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Four Shots of Vodka

04/20/2011 02:52 pm ET | Updated Jun 20, 2011

The fall of 1991 I came down from the Urals, exhausted but also exhilarated from the alpine hike. I walked into a Russian village at the foothills. The villagers right away could see something was wrong. Upon seeing my visage, I was declared extremely ill. One bear of a villager, a man named Boris, took on the project of nursing me back to health by throwing me into a sauna and poured vodka down my throat.

I will always be grateful to Boris, a heavy-set gentleman with bad teeth. And to Natasha, his wife, who also poured vodka down my throat. That night, we sat around the dinner table. "Kap-U-sta!" Boris implored me, shoving a handful of cabbage in my jaundiced face. He pulled me closer. "There is an old Leninist proverb," Boris told me, his breath reeking of bad cabbage. "After the first shot of vodka, you are a stranger. The second shot -- a comrade. With the third shot you become a communist. And after the fourth shot?" He paused for effect. "You are made General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. Ha!" I laughed, even though it wasn't all that funny.

It was decided that Boris would accompany me by train to the nearest city. Onboard we spoke in Russian about rural life under the Soviet Union, and my life growing up in a Midwestern town. Then I heard a sudden thud, followed by a loud screech. The train appeared to have derailed. People were screaming. The dejurnaya, or babushka attendant, began praying. Our train flipped on its side as everybody scrambled. I saved a few children from the wreckage. I searched for my friend but to no avail. "Boris!" I shouted. All I wanted to hear was the whir of ambulance sirens in the distance, yet the only sound was that of babies crying. I grabbed several of the infants and wrapped them in the blankets I found, probably saving their lives. I also gave CPR to the dejurnaya.

It was a surreal experience. I remember walking away, frostbitten with grief and shaken up. I could barely speak and had no idea where I was. My wrinkled map of Siberia was on the train. I came across a baby seal nursing a flesh wound. Without even thinking about the strangeness of seeing a baby seal in the middle of Siberia, I grabbed my canteen of water and soaked the wound to stave off infection, then wrapped it with the gauze I had conveniently brought. The seal stopped shivering and fell back asleep.

I continued walking until I saw a sign for Brezhnevskaya, an old factory town, surrounded by ugly communist flats. In a square in the middle of town stood a snow-capped statue of Lenin. While checking into a gostinitsa, or hotel, I heard a shout: "Ameri-CAN-etz!" I turned around and saw two KGB thugs staring at me. Before I could reach for my passport, they grabbed me and threw me in their Lada. "Where are you taking me?" I asked. They said nothing. We arrived at a small prison, where I was stuffed into a cramped and unheated cell for several days. I was beaten repeatedly and tortured with a Taser. My only food was cabbage. "Ka-PU-sta!" my guard hollered at me. The way he said it was less friendly than Boris. But the guard eventually warmed to me. And we passed the time by talking about my life growing up in a Midwest town.

A few days later, there was a fire in one of the cells. Scrambling, the guard panicked and handed me the keys, "Here, you are free, LE-o-nel. Save yourself!" "But all the extinguishers are empty!" I cried. He shrugged his shoulders and fled for safety amid the smoke. I could barely touch the keyhole it was so hot. The fire by now was raging; the other prisoners were panicking. I ran out and began making giant snowballs, which I then flung onto the fire. After dozens of attempts or so, the fire began to die down. "You saved my life," the other prisoners said, before breaking into tears.

I eventually caught a train out of Brezhnevskaya to Vladivostok, and then flew back to America. A few months later the Soviet Union collapsed. My new life as a fast-food clerk in the Midwest held little promise. And my personal life had hit the skids. I grew irritable at customers and would bark at them in Russian. I decided to return to Brezhnevskaya the next summer.

The town looked much as I had left it -- the Lenin statue, the ugly flats, the scowls on people's faces. Working with a team of laid-off plant workers, I gathered the necessary materials and paperwork and began building new apartment condos with all the trappings -- stone fireplaces, marble countertops, even satellite BBC on the tube. I then turned my attention to building new prisons that were up to code and with working fire extinguishers. I took the Caterpillar crane I had brought over from America and single-handedly pulled down the statue of Lenin in the square, to cheering applause (My act of bravery even made the front page of Pravda).

Over the years, my team of builders would build a glitzy sports complex, a synagogue, a mosque, an Orthodox cathedral larger than St. Basil's, a university, a shopping mall with an IKEA, a new train station, a Siberian version of Disney World, and a thriving downtown of boutique shops and brew pubs, even a vodka distillery. Brezhnevskaya became a New Urbanist model for other former Soviet factory towns, a thriving pocket of capitalism where corruption and cronyism had been stamped out. The mayors of other Siberian municipalities soon came to me, asking me to build them IKEAs.

I started a charity, which has helped hundreds of small Siberian towns throw off the shackles of communism. I owe my good fortune to Boris. Thanks for the vodka, comrade.

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