T HE RUSSIAN WORD for “hangover” is pokhmelye . To truly capture the strength of the word
and the condition, say the first syllable as if you are clearing your throat. “Pokhkhkh. . . .”Put
the major emphasis on the middle syllable, “MAY,” then bring the word to a gentle end with
a quiet “leh.”
Now, imagine Sergei's family—each and every member who encountered me—looking
at me and immediately saying this word in the form of a question: “Pokhmelye?”
It becomes the running joke of the day. Sergei, joining Aunt Nina to deliver water to my
Pavel, more of a statement of fact than a question: “ Pokhmelye. Ya tozhe [Me, too].”
By late in the day, say 6:00 p.m., the joke extends to how long my pokhmelye seems to be
lasting. “Yeah, evening is not so much pokhmelye time, huh?” I say, which Sergei translates,
sending Zhenia and her mother into convulsive laughter.
I have emerged from my therapeutic shower, consumed a good dozen of Aunt Nina's pan-
cakes, gulped down several cups of water and coffee, and informed Sergei that I am now
human enough to get on with our day.
Zhenia drives us to a bland-looking brick apartment building about ten minutes from
Aunt Nina's place and tells us to call whenever we wrap up our meeting.
Sergei and I enter the building, climb four flights of stairs, and locate the home of Alexei
Mikheyev and his mother, Lyudmila.
She opens the door and eagerly says “Zdrastvuyte, zakhodite [Hello, come in].” I already
have the sense that a visit from a journalist offers some glimmer of hope that she and her son
Lyudmila has a round, haggard-looking face. Her age and fatigue are not disguised much
by the bright red she's used to color her chin-length hair. Sergei and I remove our shoes, and
Lyudmila guides us through a door to the right and into a bedroom where her son is lying
flat on a queen-size bed, his head propped on a pillow. “Dobry den [Good day],” he says
Lyudmila pulls up a few chairs around the bed, and we all sit to chat. Alexia is thirty-
seven. From head to waist he's built like a wrestler—shaved head, broad square shoulders,