist the attempt to destroy the monument to his spiritual leader. He had committed an act of sabotage. He had deliberately attached the line not to the tow ball at the rear of the car, but to the rear axle.
When Firman sped off down the street, the line tensed and simply wrenched his rear wheels out of line before snapping, and the damaged car, together with its driver, hurtled into a roadside chestnut tree. Smoke filled the air, and Lima and Jack ran in terror to drag the bloodied Firman from the wreck. He was laughing hysterically and wrenching himself free from his friends’ grip. Chekist was laughing just as hysterically. Lenin stood unmoved, glaring down at them.
Firman didn’t get out of the hospital until autumn. His wounds and broken bones had healed, but he had become even more fixated on the idea of toppling Lenin. He no longer had a car, he didn’t know how to make explosives, and he wouldn’t risk using them in his own densely populated neighborhood, in any case. But he continued to plot in silence.
“Of course I remember,” Firman mumbled. “But this time there were no traitors among us, so we got the job done.”
“Well, congratulations! How did you do it?”
“There were about twenty of us, each with a rope. We put them all around his neck and pulled. He was down in less than a minute.”
“Just like that?” Lima was surprised.
“Just like that. And you know what—he didn’t smash into pieces. He’s made of some kind of tough, light material.”
“Nothing, we just left him there,” Firman explained.
“Right, so where’s the money from? The State Department?”
“You’re in good form today, Lima,” said Firman ironically.
“Well, guess what, Lima,” Jack entered the conversation: “The communists had a secret stash in there—all their party money.”
“What do you mean ‘in there’?”
“Underneath Lenin,” Firman explained. “When he went down, everyone went home, they didn’t even bother taking the ropes with them. Job done, so they took off. But the three of us stayed behind and decided to take a look at the pedestal. Turns out that under the statue there was a neat little hole, maybe a meter wide.”
“And a meter deep, maybe more,” Jack added.
“Full of money, Lima.”
Lima whistled. He would never have believed this story if he wasn’t looking, at that moment, at three of his usually pretty broke friends sitting surrounded by piles of money. He looked at their satisfied grins and remembered the title sequence of the cartoon Duck Tales, where Scrooge McDuck walks into a giant room full of golden coins and banknotes and then plunges into it from a slide. Lima imagined his friends rolling around in a sea of cash, and for the first time in his life, the idea seemed close to reality.
“How much is there?” he asked.
Romka, who had kept silent until that moment, all the while writing out long columns in a notebook, now coughed, rustled the pages of his notebook, peering carefully at the numbers, as though checking for mistakes or oversights, and announced grandly:
“One million eight hundred and eighteen thousand five hundred hryvnias! Mainly in one-hundred- and two-hundred-hryvnia notes.”
“Nearly two million!” said Firman, practically jumping up and down on the spot with excitement.
“I’m just surprised that they were so patriotic and had all their cash in hryvnias,” laughed Romka. “I didn’t expect them to keep their savings in bourgeois capitalist dollars, but I thought they’d at least get their wages in rubles.”
“Tidy sum,” said Lima, “what are you planning to do with it?”
“Well, since this money belongs to the communists, it means they made it either by scamming pensioners or got it from their Russian sponsors,” Firman got straight to the point as always.
“I guess. So we just keep it?” Jack looked a little suspiciously at the piles of notes.
“No point in giving it back to the old ladies, if you ask me. They’ll just give it right back to the communists.”
“And the Russian sponsors won’t exactly miss a couple million.”
The guys paused and thought hard. Each of them went over all the possibilities in his head, alighting on various good ideas, but then immediately dismissing them and pondering some more.
This is how you really get to know the people around you. Just ask your friends and family what they would spend two million on. A person who isn’t used to dealing with these kinds of sums, and who has never held more than their yearly loan of ten thousand in their hands, will immediately start hyperventilating from the realization of just how much money they now have access to. As a result, the brain stops working normally, and as you start coming up with the dumbest ideas imaginable, your vision starts to go black. At these moments of financial shock, childhood dreams start to emerge from the farthest corners of the unconscious. You have the sudden desire to buy yourself a funfair. Or, if you don’t quite have that much money, then at least a Ferris wheel. Or maybe you could get a truck full of ice cream. Or one of those swords that the Ninja Turtles have. Or you could finally get yourself one of those expensive dogs that your family could never have afforded back in the ’90s. But such childhood fantasies burst like bubbles as soon as they rise to the surface. On the one hand, to fulfill these dreams, you would actually need a lot more money than you have; on the other hand, all those things you dreamed of twenty or thirty years ago now seem unnecessary and irrelevant.
After childhood dreams come more adult needs and desires: home repairs, a nice car, a little house by the sea, your kids’ university tuition fees. People who don’t really understand what sort of country they live in cheerfully invest all their money in business, and, in most cases, they then bid goodbye for many years to sleep, their appetite, good moods, erections, and free time. The really smart ones divide their money into several parts and put it into a few reputable banks, living off the interest and taking it easy. The more marginalized elements of society, on coming into such an enormous pile of dough, will most likely head straight off to some island in the Pacific or Atlantic and live there among the locals, whose language they don’t, and never will, understand. Somewhere where there’s some basic comforts.
The most unpredictable, however, are those who have never had any money and always felt just fine without it. With these people, anything is possible. If there were some sort of device that recorded thoughts, then in the half-hour silence in Firman’s kitchen that followed the question, “What to do with the money?” it would have registered hundreds of ideas. To the credit of the four friends, we should point out that they thought of almost everything but their own benefit. Once or twice, one of them thought that it might be nice to buy himself this or that, or just take his own share and let the others decide what to do with theirs. But these thoughts lasted only a few seconds and were immediately replaced with the prospect of funding a shelter for homeless animals, starting up a decent radio station with honest news and good music, or at least helping the school round the corner set up a proper computer classroom.
Eventually, Firman’s eyes flashed in such a way that the whole company looked at him expectantly.
“Guys!” he suddenly cried out, “I know what we should spend the money on!”
“What?” Lima asked suspiciously.
There was a slight note of insanity in Firman’s voice that made Lima nervous. Firman’s ideas were usually of the sort that could only be understood, or what’s more, acted upon, if you put yourself on his level, forgot all your inhibitions, and accepted his healthy, joyous, no-shits-given attitude.
“A monument!” Firman blurted out.
“Yes, yes, Firman, you managed to get rid of the Lenin monument,” Lima spoke gently but firmly, as though to a child, “which has been bothering you all these years. Well done. But what do we do with the money?”
“That’s what I’m saying: a monument! We’ll put up a monument!” explained Firman.
“A monument? To who, Firman? And how the hell are we supposed to do that?”
“Well, we won’t actually put it up ourselves, of course. We’ll organize, like, a collection, and get the mayor to give us the site, do it all legally. And we’ll donate the two million hryvnias as our contribution to the project.”
“Okay, fine,” said Jack, “but who is the monument going to be to? Who can you put up in Donbas apart from Lenin or a miner or a metalworker or whatever? Or the local mafia? I can’t think of anybody.”
“Wait, wait,” interjected Romka. “I like this idea. You know—successful urban planning, historical memory, all that stuff. That’s cool. And we don’t exactly have much variety in our monuments, do we? What do we have?” He started counting on his fingers. “A monument to the miners at Nakhalivka, that’s one. The monument to the discoverers of coal in Donbas, that’s two. The Eternal Flame in the city center—three, then there’s the one to Victims of Chornobyl they put up about five years ago—four. There’s the one of Sergeev, the guy who became Russian defense minister, beside school number 22—six. And five Lenins of various sizes and in various states of disrepair around town.”
“Four,” Firman corrected him.
“Okay, now four. So, ten monuments for a city of half a million people, and five—four of them,” he corrected himself, “to the same person. So, yeah, I definitely like the monument idea.”
Lima looked at Jack, but he also seemed to be coming round to the idea.
“Lima, you have to understand,” Romka continued, tracing some invisible hieroglyphs on the table with his finger for emphasis, “a monument is like a flag. It symbolizes power and presence. It’s a sort of social, national, mental marker. Our city is the seventh largest in Ukraine, and there isn’t a single monument to anything Ukrainian here. And never mind Ukrainian—there isn’t a single monument that isn’t either proletarian or military. You get it?”
“I get it, sure. But maybe that’s just because this is a one hundred percent working class city?”
“So not Ukrainian, then?”
“I didn’t say that.”
“You didn’t, but that’s the logic of your objection.”
Lima didn’t like being drawn into such thorny topics. The Ukrainianness of the Donbas and of his native city was, for him, as a Ukrainian, a painful topic. From time to time, expressions of Ukrainian national identity appeared unexpectedly, making his long-suffering heart sing with joy. But a lot of the time, especially when it was really important, it was impossible to get through to people. At critical moments, most people retreated inside their shells and refused to assign themselves to any single national community. They laid low in their hiding places and waited for historical cataclysms to pass, then crawled out and sighed as they surveyed the ruins. It never occurred to them that ruin could be anticipated and avoided, or at least the blow softened, by taking up a decisive position and thus accepting your rights, your freedom, and your responsibility for yourself. But their shells were tough and saved their lives, and that turned out to be a more convincing argument than any political convictions.
Lima had felt for a long time that the principled refusal of the people in his town to define themselves was somehow unnatural. He could not rid himself of the impression that something was not quite right about all this, until this one time, when he was returning by train from Dnipropetrovsk or Kharkiv, he met this interesting guy. The guy was from his hometown and was studying to be a surgeon. After their second bottle of cognac, Lima got carried away and became very talkative; the guy seemed to be on his side and nodded along enthusiastically to everything he said about identity. That same evening, Lima learned about stem cells from Zhenya (that, as far as he could remember, was the medical student’s name). Stem cells have two main characteristics: first, they can undergo an enormous number of cell cycles but remain undifferentiated, and second, they are also able to differentiate themselves into various other cell types.
“So, in layman’s terms,” Zhenya explained as he reached for the cognac, “if you don’t touch these stem cells, they can exist from generation to generation with no changes. And this can go on forever. But if you interfere with them and put them into an environment surrounded by already formed, defined cells, they will become the same as those around them. Get it?”
“So now, take that knowledge and extend it to the people from our neck of the woods. This is, of course, a big generalization. But the principle is exactly the same. Think about it.”
Lima had listened, thought about it, and almost immediately sobered up. It really rang true. Now he, at least, understood what had to be done. But what could he do on his own? One small, invisible, defined cell?
“Of course, our city is Ukrainian,” Lima said calmly. “At least in part, that’s for sure. There’s us for one thing, right?”
“There’s us,” Firman confirmed.
“And we have money.”
“And we have money.”
“So, let’s put up a proper monument. And it won’t just be a cool monument, it will be our monument. Won’t it be amazing to have our own monument, guys?”
“Yes!” they all agreed.
“So, who do we put there, then?”
“Bandera?” Jack proposed.1
“Jack, are you an idiot?” Lima asked. “Bandera has absolutely nothing to do with our region, that’s one thing. And second, he wouldn’t be left standing in our town for long. You want your money wasted?”
“Jack, no Bandera,” Firman lit a cigarette and thought for a bit. “We could do Shevchenko, but there’s about a million monuments to him all over the world.”
“Nah, guys, come on, let’s stick to Donbas, eh? Or at least to people who have at least something to do with Donbas.”
“Not bad, but we said no military stuff. How about Bubka?”
“There’s a monument to him already.”
“Don’t make me laugh . . . although they already put one up for him, actually.”
“He’s still alive.”
“Come on . . . even if people around here know who they are, they think they’re some kind of crazy nationalists. Keep thinking.”
“Oh, I know!” Lima clapped his hands with joy, childlike.
“Sosiura! Volodymyr Sosiura! He’s one of our own, from Donbas. There are no monuments to him, just some little bust somewhere in Debaltseve. What do you think?”
Jack, Firman, and Romka sat back in their seats and smiled. Sosiura was just what they needed. They felt relaxed and satisfied with themselves, as though they had just achieved something remarkable.
“Know what, guys?” Firman broke the silence.
“So, I just had a thought. Memory is always memory. You have to remember the good stuff. But it’s even more important to remember the bad stuff, so it doesn’t happen again. And to teach your kids that.”
“You don’t have any kids,” Romka yawned.
“That’s not the point. I might have a son at some point.”
“So, I’ll bring him to the monument to Sosiura, tell him that here there was this poet who loved Ukraine like he loved the sun.2 And he loved the slag heaps, the pyramids of the Donetsk steppes. I’ll tell him about beauty and all the rest. I’ll try to pass on to him all the best knowledge I have. And my son will grow up, see the monument of Sosiura and will learn something about the good things in the world. But, if by that time they’ve taken down all the monuments to Lenin—let’s imagine, for example, that at some point there might be a big wave of protests that will involve erasing all signs of the Soviet past, then I’ll be able to tell my son all about who Lenin was. I’ll be honest and tell him the good things, but, of course, I’ll tell him more about all the bad things. I have my own personal relationship with him, as you know. But my son, when he walks around a city in which there are no Lenin monuments, my son will have nothing to remind him of the things that this person brought to, and did to, his people. There will be nothing to draw our attention and keep reminding us of all this. And when we forget about the bad things in history, that’s dangerous.”
“Well, you’ve got a point,” said Lima. “Only you’ve already pulled Lenin down, Firman, so it’s a bit late to start changing your mind.”
“Well, he is pretty light, you know,” Firman looked sideways at his friends. “Just ask Jack and Romka.”
“What the—” Jack burst out. “Are you telling me you want to put him back?”
“Why not? I’ll call our guys and we’ll just put him back where he was, no problem.”
“So what was all the fuss about, then?” said Romka, getting irritated. “I’ve known you for twenty years, you idiot. All that time you’ve never shut up about pulling Lenin down. So we pulled him down—it was all your idea, you did it with your own hands. And now you’re saying put him back? For what?”
“Guys, I just explained. First of all, we finally got him down, so I actually kind of feel better about him now. Second, it’s still two hours until dawn. People will go to work, see what happened, and call the police. They’ll call the communists—because who else cares about the monument? When the commies see that their party stash has been stolen, they’ll have half the city on the lookout and they’ll find us easily. And then we can forget about Sosiura.”
“You got that right,” mumbled Lima. “They’ll sniff us out before you know it.”
“If it wasn’t for the money, it wouldn’t matter, I’d let him lie there. But now that we found the money, it’s better if we put him back. I doubt they’ll be checking it until October Revolution Day, anyway, but even if they do, we still have time to hide the money somehow.”
“Jesus, Firman, you really are too much sometimes,” sighed Romka, picking up his phone to start calling round everyone who had helped knock the leader of the proletariat off his pedestal earlier that evening.
The sun rose tentatively, drawing the city out of the thick July darkness. The coolness of the night evaporated, and a white, dense heat, like hot milk, filled the street. The street sweeper Marusia, just as she had done every morning for the last fifteen years, was sweeping around Lenin. She swept all around the monument, clearing away the heat-yellowed maple leaves. Suddenly, she noticed that on the pedestal of their cozy, familiar neighborhood Lenin was a new inscription that hadn’t been there the previous evening when she had walked past on her way to the shop.
“KAT,” she read the large letters, written in yellow paint on the smooth, dark stone.
She thought for a moment.
“What’s with young people these days?” she said as she passed her wet cloth over the letters, checking to see if they would wash off, but without success.
“Can’t they read and write? ‘KAT’ indeed! Well, it should be ‘CAT’ for a start,” she thought, not making the association with the Ukrainian word for “executioner”—kat.
“And quite apart from that, he’s not a cat. He’s Lenin.”
Translation of “Apartment No. 9: Goodbye, Lenin!” from Kazki mogo bomboschovišža. Published 2014 as Märchen aus meine Luftschutzkeller by Haymon Verlag, Innsbruck. By arrangement with the publisher. Translation from the Ukrainian © 2022 by Uilleam Blacker. All rights reserved.
1. This passage lists several famous Ukrainians: Stepan Bandera was a right-wing nationalist activist and political leader of the interwar period and a bogeyman of Soviet (and contemporary Russian) propaganda. Taras Shevchenko was a nineteenth-century Romantic writer and is Ukraine’s national poet. There are hundreds of monuments to him in Ukraine and beyond. Ivan Kotliarevskyi was a late-eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century writer and the founder of modern Ukrainian literature. Petro Sahaidachnyi was a seventeenth-century Ukrainian Cossack leader. Nestor Makhno was an anarchist revolutionary from Southeastern Ukraine. He was active as a military leader from 1917–21. Serhiy Bubka is a former Olympic and world champion pole-vaulter from Luhansk. Iosif Kobzon was a successful, and very kitsch, Soviet and Russian pop singer who was born in Donbas. Anatoliy Tymoshchuk is one of Ukraine’s most successful soccer players; he played with Shakhtar Donetsk. Vasyl Stus and Ivan Dziuba are important Ukrainian dissident writers and intellectuals who fought for human rights and the survival of Ukrainian culture. Volodymyr Sosiura was an important Soviet Ukrainian poet whose patriotic Soviet-Ukrainian poems are learned by all Ukrainian children (and are sometimes the subject of parody).
2. One of Sosiura’s most famous poems exhorts readers to love Ukraine as they love the sun. Another compares the giant slag heaps of Donbas, a characteristic feature of the landscape, to the pyramids.