In Saint Petersburg, I rented a room in a Soviet-era flat for three weeks. What should have been a two-bedroom flat, was split into five small rooms, each the width of a double bed and the length of two. In true Russian style, somehow eight people occupied the place during my stay. In three rooms lived five locals. The two remaining were rented on Airbnb by myself and another couple.
The first time I met the guy from the couple was a couple of days after they’d arrived when the two of us crossed paths in the kitchen one evening. His name was Victor, a late thirty-year-old guy born in Kazakhstan, raised in Germany, and now living on the road as a travelling salesman. Being in shape and looking years younger than he was, seemed to have helped him land his beautiful Russian wife who travelled with him and conducted her architectural engineering work along the way. Victor was an interesting character, speaking five languages from Turkish, to Polish to English, and more. He had an intriguing vibe to him as if he’d experienced a lot in his lifetime. Along with a dark streak and a young-at-heart attitude the two of us got on just fine.
He told me that business regularly brought him to Russia, but begrudgingly it seemed.
“How long are you here for?”, he asked.
“My visa is up in three weeks, unfortunately.”, I answered expressing disappointment.
He paused for a moment.
“What do you want?…”, he asked, narrowing his gaze.
I immediately understood his non-native manner of speak but couldn’t help laughing anyway. It was a strangely perfect way to express his confusion about why a young Australian guy would come to Russia alone, in a mildly disdainful tone. I smirked as I held my gaze, hoping for him to elaborate.
“Russia is for Russians…”, he said in a calm but stern manner, leaving to my imagination his experiences that led to his conclusion.
I was just as amused as I was impressed by such a genius adage causing my smirk to grow larger.
His wife passed by the kitchen to shower and Victor’s head turned to the doorway pensively. His face returned to me with a change of expression.
“Fun to dvink somefing?”, he said with a hint of mischief in his tone.
I glanced out to the Soviet apartment courtyard, still lit by afternoon daylight. I turned back to Victor and nodded with a smirk, studying the mysterious character, curious about what he had in mind.
He returned to the kitchen a moment later with a third of a bottle of Bacardi white rum and cut up some limes from the fridge. At the kitchen bench, he indicated to the salt after pouring us both a healthy tripled shot to slam.
“Nazdorov’ye!”, we toasted and downed the liquor.
To my shock, Victor immediately refilled our plastic glasses with an even bigger shot, reaching for another lime wedge. I complied.
“Nazdorov’ye!”, we said in unison and downed another.
I needed to make conversation to buy some time between another potential repour. But it was in vain. Victor refilled the glasses again. I hadn’t time to even question why we were shooting white rum like it were tequila.
‘Who is this guy!?’, I thought to myself in delight, as I stood in the Soviet kitchen shooting giant shots of rum at 4 pm on a Thursday afternoon.
I couldn’t get much out of him when I probed for information, as he seemed desperate to down as much alcohol as possible before his wife returned from the bathroom. It only added to the greater mystery and begged the question to the extent of his likely drinking problem.
To my disbelief we managed one last shot, completing a third of a bottle that we’d knocked over in less than fifteen minutes. His wife passed by the hall. Well-inebriated, we bid each other a due and Victor retreated to his room shortly thereafter.
I sat alone in the quiet kitchen for a moment processing the past half an hour which had escalated rapidly. Victor had swooped in and out of my life in a flash, giving enough for me to be utterly intrigued by his enigmatic character and yet be left with so many questions.
The following night when drinking gooseberry and vodka and somehow communicating with one of the girls in the house without either of us speaking a lick of one another’s languages, Victor came home with his wife after being at an ice hockey game. They greeted us at the kitchen doorway where Victor began chanting with elation for the team’s victory whilst loudly bashing a cardboard sign on his hand, blatantly disturbing the peace. The Russian girl found it far less hilarious than I did.
“Fun to party tomorrow night?”, Victor asked in his endearing non-native English.
“Sure.”, I said, excited by the ambiguous question without a clue of its meaning.
It was Saturday night and Victor and his wife were nowhere to be seen. I dreaded having to endure the terrifying experience again of going out on a night alone in Russia. But, thankfully, Victor busted through the door with Svetlana at around 11 pm, telling me they’d be ready to head out within the hour.
The three of us walked the dimly lit, shady Saint Petersburg streets to the nightlife near Nevsky Prospect, the main strip.
We arrived at a section of narrow streets lined with bars and strip clubs, bustling with people. When we got in the thick of the action, every second person held giant, almost beach ball-sized inflated balloons in front of their faces, inhaling nitrous oxide gas. Or doing “nangs” as we affectionately call them in Australia. It seemed to me a strange idea to do them right before going into a bar or nightclub but for many, it appeared to be the norm. I watched as groups of guys standing in the street, as well as carloads of people parked outside the bars, all inflating and deflating enormous balloons from their mouths, more than double the size of any I had ever seen. It was one of those small comic touches that made Russia as amusing as it was.
We walked past the many varied themed bars, each guarded by two enormous Russian silverbacks, and entered the first one we liked. Victor lead. After showing his ID, the security guard patted him down and felt something in his jacket pocket. Victor produced his keys, wallet and a small red cylinder object that had a diamond pattern. When the silverback asked what it was, Victor removed its lid, pressed a small button and flickered the light showing a torch. I analysed the curious object and all at once, questions circled my mind about its pattern and why Victor was holding what looked like an accessory of his wife. But my train of thought was cut short when I became face to face with the stoic Russian silverback of a security guard. We entered and went straight to the bar of the busy club.
Inside, as we approached the bar I walked past several people hitting nangs. The closer we got to the bar the more ubiquitous they became. I looked about to see if Russians carried some kind of nang package with them on a night out since the balloons appeared to come from out of nowhere. But when we got to the bar I saw one of the bartenders holding two fresh beach ball-sized balloons in his hands. I watched him hand them over the bar to somebody before turning back to where two giant hospital-grade nitrous bottles stood behind him. He rolled a fresh balloon over the nozzle of a bottle and blasted it full of nitrous gas that caused an eruption of laughter from me within seconds.
“What’s that?”, I asked Victor inspecting his exotic drink when my attention had left the nangs.
“Long Island Iced Tea…”, he answered with a cheeky smile, as if excited by a sense of liberty granted to him that night.
“Of course.”, I replied, approvingly with a chuckle.
Two long island ice teas later and a bit of a boogie, the night was well on its way.
We bounced to another nightclub shortly thereafter where it had come time to indulge in a giant Russian nang. Beside the empty upstairs dance floor where Victor and Svetlana were boogieing, I made myself comfortable on a side stool and braced myself for the ride. I clasped my lips onto the mouth of the balloon and held onto it with dear life. I could barely inhale half the volume of nitrous gas in the balloon it was so enormous and continued to hyperventilate it until I faded away into a dark dream-like state, hearing the music echo in its uncanny nang manner. I went completely out of body before I came to, after having to take a moment to realise where exactly I was. The two dancing silhouettes on the dance floor before me moved mysteriously until I realised it was them. The nang put a warm pleasant glaze on my headspace for the rest of the time in the club.
We left shortly thereafter and Svetlana said that they wanted to show me club Coyote Ugly.
It was exactly as it was attempting to be like in the movie but a much tackier and lamer Russian version. The place was half empty and full of drunken Russian dudes who chanted along to the apathetic mediocre-looking Russian girls that danced on the bar top with far less enthusiasm than their job description demanded.
We pounded drinks with reckless abandon to the point where I found myself successfully fooling one of the female club hustlers into thinking I was from Antarctica.
Later on in the night, now well intoxicated, a fight broke out close to where we stood. It was the second scrap we’d seen inside since arriving which, judging by the general apathy of others, appeared to be the norm. I remembered seeing a wimpy-looking guy in the group where the fight broke out, being the victim and not sure whether he had engaged with consent. The fight got broken up but within minutes it was kicking off again and actually instigated by the wimp. The other guy had his number and got the best of him but each time the scuffle got broken up the wimp kept going back not learning his lesson.
For whatever reason, probably alcohol, at this moment, I found my feet moving and walking towards the group in the direction of the wimp. Completely and utterly out of character in such situations, I had zero idea what I was hoping to achieve. To try to reason with a drunk Russian guy to call it quits, who likely didn’t speak a word of English? Fortunately, however, before finding myself in an unfavourable situation, Victor locked on a headlock from behind dragging me back backward and yelling,
“Don’t you fucking do that! You never do that here!”, he said with distress.
“You just stand back and watch and you laugh”, he said with a smile immediately after letting go and I’d apologised for being so foolish.
And we did. The wimpy Russian guy kept coming forward, a bit of a scuffle would break out and then things would calm again. It was rather strange. It seemed as normal as seeing people dance intermittently.
Drinks were pounded to the wee hours of the morning as Svetlana danced on the bar top beside several other girls as I vaguely looked on.
We took a cab back to our Soviet-era building and stumbled through the quiet, dark, courtyard whispering drunken nonsense. At the front door of the building, Victor rustled for his keys and then produced the mysterious torch that he’d shown to the security guard at the club entrance. He shone a light on the keyhole and inserted his keys.
“What the fuck is that thing? A torch?”, I asked, confused about why a traditional Eastern European man would be possessing such a feminine-looking device.
He hesitated and turned to me.
“Not just a torch…”, he replied smugly, before moving his finger to the red button beside the other on the device.
*bbbbbbbzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzttt!!!*, the device amplified a loud, harrowing, high voltage crackle of electricity that filled the courtyard with a flickering strobe light. It was a high-powered taser.
I gasped with fright and before I could erupt into laughter, the apartment window right beside the door slammed open and the voice of a man began aggressively screaming at us in Russian. His barrage of curses had kicked off with perfect comic synchronisation with the loud crackling sound of the taser which made the moment that much more hilarious. Victor frantically apologised as we made our way inside as quickly as possible. When our apartment door closed behind us I erupted into laughter.
“This is what I do. I sell these…”, he confessed, with a grin to me as I keeled over in hysterics, finally answering the many questions that had surrounded him and this night.
“Goodnight”, Victor and Svetlana said as they made their way down the hall, with me still leaning against the wall, clasping my stomach with hysterical laughter.
“Wait, wait, wait!”, I beckoned when I caught a breath, needing more detail.
Victor ushered me into their room down the hall where he gave me the full spiel of his business. He travelled between Turkey, Poland, Russia and more, selling discreet tasers alike as self-defence weapons for women. He claimed they were fully licensed and documented for the owner and he spent his time with his wife, travelling between countries making sales.
I was impressed but not at all surprised that such was the occupation of a mysterious, shady, yet intriguing character like Victor.
“Dobroy nochi.”, he said as he closed their door, marking yet another peculiar tale of my Russian adventures …