Once Were Warriors

An unsentimental journey through Yuri Kapralov's Lower East Side

In the cluttered, fifth-floor apartment he shares with three cats and his mottled dog Sharik, Kapralov shows me Devil's Midnight, his 600-page account of the Russian Civil War based partly on stories he heard from his father, who served with both the White and Red armies. It remains unpublished, thanks to several chapters that various editors have deemed too gruesome. One of those disputed passages concerns the story of a faction of the Red Army that marched across the Russian plains and got caught in a buran, a fierce ice storm that happens in Russia only once every 200 years. "It lasted for three days and killed thousands. In Russia, they call it a chort—a devil."

Kapralov still lives in a world haunted by devils and vampires—both the neighborhood's and his own. His spirit broke in 1987 when his daughter, Faith, was raped and killed. If he had the money, he says, he'd go to Brazil to find a witch doctor he knows who could cure the cancerlike illness that's rotting his body. But like those who linger too long in the swampy backwaters of Loisaida, Kapralov now finds himself rooted to a past not entirely his own. His sadness is reflected in his descriptions of the "empty-eye sockets" of abandoned tenements that once littered the nabe: "The buildings are dead, but they don't know it yet. There are still human spirits flying through the empty, fucked-up hallways, and every crumbling wall talks to you when you're willing to listen. And the layers of cheap linoleum are wondering whatever happened to all the tired feet that were scraping them day after day...Irish feet, black and Puerto Rican feet, Ukrainian and hippie and, finally, the unsteady feet of the junkies. All gone."

"The neighborhood lasted a few more years than I expected," he says of the East Village he eulogized in 1974. "But now, I don't have much hope. It's totally invaded by people who don't care about the history...There's a lot of Euro-trash French, Germans, Japanese, Russian mafia. They're buying up everything. It's basically divide and conquer....Maybe next the Mongolians will come and start setting fires in the streets and taking over houses, and then everyone will start squawking about them, too. I hope so."

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