Machine Guns in the Afternoon

Travel Stories: Stephanie Carrie went to Russia to walk the streets that Gogol walked. She didn't plan on practicing her language skills at gunpoint.

I tried to translate the words in front of me but the Cyrillic letters kept transforming themselves into little Russian mobsters with machetes hacking each other to pieces. I was about to surrender the last cash on my phone card to make a 6,925-mile call for help when the intercom for the building’s main door buzzed. I jumped out of my chair. Had Svetlana forgotten her key? Why would the criminals expect me to buzz them up? I decided to ignore the visitor. Whoever it might be was obviously looking for Svetlana, and she was ne doma.

The intercom’s buzzing continued. Stop! Stop!!!! It stopped. They had given up ... or been let in. I peeked from behind the curtains, but the balconies below blocked my view of the main entrance. It seemed ludicrous that the calls and the intercom’s buzzing could be connected. It was too much like an action thriller: the killer getting closer and closer.

A bang on the apartment door sent me fleeing to the furthest corner of the room. This wasn’t a caffeine-enhanced nightmare of coincidences anymore. They were here! Mobsters with their bazookas were here, and they were not shy about their intentions.

I crept to the door and screamed in adrenaline-pumped Russian, “Svetlana isn’t here. Come back later!”

“This is the police. Otkroyte dver! Open the door!”

Did they think I was born yesterday? I may have sounded like a 3-year-old to them in my piecemeal Russian, but in English I was a completely rational adult. They were obviously criminals dressed up as the police coming to rape and murder me.

I sank down with my back to the door, sobbing, snot-nosed. “Come back later,” I said. “Please. Please!”

My addled brain began flashing images. I saw my mother waving goodbye at the airport, my dorm room at NYU, my college Russian teacher, svelte with her fortune at escaping her homeland before its demise. I came here to improve my language skills, to haggle with babushkas at bazaars over the price of hand-made lacquered boxes. I came here to walk the streets that Gogol and Akhmatova walked. Sure, I came here to widen my world view, but pleading for my life through four inches of reinforced wood and steel was not how I planned to become a world citizen.

I heard one of the assassins fiddling with the lock. I pushed my body more fervently against the door, as if my small sum of bones and flesh could actually serve as further fortification. I was contorting myself into something resembling a vertical fetal position when I heard the crackle of a walkie-talkie, the kind police officers use.

A voice said: “Have you talked to the occupant?”

Now wait a minute. If the police were at my door, then there was a whole new reason to panic. Maybe Svetlana was injured and they needed my help. Part of me wanted to open the door and get this slaughter or rescue over with, whichever one it was. Part of me wanted to crawl under my sofa bed. I resolved to do the former. Quivering, I opened both the wooden and steel doors.

The door swung open to reveal two men standing in the graffiti-tagged hall, brandishing bulky machine guns pointed directly at me. They wore bullet-proof vests and looked like a cross between a S.W.A.T. team and a private militia. I was on the verge of passing out when I saw that they were my age and looked as perplexed as I was. Even with machine guns, these felons appeared a little too gaunt and green to provoke a complete loss of consciousness.

They barged past me. I expected them to start emptying the contents of my suitcase into the pockets of their fatigues. Instead they went into the kitchen and made a phone call. When I followed, one of the boys turned to explain that because of somethingicouldnotundersand, they had to wait for the apartment’s owner to return. I took this opportunity to request that since I was not being held captive, could he please stop pointing his gun at me? With a shrug, he lowered the barrel. I felt better.

My terror eased, and I was left with the uneasy apprehension of a doctor’s waiting room. I didn’t know what these men were expecting to find in the apartment, but they seemed relieved they hadn’t had to deal with anything more dire than a hysterical American exchange student. I wondered what the typical Russian host did when entertaining the toe-tapping militsia in her home. The slighter of the men stretched out backwards along the thin kitchen bench. The doughier one sank into a chair and began picking the tablecloth. I decided to break the silence.

Khotitye malini? Would you like some raspberries?” I had picked some up at the market to surprise Svetlana. They stared at me with tired eyes, then both burst out laughing. They began asking me questions with boyish quizzicality. I was the first American they had met. I learned that their names were Sasha and Dima. They had been with the local police for three years, since they turned 18. 

Soon the front doors slammed. A flush-cheeked Svetlana, hobbling beneath the weight of her groceries, appeared in the kitchen doorway. Her reaction to seeing me with two men dressed for combat was one of surprise and fear. After an incomprehensible soliloquy from Dima, however, she found the situation hilarious.

In slow, coaxing Russian, with the help of props and a dictionary, Svetlana explained to me what had transpired. When she left the house to go shopping, she had set the security alarm. I had decided to come home early and did not know about the alarm or the code to deactivate it. A silent signal had been sent to the police. The headquarters had called to make sure it was not a mistake, but getting a foreigner on the line who was not the occupant of the apartment confirmed their need to investigate. It was then that Sasha and Dima had been dispatched.

Svetlana paid the small fine for the false alarm, but she didn’t seem bothered by it. In fact, she seemed oddly delighted. She flirted with the officers as she walked them out, and I realized that having two young men in uniform in her apartment under farcical circumstances was probably one of the most amusing situations she had found herself in since moving to Kupchino.

When I tried to reimburse her for the fine, she wouldn’t take the money. She said the whole adventure was worth it. At the time, I couldn’t agree less. But a few days later, when I stopped shaking every time the phone rang, I realized I had gained something from the incident too. I felt more at home in this rugged, unpredictable environ. Svetlana’s take on my terror had allowed me a peep-hole into the strength she brought to her daily life as a pensioner in post-Soviet Russia. I finally understood how Chekhov and Gogol exemplified the Russian ability to endure suffering through vital brush strokes of humor.

And besides all that, with such prompt and reliable police response as Sasha and Dima, I had no need to feel afraid in the apartment anymore. My own personal S.W.A.T. team was only a call away.

Stephanie Carrie received her BA in Russian and Slavic Studies from NYU. She is now an actress and writer living in Los Angeles, and uses her degree to talk to Russian grannies on the bus. She is originally from New Zealand.

11 Comments for Machine Guns in the Afternoon

Lynda Malerstein 08.17.09 | 5:11 PM ET

This is a wonderful story, well told. You are as excellent a writer as you are an actress. Much success is on the way.
Lynda Malerstein
Feel the Freedom of Letting Go.

Sabina 08.17.09 | 8:38 PM ET

Well told!  You drew out the suspense masterfully, I think.  I enjoyed every word.  It’s a good thing Svetlana didn’t tell you about the alarm!

Annie Gray 08.18.09 | 3:17 PM ET

You must be a good story writer because you kept my attention.  I have chronic fatigue and am usually too tire to finish a story.  lol Well told.  I was a bit confused when you described yourself as an ‘American’ student and you’re a Kiwi, but then I realized that you came as “an American student.”  Russian is such a hard language to learn.  So good on ya.

Mikeachim 08.18.09 | 6:16 PM ET

Terrific. Stephanie. You yarn mightily.

It’s an odd thing to realize that as a foreigner you can attract suspicion, even just as an unfamiliar accent on the phone. (I felt a little of this in some quiet areas of Riga in Latvia).

Also - the Russian police sound a damn sight more efficient than the ones here in the UK. ;)

Jim Mamer 08.18.09 | 8:31 PM ET

Great story. I look forward to additional chapters…

Russell T 08.18.09 | 10:37 PM ET

Being Stephanie’s uncle, I’ve heard the story in person. Great translation to the pixeled page.  I look forward to seeing some of her stories from France, Vietnam and Ghana published too. Magnificent e-mails written on the run in an internet cafe that only need to be polished to be presented here. Not only is she a very good writer, but a keen observer and a traveler that truly connects with the people in the countries she visits.

Congratulations to the Kiwi Kydd.

AndreyM 08.19.09 | 3:49 AM ET

This place you are talking about looks like on my place of living. I live in Ukraine and such houses very popular in my counrty!

Gloria Lindsay 08.22.09 | 2:17 AM ET

Excellent story, Stephanie.

I wavered from suspense and fear to absolute laughter.  You are a very good writer.  Keep it up. I look forwarded to more chapters. 

Brilliant descriptions too.

(Gloria Lindsay)

Emily  08.22.09 | 5:42 AM ET

Stephanie, You are a good story writer.

Verity 08.29.09 | 7:59 AM ET

Wonderful story! You had me alternatively worried for you safety and giggling over the raspberries. You are a great writer :)

Anastasia - Bali 08.29.09 | 11:03 PM ET

Hey Stephanie,

That was a really great article. Gave me the thrills and got me very interested to read the whole article from your first paragraph :)

You can write your own book you know that? :)

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