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Texas | Columns | "Letters from Russia"

Three Times a Hero

by James L. Choron
James L. Choron

I guess everyone who was there, on the barricade, in August of 1991, remembers Vanya. That was all the name that we knew. I don’t think anyone knows his last name, or if anyone ever did know it. Vanya was a “bombzh”… a homeless person… Vanya was an Afghanistan War veteran, and an alcoholic… one of those people that we all see, but seldom pay attention to. On a good day, you could smell him a good two hundred yards… a combination of cheap vodka, cheap cigarettes and the fact that he slept in the Beloruski Train Station to keep warm, and hadn’t had a bath in a few weeks. He lost both legs on a land mine, back in the early 80s, I guess. He was just one example of how the Yeltsin (mis)administration robbed from the poor to feed the rich.

Anyway, he sat, every day, in the Pushkin Square metro (subway) station, on a little wheeled cart, rather like a mechanic’s dolley, that he could push along with his hands, and played his garmosha (the Russian word for an accordion) and sold magazines and other little items to try and make an honest living, and, frankly, to buy the next bottle that would help him dull the pain of his missing legs, and the life that had been stolen from him by a senseless war. Because he was a decorated veteran, and sometimes wore his ribbons, the local metro cops would help him down the stairs every morning, and in the evening, when his “shift” was over, they’d carry him and his little cart back up the thirty-odd feet of steps to the street again. Now, like I said, where Vanya usually sat was about 30 feet underground, and was about as safe as you could be, considering what was going on at the time, on the surface. As an invalid, no one would question him, if the thing failed, and they lined the rest of us up and shot us as we fully expected. Aside from that, he was a “bombzh”. Nobody even noticed him being around, most of the time, except for, as I said, his “aroma”, and the music from his “Stomach Steinway”.

But… The day the Revolt began… it was all different…

Vanya showed up at his regular time, but this time, he was different. He was wearing his old uniform, at least from, the waist up, and it was bloody perfect. God help me, he was wearing a Hero of the Soviet Union medal and an Order of Lenin… the two highest medals that this country had to give at the time… a blue paratrooper’s beret and the silver wings of a Parachute Infantry “Instructor”. He was completely sober, shaven and clean… and had his garmosha with him. Instead of asking Maslov, the cop, to help him down the stairs, into the subway, as usual, he had him help him up the barricade.

Vanya sat there, for three days, on his little cart, right out in the open for all the world to see, and he played for us, and loaded magazines, and rolled bandages… anything that a man without legs below the thighs could do. I’ll never, in my life, forget standing there in the night, looking out into the darkness, beyond the light of the burning torches, at a scene straight out of my grandfather’s time… and listening to “Katyusha”, and “Budionka” and “Moskva Moya”… and a dozen others from half a lifetime, and more, ago… played by a man with no legs, who was doing all that he possibly could for the sake of the “cause”, and for what he saw as a fight for freedom.

He sat there, day and night, never moving… right out in the open. If he slept, at all, I don’t think it was over a few minutes at a time. It couldn’t have been, because the music was always there, in the background, just beyond the reach of consciousness… People would come up to him, give him a drink or something to eat, and ask him to play some old “favorite”. I think he must have known every song written, or at least every song written for the last fifty years, or so… He knew my favorite, “Lili Marleen”, and would start playing it every time he saw me.

When it was all over, Vanya went right back to what he had always done, and very few people knew, or ever will know what the legless “bombzh” in the Pushkin Square Subway Station did… He wanted it that way. But… there wasn’t a day that went by that he didn’t have a fresh bottle, or plenty of cigarettes, and there wasn’t a day that he didn’t have some “unknown” person leave him a lunch in a brown paper bag. He always sold all of his papers.

Vanya was killed in August, 2000, almost nine years to the day from the terrible, but wonderful days, in 1991, when he made his statement for all the world to see… and hear… It was then that a pair of well placed terrorist bombs exploded in the Pushkin Square Subway Station, right at peak traffic time… six in the evening. It made world news… But… nobody mentioned Vanya in the news. He was just another “nameless bombzh”… But, those of us who knew him take turns, and leave a rose on the spot where he always sat, every day. And… I’ll tell you something else… for those of us who knew him, there’s a special hate… a deep hate… one that will burn forever in the deepest parts of our souls… for the so-called “freedom fighters” who murdered a true hero in cold blood… a man who, in spite of being a legless cripple… did more than his part to really fight for freedom.

Vanya the bombzh was three times a hero…

© James L. Choron
"Letters from Russia" August 10, 2004

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