There's this guy in Tynda that everyone calls 7B. His thing is pain. He's not your average after-work masochist who thinks a little leather and a girlfriend with long fingernails give him sado credentials. He is really, really into pain, and he means it. He pays kids 10 rubles plus free ammo to shoot air rifles at him at close range, with nothing but a bb-riddled shirt to cushion the impact. That might not sound too crazy, but anyone who's been nailed by a well-pumped gun knows just how much a bb can sting. And he claims he can handle up to 1000 consecutive shots. Sometimes, when the bb's don't pack enough of a punch, he'll don a bulletproof vest and get people to shoot him with live rounds.
7B also hires gangs of kids to beat the shit out of him with 2-by-4s. As a precaution, he covers his head with a metal bucket, and then they attack him. They stop not when he asks for mercy - he never does - but when they get tired of thrashing a lump of flesh that isn't even trying to defend itself. It's more fun fighting when you've been provoked. So they usually only beat him long enough to bruise and bloody him, or maybe break a rib or two. He's a big guy in great shape, meaning he can absorb the blows pretty well. Although his nose is not what it used to be - looks more like road kill.
Tynda's central square!
No one knows where he's from, how he got his seemingly endless supply of money or even what his real name is. In spite of his nickname - it derives from a classification for retards - 7B's fairly articulate; it's just that only a retard would submit himself to such savage beatings.
While all of the locals think he is a complete freak, it's not that hard to see where he's coming from. Everybody in Tynda has some self-destructive vice to distract themselves from miserable reality, only usually it's more mainstream - drinking, drugs and obsessively training in various martial arts are the most common methods. 7B's just doing the same thing, only with a flair for the dramatic.
Maybe I sympathize with him more than most because there was so clearly a masochistic element to my four months in Tynda. Towards the end of my stay, with perversion, paranoia and violence circling closer than ever, I had the FSB harassing me, was attacked by a friend across a vodka-covered kitchen table in a classic Death Porn maneuver, and had a group of potheads turning my apartment into a lab for brewing khimka, a toxic version of pot made by steeping it in acetone. I didn't smoke khimka, but my other habits helped me develop a Scarface level of paranoia.
A little caution was order, considering my massively illegal lifestyle and the FSB's tradition of making unannounced house calls, but in hindsight I went overboard. I wouldn't open the door or answer the phone, and felt with a great deal of certainty that I would never leave Tynda alive. Yet I didn't flee. It would have been too much of a cop-out to just pack up and leave.
And Tynda didn't let me down. During the hopelessly blurred action of my final week, a series of darkly comic crescendos gave me the epiphany I'd been waiting for all along. By the time I was forced out of town by the FSB, my assimilation was complete. I had become one of my own characters, a mental and physical shell of a man, the type of shell washed up all over Tynda.
It had taken me a long time to blend into my surroundings. Initially I stayed estranged from local reality, hanging back and observing without integrating myself. I lived with a babushka, only drank when it would help me get material for a story, and fanatically lifted weights. During that period, I rarely left the apartment after dark - all the violence I'd seen left me with a siege mentality. Mostly I just worked, wrote emails and thought about memorable meals I had eaten.
Control was the key to my existence - for the first time since grade school I followed a strict schedule, structured around watching every Channel 1 news bulletin everyday. The updates, at 10, 12, 15, 18, 21 and sometimes midnight, generally recycled the same material throughout the day, CNN style, yet I tried to catch every single one. Just in case something happened.