Friday, June 25, 2010

The Secret Life of Oxiana

Ukrainian pop diva Natasha Koroleva left her husband, the Russian singer-songwriter Igor Nikolayev, for a male stripper called Tarzan who was largely made up of seaweed and several boar carcasses.

Nikolayev didn't even pause to wipe breakfast off his silvery moustache, but departed at once to take command of the 201st Gatchina Twice Red Banner Motor-Rifle Division of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation, stationed at the time in distant Tajikistan.

This Rorschach horror of glaciers and dung pits, wedged sourly between Afghanistan and the Semipalatinsk Nuclear Testing Range, was emerging from 70 years of Soviet literacy, pavements and buttons into the awareness that its Afghan neighbours had spent the intervening period cheerily hacking off one another's heads and using them for mountain-top semaphore. It was time to catch up.

The 201st (Gatchina Twice Red Banner) Motor-Rifle Division had spent the 50 years since its glory days in the Second World War watching with dismay as non-Slavs basked in the benefits of Soviet bounty without having their geography, economy and womenfolk repeatedly ransacked, Berlin style. It was time to catch up.

Enter President Boris Yeltsin, who raised his face from a bucket of vodka jellies long enough to send this band of fighting, drinking demolition men down Tajikistan way to teach the sense-starved trainee-Iranian locals some manners.

The Tajik civil war, and the cultural fissures that lay beneath, is a complex matter than can best be summed up thus:

  • The paleo-Communist government of Tajikistan was a bootleg recording of a live Mariah Carey concert.

  • The armed Islamic opposition was a teenage girl singing along to said concert with a fucked Walkman on a hot train, stranded at points near Swindon.

  • The 201st Motor-Rifle Division was a snarl of Cardiff City supporters on said train, returning home from a thrashing at Brentford. And the buffet car's closed.

This was the mess that Igor Nikolayev came to sort out. On arrival in Dushanbe, the country's capital and chief limb repository, he headed for the cunningly-named Hotel Tajikistan, where the 201st had set up an impromptu rest and recreation facility on, and often through, the first and second floors.

Here's a description by a Foreign Office diplomat visiting the British embassy, which then shared the hotel with the 201st:

"Breakfast was served in the basement and sometimes passed without incident, as the men of the 201st generally swung out of their companions at about ten. They descended for a brunch of roast ibex and fermented grain before touching up the décor with their Kalashnikovs. Their involuntary bedmates were perspiring enough by lunchtime to slip their leathren bonds and flee for the entrance, only to find that the 201st were using the central stairwell for heavy artillery practice. I dined elsewhere." (Daniel Thornton, "The Tajik Helix", Callard & Bowser, London, 2004, p.69)

Nikolayev took one look at this scene of double-jointed debauch and ordered the men to assemble in the remains of the central courtyard. He then delivered the following address:

"Men of the 201st! I am Igor Yurievich Nikolayev, the gentleman of Russian pop. I have the moustaches of a fin de siècle hussar on his release from Ottoman captivity, and the mien of the late Tsar as he faced his executioners.

"It is often remarked that I never dwell upon my betrayal by my former wife, the raven-haired rackasaurus Natasha Koroleva, who left me for a caramel-glazed glans called Sergei 'Tarzan' Glushko.

"This is true. And I choose not to waste my time on that stiletto-heeled sump of squalor precisely because of my profound respect for women. This is the basis of my moral code. And from now on, you are all going to do the same.

"These young ladies and their livestock - you are to free them at once! They are somebody's sisters, somebody's daughters, and sometimes both. How can we instill self-respect and respect for others among our Tajik hosts while we ourselves treat their women as meat hammocks?

"A person's individual qualities do not boost or undermine their inalienable rights. My ex-spouse Natasha Koroleva cavorts like a crack whore on late-night TV in ever more explicit music videos with her wax-balled baboon, but for all that I don't wish her ill. The fact that some of these girls may be tuppeny trollops with their own bank accounts makes them in no way less human, less deserving of dignity.

"So, men, recall the words of the French philosopher, Charles Péguy. He said that 'example is not merely the best way to lead, it is the only way'. Free these women from bondage, free yourselves from the Gordian Knot, and let us free Tajikistan from fear! And, yes, the quartermaster-general will pay them off - in local currency."

With that, Igor Nikolayev and the 201st Motor Rifle Division began the slow task of reconciling mullah with Marxist, jihadist with Jew, head with bayonet, and man with yeti. True, much blood was still to clog the tank tracks and roulette wheels, but sweet reason soon swelled from the Soghdian wells and peace returned to toxic Tajikistan.

Many an observer agreed that, although writing hit after hit for such stars of the Soviet and Russian fame factory as Alla Pugacheva and Igor Krutoi had made a man of Nikolayev, it was the slow crucifixion of watching his venal, bewitching Natasha roam the hairless plains of Tarzan's chest like some leopard of lust that stretched and strengthened his mental sinews into noble girders of courage that eventually spanned the chasms of Chorasmian mistrust.

A coalition government was formed - not quite as glorious as our own, but still impressive in its felix conjunctio of anachronism and ambition. Before returning to Moscow and his musical career, Nikolayev was invited to address the Majlisi Oli national assembly. With typical modesty, he spoke a few words of simple wisdom:

"Mr President, honourable members of the Majlis, ambassadors extraordinary and plenipotentiary, ladies and gentlemen, few of us had the faith to foresee the day when we would all be sitting here, in one hall, planning the future of Tajikistan together - not with mortars and mattocks, but with diaries and draft laws.

"You may recall the reason some lost souls gave for joining the French Foreign Legion - 'To Forget'. Some have joked that I came here to forget the trivial and lascivious treason of my former wife, Natasha Koroleva, the top-heavy temptress of Ternopol. They could not be further from the truth, as I try not to lower my gaze to the gutter of TV talk-shows and gossip columns in the yellow press, where she preens and prattles like a cake-crazed cormorant of cupidity over the bronzed balustrade Glushko.

"No, we must never forget. Never forget the widow's tears, the village in flames, the meat-processing plant daubed with discriminatory slogans, or the lecturer in Dialectal Materialism used as a toilet. Those who urge us to forget want to rewrite our history and steal our past. That is why we must remember, remember the camaraderie of battle and the solidarity of adversity, as well as pain at the loss of a loved one - whether to gunfire, exile or some semi-literate mastodon on steroids.

"It is just as important to learn to forgive, of course. Without reconciliation there can be no progress. It is heartening to see how old enemies are already working together in this new dispensation. They have not forgotten who they once were, and what they were capable of, only a few months ago, but have chosen to focus on who they are now, and what they can do for their country.

"At the prayer meeting earlier I shared a rug with a couple of mujahidin commanders who, as was often the case, drew their noms-de-guerre from Indian cinema. Commander Jagi and I discussed the grapes of Samarkand, while Commander Tarzan commended Khorog as a cheap and appealing holiday destination.

"Now, I don't believe I let Commander Tarzan know what unhappy associations his monicker has for me [laughter from the hall] - I see you're shaking your head, Tarzan jaan!

"Well, perhaps I might have let slip a few thoughts on what it's like to see your ex-wife parade the child you were never able to give her in the embrace of an oiled ape - it's like having your entrails wound out through your throat, then salted and left to crack and bleed in the baking sun, if you've ever wondered - but the point is that I never, not even in the tensest standoff in the Surkhandarya Salient, let my subjective emotions overwhelm the strategic need of the hour.

"Mr President, ladies and gentlemen, I thank you from my very soul for the gift of a home here in Tajikistan, plus the Tursunzoda Aluminium Works, that you have presented to me, but I must respectfully decline your offer. My work here is done, Tajiks must become masters of their own fate. I would only remind you of the bad old days.

"Someone once said that you can never go home. That's very true, because home is away and somewhere else. My native town of Kholmsk is not the bustling port of my youth any more, but rather an edgy frontier post on the cusp of three worlds. I would not be able to recreate those carefree summer days on the dockside, learning shanties from old sea dogs returned home to harbour.

"Likewise, I never tarry in Kiev after a tour, because it reminds of times spent schooning on the Dnieper alongside a succubus with a Wonderbra fixation and no heart.

"Have faith in your future, Tajikistan! It is important to believe, no matter how unlikely success might seem. Who would have believed two years ago that a turbanned hafiz would be deflecting headers from a KGB colonel down the municipal football pitch? No more than the scant number who thought my Natasha would stay plugged into that mumbling sperm-hose rather than return to explore the life of the mind with me, I reckon.

"I've learned to accept that she was not the woman I thought she was, and live in the hope that one day I might find someone with her grace, beauty and talent, but who appreciates Chekhov and good conversation more than being ploughed up and down like an allotment wheelbarrow.

"And you, dear friends, will accept that your country is never going to be a second-rate Switzerland or Sweden, so work to make it a first-class Tajikistan - a land where men earn their bread through honest labour and appreciate good music, rather than flexing their bare buttocks for the titillation of beldames and pederasts, a land of chaste women who value age and dignity over cologne and dexterity with Chinese love beads! Ladies and gentlemen - Tajikiston zindabod!" [rapturous applause, turning into a standing ovation]

Nikolayev returned to Moscow and won the unreserved admiration of another generation of Russian music-lovers. Now the doyen of the Moscow stage, he still writes and performs. Perhaps you'll catch him after a concert one day, and ask him whether he ever recalls his days as a warrior prince. Perhaps he'll smile gently and walk on, perhaps he'll refer you to his bodyguards, or perhaps he'll take up his guitar and sing:

Either way, you will have shared a moment with Igor Nikolayev, scholar, soldier, a man at peace.