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Exquisite Corpse - A Journal of Letters and Life
Foreign Desk
Czechosylvania: Seeing Red
by Brian Kimberling
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First it was my shoes. I could not of course connect the shoes to criminal intelligence operations, but it was odd that anyone would steal a pair of size 15 Nikes. Not many people in Prague can wear a size 15 Nike unless they put both feet inside. Then it was the kitchen sink. I've known water to come out pink or yellow or brown, fine. But when I spun the tap I got reddish solids. Solids dripping - or rather, glopping - out of my kitchen faucet. Plainly they came from upstairs, but that was unimportant - what were they? They seemed faintly organic, or even - perhaps it was my imagination - faintly human. The other clues were more subtle. They had been in my flat all along, but I had never given them serious thought. The Russian wooden plates and placemats. The landlady's name, in particular: Maya. No Czech has ever been named "Maya." The books in Russian. The bricabrac. That comment she made about the previous tenants: how her uncle was sending some guys to break their legs for damaging the apartment. Uncle Vladimir. And finally, the news reports. Since I learned Czech, I've been devouring everything in print I can find, turning on the radio the moment I get home. And in between President Clinton and local government corruption, I always hear about the "Russian Mafia," the organized crime ring terrorizing the former Soviet Union. I see shots on the evening news of men waiting for immigrants at the international bus station, great bulges under their fur coats. The immigrants themselves, speaking on condition of anonymity, describing how they are required to send 50% of their incomes or more back to the boss in Moscow or St. Petersburg. How they got off the bus and the men pointed their furs ominously -- let's talk before you take another step away from the Motherland. And the fearful murmurs among Czech natives that the Russians never left, after all.
     I'm a normal guy. I live in one of the wealthier suburbs, just ten minutes' walk from President Havel's house, actually, but I make about the same as most Czechs. I work at a translation place and I get about a penny per word. It might add up if I tried, but I don't. I come home in the evenings, make some dinner, go to sleep. I hang out in pubs over the weekend. I'm not interested in the glories of Prague anymore - the gilded towers, the cobbled streets - I've seen it all. I just try to get by like everyone else. So when my landlady said she wanted to keep $380 of my deposit to paint the walls, I threw a fit. I said it was ridiculous; I had done nothing to the walls. It couldn't take more than $40 to paint 4 walls, I said. I listed all the inconveniences of living there in the first place - glopping sinks not the least. I called her a thief. I threatened to send letters to the Magistrate about how I had no lease, how she was not paying income tax on the apartment, all that. I threatened to expose her in the Czech press. I threatened everything I could think of, which wasn't much since she already had the money. She warned me that Uncle Vladimir was "very powerful." I strung some Czech obscenities together and hung up.
     The Russian Mafia owns whole towns in the Czech Republic. What were once beautiful Czech cultural landmarks - living museums comprising Gothic towers, Baroque houses, and Renaissance cathedrals all standing tete-a-tete; spa towns frequented by the great composers and intellectuals of past centuries - are now fronts for the nefarious activities of the Russian mob. Czechs avoid these towns; ask a native what towns you should visit and he will list several, but say you want to visit Karlovy Vary (Carlsbad in German) and he will frown and point to the nearest travel agency. It is easy to spot a mafia front in the capital, Prague; they have a predilection for hotels and jewellery shops. They own casinos, restaurants, and strip joints as well. Look at the prices - if they are listed in dollars, it is a Russian money-laundering facility. The dollar, say Czechs, is the national currency of Russia these days. Or look for a sentry standing a few meters away. He is chain smoking and has obviously got no place to go. He's on the job. Russians are bigger people than Czechs, and they all wear fur, so you could mistake a Mafia sentry for a bear if you are not careful. He is also probably standing sentry for another kind of front - laundering money is the least of mob crimes. They smuggle drugs and weapons and refugees (later demanding tithes from the latter), anything on which hand can be laid within Russia, and increasingly, within the former satellites. They run prostitution rings - the "white meat trade," Czechs call it. They demand protection money from any moderately successful business whose owners have ties to Russia. What is most frightening, however, is that these guys are not the real thing: that Czechs call them "the Mafia" is an index of their fear, not of the real nature of the gang. These guys are not unscrupulous businessmen, bad men in nice suits who love their mothers. They are ex-KGB agents and officers who found themselves catapulted into a capitalist system, and naturally they sold their talents and services to the highest bidder. John le Carre, whose job might have been thought ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union, has recently written a novel, Single & Single, about the "grey mayhem of self-interest" that is the Russian mob, and its domination by former state security officials. Mixed in with the ex-spies, or working for them, there are also the many victims of an economy that recently imploded. About a year ago there was a famous report of a Russian manufacturer of toilet paper who had no cash on payday. He offered his employees the equivalent value of pay in toilet paper. Naturally no one had the means to transport it home, let alone the storage space to keep it . A few hundred dollars' worth of toilet paper? Who wouldn't rather break legs for money?
     I knew this, but took it lightly. Czech hatred of Russia is understandable, and Czech suspicions of Russians must be taken with a grain of salt. I ignored my landlady's warning. I mentioned it to Czech friends, who were deeply alarmed and declined to see me thereafter. I did not think twice when they made excuses ranging from shopping to surgery. A few days passed. I went to work, came home, slept. I should mention that sleeping was not easy, since the men in the apartment above were doing what they called remodelling. They said they were ripping up floors and tearing down walls. Hammering, heavy drills, bangs and shouts. They didn't say why they worked in the wee hours of the morning and late at night. They didn't say why they were still at it after five months. Another clue I should have recognized. Then I got a call at home from the Czech police. It seemed they had found my footprints outside the scene of a crime. What crime I've never been sure. They spoke with an accent worse than mine. They wanted to ask me some questions, could I come to the station at the following address? I asked how exactly they knew that the particular shoes which made the particular footprints belonged to me. They hung up.
     Anonymity is the easiest thing in Prague, thanks to Communism. If you want to disappear, just rent a flat in one of the Soviet-constructed panelaks in the suburbs - massive, decaying apartment blocks that look like nothing so much as tombstones. There are hundreds, and as they are all identical, nobody can find their own apartment, let alone other people finding it. I moved to one because finally I put all the clues together: I had insulted a Mafia Dame and I was going to pay for it. I was washing a few necessary dishes as I packed in haste, and to my not-too-great surprise, the faucet began spouting human hair. Wish me luck.

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