“Dia de los Muertos” or the day of death was a Mexican holiday. As a kid growing up on the Texas border of Mexico, I used to drive into Juarez, Mexico and buy masks—pink and blue insect faces with horns, green devil faces with bright yellow tongues. I think the Native American tribes in Mexico took their holiday a bit more seriously than American teenagers took their Halloween, the cousin of Dia del Muerte. I helped to spread the festivities, never stopping to look at what was beneath the mask.
When I moved to Moscow at twenty to run a nightclub, it occurred to me that the Russians might be fascinated by this masquerade of death. There is a picture of me in the Moscow Times holding one of those Mexican masks over half my face. The headline read: “Halloween Comes to Russia”. After New Year’s Eve, it soon became the country’s biggest clubbing night.
There were four of us when it began. Stanley, the African American DJ who claimed to have been spinning since the days of Manhattan’s Studio 54, Ivan Jmakin, a Jewish Russian kid promoter, Jenya Salmaksov, the hero of Russia’s underground music scene, and me, a twenty year-old club promoter. We all wanted to throw Moscow’s ultimate Halloween party, and we were each afraid of the other stealing the competition. So I called a meeting. We decided to band together and split Moscow between us. We even arranged a party bus to travel back and forth from one event to another.
Half a year later Stanley showed up at my apartment shaking.
Frantically he asked, “Have they come to you? Have they called you?”
The x-KGB had raided Stan’s house, taken his phone book and gone after every contact listed inside. Except for me. I’d gotten out of the club business a few months earlier, when a new club, PENTHOUSE, opened up next to ours. Business had gotten better in our area – the neighborhood was fast becoming a renowned party zone. When I noticed the coat checks with glazed eyes, I knew it was time to get out of the club business. When I started, people did in our club what they did on the street. They drank vodka. All we did was add music, a door price and sell them the vodka directly. Now that drugs were creeping in, I knew it was time for me to creep out of the club scene. My friend DJ Stan fled the country for half a year.
I’d see Ivan the Jewish kid promoter sometimes. He was balanced. He got married, and when he brought the band Prodigy to Red Square, he asked me to throw the after-party. A few months later driving back from a concert in St. Petersburg, his car slid on the ice and crashed into a tree. He and his wife were killed instantly. Even though we weren’t so close, I was shaken when I heard the news.
By that time I was already well entrenched in advertising and media. DJ Stan had come back for round two in Russia. Sometimes I’d see him and Jenya at parties. Then one day I’d heard that Stan had been arrested for dealing cocaine and was sent to a prison in Siberia.
The prisons were so poor at the time, and so packed, that there were not enough beds. Prisoners would have to sleep in shifts of three hours. They were also rampant with hepatitis and other communicable diseases I’d thought to have had existed only in last century literature. I knew Stan might get into trouble, but he wasn’t a dealer. Later I learned that the Russians had wanted to use him as a mole to turn in others, and he had refused.
Jenya, the last of our macabre quartet, on the other hand, was a serious addict. As the new Russian elite had risen, he had risen with them. He’d become the doll of Russia’s emerging dance scene. He’d stand, almost skeletal at the mixing board, like a mad doctor, while thousands of dancing figures would scream as he mixed a new track. Raves and love parades around the world flew him in to represent Russia’s dance scene. We were never close but we held a certain respect for one another. The last time I saw him he had just finished a treatment program, and seemed to be making a positive life transformation. He was planning on getting married, and turned to producing mixes of trance, jazz and jungle albums from his house. It was the first time I’d ever seen color in his slender cat-like face.
Changes were taking place for me too. I also was not the same person I was when we met that pre-Halloween planning night. I took a peek under the mask.
A trip to Israel six months earlier had planted seeds and my perspective on my life priorities began to change. Seeing as much evil as I saw in Russia, I think I was feeling pangs of a faint conscience for the first time in my life. I quit doing things for the thrill of an experience. More and more I started to think about whether what I did affected other people or not. I dropped certain clients I didn’t believe in (they usually had the biggest budgets) and began looking for non-profit groups I could tag on to giant promotions I was running. I tried to get friends from UNICEF to do joint social projects. I even tried to get a teen magazine to launch a 24-hour hotline for troubled teens. The atmosphere in the country was all about taking; no one was too concerned of the mess Russia was in. Moscow was losing its excitement for me and in its place was dark and cold.
It dimmed even further the night I heard the news about Jenya Salmaksov. They found his winter hat by a pool of blood in the stairwell of his Stalin-era apartment block.
I had never been a scared person; but after I got the news I was struck with a panic I have not since experienced. No more did I notice the parents teaching their toddlers how to ice skate, and Dalmatians running like black ink spots across the white snow of the frozen pond on my walk home from the gym. Now I kept my eyes trained over my shoulder, scared of every shadow. One day I came back to my apartment and saw some thuggish looking types standing on different floor levels of my decrepit Soviet block apartment building. One thug caught the scent of my fear like a dog, and cornered me. A picture of the remnants of Jenya in his stairwell flashed through my mind. There is probably no more forbidding way to die than in the stench of a stairwell of a Soviet apartment. I don’t even remember what I said, I just remember thanking G-d at that moment that I was still alive as I shut the steel door of my apartment safely behind me.
I’d never understood why people at some moments get afraid and at other moments do not. Before my trip to Israel, I had undoubtedly been in more dangerous situations, and had not blinked. Now, however, my panic felt like a blazing billboard with a message just for me, a message that began construction at the masquerade of death we’d thrown five years earlier. It was becoming ever clearer to me from my failed experiments to help society that nothing good was meant to last in Russia. There was too ravenous a force of all consuming greed. I was stricken with this feeling that a debt was being collected, and my more recent attempts to be a better person would not put off the collector, just as it had failed to help Jenya. If I wanted to be safe I would have to run from Moscow like the biblical Lot escaping his destruction in Sodom.
There is an idea in Judaism that when you want to help someone correct a dangerous or negative behavioral pattern, you should only tell him your suggestion if you have judged that he is capable of hearing the message. Otherwise you may cause him to resist that change for life. My trip to Israel had given me a different picture of what my life could look like, and how to invest my passions; but my lifestyle in Moscow was in many ways living the dream.
I wondered if perhaps now that I had seen a different model of life, the message was that the life I was presently leading was not a life at all, but a road to death. It was as if some Force beyond me had suddenly tinkered with my fear volume. I used to be relatively relaxed in a room filled with Russian and Chechen Mafiosi. Not anymore. I heard the message.
I’d never before thought of fear as a good thing. But several months later as I ran out of Russia, and towards life, I sensed that were I to turn around and unmask the scary face chasing me out, I would have seen a smile.
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.
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