“The most basic, most rudimentary spiritual need of the Russian people is the need for suffering, ever-present and unquenchable, everywhere and in everything.”
The piercing lights were so fiery, they created halos in his vision which blotted out the surrounding darkness. Beneath where he lay, the vibrations of the euphoric crowd caused the canvas to shudder under The Russian Bear, Ivan Stanislav, who was splayed on the mat.
“Here is your winner…”
These were never welcome words while one was lying flat on their back, staring up at the lights.
No, that’s not what this moment was. That was long ago.
Ivan blinked and refocused. Timo Bolamba was standing off to the side. The Samoan Silencer was shirtless, full of piss and vinegar, smiling that stupid smile during one of those fluke multi-person matches where he was part of a winning team. No. That was twenty years ago.
He blinked again. That’s better. Now Timo was wearing his referee uniform. He was older. There was another young bastard next to him, with the same amount of piss and vinegar and stupid juvenile positivity:
That was his name. The Bear let out a loud exhalation as the air burst from his body and he turned his eyes away from the lights, from Timo, and from the staggering Hanlon, who stood with his arm raised. Ivan looked over at the apron and saw one hand, and then another, grip it from below. Like someone struggling to climb an insurmountable mountain, the crooked brown hat that rose did have a head attached to it. He knew who it was.
His comrade, Alexei Ruslan, had taken quite the decking from Hanlon and it showed. The side of his face was red and he winced with pain while he tried to shake the cobwebs. No doubt it had been a long time since Alexei had taken a blow like that, let alone several of them. The two Russian’s eyes locked for a moment while Ruslan pulled himself up to stand.
These two men had been in worse situations than this. They had shared their times of triumph and failure together. Still, Alexei saw “it.” Something that was subtle, very subtle. The crowd was too busy basking in the come-from-behind victory. They were wallowing in the “feel good” moment of this fairy tale story like the foolish pigs they were. Timo Bolamba was too busy raising Hanlon’s hand. Hanlon was no doubt making sure he didn’t suffer a massive heart attack.
So what did keen eyed Alexei see?
Ivan was grinning, just slightly, from the corner of his mouth.
Hayes Hanlon was busy celebrating his victory, in what could be considered a defining moment of his career. He thought this contest was over, but he was wrong. For Ivan Stanislav, the war was never over, this was just a skirmish.
You see, most people deal with life’s potential challenges with trepidation. They worry about failure. They agonize over setbacks. They lose sleep over potential pain. To them, failure might mean the end. The wound may be too much. Those “what if’s” are too frightening. They fear potential suffering.
Russians, however, are not so easily perturbed by loss. They were used to suffering. They embraced it. Some would even say they craved it. Russian lives were beset with sadness, setbacks, and yes, suffering. They consider a “what if” too, but it’s not suffering. Their “what if” was happiness. Success. Prosperity. All of the above. A Russian may lose a battle. So what? They’ll endure and win the war. Hayes Hanlon, arm raised in the air, basking in the adoration of all those stupid fans, was celebrating a battle. In spite of all his suffering, Ivan Stanislav was grinning. This was a small blot against the gleaming sunspot of Stanislav victories.
The fact of the matter was, when one looks at the great win/loss records of life, Ivan Stanislav, more often than not, lost the big battles. He lost Afghanistan. He lost his Revolution. He lost his government. He lost his love. He lost twenty years of his life. These weren’t conflicts fought in a wrestling ring. These were battles fought in life. In that regard, yes, perhaps Ivan Stanislav was a loser.
Ivan had no intention of being a loser at UltraViolence and Hayes Hanlon was going to give him his victory. Just watch.
Ivan Stanislav stood up and growled to himself. He shook his head as flecks of sweat flew to and fro and he looked around at the sea of faces who foamed for more action. Across from him, Ivan reveled in his handiwork. Hanlon had weathered a mauling and barely came out upright. His cheek was swollen and blood was oozing from where The Bear had bit him. Beyond throwing him around like a ragdoll, the Iron Curtain had swollen Hanlon’s face. He was shaking like he had been through Hell. It filled Ivan’s barrel chest with pride.
At that moment, Ivan attacked: He offered his hand.
He knew Hanlon couldn’t resist. They’re always so stupid in this moment. Go for the glory. Win that short game. Take his hand and hear the cheers. He knew Hanlon lived for these sorts of moments. And when Hayes’ smaller hand was engulfed in Ivan’s own, the boy even said something respectful to him! To Ivan’s surprise, even the crowd went for it. They cheered loudly as they showed their appreciation for the match they had seen. The pigs just rolled around in all that shit.
Ivan wouldn’t fall for it. It was fake. They weren’t cheering for Ivan Stanislav. They weren’t cheering his communist ideals. They weren’t happy to see him. They hated him. They loathed him. Like all those on the roster who attacked him when they could, who insulted his country, his lifestyle, his age, and all of his prior accomplishments, these short sighted, pampered pieces of capitalist trash didn’t give a damn about Ivan Stanislav. They just wanted to feel good. They just wanted their dirty money’s worth.
Pathetic. Hanlon was right there with them.
The lights of a thousand phones went off as Hanlon celebrated his victory, woefully ignorant to the fact that Ivan had just stolen victory from him.
Hanlon proved at that moment that he would forever lack the longevity and forethought of Ivan Sergeiovich Stanislav. He was like every other blind American. Alexei Ruslan had composed himself and gazed up in admiration at the tactical prowess of his larger Comrade. The two exchanged wicked smiles.
As Hanlon slopped himself in his glory in the ring, the defeated Russian Bear trudged past the Fynmore position and walked deeper into the guts of the MGM Grand. A few feet behind him, Ruslan trudged and rubbed his jaw. Maksim Stepanov, the wealthy twenty-something Russian with business connections back home, blocked Ruslan’s path. The dapper young Russian was wearing an expensive suit and tie, and stared eye to eye with the older Ruslan, who wore his much less formal trench coat.
“Mr. Ruslan,” Maksim said with barely veiled condescension, “perhaps next time, the two of you should listen to me, hm? Then perhaps Praporshchik Stanislav might celebrate a win?”
Ruslan seethed as he stared the pompous boy in the eyes and lifted a finger, “Watch yourself, child…” He pushed past Maksim and left the grinning boy behind. Stanislav was oblivious to the terse exchange, and had been fording through the people backstage, generating a wake behind him. Ivan would not linger. He would return home. Ruslan hurried to catch up to him, and as Ivan walked into the empty garage, Ruslan stopped and called out.
“Praporshchik?” His voice echoed.
Few things stopped Ivan Stanislav, but he stopped immediately. Ruslan and Ivan had indeed dealt the most severe blow to Hanlon in the ring, but Ruslan still didn’t know what Ivan’s next move was. In his heart, he feared it would be another twenty years in the apartment. Stanislav was unmoving for what felt like an eternity.
Ivan Stanislav, the grizzled old Russian Bear, turned his head slowly and spoke with conviction, “Looks like they want a war, Alexei. Let us give them one.”
Somewhere in Russia, Ivan Stanislav sat quietly in his newfound office. To say that the Russian government spared no expense would be a lie so great that no propaganda on Ivan’s part could give it credence. It looked akin to a bunker, with concrete walls and floors, though there was one four paned window. It was gray and dreary outside and rain spattered against the window pane. Stanislav’s desk was suitably enormous, as was the computer, which was comically archaic. A military march played from an unseen radio, and the music certainly predated Ivan’s own date of birth.
The walls were properly decorated, of course. A large picture of President Vladimir Putin as well as Vladimir Lenin, Josef Stalin, and all the other Soviet leaders who followed in their bloody wake. Images of Ivan during his younger wrestling years were also hanging, with himself and Ruslan holding various belts and celebrating victories. There were pictures of past Red Army members. Riggs. Wang. The Women. Walczak. Krieg. Morozov. Even Sloboda. Not to mention the massive Soviet and Russian flags. It read like a historical account of Ivan’s wrestling career.
Stanislav had several papers strewn about his desk, but he wasn’t paying them any attention. The Bear was turned slightly in his poor chair, which sobbed silently under his prodigious weight. A leak in the ceiling provided a steady drip into a pail and played counterpoint to the military march. He was gazing out the window at the drab, urban Russian landscape. His expression was thoughtful but pensive as he devoured what was on his mind.
He was snapped out of his thoughts by Alexei Ruslan, who swept into the office with a plate of sausage and a newspaper under his arm. Unlike Stanislav, Ruslan was grinning ear to ear, and Ivan used this opportunity to turn in his dying chair, and force a smile upon his large face.
“Alexei Gregorovich, do you have it?”
Ruslan sat the plate on one side of the desk and presented the newspaper with a flourish, “Special delivery for Comrade Stanislav?” He pantomimed looking for Ivan before “seeing” him, “Ah, there you are, Comrade! Your paper!”
Ivan burst into his laugh and it was infected with gloating, “Oh! Why thank you, Comrade Ruslan! Let me see!” While his half rimmed glasses rested under his monitor, Ivan instead picked up the paper and pulled it away from his face so he could read easier.
The paper was the Rossiyskaya Gazeta, the state run Russian newspaper which was published directly from the government. The words were, naturally, written in cyrillic. However, the headline was crystal clear (because after all, we need to know what it says, right?):
“Ivan Stanislav, The Russian Bear, Champion of Russia, Fighter of the People, Defeats American Hayes Hanlon!”
Below the bold headline was the picture of Stanislav and Hanlon with their arms raised. Since most of Ivan’s damage was to the body, he looked relatively unscathed. However, Hanlon sported the bloody cheek and battered face. The footnote: “American Hayes Hanlon concedes to Ivan Stanislav after virtually no offense. Hanlon (left) raises Ivan Stanislav’s hand in deference to the superior athlete of Russia.”
Ivan erupted, “DYAAHAAHAA!! What an idiot!”
Alexei’s eyes gleamed with joy as he played along, “Oh, oh there is more, Comrade Stanislav! I got a picture as well!”
Ivan raised his bushy salt and pepper eyebrows and playfully pursed his lips, “Oh did you, Alexei Gregorovich? This I must see!” He rubbed his paws together with glee. Thunder rumbled outside while the two Russians played their silly game.
Ruslan rounded the table and turned to the next section where the article continued. There was Ruslan, falling upside down from the apron after Hanlon had punched him. He was twisted in comical fashion, and yet with the way his head was turned, and the way his eyes stared directly at the camera, one could consider this fall premeditated. The steel baton that Ruslan had been holding was conspicuously absent. The footnote: “Brave patriot Alexei Ruslan sacrifices self against cowardly onslaught by Hanlon. This was just one of many thwarted cheating attempts by the honorless American.”
Ruslan moved with a flourish, reliving the harrowing experience, “I saw the camera man, Ivan, right behind me. I knew Hanlon would not be able to help it. Either he would have to hit me, or I would brain him with my baton… it was win win! Hee hee haa!!”
“You certainly are photogenic!” Ivan joked. The thunderclaps came not from the storm outside, but from Ivan’s hands, “I can see it now, Alexei Gregorovich!” He pushed himself out of his chair, which barely survived, “Come!” He said as he guided Alexei to the window and stared out of it, towards the sparse landscape, “Ruslan / Stanislav- Bolshoi Theater! We will have world eating out of palms of our hands!” The two of them shared another raucous laugh. This was getting a little ridiculous.
You see, Hanlon was playing checkers while Ivan was playing chess, no, Chinese checkers. He miscalculated the Russians. Ivan and Alexei’s definition of winning was different than most individuals. Ivan had lost in America, yes, but his handshake meant he had won in Russia. That picture, on the front of that newspaper, brought hope to his people. It brought joy to those masses. And joy was a rare thing for Russians. It filled him with pride and his grin grew.
Ivan stared at the pictures, but in time, he composed himself. With vigor, he motioned to the papers at his desk, “Now then! To business, Comrade Ruslan!”
This was an exercise they had been through countless times, over innumerable battles. A regimented, organized, and wholly logical method to their own collective madness, and Alexei was ready for it and snapped to attention.
“Your opponent is Shawn Warstein…”
Ivan interjected, “Warstein. Hmm, is he German?”
Alexei nodded, “Could be, yes.”
Ivan grumbled with derision, “If so… probably West German… continue Alexei.”
Ruslan replied, “Physical statistics are nothing to be concerned about. He has just come off of win at UltraViolence…”
Another Ivan interjection, “Yes, he wrestled that fighter, eh? Buster Gloves? I remember.”
“Indeed, Ivan Sergeiovich. He seems to be a bit of a striker. He is too small to match you with power, there is no doubt.”
The Bear scoffed and spoke to himself, “Striker in wrestling ring? That is why we had FSW. Because strikers could not cut mustard in wrestling ring. I’ll grind him up and spit him out… and move on to the next.” Ivan twisted a bit and he winced. His teeth showed as he gritted them. Hanlon had drilled his body several times with surgical precision, and it hurt. Alexei swallowed silently but Ivan didn’t try to hide it, “Oof… I tell you Alexei that bastard Hanlon could throw hard punch.”
He rubbed his side and shifted his weight as silence descended between the two Russians. He exhaled slowly. Ivan fished for unmentioned confirmation, “Yet we outsmarted Hanlon, eh? Idiot shook my hand, and now I have win. What a fool.”
Alexei nodded and rubbed his hands together, “Indeed, short sighted. Always, these Americans, they want the adoration of the moment. Never seeing long game.”
Ivan was silent again before motioning to the desk, “Let’s sit, eh?” Once again he descended upon the poor chair. It lamented the lot it was given in its life. Why couldn’t it just collect dust with all the other chairs and waste away slowly in storage? Instead it would be bludgeoned by a four hundred pound posterior.
Stanislav pulled open his desk drawer and produced a bottle of vodka and two large glasses, and poured a liberal amount for the two of them. “Ah ha!” Alexei said with a smile as Ivan pushed his glass over to him and they toasted and drank. Ivan breathed alcoholic fire from his mouth and let the quiet of the room grow around them. The radio had stopped playing its music, though the dripping from the leaky ceiling persisted.
Alexei ran his tongue along the inside of his mouth and glanced over at his larger friend, who leaned back and stared off at the wall. The chair creaked. The levity of the room waned. The mood was growing awkward and silent.
Finally, Alexei cleared his throat, “And how do you feel, Ivan Sergeiovich, after it all?”
Ivan considered the question and tugged on his suspenders, “Mffn… I feel good. It feels good, Alexei. To be back out there, in the field, and to be with my old friend. Here, in this office, considering all options, looking at all enemies and deciding who to dispatch first, second, and third.” He tried to muster some joviality once more, but it stagnated and fizzled between them. Ivan rocked in his chair and stretched the suspenders once more.
Another long pause, before Ivan spoke in a vain attempt to create momentum, “Another, eh?” He poured more vodka for the two. They toasted and drank. Alexei kept his keen eyes on Ivan the entire time. More awkward silence.
Finally Ivan spoke, “What?” Alexei said nothing and just shrugged.
The Bear distracted himself by grabbing the sausage and a knife and he cut into it. The skin broke and juice sprayed across the desk. “Damn!” He barked. It soiled the newspaper as the duo watched Ivan’s “triumphant” image bleed into an amalgam of multi-colored ink. The courageous footnote burbled into inky blobs. They both stared at the “win.” Now, the mood was sour.
It was another exercise these two Russians doggedly practiced: rationalization. For example: Timo Bolamba surely had it in for Ivan, yes? The count was fast, maybe? Hanlon’s foot was not near the ropes, perhaps? Lindsay Troy clearly had no love for The Bear, maybe she put Timo up to it? Was there a moment when Hanlon used an illegal weapon? Was there anything?
Unfortunately, they both knew the truth. That annoying, frustrating, and sometimes so painful thing.
Try as they might, they could not evade the facts. Ivan had lost. Legitimately. His powerful back had been on the mat for three seconds. That audacious little bastard had somehow lifted him into a burning hammer and driven him for the win. Sure, Ivan thrashed the boy… but he still lost. No amount of mental gymnastics would change that.
He had been sloppy. He did pin Hanlon too close to the ropes. He was in good shape, but not the best shape. He underestimated his opponent and paid for it. Hayes Hanlon didn’t defeat Ivan Stanislav, no, Ivan Stanislav had allowed himself to be defeated by an upstart. That handshake didn’t destroy Hayes. It spared Ivan. What would have destroyed Hayes Hanlon? The Red Scare. Even with a neck as big as Ivan Stanislav’s, this was a tough pill to swallow.
The leaky roof grew incessant. The sausage juice dried. Ivan bore holes through Alexei with his stare. Ruslan inhaled slowly and did the same, back at his long-time Comrade. They said nothing. These two men had been together for upwards of forty years, and they quite nearly thought as one. Finally, Ivan nodded his head and spoke their collective thoughts.
“Shawn Warstein will not be so lucky, Alexei, mark my words.” Ivan’s words, in their quiet intensity, drowned out the thunder beyond his concrete walls.
“He will crash and shatter against your might, Ivan Sergeiovich.”
“Against our might, Alexei Gregorovich.”
Ruslan saw it in Ivan’s eyes. Ivan had been caught off guard at UltraViolence, and he did not have all the time to prepare. Still, it was a short schedule. Probably some underhanded scheme by Lindsay Troy to try to bury The Bear, and she had booked him once more in another match. But Ivan had his feet under him now. He was able to fully focus. He was out of that apartment and was working to dispel that specter who dogged him.
Ruslan almost felt sorry for Shawn Warstein. It was true, Russians knew how to suffer. Indeed, in some ways they craved it. It was part of their being. Not in the same way some Americans require victimization. No, this was the kind of suffering and hardship that forged a man. This setback with Hanlon, and the truth behind it, would do nothing more than fuel the nuclear furnace in Ivan’s heart. The silence was oppressive between them while they digested these truths.
Ivan Stanislav was the one to finish it.
“Let an American suffer this time.”