Nikolai the Lucky Cook

“We want you to come with us,” said Dima, the smaller thief, “because you are lucky.” His ribs poked out of his chest, making him look even smaller.

The cook stayed silent. He’d seen the larger one, Lev, stick a knife into a man just to take his jacket.

“Come, Kolya,” Lev said in a friendly voice. “It’s true--you always win at the cards. We need such luck to escape.”

Nikolai the cook, who hated being called by the diminutive “Kolya,” had no illusions. The gulag was thousands of kilometers from food and shelter, and the land between was cold and desolate. No one had ever made it. That’s what everyone said.

“You just want me because I can steal food for you,” Nikolai said.

“He’s too smart for us, this one,” Lev said in a mock whisper to Dima. They both grinned like foxes.

“Smart and lucky,” Dima said, pinching the cook’s roll of belly fat.

“Don’t you want to get out of this place?” Lev asked.

“I think he likes it here,” Dima said.

That night, Nikolai the cook couldn’t sleep. Despite the source, the plan wasn’t crazy. But it was a gamble. He sweated, thinking of the risk. Of dying of cold and hunger, or by wolves. Then he thought of seeing his wife and brother, of having proper clothes and food. Then he started all over. My morning he was exhausted.

The next day, Dima and Lev each got extra portions during the meal, and Lev got a wink from Nikolai. The thieves knew that Nikolai had made his decision.

Two days later, they carried all the food they could steal and left. There were no guards to stop them. The wasteland waited to swallow them up.

The first night of freedom the three of them feasted. The next morning they were so full that they slept until the sun was high in the sky. But at least their packs were lighter.

By the end of the week, they were down to only a little food.

Three days later the two thieves ate the cook, but much of the fat they had counted on had melted away by then.

Finally, Lev ate Dima. But he ran out of food too, and the wolves didn’t have much of a meal.

[This is a fictionalized version of events described in Anne Applebaum’s Gulag]