My Russian Landlords
The realtor assured me the mistake didn’t matter. But in only three weeks, many Russian friends had told me not to trust people I didn’t know or Russian systems, so I insisted the contract be changed to my actual address. I imagined being thrown out months later, on the sidewalk, as Russia’s fall grew brisk.
The realtor asked me to contact the landlord’s son about meeting with her to change it, but I asked my translator to tell the realtor it was her mistake and not mine, and I wouldn’t do her secretarial work. I’d learned to be straightforward, too.
If things went as expected, I’d see my landlord’s son once a month; I would pay my 37,000 rubles, we’d sign the chart that serves as our record of payment, and he’d leave.
I didn’t trust them, because I didn’t know if I could trust anyone outside my work. Vladimir intimidated me. Though I couldn’t understand anything he said, he seemed the kind of man who shares his opinion unfiltered and makes crass jokes, like saying his son and I would eventually hook up.
He did make that exact joke, actually, that first night—I could tell, despite the language barrier.
Yuri’s smile was just off kilter, and his leather jacket called to mind the greasy men who smoked outside the metro. I didn’t like that I didn’t know what his responsibilities were outside of collecting rent for my apartment. The other son—who I referred to as Yuri’s brother—kept to himself. He knew less English than Yuri and wore relaxed-fit Wrangler jeans. He looked older and was calm and even-tempered, maybe bored.
When I moved into the apartment, they’d stocked it with basic amenities, which was kind and unexpected: two sets of sheets, a hand towel, three forks and spoons, two bowls, two mugs, a set of knives, and a large and small pot. I imagined them selecting items carefully from a store near the grocery, like the place I’d gone to find the cheapest towel possible, and choosing the floral-print sheets for me.
Aside from always being five to ten minutes early, Yuri and his brother are easy houseguests. They say hello or hi, and I say the same in Russian. They remove their shoes—like all polite Russians when entering a flat. Then they hang up their coats and sock caps. After their first visit, I learned to make space for them, to stack my shoes and remove drying laundry from the entryway. No matter how long they’re at my apartment, they won’t take tea, coffee, or water, though sometimes they open the kitchen window, their sweaters and bodies thicker than mine.
They look average, like all the other young men I see here. Yuri is shorter than his brother, but much cooler, with his leather jacket, dark tennis shoes, and American labels. His faded jeans are like a lot of men’s jeans I see here—bordering on ’80s acid wash, low rise, tight and uncomfortable looking around the crotch.
Yuri’s brother’s coat is too big, heavy Carhart-like material. His sweaters, too, are oversized, the sweater from a grandmother, only worn to holiday dinner. He wears white tennis shoes.
While living in Moscow, I kept a blog. In this post, I had just moved into my apartment. I was pretty anxious and tired from the snatch-an-apartment-before-someone-else-does adventure, and I’d like to apologize to Russians. Obviously, not everything in Russia is ugly. Most things aren’t. What I meant was: most of the Russian apartments I’d viewed had busy wallpaper and lots of knick-knacks. The temporary apartment I’d stayed in had bright green kitchen cabinets and a red neon light around the ceiling of the bedroom. So, when my landlord bought me sheets with crazy patterns, it didn’t surprise me.
My pocket dictionary rarely provides the words we need. Yuri flips through it, looking for situation-specific words, repeating так, which I first thought might be a curse word, the Russian equivalent of shit or damn; the frequency with which he used it made me hope it wasn’t fuck. I tried to tell him he wouldn’t find his very specific words in this very basic travel dictionary, no words about the Russian Army or cinema, but I couldn’t get my message across. The dictionary’s best options are approximations.
Words take on new meaning. For example, it is now understood that the noun “job” can stand in for the verb “work.” “Oven no job?” Yuri asks. “Да. It doesn’t work,” I respond. “This and this no job together?” He points to the burners and the oven door.
Once we’ve established that a word is used in a certain way, I use it that way, too, and after some time it feels natural: “Okay, the top and oven no job together?” I pick up his sentence structures. Then he fiddles some more, and the burners and oven work simultaneously.
“Нет,” he says. “It job.”
Sometimes, he chooses a word, and I have to guess how it could possibly fit the current context. What he comes up with is often incredibly creative. In one of our earliest interactions, it took a full five minutes for me to understand that the internet technician was late. He wrote 1930, pointed to it, and repeated the word “internet.”
“Да, internet,” I said, confused, since that was the reason he and his brother were there. I’d forgotten about keeping time on a 24-hour clock. “It costs,” I said. Then I wrote 450. “One month.”
Yuri nodded: “Unlimited.”
Then why this new number? He grabbed the dictionary and pointed to the English word “elderly.” I said it, my voice trailing upward into a question. When I was still puzzled, he thought quickly. “On time,” he said and added, “нет.”
“Ah! Late. The internet technician is late.”
He grinned: “Да, elderly.”
I took this selfie during the window installation. It’s the only photo I have of Yuri, and you can’t even see his face.
I see a Russian version of Draino in Yuri’s hands. I’m already getting home late and hungry, annoyed to wait through this, too. But I lead them back to the apartment, and they are gracious, expecting no explanation for my not being there. I ask “как дела?” because it was the only appropriate question I knew; I already know Yuri’s name.
I explain through gestures that they should pour the chemical down the drain and wait, but they insist that we need a—and then Yuri makes plunging motions with his hands and suctioning noises. I don’t have a plunger. Yuri’s brother leaves and comes back twenty minutes later holding a plastic bag covered in puppies and hearts, one of the gaudiest shopping bags I’ve seen. They fill the shower drain with the chemical and plunge for a while. If it happens again, they say just plunge. “Woosh” is the word Yuri uses.
Theirs is a companionship I don’t want, but know I need. They fix what’s broken in my apartment, and we’ve developed a level of comfort that only comes from time spent together. But in these moments at my apartment, the only space that’s mine, I also desperately want to be alone, to escape all things Russian.
Another Thursday evening, a man they called the Master measures for new kitchen windows. With the Master also comes Yuri, Yuri’s brother, and a surprise appearance by Vladimir. They crowd the entryway, removing shoes and saying hello to me, except for the Master, who treats me like I’m not there.
My desk sits in the corner of my bedroom and living area. I type emails there, staying out of their way, which is nearly impossible with five people in a 650-square-foot room. When the Master needs to hang his entire torso from the living room window, I move the books stacked on the sill and push myself further into the corner. Though there are only two windows, no more than six feet wide each, negotiations—over price, I assume—take two hours.
On occasion they consult me, never about the windows or my availability for installation, but about a word I think means “closet.” I decline because of space. Later, Vladimir asks if I want a mattress to cover the couch bed. When I signed the lease, it stipulated that we’d split the cost of any furniture I needed. He indicates with hand gestures and body language that my back will hurt from sleeping on the couch; I’m not interested in investing in IKEA furniture I’ll leave behind, and from my apartment hunt, it seems like a lot of renters in Moscow sleep on couches. But then he says “me buy” and pats his chest, and I shrug in agreement.
The mattress never arrives
My internet stops working on a Wednesday. Homesickness set in days before: the trigger, a happy hour where colleagues switch between English and Russian without warning. I prolong my walk home in the nearby forest, staring up at the birch treetops and crying.
I attempt fixing it, and after an hour without success, assume I have permanently altered the configuration, something my deficiency in the two languages necessary—Russian and Computer—makes impossible to fix.
The air in the apartment feels empty, the network that usually zips around me gone. I cry in bed. I try to read, but can’t focus. I receive the same error message and still click “connect,” blaming my fixation on my weeklong sadness. I want email and Skype. I cry myself to sleep. I’m so sad I don’t even binge on chocolate.
Yuri comes the next evening to call the company for me. While on hold, he charades typing and says “password small.” So I retype my password in lowercase, “bollinger1” instead of “Bollinger1.” It connects. We laugh at my mistake, Yuri’s brother, too. My high-five surprises them.
Then we waited. We’d grown good at waiting—the realtor’s paperwork, the internet, it all required waiting, sitting together in a space between languages.
The installers arrived late and changed in my entryway. The bigger guy took a call shirtless in my kitchen, took off his pants, put on Mario-and-Luigi-style red overalls.
They ripped out the glass and frames, and, from my desk in the corner, I watched paint chips scatter on the tile and made a mental note to wash all the dishes. Yuri and his brother carried out scraps, jagged wood, insulation, and the old windows, cracked—some shattered—from the force.
The installers didn’t replace the glass before their first of many smoke breaks, unhurried as Moscow October filled the apartment, its wind and rain. The three of us didn’t smoke, and Yuri rolled his eyes. I wore flannel and a sweatshirt from Waterton Lakes, Canada, a place I’ve never visited but my grandma has. Yuri’s brother hid in the entryway, the farthest he could be from the empty frames. I closed the bathroom door—the only warm spot—and made tea in my electric kettle on the floor, but they refused any.
At their 2 p.m. smoke break—three hours after arriving—the installers said “one час.” Our enthusiasm revived. We used Google Translate to talk. I lent Yuri a magazine. I asked “как его зовут?” and learned that his brother’s name was Dmitry . The window installers told us they were Ukrainian and asked for music, played air guitar to AC/DC.
At 4:45, they said “one час” again, for the caulking to dry. When they went outside to smoke, Yuri groaned and rubbed his face, over six hours in. If I’d misread Yuri and Dmitry ’s gestures, their speed at cleaning up confirmed my suspicion.
Finally, the installers finished, changed into street clothes, and left.
Yuri said they’d estimated three or four hours, not eight. They swept and mopped again. We moved everything back to the kitchen. And though we were polite, we were quick. I was already chopping vegetables before they’d laced their shoes. They yelled “пака.” I opened the oven door to warm the apartment, scarfed scrambled eggs and left, barely in time to make the American film I’d planned on all day. We’d survived together.
Yuri saluted: “Army.” When I’d seen his shaved head weeks before, I thought it an impractical choice for the beginning of a Russian winter. Soon, his purpose would no longer be instantly coming to my aid, fixing the internet and shower door.
In the army, he wouldn’t be able to communicate regularly, so I would have to contact Vladimir. My boss Olga always called since Yuri and I could only talk through email or simple text messages. He assured me he’d be back. In those months, we’d learned to communicate and be together without talking. I hoped for no problems.
On occasion it has to be a Friday night.
When I moved in, Yuri helped me set up Beeline internet. Their hip ads followed two basic themes: fashionable young people striking poses mid-dance against a yellow-and-black city silhouette, like Apple’s old ads, or hundreds of young people standing in line in what looked like Siberia. Beeline is young, energetic, and cool. It connects all of Russia. I bought in.
After a problem-free first month, when my honeymoon with Russia was also nearing its end, my internet service experienced frequent, sporadic disconnections, usually when I needed it—in the middle of a serious talk with my boyfriend in the States or minutes before a video chat with my best friend.
Sometimes—especially as the disconnections became frequent—I threw myself on my bed, lamenting separation. A failed connection might send me into daylong depression, where for hours I did nothing but check back, click “connect” and watch the error message reappear. After a month of witnessing a me that was more emotional and obsessive than I previously knew, I chose a new provider; Russia was hard enough.
Yuri, Dmitry, and I waited an hour and a half, swapping stories. They reminded me about leaving for the army. They showed me photos of their branch, even one with Barack Obama. When my dad Skyped from Missouri, Yuri and Dmitry waved like kids, repeating the word “hello.”
The technician, Fareed, arrived at 9:30. Mid set-up, my computer froze. He held his hands up in innocence: “It wasn’t me.” He didn’t mask his frustration, sighing and telling me the computer was old and broken, asking if I had important files there. I sat on the bed cradling it in my lap, coaxing it to work, feeling helpless, my life housed there.
I called a friend who’d helped me fix my Mac before, knowing he wouldn’t answer an unknown call, and when he didn’t, I blamed his American concern with safety. Then I called my boyfriend, who called a friend on another line. His friend had some ideas, but they didn’t understand the urgency, and their attention dissolved, shifting to lunch. I felt far away. Yuri looked at me for an answer.
I forced restart again and again. I tried constructing a wall to block Fareed’s blame, but I still apologized: “I’m sorry. This never happens.” I regret that—he was rude.
I crouched in the kitchen and rested my head on the table. Then I sat on the floor, fought tears, considered curling into a ball. They watched, silently, and it was clear from Dmitry’s face that my behavior was strange; for the first time since moving to Moscow, I didn’t care. It was the only physical position I could function in, where I could imagine them gone. In later months—the winter ones—this anxiety would become depression. It would follow me home and stick around for years.
After an hour of this, Fareed yelled something and Dmitry rushed to unplug the router. “Is that the problem?” I asked, waiting for him to admit it wasn’t my computer.
“American computer, Russian router. Not compatible.” That was all he’d say. My computer functioned normally.
He tried connecting three different ways, each causing the Mac to lock up. He called supervisors, and I heard “Macbook” and “internet” mixed into Russian sentences. When we realized his company wouldn’t work, he called Beeline to try to help. I both hated and hoped in Fareed.
The metro would close soon, but he didn’t leave without giving me his number. He added “Kara, even if you need a guide around Moscow, call me.” I kept his number for months, afraid of being without help.
When Yuri and Dmitry left, they said nothing like that. In all the months we knew each other, they never hit on me. They smiled tired smiles and left.
Despite being there until after midnight, Yuri returned at 1 p.m. and called Beeline’s helpline, a number we’d used many times before. He thought a faster connection speed might work. Sometimes I called on my own, like the night I waited for an hour, and my Russian throw-away phone dropped the call at 1:30 in the morning. Sometimes Yuri came and called for me, as if his knowing Russian would get us past the option menu and wait line faster. Always we were on hold, shaking our heads knowingly and laughing as the automated message said only “шесть” or “десять” minutes.
In that time, we also discovered another provider, which we’d try next. “If problem,” he pointed to me and his phone. “Then I,” again, he pointed to his phone. He always repeated himself to emphasize that I wouldn’t bother him.
When the faster speed still didn’t work, we set up the other provider he found, which worked. He sent a link to an English radio station, so I could know what was happening in Moscow.
Midwinter, Vladimir yelled at my friends about a phone bill; Yuri said they’d pay for the phone line, to hold the number, since I never used it. The next day, Vladimir apologized; Yuri had gotten very sick in the army—he said the army hardly fed or took care of them. He’d almost died. It was all very expensive.
I was so frustrated by Vladimir’s outburst, fearful that more would follow, that I missed the gravity of his last sentence—Yuri had almost died. This fit what I’d read and heard about the army’s treatment of soldiers. Svetlana called his joining stupid. There was a police academy near my apartment, and though I knew Yuri wasn’t there—or even in Moscow—each time I saw cadets, I thought of him and looked for signs of what his life was like. It was the only relatable thing I knew.
When I tried clarifying with the friend who spoke to Vladimir, she wasn’t even sure. “I think that’s what he meant,” she shrugged. This was how my life worked in Moscow—I heard everything through translation, through others’ bullet-point lists and interpretations. I wondered how much I missed. I asked again for clarity, but for her, that was all: he might have almost died.
Vladimir came to collect rent shortly after that incident, and I worried he’d yell. It was my inability to respond that scared me, not being yelled at; I knew the frustration of upsetting cashiers and women at the pool, and standing there, unable to put together an explanation with my minimal Russian vocabulary. But instead, he laughed and used a nickname—Karochka. It was the name Olga called me, but when he said it, I cringed. I saw how he saw me—as a girl, someone he could yell at and accuse and then brush off. He hadn’t earned the right to call me that.
In the spring, Vladimir wore short sleeves for the first time—a plaid shirt, meant to be untucked, but that he tucked into jeans. I noticed a tattoo, and when I mentioned it, he shook his head and laughed uncomfortably; a friend later said it might be a Soviet tattoo and maybe I’d embarrassed him.
My boyfriend was visiting from the US, and he hid during this visit at my insistence. Vladimir had proven unreasonable, and he might demand that Jack leave or that I pay additional that month. I knew Vladimir wouldn’t leave the entryway, so Jack lay on the couch bed, up against the wall, just a few feet away but out of sight. We moved his suitcases to the kitchen, also hidden from view. I wasn’t sure if the bravery to ask about the tattoo came from time in Moscow or because I wanted to push back at Vladimir or because Jack was with me.
Our relationship worsened as I prepared to leave Russia. When I contacted Vladimir about returning the roughly $1,300 USD deposit, he refused, claiming I’d agreed to pay for the new windows in October. My friends said that was ridiculous—why would I pay for windows in a rental? Yuri was unreachable, he told us, so we couldn’t ask him about it until he returned in September. We all knew I’d be long gone by then.
We read and re-read the contract, looking for information about the deposit, for something that said he’d have to pay. The truth was the family didn’t have the money; it had been spent, maybe on something big like the windows, but more likely on small daily expenses, things to survive. Whether that was because Yuri got so sick or something else, the money was gone.
My friends told me that this happens often with Russian landlords, and they encouraged me to destroy the apartment in response. They said tenants crack raw eggs into the drain and run hot water, which makes the eggs coagulate and burst the pipes. Others throw food on the walls or keep the keys. The point is to cause the landlord to spend the deposit on repairs, to teach them a lesson about not treating tenants well. And they said, since I was leaving the country, disappearing into America, I could do whatever I wanted.
Vladimir hadn’t treated me well—making promises he didn’t keep, changing policies mid-year, and feigning confusion to cover his lies. But Yuri hadn’t, and I knew that teaching Vladimir a lesson would teach Yuri one too. Though Vladimir’s actions influenced how I saw their family, Yuri had helped me countless times that fall, mostly with the internet, which wasn’t even his responsibility. He’d been honest about the phone bill, and I couldn’t predict what he would say if there to speak for himself. I chose to hold to the image of Yuri I knew—I believed he would tell the truth, and I couldn’t fault him for not being there to protect me from Vladimir.
I didn’t damage the apartment. But I didn’t clean it or even make my bed. I left trash, food, and dirty dishes. I’m a good tenant, always completing everything on the check-out list. Leaving the job undone was hard for me, and even now, I wondered how that looked to Yuri, how Vladimir could easily spin me into an ugly American.
Vladimir refused to meet me for the key, likely to avoid me demanding the money as my friends had been doing on my behalf. Instead, I closed the door on my home that year, realizing the moment’s gravity, stepping back in for a last look.
I left the key in the mailbox.
Before he left, Yuri told me he’d perform in his branch’s military showcase on Red Square. His voice held pride, as if asking me to be proud, too. I half expected an invitation.
When I came out of St. Basil’s Cathedral in July and happened upon a military demonstration, I looked for him. My parents were visiting, and my dad couldn’t believe we were seeing something so unique.
We noticed the soldiers first through St. Basil’s windows, the ones that look over the monument commemorating leaders of a seventeenth century volunteer army. It’s a spectacular view of Red Square: the monument in the foreground, Red Square in the background. They had just started marching in, rows perfectly straight. The first group was small, in dark uniforms with red sashes and gold rifles, previewing the showcase to come.
Red Square made them look timeless. I understood then why it mattered to Yuri, marching on stones that had supported and witnessed history. By the time we exited the Cathedral, they’d filled the Square and music played. The chances of this being his branch—and of me finding him—were miniscule, but I stood there for a moment, wanting to acknowledge and be present in case he was there, our last meeting.
I wanted to explain to him all that happened with Vladimir, that my arguments and decisions weren’t directed at him. But I didn’t know if he’d understand anymore.
I wonder if the Russian army changed him, how different he returned. I wonder if he’d actually almost died. Near death experiences and hardship have a way of hardening or softening. What had it done to Yuri?
Something—maybe whatever resulted in the tattoos he was too embarrassed to acknowledge—had hardened Vladimir. I knew weather and government and circumstances toughened Russian civilians; how much more would its army? According to Vladimir, it almost killed its soldiers in training, and, just months after I left, allegedly sent them to invade Ukraine. This was long before the Russian intervention in Syria was made public.
What was Yuri’s fate? I don’t know—I never saw him again.
Editor’s Note: This article has been edited since its first publication on June 4, 2016, to reflect a few typos and tightened paragraphs. No information or facts have been changed since the piece first appeared.
Kara M. Bollinger
editor at large
Kara M. Bollinger received her master’s from the University of Kansas and lived in Moscow for a year, where she worked as the Assistant Director of the first writing center in Russia. Her chapbook Attachment Theory was published by Dancing Girl Press, and her nonfiction has appeared in The Kansas City Star, The Rumpus, Brevity’s blog, and Midwestern Gothic, among others. She also blogs about urban and community gardening at Watered Love. She lives in Kansas City, where she writes and works in the Writing Studio at the University of Missouri–Kansas City.
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