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Rule 1: Don’t Bring Up Chechnya

Aka the biggest social blunder I’ve made so far

I made this mistake my fourth or fifth time socializing with Russians. There were five of us, including fellow American Sophia, in the Охотный Ряд (Hunter’s Row) shopping mall a stone’s throw or two from Red Square. The three Muscovites were helping us with our homework, translating six cryptic children’s poems dating from one of the rougher periods in Soviet history over terrible coffee at a Dunkin Donuts. (America runs on Dunkin, Sophia and I wondered aloud, does Russia as well? Maybe we aren’t so different…) Victor Kartinsky, seated across and to the left of the wobbly metal circle of a table, was quietest of the three though I’m sure it was not by choice. His English was the worst of our group, and my fitful, lurching Russian did little to make up the difference. He was clearly outgoing and it was easy to see that the forced distance bothered him. Though he was able, minutes after we were introduced, to gleefully scroll through an Instagram overflowing with portraits of a world traveler (skydiving, riding an elephant in Vietnam and a camel in Tunisia, scuba training in preparation for an upcoming solo trip to Costa Rica) to treat me to an eight-minute Go-Pro recording of his shaky attempt at motocrossing through a foot of snow in a park outside the city. I asked him how many years he’d ridden motorbikes. He met my question with a confused look. After an intervention from Lena, our translator, he replied with a guileless smile, “two weeks!”

Lena and Yanna made up the rest of our party, Sophia’s and my tutors non-respectively. Lena, Sophia’s partner but sitting directly across from me, is a 24-year-old Moscow native who goes to business school, works at a Best Western, and has dreams of New York. She shared with me a particularly tragic tale of losing her student’s visa just days before a flight to New Jersey after being interrogated at the United States embassy. Two intimidating Americans who knew no Russian blasted her for an apparently illegal money transfer to the States, which she swears never took place. “I knew no-one in your country,” she told me with genuine emotion and a touching accent, “who would I send money to?” The Americans said that they would temporarily confiscate her visa and she never heard from them again.

Yanna, reclining off to the right on her phone, seems more simple, but that’s only because of her quieter nature. She’s 19 and her English is somewhat overshadowed by Lena’s. I try to engage her in my new tongue as much as possible, but there’s only so much my vocabulary will permit. Originally from Irkutsk, a frozen city in central Siberia near the banks of the massive Lake Baikal, she moved here at 16 to study and hasn’t looked back. To Lena, apparently her best friend, she is coworker at the hotel and a fellow student in business, though Yanna seems more focused on Europe. She’s traveled as far west as Germany and her point of entry to the Anglosphere will be, she hopes, Britain. Writing this now reminds me of how much I still need to ask her about herself.

Sophia, my fellow American in the garish yellow seat to my right, is Georgian-born (the state, not the country) and a graduate student at UNC-Chapel Hill, as well as a blue belt (with two white stripes!) in jujitsu. She’s 22, she has a husband in the Air Force stationed in Kuwait, and she’s hoping to be a diplomat. Her Russian puts mine to shame in many ways, but I chock that up to her previous experience studying in Moscow over the summer of 2015. She was hospitalized yesterday for a severe case of food poisoning and is keeping a great sense of humor about it. Her last Facebook post: “That cultural experience got so real “.

Back in that impostor of a cafe, surrendering to a particularly indecipherable verse about four brave, possibly feline, sailors, the talk returned to a discussion which had naturally begun almost as soon as we met. It’s the most intriguing conversation two foreigners studying each other can engage in: what differences are there between our two cultures? How did those differences form? Why the hell don’t you just do it my way, it’s so much easier?! Victor made a quip about our treatment of the Native Americans, and I, till then considering myself the champion and figurehead of the American cultural experience, rushed to the defense. I caught myself before I could say a word, my fiery rationalizations exhaled out my nostrils, and sank back into my seat. I turned to Sophia, muttered about how much of an ace-in-the-hole for any critic of American history our experience with Indians is. Right up there with slavery. She nodded. The most difficult part: I was certain that the Russian Empire had skeletons bursting out of their closet from their expansionist days, but Russia had no ‘Manifest Destiny’ driving the common man eastward and, even more importantly, the diseases they brought with them in military expeditions had far less of an impact than ours. I mulled it over while others idly chatted. Exiles and gulags constituted much of the Russian migration to their territories seized from native tribes east of the Urals. The path to Russian dominance stretching to the Pacific has little cultural influence, outside of the country certainly, and the plight of their occupied hasn’t reached nearly as wide of an audience as our own beleaguered Natives. Not that that excuses any of the more sordid episodes in our history, but my mind was still racing with cultural competitiveness.

“The Chechens!” I burst out. They looked confused. “Yeah, you guys totally genocided them. Like a couple times.” Brows furrowed, and I hurriedly opened up Wikipedia on my phone. “Yeah, check it out. Operation Lentil.” I scrolled through the article, showing them the choicer bits. After a Chechen resistance campaign capitalized on the instability of World War Two, Stalin, in the interest of pacifying a region that had troubled Moscow with terrorism and civil unrest for nearly a century and a half, broadly labeled the Chechen nationalists as Nazi sympathizers. Under this justification, he led a bloody campaign of suppression and population transfer. As many as 700,000 Chechens, men, women, and children, were exiled as part of a forced resettlement program to Kazakhstan and Siberia in which an estimated 200,000 Chechens lost their lives. The European Parliament retroactively classified it as a genocide in 2004.

I regretted it almost immediately. The pained look in their eyes told me everything I needed to know. In the years since the fall of the Soviet Union, Chechnya has presented a uniquely difficult problem for Russian leadership. Wars on the scale of our invasion of Iraq, but within their own borders, off and on for two decades, with continued, though muted since 2009, terrorism and turmoil. In hushed tones, with furtive glances around the Dunkin’s, they explained to this ignorant American about horrible incidents of terrorism they had seen in their own lives, explained how sensitive of an issue this continued to be for the Russians. It was as if I had glibly brought up a 9/11 conspiracy theory in some New York cafe in 2002. Victor made an interesting comparison between the Spartans of ancient Greece and the current Chechen separatists, implying a measure of grudging, maybe frightened, respect. Luckily enough the conversation continued relatively smoothly, barely missing a beat, them brushing it off for what it was; an uncouth remark by a foreigner who knew no better. Curiously, I got more resistance from an angered Sophia, who brought up our nuking of Japan to close the Pacific front. So startled by my own misstep I couldn’t bring myself to respond, I simply mumbled something about us both having troubled histories. For the next half hour I thought of nothing but how wrong she was to compare the two, but my moment had assuredly passed. (C’mon. Way too many innocents died, and there are some very difficult questions about its necessity, but how could you call that a genocide of the Japanese? Do you know how many German civilians were killed in the Allied firebombing of their cities? Way more than the Japanese at Nagasaki and Hiroshima, but we don’t call that a genocide. Anyway. Sorry, that’s rankled for a while.)

Nothing serious came of it, but I learned my first main rule of life here in Moscow. Don’t talk about Chechnya. It’s not worth it.

I’m gonna go watch a movie and procrastinate.

Rain, late April

I chatted to a Chechen taxi driver for about 20 minutes when he drove me back from a bar late one night. I wasn’t in the clearest state of mind at the time but we accomplished a civil and relatively understandable conversation in Russian about the current geopolitical situation vis-à-vis American and Russian interventionism in the Middle East. He was a surprisingly ardent supporter of Gaddafi. I managed to talk the price down by 400 rubles by the end. He even invited me to visit his hometown of Grozny. I don’t think I’ll be taking him up on it.

Less One Month

Russia has so many holidays. They don’t have one of my favorites, though. I haven’t not celebrated today in… three years? I guess?

Wow, this June it’ll be three years since I was out of high school. What the fuck, right?

Ah well. Back to Moscow.

Though its been hard to keep myself focused on my experience here. I keep flashing back to home. I think it’s because I’m lonely. I have so much trouble making new friends. In Wyoming and freshman year I was forced to interact a lot with people, at least. That helped. I guess here is the same, kind of, but I keep finding ways to be alone rather than spend time with the rest of the group. I usually go when invited, but I don’t make too much of an effort to put myself out there. Spending time with Fey and Sasha helped, I feel more of a connection with them, but even though things have pretty much smoothed out since I asked her out I don’t feel as comfortable with them as I did.

I don’t know why I have so much trouble voluntarily putting myself out there; engaging with people. I’ve been putting a lot of thought in to it over the last few weeks. Introspection is what I usually fall back on when I’m lonely. I’m introspective a lot. God, write a more angsty line, right? But for real, I was pretty low last Saturday. The guys invited me out the night before, but it was late, and I was tired. Rolling Stone just really didn’t sound so good. So Saturday I was trying to… just… I’m not sure. Figure myself out, or something. I went to to Kolomenskaya, a park made out of a former Tsarist retreat, solo and walked around for a few hours. It was really beautiful. Rolling hills right on a bend in the river. It’s that moment just before spring hits in full force; you can feel it in the air but apart from the grass greening it hasn’t made itself known. Trees are still bare, though there are enough buds around to foreshadow. There’s a church there, Church of the Ascension, built in 1532. It’s pretty magical. I didn’t appreciate it at first. UNESCO world heritage sight, apparently. Check Instagram for a pic, if you want. I really liked the trees, though. It was pretty heavily forested, or what passes for forested when there aren’t any leaves, and walking around under the branches was cathartic, in a way.

I had just gotten back into Have a Nice Life. Last time I really listened to them was last semester, October or something, right when the leaves were starting to change. I went to Greenmount Cemetery to read The Road, that Cormac McCarthy book. Started and finished it that day, and I listened to Guggenheim Wax Museum the whole time through, nearly. That was a depressing day. Went to a Phi Delt party that night, which was really weird. I wonder if I talked to Allie at all that night. I’ve been thinking about here a bit recently, even though I shouldn’t.

Anyway, back to Kolomenskaya. I was sad. I mean, just so sad. Man, that was tough. Intense and, yeah, cathartic, but rough. It isn’t real, but damn it feels real. Walked through a grave outside a Храм–Orthodox chapel–where a small crowd of Russians had set up some tables laden with food to be sanctified. Easter was the next day, it’s a tradition here. I felt strange, difficult to describe. Transient, I guess? Small. Ephemeral. Worthless, in a way. There were so many couples walking around, it sucks being so solitary around all that. Maybe I’m depressed. Started to think like that. Smoked a cigarette on the bank of the river. Then I got cold and my feet got tired so I went to head back. When I hopped on the metro WiFi going home, saw a message from Anna asking where I was and if I wanted to meet. I didn’t feel like it at all, but knew that I’d definitely feel better with company. And she’s a cool enough person. Went to Ismailovo Kremlin with her a couple weeks back, not sure if I wrote about that.

Anyway, we met at Arbatskaya and walked all around the market street, new side and old. Had a fine time. Swung on the swings on Новой Арбат across from the Moscow House of Books and chatted. She’s a fun person, I just… I don’t know. Sometimes it’s hard to connect with Russians. She doesn’t even drink. But, whatever. I was right. Being around people helped, and I couldn’t bring myself to feel as crappy when I got home. Didn’t stop me from turning down another late-night invitation from Rob to Rolling Stone, though. I was a couple beers deep, to be fair.

This week has been better, not that much has substantively changed. Masha keeps going on about spending time with her crush and it’s pissing me off. Hung up on her the other weekend, that really pissed her off. Asked Laziza out on Tuesday. On Facebook, of course, like a bitch. I was going to wait til American Club but I tried that last week and I couldn’t find an opportunity. Didn’t end up going to the club today, anyway. She said no, of course, but I guess it was worth a shot. She is so hot it’s obnoxious.

Had a weird realization yesterday at lunch when I was sitting alone on the stairs up to the abandoned sixth floor of the university. It wasn’t an epiphany, exactly, more like a milestone in years of trying to understand why I hate being around people so much. I had this flashback to freshman year of high school, when I was eating lunch alone every day in the back of the library, where nobody could see me. Brought out the lunch mom brought me and played on my phone. Sometimes read. Listened to music. Masturbated a couple times ’cause I thought it was funny.

Why did I do that? And more importantly, why am I still doing it? I know back then I felt kind of rejected, like I was to weird and awkward to be around my peers. I acted so obnoxiously. Attention-seeking. Like, all the time. I’m sure you can call a few examples to mind, I don’t want to publish them online. But then after all that isolation, and that entire summer after freshman year where I stayed inside on the computer, Funnyjunk or 4chan or whatever, as much as possible and only went out enough to appease Mom and by the end wanted to fucking kill myself, I tried to make changes. Not consciously, I don’t think, though I did start to realize the importance of socializing for mental health. I just started to put more and more weight on my social blunders. Every time I made a mistake, acted out, was annoying or looking for attention, I started to really feel it as a kind of inner pain. Deep, to my core. Over the next couple years I managed to put something of a lid on that kind of behavior, but in the process retreated into myself. I still spend as much time as I could online, spending time with people in real life enough to keep myself somewhat mentally healthy, but I made it more of a pleasant experience to interact with me. But then I began to hate socializing. It became a chore, stressful and an effort. And in many ways that’s still how I view it. It’s affected my relationships, my personality. Now I don’t eat lunch alone because other people don’t want to spend time with me, but because I don’t want to spend time with other people. I’m not sure if that’s much better.

Eh. I’ll feel better when I’m back in Baltimore, or so I hope.

I skipped over a lot in that paragraph. It’s boiling down years of my life into a few talking points. I hope nobody who knows me reads that, it’s incomplete to the point of inaccuracy. Just some points I quickly jotted down so that I remember them for the future.

Дурак

День было как обычно. Listened to a lot of ‘Desafio,’ off Arca’s new album. There were just four people in the dance class today, and then Sam showed up halfway through. I was stoked to get more one-on-one with the teacher; she’s ridiculously attractive, but I noticed a ring on her finger for the first time. Not that I’d have a chance anyway, obviously, but it kinda ruins the fantasy.

Had an intense conversation in Retch today. My head was killing me. I’ve been sick for at least a month and a half now, and it’s getting very old. I was snippy with her for constantly interrupting me and I fucked up my summary of this article she had us read. Somehow Calvin brought up psychological problems (he’s always saying the most obnoxious, unrelated stuff) and the prof went off for like fifteen minutes or so about how unnecessary psychoanalysis is. I didn’t catch all of it, but I got a decent amount. She brought up WWII, of course, and how her entire family, along with so many others in the Soviet Union, was directly and violently affected, and about how they never talked about it. That’s just the way it was, she said. They didn’t dwell on their wounds in the Soviet Union. There were too many of them, it would hold you back. Better to live while you had life. Friends would support each other, but one should move on from tragedy. So much of life is pain, best to focus on the beauty. The Russian perspective condensed into one rant. I was pretty transfixed.

I find it hard to apply to my own life, though. Maybe it’s because I have so much trouble reaching out to friends and family for help that it doesn’t really feel like an option for processing my problems. I’ve been thinking about seeing a therapist when I get back home. I tried sophomore year, you might remember, when I was stressing about that fucking half-thesis thing. Saw a counselor twice and then she bailed on the school. I meant to go back, but the semester was ending soon and then I never got around to it. Might as well use that resource while I have it, though. I’m definitely gonna go back next year.

Speaking of school, tried to pick classes today. I forgot to register when it opened two days ago, as per usual. Also as per usual, it only brought up more problems to be dealt with that I put off. I might have to take Micro this summer. Fucking 8 am and it’s $2,650. God damn it. I haven’t heard back from NPR or the Parks Service about those internships, so that’s a bittersweet silver lining. Probably won’t have to choose between an awesome internship and being able to take the economics classes that I need this fall, all of which have Micro as a prerequisite. I hate planning for the future. It never fails to bum me out.

Set up a coffee date with this 29-year-old Russian chick I met at a Georgian restaurant last Thursday. Could be fun. Judging by my track record with Russians this semester I’m sure it’ll end up being nothing. That’s the right attitude to take with these kinds of things, right?

Whatever happens I’ll write about it. Or so I hope.

Serenade’s End

In an update to my angsty previous post, things are back to relative normalcy with Sasha, Fey, and the gang. I’m sure there’s still weirdness bubbling under the surface, but we’ve been having normal conversations and I’ve pretty much snapped out of the funk I was in. Well, that funk.

Anyway, back to getting whipped in the ass with branches.

So, yeah, to recap, I’m naked, in the banya, with a bunch of other naked Russian guys, in plastic sandals with a strange (but traditional) woolen hat. I feel more wet than I ever have swimming. The overpowering humidity mixes with more sweat than I thought I was capable of producing. Later, recuperating in the lounge, I was told to drink water to make up for the alarming amount lost through the pores. I heard it’s even possible to lose a few pounds throughout the process. I ran through the cycle three times–endure the heat as long as you can bear it, dunk yourself thrice in the freezing wooden tubs, brief but crucial break in the showers–when my masseuse gestured for me to follow him into the steamroom. It was time. Apprehensive but undeterred (a good motto for those visiting Russia), I followed.

The next fifteen minutes defy description, at least to a certain extent. It was a kind of peak experience. Wholly consumed by the moment, my mind was torn between being pushed to the limits of endurance and the kind of inner peace one feels in any massage. It certainly wasn’t relaxing, but there was a definite sense of serenity; an oxymoronic active tranquility. I was desperate to escape, to find relief from the inundating heat and pressure, though simultaneously captivated by the intensity of it all. All this while the guy was busting out a pretty bitchin’ drum beat on my ass cheeks with his branches. That’s not an attempt at poetry; there was a fellow prisoner/massage recipient to my right, and our masseuses had quite a catchy duet going for a bit there, only adding to the surreality of the episode. Each whack brought a burning sting and a blast of hot air, on top of the room’s ever-present oppressive swelter; only alleviated, ever so briefly, when he would firmly press the branches into my upper back. The leaves must have been cooler than the air itself, and they offered a momentary respite

Some time into it, impossible to say how much, I heard the man ask my audience (remember, I was laying on a board in the central area of the room, surrounded by benches seating many burly Russian men, all of them older than me) how to say something in English. After some deliberation a chorus of heavily accented ‘turn over’s rang out. After the beating my buttocks received, I wasn’t so sure about exposing my opposite side to the line of fire. Apprehensive, yes, but undeterred. I flipped. Probably after seeing my crazed, rapidly-blinking eyes, one of the spectators asked if I was alright. “Всё хорошо,” I shakily replied. All good. Once more I was thrust into the vortex of lashes and heat. With a couple notably close calls the masseuse managed to avoid my most sensitive region, though the intensity of the smacks did not falter. More time passed, and I was told to sit up. I moved to put my sandals back on and was stopped; we weren’t quite done. Next I had to spread my arms, pat-down style, and each was whipped in turn; as well as my face and another coat for my back. Only then was I released to stumble, dazed, into the showers. The man wasn’t yet done with me, though. With his hand on my shoulder and my head under the showerhead, he alternated freezing cold and shockingly hot. After a couple minutes he headed off, with a farewell that I barely registered, and I was left with blissfully tepid water coursing down my body, thousand-yard stare on my face.

I left that day with my body coated in red and white blotches. Felt pretty good the rest of the day, too. Very relaxed. Mom got out about an hour after I did, and I spent a dreamy half hour listening to gentle music in the lobby while I waited. When she still didn’t show I headed outside for a walk in the soft rain, Fleet Foxes, Bon Iver, and Sufjan Stevens playing, and smoked a cigarette. Nobody tell my mom.

Malaise?

It really sucks when you feel, at the same time, that you haven’t really done anything objectively wrong but you’ve made a big mistake. There’s not much to be done about it. One can wallow, but that’s entirely unproductive.

There’s a girl on the program, let’s call her Sasha, who I’ve come to really like. It’s rare I meet someone, a girl, with whom I have a strong sense of compatibility. It’s happened a few times, and each time I’ve fucked up, missed the boat, awkwardly flubbed, or generally made a fool of myself. I guess it’s happened again, but I don’t feel I’ve done anything to regret too harshly.

About a couple weeks ago I decide to ask her our. Adult style, to dinner. This was when my mom was still in town, though, and there was no way I could break away to make anything happen that week. I promised myself that Monday, when the group was going to see a play about the Russian war in Afghanistan, I would find sometime when she was alone that I could make my proposition. I couldn’t make it happen. Tuesday, same thing. And then Wednesday. And Thursday. Either she would be around other people, usually our mutual friend (let’s call him Fey), or I could come up with some reasonable excuse to postpone. She’s walking to the bathroom and that would be weird, or we’re headed to a meeting that we share and if I were to be rejected we’d sit in awkward silence and quietly start to loath each other. Not necessarily real scenarios, just ones created by my mind.

Friday, finally, the right time seemed to fall into my hands. We both were going over to Fey’s place to spend the afternoon watching movies. His host mother (or babushka, I never know what to call them) bought dried fish for us. We went to the nearby store for beer, more edible snacks, and vodka. And cognac, it turned out, was on sale. After settling in to his rather homey room in the woman’s apartment, we watched, back-to-back, Dazed and Confused and then Clerks. Two of my favorite movies. It was great, seemed like we all had a good time. Especially Tim, who passed out about halfway through Clerks; their hockey game on the roof of the Quik-Stop being the last thing he remembers, apparently. Me and Sasha cleaned up a little bit and made our way out, after having a hearty chuckle with the babushka over Fey’s sleeping figure.

We made pleasant conversation, Sasha and I, to the metro stop and on the train, until I knew we were to part ways at the next platform. Tverskaya, if I remember correctly. There I resolved to make my move. After confirming that, indeed, she was getting off at the next station, I asked her. “So,” I said, “This is about to get a bit awkward, but I’ve really enjoyed hanging out with you and Fey these past few months. I really like spending time with you, and… well… I think you’re really pretty.” Bit of cringe there, but oh well. Hope that made her feel good, at least. “I was wondering if maybe you wanted to go out with me, like on a date. I was thinking maybe this weekend, if you’re free.”

Her sigh told me everything I needed to know, but of course I had to sit through the whole thing. We were trapped together, after all. She went on to tell me how she and Fey had a thing going on for the past couple months. She hadn’t wanted to inform me because she didn’t want to make things weird between us three, which I appreciate. I never felt like a third wheel and I never wanted too. I just wish I’d known. Strange… it wasn’t like the thought hadn’t occurred to me, but in none of their behavior did I see any evidence of romantic behavior.

Of course, yesterday, Saturday, it seemed so obvious. I didn’t want to ruin our relationship as friends by being weird about the rejection. Of course it wasn’t her fault. So when she messaged in our group chat proposing a walk around Tsaritsino, the abandoned imperial palace in the southeast of Moscow, and Fey agreed, I felt somewhat obligated. It was a gorgeous day. After wallowing in bed until 2 in the afternoon, which I do feel embarrassed about, I responded saying I had woken up feeling shitty (true) and hadn’t seen the message until then. Promised to head over when I could. I arrived at 4, smoked a cigarette, looked at the palace’s majestic visage, and messaged them to ask where they were. That day I saw the signs. Not clear, certainly, but when you knew what to look for they were there. A slight nudge here. The way she put up with his stupid jokes and obnoxious behavior. (Can you tell I’m still not quite over it?)

Some of their friends from last semester-they both were year-long students, though she was in St. Petersburg last semester-were coming from St. Pete to Moscow for the weekend, and we met them for dinner. I could stand spending time with the two of them, but meeting a crowd of new people was just too much. I blamed my premature departure on a persistent cough which required a nap. A useful excuse; illness comes in handy sometimes. I should probably feel like asshole for giving the new arrivals the cold shoulder, but I have trouble caring what they think. Probably never gonna see them again.

What to do? I made a mistake, that’s clear. But put in the same situation again, I’m sure I’d act the same way. I honestly did not suspect that they were together. It blindsided me, which I guess speaks to my shortsightedness, but who is in the wrong? Certainly not her. Even less Fey. And I have trouble assuming blame… but why have I felt so shitty, then, the last couple days? Embarrassment, I suppose. Rejection. A feeling that our relationship-the three of us-won’t really be the same from here on out. The only way to fix this seems to be to ignore it, but that doesn’t really feel like a fix at all.

I guess I’ll see her, and Fey, tomorrow at the university. Maybe that will bring some kind of resolution, but I doubt it.

Mom

Mom visited last week. Flew in on a Friday evening. Very good to see her, I’m so glad she made the trip. We did some pretty awesome things in our tours of Moscow and St. Pete; stuff I won’t soon forget. But I’m gonna write it down anyway.

I meant to last week, but I was so busy. I would have done it on the train ride to or from Pete, but the trains didn’t have WiFi and I considered that a legitimate enough excuse. I don’t know why it’s so hard for me to write sometimes. I don’t hate it so much in the act, but the anticipation is killer. Recently I’ve had such trouble coming up with interesting things to discuss on the blog, too. That’s a lame excuse, though, and I know it. Whatever I write, even the most bullshit stuff, I’m going to love reflecting on in 10 years. Or 20. Or 50. (Hi 70-year-old me, hanging in there? World hasn’t ended yet?) But even still. Felt like I had nothing worthwhile to say.

That changed for sure when Mom came, though. Had some $150 caviar, danced until 2:30 at one of the hotter nightclubs in Moscow (Rolling Stone), saw a couple ballets at some magnificent theaters, toured multiple grand imperial palaces, and stayed in probably the fanciest hotel I’ll probably ever stay in (unless Mom ups the ante on one of the future family trips): the Four Seasons in St. Pete. I think it was like $370 or so a night. Not too bad for the states, but the place was downright ostentatious. Cool, though. Not exactly somewhere I’d go on my own.

Possibly the coolest thing I did, though, was take a bath. On Tuesday evening (or was it Monday…) we went to Сандуновские бани (Sanduny Baths), the oldest continually operating баня in Moscow. It opened in 1808, and I felt its history. Not just in the decor, a mix of old and new embodied by the traditional wooden tubs of water situated next to showers with modern plumbing and xeroxed, laminated sheets advertising shampoos for purchase at the front desk, but in the sense of continuity; of belonging to something deeper and aged. Timeworn masculinity. It was easier than I thought to disrobe and sit in a room with about a dozen other naked men of all ages, the temperature hovering around 200 °F. The heat hits in waves, washing over you like a dry shower. Saturated, coated, inundated in sweat, the bather sits on wooden slats sticking out from walls on a second-floor landing. Two tables lie in a central area next to the stairs for those lucky enough to get a ‘massage,’ code in Russian banyas for assault by birch branch. Everything is wood and steam, save for a massive clay furnace off in the corner into which a flushed worker on the lower level continuously shoveled coal. Occasionally, he would ascend and, with the flap of a large woolen sheet, blast the bathers with superheated air in an effort to spread it out. This was unbearable. Though there was no way to keep time in the physical and mental haze of the room, I’m sure my first time in lasted no more than five minutes. After I had cycled through the room and the freezing baths outside twice, my soon-to-be masseuse cautioned me in heavily accented English, “Not so fast. It is not healthy.” I had been pushing myself to stay in both places, extreme heat and relatively extreme cold, to the brink of my endurance.

You’ll have to wait until tomorrow for the rest of this experience, and some other adventures with Mom, until tomorrow. I promised myself I’d watch Birdman (at last!) tonight, and I don’t want to go to bed so late. I’m tired enough as it is.

До свидания.

Remembering Boris

Boris Nemtsov, a leader and organizer of the opposition to Putin, was assassinated on the Bolshoy Moskvoretsky Bridge in central Moscow two years ago tomorrow. After a meal out with his 23-year-old Ukrainian model girlfriend, he was crossing the bridge on foot when an unknown assailant shot him four times in the head, heart, liver, and stomach, killing him instantly. Curiously, at the time of the murder all security cameras in the area were switched off for maintenance. This was the day before Boris was set to lead the opposition march Vesna (Spring) to protest the Russian economic situation and war in Ukraine.

Today, in remembrance, tens of thousands of Muscovites marched from Chekhovskaya Station to the bridge where the assassination took place. I was lucky enough to be there. I woke up this morning to a text from my program coordinator, Jon, asking my fellow students and I to avoid the procession, but I couldn’t bring myself to miss out on an opportunity to observe protest in an authoritarian state. My original plan was to watch from afar, but the heavy police presence and orange city utility vehicles blocking off nearby streets rendered that difficult and somewhat pointless. After looking for a solid vantage point, fruitlessly, I returned to Chekhovskaya Station and watched the crowd slowly shuffle through the police checkpoint; a line dozens of meters long of metal detectors and officers to look through bags. I was off to the side, but found myself pushed along by the dense throng of protesters. I didn’t fight it, and was swept towards the gates. I knew that, as an American, this was not a welcome place, and stayed silent as I was instructed through the security regimen, and for the rest of my time there. I was cleared and walked through.

Inside the procession little changed, the mass of people walked orderly down a broad street. Some had flags, mostly the red, white, and blue stripes of Russia. I saw some political party flags represented, notably those of Yabloko, the Russian United Democratic Party, too leftist and anti-establishment for representation in the Russian Duma, or Congress. Other handmade posters had messages in memorial of Mr. Nemtsov. “Thank you for everything,” one said. “I remember.” I saw a couple of Ukrainian flags in support of the invaded country and in opposition to its invader. Others chanted slogans. “Rossiya bez Putina!” one went, Russia without Putin!  “Putin prinyal Ukrainu!” (Putin took Ukraine!) said others.  One of my favorite bits of protest art were the dozens of cardboard rectangles painted with the colors of the Russian flag and riddled with faked bullet holes.

It was a calm and disciplined procession. I never once felt threatened. People brought their kids, and I saw many babushkas in their classic Russian fur coats. There was certainly no violence that I saw, although I did hear reports that opposition leader Mikhail Kasyanov had green ink thrown in his face by an anti-opposition assailant who was then detained. I wasn’t there for that, though. In general, all I saw was flag waving, some halfhearted chanting, and a lot of walking. There was a very heavy police presence, of course, but they seemed mostly bored and took little action. Some of them looked younger than me. The most frightening part about their being there was their backup; milling around always near the police lining the streets were plainclothes activists wearing red armbands that read Druzhinnik, or Vigilante. It was vaguely fascist and certainly a bit intimidating, but no action was taken by or against them.

At a certain point a couple miles into the march, the crowd was split by the authorities. The road ahead was unblocked and traffic was flowing, so the protesters had been somehow redirected. I couldn’t understand the droning loudspeaker’s instructions and resolved to follow the largest group, hoping that I could follow them to the continuation of the protest until its planned conclusion at the Bolshoy Moskvoretsky Bridge. Police continued to line the street, a somewhat promising sign, until I realized that I had just been redirected to the nearest metro station, Krasniye Vorota. I considered backtracking but decided against it. I was cold and my feet were tired, and I didn’t want to rock the boat much more than I already had, so I got a quick lunch and headed home. I’m very glad I participated, though. It was a very interesting experience as my first real protest. In Moscow no less; against Putin! I’m lucky to have gotten this view on what dissent looks like in modern Russia.

Later on in the evening, I went to the Maslenitsa celebration at Gorky Park. It was really cool! They had a concert with some very lively music, and then they burned this scarecrow effigy with lots of fireworks and pyrotechnics.