You’re a struggling political activist in modern Russia.
You’re trying to make ends meet. It’s not easy. New laws make dissent practically impossible.
But one night you find yourself among the elites. It’s as if you’ve been given a chance to show those in power what you’re truly made of.
“The Helicopter” is an unsettling political story. A contemporary take on the rise of gangster democracy.
Will you rise up and lead your people to a new beginning, a new way?
Or will modern politics get the better of you?
Rated NC-17 / 3,000 words / 12 minutes of unnerving reading pleasure
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‘Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself.’ Leo Tolstoy
Copyright 2023 Stefano Boscutti
All Rights Reserved
1. GRAND FOYER
It’s late and it’s time to go home.
How long have you been at this ludicrous birthday party? How many deranged nights? You’ve lost count, haven’t you?
You’re surrounded by the spoiled and wasted sons and daughters of Russia’s super rich and super powerful. A generation drunk on their parents’ obscene wealth and influence. A generation so lost they will never, ever find their way.
What are you even doing here? You despise these people.
How did you get here? You certainly never received an official invitation. You came with a friend of a friend of a friend.
A bit of fun at the end of summer. You never dreamed you’d make it past the first security screening.
Now here you are in a sweeping foyer overflowing with guests and hangers-on. It’s impossible to tell who’s coming or going. It’s a swirl of people, like Petchenka Station at rush hour.
You’re waiting with Mikhail. In your hand is a small plastic disc imprinted with the number seventy-three. It looks like a gambling chip. It marks your place in the queue. An officious young woman with a metal clipboard is calling out numbers for people waiting for the black limousines that will shuttle guests back to Moscow. She calls out number sixty-eight.
In one corner of the foyer is an enormous pile of birthday presents for Irina Bakhmetevsky. It reaches up three levels almost touching the ceiling. It’s like a mountain of glistening presents, wrapped and ribboned.
Irina’s father is Alexander Bakhmetevsky. A lot of the mothers and fathers of the guests owe their livelihood to this man. Many owe their lives.
On the other side is a long reception counter in dark timber overflowing with more presents. The foyer feels more like a luxury hotel than a home.
You look up at the colossal chandelier. High, sparkling.
‘Do you think it’s cut glass or lead crystal?’
Mikhail couldn’t care less. What worries him is that his watch has stopped working. It’s stuck on twelve-fifty-seven. He taps the watch face twice. You smile at him.
‘Time to buy a better watch, Mikhail.’
‘It’s never stopped before.’
Who wears a watch anymore? Normally you’d check your phone. But everyone knows not to take their phones. They know they’d be confiscated and destroyed.
And if you somehow manage to sneak a phone in, you’d never get a signal, never get to make a call or send a message. Everyone knows the government always jams the networks at events like this. Everyone knows everything these days.
Power has devolved to knowing. The threat has become internalised. You no longer need the secret police to roam the streets with bloodied dog heads to frighten people into submission. People are all too willing to yield.
You see waiters with silver platters with more food whisk through the foyer. You’ve never eaten so much caviar in your life.
‘Did you try the lobster, Mikhail?’
Mikhail smiles. You know he didn’t. He’s a Buddhist and a vegetarian.
‘It’s wild, not farmed. It’s really something.’
Mikhail normally carries on about sentient beings and the sanctity of life. He must be tired.
You look up at the chandelier again.
‘It’s probably crystal?’
‘Whatever it is, it’s an illusion.’
You’d seen pictures of the Bakhmetevsky country estate in gossip magazines. More modern Park Hyatt than old-school Russian. It was meant to evoke the new spirit of Russia. Ultra-capitalist without too much gaudy excess.
Bakhmetevsky built this estate for his daughter Irina after her mother died. A refuge from the world. He couldn’t deny Irina anything. He kept the lowest profile of any of the oligarchs. Although Irina splashed out in public - a gaggle of girlfriends, a rock star boyfriend, a driver famous for carrying two handguns at all times.
You can’t afford to go to nightclubs. You can’t even afford to continue your studies. The small stipend from Propom, the pro-democracy organisation, is hardly enough to live on let alone take care of your ageing aunt. Maybe life was better under Gorbachev. At least you didn’t have to bribe doctors and hospital orderlies.
It’s definitely time to go home.
‘Mikhail, I’m going to pick up my bag.’
‘Why? The woman said your bag would be taken to the car.’
You shrug your shoulders.
‘I don’t trust them.’
Mikhail raises an eyebrow.
‘Bakhmetevsky has already stolen half of Russia. What would he want with your bag?’
2. LUXURY ROOM
You step into room six-one-two. It’s already been cleaned by the housekeeping staff, and your bag has already been picked up.
Your presence has been scrubbed away with medical-grade bleach. Every trace gone, ready for the next guest.
You glance around. Something doesn’t feel right. You step into the marble bathroom and close the door. The edge of the door overlaps against the frame. You press your foot against the bottom of the door to stop it from opening.
You turn on the cold water tap but no water comes out. Just the sound of dry metal turning on metal.
It feels like someone is watching you. But these days it always feels like someone is watching you.
You crouch down and reach under the basin. You reach deeper and retrieve a Walther PPK pistol. You’d found it earlier on the grounds. Someone from security must have dropped it. Just a little souvenir, a small memento. What harm is there? Surely nobody will miss it?
You’ll show it to everyone at Propom. It’s sure to impress. It feels like you’ve been making some progress lately. Not the usual cat and mouse but some real political agitation that’s started to make ripples. There’s even talk of protests next weekend. Maybe the pistol is a sign.
You’re pretty sure it’s loaded. You’re pretty sure the safety is on. You slip it into your waistband and drop your shirt over the cool brushed stainless steel.
Stepping out of the bathroom, you glance over the room and realise you hadn’t even slept in the bed. Not once. Any dreams of bedding some socialite or pretty young thing had fallen away during the festivities.
The deep red curtains are drawn tight. You never opened them. You smile and step over and part them slowly. There’s no window, just a cinderblock wall.
You shake your head and step out of the room.
3. GLASS ENTRANCE
You’re stepping through the foyer towards the entrance, flicking the small numbered plastic disc into the air and catching it on the back of your hand.
Private security guards and Federal Protective Service officers almost outnumber the guests coming and going. Army and Air Force personnel are dotted around.
Mikhail stands outside, shaking his head.
‘We’ve missed our car.’
‘Where’s your bag?’
‘They already took it.’
‘That’s why I never carry one.’
‘Mikhail, you’re such a peasant.’
‘Everyone is a peasant in Russia now.’
You look towards the glittering crowd inside.
Mikhail follows your eyes to the crowd and then looks back at you and nods. Then looks towards the parking lot.
‘We’re going to have to wait hours for another car into the city. We might as well take the bus.’
‘I’m not catching a bus. Do I look like a factory worker?’
‘It’s a luxury coach.’
‘It’s still a bus.’
You start walking towards the parking lot.
‘Maybe we can catch a ride back with someone.’
The grounds seem to dip and roll forever. Ribboned by a high perimeter fence topped with electrified razor wire.
You hear a large helicopter landing on the other side of the hill, near where someone told you there is a lake. It sounds like an armoured Mi-8M, Vladimir Putin’s favourite. Maybe the Russian President is making an appearance. Unlikely given his distaste for any public appearance not ringed by steel and Federal Protective Service officers and his own elite Presidential Security Service guards.
They say Putin never steps outside the Kremlin these days without at least a hundred bodyguards.
Mikhail looks down the long, wide driveway leading to the front gates.
‘I’d rather walk back to Moscow than wait another minute with these parasites.’
‘I’d rather walk back to the foyer.’
You hear some popping sounds in the distance like guns being fired. Who would be firing guns at night out here?
“Did you have any of the wild caviar?’
‘Of course not.’
‘So you let it go to waste. Is that ecologically sound?’
‘Eating fish eggs is eating life.’
‘I’m not sure if those fish eggs are sentient beings but they taste amazing.’
You flip open a Marlboro packet and drag out a cigarette. Some U.S.-funded agency hands them out for free. It says Virginia Tobacco on the front but you know they’re made in China.
Mikhail passes you a plastic cigarette lighter. You think of giving him the gun you have for safety, and maybe his cigarette lighter back. Instead you keep both.
Mikhail walks away down the driveway, raises his right hand above his head, and waves goodbye without turning back.
You look up at the night sky but you can’t see any stars. You see faint black smoke rising in the distance. Is that burnt meat you smell?
You light the cigarette, breathe the smoke in deep and think of the finely salted caviar and how the wild sturgeon is pulled from the Black Sea, how the mother is dragged from the dark water. How she’s sliced from tail to mouth while still alive to retrieve her eggs.
You nod at a handful of partygoers stumbling into the glass entrance. A stunning young woman dressed all in red smiles at you as she passes by. Blows you a kiss.
Children of the damned. How did Russia produce so many oligarchs? These oligarchs who are richer and more powerful and more ruthless than all the czars and kings combined.
Publicity-shy Bakhmetevsky was the Kremlin’s chief security adviser and part of Putin’s innermost circle. Despite - or perhaps because of the Kremlin connections - he managed to own and run a multi-billion-dollar private investment company with petroleum holdings in the Black Sea. Hence the endless supply of wild caviar.
Bakhmetevsky’s closest friend is Vagit Alekperov, the former energy minister who owns and runs the Lukoil conglomerate, owner of one of the largest oil and gas companies in the world. Other close friends include Roustam Tariko, one of Russia’s most successful businessmen and the founder of Russian Standard Vodka and the owner of Russian Standard Bank, and Vladimir Yevtushenkov, the founder and majority owner of Sistema.
Bakhmetevsky’s past is littered with former associates who no longer serve a purpose, like Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the oil tycoon arrested in 2003 and jailed for years. Leonid Shulman, Alexander Tyulakov, Vasily Melnikov, Vladislav Avayev, Sergey Protosenya, Aleksandr Subbotin, Yuri Voronov, Ravil Maganov, Grigory Kochenov. All dead. Either poisoned, stabbed or hurled out a window.
You head back towards the grand foyer.
4. GRAND FOYER
A security officer puts his palm hard on your chest to stop you from entering. Another security officer snatches the cigarette from between your lips.
‘This is a smoke-free zone. Thank you for not smoking,’ he says.
Then they both step aside so you can enter. You’re sure you read somewhere that Bakhmetevsky hates smoking. Cigarettes are for the poor.
Inside the foyer there’s a flurry of activity as the birthday girl herself - Irina Bakhmetevsky - staggers through the crowd surrounded by bodyguards and acolytes and hangers-on.
Someone stumbles into you, almost knocks you over. It’s a large man, a drunken buffoon. Somehow he’s in front of you and behind you at the same time. Then you realise they’re twins. The second one speaks, embarrassed and apologetic.
‘I’m so sorry. My brother is an idiot, never looking where he’s going.’
‘Nothing broken, I hope.’
‘It’s all good.’
You see Irina come closer. She’s celebrating her twenty-fourth birthday but she looks closer to forty-two than twenty-four. She looks worn out, thin legs, tiny skirt, thin arms, holding a broken doll. Carrying a doll is one of her affectations. Like her bleached blonde hair, cropped short, messily cut by the most expensive hairdresser in Russia.
Irina crashes into you. And you say the first thing you think of.
‘What’s so happy about it?’
You can’t help but smile at her as her head slumps against your shoulder. She breathes you in.
‘You smell of cigarettes. You smell wonderful,’ she says.
‘They’re terrible for your health.’
‘Everything is terrible for your health.’
A smile cracks the corner of her mouth. Her teeth are tiny but still white.
‘Are you taking the helicopter back to Moscow?’ she asks.
Irina leans back and looks you up and down.
‘Have you ever flown in a helicopter?’
‘Only on summer holidays.’
She sways away. Looks back and smiles again. She knows you’re lying.
‘Come with me, bring your friends.’
‘All of them?’
She almost laughs as you follow her and the others.
People want to be led. They want their disputes settled, their deeds negotiated, their jobs dispensed, their mutinies punished. They want their loyalties rewarded.
People hand over their power to whoever leads them to what they want. It’s a covenant, unspoken and elemental.
Irina is skipping ahead, giggling. Spoiled and infantile as she leads you and the others through a side door.
5. INDUSTRIAL KITCHEN - NIGHT
You all tumble through a large industrial kitchen in full flight.
Flames are leaping from cooktops. Teams of chefs and cooks are frantically cooking meals in central islands while others are prepping on counters.
Plates are coming and going. Waiters are dashing in and out of swinging doors.
6. SERVICE CORRIDOR - NIGHT
Irina leads you all out to a long service corridor where two kitchen hands are sharing a cigarette.
She plucks the cigarette from them and starts smoking as she rushes along. Her voice shrill and excited.
‘Come on, let’s fly!’
7. INTERCONNECTED CORRIDORS
There’s no stopping Irina as she darts left and right then left again.
It’s like a cinderblock maze with overhead pipes and crash rails. Lit by dull fluorescent lighting. The concrete floor is worn and scuffed. Sounds echo and bounce and scatter down the walls.
You look at the crowd she’s dragging along. Some of them look familiar. They look like activists. They look like you.
A serious young man with glasses looks at you and nods recognition. You nod back and smile. He looks over the surging crowd, counting.
‘What are you doing?’
‘There’s thirty-three of us. Thirty-four if you count Irina.’
‘What are you? A statistician?’
‘You can’t fit that many people in a helicopter.’
‘Do you have any idea how rich Bakhmetevsky is? It’ll be a big helicopter.’
The serious young man stops as you all move ahead.
‘Maybe there are two helicopters,’ you say.
He stands still as you all move forward and disappear down another corridor towards open metal doors. You feel a blast of cold air.
8. BOARDING GATE CORRIDOR
You all rush down a corridor lined with larger-than-life-size photographic portraits of dead Russian leaders. Black-and-white, cruel.
Vladimir Lenin, Alexei Rykov, Joseph Stalin, Georgy Malenkov, Nikita Khrushchev, Leonid Brezhnev, Yuri Andropov, Konstantin Chernenko, Mikhail Gorbachev, Boris Yeltsin.
You see Irina’s broken doll on the unswept floor.
9. BOARDING GATE
Unmanned boarding counter. Phones and computer monitors aren’t connected because the power cords have been sliced off. There’s dust like icing. Maybe the maids and cleaners aren’t allowed here.
Dirty glass doors lead to the air bridge. A flight crew in light blue uniforms is standing by. Full smiles, big teeth, wearing heavy makeup.
There’s a sky blue logo of a winged star painted above the glass doors. As you hurry through, you’re handed a paper showbag that looks like it’s stuffed with candy. You’re giddy with excitement.
10. AIR BRIDGE
Once through the glass doors, everyone turns to the right and down a flight of concrete stairs. You look around and can’t see Irina anywhere. You think you hear the sounds of flies buzzing, hissing. It must be the helicopter starting.
You look up and the flight crew wave you on. You pass a series of open steel doors on each landing. The buzzing becomes louder.
At the bottom of the stairs the floor is dirt. Flies are flitting about. You hear the steel door above you slam shut and lock into place. You see there’s no handle on your side, only scratch marks.
There’s only one other steel door in front of you. Grinding engine noise from the other side. Scraping, plowing, rasping.
You catch your breath as panic begins to spread. You open your showbag and look inside. There’s nothing but shredded newspaper.
You feel for the pistol in your waistband. It’s not there because the twins took it.
There are spent bullet casings on the dirt floor. Patches damp with wet blood.
Sounds of gas jets igniting and flaming from the other side of the heavy steel door.
As the thick door rises and flames shudder the air, you glimpse the raging furnace.
And realise there is no helicopter.
There never was.
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Copyright 2023 Stefano Boscutti
All Rights Reserved
No part of this work may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording or any information storage or retrieval system, without permission in writing.
Stefano Boscutti acknowledges the trademark owners of various products referenced in this work. The publication or use of these trademarks is not authorised or sponsored by the trademark owner.
This is a work of fiction. While many of the characters portrayed here have counterparts in the life and times of various Russian oligarchs and others, the characterisations and incidents presented are totally the products of the author’s ferocious imagination. This work is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. It should not be resold or given away. Thank you for your support. (Couldn’t do it without you.)
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