Two Russian soldiers are posted on a mountaintop. One of them is looking through binoculars.
The first soldier asks the other, “Can you see Putin?”
“No, I can’t,” the second soldier shrugs.
“Nevertheless,” says the ﬁrst soldier, “he exists.”
An old family friend named Olga is telling this joke as we walk along Litenyi Prospect in St. Petersburg in the starry glint of a Russian winter night. The traffic on the boulevards of 21st-century Putinstan is deafening—roaring buses, rambling trams, rusting Ladas, a Maybach here, a Bentley there—but in her mind’s memory, a child of the Soviet Union hears only her own small footsteps dashing up the solid stairs, Spokoynoy nochi, malyshi! (“Good Night, Little Ones!”) on the television, Babushka’s clucking hug.
“This is it,” Olga sighs, looking up. “Number 45…”
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