This is dedicated to those who decisively influenced my development at the age of five. Actually, to my grandmother, a Bolshevik-Leninist, to His Majesty Football represented by the unique Mikhail Meskhi and, strange as it may seem, to the communist propaganda whose essence I could not understand in those days. Overall, this is a tribute to the past years of my childhood and the values of a time gone forever.
The next USSR football championship began on a cool, windy day in March 1962. It got underway in the southern stadiums of the immense Soviet Union, where blades of grass were sprouting, unlike other regions still clad in snow. On that memorable evening, my uncle sat me, a five-year imp, down on a low stool before our Rekord TV set to hear the exiting soccer march by Blanter that invited fans to TV screens. For the next two hours, they would support their teams emotionally, violently gesticulating and gripping their heads at moments of high tension, as the ball approached the opponent’s goal. I remember perfectly well how I began watching the game on a small black and white screen, not realizing that I’d become addicted once and for all to this miraculous game that draws together millions of people the world over.
A shortish skinny guy immediately caught my eye. What he did on the field was unlike anything others were doing. Bouncing between his feet, the ball seemed to be tied to them by some invisible thread. At my age of five I already could, I believed, realize the uniqueness of what that fellow, whom the unforgettable commentator Erosi Mandzhgaladze called Mikhail Meskhi, did on the field. Back then I could not imagine that in a month and a half that man would change my life and become for me, with his famous feint that had won over the entire world, for many years ahead, a model and an idol that embodied the great game called Football. Watching him, I couldn’t understand why there always were a few players near him, whom by his smart movements he turned into clowns, as it is commonly said nowadays. Obviously, no words can describe the metamorphosis I sustained on that day. Why did that player instantly catch my fancy so that I dream about him at nights though more than 50 years have passed since that time?
… On that April day of 1991, sitting at the negotiations table in Gothenburg, where I was purchasing Volvo cars for our Soviet-American joint venture, I mechanically listened to the radio. Suddenly, I heard two words in English. “Mikhail Meskhi” and “died.” It came like a bolt from the blue. Later on, my colleague told me about how I reacted. I instantly stiffened. A tear rolled down my cheek. Nobody understood what was happening to me. A doctor in a white frock appeared. But I explained to him that that could not be treated. Alas, there is nothing medicine can do about it…
But back to that day in March. The game finished. I did not rise from the stool. All were happy. The grandson was quiet at last! But why is he suspiciously silent for so long? At this moment, I was wondering if I would ever be able to do on the field what Meskhi did, a man who had instantly become my idol.
Two days later, as I was walking, hand in hand with my grandfather Grisha along the famous Rustaveli avenue, I heard a guttural call of a street vendor with a classical Tbilisi accent… “Football program, football program.” As it happened, on the eve of a game programs were sold throughout the city and then at the stadium before the game. The programs showed the teams’ lineup and contained other curious information that stirred up the interest in the upcoming match. In a couple of minutes, much to my delight, I was holding the program. This however was followed my disappointment, since I couldn’t read. On that very evening, my grandfather read out loud a colored double-sided booklet for me. I was all ears. With reference to the lineup, it was reported to me that Mikhail Meskhi would play in the game. My happiness was complete. At that moment, at my age of five, I conceived an ardent desire to learn to read. Frankly speaking, to this day, if something occurs to me, I persistently work towards attainment of the goal and seldom, if at all, give up my struggle. Since that minute, no matter who came to visit us, at home, in the street, or the shop, I stubbornly asked everybody to show me letters and explain how to pronounce them. I bored everyone, to say the least of it. I lost my peace of mind. However, the coveted goal of learning at any cost to read football programs loomed high on the horizon. Nothing else interested me. All were wondering that I have become quieter and started picking up books and newspapers more often. But nobody could realize why I did that. It seemed unlikely that I would understand anything about letters using my technique and learning to read seemed impossible altogether. In actual fact, however, much to my pleasure I quickly, though covertly, made progress, putting syllables together to obtain words. Thus I was moving towards my longed for target. Essentially, I was gripped by a lust for learning.
One fine morning, in early May of the self-same 1962, about forty days after I started my arduous ascent to the desired summit, I took a newspaper and suddenly … at one point … began to read it. Read out loud and fluently. At first, nobody at home noticed it since everybody attended to his or her own business. But in the evening my grandfather suddenly came up to me, listened and asked me without concealing his joy and surprise: “Is that you reading?”
I will never forget the expression on his face. He just couldn’t believe it. But reality stared him in the face. I was reading fast and fluently. It’s hard to believe but back then I was reading just as fast as I read today, more than 50 years later. All sorts of guests and acquaintances used to visit us, the door was seldom closed. So, on the following day great news spread all over the house, courtyard and among our relatives – at his age of five Sergey can read easily.
After I had read out loud the football program for all to listen to for about one hundred times as a visual proof of the rumor about my self-education, each time taking in with delight the mention of Mikhail Meskhi, my grandmother joined in the show. She was a Bolshevik-Leninist, a devout communist who, till her last day at the age of ninety-three, was confident that communism was destined to triumph all over the world. The Communist Party’s official newspaper, Pravda, always rested in the foreground in our home.
“Well, you now try to read this!” With these words she handed me the newspaper, pointing to the editorial crammed with propaganda. I had no idea what it was all about.
Unsuspecting what I was in for, at the age of five, I began to read the editorial stuff, essentially contributing to the communist cause.
My grandmother surveyed me with happy eyes. On the next day her fellow party members gathered in our home. On the eve of the notorious Caribbean Crisis they discussed malicious intents of the accursed American imperialists headed by Robert McNamara, the then U.S. Secretary of Defense, a political hawk, and supported by the damned NATO. At the height of the discussion, I approached the table.
On a sudden, my grandmother held out a fresh issue of the Pravda, saying “Read this!”
I promptly got down to “work.” In a minute complete silence set it. All were listening to me. They probably regarded the entire situation as impossible. Somebody, just a kid, is reading out loud such a serious article. After that all applauded to me. One of those present, Karlo Bukhnikashvili, if my memory doesn’t fail me, approached me and said: “Where did you learn to read? Ah, the younger generation are rising!” and kissed me. Little and naïve, I honestly responded not in an ideal fashion… I said: “I was just going to read a football program by myself…” And after a pause, added like somebody who knew the ropes: “I must always know if Mikhail Meskhi will play.” At that time, I didn’t think about and didn’t care for the communist cause and its triumph in the world. I hadn’t the vaguest idea about such things. The situation was like the one often and skillfully described by Chekhov, i.e., everyone was agreeably excited, especially my grandmother. The result was obvious. Thanks to the Genius of the Great Game I’d succeeded in learning to read all on my own within a month.
Pondering nowadays if I could do today something like this, I must honestly admit that now it’s beyond me. My head doesn’t work properly, the energy is short and stimuli for such exploits are much fewer…
Let’s return to May of 1962. On the day following my “debut” at the extemporized party meeting, my grandmother and I went, as per usual, to the famous Soldiers’ Market, now, regrettably, destroyed by the elements of the violent and uncontrolled market. It should be noted that since her childhood my grandmother, coming from a poor family, was good at bargaining. Sauntering unhurriedly between the trading rows, we bought what we needed and then… Lo and behold! One of the traders refused point blank to reduce the asking price. We were about to walk away as my grandmother, looking at me intently, asked the trader to give me the newspaper, the “Dawn of the East,” that lay at his hand. Not yet understanding that the Party had begun to “use” me, I started to briskly read the first page. The trader was aghast. It seemed to him impossible that a little skinny boy, dirty faced, in shorts and without a singlet, could read such a serious text. In a couple of minutes people gathered around us. They all listened open-mouthed. Decades have passed since then, but I still remember their faces. It seemed that at that time even the normal market hum had died away. I victoriously surveyed the people around me. They looked thrilled. That was a victory, an absolute and splendid victory. As a result, on that day, we left the market in a taxi and with a load of fruits and vegetables we couldn’t carry ourselves. As an appreciation of my ability to read at five, the traders had showered us with their goods to such an extent that we needed a means of transportation.
… In June 1991, defending my thesis at the Institute of the US and Canada in Moscow, standing on the rostrum before the Academic Council intently listening to my introductory report, I subconsciously recalled the faces of those people who heeded me on that memorable day at the market… On that day I was recognized and appreciated – the defense of my thesis proceeded smoothly and without a single objection…
In a couple of days, we again came to the market. Now my grandmother purposefully took the latest issue of Pravda. Whatever the ruling regime, both in those days and nowadays, he who works well, gets the biggest work load. Nothing changes. This time I was supposed to perform as a staff political information officer. Stepping onto the wooden box, approvingly observed by my grandmother and smiling traders who had recognized me, I read an article about Africa’s starving children and the latest plots of imperialists who stuff their pockets. If truth be told, it seemed to me then that one can’t put too much money into his pocket. More to it, back then, as a boy I speculated in terms of small change that occasionally ended up in my pocket and quickly filled it to overflowing. Again, I saw myself as a victor. That is how I’d gone the way from complete illiteracy to self-acquired education of a citizen who, unaware of this, was helping the communist idea win over the people. That was, as the saying goes, combining things pleasant with things useful to the benefit of oneself, the ruling elite, and surrounding kith and kin.
In other words, at the age of five I promoted the society’s prevailing communist ideology, simultaneously helping my family and getting, as they now say, discounts, price reductions and gifts in the form of fruits and vegetables for the invaluable and paid for work of a political information officer. At the same time, I propagated and advertised football, the state-supported sport. It means that I’ve been working since five! I have to admit that after fifty years all my aggregate achievements in terms of national importance and personal significance are obviously inferior to my attainments in childhood. It’s a fact. And conclusions are obvious.
… In the fall of 2013, working as an observer of the Russian press at Georgia’s presidential elections, I met – in the building of the Georgian Football Association – Alexander Chivadze, a formerly famous footballer, captain of the Dynamo Tbilisi and the Soviet national team of the 1970s to 1980s. Recalling those glorious times, he walked me to the exit. Suddenly, something transfixed me. I saw a huge photograph of the unforgettable Mikhail Meskhi and his vis-à-vis, one of the clowns. Involuntarily comparing those years, I thought that skill and craft, like health and fitness, whatever the times, can’t be bought. They are unbuyable like rectitude of people to whom my grandmother belonged till the end of her days. Remaining in power, they determined our life during my childhood and youth. In the meantime, there lived Mikhail Meskhi, the fabulous wizard of football, who performed miracles on the pitch. He enthralled spectators by his play. Leaving defenders behind, he triggered an outburst of the fans’ emotions, carrying them completely away by his art of ball possession, dribbling, and a smart pass. The fantastic football and Mikhail Meskhi were one for the fans…
Also it should be noted that Mikhail Meskhi was a player of the rest of the world team. In the memorable year of 1963, the renowned coach Ricardo Riera invited him to the FIFA team which had to play versus team England at London’s Wembley Stadium in a game dedicated to the centenary of the English football. However, for some reasons, the Russian football association refused to recommend Mikhail Meskhi for the match on the grounds of his being out of shape. Being an original, unique player, Meskhi was constantly at odds both with the football bureaucracy and bureaucracy in general. Such is the lot of people who live ahead of their time. Usually, exceptionally gifted people come to be valued only after they retire. That is when their contribution to the cause they served becomes evident.
Nowadays, as I attend football matches at famous stadiums of the world, I involuntarily try to spot a player playing the Meskhi style. Alas, I see no one. I find comfort in the fact that no one else will paint another Mona Lisa.
PS There isn’t a word of fib in what I have written, no matter how improbable all this may seem!!!
On photo: M. Meskhi in action