"Hey guys! You know Vaska Komarov? From Sheregesh?" the ageing drunk in his faded tracksuit yelled as the bus pulled out of the west Siberian city of Novokuznetsk. "Great," I thought, my mood darkening instantly. "A gopnik."
There's nothing worse than being stuck on a slow bus for four hours or so with a gopnik. (Well, there are a couple of things I can think of, but we won't go into them here.) A gopnik, for those of you have never met one, is usually loud, aggressive, boasts a skin-hugging haircut and is not too bright. Some people say it's the Russian equivalent of the British chav, but there are cultural differences I can't be bothered to get too explicit about right here. Still, it's a close enough analogy for the purposes of my cautionary tale.
"What about Sanya Cherny? You know him? And Maksim? He owns the White Swan cafe?"
His incessant probing was directed at a group of younger gopniks in the seats opposite.
"Yeah, yeah," one of them muttered. "We know everyone there, and what of it?"
"I'm cooler and tougher than them all! I'm a legend, lads!"
Both this and the subsequent boasting was accompanied by a lot of swearing, at volume. For the first hour or so, no one said much, but after the sixty-minute mark, his fellow passengers started to complain. Eventually, the driver stopped the bus and screamed at the "legendary" gopnik that he had had enough, and that he was throwing him off. We were way out of the city by now.
"No, don't do that," a few people - including some of those who had been complaining - responded. "He'll get stuck here. Just tell him to keep it down."
"Ok, ok, I'll shut up," gopnik agreed. "You won't hear another word from me."
And sure enough, he was true to his word, keeping a solemn silence. For all of the next twenty minutes or so, I guess. But time moves differently for gopniks.
"Lads!" he yelled, his vow forgotten, pronouncing his words with the classic gopnik growl. "You know Tolya? Fat Tolya? With the moustache, used to hang around with Sanya?"
The driver slammed on the brakes again. And once more, his fellow passengers came to his rescue. "We'll keep an eye on him, we can't very well just chuck him off here, can we?" The driver shrugged and we continued up the steep and remote road we had been crawling along for the past few miles.
Tolerance, I thought, is a wonderful thing. A very admirable Russian trait. I'm pretty sure he would have been bundled off an inter-city coach in the U.K. But the Russians were far more patient than National Express.
But tolerance of drunks is a necessary virtue for a country where alcohol abuse has reached catastrophic levels. As President Medvedev pointed out in the summer of 2009, for every single Russian man, woman and child, some 18 liters of pure alcohol are drunk a year. Gopnik Legend looked as if he had taken care of the annual quotas for a few kids and teetotalers himself in the past few days or so. How many of the passengers also had Stakhanovite drinkers in their families?
I was still thinking about alcohol and tolerance levels when the bus pulled into Sheregesh - its last stop - some three hours later. Gopnik stumbled off to his hut. Circled by hills and mountains, the mining village is now a popular winter sports resort known for its natural beauty. Not for nothing is the area around Sheregesh dubbed a "little Switzerland."
I walked towards the slopes to find a hotel. All around me, there were more gopniks and wanna-be-gopniks making sure the national spirit levels stayed high.
None of them paid any attention to the hills, the snow-capped peaks, the pine forests around them. How, I wondered, the notion almost instinctive, can they drink so heavily in such surroundings? Why would they even want to?
But it was a false thought, not quite mine, the words oddly familiar, as if I'd read them somewhere only to regurgitate them when the opportunity arrived. After all, why should they pay any particular attention to the scenery? Not only were they used to it, but nature is, well...natural. It certainly wasn't anything that was going to disable their get-off-your-face-as-cheaply-and-as-quickly-as-possible mode.
But that was enough about gopniks and vodka. I had more important things to think about. Like finding a place to stay for the night. I set off down the road towards the slopes where I knew I'd find a hotel. It was getting dark by now, and the mist was sweeping in from the mountaintop. The last time I'd been in town, I'd got a lift from the bus stop to the actual ski resort. It was, I figured, a ten-minute walk - tops.
Half an hour later I was still walking along the now deserted road. Darkness had joined the mist and I was finding it hard to see where I was going. Perhaps I should take the path back to town and look for a room there? I cast a glance behind my shoulder. It seemed to be darker behind me. I kept walking. I was instantly reminded of the classic moor scene in An American Werewolf in London.
A few moments later I stumbled out of the dark into the illuminated courtyard of a hotel. Relieved not to have been torn apart by the local lycanthrope, I pushed at the door. It wouldn't budge. I read the notice pinned to it. "Call owners on below telephone number."
I whipped out my phone. The batteries had died on me.
I headed back to the road and pressed on. Suddenly, I heard footsteps. A gopnik loomed out of the mist.
"Got any spare change? I'm out of cigarettes".
I handed over some cash and he told me where to go to find a hotel. Wishing the gopnik a very "good evening" I followed his directions and a short time after I was wondering what to order from room service.
Would I have found the hotel without the gopnik? I'm not sure.
The moral of this tale? Well, it doesn't really have one, but if you are the kind of person who needs explicit instructions on what to take from every story, then I guess it's this. Gopniks may be annoying, but they are handy if you get lost in misty Siberian villages. So "long live gopniks!"
Just don't get on any buses with them if you can help it.
From lurid tales of oligarch excess to scare stories about Moscow’s stranglehold on Europe’s energy supplies, the land that gave us Roman Abramovich and Vladimir Putin is very rarely out of the news. But there is much more to modern Russia than billionaire tycoons and political conspiracy. Marc Bennetts’ weekly column, Deeper Than Oil, goes beyond the headlines to explore the hidden sides of the world’s largest, and often strangest, country.
Marc Bennetts is a journalist (The Guardian, The Observer, The Times, and more) and the author of Football Dynamo: Modern Russia and the People’s Game (Virgin Books). He is currently working on a book about Russia’s fascination with the occult.