The Northlink ferry from Orkney to Shetland: an 8-hour voyage which I’d intended using for writing and sleeping,but there’s a bar on the boat. That’s where I met the Russian.
I’d seen him at the check-in desk an hour before, a tall man, grey cropped hair and weathered looking, olive complexion. From his accent and the way he dressed – knockoff ADIDAS tracksuit, Hugo Boss man-bag and black pool sliders with white socks – I had him down as a Latvian lorry driver at first. I don’t like to stereotype, but Eastern European lorry drivers do have ‘a look’.
No matter where I go in the world, and I’m not sure if it’s because I look friendly or lonely, but someone will always start a conversation with me. In an empty bar, he could have sat anywhere else, but he decided to sit at the same table as me.
“Why you are coming to Shetland?” he asked, without warning. And this is how the conversation started.
“Nikita”, he said, as we shook hands. I wasn’t sure whether to tell him that I thought Nikita is actually a girl’s name, but decided not to, given we’d only just met. By 2 am, I was glad I hadn’t.
It all started lightheartedly enough, the exchange of anecdotes and the buying of rounds at the bar; he told me how he’d ‘accidentally’ spent three days in hospital after falling asleep at work. Nikita had been working in a power plant near his home town of Irkutsk,
“I sit at a control panel like Homer Simpson!”, he laughed.
After a switch from working days to nights, Nikita was finding it tough to adjust and fell asleep in his chair.
“Is not like Japan, Phil, you fall asleep at your desk in Russia, and it’s big trouble!”.
Nikita only dozed off for a few minutes, but when he woke up, he was aware there was someone else in the room – his supervisor. Knowing he was about to lose a well-paid job, and maybe worse, he did what he had to do – he pretended he was having a heart attack.
“They take me out on a stretcher! Three days I’m in the hospital … three fucking days!”, he told me in his deep, Russian accent. “But I keep my job!”.
We went out on deck for a smoke, standing next to each other we emptied our beer-filled bladders over the side. I made the blunder of standing downwind. By the time we got back inside, the barmaid was making it clear she was about to close, so we bought two more bottles of beer and a large whiskey, each.
“What do you do for work now?” I asked – It turns out Nikita isn’t a lorry driver.
“Now, I work on a boat”, he told me. His weathered features and thick, grizzled sausage fingers were an obvious clue, straight away I assumed fisherman. Nikita actually works on a supply vessel, ferrying anything from pot noodles to plasma arc welders to the rigs in the Norwegian oil fields. I should have finished my whiskey at this point and gone to bed, but I didn’t.
Nikita is actually Moldovian but had spent most of his adult life living in the town of Irkutsk, at the southern-most end of Lake Baikal. He met a woman, and they married young, by the time he was 23, they had three daughters.Ten years ago, in the late autumn of 2009, Nikita’s eldest daughter, then 17, had been to a Halloween party with friends: Halloween in Russia has, apparently, never been a thing, but the post-communist Soviet youth have adopted it, US-style, as an excuse to get drunk and party. Nikita’s eldest didn’t like to drink, so she decided to leave early and walk the half-mile home. Somewhere along the way, the teenager was dragged into a car and punched unconscious.
My bones turned to glass. I didn’t want to hear the rest of this story. I thought about standing up and pretending I was going for another piss, but I’d just been.
“Two policemen came to my home, the first thing they say is that my daughter is still alive…so I’m thinking, why are they saying this? Has she crashed in a car?”
Nikita explained how his daughter had been taken to a house on the outskirts of Irkutsk. Until this point, he hadn’t said his daughter’s name, but after a swig of beer, he continued.
“He took Alena, and he rapes her.” Nikita then looked at me, broke into a forced half-smile, “When the police are telling me and my wife, I just sit and look at the television…it is like I am pretending I cannot hear them…but Alena is still alive”. I didn’t know what to say. I was lost for words.
“She knew this boy…this man. He is nineteen when he does this. He followed her from the party. He is a boy she knows, so she gets in a car with him”, he continued.
“So, did they find him? Did the police find him?” I asked.
“Yes, they find him. He sees prison for three-years”, said Nikita, bluntly.
“You are fucking kidding!? For rape?”
“He says he has been with my daughter before. He lied. He says he hit her, but because she hits him. The police, they know he rape her, but a judge believes him, and he sees only three years…Alena, she never lies.”
I had about ten minutes worth of Glenmorangie left in my glass and two-days of no sleep behind me, but I needed to hear the rest. Because I knew there was more.
The rapist, (Nikita never spoke his name), was released from prison, aged 23, and went back to what he thought would be a forgotten life in Irkutsk. Nikita hadn’t forgotten, far from it… Shortly before Christmas, 2012, Nikita arrived at a ground floor apartment in the centre of Irkutsk, under his arm he had a bag containing a cheese grater and a bottle of vinegar.
“I hurt this man very badly. Phil, he say he is sorry many, many, many times… When I finish, he is sorry.”
Nikita had taken the top layer of skin and flesh off the man’s chest, stomach, thighs and knees with the grater – painful enough – but then poured vinegar, slowly, over the open wounds. “Even with rope in his mouth, he screams very loud…I worry that some neighbours will hear…but they don’t care, they know what is this man”.
I asked Nikita if he regretted doing it? His reply was unhesitating: “No, I wish I kill him”.
At 2 am, we crashed our glasses together, made a silent toast, downed the last of our Scotch and went to our beds. I dozed off, relieved that I hadn’t mentioned the girls name thing…