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Kuzha

“Kumzha” is a training course for generals at the academy of the General Headquarters in which they learn about sub- ma rines. A boat of every design is lined up for them, in the designated naval base. The boats shine with freshly painted insides, at the end of a week’s industrial-scale tidy-up. It’s quiet, the rats are gone and the officers are waiting each in his section, in clean underwear and new slippers, all with new haircuts, and the PBDs are hanging in the right places, while the rest of the crew are led off to the navy club to watch films.

A crowd of generals, chatting among themselves, appears at the shaft-like opening of the hatch. The first of them begins to lower himself inside. Instead of turning his face to the railing, he’s descending with his backside to it. So he’s crawling down while his elbows poke into things on the way and this general gets stuck with his arms turned out. “Hey, Vaska!” the generals standing above him are having fun. “It’s not a tank, for fuck’s sake, you need to use your brains here!” The ladder in the central area gently slopes down and people are meant to go down “face forward”. Shifting back and forth before the ladder, the general Vaska turns (he’s already “learnt from previous experience”) and climbs down it with his back turned to the ladder, making a general’s stride at each step.

“Vaska!” the generals shout at him again; they’ve just been explained, after “Vaska”, how to go down the ladder. “It’s not a tank, for fuck’s sake, use your brain!”

The generals are given a guide but, once they’re inside the boat, they still manage to get lost and crawl all over the place.

“Excuse me… where is the exit?”

“Down the ladder and then straight on.”

“Thank you,” says the general, doing everything he’s just been told but ending up in a dead-end, which is a deserted storage hold.

“Hey!” emanates from there. “Comrades!”

In the first section, generals walk past the torpedoist’s cabin. The last general lingers and hungrily looks at the PBD in this cabin.

“What an interesting flask.”

“It’s a PBD – a portable breathing device, used for complete isolation of your breathing organs in the event of a fire from the harmful influence of the outside atmo sphere!” rattles the officer.

“A-ah…” says the general. “Look at that…” And he sees the officer’s sandals: they have holes that make a sort of pattern: “Did you make the holes yourself?”

The torpedoist doesn’t understand at first, but then he cottons on:

“The holes?... oh, that’s… no, they were issued like that.” In the next group of passing generals, each general looks with curiosity at the “flask” – all the generals have the same thought. The last one lags and asks:

“Is that a flask?”

Quickly:

“It’s a portable breathing device!” This is spoken very quickly and almost hysterically, so the general only half catches it, but he nods understandingly, “A-ah…”, a glance at the sandals:

“Did you make the holes yourself?”

Jokily and racing:

“That’s how they were issued!”

Before the next group, the torpedoist manages to wink at the officer in charge of the next section: “What idiots, eh?!”

The third group comes in and the last general in the group turns to the torpedoist:

“What an interesting flask.”

The torpedoist is overcome with a fit of laughter. But, mouth trembling and bubbling, eyelids flickering, he tries to contain himself; his eyes are bulging, strange sounds pour out of him, this is, no doubt, a case of nerves. The general is surprised and he looks closely at the torpedoist. The latter: “It-it i-is a b-bre-eath-i-ing d-d-d-de-vice!”

“Watch it,” the general looks at the officer attentively, dangers bells are ringing, but here his glance accidentally falls onto the sandals, the general is animated again: “Did you make the holes yourself?”

A ti-tita-an-ic effort is made to bring his face under control (or he’d get it in the neck so he wouldn’t be able to turn it), tears in his eyes:

“Th-th-at’s h-ho-ho-how they issue them!”

The general, with sympathy:

“You’ve got the hiccups?”

A quick nod, trying not to collapse.

Not everyone gets as far as the missile section, only the most curious. The commander of the section, captain of the third rank Sova (fifteen years in this position), buttoned up to the larynx (he has no neck from old age), explains to the general that he has sixteen ballistic missiles under his supervision.

The general with respect:

“I imagine the minister knows about you?” (The general has only three missiles in his base, but there are sixteen here.) “No, no!” says Sova. “Even the flag-officer can’t tell me from other officers.”

Soon, Sova is fed up with the generals, they’ve tired him out, and suddenly he bends in half when the next general comes in.

“What’s the matter with you?” the general jumps to one side.

“Cramps… fuck it… comrade general.”

“Careful!” fusses the general. “Have a seat!”

Everything comes naturally to Sova: the tears, the wheezing… he grows into his role, he groans and twists his face until they lead him out and carefully sit him down, leaving him alone. When there’s nobody beside him anymore, Sova sighs meekly, undoes his collar in one jerk and, leaning against the wall, he rolls his eyes and says with feeling: “What a load of wankers,” after which he falls asleep in a split second.

At the same time in the central section one of the generals from the infantry sees a contraption called “Chestnut”. He says with a cavalier accent:

“What’s this?”

The first mate, his uniform pressed, with a tag on the breast pocket, all rigid from tension:

“This is the ‘Chestnut’ – our military transmission device.”

“Oh really? Interesting, and how does it work?”

“So, you see,“ the first mate, like a magician, clicks a switch, “Eight!”

“This is eight!” croaks out of the “Chestnut”.

“There you have it,” says the first mate, bringing the “Chestnut” back to the starting point, “you can talk to any section.”

“Yes? Interesting,” the general lingers by the “Chestnut”.

“May I?”

“Certainly.”

The general turns it on and unexpectedly speaks timidly with his old man’s thin, trembling voice:

“Ei-gh-t… ei-gh-t…”

“This is eight.”

“Can I talk to you?”

Silence. Then the voice of the eighth section commander:

“Well, talk… old chap… if you’ve got fuck all else to do…”

“What’s happening?” mutters the general. Struck dumb, he clumsily turns his head and looks around with wide eyes. The first mate is confused and dreams of giving a good bashing to the eight; but suppressing this wish for now, he mumbles:

“You understand, comrade general… military trans- mission… commanding words… in a word, he didn’t understand you. You need to do it like this,” the first mate sharply leans to the “Chestnut”, bares his teeth on the way as if he is ready to bite, and roars:

“Ai-ght!!! Ai-ght!!!”

“This is eight!”

“Get closer to the “Chestnut”, eight!”

“Yes, Sir, I’m closer to the “Chestnut”. This is eight!”

“That’s how you do it, comrade general!”

The generals leave. It’s time for lunch, the sections relax and there’s laughter; the officers have come together in the fourth for a meeting, everyone already knows – they’re teasing the commander of the eighth: “He says to him: let me talk to you, and this guy says well, talk, old chap… the first mate almost keeled over and lost his guts. Get ready for anything there’ll be a bucketful of blood, he’ll turn your balls inside out.”

“Well, well… I’ll just keep saying: “Yes, Sir, I’m an idiot, Sir!”

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