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Saint Among Saints

For those of you who haven’t had the honor of serving in the Soviet navy, let me introduce you to one of its most curious exhibits: the Zampolit. In theoretical terms, Zams are Party-endorsed puppets thrown onto the backs of hardworking submariners to enforce discipline. In practical terms, they are, at best, hopelessly removed from anything connected with the actual operations of the boat, pseudo-sailors with little or no qualifications and commanding even less respect among the crew. And that, mind you, is at best! One of the few “responsibilities” that they do answer for is the crew’s morale - and God help the person who tries to take responsibility for my morale....

After perestroika started, our Zams started to come and go like blackheads. Not that they would hang around all that long before either - but with perestroika they began to change with even greater frequency: a year and a half - a new Zam; another year and a half - another new Zam. And before you could even get used to him - the next one would come to take his place.

One time they sent us this Zam straight from the Academy. They sent us this new Zam and the first thing he did was to declare war. With the crew’s drinking habits, that is. It got so bad, in fact, that pretty soon he had all of us on our heels.

“It’s perestroika,” he would say to us. “Don’t you get it?”

And we would sip our officially allotted rations of alcohol - fifty grams of wine per sailor per day - and wax rueful about perestroika.

And that’s how the days passed - until we went out on our next patrol. This was the Zam’s first time at sea with us, and throughout all the compartments, as if in an art gallery, he hung up posters, slogans, charts, tables....

On that mission we were transporting our Division Commander, Rear Admiral Batrakov, famous throughout the navy as Big Bad John. Sometimes people called him Petrovich.

The thing about Petrovich was that he couldn’t sail without his daily dose of wine. By then he had nothing to lose - an admiral with more than twenty patrols under his belt and his pension already in the bag - and so he took this liberty. Sure, perestroika may have been raging back in the capitol, in the rest of the world for that matter - but as far as Petrovich was concerned, one thing not subject to such political fashions was his daily alcohol intake: a pitcher of wine three times a day.

And everybody understood very well that they should do their best to see that Petrovich received his three pitchers of wine per day.

Or else...

Now Petrovich was a little guy, but he could knock back a whole bucket. And once he’d knocked it back, he would turn into a real softie.

The first day out, the quartermaster dropped into the Captain’s to see about getting some wine for Petrovich. But the captain just waved him off: go ask the Zam.

Obediently, the quartermaster went to the Zam:

“Permission to take a pitcher of wine for the Division Commander?” he said.

“What do you mean - a pitcher?” The Zam couldn’t believe what he was hearing. “A whole pitcher all at once?”

“That’s right,” said the quartermaster loyally. “He always downs a pitcher of wine at one sitting.”

“What do you mean - at one sitting?” said the Zam in disbelief. “It’s perestroika! Don’t you get it?”

“Yeah, we get it,” said the quartermaster, standing before the Zam and not daring to leave. “But you’d better just give it anyway, sir. Or else...”

In fact the quartermaster had been sent by the Captain on a secret mission: to secure the wine for Petrovich. Otherwise, it would be hell to pay.

“What’s that supposed to mean - or else? Or else what?”

“Aw, come on, sir,” the quartermaster began to whine. “Just let him get drunk...”

“What? Just let him...? Now look here, who are you to tell me...?” And the Zam kicked the quartermaster out.

When the quartermaster came back the third time, the Zam finally gave in. To hell with it, he conceded, let him get drunk.

So they brought Petrovich his wine the first time; then a second...and a third. The fourth time, the Zam put his foot down.

“He’s had enough,” the Zam declared.

Now remember what I told you: if Petrovich doesn’t have his daily drink, it’s going to be a long long day for everybody else.

And so there was Petrovich sitting sober and disgruntled in the Captain’s chair in Central. And who do you think he sees? Lo and behold, he sees the Zam walk right into Central with his navy cap fitted neatly on the top of his head. The Zam felt that during a patrol a true submariner should wear his beanie at all times; Zams were prone to such things - they tended to have seen too many war flicks.

Anyway, there was the Zam making his way down Central in his beanie. And Petrovich liked Zams about as much as a Rotweiler likes his muzzle. He’d ridden our last Zam mercilessly every time we’d gone to sea. Plus, by this point someone had squealed that it was the new Zam who’d dared to cut the cord on his wine. As soon as he saw the Zam, his face lit up:

“Hey, you! In the beanie,” he shouted to the Zam. “Slide on over here.”

The Zam walked up and gave his name and rank. Petrovich looked up at him with a clouded eye, like a bear at a bunch of grapes:

“You take any exams on the ship’s hardware?” he grunted.

“Yes, sir,” said the Zam.

“All right, then, what is this...?” and Petrovich poked his finger into the Zam’s POD.

The Zam stood looking at the device as if he were seeing it for the first time - and didn’t say anything.

“What about this?” Petrovich poked the oxygen-regeneration mask. “How do you turn it on?”

Again the Zam couldn’t answer.

“Aha!” said Petrovich, his eyes filling with bad blood and his head burrowing into his shoulders. Here it seemed that the Zam had finally begun to understand what everyone had meant by or else.

Petrovich stepped up into the Zam’s face and said calmly:

“Alright, you bald pigeon, let’s take a little run through the ship’s hardware.”

And they set out on their little run. They started running in the first compartment - which, as it turned out, was exactly where they finished. The Zam proved to be a total zero: he didn’t know anything. He was so pure and innocent - a real saint among saints.

At the end of the conversation, Petrovich turned beat red, and puffing up like a bulging hose, started to roar:

“What did they teach you in that academy of yours? To read newspapers? To hang up those damn posters? To pull slogans out of your ass? Huh, you good-for-nothing puke? You no-good vermin!

Is that why you’re coming to sea? To sit around all day with a valve up your ass? While everyone else does all the work? You’re nothing but dead weight! A drag anchor! A stowaway! A statue! Maybe you’ll permit me to wipe the dust off your pedestal? Would you be so kind?! Maybe I’ll just take out a rag to dust you off? You piggy-backing blood-sucking leach!

Why should we waste good food on a tapeworm like you? Just for you to shit it all back out? To clog up the head? And who—pray tell - is going to clean up after you? I mean, you don’t know how to work that device either, do you?!

Dammit, you better know this boat!! Like everyone else!!!

Or maybe you think this isn’t a submarine? Maybe you think this is a fashion show? Huh, you little faggot?! And if there’s a fire, perhaps you’d like for me to carry you out first? Allow me to take you by the hand and rescue you! And, while I’m at it, let me kiss you in the crack of your ass! You look at me when I’m talking to you, you sack of shit!

How are you going to lead people? Where are you going to take them? And what if you have to walk into fire? And what if you have to give your life? There’s no way you’re gonna give your life! No-oooo! You’ll make other people give theirs instead! Look at me when I’m talking to you!

And you have the nerve to wear this uniform! You pampered little prick! Who gave you these stripes? Who said you could wear those combat pins? Who the f... let you onto this submarine, anyway?

Look at him! Standing there in his beanie! In his little navy cap!!

You know where people like you oughta go? To the cavalry! The cavalry!! At least there you can lick the sweat off the horse’s balls...”

The Zam left the compartment that day with his hat in his hand, his body wet enough to wring. He must have forgotten what real naval language sounded like. Or maybe he never really knew to begin with.

That evening Petrovich received his pitcher of wine. He drank it as usual. And as usual, having drunk it, he turned into a real softie.

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