In the mid-1960s, when my dad was just a kid, his family lived in a communal flat in Moscow. Back then, most people in Moscow had to live in communal flats so there wasn’t anything out of the ordinary about that. What was out of the ordinary was that the flat faced the Moscow Zoo. During the day, the trolleys and buses on the street drowned out the noise of the zoo. But by evening, the whole neighbourhood was filled with the trumpeting of the elephants, the howling of the wolves and the screeching of the birds. My dad said that all the noise made you feel like you were living out in the wild, in the forest, the jungle even.
A zoo is a depressing place, especially in a poor country like the USSR in the 1960s. The animals are gawked and screamed at, and mocked, and fed inedible crap; and cruel people pelt them with garbage and cigarette stubs and rocks. And it’s even worse for the humans. The animals are kept alive and fed at the expense of the people. It’s an unseemly vanity project and everyone involved has to pretend to like it. But as a kid you don’t have to care about that. All you know is that the elephant trumpets, the wolf howls and the zoo is as good as any jungle.
One of the people who lived in my dad’s communal flat was a man named Pavel—Uncle Pavel to Dad—who worked at the zoo as the walrus keeper. One of the advantages of life back then was that people had jobs that could be easily defined. None of your strategic walrus initiative development consultants or anything.
One of the duties of the walrus keeper was to feed the walrus. The walrus was supposed to get a certain amount of meat every day—but then isn’t it cruel that the walrus gets meat and the walrus keeper doesn’t? So Uncle Pavel would take some of the walrus’s rations for himself and to compensate for the lower food weight he would hide steel nuts and bolts in the walrus’s portion of meat. That worked to fool the management but it wasn’t much good for the walrus, which one day died of poisoning.
Uncle Pavel was devastated. Despite taking his meat, Uncle Pavel did love that big ugly walrus. Besides, looking after the walrus’s health wasn’t part of Uncle Pavel’s duties: someone should have been keeping track. “The fuckers killed the walrus,” Uncle Pavel said between sobs.
After the walrus died, Pavel’s life went downhill. He missed that walrus and, what’s more, he was out of a job. Despondent, he boiled some vodka, put in all the tea leaves he could for the caffeine and drank the whole thing. His heart went yok-yok-yok and he collapsed in a heap.
The ambulance came and took Uncle Pavel to the hospital. He was discharged and given invalid status for one year. That meant he’d get a pension and wouldn’t have to work. When the year was over, Uncle Pavel boiled some more vodka, infused it with tea and drank it all. His heart went yok-yok-yok… And so it went on, year after year, until one day he drank the whole thing, and his heart went yok-yok and then stopped.
Within a few days, the flat had a new tenant, a housekeeper who had moved in from up north.