An extract from ‘Back in the USSR’

Snow flurries danced in the air, caught the slipstream of a shivering trolley bus, whipped into the faces of the flat-capped men towing wooden carts toward the market. At a bus stop thick-set commuters waited in battle fatigues. Young women, their faces haloed in deep, fur-lined hoods, stamped the winter cold out of their high-heeled boots. The ancient trolley shuddered to a halt, its contacts sparking and crackling on the iced overhead wires. The driver swung down from his cab, hoisted himself up onto the roof and – with raw hands blackened with grease – hacked the ice off the contacts with a broken bayonet. He eased the arms back onto the lines, ignored the passengers and continued on his way, past babushkas selling tangerines frozen as hard as orange rocks.

On that bright, bitter morning Vladimir Nikoluk wasn’t working. It was his 58th birthday and he and his pretty, petite, third wife Alexandra were in the mood for celebration.

‘We talk, we cook, we drink, and we try to hear each other above the racket,’ he roared to me in welcome, pouring glasses of Ukrainian Hlibna Slioza. On the tongue the cool, clean vodka tasted of freshly-baked white bread. ‘The first and last glass must be swallowed in a single gulp,’ he ordered.

Nikoluk was a big, welcoming man, with salt-and-pepper goatee beard, fist-flattened nose and immense hands. He introduced himself as a ‘maximalist’: buying the best food, cooking the largest quantities, snatching the most beautiful women in the country and – when necessary – marrying them. ‘No one calls me a minimalist,’ he warned in a voice loud enough to shake snow off the roof. He was an engineer, head of the Union of Builders, and the least cautious man in Transnistria.

In an icy parking lot behind the Supreme Soviet, he loaded an oil drum barbecue with charcoal and set it alight with a blowtorch. ‘We will eat kostitza,’ he declared, flourishing two platters of home-cured pork cut as thick as his thumbs. When he threw them on the grill one could almost hear the pig squeal. ‘No t-bone steak ever tasted as good.’ He poured more vodka and raised his glass to friendship, life and the Motherland. ‘Now drink,’ he instructed with tears in his eyes. ‘And know that in my house your glass will never be empty. Never.’