Pozhenyan was expelled from the Institute, but he was not discouraged. He went to work as a boilermaker, continuing to write poems and to exercise regularly with his dumbbell. "I just lift it for a while and life seems better," he would say. In the end Pozhenyan and the dumbbell triumphed. He was readmitted to the Institute, published several books of verse and wrote a number of songs that are sung throughout Russia, not only in concert halls but, even more important, on dark nocturnal streets by slightly tipsy working boys and girls.
At the moment Pozhenyan is directing a film for which he wrote the scenario. I once met him at an airport when he was about to go off on location. As always, his fashionable jacket was bursting at the seams, and under his jacket his sailor's striped shirt stood out proudly. In one hand was his tiny suitcase, in which, no doubt, aside from a shaving kit there was no more than his gym shoes, his skip-rope, his boxing gloves, his rubber ball and his chest expander, while in his other hand was his eternal companion—the dumbbell.
"Well, how is the movie business? Tough?" I asked. Pozhenyan winked at me slyly, and eyed his dumbbell.
"I just lift it and life seems better. My fat little friend!" he said. Then, slightly bowlegged, as though on the deck of a rocking ship, he lumbered off across the concrete to his airplane. I knew then: this fellow would never get lost.
I myself took up sport relatively late in life. I grew up in a peasant family in a Siberian settlement called Zima, and for people who spend all day dragging heavy sacks and felling ships' timbers it seems funny to strengthen one's physical condition through special exercises. I remember once when a visitor from Moscow came to see us. In the morning he began to behave in a strange way for one of his solid years. He went out into the yard and began jumping up and down and waving his hands around, without any rhyme or reason. At the time I did not understand that this was known as gymnastics, and I thought that our guest had gone out of his mind. My grandmother thought the same. She superstitiously made the sign of the cross in the direction of our visitor and, attempting to expel the devil from within him, whispered: "Begone, evil spirit!"
Thus the concept of sport was unknown to me in my childhood. It's true when I was a child I used to ski for 50 or 60 kilometers at a time, but not for fun. My friends and I used to break off cones from Siberian cedars in the hungry war years, and look in the snow for cranberries and whortleberries, made the sweeter by the frost. It's true that when I was young I was taken hunting, but, once again, it was by no means a leisure activity. It was a necessity of life. We used to hunt squirrels, sables and bears. Even now, when I see bears in a circus or a zoo, I feel vaguely guilty.
As a boy, I worked side by side with grown-ups, floating large logs down the shallow Siberian rivers. Of course, this was heavy labor, but, at the same time, it was a sport, a remarkably beautiful sport for those who were fearless. How much athletic skill you need to guide the rafts between the menacing rocks rushing toward you, cloudy with spray! Your legs grow into the raft, your arms into the rudder, and you and the raft together dance, whirl and leap on the swift current, playing with death. Yes, it was a sport, since true sport is always a duel: a duel with nature, with one's own fear, with one's own fatigue, a duel in which body and mind are strengthened. But I had one shortcoming: I could not swim. I carefully hid this from my friends, and in the early morning, the victim of vanity, I would go down to the river and try to teach myself to swim. I tried to learn all the styles according to the textbook—the breast-stroke, the backstroke, the crawl, but the only one that came to me readily was the dog paddle. In the end, life itself became my swimming instructor.
When I was 14 I worked on a geological expedition in the Altai Mountains. One day, while carrying heavy rucksacks full of geological specimens, we were walking along a mountain path above a river. One of the geologists slipped and fell into the river. He tried to struggle against the current but was unable to get his rucksack off, and the weight of it pulled him down. I did not stop to think. I took out my hunting knife and leaped into the water to save him. I got to him and with my knife cut through the straps of the rucksack. Then I helped him back to shore. It was only at this point that I remembered I could not swim.
Nowadays I am on the friendliest terms with water. I can swim 10 to 15 kilometers without stopping. I prefer the breaststroke. In Yugoslavia I learned to water-ski; it is one of the most splendid of sports. I like to hold onto the bar, lean backward, almost touching the water with my head, and see the sky and water mingle in one whirling, foaming mass. In the Crimea I learned to swim underwater with a spear gun. Truth to tell, I do not so much shoot as enjoy the remarkable beauty of a world that was previously concealed from me. Under the surface one has the feeling of being not in water but rather within a quivering, multicolored world of mystery.
I enjoy rowing, particularly canoeing, but the one water sport that I think is altogether beyond my powers is surfing. Last spring in Australia I stripped all the skin off my belly trying one of the damn things. I could never manage to stand on the board and keep my balance. Perhaps my total inability to maintain a balance in life was betraying itself. Incidentally, while I was engaged in my fruitless struggle with the surfboard, someone on the beach said something several times in English into a loudspeaker, and all the swimmers hastened toward the shore with unanimous alacrity. In the innocence of my soul I thought it was the sacred lunch hour. Westerners, despite being—from the Soviet point of view—undisciplined psychologically, nevertheless have extremely disciplined stomachs. I alone remained in the sea, scornful of the herd instincts of Western stomachs, until a patrol boat roared up beside me and I was hauled in, together with my ill-fated surfboard. "Shark, shark, you bloody bastard!" the infuriated steersman yelled at me. By that time my appreciation of the English language had reached the point where I had a clear understanding of the words "bloody bastard," but I thought "shark" was some kind of Australian argot for "lunch," and I resented this forcible attempt to make me eat at a set time. After a while I discovered the meaning of the word "shark" and realized that I had nearly been somebody else's lunch.