MOSCOW, Nov. 5, 2003 -- I’ve got the smoking gun!
The landlady, Natasha, handed it to me today.
I’ve long suspected it, and I had caught him with the smoking gun once before, but he promised he’d never do it again, so I let him stay; and even though I often suspected that my money was being drained off, I would never convict a man – especially a 26-year-old child – on circumstantial evidence.
It goes back to three or four months ago when Misha said the landlady had told him that last year’s light bills hadn’t been paid. I couldn’t understand it. I was sure that I had given Misha money for the light bills every month!
The unpaid bills came to $ 150, Misha said.
Holy shit! I thought. That’s outrageous! How could it be? Alexei also couldn’t understand how it could be so much. He and Misha discussed it, and Misha swore it was true.
I gave him the $ 150 in September to pay the light bill. When he came back, I asked him for the receipt. “They didn’t give me one. They’ll send it to the landlady. Don’t you trust me?”
Well, yes, sort of, but…
Anyway, seemed strange to me, but – hey, this is Russia!
But when the landlady came today to collect the rent, she said the light bill still hadn’t been paid. Not only that, the unpaid bills totaled – not $ 150, but 1,500 rubles – only $ 50.
So Misha had not only stolen, but had lied about it – twice.
It was a complete scam!
Last month he sent me an e-mail from Prague:
Hello, Dane. Things with me are okay. I have the opportunity to stay here permanently, but I don’t want to because it is dreary and lonely here. Dane, if it’s possible, I would like to return. I await your letter. Misha.
Unfortunately, I found out from the landlady that you didn’t pay the $ 150 I gave you for the electric bill! That means you’ve again stolen from me! You remember, when you stole the money I gave you for the dentist, I forgave you, but I said if you ever do such a thing again, you can’t live with me; that I won’t live with somebody I can’t trust. Last year, when you went to Kiev, I wasn’t sure that you had taken the money, so I let you return.
But now, I’m sure that you took the $ 150, so you can’t live with me. And I’ve already told you that I won’t give you any more money.
I gave you every chance in the world, and you’ve thrown it all away.
Even now I don’t feel anything for him but pity. Well, maybe a little anger!
But what will he do? Live on the streets? Become a prostitute – if he isn’t already? become a thief? He is already. There was a brou-ha-ha last year regarding an icon that he was accused by another shady character of stealing. Yuri says he really did steal it.
Misha could be so sincere when he lied. Natasha believed him. Alexei believed him. I believed him.
He could be so sweet and loving and cheerful and thoughtful! And I loved him deeply.
I curse his mother for throwing him away. I curse the orphanage where he learned that it was okay to lie and steal; I curse this god-damned country that has bred a whole generation of liars and thieves.
Andrei Tioufline, for instance. Now there’s a liar and a thief that makes Misha look like the little angel I really thought he was.
I met Andrei when I first came to Moscow on a gay square dancing tour ten years ago. He was a good-looking, blond, blue-eyed 18-year-old and we talked quite a bit. I thought he was a nice kid. A couple of months after I returned to Seattle, Andrei called me!
It was in the midst of the attempted anti-Yeltsin coup when Yeltsin had called in the tanks to bombard the duma and there was fighting and killing and blood in the streets.
“You’d better get out of there,” I told Andrei. “There’s no telling what’s going to happen next!”
“I don’t have the money.”
“If you can get a visa, I’ll buy your ticket,” I told him.
It turned out his mother was able to enroll him in a month-long English language course in San Francisco, for which he was granted a visa. He arrived in Seattle the day before Thanksgiving, 1993. The next day he left for his course in San Francisco and returned the day before Christmas. In the meantime, I sent a letter asking the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) to extend his visa for 10 months. They did.
We never had a sexual relationship. But we became almost inseparable. I bought him clothes, I took him places, including Disney World in Orlando. I took care of him, looked after him and protected him from my housemates, who thought he was an obnoxious, self-centered teen-age brat. I defended him as an underprivileged kid from another culture who needed help and guidance.
Andrei told me, almost in tears, that I was the best friend he’d ever had. “Nobody else in the world would do for me what you’ve done.”
He was right. Nobody else would.
I came to Russia for Christmas of 1994 and stayed with Andrei in his home, which was one of the most disgusting and dysfunctional rat holes I’ve ever seen. Not only was the kitchen crawling with cockroaches, but his mother Nina Nikolaevna, the bitch from Buchenwald, was a snarling alocholic. His father was a sullen alcoholic. His brother Sasha was an alcoholic who slunk through the apartment like a skulking river rat. Andrei shone in this ghastly environment like a golden seraphim.
I must get this angel out of that hell hole, I thought to myself.
One night he got very drunk and depressed and sobbed that this would be his last Christmas. He was going to commit suicide. “I hate this country. The only time I’ve ever been happy is when I was with you in America.” I begged him not to do anything stupid and promised that when I retired in four years, we would find a place and live together and we would both live happily together forever.
And from that moment, that was the goal we both worked and waited for. When the magic moment came I sold everything I had and came to Russia to live forever with my sweet, angelic, misunderstood Andrei.
By the time all my debts were settled, I only had $ 47,000 cash, but that was enough to buy a small two-room apartment near the center of Moscow. “Foreigners can’t buy property in Russia,” Andrei informed me. “I’ll have to buy it in my name.” I knew no one else. It didn’t occur to me to doubt him. We were, after all, best friends.
The day of the actual purchase, I said, “Andrei, I think we should have a lawyer. I have no protection here, nothing to prove my ownership."
“Don’t you trust me?” he demanded. Sound familiar?
Well, yes, I did still, sort of; but by that time it was too late do anything else.
We’ll cut to the chase: The situation between us grew worse and worse. He insisted on a European renovation to the tune of $ 15,000. He was spending money like water – my money, which by that point I didn’t begin to have enough of.
On New Year’s Day of 1999 he threw me out of the by-now Home & Gardens apartment adorned with my paintings, statuary, etc.
The only thing I had was a slip of paper on which he had written – on an occasion when he was asking for yet more money to treat his anal warts – “I owe Dane Lowell $ 26,000 for the apartment on Andrei Pavlovskiy Street.
I went to see a lawyer. Yes, with that I had a good chance of winning a law suit – not to get the apartment back, but to get my $ 26,000. After a year and a half I won the lawsuit. That was two years ago. I have received nothing and thanks to the bizarre Moscow laws, never will.
I couldn’t force Andrei out of the apartment because by law, once a person is “registered,” you can’t force him out if that’s the only apartment he’s registered in. I also never got back any of the stuff I had bought –washing machine, fold-out sofa bed, kitchen cabinets -- except most of my personal possessions, and I was lucky to get them.
Not only did he steal the apartment, but he’s still costing me $ 600 a month in rent; i.e., I’m paying $ 600 a month that I wouldn’t have to pay if I were living in my own apartment. So he’s drained from me another $ 25,000 or so over the past four years. And apartment prices are skyrocketing, so I’ve probably lost another $ 20,000 or $ 30,000 in appreciation. If I want to toss in the extra $ 200,000 that I lost on the sale of the Seattle house by selling five years too soon, then he was an expensive little project.
Misha used to occasionally remind me how much Andrei had taken from me. I realize in retrospect he was salving his conscience. Andrei stole thousands; Misha was only stealing hundreds.
And he was right: Compared to Andrei, Misha was a two-bit hustler.
Many people – including several very upright citizens – have urged me to take matters into my own hands: Hire a goon to do the justice that the courts couldn’t achieve. Some have said, “Scare him!” Others, “Injure him.” A few, “Kill him.”
But my conscience wouldn’t let me do that. I’m an old-fashioned believer that two wrongs don’t make a right. Furthermore, the matter is too far out of Andrei’s hands by now for scaring to do any good. In his cleverness in avoiding the reach of the court, he signed the apartment over to his mother. The bitch of Buchenwald died a month after the trial ended and in her will – again to keep me from being able to get to it – left it to his brother Sasha. Now Sasha owns both his mother’s and my apartment, and he’s charging Andrei rent to live there. Andrei also says he (Andrei) has the HIV virus.
“’Vengeance is mine,’ saith the Lord.”
I hope so.
With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Russian god communism god was quickly supplanted by the American god money. The New Russian bandit who got rich by stealing became the new teenage hero. Money became everything. Andrei was a part of that. Conscience, morality, right-and-wrong were gone.
In the first month or two after I moved to Moscow and was living with Andrei in her apartment, Nina was in her cups one day and was bemoaning her sons’ ungratefulness, greediness, and incivility to her. They did indeed treat her with scorn and disrespect, and the shouting and hate that occasionally erupted would make me shudder.
“I’m afraid you didn’t teach them much about being kind and loving,” I said.
“There’s no demand for those in this country,” she replied defensively.
So Andrei never learned them. And there are still too many who live by the creed. Former Russian teacher Irina dismissed the legendary “Russian soul” as a “myth.” But there nevertheless remains a bedrock of decency among the Russian population, and fortunately most of my students – and as far as I can tell, my friends – have higher goals than simply getting rich anyway they can.
In my lesson this morning at Moskovskiy Teleport the topic of discussion was the sinking of the Titanic, and we talked a lot about the movie. One of my students, Alexei, a marketer, recalled the “new Russian” joke:
Three “new Russian” bandits were trying to impress each other with how rich they were. “Look at my new Mercedez 600 limosine,” boasted one. “It cost half a million bucksi.”
“That’s nothing,” said the next. “You want to have dinner somewhere? Let’s go to Paris. I’ll give you a ride in my new Lear jet private plane.”
They turned to the third: “Well?”
“Drop by my mansion. In my living room, I’ve got Leonardo di Caprio in an aquarium.”