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.

5 kommentaari:

Kristopher ütles ...

I like the deserted aquarium line in particular...

Christine ütles ...

I had this vision of big floating Sponge Bob balloons in gray brown and white being sold by some guy with a cigarette hanging out of his mouth.

Lingüista ütles ...

And yet there are so many Russias... My in-laws: very strict people, given to working methodically, and as much as possible. My mother-in-law: absolutely no alcohol, no cigarettes; only coffe. My father-in-law: absolutely no cigarettes and coffee; alcohol, only on New Year's Eve (at least that's what he says).

Very dependable people, with a big desire to help. Mother-in-law: knows everything. Where to buy something for the lowest price, who to contact to obtain something, what the dangerous areas of town are ('don't go there! there's too much police!'). Father-in-law: very focused on his own health (75 years of age, looks 55, exercises every day; he's probably going to live to be 120). Both very proud people: never asked us for monetary help, and are by Russian standards actually doing quite well (mid-to-upper middle class).

Both shrug off politics. Both love Putin: He knows what he's doing! 'He wants to bring back the old USSR, except now as a democracy. Oh, may god help him succeed!' If you mention the Baltic States: 'Those ungrateful Balts (+ Estonians, the difference is not always clear to them)! We did so much for them, and now they repay us by slandering us everywhere! So much Soviet infra-structure was built there! Brr! And their infatuation with fascism! And their persecution of the Russian minority! It's genocide!' (I note, in a typical Russian tour de phrase, that they didn't even go for South African apartheid: no, it's 'genocide'. :-).

I once showed them the Russian version of the ERR news program from the ERR website. 'It's all lies and propaganda!'

Then my mother-in-law changes topic to a Brazilian soap opera (a few years ago they were still watching Dona Beija! Nothing beats the feeling of seeing familiar Brazilian actors speaking Russian...)

I could imagine me going Russian. It's such a big country; there are so many Russias, as many as there are Russians. Surely there would be enough room for as crazy a guy as yours truly.

Giustino ütles ...

Those ungrateful Balts (+ Estonians, the difference is not always clear to them)! We did so much for them, and now they repay us by slandering us everywhere! So much Soviet infra-structure was built there! Brr! And their infatuation with fascism! And their persecution of the Russian minority! It's genocide!'

This reminds me of the Chinese perspective on Tibet. "But we've built so much infrastructure there."

Lingüista ütles ...

I think that's always been the line of the colonizer -- "we brought them the advantages and marvels of our beloved ci-vi-li-za-tion!".

In my in-law's defense, this is how the situation was always painted to them: we're all "friendly, brotherly people" in the USSR who help each other grow toward communism, so of course we (= Russians) did a lot for them (= Balts), because all the books and TV programs said we did... and that they were thankful for it! So now they say it wasn't so... it's not difficult to think they are damn opportunists who now say they don't like what we did for them because it makes them look better in the international arena (the USSR, after all, lost the cold war).