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.

12 kommentaari:

LPR ütles ...

So the entire trip was a negative experience?

Giustino ütles ...

It was an interesting experience and therefore positive. I have a lot more to write about. Not sure if people care about my impressions of Moscow. I finally managed to learn some Russian, too.

LPR ütles ...

I have lived 5 years in Moscow and last visited in 1995. I'd be very interested to learn how much appears to have changed. Probably not much. I feel the same way about Estonia. Sans couple of new glass buildings here and there, the place is stuck in time. Which is a good thing, in a way. People have not changed much and I am more ambivelant abuout the goodness of that.

Giustino ütles ...

I think what surprised me is how different Russia and Estonia are. I expected them to be a little more similar. Going to Moscow, I felt that I was in a really different country, as different as any two countries that neighbor each other can be.

When I got back to the Tallinn airport, for instance, it was very obvious to me that Estonia is under Scandinavian influence. For example, the police in Estonia dress like the Finnish, Swedish, or Danish police. Russian police don't dress like that. In Russia, paying bribes to the police is part of life. In Estonia, if you try to bribe a police officer, you will be arrested (as one Latvian motorist recently found out).

And this might sound stupid/silly, but I forgot -- with them being the enormous nation that they are -- that Russians are Slavs. So Russians reminded me of Czechs, Poles, even Slovenians in terms of appearance and disposition.

What I liked most about Russia, other than the sweets and pretty churches, was the culture I was exposed to. In just a matter of days, I learned about musicians I had never heard of, and left the country with two books, one by Anton Chekov, the other by Mihhail Bulgakov. They are now on my "to read" list.

Temesta ütles ...

In Russia, paying bribes to the police is part of life.

So you payed bribes to the Russian police? :)

Giustino ütles ...

No, I did not. The guy who was driving the car did pay a certain on-the-spot fine so that he could continue to drive without further harassment.

Marko ütles ...

Well, it has happened in the past. I mean the communists replaced the old tsarist. Peter I'st replaced the medieval Byzantine. Ivan IV replaced the tribal nomadic system etc. etc. In Russia it kind of happens in waves, it rarely developes over time. Change is sudden and often over the top fundamental.

The day will come when they will de-sovietize aswell, but I think we're not there yet. Altough some signs are starting to appear.

But some danger lies in it aswell. As we know from history, when the Russians decide to restructurize their state it often affects huge neighbouring areas too... So I would be careful for what you wish for.

Temesta ütles ...

No, I did not. The guy who was driving the car did pay a certain on-the-spot fine so that he could continue to drive without further harassment.

In Riga it happened with me when I was there in an Estonian car. Do you think Latvia and Russia are more similar in attitudes?

LPR ütles ...

This reminds me when I was messing with the police in Riga. They had stopped me for "speeding" and when they asked me how I'd like to resolve this I inquired what my options were. I then refused to pay on the spot. They took me into their car and the guy was looking for his pen for few minutes and dramatically sighing deeply the whole time slowly taking down my information from a license which he grumbled was not even legal drivers license. He finally issued me some kinda of warrant after half an hour of wasting my time. They had no idea that I could understand perfectly what they were saying to each other in Russian. I just kept on playing the dumb foreigner. His partner came over to ask what the problem was and he disappointedly told him that I had opted to pay through the bank transfer. There was no dapper american like politeness and professionalism you'd expect from a cop. None of it. It was like they were two random dudes, some slouches who had donned the greasy uniforms to make an extra lat for the evening. Pathetic.

I think the fact that I forced them to speak english really did not go down well with them.

But they could not let me go either. That was funny.

I threw the summons out the window later.

Come catch me here in US to collect your so called "shtraff". :-)

Lingüista ütles ...

You've learned some Russian? Прекрасно!

And you're reading Bulgakov? Would it be his masterpiece, The Master and Margarita? It's a wonderful book (made into a wonderful mini-series by Telekanal Rossiya); I loved it when my wife first exposed me to it.

A lot still has to change in Russia. What I'm afraid of is that, historically, when they decide to change, they change radically, as per Stalin's industrialization and dekulakization. Yes, that's the funny thing with Russia: today very much pro-past, the USSR was the best. And yet it's not possible that some day, due to big leadership changes, they'll do the exact opposite and demonize everything Soviet as much as possible (just as they demonized anything pre-Soviet after the revolution).

Giustino ütles ...

And you're reading Bulgakov? Would it be his masterpiece, The Master and Margarita?

Yes, that's it. But I have started the Anton Chekov short stories first. Reminds me a bit of Dubliners, at first glance.

Lingüista ütles ...

Happy reading! You couldn't possibly find a bigger contrast than between Chekhov's cut and dry prose (perhaps in agreement with this job as a physician), and Bulgakov's flowery prose; Chekhov's attention to detail and Bulgakov's love for the dramatic big picture; Chekhov's vision of contradictions at every turn, and Bulgakov's almost Dostoyevskyan clash of titanic powers, good versus evil, Satan versus Jesus, and the drama in Pontius Pilate's life...

They're similar in their abandonment of traditional heroic values, though. Chekhov didn't believe in heroes. Bulgakov has the 'hero' of his story introduced as such -- in Chapter 13, 'The Appearance of the Hero' -- at a point in which he had basically already done everything he was going to do (write his book), and remains pretty much a passive character till the end of the book.

Anyways, again happy reading!