31 March 2007

Moscow Protests

I was enjoying my daily bowl of kasha for breakfast this morning when I heard on Radio Ekho Moskvy (one of the last bastions of independent press in Russia) a news item that caught my attention: protests by former world chess champion Garry Kasparov's United Civil Front, the Communist Party, and others were planned for central Moscow today.

Intrigued, I went online to find more information. Not surprisingly, there was none to be found: the English-language Russia press is never up-to-the-minute, and the state-tamed Russian language press said nothing of the planned actions. Among the few sites I checked, only Ekho Moskvy's website carried the story, noting that the United Civil Front and the National Bolsheviks would hold a rally at Pushkin Square. They had originally planned to march down Tverskaya Ulitsa to finish their rally at Manezh Square, but such action was banned by the Moscow Mayor's office. The announcement also noted that the KPRF (Communist Party of the Russian Federation) would be holding a rally on Teatralnaya Square in front of the Karl Marx statue at 1:00. This, of course, highlights the fact that media coverage and PR remains a major obstacle to these grassroots political movements. What about the hundreds of thousands of citizens that weren't listening to Ekho Moskvy? Until these groups can somehow reach an audience bigger than their own base, I'm afraid they'll never really amount to much.

At first I was torn about what to do. Part of me was dying to see the few beleaguered forces of Russia's civil society in action. As I've written elsewhere, political plurality has become so restricted in Russia that eventually the streets will be the only place meaningful political action will be able to exist. And so, I had a deep desire to see it for myself.

But at the same time, part of me was afraid. I read what happened in St. Petersburg and Nizhny Novgorod, and getting arrested in Russia was not high on my list of "fun things to do in Moscow," especially not three days before I'm due to visit the U.S. Perhaps more importantly, having an arrest record in Russia would likely complicate or even prevent my future attempts to obtain a Russian visa, something I'm not willing to risk.

Eventually curiosity won out (I knew it would in the end), and I headed to Pushkin Square to see what was going on. But still, I was nervous, so I decided to stay outside the main demonstration area, entrance to which was controlled by metal detectors and plenty of police and OMON forces. In the very least, I figured I could slip out easier if things got out of hand.

Having just arrived, I was startled to find myself face to face with the grand master himself, Garry Kasparov, who was giving interviews to a Reuters reporter:

At one point an ordinary babushka muscled her way up to Kasparov (seriously folks, don't mess with the babushkas), and accused him of not having been a "Soviet person" (советский человек) I'm not really sure what exactly that criticism meant. His response: "I was born in the same Soviet Union as you. I was the Soviet champion. How was I not a 'Soviet person?'":

As he headed off toward the metal detectors, I called out to him and asked for an autograph, which he willingly gave. Now I guess I have another reason to back this guy as a presidential candidate!

Likely due to the combination of a small base to begin with and difficulties in reaching a broader general audience, the gathering was surprisingly small:

It was also interesting that the National Bolsheviks were not present, despite the fact that their participation in the event had been reported on the radio. They were recently banned from protesting in Moscow, deemed an extremist group, but I hardly think that would have stopped them from coming out. Perhaps it was a tactical decision made by the event's organizers, realizing that presence of the National Bolsheviks would have threatened a ban on the entire rally. This is just a guess, and if anyone has any better information, I'm anxious to hear it.

Unfortunately, my position outside the main protest area prevented me from hearing the speeches. Of course, it didn't help that the speakers had at their disposal only a battery-operated bullhorn. Needless to say, it was an interesting crowd. In addition to Kasparov's United Civil Front flags, there were lots of Yabloko flags, along with flags for an organization I'm not familiar with (SKS - Union of Coordinated Councils, or something like that). There were a couple of communists, plus many people wearing orange "ribbons" stating, "This is our city." In general, it seemed like all age groups were represented.

And of course, there was plenty of security:

Around 12:45, things at Pushkin Square seemed to wrap up, and people started shuffling out of the fenced-in protest area. All in all, it appeared quite orderly, and I only observed one scuffle between a protester and police (sorry, not a very exciting picture, but this was as close as I could get):

I'm sure the riot police must have been disappointed. Unlike their comrades in St. Petersburg, they didn't get the opportunity to crack a few skulls for fun. But still they seemed to be enjoying the lovely weather, don't you think?

The protesters still intended to march down Tverskaya but stayed on the sidewalks, thereby avoiding a violation of Luzhkov's ban. Interestingly, they all rolled up and put away their flags and banners before heading toward the center of town, likely a similar effort to avoid being found in violation of the ban. Without flags and banners, they're just people walking down the sidewalk. Of course, these "people out for a stroll" were followed the whole way down by police and OMON forces. And by me, of course...

When the group reached the end of Tverskaya, it turned left onto Okhotniy Ryad, which had been closed to traffic. Somewhat startling to see one of Moscow's busiest thoroughfare's completely void of cars:

As we approached Teatralnaya Square where the Communist rally was about to begin, I could hear the chant, "This is our city!" coming from the square up ahead. The rag-tag group at Pushkin Square had tried to get this chant going earlier, but it was predictably weak. What I heard up ahead of me, however, gave away the much larger demonstration the Communists had put together.

At this point, the protesters from Pushkinskaya passed through the new set of metal detectors to join the Communists in opposition. I had a decision to make: would I go through with them, or play it safe and stay outside? There's an old saying that if you're in the water with sharks, you don't have to outswim the shark, you just have to outswim the guy next to you. Similarly, when attending a political protest, you don't have to outrun the cops, you just have to outrun the other guy. Looking over the gathering of red flag-wielding babushkas and dedushkas in the square, I figured I had a good chance of surving this one. I entered.

What the chants had told my ears was confirmed by what I saw with my eyes: there were many times more communist protesters than there had been liberal protesters at Pushkin. Just another sign of the uphill battle facing Russian liberals:

Of course, the usual sea of red banners and flags was present, along with the occasional picture of Josef Vissarionovich:

One of the things that surprised me was the noticable presence of youth communist supporters. Of course, they were greatly outnumbered by elderly people, but there were more than just a few showing their support for communism:

The speakers addressed the crowd from atop a large truck. Unlike the liberals, they had a good sound system that blasted their impassioned demands across the square. Several speakers took the podium, demanding everything from higher pensions to better schools to preservation of a historic stadium and other Moscow properties.

What I found interesting is that most of the speeches were focused on specific issues, many of which were local to Moscow. The speakers were not, in most cases, calling for major systemic changes to the Russian polity, an important point to keep in mind when analyzing the current trajectory of the Russian opposition protest movement. While the banner hanging from the truck read, "NO to the Anti-people Regime!," in fact their verbal statements weren't so revolutionary.

Here's a few additional photos from the rally...


Crowd shot:

This is why you don't get into arguments with Communist babushkas. This babushka was in the younger woman's face for a good 3 minutes, a confrontation ignited when the latter claimed that Putin had done good things for Russia. "Name one good thing he's done for Russia!" exclaimed our frail but feisty friend:

Of course, there's the old exhortation, "pick on somebody your own size," which babushkas follow as well, getting into heated debates with other babushkas:

This banner was prominently placed at the front of the crowd. I'm guessing it's some sort of reference to the Kalashnikov series of rifles (the most famous of which is the AK-47). Not sure what the reference is, so if anybody is familiar with the logo, let me know.

Finally, here was an interesting sign that caught my eye. It's a drawing of Mayor Luzhkov attempting to dismantle the famous "Worker and Kolkhoznitsa" statue (Luzhkov has a penchant for tearing down anything that could be made into a parking lot or shopping mall). The text reads, "Moscow's Best Estonian," clearly a reference to Estonia's decision to dismantle the Soviet-era monument to the "Liberator Soldier" in Tallinn.

After a couple of hours the rally ended without incident, the protesters carefully folded their red flags and rolled up their banners, and cleared the square in an orderly fashion.

Fortunately, neither they nor I were arrested...

My entire photo album (about 55 photos) from the day's events can be found here.

30 March 2007

Happy Endings

I'm pleased to report that the Bolshoi Lenin has been safely delivered in the U.S., after a somewhat roundabout journey from Moscow to Sweden to Kentucky, and finally to the East Coast of the U.S. Not sure what he was doing in Kentucky, but I'll ask him when I get home next week.

Ironically, I was sitting down to a plate of tvorog just now when my host mother said to me, "Rima said you sent a big box somewhere. Was it books?"

Ah, Rima! You sold me out! Rima is host mom's college friend who was coming in the door as Bolshoi Lenin was going out with the UPS man. I thought she'd keep quiet (she didn't ask what was inside, and I didn't offer to tell), but I guess old women gossip about everything. Like I said, my host mother is a bit nosy.

"OK, I'll tell you, but you have to let me tell the whole story. It's a large bust of Lenin. You see, I have this friend in America..."

29 March 2007

Mission: Impossible III - Busted

"OK, I'll tell you, but you have to let me tell the whole story. It's a large bust of Lenin....You see, I have this friend in America. He's an artist, and he's putting together an exhibit at our university on political art and propaganda of the 20th Century. So when he found out that I was coming to Russia, he asked me to do him a favor and find him a big sculpture of Lenin, so I did. It's been such a nightmare, but he's a close friend, and besides, I owe him a favor. Otherwise, I wouldn't bother with such an troublesome thing. By the way, how's the new grandson?..."

That's what I was going to tell my host family if they ever got around to asking what the very large box sitting behind the curtain in my bedroom was. Fortunately, they never did, though they have to have known it was there - it was kind of hard to miss. It must have taken every ounce of self-restraint for my host mother not to ask, as she seems to relish in sticking her nose anywhere and everywhere it will fit. Thankfully, I was spared the speech and resulting interrogation.

The fact of the matter is, I made that story up. There is no friend, he isn't an artist, and there is no exhibit. Put simply, I bought what has become known as the "Bolshoi Lenin" for myself. Why, you must be asking yourself, would one possibly want to own a giant plaster (or papier mache - we may never know) bust of Lenin? It's a fair question. Let's see, how to put this...

I collect busts of Lenin.

I fully realize it's a strange hobby.

It started innocently about 10 years ago. A high school history teacher of mine kept a small plastic bust in his office that a student had once given him as a souvenir from the Soviet Union (back when there was a Soviet Union). The bust was said to have magical powers, imparting good luck onto anyone who rubbed its head. As you can imagine, it's now polished to a shiny white. I would borrow the "good luck Lenin" for major tests, and was convinced of its powers (yes, I realize that it was probably a case of spurious correlation). Upon my graduation from high school, the "good luck Lenin" was presented to me as a gift to ensure my further success in college.

And thus it began. The next bust was bought off the internet. Now the two Lenins had each other for company. The collection remained at two until my study abroad in Moscow during my junior year. Having finally made it to the epicenter of Lenin statuary, I began scouring the flea markets and street vendors for additions to the collection. Surprisingly, it was harder to find them back then than it is now. I attribute the difference to the recent expansion of the Izmailovsky flea market, and the resulting proliferation of ordinary people trying to sell their junk.

I returned from my first trip to Russia with three new pieces, expanding into the realm of full-body Lenin statues as well. The next summer I returned to Moscow to do research and came home with another four. The next trip, a short one of only a few days, still managed to expand the collection by another two. My fourth trip to Russia found three more busts packed away in my suitcase when I returned home.

Perhaps it's because of greater supply, perhaps it's because of greater resources, or perhaps it's the realization that some day these things won't be easy to find anymore. My friend, Comrade Tornadochka, thinks that I've gone off my rocker and am obsessed (she went so far as using the word "fetish"). But whatever the reason, I've been in Russia for two months now and there are 6 busts and statues sitting in my closet, well hidden and waiting to emigrate to the U.S. when I visit home next week. Plus there's the Bolshoi Lenin in the bolshoi box, along with a couple more busts on their way to my office in the States thanks to the magic of Ebay. So I guess that brings us to 9 new Lenins, and we haven't even hit summer yet. Ok, maybe I have gone off the deep end...

I should point out that I do approach this with a collector's mentality, not just buying up any old bust that I come across. At this point I have most of the major "poses" and forms represented in my collection. Simply duplicating things I already have isn't worthwhile. After all, there are only so many basic aluminum Lenin heads that a person could want. So, I spend most of my time at the flea markets looking for unique and rare poses, as well as busts that are interesting for a variety of reasons - their material, their age, their size (hence, the Bolshoi Lenin), etc. Comrade Tornadochka has urged (actually, demanded) that I post a photo gallery with the collection, and I'll do my best to make that happen soon. In the meantime, you'll have to use your imagination.

Of course, I've deliberately put off the why question because it's the hardest for me to answer, despite the fact that I am asked "why Lenin busts?" every time someone learns about my unusual hobby. "Are you a communist?" usually follows shortly after "why?" No, I am not a communist. In fact, many people in from my other life across the Atlantic know me as a bootstrapping free-market moderate who may or may not have voted for the sitting president. Hardly communist material.

So then what is it? My fascination with Lenin statuary, and with all Lenin imagery of the Soviet period, is based in the politics of imagery. Or perhaps it is the imagery of politics. Whatever we call it, the cult of Lenin and the imagery it produced is one of the most fascinating aspects of the Soviet project to me. Here was a regime that destroyed religion and God, only to create a new religion and a new god in its place. Of course, the deification of Lenin was no accident - scholarly research on the Lenin cult (see Nina Tumarkin's book,Lenin Lives!) has suggested that the creation of the cult after Lenin's death was deliberately carried out by Stalin for political purposes. By elevating Lenin to the level of a god and by equating his teachings with communism's "holy scripture," Stalin created a new "religion" that posessed many of the characteristics of the traditional religion that preceded it. More importantly, by taking on the mantle of "High Priest" and chief interpreter of Lenin's divine teachings, Stalin wielded tremendous power. In Stalin's hands, Lenin's words (or Stalin's selective understanding of those words) became a powerful tool in the building of socialism and the desruction of Stalin's enemies: those who opposed Lenin (as interpreted by Stalin) had lost faith and must be dealt with accordingly...

Thus, what is so fascinating about the cult of Lenin is the efforts of an atheist regime to create a kind of religion for political control. So thorough was the deification of Lenin that even after Stalin's own personality cult was denounced and excised by Khrushchev, the cult of Lenin continued until the end of the Soviet regime, particularly flourishing under Brezhnev.

I have long tried to find ways to study the Lenin cult specifically and political deification more broadly in my own academic work. Were I a historian, it would be an easier task, as there are no doubt fascinating stories to be told from archives. How deliberately was the cult created? Were there politburo meetings to discuss it, or was this something hatched in Stalin's head alone? How cynical were the Stalinist elites that created the cult? Did they believe any of it, or did they just view it as the crude political tool it was?

Unfortunately, the burden of the political science is the burden of measurement and generalization. Thus, my profession requires me to find a generalized question or phenomenon, preferably one that can be studied comparatively, and ideally one that can be measured somehow, whether quantitatively or qualitatively. Therein lies the problem. Comparison with other cases (such as Mao) is hindered by the language barrier - I won't be learning Chinese anytime soon. Furthermore, on some level we can only ask questions that the data can answer. At best, the data might consist of historical records of elite conversations. But what is the truly interesting question about all of this? I'll tell you what it is: Did it work? Did the masses believe it? (Ok, two questions). The possibility of obtaining primary data addressing these questions diminishes as the Soviet era recedes into the mist of history, likely keeping me from ever turning my scholarly attention to this fascinating phenomenon.

As you can see, I'm very good about avoiding the question, aren't I? I still haven't told you why I collect the busts. Obviously, the cult of Lenin is something that fascinates me deeply, and the figurines on my bookshelves are part of that phenomenon. They are the once-holy "relics" of that political religion, standing watch over homes and offices reminding believers and nonbelievers alike of the heaven on earth that he promised them, replacing (often literally) the Christian icons and candles that were once displayed in households.

And so, I collect thethe busts as the physical manifestations of one of the most interesting phenomena of Soviet history.

That's my story, and I'm sticking to it. Tell me how I'm supposed to explain all that to my host family in Russian. Now you understand why I had to make up the story above...

Speaking of the Secret Bolshoi Lenin, what ever happened to him? Those of you who have read the previous installments in this series (Mission Impossible and Mission Impossible II) have hopefully put two and two together to realize that the "artwork" in question was the Bolshoi Lenin bust.

Obtaining the paperwork from the Ministry of Culture allowing Lenin's export was relatively easy (maybe they're still pinning their hopes on exporting the world revolution). I have to say, I was impressed with the ease of obtaining the necessary documentation. The woman who handed over my paperwork even smiled at me! As I suspected, Lenin was found to have no cultural value, thus no taxes were due.

I then spent half a day wandering around Moscow looking for the main UPS office. Seems they moved out of their old digs about 6 months ago, and someone forgot to update the corporate UPS website. Go figure. When I finally found the office after calling my wife in America to have her look up the Russian customer service number and calling them for an address, I was amused to find out that it's quite close to my apartment. Oh well, it was good exercise. I eventually got the required paperwork, filled it out, and checked it over at least 10 times.

Two days ago, Bolshoi Lenin left the nest, escorted on the first leg of his journey to a new life in America by a friendly UPS courier. A great sense of relief came over me once he was gone, as he's been quite a lot of trouble, to put it mildly. But when I logged on and entered his tracking number that night, my heart stopped:


Maybe the Russian customs bureaucracy would get the upper hand after all. Or perhaps a holdout pocket of Stalinists got wind of the package and wanted to keep him at home ("socialism in one country," I suppose). My passport and I know what happens to things that enter Russian bureaucratic possession. I, of course, thought of the recent film, "Goodbye Lenin," as that's what appeared to be happening.

It's not the financial loss that bothered me. After all, I only paid about $115 for the thing. Rather, it was all the effort, time, and attention that went into sending him to America that killed me. After all that, he just gets trapped in Customs hell?

I logged on again this morning and saw that the package had arrived somewhere called "Malmo Sturup." Fearing that this was some acronym for something like the "Customs Service Department of Seized Goods that You Really Want to Send Home but We're Making Your Life Difficult Because We Can", I was relieved when Google informed me that it's an airport in Sweden.

Free at last! Bolshoi Lenin had left the country. Of course, the fact that he went to Sweden is kind of ironic - they're all about the socialism over there, right? Now it's just a hop, skip, and a jump over the Atlantic, where he should be "home" in a few days. (Just watch, now that I've said that he'll be seized by a rogue band of McCartheyites in the U.S. Customs Service). I'm still keeping my fingers crossed...

In the meantime, it is only fair that I reward those of you who have made it this far to the end of the story. Without further ado, I present to you the Bolshoi Lenin:

More on Begging

I came across the following article today, which has direct bearing on the question of begging in Moscow that's we've covered here in the last few days. The full article by Dmitry Babich appears on his blog at Russiaprofile.org, echoing the comments of an anonomous reader responding to La Russophobe's article on the subject. I've reproduced some of the more relevant parts below. In the very least, I guess this means no more giving money to the women with "borrowed" children...

Protecting the Future
Stronger Measures Are Needed to Safeguard Russia’s Children
By Dmitry Babich

Begging and homeless children have long been a scar on modern Moscow's face, and recently the authorities have attempted, one more time, to remove it. Minister of the Interior Rashid Nurgaliyev suggested adopting a law that will make the use of children in soliciting money a criminal offense punishable by a jail term.

Similar suggestions have been made before by members of Moscow City Duma, also irritated by the view of those ubiquitous middle-aged ladies, loudly begging for money inside subway cars or standing on the most crowded corners of the Moscow subway with babies or small children in their arms. Nurgaliyev, as well as the Duma deputies, were informed by police that most of these ladies were not the mothers of the children they used to squeeze an extra ruble or two from compassionate Muscovites.

Instead, these women, most of whom are not Russian nationals but rather citizens of former Soviet republics, were part of large criminal networks, which "borrowed" or even bought children from their drinking, impoverished or irresponsible parents. Nurgaliyev suggested cracking down on both the networks and the parents. Stories about drugs used to prevent the children from weeping during their "work" certainly added to the minister's indignation. "We need to take effective measures against the parents and the guardians who abstain from

fulfilling their duties," Nurgaliyev said at a meeting of the Government Commission on the Protection of Minors’ Rights, of which he is the chairman.

The commission's members suggested jailing not only the organizers and "field workers" of the criminal soliciting business, but also the parents who allow their children to be subjected to this kind of abuse. Several public organizations protecting the rights of children have even encouraged people on their Internet sites to make citizen's arrests of women begging with children, demanding their IDs or taking them to police precincts inside the subway for identification.

Both the minister's suggestions and the activists’ calls for action would deserve all kinds of support had it not been for one obvious fact: the begging ladies and their bosses in criminal networks are obviously in cahoots with some police officers and, possibly, with some people inside the subway administration. How else could they show up at "work" in the same places at the same time in the metro filled with cameras and police patrols? "Try to sell a newspaper or play a guitar for five minutes in the metro without paying a "tax" to the metro administration and you will see who the real owner of the metro is," said Vladimir Khimanych, the chairman of the Svoboda Voli civic group fighting, among other things, the abuse of citizens' rights by policemen in the subway. So, if the policemen are so good at stopping illegal vendors and unauthorized musicians, why are they so passive with beggars?

The ties between the police and the beggars make the suggestion by the country's main policeman look a little hypocritical. As for the groups' calls for direct action, in effect they put the life, health and reputation of an "active citizen" in danger, as he or she may end up confronting not only a small fish, but also its protector. "Only a policeman is authorized to stop this kind of abuse," Khimanych said. "I see no way a private person can legally stop this kind of woman, identify her and prove her guilt."

Cracking down on criminal networks will not be effective without a crackdown on the corrupt subordinates of Nurgaliyev himself. But this is a much less pleasant and more risky thing than legislative suggestions and commission meetings...

...As for the problem of children begging in the Moscow subway, I am afraid it will stay with us, even if Nurgaliyev imposes his draconian measures on beggars with children. As poverty and illiteracy spread in the former Soviet Union, particularly in Central Asia, there will be no shortage of people willing to use their or someone else's children for this, one of the oldest trades on earth. And as long as this business brings dividends to criminal networks and corrupt police officers, it will continue.

27 March 2007

Russian Philosophy 101

My recent post on Moscow's beggars (see "Beggars and Choosers") left me with an unsettled feeling, as I raise some questions that individuals and societies have stuggled with for ages.

I had a feeling that the publisher of the widely-read and always controversial Russia blog,
La Russophobe, would have some interesting opinions and analysis of these questions, so I invited LR to share her thoughts on the matter. Graciously, LR agreed to put her thoughts on paper, and her response does not disappoint. Her compelling and insightful analysis appears below.


La Russophobe is delighted to accept the invitation of Darkness at Noon to comment on its excellent post "Beggars and Choosers" -- which raises an interesting and fundamental question of political philosophy.

It is an age-old question of philosophy, of course, whether one should punish or counsel a criminal. Some people believe that “root cause of crime is criminals.” Others believe crime exists because society creates the conditions that make it unavoidable. Some believe it’s cruel to throw a criminal into prison and allow him to suffer the consequences of his actions; others believe its cruel to do anything else, thereby exposing more people to being victimized by his actions.

This same question gets transferred to geopolitics. Should we confront the rise of dictatorship in Russia, or should we try to “understand” it and adjust our own behavior? DAN puts the question in terms of Russian beggars, but it’s still the same question. In the context of Russia, however, it’s quite interesting because it asks the same question several different ways. Should we give to Russian street beggars, or pass them by? Should we confront Russia or cooperate with it? What is the policy most likely to lead to the result we desire, a happy and prosperous Russian people who do not threaten their neighbors or the West and who may even be allies in the struggle against the dark forces of the world?

The first of DAN’s comments we’d like to address is this preliminary one: “On whole, there seem to be fewer beggars around Moscow than I remember when I first came here 7 years ago.” Two points ought to be made here. First, as DAN undoubtedly knows full well, Moscow isn’t Russia. It’s certainly no indication of the nation’s well being that Moscow is prospering. In fact, many might argue that the more prosperity we see in Moscow the more we should expect poverty in the rest of the country, since Moscow sucks the nation’s blood like leech. Second, Russia is increasingly a police state, with no independent media coverage of Kremlin actions. It’s quite possible that Moscow’s beggars are just better controlled now, as they might have been in Soviet times. After all, Moscow is one of the world’s most expensive cities, but Russians have one of the lowest average incomes in the industrialized world. Thus, DAN’s conclusion is an important one: “I have a feeling that this has less to do with Russia's economic prosperity of the last few years - how would the oil boom ever trickle all the way down to them? - and more to do with the Moscow Mayor's efforts to ‘clean up’ the city.” LR couldn’t agree more. The absence of beggars could very well be quite an ominous sign, rather than a positive one, for any number of different reasons.

Then the main point. DAN writes: “Finally, we have the babushkas. These are the ancient, wrinkled gargoyles, wrapped in threadbare padded coats with their heads wrapped in faded scarves. I call them Moscow's gargoyles less because of their appearence and more because they've seen it all in their tormented lifetimes, watching Moscow and Russian transform through the ages: the hope of a new society, the darkness of terror, the starvation of war, the promise of hope renewed, the comfort of stability, and finally disillusionment and disappointment when it was revealed that it was all a sham. These women sacrificed so much - whether willingly or not - in their lifetimes, and now all they can do to survive is to stand on the sidewalk, hunched over leaning on a cane, holding out a little tin cup. It breaks my heart every time I see one. This is not how things should be.”

Truly, they did and do suffer. But let’s not forget that they also caused suffering, including their own. They may have stood passively by while Stalin rounded up their neighbors. They may even have informed on those neighbors. They may have voted for a proud KGB spy to become president, or they may have voted for a proud Communist appararchik. They’re not simply innocent victims, though they are surely pitiable, and though among their number may very well be true dissidents who did all they could to resist dictatorship, true Russian patriots. If they don’t feel the full consequences of their actions, will they ever really change?

And, of course, a powerful argument can be made that by subsidizing their existence, DAN is providing a pressure-release valve that makes it less likely they (or anyone else) will rise up and oppose the system that puts them in such jeopardy. Russia is rolling in windfall oil revenues right now, and it’s supposedly a socialist state. Why is DAN doing what the Kremlin should be doing? Isn’t he, in fact, encouraging the continuation of the begging by undermining the motivation of the masses to demand justice? To his credit, DAN is already asking himself these questions, hence his invitation to LR. We in turn, would like to invite readers to give their thoughts on this interesting question.

DAN writes: “On my last day in Russia, I always gather up all my loose change without counting it, put it in a plastic bag, and wander the city in search of a babushka in need.” What if instead of doing that, DAN rented a bullhorn, went to Red Square and starting speaking out about the manifest failures of the Kremlin to care for Russia’s forlorn babushka? Might he get arrested? If he did, might the resulting international incident do more to end the suffering of Russia’s babushka than a handout? What if he donated the money to a grass-roots organization like Oborona, and then wrote a letter to the editor of a major Western newspaper explaining why he’d done it? Might this start a trend?

The issue is infinitely simple and infinitely complicated: If all Russia needs is a bit of time to get its act together, and it will then start properly caring for its population and building a successful democratic state, then its perfectly proper for DAN to give handouts to babushki in the meantime. But if Russia is hurtling pell-mell into a neo-Soviet meat grinder, his money would be better spent in other ways. DAN may not realize it, but he’s betting on the former alternative. He could be right.

But what if he’s wrong? After all, people have been saying that "all Russia needs is a bit of time" for centuries now. How long before time simply runs out?

For more of LR's analysis of what she terms "the rise (and hopefully fall) of the Neo-Soviet Union," please visit La Russophobe.

26 March 2007

Ch-ch-ch Chia Politburo!

Some friends and I have been discussing the next big fad on the Russian consumer's horizon: Chia politburo figures. That's right! Soon Russians will be able to invite favorite Soviet-era heroes into their homes to give them the tender loving care and attention that Soviet leaders gave the people for so many years. Consider it a way of saying "thank you" for all the good times gone by...

[Since this blog now has many international readers, and since I don't know how far the 1980s Chia Pet fad made it around the globe (not far, I hope), a brief explanation of the Chia Pet concept: a terra cotta figurine (originally a sheep, I believe) is filled with water and "painted" with a coating of seeds. Within a few days the seeds sprout and eventually the lovable figurine has grown a shaggy coat of tiny little plants. Isn't it wonderful? Why go outside and make real friends when you have a Chia friend to care for? How can you doubt the greatness of American culture when you hear about something like that?]

In fact, we anticipate that the Chia politburo figurines will have widespread appeal among the Russian public, as recent public opinion surveys have revealed a large percentage of the population yearn for the Soviet Union and consider its collapse to be a great tragedy. Nor is any leader taboo: a recent survey (wish I had a reference, but I don't) revealed that only about 40% or so of Russians consider Stalin's policies to be a crime. And so, we can trim Joseph Vissarionovich just as lovingly as he "trimmed" the Soviet Union!

Artist renditions of the initial offerings (ok, just renditions because I'm not an artist) can be seen below. While the first series will be distributed with the standard chia plant seeds, future releases will include herb and vegetable seeds, allowing for more productive use at the dacha.

And so, the Chia figures:

Chia Lenin:

Chia Stalin:

Chia Brezhnev:

Chia Marx (yes I realize he was neither Russian, Soviet, nor a member of the politburo. In fact, he never even thought a revolution could succeed in Russia. But with a beard and hairdo like that, how can we rightly leave him out of the series?):

At one point it was debated whether Vladimir Putin belonged in the Chia Politburo series. Despite the fact that he might be in good company with regards to his governing style, he was eliminated on the grounds that he simply doesn't have enough hair to make a good Chia pet.

Thus, we would like to recommend that Russian voters make their choice in the upcoming 2008 presidential elections based on a candidate's suitability for inclusion in the Chia politburo series. After all, since your vote doesn't really matter much, why not spend it on something that will bring joy to your fellow countrymen?

On second thought, maybe this type of voting strategy is a bad idea. After all, we can all agree that the National Bolsheviks' Eduard Limonov would be the hands-down winner in a modern Russia Chia elections. Despite the allure of his wacky hair, beard, and mustache, the National Bolsheviks are not a risk any Russian should be willing to take...

Found: Myself

Many of you have been following with trepidation the ongoing saga of my visa & passport woes (see Torture by Visa and Visa: It's Everywhere You Want to Be for the full story). When we last covered this subject, my passport, visa, registration, and entry card - my entire identity, as it were - had gone missing somewhere in the winding caverns of a the vast Russian university. Without these documents I am nobody. Almost as frightening, without these documents I would be unable to leave Russia on an important trip planned for early April.

The administrator's quip that "in Russia we never lose things, we just take a long time looking for them" turned out to be true. Eventually the documents were found and an extended visa was issued with the help of a letter "from above" to get things moving.

And so, for those who were cheering for a happy ending to this story, I can finally give you one: I have my beloved passport, my cherished identity, in my hands at this very moment (OK, not literally in my hands because I'm typing. But I've been staring at them the whole time, just to make sure they sprout little passport legs and go wandering off somewhere). While I won't be convinced that my trip will happen until the plane touches down in the U.S., this is a big step and quite a relief.

This whole saga reminds me of a poem I know in Russian. In fact, this is the only poem I know in Russian, and I don't even know the whole thing. It's shameful for a Russian lang. & lit. major, but I somehow deal with it. Nevertheless, it is quite convenient that the opening lines fit just this situation. It's by Soviet poet Konstantin Simonov, and this poem was written during WWII)

Жди меня, и я вернусь
Только, очень жди

Wait for me, and I'll return
Only, truly wait.

Believe me, I've been "truly waiting" for me to return, and now that I'm back and have found myself it's quite a wonderful feeling. Needless to say, I hope I never have to lose myself again...

25 March 2007

Beggars and Choosers

There's an old saying that "beggars can't be choosers." But how does one be a chooser when dealing with beggars?

It's a question that's long bothered me, and not just in Russia - in cities where there are so many homeless or otherwise needy people begging for money on the streets, how does one ethically decide whom to give money to? This, of course, is based on the assumption that there is an ethical way to make that decision; I'm not sure there really is.

Some might argue that the only moral thing to do is to give to everyone, for they are suffering, their lives a constant struggle. The only right thing to do is to do as much as possible. The other end of the spectrum is to give to nobody. Such an action might be grounded in the belief that these are people who choose not to "pull themselves up by the bootstraps," or would simply use the money for drugs and alcohol. Or, one might conclude that because giving to everyone isn't possible and giving to only some would be arbitrary, the only morally consistent course of action is to give nothing.

I don't wish to resolve these questions philosophically, as there are others far more qualified to do so. But I do have to resolve this question practically for myself, as I find myself faced with this matter every day as I walk down the street and see the entire spectrum of beggars in Moscow. The truth is, my heart goes out to most of those I see, for regardless of what they're going to do with the money afterwards, I am saddened by the unfortunate path that their life has taken. And so, I find myself somewhere in the middle of the spectrum - unable and I suppose unwilling to give to all, but forced to make several such seemingly arbitrary decisions every day.

On whole, there seem to be fewer beggars around Moscow than I remember when I first came here 7 years ago. Back then they were on the streets, in underpasses, in metro stations and transfers, and even on the metro cars themselves, giving a brief speech about their tragedy before shuffling down the aisle with a hat out for collection. While you'll still see them in all of these places, their numbers are far fewer than there used to be. I have a feeling that this has less to do with Russia's economic prosperity of the last few years - how would the oil boom ever trickle all the way down to them? - and more to do with the Moscow Mayor's efforts to "clean up" the city. And so, while there are fewer that I pass every day, they're still there and there's still a decision to be made that's difficult for me.

I'll confess, I have the least sympathy for men, especially the seedy characters that hang around kiosks waiting for you to receive your change, then slither up next to you and ask for some money just as you're pulling out your wallet to put the change away. I've always felt uncomfortable by these encounters, of only because my wallet is exposed and vulnerable at that moment. On top of this, such men are usually slurrinng and stumbling a bit; in all likelihood, the change will go right back to the kiosk operator in exchange for something to "warm up" the insides. I don't feel too bad about refusing these people.

War veterans are another matter. Sometimes they too appear intoxicated, but sometime they also appear without an arm or a leg, or some combination of missing appendages. I always refuse the former, and sometimes the latter as well, I suppose on the grounds that even if he's not drunk now, he probably will be in a few hours. I trace my seemingly callous attitudes toward alcoholics to my own family's history with the disease, and while I know it might seem harsh, I have a hard time finding room in my heart for those engaged in such destructive behavior. Yet I'm never really comfortable with the decision, for he is still a human being, and one whose life shattered while serving his country. Doesn't he deserve some pity and a few rubles too?

One will often see young women with very small children, even babies, begging as well. Usually I find them in or around underpasses. They tend to be dark-skinned, the fact that they've been reduce to begging a testament to the difficulties faced by those who come to this country from the "near abroad." I've always had mixed feelings about giving to these women. On the one hand, I'm afraid that the money I give them will be supporting a drug habit, or the drug habit of an abusive husband, boyfriend, or "protector." And again I feel sick inside because I've made an awful assumption about a person based on stereotypes. But I can't get away from it, and my gut gets pulled in both directions - sympathy and insensitivity. With these young mothers the former feeling usually prevails, and I pray to myself as the money falls from my hand into her can that it will buy some food for the child.

The next group of beggars I commonly encounter are the musicians. I used to only see classical musicians - violins, trumpets, accordians, etc. and the occasional quartet - playing in the mero transfers and underpasses. Today you'll not only see these players but also a new generations of youngsters with guitars and often an electronic amp or two. Maybe it's because I'm an amateur musician myself (trombone), but I've always had a soft spot in my heart for Moscow's musicians. After all, most of them are extraordinarily talented - far more talented than I ever was. Their skill took years of hard work to develop. They should have the opportunity to make a better living with their stirring melodies, but have been forced to take their acts to the streets, the only place where they can earn some money from those years of investment. And so I'll gladly drop a couple of bills in the hat of the old gent playing the accordian or the young woman with her cello. I do, however draw the line at the electric guitars, figuring that if they can afford the amp, maybe they don't need my money as much as others...

Finally, we have the babushkas. These are the ancient, wrinkled gargoyles, wrapped in threadbare padded coats with their heads wrapped in faded scarves. I call them Moscow's gargoyles less because of their appearence and more because they've seen it all in their tormented lifetimes, watching Moscow and Russian transform through the ages: the hope of a new society, the darkness of terror, the starvation of war, the promise of hope renewed, the comfort of stability, and finally disillusionment and disappointment when it was revealed that it was all a sham. These women sacrificed so much - whether willingly or not - in their lifetimes, and now all they can do to survive is to stand on the sidewalk, hunched over leaning on a cane, holding out a little tin cup. It breaks my heart every time I see one. This is not how things should be.

And while I drop a few rubles into the babushkas' cups as I pass by, I've developed a little tradition that I carry out every time I visit Russia. Like most men, I never spend my pocket change, and it just accumulates in the desk drawer. On my last day in Russia, I always gather up all my loose change without counting it, put it in a plastic bag, and wander the city in search of a babushka in need. When I find her, I carefully place the bag in her can, look her in the eye, and simply state, "God be with you."

I know it's impossible to make a difference in every poor person's life in this city, but I like to think that in the very least I just made a difference in her life, if only for the few days she can live on my money.

21 March 2007

Metro Babushkas

Last time it was metro dogs. Now it's metro babuskhas. Both have been known to bark at you if you step on their tail.

It has long been a tradition on the Moscow metro that younger passengers who have found a seat should give it up to the elderly when they board the train. In fact, the courtesy extends not just to the elderly but to invalids (a term that sounds harsh to American ears, but is the accepted term in Russian for those who are physically impaired) and passengers with small children.

Previously, passengers were reminded of this rule by a message stenciled on the wagon's windows in chipped white paint. Since I was last in Moscow 3 years ago, metro officials have added a recorded announcement over the train's PA system. The first time I heard it I was startled. Countless rides on the metro in years past had burned the two old standard announcements into my memory forever:

"Be careful! The doors are closing. Next station..."
"Respected Passengers! Upon exiting the train, do not forget your belongings."

I even memorized the little add-on at the Mayakovskaya metro station, which gives a warning to those exiting from the last car (if I recall correctly, the ceiling is low there, forcing passengers to duck down a bit while navigating a narrow passage. I once deliberately went to the end of the last car just to see what all the fuss was about):

"Respected Passengers! Be careful upon exiting the last door of the last wagon."

[Note: in case you were confused or concerned, these announcements are given in Russian, not English. I've taken the liberty of translating them for our non-Russian speakers, though I can't imagine why any of you would actually expect them to be delivered in English. This isn't London, after all!

As long as we're on metro announcement trivia, you may not know that on trains heading toward the city center the recorded announcements are delivered by a male's voice, while trains heading away from the center feature a woman's voice. The little device I heard to remember this is that "the boss calls you to work, and the wife calls you home." Isn't that cute?]

These announcements are so deeply ingrained in my brain that they are probably the only phrases in Russian that I can whip out with lightning speed and without thinking. 5 years of college-level Russian for that? I usually recite the announcements in my head at each stop, simply out of habit. And because I'm good at them. There are some stations where for some reason the requisite announcement is not made. At such times I've considered filling in for the electronic voice for the amusement and assistance of my fellow passengers, though I'm afraid I would get some dirty looks for that.

The metro announcements are also my standard showpiece whenever an annoying friend of a friend, upon learning that I study Russia, whines, "say something in Ruuuuuuuussssiaaaaaaaaaaan" (usually they're a bit drunk when they ask).

I fire off one of my metro phrases. "Oooh!" the young lady exclaims. "What does it mean?"

I usually tell her that it means "your beauty is surpassed only by the radiance of the rising sun." Or if it's a male, maybe "Russia's greatness lies in the strength of its soul." Either way, it gets the job done and the listener leaves feeling flattered or a bit wiser. How can you argue with that?

So where was I? Oh, right, metro announcements. Having recited the familiar phrases countless times in my head, you can imagine my shock (and awe) when I boarded the metro for the first time in several years and heard a new phrase:

"Respected passengers! Give up your place for invalids, elderly people, and passengers with children." My first few weeks in Moscow were distressing, as I thought I'd never get the hang of this new announcement. But not to worry, it has now entered my Russian "poetry" repository, ready for that slurring friend of a friend who just wants to be told, "if you seek love long enough, eventually love finds you." Doesn't that make you feel better already?

In fact, I think the announcements are unneccessary, as I've never found respect and kindness toward elderly passengers on the metro to be lacking. It's always heartwarming to see a teenage punk-looking kid with his headphones blaring jump up suddenly at the sight of a babushka entering the train, directing her toward his seat. The grateful babushka always smiles, says thank-you, and plants herself on the seat with a relieved and satisfied sigh. It's a moment of civility, a moment of courtesy, esteem, and goodwill for both parties. It's the kind of moment I wish I saw more of on the streets of Moscow.

Nevertheless, I've found that this practice raises a problem for me. How do you know when it's appropriate to offer an older woman your seat? The truly ancient babushkas are easy, but somebody usually beats me to the punch, bolting out of their seat before I can get to my feet. Sometimes the winning bidder is so enthusiastic in his launch that I'm afraid he's going to knock poor babuskha over, where she'll likely land on metro dog.

For me, the problem comes with the women who appear to be anywhere from 50-70. The fact of the matter is, many women in Russia look older than they really are, testament to the hard lives they've led and probably to the fact that they don't always take care of their health. Nonetheless, it makes deciding the proper course of action very difficult for the metro expat yearning to be polite.

On the one hand, I truly want to offer my seat to those who deserve it more than I do. On the other hand, I don't want to offend a 50-year old woman with such an offer, as it implictly implies that I consider her to be elderly. After all, telling a woman that she looks old is second only to telling her she looks fat when it comes to sure-fire ways to get slapped in the face. What's a person to do?

I've found a compromise by doing my best to take care of the real babushkas, while leaving the semi and pseudo-babushkas to be taken care of by the other young Russians on the train. I figure that if none of them budge, it's better for me to stay in my place too.

So if you find yourself roaming around Moscow like me, put off by the city's often cold and brusque shell, just remember that sometimes there are little moments where the goodness in these people shines through.

And to those of you scattered around the globe who are reading this: if you find yourself doubting the decency of your fellow human beings around you, just remember these words to live by:

Уважаемые пассажиры! При выходе из поездя, не забывайте свои вещи.

And believe me, dear friends, I mean every word of it...

20 March 2007

Metro Dogs

I've always been amused by the fact that stray dogs ride the metro in Moscow. I've never seen this in other cities, but then again I haven't spent enough time in other metro-wielding metropolises to say definitively whether this sort of thing occurs. For all I know, there are canine urbanites cruising below the streets of London and New York even as I'm writing this.

In Moscow, it's not all that uncommon to see these dogs going about their business (by which I mean traveling somewhere, not going about their "business" on the floor) while you're going about yours (again, traveling somewhere) on the metro. [Note: I have no doubt that on occasion both stray dogs and stray drunks do in fact do their "busines" on the metro, though I've been fortunate enough not to have witnessed either group seeking sweet relief.]

The first time I saw a metro dog was 7 years ago. I was particularly amused to seem him when I boarded the train, as he had spread himself out on the wagon floor with a look on his face that suggested he had found his little slice of personal (I mean canine) heaven. This being my first metro dog encounter, I assumed that he belonged to the passenger seated near him (on the seat, not the floor). The dog layed there quietly as we passed stop after stop, hardly reacting to the tides of passengers that flooded into and out of the wagon at each stop.

Eventually the train came to a halt and the familiar announcement rang out:

Станциа Библиотека им. Ленина. Уважаемые пассажиры! При выходе из поездя, не забываете свои вещи. [Trans: Lenin Library Station. Respected passengers! When exiting the train, do not forget your belongings.]

Apparently the metro dog understands Russia (after all, he's a Russian dog), as he seemed to recognize that this was his stop. Much to my surprise, he jumped to his feet, bolted through the doors just before they closed, and disappeared into the crowd. It was somewhat akin to the actions of the 50-something woman who hasn't been paying attention to the stations and performs a similar jump & bolt maneuver upon realizing that she's about to miss her stop.

As nobody followed the dog or seemed distressed by its abrupt exit, it was then that I realized he belonged to nobody. The city, however, belonged to him, as any dog savvy enough to get around town like that has some smarts. Of course, I was left to contemplate how metro dog knew it was his stop, or why he decided at that very moment that it was time to get off the train. Perhaps he had some reading to do at the Lenin Library, or perhaps, having behaved himself on the train, he simply wanted to relieve himself on the giant statue of Dostoevsky that sits outside the library. I can't blame him, as I'm not particularly fond of the statue, though I've as of yet resisted any urges to express my dissatisfaction in public...

I came across another metro dog about a week ago. This one followed me into the metro station, and I, recalling Bulgakov's Heart of a Dog tried to be polite and made sure the door didn't catch his tail as it swung shut. The dog, clearly no stranger to Moscow's subterranean transportation network, trotted down the stairs and along the corridor leading to the turnstiles. Wisely, he chose the turnstile farthest away from the attendant, who didn't notice him slip through. In fact, I watched the dog deliberately change his course to steer clear of the solidly built woman, likely do to unpleasant memories involving a shoe in rear end. After all, the metro attendants are not exactly the warmest people in Moscow, and that's saying something.

In Moscow, most metro turnstiles are open, tempting passengers to walk straight through unhindered. Woe unto any passenger who does so without swiping his ticket, though, because a set of light-sensors detects the offender, triggering a set of barriers that protrude from the sides to bock passage. [In fact, and entire essay on metro barriers is in the works and will hopefully be appearing soon].

As my furry sputnik [for our non-Russian speaking readers, "sputnik" means "fellow traveler," hence the name for the satellite] was too short to reach the light sensors, he passed through without a problem and without paying. Clever indeed! He trotted down the steps (the station does not have escalators, though I'm sure he loves those) and waited on the platform for a train heading into the center of the city.

Again, I was intrigued by the choices made by metro dogs: how did he decide that he wanted to go into the city rather than to the suburbs? In all reality, he probably just liked the smell of the inbound side of the platform bettern than the outbound side. But I like to think that since this train terminates near the Lenin Library, he too was going to relieve himself on Fyodor Mikhailovich. [I should probably interject here that I have nothing against Dostoevsky - he is one of my favorite Russian writers. It's the statue they put up in front of the library that I'm not fond of, as it seems awkwardly out of place and Fyodor looks like he's about to fall off his very uncomfortable bench. I suppose there's also a part of me that thinks that if it's called the "Lenin Library," there should at least be a statue of Lenin outside. But I guess I'm a bit of a traditionalist. In any case, there are many such post-Soviet landmarks in the "new Moscow" that are worthy of being relieived upon by the city's resident strays and drunks. Perhaps a list will be compiled].

Eventually a train arrived, and I followed metro dog onto the car. I plopped down in an open seat, but the dog was much more particular than I. After carefully inspecting a a couple of different sections of the wagon floor (I can only imagine with horror the odors his little nose was processing!), he selected one, circled it, and flopped down on the floor, stretching out as easily and comfortably as if he were on a well-worn rug in front of a crackling fire. Ah, a dog's life!

This scene was too good to pass up, so I deliberately skipped my stop to see what metro dog's next move would be. Would he get off the train when it reached the end of the line at Aleksandrovskiy Sad and everyone empties from the wagons, or would he stay in his comfortable spot as the train filled up with a fresh load of passengers waiting to head home to the suburbs? In other words, was he on his way somewhere, or just there for a pleasant ride?

I realize now that it was a stupid question. After all, he had gotten on the inbound train. Why would he go into the city if he were just going to head back out again on the same train? Of course he was going somewhere. As if on cue, the train pulled into the terminal station, the dog stood up, waiting for the doors to open, and trotted out into the crowd with a determined purpose in his step. I thought about following him to see if he was really on his way to pay Dostoevsky a visit, but he slipped deftly between the legs of Moscow's commuters, disappearing into the vast crowd. Realizing that following him further was impossible, I turned around and got back on the train I had just exiting, waiting for it to fill up with outbound passengers so that I could get back to the station I had intentionally missed.

Maybe the metro dog was too smart to ride the train back and forth, but I, it seems, am not....

19 March 2007

Lights, Camera, Action!

It seems I can't help myself from engaging in a little more political analysis. This time it's about the theatrical production that is Russia's emerging "two-party system," kindly published by Sean Guillory at Sean's Russia Blog.

Take a look here.

18 March 2007

St. Patrick's Day

Who would have guessed that Moscow throws a St. Patrick's Day celebration, complete with a parade down Noviy Arbat?

As is the case with all parades in Russia, security was tight:

I'm sure they were worried about overly exuberant displays of Irish nationalism, as the Irish make up Rusisa's second-largest ethnic minority following the Tatars (that's not really true, second place goes to the Ukrainians. I'm not really sure there are any Irish in Russia). Or perhaps they were worried about violent clashes between Catholics and Protestants.

As with any event in Russia, the parade was not without irony: I wondered whether I was the only one amused by the fact that all the bagpipe & drum corps marching down the street were playing "Scotland the Brave." It's a good thing there are no Irish nationalists in Moscow, as I'm sure they would have been furious...

Still, it was wonderful to see so many people outside on a beautiful sunny day having a good time (the sun came out from behind the clouds after I took my pictures). Unlike most official parades in Moscow - those that rightly commemorate somber events like the end of WWII - this one was simply an expression of carefree joy.

Hopefully Russia will see more of these types of parades in the future. They're good for the soul, I think.

16 March 2007

Visa: It's Everywhere You Want to Be

Welcome back to another episode of "Where's My Visa?"

Previously on WMV, I handed over my entire identity - visa, passport, registration, measurements (ok, not those) - to the office at the University that coordinates international students and faculty. I should note that the gentleman that runs that office - A.M. - has always been very helpful and for that I am very grateful. In any case, in the previous episode I was given the phone number of the office in the University that would actually issue my new visa and told to call in about a week to find out when they would be ready.

I called as instructed, politiely told the person on the other end of the line my name and my purpose in calling.

"I have no idea when your documents will be ready. Come to the office between the 14th and and the 17th and we'll look." The man hung up before I could clarify whether he was referring to the 14th-17th of March, or if he was referring to the hours of the day: 14:00-17:00. You see, Russia runs on 24-hour time, and when a gruff man is dismissively growling at you on the phone it can be hard to tell the difference between the date and the time. At least for me it is. So, I decided to hedge my bets and show up on the 16th of March at 15:00, well within the safety zone for both interpretations.

I found the office, and instead of the gruff man, I spoke with a young lady, giving her my name and what I was there for (finding out when the visa would be ready). She pulled out my registration but not my passport or visa. After searching the office for my passport and not finding it, she simply stated, "we don't have your passport."

My heart fell to the floor and I lost a little more hair on my head, along with at least a couple of months off my life expectancy. My passport was missing.

The next 10 minutes can be summarized as follows:

Them: "We don't have your passport, are you sure it was brought here?"
Me: "Yes, AM brought the whole packet with all my documents."
Them: "Well he didn't bring the passport."
Me: "But my registration was in the passport. You have my registration here. Where's the passport that it came from?"
Them: "I don't know. We don't have your passport. Maybe AM still has it."
Me: "But why would he have it? He brought it here."
Them: "Why would he bring it here? We don't need it for your registration."
Me: "But I don't need a registration, I need a new visa."
Them: "Why do you need a new visa, didn't you just get here?"
Me: "No, they're extending my old visa."
Them: "Well, we don't need your passport for that."
Me: "So why did AM take my passport?"
Them: "I don't know. We don't have it here."

In the meantime I call AM to tell him what's going on. Then he calls the office where I'm standing to ask them where my passport is:

Them, to AM: "We don't have the passport. You didn't give it to us"
I don't know what he said on the other end of the line, but I have a feeling it had something along the lines of, "Yes, I did give it to you."

Another round of searching for the passport.
"We don't have your passport. You should talk to AM and find out where it is."

Normally this wouldn't be so urgent, except for the fact that I have a trip to the U.S. and the U.K. planned for early April and need my documents before I can leave. All of a sudden I saw those plans melting before my eyes...

Fuming, I went to AM's office and found him on the phone again with the office. As I stood there he spent a good 5 minutes explaining everything in great detail to the woman on the other end of the line. I was comforted in knowing that it wasn't just me and my broken Russian that was preventing the ladies in the office from understanding the problem. Even a man fluent in Russian was having a hard time getting the point across.

Finally he hung up the phone and explained what had happened. Apparently the computer had crashed the day my documents were delivered and they sat there for a week without anyone doing anything. The were just rediscovered on Tuesday and were in the process of being processed for further processing. AM assured me that I would have them back in time for my trip.

"Thank God," I told him. "I was worried that they had been lost."

As I left his office, he told me with a slight grin on his face and a twinkle in his eye, "In Russia we don't lose things. We just take a long time looking for them!" Touche, AM!

Of course, this little saying puts the familiar (and tired) question of "who lost Russia?" in a new light: maybe Russia isn't lost after all - maybe we're just still looking for it...

15 March 2007

Bathroom Talk: Russia in Crisis

A friend and I were recently discussing the fact that so many toilets in Russia are missing toilet seats, a particularly unpleasant fact if one's immediate business requires the adoption of a sedentary position. This unfortunate absence is especially pronounced in buildings and institutions which are state-funded (by which I mean, of course, state-underfunded). To take a random example, oh, I don't know... the Russian public university. This, of course, leads to the very reasonable question, "where have all the toilet seats gone?"

[Incidentally, readers might not be aware of the fact that American folk-singer Pete Seeger wrote a secret "lost" verse to his famous antiwar song, where he posed this very question, "where have all the toilet seats gone?" Scholars have taken this as conclusive evidence that Seeger had ties to the Soviet Union, thereby justifying the suspicions of the House Un-American Activities Committee. Fearing arrest as HUAC's noose tightened around him, Seeger destroyed all evidence of his communist sympathies, including the "lost verse." However, word of the verse's existence traveled through the American communist underground, inspiring other Soviet-themed add-on verses such as, "where has all the toilet paper gone?", "where has all the cabbage gone?", "where have all the kulaks gone?," and the perennial favorite, "where has comrade Khrushchev gone?", penned after Khrushchev's ouster and internal exile in 1964.

Readers might also not be aware of the fact that none of the above paragraph is true, as I just made it up on the spot. But it makes a good story, doesn't it?

But back to the business of the missing toilet seats, which is no fiction, I assure you. Applying the incisive tools of social science to this puzzle, we can develop several plausible hypotheses to explain the absence of toilet seats in Russia:

H1: The toilet seats have been stolen.
Implications of H1: This is entirely plausible, as things are often stolen in Russia, as in any country. A persistently high rate of toilet seat theft would imply high demand on the black market, a sign of a severe shortage in toilet seat production and supply.

H2: The toilet seats have been broken and never replaced.
Implications of H2: For this hypothesis to be validated, we must first inquire as to why such a large percentage of toilet seats were broken in the first place. It is unlikely due to excessive weight of Russians. After all, we all know that America is probably the most overweight nation in the world, yet our toilet seats seem not to suffer. Another possibility is that Russian toilet seats are being abused in ways that lead to premature weakening and breakage. As I cannnot imagine any activities that would overload a toilet seat, such as those requiring the seat to bear the weight of multiple individuals at once, this possibility can be categorically eliminated. The remaining explanation for the high rate of toilet seat breakage is shoddy construction and weak materials, a condition that was pervasive throughout the "Golden Age" of Soviet life (the Brezhnev years). I mean, Stalinism had its faults, but back then they knew how to build sturdy buildings and probably sturdy toilets too.

But why, once broken, wouldn't these toilet seats be replaced? The only logical explanation points again to severe supply shortages in the Russian toilet seat market. While a competing explanation might be found in official indifference to the posterior comfort of those who frequent these institutions, as we all know, Russian public institutions are bastions of caring and kindness. Thus, this possibility can be rejected without further discussion.

H3: The toilet seats were never there.
Implications of H3: As with the other hypotheses, validation of H3 would require further in-depth field research. Such research might entail a qualitative approach involving interviews with current and former custodial staff in order to determine whether the toilet seats were ever there in the first place. One might also take a quantitative approach, coding individual stalls, bathrooms, and buildings for the presence of toilet seats in order to determine whether a pattern emerges. For example, if half the stalls in a bathroom have toilet seats, it is likely that the other half had them once too. However, if an entire building lacks seats entirely, it increases the probability that they were never there. In any case, the investigator should avoid at all costs the anthropological approach of "soak and poke," the reasons for which should be self-evident.

Presuming H3 were found to be valid, this would also imply a severe shortage of toilet seats, as builders were unable to install them at the time of construction. Further shortages would have prevented their addition in the meantime.

There are, of course, infinite minor hypotheses that could also explain the puzzle at hand. For example, it is possible that toilet seats are the preferred material with which a yet-undiscovered nocturnal species of giant dung beetle builds its nests. But until the existence of the the new species (Scarabaeinae toiletus seatus) is proven, such hypotheses are best left aside.

But what to do about H1-H3, all of which seem plausible? Data does not currently exist that allow us to distinguish between the three alternatives. Nor is further investigation likely to be undertaken, as this is not a "priority" area of research in any of the fields of social science.

However, based on preliminary data and deductive reasoning, along with the fact that all three hypotheses imply the same underlying cause, we can conclude that Russia is in the grips of a major market failure, as embodied by the severe shortage of toilet seats. It may just be toilet seats today, but what about tomorrow? What happens when the toilets themselves start disappearing? Even worse, what happens when our pants disappear as well?

In any case, it seems clear that Russia's toilet seat industry is one of the last holdouts of the Soviet planned economy, as only such a decrepit institution could produce such spectacular shortages. I have a suspicion that the man in the Bureau of Toiletry Production at Gosplan plugged in his 8-track back in the 70s (did 8 track even make it to the Soviet Union? Probably not.), put on his headphones, and hasn't noticed that things are kind of quiet around the office these days.

If Russia is to finally join the ranks of capitalist democratic countries... Oh, right. If Russia is to finally join the ranks of capitalist countries, the reform of the toilet seat industry must be made a top priority of the country's leadership.

After all, they produce loads of B.S. every day. Don't you think they'd be sympathetic to the need for a good toilet seat?

The Sound of Silence

While I've stayed away from commentary and analysis of day-to-day politics in Russia on this blog, the controversial but influential Russia blog, La Russophobe, was kind enough to post an analytical piece I recently wrote discussing the stratification of free speech in Russia, as demonstrated by the recent violence that has befallen critics of the Kremlin. Feel free to check it out here.

12 March 2007

The House on the Embankment

Last week I visited a Moscow landmark that is well known to students of Soviet history: the so-called "House on the Embankment." Seated on the bank of the Moscow River, opposite what was to be the location for a massive "Palace of Soviets" topped by a 300-foot statue of Lenin, the building complex was built in the early 1930s as a residence for the upper crust of the Soviet elite: high-ranking party leaders, government ministers and other officials, military leaders, actors, writers, artists, and other heroes of the Soviet regime. It was not just an apartment complex; it was practically a city within a city, containing a post office, a telegraph office, a bank, a laundry, a supermarket, a beauty salon, a restaurant, a school, a medical center, a gymnasium, and even a movie theater. It was, with just a touch of irony, the not-so-grand palace of the Stalinist nobility.

And this, of course, is why the bulky and rather unattractive building is so well know to historians of those infamous years. The Great Terror of 1937-38 took an enormous toll on the upper echelons of the Soviet hierarchy, and nowhere was that toll more apparent than at the House on the Embankment. It is estimated that one-third of the building's residents (about 700 individuals) were victims of Stalin's repressions. The Stalinist system of elite career advancement in that era has been described as a terrible escalator: rising stars rode it higher and higher until they reached the top, by which point it was too late to turn around; into the churning meat grinder they fell. Just as they had clawed their way to the top, so too were others now beginning that deadly ascent, perhaps unaware or perhaps in denial about the fate that awaited them. It is said that on most nights one could see the apartments of that night's unfortunate crop of arrestees lit up in the darkness, signaling to the city and the world that the time had come for the occupants to pay the fiddler's bill. For them it was the beginning of a journey that had one of two likely outcomes: a sentence to the GULAG with years of hunger, starvation, and exhaustion to follow. Or, perhaps the more merciful outcome: a charge of lead in the back of the head.

Upon learning that a small museum dedicated to the building's history occupied a former guard's apartment on the ground floor, I immediately made plans to visit the house with an infamous past. As the museum is only open in the late afternoon on certain days of the week, I caught it in the haze of twilight. Dusk's soft blue light, enveloping the building in my photo above, belies the unrepentantly gray nature of the building. Apparently early plans called for the building being painted pink or white. When the designers realized that the building's location next to a smoke-vomiting factory would quickly sully its pastel appearance, a quintissentially socialist compromise was found: the building would be painted gray, thereby blending in with the Soviet landscape around it.

Today the building still has its theater, its post office, its restaurant. Its grocery store has weathered the transition to capitalism and is now run by a high-class western operation. Observant Muscovites and Muscovites at heart will notice in my picture above that the massive Mercedes hood ornament that now rotates on top of the building is missing. No, this post-Soviet clash of communism's past and capitalism's future hasn't actually been removed: I couldn't fit it into the shot, and besides, I think the building looks better without it. Thanks to a little Photoshop, it's gone, at least in my world.

Walking through the building's courtyards and under its archways the weight of history is palpable. How many lords and ladies of Stalin's court had walked this very path every day until being pushed into the back seat of a black sedan, never to walk the path again?

I followed the slushy walkway up a short flight of stairs and entered the tiny two-room museum. It is a small, unassuming place. This does not come as a surprise in a country which is reluctant to dredge up some of the more unpleasant aspects of its history and put them on display. One room contains a small exhibit about the architect and the building's construction, along with displays for some of the building's illustrious residents, including the family of Stalin's in-laws. It is said that they were a constantly painful reminder of his wife's suicide in 1932, which is why they too had to be swept away eventually. Hanging on the walls are lists of the famous residents of the building, along with a framed list of the names of residents who fell victim to Stalin's purges.

The second room consists of a recreation of an apartment, containing an original bed designed by the building's architect himself, as well as a collection of furniture and other objects donated by the families of former residents. The museum's staff, a collection of aging ladies gathered in the adjoining office watching television, were very proud of the museum's new wood flooring. Personally, I preferred the quintessentially Russian parquet floors that were visible in photos taken before the rennovation, but I kept this opinion to myself.

I had come to the museum to be moved. I had come to the museum seeking a familiar feeling for those who ponder history at monuments to her greatest tragedies: it is at once a feeling of emptiness for what was lost and can never be undone, and simultaneously a feeling of fullness, a fullness of blackened sorrow, as if one's heart is being weighed down by a fistfull of iron nails inside. It is a feeling that I have at the Holocaust museum in Washington, D.C. It is a feeling that I have at the WWII museum in Minsk as the museum employee, a weary and ancient woman with tears in her eyes, tells me of the children the Nazis strung up in Minsk's central square to serve as an example of those who would resit. It is a feeling that I have as I stand before the statue of the weeping mother cradling her dead soldier son in Volgograd at the monument to the battle of Stalingrad. This is what I hoped for; this is what I sought. It is painful but it is necessary, for the pain forces us to remember.

As I prepared to gather my belongings and leave the museum I was disappointed that I had not found this feeling there. Perhaps it is because it is hard to convey the gravity of historic events in two small rooms. Perhaps it requires not faded photographs but bronze monuments. Perhaps it requires not a list of names printed on computer paper and pasted together, but names carved in stone.

Or perhaps it is hard to empathize with the victimized residents of that building. After all, they were destroyed by the regime that they built, the regime that they glorified. It reminds me of a scene from Arthur Koestler's classic novel, from which this blog takes its title and I my nom de plume. When a former monarchist learns that his neighbor in the adjoining cell is none other than the illustrious Comrade Rubashov, he responds with vicious delight by tapping on the wall: "Bravo! The wolves devour each other!" I can't help but think that part of my lack of feeling for this place is because in the back of my head I know the monarchist is right: the residents carried away from the House on the Embankment in the middle of the night may have been victims and probably were innocent of the crimes for which they were accused. But many of them were wolves nonetheless.

Of course, it is not fair to say that they all had blood on their hands, that they had all signed arrest warrents, or had all denounced a neighbor. They had not. Nor did they all work for the government or the party, as artists, writers, academicians, and journalists were also resident victims. But what they all had in common was that they were all builders of the regime. Whether writing a poem extolling the achievements of collectivization of agriculture or printing Stalin's recent speech to the Central Committee, there is no doubt that the elite residents of that building were supporting the hand that wielded the knife, a hand that without question was covered in blood.

This brings up the delicate question of collective guilt, responsibility, and repentance, one which Russian society has largely failed to come to terms with. How far down the chain does responsibility go? How far down does the blood drip? Does guilt lie solely with Mandelstam's "Kremlin mountaineer?" Most would agree that it extends farther down, to the Molotovs, the Kaganoviches, the Yezhovs, Yagodas, and Berias of the regime. Even Nikita Khrushchev, the eventual champion of de-Stalinization, was said to have been up to his elbows in blood during the Stalin era. But what about the functionary stamping papers in the Ministry of Heavy Industry? What about the schoolteacher proclaiming the correctness of Marxist-Leninist-Stalinist thought to her charges? Even more difficult, what about the millions of individuals who stood by, waiting silently in the dark while their neighbors were taken away? Are they too guilty for not having stood against the regime?

It is an excruciatingly difficult question to answer, one which I will not attempt. It is clear that those at the top are guilty; on that we can agree. I would also suggest that those at the bottom - those who remained silent - can be forgiven for their silence, for opening one's mouth in this era was certain suicide. I have a hard time blaming those who were terrified into quiescence. But between those two extremes, where one draws the line between guilt and innocence I have no idea.

And so, it may be this vast moral gray area containing both the guilty and the innocent that left me wanting to feel moved, wanting to feel sorrow, but ultimately unable to do so.

As I was putting on my coat, one of the volunteer staff members thanked me for visiting. I told her that it was an extremely interesting museum and that their work was very important. She told me that the other staff members felt the same way, as most had personal ties to the building.

"I, after all, grew up in this building," she told me. "My father was in the military and was arrested in 1949 when I was twelve, so I was sent to live with relatives."

With that I felt a familiar pain in my chest, as if my heart were being pulled down through my feet, through the floor and into the dirt below. That feeling had materialized. I had forgotten about the children.

Of all the building's residents during those nightmarish years, it was the children that were free of any guilt, innocent of the sins of the father. Yet they too suffered mightily when the knock on the door came. They truly suffered unjustly. In the best of all scenarios, the wives of the arrested officials were left untouched, able to care for their children, though in admittedly difficult circumstances, as marriage to an "enemy of the people" made one an immediate outcast. However, wives were often arrested with their husbands, leaving their children without parents. The luckiest were sent to live with relatives, as in the case of the woman at the museum. Not so lucky were those that were sent into official orphanages, where they were told to forget their past lives and the "enemy" parents they had left behind. The most tragic were those who ended up in prison for petty crimes such as stealing a bit of grain or a piece of bread. Eventually these children might filter into the GULAG themselves, where they quickly became animals in nearly every sense of the word. Anne Applebaum's powerful history of the GULAG quotes one camp memoirist's recollections of the juveniles who entered the hellish world of the prison system:

"Hunger and the horror of what had happened had deprived them of all defenses... They feared nothing and no one. The guards and camp bosses were scared to enter the separate barracks where the juveniles lived. It was there that the vilest, most cynical and cruel acts that took place in the camps occurred...[T]he boys would kill [someone] for a day's bread ration or simply 'for the fun of it.' The girls boasted that they could satisfy an entire team of tree-fellers. There was nothing human left in these children and it was impossible that they might return to the normal world and become ordinary human beings again"(Applebaum, GULAG, p. 332).

Regardless of what their parents may have been guilty of, no child deserved this horrific fate, transformed from human into beast.

And so, I would suggest that it was the children of the House on the Embankment who were its true victims, and those to whom Russia's collective conscience must still answer.