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Knights of the Vine RUSSIA

My World

Life of a Lokh
Helen Womack

You’re getting more and more like one of us,” said my friend Tanya when she heard I was downsizing to a oneroom, rented apartment in a sleazy area at the end of the Metro line.

Yes, I admit it; from being a privileged, protected Western correspondent, I have gone down in the world to the point where I can almost call myself a lokh (loser).

Of course, there are lokhs far poorer than me. There are guest workers who sleep four to a room in the space I have all to myself. There are commuters who, when reaching the end of the Metro line, sit for another hour or two in marshrutkas (mini-vans), stuck in traffi c jams, until they make it home to their small nests.

You may accuse me of being like Marie Antoinette, playing at being a shepherdess. But still I feel I qualify as a lokh, for Westerners can be losers too.

The word lokh came from Fenya, the slang of the gulags, and applied to the dumb idiots who fell prey to the more cunning and ruthless. In the 1990s, the “golden youth” or kids of the nomenklatura used to say that not having a “cutlet” (wad of dollars) in your pocket made you a lokh. Ksenia Sobchak, famous for being famous, now says the rich can also be lokhs, if they’re naff enough, and she should know.

To the sneering elite, lokhs en masse are known as bydlo (herd of cattle). They’re treated like cattle so they behave like cattle; they behave like cattle so they get treated like cattle. It’s a vicious circle. There’s a gap between the rulers and the ruled in all countries, of course, but nowhere is it wider than in Russia, where the powers-that-be have complete contempt for ordinary people (and the feeling is mutual).

Not having a BMW, or indeed a car at all, I see the bydlo everyday when I ride on the overcrowded lokhovoz (lokh carrier) or Metro. In their eyes, I see myself reflected: tired, anxious and dissatisfi ed but also, sometimes, laughing at a private joke, smiling inwardly at some secret joy. An Azeri man, in a green jacket and trousers that didn’t quite match, met my eye the other day with a look of self-respect and dignity.

He was a lokh by definition, not being a Muscovite but a “guest of the capital”. He gave up his seat for a woman, a secretary, perhaps, or a teacher. The carriage was crowded with folk: some drunks, a few punks, a beggar, young lovers but mostly workers trying to earn a decent living.

A lokh sticks at his profession, even if it’s low-paid. A lokh works for months without getting paid at all and meekly waits until his employer coughs up some salary, always less than promised.

A lokh has a permanent bad-hair day. Or she brightens a cheap coat with a nice scarf. A lokh is ridiculously happy when he gets a pair of sale shoes that fit or a mattress from Ikea.

“To some, pearls are not big enough; to others soup is too thin,” as the Russian saying goes.

A lokh tries not to get sick because he lacks health insurance and money for doctors.

A lokh manages to get a seat on the Metro and studies an English textbook or a copy of the Russian constitution. Alternatively, he reads a magazine because it’s easier.

A lokh fears the police, even if he’s innocent; especially if he’s innocent. A lokh honestly pays tax and ends up in a bureaucratic nightmare; or he doesn’t pay tax and lays awake at night, worrying.

A lokh fears for her children, particularly if they’re boys. The last thing she wants is for them to go to the army, for she’s heard of conscripts being returned to their mothers in sealed zinc coffins.

A lokh goes to the bank and is asphyxiated by freon gas from a fire extinguisher. The lokh has survived a summer of fires and smog but gets killed by a fire extinguisher— a fittingly absurd death for a lokh.

These are the lokhs; their lives are cheap, except to their loved ones. Their sorrows are great but perhaps they know the God of Small Things.

I don’t romanticize them but I honour them; I almost count myself one of them.

“But you can go back to your native England or adopted Australia,” I hear you say. Yes, except that I’m a lokh there too, you see. The whole world is ruled by zombies: politicians who forget who elected them, corporate fat cats and celebrities who are brain- and heart-dead.

At least we lokhs do have lives; we have not all sold our souls.

When a lokh goes home, perhaps he opens not a bottle of vodka but his paint box and passionately engages in his hobby. Perhaps he waters a garden on his balcony. And if a lokh is married, there’s an outside chance his wife might actually love him, for she certainly didn’t marry him for his money.

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