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The Tsar’s Thumb
© 2001 Stuart Vail

 

An amusing anecdote of Russian history, and one which also provides an insight into the Russian mentality, is the story of Tsar Alexander II who wanted a railroad built from St. Petersburg to Moscow. To show the engineers the route, he placed a ruler on a map of the country and drew a straight line with a pencil. In doing so, the pencil bumped over his thumb holding the ruler, making a slight notch in the line. The engineers looked at each other and fearfully wondered if the Tsar was aware of his mistake, or did he actually want the bend in the route? No one dared to question it, and the railroad was built, complete with notch. Today, on that route across Russia, the train seems to unwaveringly plod on toward the horizon and then suddenly, for no apparent reason, it arcs slightly to the right and then back to the left before straightening out to continue in exactly the same direction as before. Nothing caused the detour. Along the entire length of the route not even a rocky hillside or a stand of trees was able to alter its path: nothing but the Tsar's thumb.

Every Russian knows the story and is reminded of it each time he travels between St. Petersburg and Moscow. That length of Soviet rail is a living testament to the power of tyranny and the state of blind obedience that for so many years existed for an entire nation of people. I have often thought of that story and wondered if the crafty old Tsar bumped his thumb on purpose, forever reminding his people and future generations of the power of authority.

The story sheds a new light on my own circumstances, for I worked for a Russian at a motion picture studio for twenty years. My boss Yuri immigrated from Russia in 1976, bringing with him thirty years of hammer-and-sickle influence. He could be a very funny and generous man, but overall he ran the department with tight-fisted, KGB tactics. No one was trusted, not even me, who was his right hand, his second-in-command. Perhaps that is the only way he knew how to function. It used to bother me terribly, but once I realized that it was either his way or not at all, I adapted and we got along fine. I accepted the fact that we were from two very different cultures.

Yuri is one of the classic "me firsts" of this world. He cannot stand to be second in anything. The following story will illustrate. In 1985 I broke the tibia and fibula of my right leg in an ice skating accident. Once I was able to go back to work, Yuri would occasionally stop at my house in the morning to give me a ride. I dreaded a car ride of any sort. Inside the giant cast that reached from toe to hip, the broken ends of the bones would grind against each other with every bump on the road, and I implored Yuri to drive carefully. One day on the freeway a Datsun moved into the space in front of us, making Yuri have to tap his brakes ever-so-slightly. The "gaff" on the other driver's part unleashed in Yuri a barrage of Russian obscenities that, had I understood them, certainly would have rendered tame the rich imagery and zoological allusions of W.C. Fields' many epithets, the bottle-nosed comic being one of the true connoisseurs of cursing.

On a side note, Yuri had once tried to teach me how to ask for the check in a Russian restaurant. It is a complicated phrase, sounding somewhat like loudly clearing one's throat while aggressively chewing a mouthful of unshelled walnuts. It's a good thing that I never have had the chance to use it, for it turns out that my diligently-practiced "May I please have the check" would have had me castrated and bodily thrown out of the restaurant. The least offensive part of what I had so innocently learned involved the killing of a female cat with a knife. That speaks volumes.

So one can imagine the drive to work that day, with Yuri turning the air Cyrillic blue, trying as best he could to get around the other driver, and me holding my heavy cast in the air with my hands to prevent it from crashing from side to side while we wildly maneuvered through six lanes of Los Angeles early-morning, rush-hour traffic. Yuri was going to make sure the other driver did not get away unpassed. At one point, on seeing a golden opportunity, he stomped on the accelerator and sped onto the right shoulder of the freeway. Like Mr. Toad's wild ride, we swerved, dodged, bounced, and bottomed-out for about three-hundred yards, nearly destroying two traffic signs and an emergency call-box, before finally crash-landing back into traffic, the grace of which would have compared with the boisterous entrance of a drunken, unwashed sewer worker at a junior-high school cotillion.

For all of Yuri's efforts, we were only about three car lengths ahead of where we were before, and to make matters worse, our lane wasn't doing very well. Yuri's short-lived triumph melted away as he saw his opponent, four lanes over to the left, gradually overtake us and disappear into the distance. I implored Yuri to let me out right there. I wanted to preserve what was left of my frayed nerves, and was more than willing to hobble the remaining distance—whatever it was—on my crutches. Anything sounded better than continuing this madcap commute with my Kremlin cabbie: a Chernobyl in the driver's seat, bound and determined to drive over car roofs if necessary to pass that one little Japanese compact whose occupant was completely oblivious to the buckets of stomach acid and stress he had unwittingly unleashed in both of us.

With a sudden screech of tires, leaving about four pounds of rubber on the highway—which to this day remains, resembling an irritating speed bump—we jettisoned into lanes number two and three for a moment, nearly caromed off a motorcycle in lane number four, and squeezed into lane number five, narrowly missing being turned into canned lunch meat by a tandem trailer semi whose burning, screeching brakes probably woke up everyone in North Hollywood who might have still been asleep. The big rig would have certainly crushed us had Yuri not expertly zipped into the narrow median between the inside lane and the concrete barrier separating us from the opposing traffic. I was sure we both were going to die that day, and imagined the made-for-TV movie that would immortalize the fiery, multi-car pile-up that was about to happen at any moment. In my terror, I even briefly wondered what actor would be cast to play me, then sadly realized that none other than the Three Stooges could do justice to this (ouch) comedy of errors.

And so it went, from lane to lane, the air filled with a mixture of cursing and howling on both our parts, with our elusive quarry somewhere far in the distance ahead. By then I felt as though my leg would have to be reset from the battering it had received. When it came time to exit the freeway we both were inconsolable—me from my pain, and Yuri from his sense of defeat. There is no name for his mood's shade of black, and I was beginning to dread the workday ahead when he let out a whoop of surprise. There in front of us, stopped at the light at the end of the exit ramp, was the dastardly Datsun. Now Yuri would have his chance. Vindication was imminent (so was amputation). My white-knuckle ride wasn't over yet!

At the first millisecond of green, our tires spun, squealed, and smoked, and our engine roared like a Siberian bear. Even my excruciating pain could not mask my embarrassment. While all the other cars were casually beginning to move through the intersection, we acted as though this were the starting line at a Destruction Derby Race. We had only about three-quarters of a mile to go before arriving at the studio, but we were boxed-in by the other cars. The Datsun was right in front of us and Yuri absolutely had to pass him just once that morning. The city blocks went by, and at the very last minute, he saw a chance to pass on the left, in the opposing traffic lane! He howled with glee as we zoomed past, and barely squeezed into the space in front of the Datsun. Then without signaling, Yuri turned left, screeched into the studio entrance and stopped before the main gate. While I clutched my chest, as if trying to prevent my heart from bursting straight through my sternum, I looked out the rear window and saw that the Datsun was right behind us. We had been traveling to the same destination all along!

Yuri brushed his hands together in a triumphant "dusting-off" manner and said, "Pees dyets katyonku bolshe sratnye bood-yet!" Through my mind-numbing pain I recognized my phrase to "order the check" and said, "What?" As we were waved-in through the gate Yuri said, "He should never have passed us. I taught him a lesson." Never mind the fact that Yuri had violently cut-off perhaps a hundred other drivers that morning. For him there is never a sense of that sacred space in front, that buffer zone of protection. No, he immediately has to fill it, and lusts for the next.

I must have been quite a sight as I extricated myself from the car and hobbled shakily on crutches toward our building. Looking back at Yuri's car I saw on the bumper a sticker that read, "Shoot low, they might be crawling." That summed him up entirely: cut them off at the knees, keep them humble, keep them subjugated. Long live the Tsar!

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