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Yeltsin On the Tank Part II

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Why so glum, habibi?” Margie used the diminutive that Rafi had taught her.
“Watch,” Rafi half-growled, half-pleaded, his normally barely distinguishable Israeli accent garbling the single word. Margie plopped in Gordon’s slightly tattered, downmarket black leather recliner and set her hands on Rafi’s shoulders in anticipation of giving a shoulder rub, but before the first squeak came out of the matching footstool on which Rafi sat,  she thought twice.
It was 6:45 am on a Wednesday morning during summer vacation. Rafi never adjusted his chin from the bookshelf that his left fist created, elbow on his knees. Barefoot, in jean cutoffs, and a tie-dye T-shirt with an irradiated indigo and orange peace sign on it, Rafi looked like he was Gordon’s twin, from the 6o’s and not a decade younger. Rafi last remembered going unshod in front of anyone he cared to impress when he was part of the Chovevei Tziyon dance troup performing r’kudey am, the national dances of Israel, for tourists. Oh, yes, and when Salman was in Israel for the Interzonal. I spent so much of the time playing beach volleyball with the Mermaid and her friends that there wasn’t any reason for shoes. Girls who were half the weight, physically and in every other measure, as Margie. Remote control in his right hand, he focused on the tank dominating the screen, and the scrolling English subtitles that some bleary-eyed State Department translator had spent all night refining. He could barely make out the white pouf of the alcoholic, frequently depressed President of the Russian Federated Soviet Socialist Republic, but from the coverage from the previous day, he had the voice committed to tape recorder.
            “Citizens of Russia: On the night of 18-19 August 1991, the legally elected president of the country was removed from power.
Margie’s head snapped up. “This guy is crazy!” she exclaimed in her best “everybody-is-sleeping-except-for-my-obsessive-boyfriend” voice.
“Yeah. Hishtaga legamré. What if the guy in the tank shoots him in the crotch?”
“And that’s why you’re sitting here looking like a church choir director in summertime? I thought you had no use for the Party.”
“Margie, on  the kibbutz I hated everyone and everything, but I loved The Dream. These halutzim, the pioneers, saw what they did as prophecy, but the prophet was as much Marx as Moses.  It was on us to perfect the human spirit. Only we could bring about a true equality and carry out God’s vision. You’ve taken the Intro to Judaism class. What do the four most important words in the prayer service mean?”
“But there are six.”
“No, Margie, stick to the liturgy, not the Torah. Here they are, ‘L’takein olam b’malchut shadai.’ That means, ‘To perfect the world under the Kingship of Heaven.’ That’s Marx. That’s Engels. That’s Herzl and Golda and Ben-Gurion and…”
“Rafi ben-Berak.”
“You get it! See, these bastards, from Stalin on, excepting Khrushchev, created a cult of personality. No Little Red Book, like Mao, but still! Communism was not tried and found difficult – “
“It was found difficult and left untried.”
 “That’s why I like you, Margie; you have less patience than me.”
“Birds of a feather. But why does it matter?”
“You sound like a chaver kibbutz, a real kibbutznik. “Mah ichpat l’cha? Do you have any idea how many times the other kids asked me what did I care? – ‘I don’t wanna do chalivat boker.’’Tough, it’s your responsibility.’ ‘Mah ichpat l’cha?”  Or, ‘There’s a big debate between Labor and the Party tonight.’’Mah ichpat l’cha?’  Or, ‘OK, batlan (good-for-nothing), can you clean your supplies off our lab bench before we go plant?’ Mah ichpat l’cha?’”
 “But Rafi,” Margie asked, half with credulity and half with empathy. Rafi cut off her response.
“It does matter! If Communism is proven fraudulent, who the hell am I, anyway!?”
The commentator was trying something akin to historical analysis.
“He’s talking so far out his asshole that his head comes out in the same place and nobody can tell the difference.”
Click. Now MSNBC was replaying the speech, but in addition to the crawl, there was  a twentysomething (maybe) voice-over talent reading the State Department translation. At least, as far as Rafi could discern, the State Department knew Russian. The Soviet guys didn’t know any English, as anyone who was alive twenty-four hours ago knew by now.
            “Regardless of the reasons given for his removal, we are dealing with a rightist, reactionary, anti-constitutional coup. Despite all the difficulties and severe trials being experienced by the people, the democratic process in the country is acquiring an increasingly broad sweep and an irreversible character.
            “The peoples of Russia are becoming masters of their destiny. The uncontrolled powers of unconstitutional organs have been considerably limited, and this includes party organs.”
“Would it make you happier if the people chose Communism?” interjected Margie.
“Later,” Rafi snapped – but then reached back and patted Margie’s left knee with the hand that had cradled his brooding chin. The broadcast continued.
            “…has adopted a resolute position toward the Union Treaty striving for the unity of the Soviet Union and unity of Russia. Our position on this issue permitted a considerable acceleration of the preparation of this treaty, to coordinate it with all the republics and to determine the date of signing as August 20. Tomorrow’s signing has been canceled.
            “These developments gave rise to angry reactionary forces, pushed them to irresponsible   and adventurist attempts to solve the most complicated political and economic problems by methods of force. Attempts to realize a coup have been tried earlier.
            “We considered and consider that such methods of force are unacceptable. They discredit the union in the eyes of the whole world, undermine our prestige in the world community, and return us to the Cold War era along with the Soviet Union’s isolation in the world community. All of this forces us to proclaim that the so-called committee’s ascendancy to power is unlawful.
            “Accordingly we proclaim all decisions and instructions of this committee to be unlawful.
            “We are confident that the organs of local power will unswervingly adhere to constitutional laws and decrees of the president of Russia.
            “We appeal to citizens of Russia to give a fitting rebuff to the putschists and demand a return of the country to normal constitutional development.
The speech continued for another moment. Margie delivered that promised shoulder-rub. Ted Koppel, his own coif looking like he had never missed a moment’s sleep, was commenting on ABC.  Neither person made the obvious comment, until after ABC inserted a media portrait of Yeltsin in the lower left corner of the screen. Without a word, Rafi and Margie started giggling. Then they grabbed their faces to suppress the growing laughter. Rafi’s olive cheeks glowed no less red than Margie’s vitiliginous ones. Laughter turned into breathless hacking. Tears puddling on his hand, eyes slammed shut, Rafi said it.
“Do they share a stylist?”
“Or a wig??”
It was over. Both witnesses to history convulsed in hacking, snorting, and eventually belly-produced laughter. Neither could snatch more than a thimbleful of breath for the next week. It must have been at least five minutes, because Rafi had all-but fainted. Death by hairpiece?
Margie’s sister had woken up, angry. She only jumped out of bed when she recognized that this was no regular mirthful outburst. Neither Rafi nor Margie could notice that she had entered the den with two glasses of water. Neither noticed until the thermal shock hit that she had unloaded matching glasses of ice water on them.
The coughing slowed. Both squinted up, gratefully. Neither made excuses, but neither could explain it if they tried. Later in the day, when Koppel was repeating the claim that if the putsch collapses, it would be a result of the greatest blunder in the history of the post-Vietnam world, and the Yeltsin insert would materialize again, Margie’s sister was at the verge of losing control of her guffaws. Rafi, still barefoot, still without breakfast, offered to get a glass of ice water.

About Ronald FIschman

I am a public school teacher who had a prior career as a cantor, opera singer, and composer. My greatest notoriety comes from my settings of Dylan Thomas's "Vision and Prayer" and Percy Byssshe Shelley's "Ozymandias" for singers and large instrumental ensemble. My first poetry collection, "Generations," honors the roles of son, husband, and father, and is available at

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