Dear Katerina Rogov,
My name is Ivan Stanislav. I fought alongside your heroic husband, Dmitry, in Afghanistan. I am saddened to say that the rigors of war paralyzed my memory and I was unable to recall his fate, until contemporary events released them.
It was hot in Afghanistan as the two Russians walked side by side, clad in brown fatigues with blue and white striped undershirts. One man was incredibly tall and towered over the shorter, blonde haired soldier next to him. Both appeared in their early twenties.
“Dmitry Alexandrovich Rogov,” the big man, Ivan Stanislav, said with a grin, “hand me some of that kosiak and stop smoking it all yourself, you damned capitalist.” The man, who would become known as “The Russian Bear” some years later, put out his huge hand as Dmitry passed the joint of marijuana. Stanislav brought it to his lips, his face clean shaven, and took a long drag, “Mff… this is not bad.”
“Better than the shit you roll yourself, Ivan.” Dmitry said with a wry smile. The two took a moment to survey the dusty, mountainous Afghan landscape that they now called home. Their “house” was a small clay building which could uncomfortably hold four individuals, let alone the fact that there were six Russians and Ivan was big enough for two.
It was a boring home, guarding the road that ultimately led to the Salang Tunnel, which was a vital artery into and out of the Soviet Union. Stanislav gave the joint back to Dmitry who took a hit and puffed out smoke, “By the way, my wife, Katerina, had our baby. A boy!”
“You finally got laid, eh? You could have fooled me!” The huge Russian slapped Dmitry on the back. He staggered forward and turned to face Ivan. Stanislav spoke while Dmitry backpedaled, “So what did you name your son?”
Ivan didn’t see the movement over Dmitry’s shoulder. He was too busy focusing on the vibrant, excited blue eyes of his friend. Dmitry proudly told Ivan his newborn son’s name, “Yuri,” before turning to look back along the rise.
Dmitry was quick to see what young Ivan had missed, and shifted to one side and spread his arms to shield the much larger man. Ivan was too stunned to hear anything, but what he saw horrified him. Unlike in the movies where the big Austrian blew away enemies who died in the most spectacular way possible, reality was far more psychologically damaging and blunt.
Two rounds pumped into Dmitry’s body and he turned on one foot. His head wheeled around and it was his eyes that startled Ivan the most. Still blue, still wide, but the life, energy, hopes, dreams, and happiness that were all burning within them but five seconds ago were supplanted with vacant death. His entire body dropped beneath the burden of dead weight.
Ivan had never seen someone die before. He knew it was a painfully real possibility. He still was young and felt invincible. His size, his voice, his bravado, did nothing to prepare him for the grim reality of a life being snuffed out so quickly before his youthful eyes. Dmitry was, in so simple of a word, gone. It created a horrific memory in his psyche, the likes of which his mind would lock away tight and store away for fear that it might one day resurface.
Stanislav stood fearful, afraid, naked, and alone while Dmitry lay crumpled and inert at his feet. His friend’s blood was splattered on his chest and Ivan’s long, powerful arms were paralyzed at his sides. The mujahedeen fighter, one who materialized out of nowhere, was anything but paralyzed. He roared down at the Russian invader, who threatened his theocratic way of life, and in those battle-hardened eyes Ivan saw a man wholly committed to annihilating him, body and soul.
All young Ivan wanted to do was scoop up what was left of Dmitry and cradle him in his arms. He wanted to tell him it wasn’t so bad and that he would see his son, Yuri, soon. He knew that was a fruitless lie. Instead, he did the first realistic thing that came to his mind…
Ivan Stanislav gasped as he sat straight up in his bed and rubbed his eyes. His white undershirt was near translucent with sweat. The grizzled sixty-one year old soldier-turned-wrestler dug his large fingers into his sockets.
“Just a dream…”
It was 02:44 AM in Moscow. Instantly, he picked up his corded phone and pressed one button. It rang once before someone answered and he spoke in the dark. His voice was shaky.
“Alyosha? I need you to find someone for me. Yuri Rogov. I see you later today. Yes, I am fine. Thank you old friend…”
He hung up the phone and stared at his hands.
They were shaking.
“Just a dream, Ivan…”
Alyosha was the familiar version of Alexei Ruslan’s first name, the closest friend Ivan Stanislav ever had. Together, they met in Afghanistan after that fateful day and had since been inseparable. If Ivan was the blunt force hammer of the duo, Ruslan was the razor sharp sickle. Nondescript by nature, Alexei wore a brown overcoat and military cap. He wasn’t larger than life or physically imposing, but his intelligence gathering formed the perfect synthesis with Ivan’s raw power. It was a perfect collective effort born out of their communist sensibilities.
At this time, Alexei stood in the wings of the state run news station “Russia Today.” Ivan, now dressed in a brown military uniform with blue shoulders and pockets, rested in an oversized chair behind the desk. Several medals were arrayed along his breast, two of which stood out: a red piece of cloth below which dangled a gold star, and another where the bust of Lenin hung. Stanislav had even trimmed his normally haggard beard, though it did little to hide the gray that invaded from within. Bright red, white, and blue lights played across the set while background graphics and monitors looped footage of The Russian Bear demolishing his opponents, both during his current stint in PRIME and over twenty years prior in PCW and OSW.
Olga Karishnikov, a twenty-something brunette news anchor whose beauty and cleavage awarded her the job (typical Russian fare) smiled and leaned towards the camera, mindful to maximize the view down her low cut blouse. Uncaring, Stanislav sat sourly in his chair.
“So, Praporshchik Stanislav, after all these years you are finally back wrestling in PRIME. How exciting that must be for you! And my understanding is you are undefeated?”
He was almost undefeated. His return to active competition was blighted by a loss to Hayes Hanlon, but clever Russian propaganda and editing had spun that loss into a resounding victory. Any attempt at the “truth” was met with cries of western interference, if not worse. “Twenty years, Olga, and I have not missed a step.” His words were steady and emotionless.
Ruslan crossed his arms and tilted his head to the side. Ivan didn’t care for interviews of this nature, but the duo knew this was important. Stanislav was a national hero and Russia needed any heroes they could find during these times. Ivan knew many would-be soldiers and influential officers were watching. And maybe, just maybe, the most important man in Russia as well.
“And you have a Main Event match in PWA-1 against HOW Champion Christopher America…”
“He is piece of shit.” Stanislav said with conviction. Olga straightened her back and glanced past her director to Ruslan, who nodded for her to let it go. “Christopher America is like all the other pieces of garbage who litter that country. I work with them all the time. Their heads are so far up their asses they would not know talent if it kicked them.” Stanislav continued, “Of course it is Main Event, Olga. The ‘Semi’ Main Event is Youngblood and some nobody, so far down totem pole you could barely see them.”
Ivan’s nonchalant physicality faded as he leaned forward and pushed his huge finger into the table, “As you know, we veterans of Afghanistan are known as Afghantsy, and Americans showed their true colors, as they always have, during that war. Americans are cowards. They hide behind their money and geography and play puppeteer for more malleable nations. Too afraid to stand up to true fight, they hid behind allies and fund weapons of war to kill our countrymen. They do the same now while propping up fascists in the Ukraine. Our brothers and sisters, both Russian and Ukrainian, die fighting for freedom while those bastard Americans throw bloody money at the problem. Cowards, the lot of them.”
Olga nodded her head, “Clearly you have strong opinions about—”
“You are damned right I have strong opinions. Their leaders are either corpulent, overtanned swindlers or geriatric, senile do-nothings who manipulate the people from the top. I watched friends, fathers, mothers, and children die from American-smuggled weapons of war in Afghanistan. My own brother, Kliment, was blown to pieces by missiles that were funded by Americans, but fired by mujahedeen puppets. They are international murderers.” His dream that morning reared its head, and he channeled the memory into anger.
Ruslan wasn’t smiling, but watched Ivan carefully. Stanislav fumed at the camera, “I hope that bastard Christopher America is listening right now. America? You have leached off of that damnable last name of yours for long enough. I am certain it has opened doors for you, helped to shape your venomous identity, and enabled you to dupe and betray the people in America who foolishly see you as hero, just as they do all their tarnished idols.”
Alexei’s eyelid twitched.
“When the doctor ripped you from between your whore of a mother’s legs, and you squealed like piglet while dripping in your own afterbirth, you were destined for destruction at the hands of Ivan Sergeiovich Stanislav. I will make you squeal once more, little piggy.”
Once again, the beautiful brunette anchor looked over at Ruslan. Alexei was usually grinning giddily as Ivan wound himself up and verbally demolished his opponents, but there was no grin. If anything, he was pensive.
“I have to say, Praporshchik Stanislav, those are some colorful words. I am very happy to know you are fighting on our side. On the side of good.”
Ivan smiled and looked back at Olga, “I will make my country proud. I will again crush an American in the name of the Motherland. I will make every fat and lazy American weep for Christopher America. I will open a second front in America and help liberate our brothers and sisters in the Ukraine. PWA-1 will be ground zero!”
Ms. Karishnikov then led Ivan into the commercial break, before standing and shaking his hand. He was old enough to be her grandfather, but she had certainly heard stories of Ivan Stanislav, the hero of Russia. She admired the man who towered over seven feet tall and was built like the Kremlin wall. Stanislav didn’t notice. He stepped off set and walked toward the exit. Alexei took up next to him and made two steps for his one.
“Whore of a mother, eh? Nice touch, Vanya…” Ruslan smirked as he referred to Ivan in the familiar. Such was the strength of their unbreakable bond.
“That is what she is. That is what most of them are…” he grumped.
Ruslan nodded and adjusted the black tie he wore beneath the coat, “Oh you know I agree, Vanya, no doubt about it.”
Ivan avoided the elevator and descended a stairwell. Too many times was the weight limit tripped when he stood in them, let alone risking an accident in Russia. As he stomped onto a landing, he stopped and looked down at his old friend, “Were you able to find the individual I asked about?”
Ruslan inhaled slowly and swallowed, “I have, Ivan.” His expression was cloudy but he looked Ivan in the eyes, “Do you wish to see him?”
The snow was as much a facet of Russian life as anything else. It has a beautiful way of muting the noises of the bustling world and grants an individual a means to reflect in the silent solitude of its embrace. Such was the snow that fell around Ivan Stanislav and Alexei Ruslan, as the two stood in Vvedenskoye Cemetery, not far from Red Square. Ivan had been too late to meet his friend’s then newborn son Yuri. There in front of the hulking man rested a simple tombstone. Ivan wore a red greatcoat with gold buttons, while Ruslan brushed some of the snow off the brim of his brown hat.
Both Rogov boys were gone. One from the nightmare that was his reality in Afghanistan and the other? “What happened to him?” He asked Alexei.
“Alcoholism. No children or wife.”
It felt like a knife digging into Ivan’s chest, “Too young…”
Ruslan pushed his hands into his coat pockets and gave Ivan the space to grieve in his own way, before speaking, “You never spoke of this boy, or his father.”
Ivan shut his eyes, “I had forgotten. Somewhere, locked deep in my mind? That first skirmish was hidden. I knew it happened, but the specifics were missing.” Unable to muster the courage to look at his friend, Ivan stared at the stone, “Does that sound crazy?”
Alexei shook his head, “No, Vanya.” He was certain that Ivan suffered from some degree of PTSD. Who would not? The man had served several tours in Afghanistan and had been in multiple dust ups with the rebels. Ivan was too stubborn to admit he had a disorder, but Ruslan knew it festered inside his friend.
Ivan spoke to himself, “Two boys in that family torn asunder in the flower of their youth.” Then louder, to Alexei, “You know that was first combat I encountered? I saw that rebel, with that weapon smuggled in by those American bastards, and after he perforated Dmitry and blew him across my body… do you know what I did?”
Ruslan lifted a brow. Stanislav rarely bared so much of his soul, “What?”
“I ran. Like a coward.” Ivan swallowed and stared at the frozen earth that held Yuri Rogov and spoke to him, “I ran, Yuri, when your father was killed. After I saw those fanatical eyes of a war tested Afghan, brandishing a British-made weapon, smuggled in by American money drenched in blood. I ran and hid myself behind a wall.”
Ivan brought his big arms around his chest and hugged himself, “I hugged my rifle close to my body and closed my eyes. I prayed, yes prayed, to any God who would hear me. That they would deliver me from that hell and take me back to the warm embrace of my mother.” He shook his head, “But that did not happen. Instead, I heard the cries of my comrades who still lived, and I faced my fear and took three bullets for it.”
“But you lived, Vanya, and they died.”
He nodded, “Yes. And then I met you, Alyosha.” Despite the growing snowfall, his bittersweet smile pierced his beard and the flurries, “Do not begrudge me praying, eh?”
They were ardent atheists, but even Alexei knew that when one was faced with death, praying was permissible. He whispered just loud enough for Ivan to hear, “It is all right, my friend.”
After a thoughtful moment, Ivan clenched his fist. He felt warmth push through him as his heart beat faster and he spoke with more strength, “Twenty years I stopped fighting, Alexei. When I left wrestling and went into hibernation. These ghosts, Dmitry and the others, were with me all the time, I just didn’t have their names.” He nodded, “All the time I wanted to grant them retribution from the Americans. I’ve fought so many in the ring, Alexei, but none embodied America. Not like this Christopher boy.”
Ivan let the words hang in the air and dragged his gaze from the gravestone and back to his old friend, “This battle will not be lost, Alyosha. It is like… fate? Yes, fate. I come back after all these years, and this hero of America is put in my way? I will not lose. I will crush him into dust. I will bury him, Alexei Gregorovich.”
Alexei nodded, but Ivan’s words made him uneasy, like in the interview. He still let it go, “I know, Ivan.” The snow collected on their shoulders and in Ivan’s beard, but neither paid it any heed, “Yuri’s mother still lives.”
The snow flitted away upon Ivan’s breath, “I should write to her, sometime. Come Alexei, there is nothing left for us here.”
Resigned to the sad truth that he was too late for Yuri, Ivan turned and trudged along the snow-covered walkway. Ruslan, however, held his ground. The earlier interview, the pure simplicity of Russia versus America, the concept of Ivan believing Christopher America was a hero stuck in his throat. Ivan was dead-set on victory, but still Alexei felt his large friend missed the point. So, he tried to stop the lumbering Russian with a sentence, “He makes ninety-seven thousand dollars per appearance.”
With a lurch, Ivan stopped and turned his head to gaze at Ruslan over his shoulder. His eyes narrowed, “What?”
Alexei spoke emphatically, “Every time he traipses through their doors, he makes ninety-seven thousand dollars. Why, you donate all but three percent of your money from PRIME to our people. You are wrong about him. They hate him, Ivan. The Americans hate him.”
Ivan turned slowly, his face twisted in contempt, confusion, and no small measure of surprise, “All those working-class families struggling, and he is being paid such a sum?”
“He’s not a hero, Ivan. One is only a hero if the people allow it. The Americans see through it. They hate him.” Ruslan waved his hand in the air, “He’s just a villain with a convenient name.” He brought both of his hands together and pointed up at his friend, “But you can show those viewers from member federations of PWA what a true hero is. You can show those Americans the hero from Afghanistan. An Afghantsy.” He shook his head, “I am sorry Dmitry, and all our comrades, died. I am sorry it was too late for you to see his son. But you running in that moment does not deny you the heroism that followed nor does it make you complicit in their deaths.”
Ruslan sighed, “Good boys died there. And good boys lived.” He nodded at Ivan, “A great man lived.”
Ivan had assumed that Christopher America was universally loved. Alexei’s words changed the entire scenario. “So, we have opportunity to show, beyond obvious Russian superiority, to instead show all people what a true hero is?”
Ruslan nodded, “Yes, Ivan! Those bloody promoters and capitalists frame this contest as Russia versus USA, hm? Why, YOU frame it as Russia versus USA. Many times such contests are appropriately labeled as such.” He shook his head, “But not this one.”
Ivan half smiled as he growled, “This should not be overshadowed by nationalism…”
Alexei smiled more, “This is story of a true hero and a pretender. A man, tested in the fires of war, resilient beyond all measure, and a patriot to his people on one hand. He does battle against a punk gifted with a patriotic name, making ninety-seven thousand dollars an appearance, who is rendered hollow by his bankrupt soul on the other.”
Alexei approached and squeezed Ivan’s thick wrist, “I have said it many times, Vanya, and every time I say it, I mean it. You are unstoppable. You are undefeatable. You are indefatigable. You can inspire hope into the hopeless. Why, you do it for our people every single day. Now? You can do it for the Americans. And for international viewers of PWA. Crush the would-be champion to dust and return to the Motherland and to PRIME victorious.”
“Be a hero for all of them?”
Stanislav inhaled. The idea of being a hero to the American people was certainly foreign to him. Even his brief stint when Americans cheered him in OSW was more because of his love interest, Tempest, than himself. But he ran with it, “The Americans are poor, the working class Americans. They are trapped beneath an impotent government who should rule for their betterment, but instead rule at their detriment. And this Christopher America makes money hand over fist….”
Ruslan chimed in, “His name should bring hope and joy to his people, but instead his vile character welcomes scorn. Ivan, he squanders a great patriotic opportunity, and he has never paid a price…”
“…until now.” Stanislav finished Alexei’s thought.
Ruslan nodded, “His name might be ‘America.’ But it inspires no one. Your name is ‘Stanislav’ and it inspires our nation and all others who watch you vanquish villains again and again! So let us show him the price for false patriotism, by a true patriot. We grind him up. Not for Russia. Not for America. Not even for ourselves. But for those who need a hero they can believe in. And for those heroes who died in our arms so that we might someday honor them.”
Ivan growled with energetic solemnity, “We vanquish this dog, bring glory to the Motherland, and perhaps grant our ghosts some peace.”
Ruslan smirked and bobbled his eyebrows mischievously, “And who knows? We return back to PRIME and shove Lindsay Troy’s face in it, like a dog having to smell her own shit.”
“Yes, Alexei, we can do that.” Ivan grasped Ruslan’s smaller arm in his huge hand and spoke with sincerity, “Thank you, my friend.”
“Anytime, Vanya. Shall we go?”
Ivan’s voice was solemn, but focused, “Yes, I have a letter to write…”
Your husband proudly told me of your son’s birth, Yuri, before he was killed in combat. He was so excited! Rather than meeting his son and living until old age with you, your husband shielded me from certain death at the cost of his own life. He is a true hero.
I offer my condolences for your losses.
For what is worth, I endeavor to try to be a shred of the hero that your Dmitry was. I will attempt, with all diligence, to show others the essence of his heroism. And I swear to crush each and every false hero who dares to stand in my way.
Praporshchik Ivan Sergeiovich Stanislav