Escape from Tashkent

A Peace Corps worker unwittingly falls into a romantic adventure with a Russian waitress stranded in Uzbekistan.

Topics: Soviet Union, Russia, Travel,

When the waitress first stepped up to our table to take our order I couldn’t see her face — behind her head blinked the red-blue-yellow lights of the restaurant floor show. But she was blond, buxom and big-boned — that much I could tell — and I liked the way she moved. After noting our order she lingered over my shoulder for a moment, then snapped shut her pad and disappeared down the smoky aisles toward the kitchen.

I was in Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan, with a few other Americans. We had come to set up a Peace Corps program in the country, which had recently gained independence from the Soviet Union. Around us in the restaurant, members of the new Uzbek elite congregated, swearing, shouting and downing shots of chili-pepper vodka. They were shishki — fat cats — grim and oily nabobs of communist background and shady trade, whose fingers were slathered in gold rings and whose trousers bulged with wads of $100 bills; next to them sat the baubled whores who serviced them. Since independence, Uzbek mobsters and clan leaders had come into their own, and Tashkent had devolved into a warren of corruption, violence and ethnic and religious tension. As Peace Corps workers poured into Uzbekistan, locals with their wits about them were high-tailing it out of there. The best thing you could do in Tashkent, especially if you were Russian, was plot your escape.

Our waitress was one of the only Russians left on the restaurant’s staff. A while later she brought us our order. I watched her lay out the plates, then walk to a spot opposite our table and lean against a pillar. Our eyes met, and locked. I called her over to ask her name. She smiled and stepped forward, but her gaze fell on something behind me. She turned rigid and traipsed past me.

A few minutes later she was leaning over my left ear.

“My name is Anastasia.”

“You’re a bit nervous, aren’t you, Anastasia?”

“Oh, I’m just on the job, that’s all.”

We chatted. She bent over my shoulder as if ducking, her eyes now and again scanning the recesses of the restaurant. I asked for her phone number so I could invite her to dinner, but she said she would take mine instead; she then instructed me to slip it to her under the table on a balled-up piece of paper. In the middle of a promise to call me she froze, straightened her posture and marched off.



After my meal I looked up. Through the gloom, in the back, I discovered a pair of eyes — the cold, slate-gray eyes of a mustachioed man — staring at me.

- – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – -

In 1966 an earthquake leveled Tashkent, which until then had been one big Turkestani bazaar wafted over by the spicy breezes of Central Asia, evocative of Tamerlane and the Khanates of yore. When the Soviets finished rebuilding it, it was a jungle of cement barracks, apartment hovels, fearsome Lenin statues and wide avenues built for parades of proletarians who never existed in a republic of cotton fields and desert. Rising above the center was the Hotel Uzbekistan, a 12-story concrete leviathan where roaches rained from the ceiling, clerks often doubled as pimps, and hookers solicited rooms on an hourly basis. In the wee hours of the morning Uzbek KGB agents stalked the stairwells, interrogating the floor attendants about the whereabouts of foreign guests. The Peace Corps called the Hotel Uzbekistan home, and I lived there during the first months of my assignment.

The next afternoon Anastasia rung my room from a pay phone — she was afraid, she said, of calling from her apartment lest there be “complications” from the KGB. Still, she sounded relaxed and we talked for a long time: She liked to go to the theater, Chekhov was her favorite writer, she loved the poet Pushkin …

“So what about dinner?” I asked. “I’m flying to Kiev tomorrow, so how about tonight?”

“Just meet me in front of the Zvezdopad Cafi at 8. Come in a taxi — but not in a taxi from the hotel. And don’t get out of the car when you arrive — I’ll recognize you. I’ll take you to this restaurant I know.”

When I left the hotel that evening the autumn air was layered with
the smoke of burning leaves. My Lada taxi rocketed down the deserted
avenues of the center and picked up a road heading out of town. A
half-hour later we reached the Zvezdopad Café. No Anastasia. I waited
inside the car as instructed.
She came running up from behind and threw open the back door and
jumped in beside me. “The restaurant in Chilanzar district!” she told the
driver, breathless.

We peeled out. She snuggled up to me. She picked up my hand and
examined my fingers. I felt her heat as her flesh warmed to me.

The restaurant was a labyrinth of private booths, plastic pagodas and
Uzbek thugs with Russian hookers. It was, in sum, one of the classier
joints in Tashkent, and we ordered a multi-course repast.

Anastasia sat next to me in the booth and poured out her life
story. She told me her parents had fled Stalin’s purges, coming here in
the ’30s from a village near Tambov. She had worked as a seamstress in
Soviet days but the factory had closed; her girlfriends were all leaving
for Russia. Now, she was 27, lived alone with her mother and was afraid the Uzbeks were going to kick her out of her job because she was Russian. My
life, a mishmash of solitary wanderings over Eastern Europe, the Arab
World and a few other places, sounded magical to her. When I tried to
explain how uncertain, even disconsolate, it had all been, she wouldn’t
hear of it: “Oh no! It’s so romantic! What have I seen? Only Tashkent!”

Our food came. We gorged ourselves on caviar, we feasted on
sturgeon. We drank sparkling goblets of champagne and toasted and ate more caviar, more sturgeon. Our despair and passion soon swept us away. I was a wanderer and
she was a waif, everything was lost, life was grief! We drank champagne.
We kissed, and her lips were full and rich as fresh strawberries.

We finished our caviar and started in on our chicken Kiev. She
took a bite or two, then put down her fork. As her lips found mine again,
there was a knock on the booth door. It was the waitress. She called
Anastasia outside. A few minutes later Anastasia returned, her jaw
clenched.

“What’s wrong?” I asked.

“What could be wrong?” she said. “Nothing’s
wrong. How’s that chicken?” She stabbed at her fowl. Grease squirted onto her dress. I got up
and told her I would get some cold water.
“No! I mean, you stay here. This is a woman’s task. I’ll be
right back.”
She left me again. I waited a second, then followed her out and
saw her slip into the ladies’ room.
When Anastasia came back this time she was more relaxed. She stuffed the chicken into her mouth and, looking dreamily into
my eyes, began chewing more lustily than ever. We kissed and wiped the
grease off our chins.
But there was another knock on the door. “Psst! Psst!” Anastasia
stiffened.
I got up. “Look, what’s going on here?”
She kissed me and pushed me back into my seat. When she returned I
demanded to know what was going on.
“It’s nothing. Just a tiny problem.”
“What kind of tiny problem?”
“Oh, you see there’s this man I used to date. I just moved out of
his apartment. He’s a bit jealous and, well, he gets a little crazy at
times. He’s outside the restaurant. He’s making a scene, you know, being
threatening and all.” She batted her eyes.
I got up to look. She pulled me back. “There’s no reason to go
near the door. I tried to calm him down — I told him to get lost, to get
the hell out of here, that I hate him and all — but he’s a bit out of
control.”
“You just broke up?”

“Only the other day he packed his bags and
left me.”
“You said you left him.”
“Right.”
We finished our meal in silence, but with more goblets of champagne
we loosened up again. We left the restaurant arm-in-arm, and there was no
boyfriend on the street. I hailed a cab for her place. We arrived at a
pitch-black alley, a tunnel of poplars, and got out of the car. I wanted to walk her to
her door.
“No! Please, I mean, just go back to your hotel.
“I want to see you safely to your door.”
“I live with my mother — it would be embarrassing for me.”
She took my face in her hands and kissed me, then hurried away into
the tunnel. I lost her to the dark. Nonplused, I walked to the main road
in search of another cab.

There wasn’t a car in sight, and I was alone on the street. The
windows from surrounding apartments cast dim yellow columns into the smoky
air. I waited. Ten, 15 minutes passed.
Finally, headlights appeared. A gray Volga stopped and it had
three young Uzbeks inside. Normally I would never have boarded an occupied
taxi, but there was no choice. I told the driver Hotel Uzbekistan.
As I was getting in, another set of headlights rifled out of the
dark to our rear, and a white Volga roared up and screeched to a halt
beside us. Its driver shouted through the open passenger window, “U menya
k vam delo!”
I have a matter to settle with you!
Who was he talking to? We all exchanged puzzled glances. I told
the driver to go to the hotel and we took off. Soon, however, the
headlights of the accoster were flashing on and off behind us; in the
rearview mirror I saw the white Volga bouncing over the potholes, honking,
swerving left, then right, in hot pursuit.
My cabby slowed for an instant, checking his rearview mirror. His
brake lights illuminated a driver with a black mustache.
The youths in my cab began shouting “Davay! Bystreye! Davi na
gaz!”
Faster, faster, step on it! We were now flying down the empty
eight-lane thoroughfares in a speed duel with the Volga, which lurched from
lane to lane like a steel-carcassed predator.
It swung around to our left and caught up with us.
“Pull over! Pull over!” the mustachioed man shouted. He finally
broke into Uzbek and said something that turned all the heads in my cab
toward me. He cut us off and we careened up onto the curb. One of the
youths nudged me: “So, you’re screwing that guy’s wife!”
“It’s him I want. Him!”
They jeered and sneered at me, they told me I was done for. I
collected myself and slowly stepped out of the car, trying not to look
afraid. I had to get out of the car. My fellow passengers were not going
to help me; as far as they were concerned I was a hated Russian in an
illicit affair with an Uzbek’s wife, and matters of this sort — matters of
manly honor — were often settled by blood.
In the Volga I discerned an Uzbek wearing a suit and tie.
“You!” said the Uzbek in the Volga, “I must talk with you! I’ll take you to your
hotel.” He swallowed hard. “Just talk with me, please … Sir!”
My cab drove off. We were left alone, he in his Volga, I on the
street, with burning leaf smoke drifting between us, with the shells of
abandoned buildings for an amphitheater. His Russian was clear, with no
trace of an Uzbek accent; he was educated.
“Just let me talk to you, please!” he opened the passenger-side door.
We were on the edge of town. He could do away with me here and no
one would know, yet I didn’t want to run from him because that would be
cowardly — and where would I run? I decided, partly out of a lack of a
clear alternative, partly out of an impulse to test fate, and also because
I perceived him to be reasonable enough not to cut my throat right away, to
get in his car.
He floored the accelerator and we shot forward, flying through the
smoke, swinging right and left down the wide streets.
“I love Anastasia,” he declared, hitting the steering wheel with
the edge of his hand. “We were trying to work things out but then you
appeared. You! A rich American! Anastasia told me everything. Me, I’m
just an Uzbek trying to love my wife. That’s all I want to do, to love my
wife!”
We crashed through a pothole and a hubcap sprang free. He took a
sharp left.
“Your wife? She didn’t say she was married. She said you broke up.”
“We just haven’t signed the papers, but she’s been my wife for
eight years. Ever heard of common-law marriage? Now you come along and
want to steal her from me. She only wants to use you to get a visa to
America, see? She just wants to use you for your passport!”
“She broke up with you.”
“Nonsense! We live together in that building you took her to.
She’s lying to you. Are you so naive?”
We shot down the boulevards, past darkened storefronts and
walled-off Uzbek homes. We were doing 50 miles an hour, 60. We
roared through police checkpoints but they didn’t stop us. No one passed a
checkpoint in Tashkent without being stopped — except the KGB.
“Well, your relationship with Anastasia, if you have one, is your
business,” I said, trying to figure out who was deceiving whom, and doing
my best to determine what direction we were heading.
He looked over at me. His eyes were bloodshot. He had a mad-dog
snarl one minute, a pathetic puppy look the next. I could see he was
speaking from passion, from a desperation rooted in something deeper than
macho jealousy; I could sense the history of their messy lives in his
hoarse voice. We skidded onto a plaza, into a long U-turn, and rifled back
out onto the main avenue. All Anastasia’s nervousness and evasions began
adding up to something — maybe she was cheating on him, maybe she was using
me. Or maybe he was lying to keep me away from her.

He steadied his voice. “I will do everything in my power to
prevent your marriage. I’ll stop at nothing.”

“Our marriage? We just met!”

“She told me your plans!” He turned mad-dog and smashed the
dashboard with his fist. “You’re marrying her and taking her to the
States! She told me! I’ll do everything — anything — to stop you! You
won’t get away with this!”
“If you are threatening me, why –”
I cut short my proclamation, deciding that calling down upon him
the wrath of the Peace Corps might sound less than sufficiently
intimidating. But he said he wasn’t threatening me — not yet. He went on
and on about his love for her, about my scheming with her to elope, about
the lives I would be destroying if I chose to do so.
We drove past a row of kiosks, around a traffic circle, through a
police checkpoint, and halted in front of the Hotel Uzbekistan. I looked
at him in the dashboard light. He was wearing a clip-on tie and a
mouse-gray polyester suit that cramped his underarms; his ankles were
spindly in boat-sized leatherette loafers; he reeked of Sasha, a Soviet
cologne only fit for use as bug spray. He was, in short, doing his best to
keep up appearances on what must have been meager resources. Something
else struck me: Throughout his ravings he addressed me as vy — the Russian
equivalent of the courteous French vous. As angry as he was, he was not
disrespectful.
“Promise me you will not marry her! Promise me!”
“Your relationship with Anastasia is your business. I’m tired and
I’m going to bed.”
“Promise me you won’t marry her! You’ll not get away with it if
you try!”
“I won’t promise you anything, but … Proshchayte.” Good-bye.
I got out and walked into the hotel.
Up in my room I thought about Anastasia. What did I want from her?
I was attracted to her, I felt sympathy for her, but how did she see me?
In a society as raped and ravaged as this one, the imperative of
survival directed love, friendships, careers. As an ethnic Russian in a
former Soviet republic, she had every reason to want out, and her desperate
husband or lover could offer her nothing as expeditious as an American
passport.
After this confrontation, I envisioned myself as an interloper
striding into her tattered relationship with him and wrecking it, with my
very presence in her life representing the possibility of escape from
Tashkent, my passport gleaming like a golden key to a world of opulence and
hope. Whatever the reality, in the eyes of some I could be viewed as a
rich Westerner who could be used and discarded once the border was crossed.
This was conjecture, but plausible conjecture.
I felt sorry for them both. In my heart I found I
believed him and doubted her, and suddenly I wanted nothing to do with
either of them.
The next morning I flew to Kiev for a week. After I returned to
Tashkent I never saw her or her lover again. Nor did I try to.

Jeffrey Tayler is a contributing editor at The Atlantic. His seventh book, "Topless Jihadis -- Inside Femen, the World's Most Provocative Activist Group," is out now as an Atlantic ebook. Follow @JeffreyTayler1 on Twitter.

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