esmaspäev, mai 23, 2011

in the land of the soviets, 5. osa

Well, this is getting to be a little like the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, isn't it? What's next? Blog posts in 3D?

So many things have happened in recent weeks that I haven't discussed on this blog. Microsoft bought Skype for an exorbitant sum, making the front page of The Financial Times and causing much "We've made it!" rejoicing among Estonians, but eliciting grumbles from this writer, who desires not to see his lovely Skype cluttered up with useless Microsoft applications that don't work.

Another Lennart Meri Conference took place, which I did not attend as a) I was in Moscow at the time and b) I was not invited on account that I am nobody. "And you, who are you?" That's the thing about that conference. You have to be somebody. You can shake hands with the greats but then you notice their eyes lowering to your name tag to see what country or think tank you represent. Then when they see you are unlikely to write a blurb praising their genius on the back of their forthcoming book, they turn away and flee to the nearest person, who hopefully might be somebody.

Time is money.

Anyway: highlights of the conference were the fact that Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves sat on the floor during one of the sessions (because he's a man of the people!) and gave a great keynote speech, which was covered with gusto on The Economist blog, Eastern Approaches. The main thrust of the speech was to "lambaste the prejudice that the secure, rich countries of the western half of the continent manifest towards the east and south alike," according to the blog. The full text of the speech can be found here. Do not read it on an empty stomach. It involves turkey and fish soup.

It's interesting to see the Estonian leadership assume the "voice of the East," when during the 1990s it often seemed keen to separate itself from that East, appearing innately Nordic, when it came to European Union enlargement, and staunchly Baltic, when NATO enlargement was involved, but never the cursed former Soviet. No, Estonia was formerly Swedish in those days (and now is Swedish again, according to some critics).

To be honest, Western Europeans are known the world over for being self-satisfied windbags who are thoroughly convinced -- in state-run schools, perhaps -- that they are the zenith of mankind, the crown of creation, and that some horrible stitch up in history has given the trigger-happy Americans, the barbarian Russians, and the labyrinthine Chinese the keys to the future. The attitude is noxious and deserves to be lambasted. But there's one problem. The Estonians do it too.

In this aspect, the Estonians are deeply Western European. Even when it comes to the "Lazy Latvians" referred to in Ilves' speech (he didn't call them that, someone else did). What is the national sentiment toward Latvia, apart from jokes that they have six toes (maybe a dig at inbreeding, much like the anecdotes about the "fish-faced Finns")? An acquaintance of mine just got back from Latvia yesterday, where he complained of the indigenous people's slowness in accomplishing anything. Things there went kuradi aeglaselt, he said, "fucking slowly." Estonians complain about getting shaken down by hungry cops in Riga, forced to pay so-called "traffic fines." The association is clear: Latvia is a sketchy, Eastern European country.

And why hasn't Latvia reformed/performed as successfully as Estonia? It's hard to find a reason without falling prey to so-called "Orientophobia." Not that Estonia is so great. In a recent interview, Ilves claimed that there are no oligarchs in Estonia. "We don’t have oligarchs in this country," he said. "Estonia, I think, is the only country in the post-Soviet area that does not have oligarchs."

This is true, in the sense that no one in Estonia actually uses the term "oligarch" to refer to influential local businessmen. But such influential local businessmen do have a lot of power, and can make life easier or more difficult for you. Then again, such influential local businessmen exist in every country I assume. Certainly they exist in my home state of New York.

But what does all of this have to do with Russia? Here is an interesting fact for you. Throughout most of the past century, the most popular names in Estonia have been Russian names. This is not because of the enormous size of Estonia's Russian minority. The Estonian Statistical Office recently reported that 75 percent of babies born in Estonia last year were born to ethnic Estonian parents. And yet the top names given to children in April 2011 were Darja and Maksim.

This is not a new phenomenon. In an Eesti Ekspress article, I learned that the number one name given to males in Estonia in the 1920s was Nikolai. For girls it was Maria. In the 1930s, the top names were Vladimir and Valentina. In the 1940s, Vladimir and Valentina ruled, only to be replaced by Vladimir and Tatjana in the 1950s. The 1960s were the decade of Sergei and Irina. The 1970s? Sergei and Jelena. Only in the 1990s and the 2000s have "Estonian" names returned to top the list: Martin and Kristina in the 1990s, and Markus and Laura in the 2000s. Not that there is anything particularly ethnically Estonian about those names. They might as well belong to German or British children.

So, what does this all mean? One could hypothesize Estonian Russians are using far fewer names than their ethnic Estonian counterparts. And Estonians have a multitude of variations for the same name. From the root "Martin" comes Marten and Märtin and Märten and Mart and Märt and Marti and Martti. All of these get counted as different names. So if 10 babies are born, two of them are named Maksim and the other eight are named Martin, Marten, Märten, Märtin, Mart, Märt, Marti, and Marti-Mart, then Maksim becomes the most popular name in Estonia.

Can any great, horrendously formulated stereotypes be drawn from this data? Can the name-poor Russians be considered as collectivists for their habit of giving children the same names? Can the name-rich (well, sort of) Estonians be considered rugged individualists who dare to be different by tearing proper names to shreds and dancing all over them with tremas and tildes?

I just don't know.

reede, mai 20, 2011

in the land of the soviets, 4. osa

"Something happens to these guys in OMON," a Russian friend told me during my visit to Moscow. "They take them away, train them, and then," he pointed a finger at his head and turned it from side to side. "They just don't see people as people anymore. They see them as something else."

Supposedly the Russian security apparatus -- and I had no real means to distinguish between a traffic cop and militsiya other than a difference in uniform -- are kinder and friendlier when compared with their Belorussian counterparts. Belarus is supposedly a "nasty and ugly regime" my Russian friend said, but what "nasty" means there is that the police will beat up anybody, even pregnant women. Here, you have to stick out a bit more to feel the wrath of OMON come down on you. Again he put his finger to his temple and spun it. Crazy indeed.

So why do they do it? "Most of the guys that join the security apparatus are from outside Moscow. They have nothing. They see it as a step up to a better life," he said.

Aha. Trade your soul for a better life. It's the same old song, isn't it? It always is.

It's an interesting thing about the Russian security presence. On one hand, Moscow feels extremely safe because of it. I didn't have one troubling experience with another civilian. I probably felt more safe there than I used to in Washington or New York. The metro is clean and beautiful. The shopping centers are shiny and new. The people are friendly, when they are in the mood. Within the first half hour of landing in Moscow, we were given free samples of Starbucks espressos at the airport and befriended a tourist -- a plump, middle-aged Russian woman, back from Thailand -- who toasted the "good American coffee" with us and smiled.

So, other than the concern about Chechen suicide bombers, I never really felt unsafe in Moscow. I tried to keep an eye out for Chechen militants, but I actually have no idea what Chechens look like. My impression is that Russians are experts at telling the national origin of a person based on looks. At one club, a woman approached me to ask if I was from Italy. "I could just tell," she said. But Chechens? My idea of a Chechen is of a man with a long beard dressed in military fatigues and an automatic rifle slung over the shoulder. The joke about Chechnya these days is that it has more independence and autonomy than it would have it had become a independent satellite of Moscow. But other than that, there isn't much that's funny about Chechnya. I'm told that average Russians don't even think of it as part of their country anymore. "No one goes there," said my Russian friend.

So, other than the Chechens, the scariest people in Russia are actually the police. This is not because they are all brainwashed, baton-wielding psychos. Most of them are skinny, polite, and look barely old enough to shave. I think that the reason the Russian police are frightening is simply because justice is fickle and arbitrary in their country. And once you are in the hands of the police, your fate is up to them. Every officer is his own God. "I wouldn't dare drive from Moscow to St. Petersburg," said an acquaintance. "The roads are bad, and there are too many hungry cops."

There are too many hungry cops in Russia, except the hungry cops don't want food, they just want money. "They'll search you until they find something wrong, or they'll make something up," said my Russian friend. "Then they will levy an on-the-spot fine, which you should pay if you want to get on with your business." This endemic corruption slows Russian life. There is a whole "black market" of bribes passing from hand to hand, a "shadow economy" of traffic fines and building violations. And because of this, people are afraid of the police, or rather, at their mercy.

I wondered how it was that the Moscow subway was so quiet. Then I realized that everyone is actually under surveillance. Even though the signs of the market economy are obvious -- advertisements for Somersby cider or a Ringo Starr concert -- the officers are always there. Each time I passed one, I made sure to avoid eye contact. At the same time, I was told that no one would mistake me for a Russian. "Your hair is too long," said my friend. "Most men here wear their hair short. People here want to blend in, so that no one will notice them."

I kept thinking about a story I had read in Estonian writer Andrei Hvostov's new book Sillamäe Passioon, about how he had also been stopped by the police in Russia, and apologetically did as instructed to get out of the situation. Hvostov wrote that he was stopped because he was still, under his new Western clothes, an old Soviet person, and that, like animals, they could smell the fear on him. In the end, they fined Hvostov for having American dollars in his pockets.

For the most part, though, I wasn't afraid of the Russian cops, if only because I had never really witnessed them in action. And by standing out so much, I became, in a weird way, invisible to the police. "No one will bother you if you have an American passport," I was informed. See, Uncle Sam is still looking out for me. In addition to some obvious minuses, there are real benefits to being a superpower with standing armies on several continents. I clutched my American passport when the police pulled us over on the way out of Moscow. We were singled out, my friend said, because we had foreign license plates.

A quick period of questioning by a boyish traffic cop revealed that my friend had forgotten his insurance certificate at home. The fine? A few thousand rubles if we wanted to get back on the road, the cop said. My hands were now sweaty, but my Estonian colleague in the back seat informed me that everything would be okay. "This stuff happens all the time," he said, leisurely munching on a pickle, business as usual, reading a fresh issue of The Economist. After the fine was paid, we got back on our way, hoping the police wouldn't call ahead to their hungry friends down the road so that they could shake us down for the same violation.

On the way out of town we drove over a bridge graced by enormous bronze soldiers, one with a rifle extended violently in the air. If there hadn't been a twirling neon Nescafe sign beyond the arresting image, I might have thought I was leaving Pyongyang.

teisipäev, mai 17, 2011

in the land of the soviets, 3. osa

It does surprise me now when I think of it, the disregard with which I have treated the Russian language. I've been so careless. I guess I never thought I needed it, and I am still not sure if I do. Actually, I probably don't need to learn it, but, whatever, I have learned some of it along the way.

This may amuse you, as I live in a country where 25 percent of the population considers itself Russian. The reality though is that a significant chunk of that minority gets along just fine in Estonian, so I've never really felt a dire need to know the Russian language. If someone accosted me in Russian on the street, I usually just shrugged and said, "Ma ei tea," which was most often the truth.

I've found the alphabet to be particularly prohibitive to learning Russian. I am an audio learner, not a visual one. I picked up most of my Estonian by ear. People complain about cases, but before I knew anything of cases, I was listening to the radio. I developed a feel for the swing of the language, the music of its sounds. And since Estonian is written quite fortunately in the Latin alphabet, it wasn't that hard for me to match sounds with newspaper headlines and signs.

This is not the case in Russian. I have had no formal introduction to this language and so I have had to learn as I go along. And what fun it is. Welcome to a magical world, where 'S' has become 'C,' 'V' has turned into 'B,' and 'P' is suddenly 'R.' But it doesn't end there. 'Z' is '3,' 'E' is 'Э,''H' is 'N,' and this crazy-looking thing -- д -- is 'D.' I don't know how Russians refer to these letters. I am sure they all have charming diminutives, like Alyosha and Kolya and Maša.

To cope, I have invented my own names. I call и "the backwards N," for instance. It, quite logically, makes an 'I' (ee) sound. Backwards R -- Я -- makes a 'ya' sound. The letter that resembles W -- Ш -- makes a 'sh' sound. Й -- which I have dubbed the 'Christmas present' for the cute little bow on top -- makes a y/j sound. And then there's the matter of this sucker -- Ж -- which sort of looks like an insect, at least to me. Read it quick before it crawls off the page!

Got that all down? Great. Now read Таганско-Краснопресненская through the window of a metro train as it speeds down the tracks. Maybe reading Cyrillic is easy for some people, but it isn't for me. I've always been a little dumb in this regard. When I was a kid, I used to listen to my brother's cassette of Billy Joel's 1987 live album КОНЦЕРТ, which I pronounced as KOHLIEPT ("koh-lee-ept"), and couldn't figure out why my fellow Long Islander would give an album such a stupid name. Later I discovered the Russian alphabet in the series of Encylopedia Britannicas in his room and tried to spell my name, but couldn't find a 'J.' In my visa, they started it with the equivalent of a 'D.'

My wife has accused me of both whining and complaining when it comes to learning the Russian language. But she, like other Estonians of her generation, became acquainted with it as children, when their minds were hungry for new symbols and sounds. My wife remembers the 1980 Olympics when they released the mascot Misha the Bear into the air. (They are still selling Misha merchandise in Moscow, by the way). The trip to Russia for her was like a journey back in time, way back to a place where Kino was still playing on the radio and every shop sold Тархун (Tarkhun), a super sweet green soft drink that is flavored with tarragon. She met a man in the market who used to be stationed in Viljandi 20-something years ago. Those were the days.

Kino was, somewhat ironically, the soundtrack to my trip. Everywhere I went, someone was playing the songs of the late, great Viktor Tsoi who died outside of Riga, of all places, in a car accident in 1990. Tsoi's voice is rough, resigned. The music has a heavy beat, the sparkling math of the guitar runs drags the songs through to the end. It's not pretty, but it grows on you, and it seems to make sense when you are standing in the middle of an urban jungle of 10 million people. As enjoyable as it is, Kino isn't exactly an advertisement for learning Russian. It just makes it seem more impossible. But neither does Singer Vinger make you want to reach out for that T nagu Tallinn book, does it. Maybe post-punk isn't the proper gateway to language learning.

The most comical aspect of learning to read Cyrillic is that the Russian language nowadays contains so many English loan words. And I'm not talking about МакДональдс (McDonalds) or данкин донатс (Dunkin' Donuts), I'm talking about sounding out a sign on a parking garage that looks like this ПАРКИНГ, only to discover that it says "Parking." This reminds me of the time I sat at a railroad crossing in Tartu watching the trains to Russia, trying to decipher the text painted on each carriage as it zoomed by, only to determine in the end that it read "Trans Service."

But now I am back in Estonia, explaining to people where I have been. To some, Moscow sounds very foreign and vaguely threatening. When my wife announced to a little girl that she had visited Russia, the girl reacted, "You went to Moscow? But why? Don't you know that they kill Estonians there!"

Some Estonians of my generation have been to Moscow, though, mostly as children a long, long time ago. They are a little more forgiving.

"So, say something in Russian," said Margit, standing behind the cash register of the local cafe.

"Advin cappuccino, brazauska," I said, drumming my fingers on the counter.

"It's not 'brazauska,'" she said turning toward the cappuccino machine. "It's puzhalsta."

"Oh, I thought it was 'brazauska.' You know, like that Lithuanian guy. Algirdas Brazauskas."

"No, no," she steamed the milk. "Puzh-al-sta. At least, that's what I learned in school."

Some time passed as she finished the cappuccino. Then she placed it on the counter.

"It sounded like Brazauskas to me," I shrugged.

"Damn it, Russian is hard!" Margit said and rubbed her temple, as if a headache was fomenting. "Fucking hard."

I took a sip of the hot drink and smiled, but only a little bit, because at least someone else agreed with me.

"Maybe, you're right," I said. "Maybe it is puzhalsta."

esmaspäev, mai 16, 2011

in the land of the soviets, 2. osa

Who can really learn anything about a country over the weekend? I can say that Moscow was not what I expected, and, because of this, I have become more aware of how "mass media" influences our views of other countries and peoples.

How was Moscow not what I expected? First, it is not the boom town it has been made out to be in Western media. The Western narrative since Putin took power is that Moscow is just vibrating with petrodollars, swimming in cash, and everybody is just rolling in it, cappuccinos in the morning, premium vodka at night, wall-to-wall swank.

Hmm. Sure, Moscow has its shiny skyscrapers and enormous shopping centers. I bet it looks a thousand times better than it did 10 years ago. But, coming from Estonia, I'm not tremendously impressed by this. My impressions though may be biased by a) the fact that I spent my time with local journalists, not the most lucrative business to be in; and b) I just managed to avoid these oases of over-consumption. Maybe the journalists who are typically dispatched by big money Western media to cover Moscow are put in touch with local handlers who make sure to show off the city's most tantalizing parts.

Here, I can say I had the same preconceptions about Moscow's people. I expected them all to be fabulously wealthy, dressed in flamboyant colors, sporting designer everything, white iPod headphones hanging from their ears. Maybe I've seen too many music videos, but I don't remember seeing one person listening to music in public. In all honesty, the Muscovites I saw on the trains look tired, wore dark colors, and avoided eye contact. "Why does everyone look so tired here?" I asked my Estonian friend. "Moscow is an exhausting city," he said. "Everyone I know spends every spare minute asleep."

We talked a lot about Estonia. From Moscow, Estonia seems peripheral. It barely manages a blip on the national radar. Moscow is still the imperial capital of the post-Soviet world. It's streets are packed with diverse nationalities: Kyrgyz, Uzbeks, Kazakhs, Azeris, Armenians, Georgians, Ukrainians, Belorussians, Moldovans, not to mention internal minorities from the south and north and east. The Russian border is very long and the country has a very long list of neighbors. Because of this Russians are probably more interested in their place among the world's so-called great powers than any little nation state perched on its northwestern border.

And there are big differences between Moscow and Tallinn. This was another surprise. I expected that Moscow, while having a, how should we say it, different style of administration from Tallinn, would essentially consist of the same mix of crumbling Soviet architecture and glitzy shopping malls. But the key difference is that Estonia has de-Sovietized itself. Perhaps it was easier because Estonia was only under Soviet rule for 50 years versus 70. It's not easy to erase 70 years, especially when the regime was homegrown. Whatever the reason, Lenin is still everywhere in Moscow. He's in the park. He's in the subway. He's on that guy's t-shirt. Lying in that mausoleum. No one did away with that scheming Bolshie. No one knows really what to do with him.

And what should they do? Tear up all the enormous monuments? Paint over the frescoes? Chip away the elaborate mosaics? And then what are you left with? And with whom do you replace him on the pedestals? Yeltsin? Putin? Ronald McDonald? Or bring back Nicholas II? That doesn't seem right either. There is no easy answer here. Still, while the "post-Soviet" nature of Moscow seems indestructible to any mere mortal tourist, the old monuments give off a moldy air. Soviet Communism's been dead for 20 years. The May 9 rallies and the pointy Red Army hats they sell in the kiosks are starting to look like the trappings of American Civil War reenactments. So how do you de-Sovietize Moscow?

It would be like trying to de-Catholicize Rome.

laupäev, mai 14, 2011

in the land of the soviets

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.