Snow flurries danced in the air, caught the slipstream of a shivering trolley bus, whipped into the faces of the flat-capped men towing wooden carts toward the market. At a bus stop thick-set commuters waited in battle fatigues. Young women, their faces haloed in deep, fur-lined hoods, stamped the winter cold out of their high-heeled boots. The ancient trolley shuddered to a halt, its contacts sparking and crackling on the iced overhead wires. The driver swung down from his cab, hoisted himself up onto the roof and – with raw hands blackened with grease – hacked the ice off the contacts with a broken bayonet. He eased the arms back onto the lines, ignored the passengers and continued on his way, past babushkas selling tangerines frozen as hard as orange rocks.
On that bright, bitter morning Vladimir Nikoluk wasn’t working. It was his 58th birthday and he and his pretty, petite, third wife Alexandra were in the mood for celebration.
‘We talk, we cook, we drink, and we try to hear each other above the racket,’ he roared to me in welcome, pouring glasses of Ukrainian Hlibna Slioza. On the tongue the cool, clean vodka tasted of freshly-baked white bread. In the head my brain did a double flip and shook itself awake. ‘The first and last glass must be swallowed in a single gulp. The ones in between are up to you,’ he advised. ‘But understand that your glass will never be empty.’
Nikoluk was a big, welcoming man, with salt-and-pepper goatee beard, fist-flattened nose and immense hands. He introduced himself as a ‘maximalist’: buying the best food, cooking the largest quantities, snatching the most beautiful women in the country and – when necessary – marrying them. ‘No one calls me a minimalist,’ he warned in a voice loud enough to shake snow off the roof. He was an engineer, head of the Union of Builders, and the least cautious man in Transnistria.
In an icy parking lot, he loaded an oil drum barbeque with charcoal and set it alight with a blow torch.
‘We will eat kostitza,’ he declared, flourishing two platters of home-cured pork cut as thick as his thumbs. When he threw them on the grill one could almost hear the pig squeal. ‘No t-bone steak ever tasted as good.’
Nikoluk was born near the source of the Nistru in the western Ukraine. The region had been part of Poland before the Second World War and, even after Stalin absorbed it into the Soviet Union, its people had retained characteristic Polish ambition and industriousness. At the technical college in L’viv, Nikoluk and his classmates were taught that they would become the best engineers in the USSR.
‘”You are the leaders, the Jews of the Jews,” they told us. “Nothing can stand in your way.” That wasn’t the usual Communist approach,’ he assured me.
On graduation Nikoluk was posted down river in Soviet Moldova. The young crane mechanic liked the republic with its southern women and heady local wine. At the first Builders’ Day festival he drank too much of it and told the factory boss that he’d take his job within two years. And he did.
‘Success was the religion of the L’viv Technical Institute,’ he said, lighting a Cuban cigar. As its smoke mingled with the aroma of scorched meat he added, ‘I buy them on the Uruguayan market. They are cheaper that way.’
In 1990 Nikoluk breathed similar hot ambition into the independence war, becoming vice-director of the ‘Strike Committee for an Independent Transnistria’.
‘In Moldova people chanted “Moldova for ethnic Moldovans” and called me an incomer,’ he recalled, refilling our glasses, lobbing the first empty bottle into the snow. ‘Where could I go? I joined the comrades who wanted to maintain links with Russia. I rang Gorbachov and met deputy premier Ryzhkov. I told them, “The Soviet Union is falling apart.” They assured me that it would never happen. But it did.’
He sucked on his cigar.
‘For the next half-a-year I wore a flak jacket. I carried a gun. I had my special “missions”. I fought to preserve our Motherland.’
We raised our glasses to Motherlands which brought tears to Nikoluk’s hooded blue eyes. His wife Alexandra emerged from their ground floor apartment, tottering on her heels between the snowdrifts, bearing plates of pickled watermelon and salo, salt-cured slabs of fatback pork, as well as a steaming jug of ukha fish broth – concocted from freshwater perch and vodka – and reputed to prevent hangovers. Behind her the patched, five-storey block was bisected by gas and drain pipes, its balconies boxed in and curtained against the cold.
‘Vodka is best drunk in threes,’ said Nikoluk, cracking open another bottle. ‘If you drink alone, you are an alcoholic. If two people drink, a man and a woman for example, they are interested in something else. But with three drinkers, you have the perfect number of companions.’ As he refilled the glasses he added, ‘Try the blood sausage.’
After the war Nikoluk – now a large fish in a very small pond – grasped the chance to rebuild damaged infrastructure, winning the contracts to repair the Nistru bridges. He went on to supply the steel for all of the republic’s petrol stations.
‘I benefited from the situation,’ he confessed, crunching the tension out of his neck. ‘Also Transnistria – lying between western Europe and the Ukraine – has 360 kilometres of open border. What else do I need to say?’
In time more glasses were raised and emptied and the steaks were done. We wove our way indoors – heads buzzing, fighting for focus – and Nikoluk twisted his broad shoulders through the doorways between bedroom suites and fitness room, showing off the newly-fitted kitchen and sauna converted from an old bomb shelter. On a huge plasma screen in the living room his four-year-old daughter Maria watched Ukrainian cartoons at top volume, and he apologised for the noise. Her bedroom television had broken after she’d jammed four DVDs into it.
In my alcoholic haze I asked Nikoluk how he had found the swanky apartment on central Karl Marx Street.
‘I was just lucky,’ he laughed, his expansive spirit filling the room with crackling energy. Behind him the ice maker clinked in a stainless steel American fridge freezer.
His table groaned with yet more food: platters of charcuterie, plates of marinated tomatoes, three varieties of potato, half-a-dozen cheeses as well as the butter-tender kostitza pork. There were also more bottles. Every time a new vodka was opened and the glasses filled, little Maria tried to recap it.
We ate, drank, debated historical materialism and business synergy, until my notes started to look indecipherable. Maria lay on a toy tiger rug and turned up the television again. Around nightfall Nikoluk barked at her, an edge of unpredictability flashing in his eyes. Alexandra noticed it and slipped out of her chair to nestle in his lap like a small and delicate bird. He was twice her size, and twice her age.
‘I found her working at the Domsoviet,’ he said as if discussing the netting of a rare specimen in a collection. ‘Every time I passed the city hall I’d call by her office and say, “Your uncle is back to see you again.”’
‘I didn’t notice him at first,’ chirped Alexandra, smiling to reveal her new dental braces. ‘But he was very persistent, and very sly.’
Nikoluk bellowed with delight, wrapping her in his beefy arms. The short sleeves of his black t-shirt emphasised his biceps. Her proximity mellowed him and in a surprisingly wistful voice he said to me, ‘It was always my dream to travel. But I can’t, even with my two passports.’
‘I’d like my name to be on a European passport,’ chirped Alexandra.
Nikoluk swayed up in his seat, pretending to be a border guard inspecting her document, welcoming her into an expanded European Union. ‘Nikoluk, Alexandra...’ he read aloud, then hesitated. He had forgotten her middle name. ‘What is your patronymic again?’ he asked his young wife.