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The buzz, the rattle and getting clean: confessions of a former drug addict

10 years ago former tennis prodigy Viktor Potemkin (not his real name) decided to come off heroin and leave the criminal world. He did this using the detox approach. Now he teaches, and trains future tennis stars. He talked to Mumin Shakirov.

“I wasn’t like the other kids. I had my own individual curriculum at school, and spent all my free time on the tennis court. At the age of 14, I was beating all my peers. My powerful swing, animal aggression and height gave me an advantage. I beat my trainer at the age of 13. The future ‘first racket of the world’ Marat Safin was two years younger than me. I didn’t play with him, but I saw how his mother Roza Safina was ‘bringing him up’: he often cried in the changing room. We were scared of her for some reason. Later they left for Spain.

“My mother worked in the office of the Regional Prosecutor. She told me a lot of stories about criminals and the godfathers of the criminal world. She tried to protect me from this world, but the effect was the reverse. I liked tough guys who despised the law.

Heorin addict

“I had one of the shortest careers in tennis. At 15 I was very upset when I was defeated by a boy who was 2 years younger than me, so I gave up sport. At stake were a trip to France, study at a college in Paris and living abroad. I was used to playing on a fast surface, and I liked aggressive tennis, running up to the net and making powerful swings. But we were playing on a slow surface, where stability and legwork is important. He knew this and won. I was in shock. I broke down psychologically and didn’t pick up a racket for eight months.

“The street violence in our district was extreme. If you wanted to be able to move around the streets peacefully, you had to form your own gang. Our building was the most criminal in the district: every stair well had its own gang. In my gang everyone was two or three years older than me. We started smoking at 14, and a little later came dope, alcohol and girls. I often got into fights, which is how I built up my authority.

“The trainer tried to get me back on to the court several times. He didn’t let up for 6 months, but I was already leading a different life, and I hadn’t got over the shock. Rich guys and criminal bosses began inviting me to play tennis. I was a good sparring partner and I was paid some money, but it was never enough.

“When I gave up tennis, I was on my own. I wouldn’t listen to my mother and grandmother any more. I didn’t have a father: he had abandoned us straight after I was born. At the age of 16 I was transferred to an evening school, and there I tried hash for the first time. There were three of us, we took a few puffs and started laughing. Soon I was buying drugs with my own money, and I always had joints in my pockets.

“When the money ran out, we took to the streets. We stole a bag, grabbed another one and ran off. We started mugging people in dark lanes, at stations and bus stops, and we went on ‘tour’ in other districts as well. We tried not to beat people up - we even apologized for the ‘inconvenience’. I was an intimidating tough guy with enormous fists. I did kickboxing and could reach a basketball hoop with my feet.

“The first time we didn’t inject heroin, we sniffed it. Everyone was crazy about the film ‘Pulp Fiction’ at that time. We tried to imitate Tarantino’s characters. It made us violently ill. Then I met a girl who worked as a nurse, and that’s when it all started: a spoon, a cigarette lighter, cotton wool, syringes etc. She also became addicted to heroin. If you don’t take drugs, you’re a jerk. That was the law of the streets.

“When I turned 16, there were already 25 people in my gang. We needed more money for heroin. Stealing bags and mugging people were a thing of the past. Apartment burglaries didn’t interest me, as I didn’t fit through the ventilation window. We decided to steal cars, without necessarily coming into contact with the victim. The first order from the mob was a Zhiguli. We spent half the night breaking into it, getting the window open and hotwiring it. It was a real nightmare, but we got the job done. That’s how we made our first $500.

“Once there was an order for a ‘Cherokee’. I refused, although we were promised $5,000 for it. I knew it belonged to a godfather, who would tear you apart for such an ‘insult’. We mainly stole Russian cars, 4-5 of them a week. We didn’t ask what the clients did with them: either they disassembled them for spare parts, or drove them to the Caucasus. In our business, an unnecessary question leads to suspicion: it means losing your job, or even a bullet in the head.

“Over the years I realized that criminals in films are different from in real life. When I got a pistol, I started imitating gangsters and carrying it on my belt. It’s very inconvenient: you keep thinking the safety catch will go off and you’ll shoot yourself in the balls. I had to buy a holster. And another thing - once we poured petrol over a car and threw a burning cigarette into it, but it didn’t catch fire. In a film it would have exploded.

“When we had no money to buy heroin, we just stole from our dealer. A dealer has no authority in the criminal world. He just sells the ‘shit’, and you don’t have to treat him well. The rattle is a terrible thing: you lose all control of yourself. I used to turn into a thug. Once I was at the end of my tether. I rang my neighbour’s bell, and, when no one answered, I kicked down the door, stole the stereo system and sold it for kopecks to buy the dose I needed.

“We scorned alcoholics as a lower caste. We called alcohol blue dye, and alcoholics bruises. Ours was the beautiful life: heroin, restaurants, casinos, cars, girls, sex and another dose. A lot of people envied us. Older guys treated me with respect, and younger ones came to me for advice. I was terribly proud that I was one of the tough guys. I bought a dog, an American Staffordshire terrier. She was the only one in my circle who wasn’t on drugs, everyone else was high the whole time.

“I made a pact with my mother that she wouldn’t stop me shooting up, and I would give her my pistol. For her this was not an easy decision. We hadn’t spoken for a long time. She wrote me letters, every one of which began with the words: ‘My darling son!’ I read them every morning, cried, then wiped away the tears and cooked up my next hit.

“What I was most afraid of was going to jail. I would have simply been killed there. I was the son of a prosecutor, and I could expect no leniency. I took all of this into account and tried not to be caught by the police, although they guessed what I was up to.

“At the age of 17 a godfather gave me a Cartier gold bracelet. This was a special sign of attention, and when other guys looked at my wrist, they realized who they were dealing with. I had earned this honour because I returned a stolen Mercedes-600 to the godfather. Some outsiders had made a mistake: they didn’t know that the owner of the car was ‘untouchable’. Everyone was checked: housebreakers, con artists and pickpockets etc. I was lucky, because the thieves accidentally got in touch with me, and I solved the problem. The car was returned on time.

“Not all the stolen cars reached the clients. There were times when we got wasted and drove the car at the speed of 120 km/h off a bridge into a ravine. The car was wrecked, and we would have to be dragged out through the back windscreen. To hide the evidence, we’d set fire to the car and leave it on the road. We’d then steal another car for the client.

“When the rattle kicked in, I went up the wall. My mother suffered just as much as I did. We even got to the point where we went to the dealer together to pick up a dose.

“She couldn’t watch my torment: she pitied me and hated me at the same time. She had to help me when I couldn’t get the needle into the vein. The buzz is nothing more than the pain going away. There are no new feelings or emotions.

“I had a brilliant criminal career ahead of me. My gang was the most disciplined. We owned 50% of a bar, and there was no shortage of orders for stolen cars. But this didn’t last for long. Heroin did its work, and I ground to a serious halt in the ‘system’. Big time car thieves stopped working with me.

“My mother took me to clinics and health centres, but I never stayed there for more than a week. I pulled out the intravenous drips and scarpered. Then came a series of psychologists, psychics, and healers. Once my mother took me to a shaman, who ran around me with a tambourine for an hour, but the magic didn’t work. I tried to give up on my own, went cold turkey, and took pills to calm me washed down with a glass of vodka. It was useless, the rattle wouldn’t let up and I had to go back to the dealer for another dose.

“I was sure that drug addiction was incurable. The doctors themselves had rammed it home that official medicine was powerless. I would go out with a bang. I started going over [passing out, ed], and waking up in all kinds of places; in the car, in the stairwell, in the garage. Once I went over at home, and when I opened my eyes a doctor and my mother were standing in front of me. I threw a pillow at the doctor and ran outside.

“When you don’t have a hit, nothing cheers you up: girls, drinks, friends – nothing. You don’t even want to steal cars. Complete depression. A hit breathes life into my body, and I start to think, take decisions and know what I want.

“One morning I woke up and looked at my mother. There was such misery in her eyes that I was near to tears. ‘Why not try again?’ I thought. I was already 19. The gang had broken up, and there were fewer and fewer orders. Three guys had died of overdoses. My mother looked at me for a long time and said: ‘Let’s try again’. We decided to get help.

“When I poured the powder out of the bag at the drugs clinic, I realized that I would get clean. My mother couldn’t believe her eyes, but the director reacted calmly. He had obviously seen all kinds of drug addicts before. For an addict to just hand over his fix was incredible. Although I rattled for about half an hour before handing it over, I gave in. I gave the gold bracelet to my mother as it was precious to me. That same day I was taken to a clinic for detox.

“The condition was that I should cease all contact with my former friends. No contact at all. I even had to break up with my girlfriend, as she didn’t want treatment. I never saw her again. I went through detox for a month and a half. I would spend up to four to five hours a day in the sauna, getting the drugs out of my system. I had no appetite and had to take vitamins.

“I used to sit in the sauna and fantasize that I would go through rehabilitation, and then shoot up again. It would be wonderful: a car, a girl, music by Los Lobos from the film ‘Desperados’ and champagne. I’d get dizzy just thinking about it. During the detox I often broke the hospital rules. I was the only moron who smoked in the sauna at a temperature of 110 degrees, then opened the ventilation window and let the smoke out. All the addicts were in a state of shock.

“Then one day I did actually shoot up, as I had dreamed of doing. I was in my car, though without music, a girl or champagne. I didn’t feel a thing. I thought that I had gone mad - the dose was powerful, but there was no effect. Only pangs of conscience, fear and betrayal, everything hateful that a person can feel towards himself and his surroundings. Half an hour later I took another dose, and felt nothing. Upset and amazed, I tried to get out of the car, but I couldn’t. My legs wouldn’t obey me, although my head was clear. So I stayed in the car. That was the last dose of my life.

“My mother paid a lot of money to get me out of hell. If it hadn’t been for her, I would have been found dead of an overdose in some old garage or dirty ditch. I learned to choose my friends and acquaintances again, to form relationships in a different way. The rethink of my life was crazy. When I was offered a job working with addicts at the centre where I had been, I was happy that I could earn money by working, rather than stealing. My slogan used to be: ‘Why should I work for a month when in one day I can earn as much as ordinary people do in one year?’

“I worked at the rehabilitation centre for almost three years, and learnt a lot. There were times when I felt I was king of the world. I was a specialist on drug problems and a psychologist, and as such was listened to by hundreds of boys and girls, who had all the ups and downs of life ahead of them. I was paid 10,000 rubles per lecture.

“I returned to tennis 10 years after I had left it in disgrace. I devote a lot of time to training work and I study programmes and methodology. I’ve written a dissertation on the teaching of tennis, and am now preparing an author’s summary. My tennis idol is Shamil Tarpishchev. Thanks to him, we are among the elite of world tennis.

“When I see a driver taking out his key to open the door of the car, I involuntarily remember my past. For a bet, I could open any Zhiguli car door with a screwdriver faster than he can with his key. It’s a skill you never forget.

 “I really want a child. I have a job, talented pupils, and a wife who is clever and beautiful.  Now I need an heir.

“I’ve always regretted that I never learnt to talk openly with my mother.

“I am probably a kind person at heart. There were times when I could have killed an enemy or rival, but at the last moment something stopped me. There is still a feeling of pity in me, or perhaps a feeling of justice…”

About the author

Mumin Shakirov is Moscow based, former Liberty Radio journalist. He is also a book writer and film director.

Read On

The Drug Trade in Contemporary Russia, by Louise Shelley, China and Eurasia Forum Quarterly, Volume 4, No. 1 (2006) p. 15-20

Rehabilitation Required, Russia’s Human Rights Obligation to Provide Evidence-based Drug Dependence Treatment, Human Rights Watch Report. 2007

Russia announces new method of treating drug addiction, RIA Novosti Agency, 01.11.2010

Russians support forceful treatment of drug addicts, A Private Prison, by By Svetlana Kononova, Russia Profile, 01.11.2010

Russia returns to Afghanistan, Foreign Policy, by Richard Weitz, 03.11.2010

New UN drugs czar from Russia takes office, www.boston.com, Sept. 13, 2010

Blog on sex, drugs, poverty and AIDS in Ukraine

UN Office on Drugs and Crime, website

European Drug Policy Initative , website

More On

The extent of the problem has clearly caught Russian officialdom unprepared. Though the influx of opiates is widely regarded as one of the many social ills which has entered the country since the fall of communism, it has its origins in Russia's disastrous military campaign in Afghanistan in the 1980s. A generation of traumatised young conscripts returned home having acquired the heroin habit and today the country is now the world's top consumer of heroin.

In theory, this should be an area where Russia feels free to draw on the research and experience of other countries which have been studying the problem for much longer. But the professionals have proved wary of learning from outsiders, and under the leadership of Viktor Ivanov, Russia appears to have taken the line that international bodies like the UN are pursuing a hostile Western agenda in their approach to Russia's drugs problem.

Susan Richards, Russia's drugs problem: blame the West,  oD Russia


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