Oleg Tinkov I’m Just Like Anyone Else

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Chapter 6

There Will Be No Wildfire

I came home from the army certain that I would work in the mines.

I got a call from the Committee for State Security (KGB) immediately. They wanted to recruit me. Because the Border Guard was administered by the committee they told me, “You’re already one of us!” If you paid attention to what I said about the values my father instilled in me, however, you will understand why I politely declined.

I was going to be a miner like my dad! He had just retired, so I figured I could take his place in Kirov Mine. I went and put in an application to work there. But I also thought about how nice it would be to take a vacation beforehand.

I happened to bump into my homeroom teacher from school. She told me she was going to work as director of a Pioneers Camp and asked me if I would like to go with her to get some rest. There was a teachers’ college in our town, which prepared future preschool and primary school teachers. Before placement, the teachers had to complete internships as Pioneers’ counselors at a Young Builder camp belonging to a construction trust located in Leninsk-Kuznetsky. “You’re an athlete. Why not come teach phys ed?” my homeroom teacher asked. I agreed and worked there all summer. I would go to work in the mines in September.

Looking back, I think that June 1988 was the happiest month of my life. It turned out that there were only two men in the whole camp: myself and the art director. The artist painted posters with logos along the lines of “Pioneers ahead!” Unlike me, a good-looking chap recently “emancipated” from the border guard, he enjoyed no success of any kind among the women. If you count all the medics, management, and counselors, the male-to-female ratio at the camp was around 1 to 50. The impact was obvious. I felt like king of the camp! The gains in sexual experience were—fantastic! There were even catfights over me. I had money: that same thousand I had earned from selling the Colnago bike. I bought Hungarian champagne by the caseful—paying 5 rubles 50 kopeks per bottle—and kept it in my room, where we drank. I would get up in the morning to do my workout and the whole camp would laugh at me. The team-leaders understood everything and shouted at me: “Oleg, get some sleep!” They had heard me getting wasted with the girls all night. But I would yell back, “Do some push-ups!”

One day they asked me to lead a game called “Wildfire.” I did not know the rules. In order to get out of it, I had to have an affair with the senior camp counselor. She relented: “Fine. You don’t have to lead the game. Who even cares?” The Pioneers asked me,

When are we gonna play wildfire, Mr. PE teacher?”

“There will be no wildfire,” I answered with confidence.

The sun, the river, wild berries, girls—what else does a recently discharged soldier need? I’d recommend that everyone coming home from the army work a summer as physical education teacher at a camp. For a soldier, it is as entertaining and romantic as it gets.

While I was at the camp I met a girl named Zhanna Pechorkina. She was doing her internship, working part time in the cafeteria as she prepared for medical school. When I saw her in the cafeteria, about three weeks after I had started working, I knew that my days of fooling around were over. It was love at first sight. She turned 17 that June. Given today’s standards, that seems very young, but this was not so in Soviet-era Siberia. At the time, it was considered normal to have your first child at 18. We went on walks in the forest holding hands. Ah, the romance! An innocent girl—my first true love.

We were inseparable and went to the city together to visit my parents. On June 28, 1988, we got on a yellow Ikarus bus departing from the central market in Leninsk-Kuznetsky and went to the village of Yegozovo. Everyone took a seat; we stood on the floor near the back and kissed. The bus drove at an immense speed and bumped wildly up and down. I wondered why the driver was going so fast. Suddenly there was a crash and a grating sound. I blacked out. The next thing I knew, I was lying on the steps of the bus, which had spun to a stop. Getting up, I saw that half of the bus was missing. The back part of the roof was torn off and the windows shattered. The bus sort of resembled one of those tourist buses in London or Paris. In a state of shock, I started calling for Zhanna. I climbed through the hole in the back of the bus where the window had been. I landed on the road and started looking for her. I found her in the ditch, her dress pulled up over her head so that all I could see were her bare legs and underwear. I told her, “What are you thinking? People can see everything.” I pulled her dress down from her face. And then I saw something that I hope never ever to see again in my life—my beloved girl with no head, in effect. Her casket stayed closed at the funeral.

I grabbed her hand, choked with memory. Then I felt hands grabbing me from behind and I heard someone say, “Get this one to the ambulance immediately!” My head started spinning once I got to the car. I spit and saw eight teeth fall onto the pavement.

What had happened in that fateful moment? As we were standing there, kissing, a KamAZ truck, driving too fast, hit the side of our bus. A pole broke loose from the force of the impact and I was thrown to the floor and onto the steps. I did not fly out of the bus and that saved me. Zhanna had been standing with her back to the pole, while I faced her. The pole just ripped through her head. She got the brunt of the blow, while I was hit with less force. Because Zhanna was six inches shorter than me, she got hit in the head, while I was struck in the teeth. Essentially, she saved my life by blocking the blow with her head. It is ironic that this happened just as we were kissing.

This was the first time that my life was spared. The Lord protected me… I was taken to the hospital. I underwent multiple surgeries. Investigators came and got information from me. I was totally devastated by this tragedy. What a thing for a twenty-year old man to suffer…

I could not look our mutual friends in the eye; I could not look at her parents or at buses or at the town. As Nautilus Pompilius sings: “I looked at these faces and couldn’t forgive them for being able to live without you.”

I had to leave Leninsk-Kuznetsky.

One day I ran into my friend and neighbor Yura, who lived across the way from me on Kooperativnaya Street. He told me that my other neighbor Vitya Starodubtsev had moved to Leningrad in order to attend school at the Mining Institute. Yura and Vitya explained that it was not that complicated. All I had to do was to get a paper from the mine saying that I had worked there. On top of that, I had already completed my military service. I was fascinated and inquired as to when they were accepting applications. It turned out that I had only one week left. My friend Edik Sozinov, who was still living in Leninsk, helped me. Quickly, we gathered all of the required doctor’s notes and I got a letter from the mine stating that I had worked there for nine months. Once I had all of my documents together and had put on my junior sergeant’s uniform, I got on the train and left for St. Petersburg to start school. To stay in Leninsk would have been unbearable.

About ten years ago, I met up with Edik. He told me,

“I remember how we took you to the train station. But no one believed you’d finish what you set out to do.”

I am not so sure that I believed it myself. I was absent for almost all of my last two years of high school. I then served two years in the border guard, which most likely did nothing for my intellectual capabilities. Who knows what kind of impudence it took to think that I could get into the Leningrad Mining Institute, the top university in Russia, established during the reign of Catherine the Great!

I returned from the army in 1988, grown up and hungry for sex.

Looking back, I think that the happiest time of my life was spent working at the Pioneers’ Camp in June 1988
Lidia Irincheyevna Baturova, Oleg Tinkov’s homeroom teacher:

I met with Oleg’s class twenty-five years after their graduation. The kids told me what they had achieved. Fourteen of the students finished school with B’s and A’s, but none of them managed to achieve Oleg’s level of success.

When Oleg Tinkov’s generation was growing up, there were eleven mines and factories operating in Leninsk-Kuznetsky. Later, everything shut down. Circumstances during the stagnant Soviet period were stable at least: you finished school, attended an institute or technical school, got an education, and then went to work. Now these kids had taken their first grown-up steps at the end of the eighties, when the country was in turmoil. Few had managed to stand up to the revolution in our way of life.

All of the social facilities that existed then have closed down: the schools, preschools, and stadiums. The stadium and gym where Oleg grew up and trained as a cyclist have been demolished. There are only five mines in the city now and five of the other larger enterprises have been closed as well: the yarn plant, the light bulb plant, Kuzbasselement, Khimprom, and the clothing factory. Thousands of people were thrown overboard, in a manner of speaking. As a consequence, these people were unable to provide a good education for their children. The tragedy in small towns today consists in the fact that children have no opportunities for development and nowhere to go. I’m already teaching the children of my former students and I can say that it’s a rare thing to see someone achieve a level of education higher than trade or technical school. Only a very few individuals are capable of breaking free and going further. The children lack the finances and the motivation. Once Oleg had gotten on his feet, he came to Leninsk-Kuznetsky with his kids and brought them to see the school. His daughter Dasha, who had just returned from America, asked,

“Dad, I can’t believe kids actually go here.” The school is small, poorly maintained and has no funds. So Oleg decided to help. He was the first graduate of the school to donate money for repairs and equipment for his class. He wanted the kids to see that you can succeed through knowledge and schooling. I’m grateful to him for using gifts to encourage people in the right direction. His charity gave rise to a conundrum in the graduates’ minds: why is he able, but we are not? A whole movement was started. Everyone wanted to help out as much as they could.

The municipal school board received an official charitable donation in the amount of 150 thousand rubles. The bureaucrats decided to hold on to the money for a while in order to profit from it. I received a call from Oleg, who was in Italy at the time:

“Did you get the money?” My answer was,

“No.” He started swearing,

“Don’t just gape, find it!” He gets like that sometimes. I got in contact with the local criminal authorities, some of whom I had taught in school. Immediately, the money was found.

The municipal school board accounted for every kopek. And I had to keep Oleg just as informed as I was. I know my student. He can be very nice, but when it comes to money, he’s incredibly strict.

We ordered new furniture for the classroom, but it was taking forever for the delivery to come. September 1 was just around the corner. Once again, I had to involve the criminal element. These guys like Oleg a lot and respect him for helping the school. They drove to Kemerovo, where the furniture manufacturer is located. As a result, the furniture arrived the following day. Everything was assembled and set up over night.

When Oleg came, I showed him everything: the new windows, the newly laid linoleum floors, the desks and chairs, the board, the TV-VCR combo, the video camera and the audio library for geography class. It seemed like his mind was elsewhere, but he took note of everything and was interested in the details. He hadn’t just doled out the money like an aristocrat—he wanted to be sure that his money had been put to good use.

The next time he came to see what we’d done, everything had been set up. We reminisced about the new furniture that was brought to the school in the summer of 1980. We workers at the school, as well as the kids and parents, assembled everything ourselves. All of the chairs were still in tact, including the one that Oleg had put together and signed with his name over 20 years ago. We had his son Pasha sit on that chair.

This wasn’t the only time that Oleg helped the school board. We really wanted him to build a school, but he decided to build a playground instead, along with Natalya Vodyanova and Alexei Prilepsky. Good for him! I value his humanity. When he comes to visit, you never get the impression that he’s stuck up or seeking attention. He always asks about everyone and takes an interest in how things are going and who needs help.

That last time we got together as a class, we noted with great sadness that six of the students have now passed away. All of them were Oleg’s good friends. Each of them went down a different path. Some got involved with organized crime and two girls drank themselves to death. Their male classmates can’t believe it.

Some of my earlier graduates fought in Afghanistan, and some of my more recent ones served in Chechnya. The have found it difficult to readjust to normal life.

To tell the truth, some of the groups of kids I’ve seen through to graduation ended up much worse off than Oleg’s class. In one class, for example, all but one of the boys served time. Many have died. The neighborhood where Oleg grew up became a hotbed of drugs. Thanks to sport, Oleg was able to catch hold of life and get further than these others.

My memories of Oleg are all good ones. He can be harsh and severe, but he always keeps his head about him. I really hope that he retained his grasp of, and sensitivity to, the situation at hand. This is a skill we lack. May everything be good for him.

Young people are living a modern life. You are insiders. We stand at the curb and can do little to affect what’s going on—except through you. Students are smarter than their teachers. We provide a base; we lay a foundation. What grows from this is up to the child. Every student, no matter who he or she is, is unique. As long as you don’t put too much pressure on kids, they will rise by themselves. My motto is “Teachers should bring up children so they can be learned from.”

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