Russia, Russia. A riddle wrapped in an enigma blanketed in blini, soaked in vodka ... and all that jazz. I've been drinking beer religiously since I got here. It was never my intention to drink so much, but it was never really my intention to come to Russia, and it certainly was never my intention to let go of the vast prejudices I have against this country.
My mind is given to fantasy, and like any man I let it drift. Virtually everywhere I go, I conjure up alternate realities. In Edinburgh, I wonder how life would have turned out if I had married some plump, freckled, emotionally damp and dank Scot with beer and mayonaise dripping from her lips -- you know the breed. Married off, living in a glen, eating haggis, sporting a kilt, digging Simple Minds. I can almost see it. But no. Here in Moscow, I haven't caught myself pondering an alternate existence where I "go Russian" at any moment. It is beyond my faculties to imagine such things and I don't know why.
My mind is clouded here. Overcast. Everywhere there is fog and smoke, cigarettes dangling from every mouth. Occasionally, I suspect that Russians do not drink water. They eat sushi or Caucasian or American fast food and then down it with cigarettes and beer. Then, when they are feeling completely hungover, they reinvigorate themselves with some strong coffee. And so it goes, coffee, cigarette, beer, coffee, cigarette, beer, caffeine, nicotine, alcohol, caffeine, nicotine, alcohol, like a dehydrated lullaby, until the end of time.
This may account for the cheerful disposition of the militsiya, who still wear the outrageously oversized hats they donned for the filming of Spies Like Us in 1985. And that's the thing about Moscow: it feels like it's still 1985 here. Of course, the Moscow of 2011 is a long way from the one of 1985. But there is something about the cigarette smoke hanging in the air, the haircuts that are frozen in time, the glazed over look in the eyes, that seems a bit off.
Today we saw Lenin. The descent into his eerie crypt was one I will never forget, nor the shriveled fingers of a man who died the year my 87-year-old grandmother was born. His mausoleum has the ambiance of a deserted aquarium, and the biggest fish lies in state, his round, white head illuminated from above, at last at peace. I still don't know how to digest the October Revolution. I cannot deny its significance and yet I cannot tell you exactly why it is significant. It remains indigestible.
History is always at play in Russian-Estonian relations. In recent years the word battles have often descended into the absurd. Surely, the Estonians can afford the Russians the opportunity to grill sausages and drink beer every May 9, if the Russians can look the other way when the Estonians do the same thing on June 23. But a comment by Russian President Dmitri Medvedev shot to the top of the Estonian news media this week for his lamentation at the "underdeveloped political foundations" of the country given its take on the events 70 years past.
I actually don't think Medvedev really knows what he's talking about. But I also don't think that many in Russia care one way or the other. This is a vast country, and Moscow is its locus, where Kyrgyz mix with Armenians to drink and smoke and take in a Duran Duran concert and then maybe have a coffee. And in the shadows of extraterrestrial Soviet monuments, the street vendors are selling Spongebob Squarepants balloons. We pass them on the way to another cafe.