December 25th, 1981, Leningrad:
The offices of the First Chief Directorate were drafty and chilled despite the lingering odor of cheap-burning kerosene. Its barred windows, rattled by nighttime Baltic winds, were streaked by horizontal flurries turned the color of blood by some unseen red light outside the concrete walls. Nearly midnight, most of the sparse overnight crew was tired and grumpy. The detainees in their charge, if offered the choice, would rather be left to the frigid and desolate winter streets outside.
Santa Claus sat on a wooden chair alone in a room behind a locked steel-plate door. A cry of agony echoed from a nearby room. Santa hummed a Victorian-era carol and checked his pocket watch. The gold watch read five minutes to midnight.
When the steel door opened a moment later, a young KGB officer entered. He carried a half-full bottle of vodka in one hand, while blowing on and shaking the red knuckles of the other. He stopped fast in his tracks at sight of the cheery round man wearing the furry red suit in the chair before him.
“How’s Boris?” asked Santa.
“Who the hell is Boris?” the officer asked.
“He’s the poor soul you just struck in the room down the hall. All he wants for Christmas…is his two front teeth.“
“Boris? Is that right? He refused to give me his name.”
“To be sure, I won’t give you his last name.”
“How is it that you know his name at all?”
“I know everyone’s name. I’m Santa Claus.”
“You know, Father Christmas, Sinterklaas, Saint Nicholas, Ded Moroz, Babbo Natale, Chris Kringle?”
“I know who is Santa Claus. He’s a commercial tool invented by greedy capitalists to sell waste and excess. He is not real – and you are not him.”
“If you say so.”
“If you are Santa Claus, then what is my name?”
The young officer raised a thin eyebrow into a broad forehead and stepped toward a side table. He unscrewed the cap from his vodka and filled a small glass. “Would you care for some vodka – Mr. Claus?”
“Well, my nose didn’t get this red from living at the North Pole.”
The officer chuckled, poured a second glass for Santa and handed it off. “They found you climbing The People’s rooftops. Why are you here?” asked the officer before downing the entire contents of his glass.
“You tell me. I was minding my own business. Your agents brought me here.”
“No, I mean why did you come to Leningrad?”
“It’s Christmas Eve,” said Santa downing his entire glass of vodka. “I’m delivering presents to good little Russian boys and girls.”
“Let me see if I can remember the basics of your story,” Vladimir’s humoring began. “You live at the North Pole where you have a factory in which elves make toys – toys that you deliver all around the world in one night by use way of a flying reindeer driven sleigh to sleeping children – children who have proven themselves to be well behaved?”
“That’s the general gist of it, yes.”
“I’m a rational man, sir. Do you expect me to believe in such mystical nonsense as all that?”
“I don’t, as yet, expect you to believe it anymore than I believe that you are a rational man, Vladimir.”
“Who do you think you are insulting me like that?” snapped Vladimir. “Don’t you know the trouble you’re in? Do you know the things I have the power to do to you right now?”
“Are you thinking about knocking out Santa’s front teeth?”
“Tell me who you really are and, hopefully, it need not come to such forms of persuasion.”
“I’ve told you who I am.” Santa pulled out his pocket watch to check the time. It read five minutes to midnight. “I’m on kind of a tight schedule. If you’re going to keep asking the same question, we’re going to run out of time – so you might as well take your best shot.”
Vladimir snatched the watch from Santa’s mittened hand. “Individuals are not permitted to own gold. My men should have taken this.”
“They tried,” winked Santa.
“Did you stop them?” asked Vladimir placing the watch on the small table beside the bottle of vodka. He poured himself another, offering none further to Santa.
“Something like that,” Santa chuckled.
“Resisting the KGB is a highly punishable offense. Whatever was on your ‘tight schedule‘, need worry you no longer. You will be held as a foreign spy until you answer my questions. Time no longer holds any meaning to you.”
Santa reached into his pocket and pulled out his gold pocket watch. It read five minutes to midnight. “I’ve allowed time to be taken out of my busy schedule tonight because it would give me a chance to speak to you directly, Vladimir.”
Vladimir’s head spun toward the small table. The watch he’d placed there was gone. He turned back to Santa who held a full glass of vodka in his mitten. “But, how did you do that?!” he exclaimed.
“How many times do I need to tell you?” he downed his vodka. “I’m Santa Claus.”
Vladimir picked up the bottle of vodka and examined it for signs of tampering. He sniffed it. He placed his full glass down on the table as a precaution.
“You are starting to believe, Vladimir. That’s good for our purposes here tonight. You use to believe in me as a child. You even wrote me a letter once – asking for a set of nesting dolls. Do you remember?”
Vladimir shook. He picked up his glass of vodka, threw any concern over it to the wind and tossed it back. He spilled as he poured another.
“You never got those nesting dolls, did you, Vladimir?”
“What’s that?” asked Santa.
“It was bears, not dolls! Nesting Russian bears!”
“My apologies, Vladimir. You are right,” said Santa, “You asked for nesting Russian bears, but you never got them.”
“Do you know why you didn’t get them?”
“Because you do not exist!”
“No, Vladimir. It’s because you were you were on the naughty list.”
“So why didn’t you give me a lump of coal, instead?”
Santa began a hardy laugh. His belly shook like a bowl full of bourgeois. He used his green mitten to wipe a tear from the corner of his eye. “Coal,” his words came forth in a merriment of breath-catching, “Gifting coal is no slight in this God-forsaken country. It’s too valuable. In fact, and this is a detriment to your abominable system, sometimes I leave extra heaps of it to the good children in the Soviet Union. That, in other places, the gift of what is such a valuable commodity here, is a slight, should give you pause in your denunciations of their ways.”
“Some would call those children spoiled – to reject such an object of value,” Vladimir offered.
“Perhaps,” nodded Santa. “But, others would reject the notion of instilling character into a child by turning him into a frozen corpse.”
“What did I do that was so naughty? What was my childhood crime?”
“You reported to a teacher your friend’s father’s questioning of the equity of a distribution council’s decisions.”
“I didn’t do…it was…he was…”
“There’s no need to deny or justify your actions. Your heart knows what you did and, as Santa, I know your heart. We both know how many times you have thought about that man – how he disappeared that one night – how your little friend, Sergey, cried.”
“Stop!” cried Vladimir. He poured another vodka and drank it.
“He died, you know, Sergey’s father, in a Siberian gulag the following year. Right about the same time the distribution council changed it’s decisions to remedy his very questions about them.”
“Stop!” cried Vladimir.
“You wail like one of the people you routinely torture. Is what I’m doing to you now so different from what you do to them? Getting them to admit what they do not wish to say out loud.”
“You cheat, though. You have the power to see into men’s souls. If I had such a power, I would not need to hurt them.”
“And what if you disagreed with their soul?” asked Santa. “Would you refrain from punishing them?”
Vladimir stood with the smile of a thought, “You could help us be better!” He walked over to Santa and grabbed the sides of his arms, holding them as he would a brothers, “You give gifts! Give me the gift of your power to instantly know who is naughty or nice! I could mold a new Soviet Union – one of peace and charity to all. That’s all us Soviets ever wanted. We’re not bad people! We are cut from the same cloth as you! You should be working for us!”
“I work for myself,” said Santa.
“Santa, you don’t work for profit, neither do we. You don’t pay your elves – do you? Yet, you don’t call it exploitation.”
“Ho, Ho, Ho,” Santa laughed at Vladimir’s desperation. “My elves are free to come and go as they please. I do not engage in coercion. Ask yourself if your workers are afforded the same opportunity. Free will and individual liberty make all the difference.”
Vladimir beamed, “Santa, you wear a red suit!”
“Some years, I wear green.”
“Santa, look at your beard!” Vladimir laughed, “You are the very likeness of Karl Marx, himself!”
“Karl was a naughty, lazy, covetous and all-around miserable boy.”
“Gift me your power, Santa, so that I might know the difference. You do have the power?”
Santa checked his watch. It read five minutes to midnight. “I could gift you this power, but I am too filled with love for you to give it. I see that you are not ready. Thank you for the vodka, Vladimir, it is one thing your country can be proud of. Now, I must go.”
“You are not going anywhere until you give me your power.”
“How will you stop me?”
“Eh, you…you are Saint Nicholas! Saint Nicholas was born in Turkey. Turkey is a member of NATO. You are going to be held as a NATO spy.”
“Ho, Ho, Ho,” laughed Santa. “Merry Christmas, Vladimir!”
Santa touched the side of his nose with his finger and disappeared into a whirling shower of sparkling snow.
December 25th, 1991, St. Petersburg:
Vladimir sat in his office beside a radio humming static. His head rested next to a half-empty bottle of vodka on his desk. He was now the head of the soon-to-be-dissolved: First Chief Directorate. He was the only soul left in the building. The clock on the wall read five minutes to midnight.
The flurries outside the window turned from white to red. The source of the new light was unseen, coming from somewhere beyond the concrete walls. The change in tone was enough to pull Vladimir upright at the thought of a distant memory. He staggered to the window to see what had brought the color-change. Hopefully, he wished, the building was on fire and it would put him out of his misery.
“Merry Christmas, Vladimir!”
Vladimir turned from the window to see Santa standing beside his desk.
Santa picked up the bottle of vodka. “May I,” he asked.
“I knew it was you,” Vladimir said stumbling toward him to pour them both a drink. “The red flurries – I remember them from ten years ago.”
“That’s Rudolph. He’s up on the rooftop. He was there ten years ago too to help me make my escape.”
“Let’s find out,” slurred Vladimir, “how much vodka one has to drink to get a nose to glow red?”
“Rudolph has always been more of a tequila man,” Santa contemplated. “Baja is one of our last stops tonight, he’ll get his chance then.”
Vladimir tossed back his drink. Half of it ran down his neck onto his disheveled uniform. Santa walked to the radio and turned off the knob. The static disappeared. “That’s better – a Silent Night.”
“I’m not in the mood for jokes.”
“I thought you might be in bad shape tonight. I take it you listened to Mr. Gorbachev’s address this evening,” said Santa.
“He resigned his position as President of the Soviet Union – said the position no longer exits because the Soviet Union no longer exists. As we speak, they are lowering the Soviet flag over buildings across the country for the last time.”
“Joy to the World,” said Santa.
“Don’t mock me. We worked so hard to make something better. It was a noble idea – ‘From each according to his ability, to each according to his need’ One should want to help the needy.”
“‘From each according to his ability, to each according to his need’ is a noble idea,” said Santa, but added, “- for a single family. It does not work so well on an economic scale much larger than that. As for helping the needy, that is what it’s all about, but charity at the barrel of a gun, Vladimir, is no virtue.”
“The nature of people is not good enough for the ideal that is communism,” said Vladimir. “As someone who instinctively knows who is good and bad, you must know this to be true.”
“Communism fits the nature of ants and is proper to them,” responded Santa. “Do not blame the nature of men for not being the nature of ants. Man’s nature is individualistic. You would do better seeking an economic system that matches it.”
“But we can’t be selfish lone wolves,” cried Vladimir, “We must work together.”
“I agree, but it’s in a man’s own selfish best interest to work with others – to help others.’
“But they don’t!”
“We must always persuade them to,” Santa said calmly, “But not at gunpoint.”
Vladimir sat back at his desk. “Why have you come back?”
“I’m just – checking it twice,” said Santa.
“Am I still on the naughty list?”
“Yes,” said Santa, “And about to be more so.”
Vladimir pulled a pistol from a drawer of his desk. He rested it, aimed at Santa, on the desktop.
“Are you going to try to shoot me, Vladimir?”
“You tell me, Santa. You know everything.”
“You won’t,” said Santa checking his watch, which read five minutes to midnight. “After all these years, you still hold out hope that I would gift to you my power of instinctively knowing who’s naughty and who’s nice. Besides, the gun is empty.”
Vladimir pulled the trigger. A hollow click rang out. He released the clip from the handle. It was empty. “How did you do that? I just loaded this gun today.”
“Be good Vladimir.”
“You keep checking to see if I’m still naughty. That means you think I can change.”
“It’s never too late to change, Vladimir – for anyone. Your country is going through a change. If you were smart, you would see it, not as an ending, but as a new opportunity.”
Santa began to raise his mitten to the side of his nose when Vladimir cried out: “Will you be back? I can change. I’ll show you. Will you be back?”
Santa smiled and touched the side of his nose, disappearing in a whirl of glittering snow.
December 25th, 2021, Moscow:
It was toasty and warm inside the Kremlin Palace. The air smelled of fresh roses. Vladimir, now the President of all of Russia, snuggly synched the belt of his red velvet robe around his waist. He took a seat at a private table in his bedroom and lifted the silver-mirrored lid from his dinner plate. His eyes glanced at the mantle clock. It read five minutes to midnight.
He checked the pistol in his robe pocket. The bullets he had loaded that evening had gone missing. “Are you there?” asked Vladimir. It was a question he asked into the air every Christmas Eve for the last thirty years, even when his gun had not mysteriously emptied.
There was no answer. He poured himself a glass of French wine and cut into his meat. While he chewed, he daydreamed of the blonde and brunette he had lined up for dessert.
“What’s for dinner?” came a voice by the fireplace.
Vladimir turned with a grin. “Venison!” he beamed while chewing.
“Oh, dear,” said Santa. “Hopefully, it’s no one I know.”
Vladimir stood. He strutted about the opulence of his bedroom with his arms spread wide to illustrate its grandeur. “Are you impressed?” he asked. “Do you like the result of my focusing upon myself instead of others?”
“Are you under the impression that controlling all these material things make you a better individual?” asked Santa.
“I don’t need your approval. I am a great man. I have raised the living standard of Russians. I have brought new technologies to her. I brought her back from collapse. I’ve saved lives!”
“You have sold favors. You have bastardized elections and the democratic process. You have threatened the free press. You have turned Russia into a raw resource colony for China. You have imprisoned, or worse, your political opponents. You have become wealthy selling influence.”
“Exactly, I am a capitalist. Now, I demand that you put me on the nice list.”
“Vladimir, you have learned nothing. Capitalism is not about force. It is about voluntary trade. Controlling people is all you do.”
“You were right, communism is a dead end. I know it. The Chinese know it. How can you look at Russia and not see improvement over the last three decades?’
“There was no where to go but up,” said Santa. “To be sure, there was improvement, but sometimes improvement comes in spite of, not because of.”
“Did I do nothing nice? Nothing?!”
Santa smiled. He touched the side of his nose and a sack of presents appeared in a whirl of sparkling snow at his side. Vladimir rushed to him by the fire.
“You have,” Santa began, “permitted the return of the practice of religious freedom to Russia. It was never yours to permit, but you could have made its return much more difficult.”
“How could I deny mysticism after my experiences with you?”
“Ho, ho, ho,” laughed Santa. “I do have a gift for you.”
He pulled from his bag of goodies, a red wrapped box and extended it to Vladimir. Vladimir took it and excitedly sat back at his diner table. He tore off the paper and opened the box. From inside, he pulled out a set of artisan hand-painted nesting bears. The very kind he had asked Santa for as a child.
“It’s my bears!”
“But, I had asked for your powers to know who’s naughty and nice.”
“There’s an extra added gift at the center of them all,” said Santa. “The power to literally open your mind and change the world.”
Vladimir began excitedly opening the bears, one after another. When he reached the last one, only an inch in size, he shook it. It rattled with something inside. He opened it and out fell a bullet. It was a red and white striped bullet, swirled, like a candy mint.
Santa approached and sat at the dinner table. He picked up the wine and studied the label. “2010, Bordeaux – very nice. May I?”
“Help yourself,” said Vladimir slowly reaching into his robe pocket.
Santa swirled his glass and held it the light. He placed his nose deep into the glass and breathed in. He took a sip, letting it roll across his tongue.
“What do you think?” asked Vladimir loading his gun with the red and white swirled bullet.
“It’s a classic wine,” said Santa. “I still prefer vodka, though. It’s sooo much quicker.”
The gilded doors to the bedroom swung open and in sauntered two lingerie-clad women carrying glasses and a bottle of vodka on a tray.
“A Christmas miracle,” smiled Santa.
Vladimir turned on the two merry tarts with his pistol extended. “Get out!” he yelled.
The two women ran screaming, bouncing from the room.
“That was naughty, Vladimir, and so were those lovely girls,” hollered Santa. “The brunette had a set just like Mrs. Claus’.”
Vladimir trained the gun on Santa. “Give me your powers!” he demanded.
“Did you know Mrs. Claus is Ukrainian?”
“Give me your powers!”
“Fine,” said Santa. “You win. I’ll give you the power to instantly know naughty and nice.”
“Really?” smiled Vladimir. “I win?”
“You’ve earned it.”
Santa tapped the side of his nose. A sparkling snow appeared in a whirl around Vladimir. For a moment it lifted him from the carpet, but then gently returned his feet to the floor.
Vladimir started merrily laughing. I know! I now know! He looked at Santa and lowered his pistol. “You are good, Santa. You are so very good.”
“And you?” asked Santa.
The smile drained away from Vladimir’s face along with all color. His mouth hung loose with dread. He began to shake. In his mind he was seeing, at once, the pain and fear of all those who had crossed his path. All the mental constructions of strength and hate he’d ever created to spare his fragile ego from the true nature of his own pain and fear crumbled. He fell to his knees. “I’ve been so very naughty.”
Vladimir placed the pistol to his own temple and pulled the trigger. His brains decked the halls and his lifeless body fell forward.
Santa opened the bedroom door to see if the ladies were still nearby, and shrugged in disappointment when they weren’t. He re-shut the door. He walked around Vladimir’s limp body, lightly singing to himself, “Grandma got run-over by a reindeer. Coming home from our house Christmas Eve.” He palmed the cork back into the bottle of Bordeaux and slipped it into his coat pocket. “For Mrs. Claus,” he said to himself.
A red glow came to the flurries outside the great window.
“Patience, Rudolph, Baja isn’t going anywhere,” Santa said checking his watch. It read five minutes to midnight. With that, he touched his hand to the side of his nose and disappeared in a whirl of sparkling snow.