Ivan has had a lucky day. He has won three hundred rubles playing cards with a nervous AWOL soldier. Now the young soldier wants to get even, so he plays for his clothes. First he loses his overcoat. Then his belt. And soon, his pants and boots are lost. When the soldier has nothing left, he wants to pull out his silver tooth and bet his rations. But in prison there is an unwritten law against gambling for rations. So the game ends and the soldier goes to his wood plank bed wearing only his shorts and buries his head in his blanket.
Seeing his opponent’s misery, Ivan grandly throws him his clothes and says, “Let it be a lesson for you, young man. You’ve got to be experienced to play for money.” Ivan flashes a great smile as the soldier slowly picks up his clothing.
Ivan is a hard working tractor driver who, when sober, has a generous heart and great compassion for his fellows. He is helpful and sentimental. But, as in each of us, inside him two forces are at war. All his life, good and evil have been entwined in an unending battle. Ivan never charges old people for plowing their gardens and they repay his kindness by offering him a generous drink. He never charges people whose cars he pulls out of the mud, so they offer him a drink of friendship. It would be rude of Ivan to refuse their generosity. Like every charitable tractor driver, Ivan is often tipsy by nightfall. That is when the battle inside grows fiercest. That is when Mr. Hyde emerges to seize control of Ivan, and it is a terrible change. With Mr. Hyde in command, drunken Ivan turns into a village rowdy who loves to start brawls.
It is then that Ivan causes an uproar in some pub, rides a stolen motorcycle, or steals someone’s chicken.
Mr. Hyde easily leads helpless Ivan toward Section 206 of the Criminal Code, which stipulates a three year sentence in prison for such rowdiness -- now for the sixth time.
Ivan watches the soldier get dressed, then looks around to see if there’s someone else who’d like to play cards. No one else is interested, so Ivan’s thoughts move toward how he will spend his winnings. But first, he must tithe.
“Here’s 30 rubles,” he says loudly, tossing cash on the table for all to see. Anyone who wins has to tithe to the group’s welfare fund. Now he thinks about the best way to blow the rest of his winnings.
Ivan shouts, “What’s the best way to spend my money?” Then he laughs.
“Go for a date,” a cellmate yells.
This is an excellent idea. Ivan thinks about that special place in the prison where transients awaiting trial are held. There are plenty of women there, some beautiful, and almost all professionally qualified to sell favors to a lonely man. It’s been a long time since Ivan visited that place, and the turnover is swift. After their trials, the transients move to permanent prisons. All the women there now will be new.
With so many imprisonments Ivan has had far more experience at playing cards than he has had with love. He is always shy around girls and never has any idea of what to say to a lady. Once he married a simple milkmaid. When she talked to him, he stood rooted to the spot and felt like a rabbit standing in front of a snake. Then, one evening, when Mr. Hyde was running things, the neighbors saw Ivan chasing his wife with an ax, shouting, “I’ll kill you, witch!” Soon after, Ivan dissapeared from village for another three years
Now, he stands and thinks. It’s best to make it look like a bold, decisive move, or his cellmates will make fun of him. So he goes to the cell door and calls the guard. It is evening and the guard is there in no time, looking at Ivan through a small window everyone called the feeding rack.
“I got some cash to spend,” Ivan says.
The guard says nothing, but smiles politely to show he is entirely at Ivan’s disposal.
“What about meeting a girl?” asks Ivan.
“No problem,” says the guard. “You pay me 40 rubles and she pays me 25. I will lock you up for a couple of hours in an empty cell,” the guard says. “If she has no money, then you have to cover her part,” the guard adds. Ivan thinks it’s a rip off, but negotiating with guards is useless because they are monopolists.
“I don't know any of the girls in prison,” Ivan admits.
“You just give me the money and I’ll bring you one,” the guard says.
Ivan thinks for a while. “How do I know who you’ll bring me? What if we don't like each other?” Ivan asks.
“You want to be choosey?” the guard asks sarcastically. “You aren't in a disco. You’re in jail. Here you have to be happy with any girl who wants to meet a man, and who has 25 rubles.”
“No.” Ivan protests. He remembers a two horrible looking women he saw yesterday who were washing the floor. “I don't buy a black cat in a dark room. There has to be some connection between a man and a woman. I have to see her before I pay my money. Okay?” Ivan queries.
“Okay,” the guard says slowly. “What do you have in mind?”
“I don't know,” Ivan admits. “But I have to see her first.”
The guard shrugs and says, “Okay, I’ll take you to the girls’ cell and you can talk it over with them.”
Ivan suddenly realizes this may be the worst idea of all, but he’s on the spot and doesn’t dare turn back. He gives a strained smile and says, “Okay. Let’s go see the ladies.” Every other man in the cell envies Ivan. One man gives him his jacket. Another finds him a reddish-brown tie. Ivan isn’t ready for the tie. He thinks he looks ridiculous wearing the tie over his sailor’s striped vest, but his cellmates prevail.
“Wish me luck,” Ivan says as the guard unlocks the cell door.
As they walk, Ivan feels like his feet refuse to go and he gets nervous. Luckily, it is not far.
“Here we are,” says the guard as they arrive. “Shall I open the door or are you horny enough to go through the feeding rack?”
Ivan looks inside and it is dark. “It’d be better with an open window,” he says to the guard.
The guard opens a small window for light so Ivan can see inside better. He looks deep into the cell. Two woman play chess at a table, a few others read, and one just walks back and forth.
“Hi girls,” Ivan calls out, too loudly.
In the next moment he sees two dozen eyes look at him.
“Do any of you girls want to have some fun?” Ivan begin this sentence with the cheerful tone of a careless party friend, but at the end he doesn't recognize his own voice.
“Pick me, pick me, I want to have fun,” a girl shouts, jumping up. She is one of the two floor washers he saw yesterday.
“Oh, no,” he says. “Maybe someone else will pick you. We don't match.”
“Go ahead,” urges the guard as he opens the cell door. “Be a cowboy.”
“Let me concentrate,” Ivan pleads, taking a deep breath as he enters. “What about you?” he asks at slim, brown-haired girl. “Stand up and let me look at you.”
“Get lost,” she responds, raising a middle finger at him.
Ivan doesn't know what to do now. He is lost. Then he sees a middle-aged woman rise from the bench and come toward him. She has the posture of a person in charge, obviously the cell’s boss lady.
She wears a black jacket over a white sweater, has a decent hairdo, and looks more like a school teacher than a prisoner.
“Oh, Heavens!” begins the woman. “Where are the good old days when courteous and gallant cavaliers came with flowers and songs? Where is knighthood’s respect for women? Where is true chivalry?” she asks.
Suddenly, Ivan has an old familiar feeling. He is rooted as if standing in front of his wife.
“What do men have for manners these days?" she says. “You come here with the intention of taking a girl to make love, yet you act like a Gypsy who trades for horses. Do you want a woman to stand so you can look at her like a horse?”
Ivan has never seen Gypsies buy horses, but he feels deeply sorry for being here.
Now she stands directly in front of Ivan, looks him in the eyes, and says, “A Gypsy circles around the horse, asks its weight, and how old it is. Then he looks up the horse’s butt and counts its teeth.”
Now she walks slowly around the cell as she talks, “We aren't horses. We are ladies. If you want to take a lady for a date, you may try your luck with a girl in this cell. But the only way to win her heart is in a proper way, with a bottle of champagne, or at least a bar of candy,” she instructs, like a lecturing professor of anthropology. “The soul of a woman is a mystery men must solve,” she continues.
Ivan stops listening and steps toward the guard. Ivan says, “Woooh!,” as he wipes off perspiration from his forehead.
“I can arrange champagne and chocolate,” says guard, amused by Ivan. Ivan gives him money and in a few minutes the guard returns with a bottle and candies.
“Hello girls,” Ivan says, but this time in a calm and firm voice.
The ladies like this new Ivan and begin to congregate around the table, each carrying a cup and helping themselves to the chocolate candies. Ivan pours champagne into the ladies’ cups, but before he makes one round, his bottle runs dry. Without another word to the women Ivan goes to the guard and orders more bottles of champagne. When he returns to the table he sees that the served ladies have already emptied their cups.
Well resupplied, Ivan happily starts to pour again, this time beginning with the half who hadn't got a drink the first time. He makes two more circles, pouring for the women, but something feels wrong to him. Something doesn't work. No one is shouting toasts, and they drink with the same indifference they might show while receiving their daily soup ration.
“What are you in for,” asks a girl with rollers in her hair.
“I’m a hooligan,” says Ivan as he finishes the next bottle.
Now Ivan sees a dozen ladies gathered around the table, each looking at him, waiting for the next thing to happen, as though he were a magician,.
“So, we can smoke now,” Ivan says loudly as he throws a pack of domestically produced cigarettes on the table.
“Ladies don't smoke this stuff any more,” says the woman who guided Ivan toward the mystery of women’s souls. “They smoke Camels nowadays. When I was young we’d have been happy with any kind of poor peasant tobacco. But this new generation is spoiled.”
“They say I’m old-fashioned,” Ivan admits when he returns from telling the guard to bring two packs of Camels. “To tell the truth,” he continues, “I believe all brands of cigarettes sold on our market are made from the same kind of tobacco. They only have different names and prices. If I blindfolded you and gave you different brands to smoke, you wouldn’t be able to tell one from another. Kill me if I’m wrong!”
“This is a market economy,” says the girl in hair-rollers. “They bottle beer from the same barrel and give it different names. If you’re cool, you buy expensive beer. And if you’re a simple sort, you buy the cheap beer. But we all drink the same shit.”
“The same with restaurants,” another young lady states, joining the conversation. “They serve the same food, give the same service, but for different prices...”
“I don't agree,” the girl in rollers says. “I don’t agree about restaurants. If you go to an expensive one, you are safe. But go to a cheap tavern and there’s no guarantee you won't get smashed in the face by some hooligan.” At the mention of a hooligan, the ladies all turn their heads and look at Ivan. Suddenly, he is confused.
“In my town, cheap taverns bolt their chairs and tables to the floor, like here in prison,” says the girl who earlier had flipped off Ivan. “Cheap places are safer, because at expensive restaurants nothing is bolted down. If a fight starts, anyone can pick up the furniture. Once I went to an expensive restaurant with a boyfriend and we both ended up in the hospital.
“I’ll get us some beer,” Ivan says, happy that he has succeeded in striking up a conversation.
“No beer! Vodka.” says the girl in rollers. “Beer and champagne don’t go together. It will make our heads ache.”
“I want beer!” shouts a short, heavy girl who had been silent until now. “I don't care about headaches. I want some beer.”
This was the stuff of domestic conflict. No one said anything. Everyone looked at the boss lady, waiting for a verdict.
“Drinking is an art,” she declares as she stands up. “If you want to avoid a hangover, you must continue with a stronger drink, never a lighter one. Besides buying vodka will save some money for our guest. Champagne must be expensive. How much is the guard charging for a bottle?” she asks.
Ivan looks at her sheepishly and says, “That's not important. At least we can buy it from the guard.” Ivan gets up and goes to the guard, placing his order for several bottles of Stolichnaya vodka.
“These days being a prison guard is a great job,” says the girl in rollers. “In one night they can make more than their monthly wage by selling forbidden things to prisoners. My attorney told me there are lot of expensive cars parked outside the prison. Every guard drives an expensive car.”
The boss lady adds, “To get a guard’s job takes a big bribe. And they have to pay a cut to their bosses. Those may be the cars of high ranking officers, not just simple guards. I tell you one thing. In the old Soviet times guards weren’t crooks like now. They had to keep up appearances or they would not be treated with respect. Nowadays, they fear nothing.”
Ivan walks over with a fresh bottle of Stolichnaya and starts pouring into the cups. “Let’s drink to the guards,” he says. “If they weren’t such crooks we would never have this party.
They all drink, and some of the ladies bring out bits of food set aside for a rainy day.
“I wouldn't complain about my life,” Ivan says, receiving a cheese sandwich from the girl with rollers. “I am a card player and make good money with it. In the Soviet days I had money. But I could never buy anything with my money. In prison I could only buy a little tea. Now, I can buy anything here. So I don't envy the guards. Let them drive whatever cars they want as long as they make our lives comfortable.”
“It's time to pour another,” the boss lady says. “Don’t wait too long between drinks or our snacks will be gone sooner then our vodka.” She gulps the straight vodka with a stone face, as if it’s water, and says, “Yes, I remember the times when you couldn't buy anything except tea here in jail. On the outside there was only shoe polish and herring to buy.
What a time it was! In my youth we were different, wild and romantic. I followed my beloved all the way to Siberia!” She stares, as though looking through the wall, seeing her beloved one. Then she takes another swallow and continues, “This new generation is lazy and indifferent. They don't know what love is. They’ve never done crazy things for their men.”
“I was in love with a sailor,” says the floor washer girl who has been sitting on the upper plank, called the palm, since the beginning of the party. “I even stole my father’s watch to give my sailor a present. Then, after him, there were other sailors.”
“That was a stupid thing to do, not crazy,” says the boss lady.
“Get your ass down here and have a drink,” says the brown-haired girl to the floor washer.
“You watch your language, and you stay up there,” commands the boss lady.
The women grow silent and watch as Ivan opens another bottle. His movements are slow. He is now not the same Ivan as when he came. He silently looks at one spot and keeps turning the bottle in his hands. He is drunk.
After the new bottle is open and all ladies receive a fresh drink, Ivan goes to the girl with rollers and she sits on his lap. At first he hadn’t paid attention to her, but now, in the Stolichnaya haze, she looks beautiful to him.
“Sorry I have a rollers.” she says.
“That’s okay,” says Ivan. “They give you a nice domestic look.”
They continue to drink, but now Ivan looks tired. He doesn’t smile any more and seems somehow thoughtful.
“Why should I do some crazy thing for a man if they are all jerks?” asks the brown-haired from her plank. “They are all drunks and jerks.”
Ivan cast a look at the brown-haired girl who flipped him the finger for the second time this evening
Seeing this, the boss lady says, “Don't pay attention to her. She is out of control now.”
Then Ivan rises and ominously leans over the table. Everyone sees the change in him. It is Mr. Hyde emerging from deep inside. Without warning he picks up an empty bottle and throws it at the brown-haired rebel. The bottle breaks against the wall above her head,
Mr. Hyde takes a seat and continues to drink. The brown haired girl is suddenly terrified and looks around at everyone. “What the hell!” she yells.
“Oho!” the girl with rollers says and moves away.
The other girls move away from Ivan, looking at the boss lady. Several of the girls pick up empty champagne and vodka bottles.
“Leave now,” the boss lady quietly says to Mr. Hyde. “You’ve ruined this party and now you’d better leave.”
Mr. Hyde is in no mood to be scolded. He throws an empty bottle at the boss lady, but it is wide of the mark and crashes into the wall.
“Ladies! All for one!” says the boss lady. “Now!”
At this moment someone breaks a bottle against Ivan’s head. Out of habit from his many uproars in village pubs, Mr. Hyde tries to pick up the table, but it is bolted to the floor. The same for the bench. Then another bottle breaks over this head.
The screaming and crashing inside the cell makes a terrible noise that fills the entire wing of the prison. Inside, Mr. Hyde starts chasing anything that moves, reaching out blindly to grab what he can.
When a team of guards finally bursts into the cell, Mr. Hyde sits like a wolf in a hen house, alone at the table, drinking the last of the vodka. The ladies are now all up high on the palms. At the arrival of the guards, the coward, Mr. Hyde, disappears, and soon poor Ivan finds himself in a punishment cell. In a few hours he is sober enough to walk. Dragging himself, painfully, like a beaten dog, Ivan is returned to his cell.
Walking into his cell, Ivan sees his cellmates are standing at the door, eagerly waiting for him. “So, how was it?” one asks. “Tell us everything! You look like, they wanted to tear you apart," observes another.
“Who was she?” They are hungry for Ivan’s tale of conquest. Everyone is prepared to listen; attentively, and with sparks in their eyes.
Ivan looks over and sees the soldier, in the corner, on his plank bunk, his head buried under a blanket. He wants to listen to Ivan’s story, too. But while Ivan was out he had again lost all his clothes playing cards.