The Defection and Subsequent Resurrection of Nikolai Pushkin
Chaper 1 of a new novel from the Los Angeles Times best-selling author of “AMP’D,” runner-up for the 2017 Thurber Prize for American Humor.
In 1989 a young Soviet hockey player defects to the West, where he hopes to see Cats, meet Mayor Ed Koch, and win the Stanley Cup. He’s surprised to find himself not in New York City but Buffalo, New York — where none of those things are likely. Instead, he falls in love with the music of Rick James, “Fight the Power,” and the beautiful sister of his roommate, the Buffalo Sabres’ truculent enforcer and the only Black player in the NHL. As he tries to defect once again, this time to New York City, the disparate lives of a neglected toddler, sullen teen musician, overzealous KGB agent, “Tank Man,” Vladimir Putin, and a Russian dancing bear collide with devastating and absurd effect that will ripple across decades.
It’s a surreal romp through late-’80s world events and into the present, an exploration of youthful dreams, middle-age ennui, and a future that’s never quite what we’d envisioned.
On the day of Nikolai Pushkin’s scheduled flight to the United States, a van pulled up to the US embassy in Stockholm, Sweden, and four men with unsavory reputations and faces like pounded meat exited the vehicle. Another remained inside, maintaining his stranglehold on the steering wheel. Two of the four lumbered into the Embassy while the other two stood watch; minutes later, the first pair exited flanking a nervous young man, his face shielded by dark glasses and a Buffalo Sabres baseball cap. They all piled into the van, which sank noticeably under their weight, and took off at a high rate of speed. Right behind them was a rented Saab driven by a large KGB agent stuffed into the driver’s seat.
It was just ten days earlier that twenty-year-old Nikolai Pushkin had led the Soviet team to the gold medal at the 1989 Ice Hockey World Championship, scoring eight goals with seven assists in the tournament. No contest, really, as the Soviets won all ten of their games, leaving the world’s best hockey players skittering like seals under the assault of a polar bear. It was the Soviets’ sixth consecutive World Championship and twenty-first overall, just three fewer than America’s New York Yankee baseball club. The team celebrated with a trip to a shopping mall in Stockholm, where a pair of KGB agents trailed Nikolai like a clumsy shadow.
Did they know? Had they guessed? Or was this just reasonable suspicion: one year earlier Nikolai had been drafted by the Buffalo Sabres in the 1988 NHL draft — a wasted gesture (albeit with the eighty-ninth pick in round five), a fruitless late-round gamble against the history that no Soviet had ever played in the National Hockey League. And it remained unlikely, even in the waning days of the Cold War, that any might be allowed to leave the Motherland to join that capitalist enterprise.
Nikolai lifted a blazer off the rack without a look, pastel colored and big shouldered and two sizes too small. As he headed into the dressing room the two agents pretended to riffle through the shirt rack; quickly entranced by the unfamiliar fashions, they soon stopped pretending.
“Magnum P.I.,” the shorter one said in Russian, holding a Hawaiian shirt against himself, and the taller one laughed.
But the tall man’s mind was elsewhere, in the dressing room with Nikolai — not as a function of his job as it should have been, but in imagining him naked. During the course of the championship, he’d seen, under the guise of surveillance, all these sturdy young men in varying degrees of nudity in their locker room. On more than one occasion, he’d had to conceal or physically restrain his erection.
Alone in the dressing room, Nikolai stared at his reflection. He’d known fear in his life: fear of failure, or being cut from the team, of his coach’s wrath and the state’s power over him. In his youth he feared hunger, cold, the disapproval of his mother and the fate of his father to be inconsequential. And he harbored a terrible fear of flying. But nothing like the terror of what he was about to do, fright etched on the face that looked back at him like a soundless shriek.
It took a moment for both agents to realize that Nikolai had exited the opposite end of the dressing room and was covering ground in increasingly quicker strides toward the mall’s exit. As they floundered to catch up Nikolai broke into a run, leaving the pair of them behind as he had so many defensemen on a breakaway. The revolving door slowed him like a full body check, and he emerged, stumbling, on the other side, startling the executive from the Buffalo Sabres waiting by the car, Don Woolf. Woolf waved and shouted, the cigarette dropping from his mouth, and both jumped into the vehicle and sped off as the two agents lurched from the same quadrant of the revolving door, the shorter one losing his shoe and watching it spin back inside the store. The taller one swore in Russian.
It wasn’t until he was several blocks away that Nikolai realized how, in addition to having just defected from the Soviet Union, he’d also stolen an ill-fitting blazer from the Gallerian.
Two weeks earlier Don Woolf, head of player development for the Sabres, had received a phone call from Nikolai, whom he’d met at the World Juniors in Anchorage, Alaska a year ago and presented with his business card of inscrutable letters to a teenager schooled in Cyrillic. Nikolai had called to tell him in fractured English that he wanted to “come over” to the Sabres of New York. It took a moment for Woolf to realize that he meant “defect.” Woolf couldn’t be sure the voice belonged to Nikolai and not a pretender for the Nordiques — a prank phone call would be just like them, the fucking frogs. He asked “Nikolai” to tell him something only he could know about their meeting. After a moment’s hesitation, Nikolai replied something about Woolf’s hands — like hockey mitts, and that his own had disappeared in Woolf’s handshake.
Woolf had in fact remarked at the time about Nikolai’s hands, surprisingly delicate for a hockey player. But Nikolai’s power wasn’t in his fists; he was all about speed and motion, a blur on skates with breakaway speed, Soviet discipline, and the indefatigable energy of youth. Woolf believed Nikolai was a shortcut to beating Edmonton, and he wanted him enough to risk an international incident.
The Sabres had been eliminated in the first round just a week earlier, losing to Boston for the fourth time in as many playoffs, and Woolf had little interest in watching the eight remaining teams chase the Stanley Cup. The next day he and Sabres general manager Jack Horstmeyer were on a plane to Sweden, and shortly thereafter in a car speeding away from the Gallerian, and now at the United States Embassy, where a career consular officer tried to talk all three of them out of their plan.
“I’m not sure he qualifies for political asylum,” she said. “This isn’t exactly Svetlana Alliluyeva we have here. He’s a hockey player.”
“America’s taken grandmasters of chess, ballerinas, conductors, playwrights, violinists, tenors, pianists…” Horstmeyer noted. “This man is an artist with a hockey stick.”
“Who the hell is Svetlana Ali-who-ha?” Woolf asked.
“Are you really sure that you want to leave home?” the woman turned her attention to Nikolai, imagining that he might wish to be included in this discussion of his future. “You have a family there, and you’ll never see them again. Also, as a member of the Red Army this isn’t just a defection — you’ll be charged as a deserter.”
Nikolai’s fear was gone now, dispersed in the act of his defection. He explained his desire to win the Stanley Cup, see Cats, meet Koch.
“Koch?” Woolf wondered.
“Ed Koch, mayor of New York?” she asked. “You understand that Buffalo, New York, isn’t the same as — ”
“America’s greatest state,” Horstmeyer interrupted. “Everyone heartsNew York. You can do all those things if you come with us.”
“Koch. Yes! He’s Jewish!” Woolf declared of Nikolai, not knowing if it was true.
“Yes! Yes he is,” Horstmeyer took his opening and ran with it. “Fleeing the well-documented persecution of Soviet Jews.”
Nikolai understood about half of what they were saying, none of which made him Jewish.
The consular official scribbled something, adding with undisguised skepticism, “And if in so fleeing, he happens to do so in the direction of this Stanley Cup…?”
She wasn’t really certain what a Stanley Cup was, but she could tell by the way the three men lapsed into a dreamlike state in the silence following her unfinished sentence that it was more important to them than politics, international relations, or world peace.
“This is a big step,” she pleaded with Nikolai to understand, sensing the worldview of a twenty-year-old Russian hockey player to be as small as the gap between the sutures in his brow. “Have you really thought this through?”
Nikolai repeated the phrases Stanley Cup, Cats,and Koch, and with that plans were put in motion to whisk him to Buffalo where none of those things had ever been present…but with Nikolai’s help, perhaps one of them might.
There remained obstacles: Nikolai was without his passport. It was routine for Soviet players traveling internationally to surrender their passports to the KGB agents who traveled with them against the eventuality Nikolai had just committed. It would take time to secure the necessary travel documents from the State Department in Washington for Nikolai to travel and enter the United States. In the meantime, the consular officer assured them, it was likely KGB agents would attempt to stop Nikolai’s defection.
“The Soviets fear every defection might lead to a wave,” she declared. “It’s also a terrible propaganda blow, for America to flaunt as proof that our way of life is better.”
“Which it is,” Woolf urged, hoping to dispel any second thoughts in Nikolai, an impulsive boy, really, for whom deliberation was uncommon.
The means by which the Soviets might undermine his defection were these: they’d attempt to contact Nikolai, give him a final chance to change his mind before committing an irrevocable act; they’d take advantage of his youth and naivety, and if the idea of never seeing his family weren’t enough, they’d add the threat of reprisals against them for his act of treason. And if persuasion failed, the KGB might even attempt to kidnap him, international law be damned.
The final hurdle belonged to Nikolai, as he was terrified of flying.
He could cite casualties of the year’s flight accidents so far: a British Airways crash in England, 47 people dead; an Italian charter in the Azores, 144 tourists killed; a cargo door blown off a flight near Hawaii, 9 passengers pulled to their deaths. He concluded with Pan Am,Lockerbie, bomb, delivered with the same affect but none of the hope with which he’d intoned Stanley Cup, Cats, Koch.
“You didn’t walk here to Stockholm, son,” Woolf reminded Nikolai.
Nikolai had in fact flown to Stockholm the same way he’d always traveled internationally with the Soviet team by air: heavily sedated, and carried onboard by his teammates. On arrival, propped up between two of them long enough to pass customs, he was dumped on a skycap’s cart and wheeled through Stockholm’s Arlanda Airport to a waiting bus. Nikolai was never available for practice on a travel day but with the recuperative powers of youth, he’d play with speed and accuracy a day later as if nothing had happened. It was like removing the batteries from a toy before shipping, and replacing them on arrival to watch it perform perfectly.
The American embassy would offer no safe haven for Nikolai while it prepared his paperwork, a task that could take as long as a week. Having arranged only to spend a couple of days in Stockholm, Woolf and Horstmeyer had only their overnight bags. Nikolai was even less well prepared for a lengthier stay on the run; beyond the clothes on his back, all he owned in the world wasthe too-snug blazer he’d stolen from the Gallerian, and his gold medal from the Worlds. Woolf’s solution to that immediate problem was to purchase a stack of T-shirts from a street vendor, allowing them to blend in with the rest of the tourists touting Swedish icons Garbo, Björn Borg, and ABBA.
They headed to the Swedish countryside to stay in small motels and inns for a single night only before moving on to another — continuous motion designed to confound pursuit. While a pair of middle-aged Americans and a youth of indeterminate origin who rarely spoke were arguably more conspicuous in these smaller locales, it seemed preferable to the city where the Soviet team had dominated the news for the past two weeks and Nikolai was likely to be recognized.
Not that Woolf or Horstmeyer were happy with the plan. One of the perks of their positions with the Sabres was the opportunity to escape Buffalo under the guise of player development. Aside from adding a speedy Soviet to their roster, both had been eager to flee “The City of No Illusions” and enjoy the pleasures of Stockholm, global metropolis and birthplace of the Nobel Prize, home of museums, concert halls, Jugend architecture, an opera house, and even a jazz festival. None of which they gave a shit about; they were far more interested in the city’s more than one thousand bars and restaurants, and a world-class brothel left winger Mikael Andersson used to brag about before they’d traded him to Hartford after scoring one lousy goal against fucking Edmonton in the playoffs last year.
By the third day both Horstmeyer and Woolf were struggling with insomnia, an effect of the northernmost situation of the region that, at this time of year, saw the sun rising at just after four in the morning and remaining aloft and bright for eighteen hours before not quite setting around 9:30 p.m. Even then, the sky never darkened completely, retaining an azure glow until the cycle repeated. None of this seemed to faze Nikolai, who slept well and ate even better, feeding the enormous appetite of youth on reindeer and meatballs (both incongruously served with jam), fruit soups made of rose hips and blueberries, gravlax, and an uncountable variety of pickled herring.
“The hell is that?” Woolf asked the waiter as Nikolai shoved one and then another gruesome pod into his mouth.
“Blodpalt,” the waiter said, explaining that they were dumplings made from animal blood.
“Christ, the kid’ll eat anything.”
Breakfast was especially hard on the Americans. A traditional Swedish breakfast in the countryside consisted of sandwiches of hard cheese, cold cuts, cucumber and tomatoes served on crisp bread, and soupy adornments of porridge, yogurt, marmalade, chocolate. Horstmeyer would have killed for a plate of bacon, but at least the coffee was strong.
Nikolai stayed fit with a series of calisthenics overseen by Woolf: squats, sit-ups, push-ups, core twists, butt lifts, and sprints. Wool marveled at his athleticism, a lithe, sculpted body crowned incongruously with the face of a baby under a mop of wavy hair. They avoided skating at the risk of calling attention to themselves, but on the fifth day they passed a rink and neither Sabres executive could resist the opportunity to see in action the player for whom they’d flown across the ocean and spent the past five days eating gravlax and porridge.
Nikolai strapped on a pair of rented skates and proceeded to blister the ice into shavings. He could stop on a dime and change direction like a darting fish, and skate backward faster than most of the Sabres could skate forward at full speed. By the time he started mimicking shooting with an invisible stick, a small crowd had gathered to watch and Horstmeyer put an end to their impromptu workout…but neither he nor Woolf could stop grinning.
Nikolai was always quiet, but at night he’d withdraw to a near-invisible state. It was in this quietude, away from workouts and skating and moving from place to place, that his family invaded his thoughts. He’d grown up with his younger sister Valeriya in the small village of Kalach, located at the terminus of a nineteenth-century railway built to transport lumber from the region’s dense forests. The villagers drew their water from wells, no one owned a car, and there were no telephones; not that there was anyone to call in the vast outside world, nor was anyone interested in calling them. Because Kalach also had no schools, Nikolai traveled by train to nearby Sankin for his education, while his father Yuri remained functionally illiterate. Yuri trained dancing bears for a living, a staple of traditional rural Russian entertainment, which Nikolai’s mother had found delightful as a sixteen-year-old peasant but less so as children and the future came.
Nikolai’s athleticism gave the family prominence. He was recruited by the state and drilled in the rigors of the Soviet hockey system, and finally inducted into the Red Army where he skated alongside Russia’s great stars. The Pushkins were placed in a Moscow apartment, one they had all to themselves while many of their neighbors did not. Willfully ignoring her early life amid squalor and dancing bears, Valeriya grew up a true Muscovite, a child of minor privilege in a place where privilege was no minor thing.
Nikolai’s hockey prowess had pulled his family from the bog of poverty like a tractor. It was unavoidable that they were all about to suffer for his treason.
Watching from the embassy window, Woolf and Horstmeyer were pleased to see the quartet of thugs they’d hired, along with their imposter defector, drive away in the decoy van trailed by a Saab. Also watching with them was Nikolai, grinning stupidly, greatly amused in his sedation to somehow see himself borne away. He’d remember none of this; nor would he recall the drive to the airport or the struggle to remain standing, propped under each arm by Woolf and Horstmeyer as they made their way through the terminal and onto the waiting TWA flight to Buffalo via New York’s LaGuardia Airport. He wouldn’t remember the swivel seats in first class, or how his American benefactors visibly relaxed once the plane was aloft, or the celebratory cigars and bourbon that followed. He wouldn’t remember the brief, adrenal fear that came with becoming suddenly aware of his airborne state, or yet another pill pressed between his lips by Woolf and washed down with bourbon as he slipped once more into unconsciousness.
He wouldn’t even remember being half-carried early the next morning through LaGuardia, where they dodged a waiting phalanx of reporters, or attempts to rouse him from his stupor with several cups of steaming coffee so he could respond more lucidly to waiting immigration officials about his unresolved alien status.
Horstmeyer presented documents from the US Embassy in Sweden and stated Nikolai’s intention to apply for political asylum. Nikolai nodded dully in agreement. When asked about the consequences of returning to the Soviet Union should his petition be denied, it was Woolf who answered:
“Seven years at hard labor and a death sentence.”
Whether it was the sudden realization of the magnitude of his circumstance, or a combination of jet lag and a pot of coffee, Nikolai’s response was to vomit the contents of his stomach. To the immigration officials administering the interview, this seemed only to reinforce Nikolai’s case, and he was granted entry into the United States. He seemed relieved until informed there was one more flight to Buffalo.