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.

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.

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.

Field Trip

We went on a field trip today, out to Ethno Mir; a theme park showcasing different societies from around the world. The long, narrow main building, flags lining the center of its ceiling, boasted stalls on either side of every country and region with a distinct culture. I listened to our tour guide, who looked to be descended from the region, perform some Central Asian throat singing inside a replica yurt while wearing a decorative nomad cap. We examined peasant huts from Belarus and Ukraine heated traditional русские печи (Russian ovens), watched from the corners by shaggy cats who seemed indifferent to the lavish attention they received from our group. I walked arm-in-arm with Anna past great snowy fields next to a dense forest of birch and pine, through which panting Huskies pulled dogsleds of laughing children. One scolded me for trying to pet one of the dogs; apparently they’re off limits while on the job.

They had an exhibit on America, or США as they call it, though it was rather lacking. Swinging saloon doors opened on a few plain plastic tables, with a bar off to the right and a Hollywood sign easy to overlook in one of the corners. They had a license plate collection on one wall; with California and Arizona, they were two states down, forty-eight to go; on the one opposite was colorful and abstract graffiti with a ‘Yes!’ overlaid. Apparently the park hasn’t quite finished construction, and isn’t set to until 2020. I’d expect more then, but honestly I doubt I’ll be returning to check.

It’s outside Moscow, a ways south into Kaluga Oblast. We shoved into a bus off of the Slavyansky Bulvar metro station for a ninety-minute drive that was moody and beautiful in shakes of grey and dirty white. We passed an astroturf field cleared of snow for some soccer players, the closest I’ve gotten to natural green in almost a month. After having to wake up (painfully) at 7:15 on a Sunday for this excursion, I’d hoped to do some reading and listen to mild music, maybe nap if the road wasn’t too rough (it was, of course). But Anna wouldn’t let me. I hadn’t planned on her coming on the trip, and of course we sat together and talked the whole time. It wasn’t unpleasant, but I lamented the missed opportunity for a quiet moment surrounded by beautiful scenery. Beautiful in a very Soviet way, at least. Almost everyone else slept. She was nice, though. I do like spending time with her. At her request we played a game I haven’t played in at least a decade; the one where you stare at each other until one person, the loser, laughs or looks away. Blinking is allowed. I hate that game.

No Gods No Manners

I’ve always had trouble with etiquette. What’s really the point, y’know? Does it really revolutionize the dining experience to relegate the knife to a permanent position in the right hand, to limit the fork to the left? It feels excessively restrictive; codifying things that would better be left to personal choice. Not that I want to chew with my mouth open, belch with abandon, or otherwise disgust my fellow diners, but beyond the basic rules of being a pleasant person why bother with such rules and formalities, especially in the home setting? Live and let eat, right?

Guess I shouldn’t have moved to Europe if this is going to bother me so much.

Had some flak from my host ‘mom’ (that may be stretching it, she’s approaching 80, but calling her ‘grandma’ at seems a bit… patronizing?) at dinner today. It feels like she’s been more critical of me than usual recently, from questioning my Russian yesterday (fairly, one could argue) to scolding me for using one of her towels to dry my hair this morning. I understand that since I am a guest taking over some of her space I need to be as courteous as possible, especially in a country which takes formality with respect to elders more seriously than home. So I try to adapt and fit her lifestyle as much as I can without compromising behaviors than I need in order to feel myself, and I’ve been trying to only learn from those comments. Something about the nagging at dinner tonight put me off more than usual, though. Manners at the dinner table have been something of a sore subject since childhood for me. Living in California, raised in the mountains, with parents whose regard for such formalities was no match for my firm resistance, I have little skill or knowledge about them, relatively speaking, and have managed thus far in life without it being an issue. I hope I won’t have to change that now; I think studying etiquette and practicing it on my own time would kill me a little inside, but I’m worried it might have to happen at some point in my life. I’m worried that it might be the sooner the better.

Anyway, enough self-sorrow. Back to dinner.

I returned to the flat (apparently that’s different from an apartment here) late, around 7:15 pm, from my walk with Masha. A new friend, not the Masha I knew before arriving in Moscow. I’ll get into the walk later, if I feel up to it. So I opened the door, greeted my host mom (Здравствуйте, Инна Борисовна! Hello, Inna Borisovna!), and went into my room to change. That’s another thing I’ve learned from being here, there’s a serious distinction between indoor clothes and outdoor clothes, and never the twain shall mix. I got into my sweats and sat down on my bed to breathe for a bit. It’s been a long day and these interactions with Inna are often really stressful. There’s no ducking out of dinner, though, so I headed in, chin up, ready to brave the awkward tenseness of my jerky, hazy attempts at translation. She was off to the right of the dining table set up in the kitchen; a small thing which only two people could sit at comfortably, with one side pressed against the wall and the other open to the cramped kitchen; washing a dish in the sink. I took my seat, a stool with no back reaching approximately my upper shin. A lamp hangs over the table, dim then but when we occasionally take our tea together around 9 in the evening it’s our only source of slight. The first course, a vinegary салат of beets, pickles, and onions mixed together which I have come to love, sat waiting on the tarp of a tablecloth. The table covering is white and a damp, greyish brown. Checkered with ornamental hearts, snowflakes, and elk silhouettes, it’s at once kitsch and entirely culturally relevant. Inna, a slightly hunched older lady with faded blonde curls and drooping jowls, a shadowy impression of beauty remaining in her later years, turned her slight frame back towards the table and sat. She won’t let me do the dishes no matter how much I ask to help.

The salad was consumed in as much silence as I could hope for. I used a piece of bread as a scoop to push the vegetable chunks onto my fork, like I was taught last night. When I finished, the microwave beeped and the next course, chicken soup in a thin broth with carrot slices and rice, was ready. Very tasty, but no dunking the bread, as I learned last week! According to Inna, it’s bad for the digestion. Bites of bread must be taken dry and on the side. A bit inconvenient, as I’ve spend most of my life enjoying my soup and bread in conjunction, but I’m getting used to it. As I was finishing the soup more problems arose. Earlier in the meal, I’d gotten up to fill my mug with filtered water from the sink. I’ve done this for at least a couple weeks now, idly noticing that she never did the same. In fact, she never seemed to drink with her meals. Tonight she brought up the issue; confused, it seemed, as to why I needed more water than that in my bowl of soup. She said that water could be drank a half hour before or after meals, but to drink it while eating was no good. Usually when I hear comments like this, I nod along and say I understand, cataloging it with the other tips I’ve gotten for Russifying myself. This bothered me a bit, though. I rather like drinking during meals, and I’ve never considered it rude or unhealthy. I wasn’t–am still not–sure I want to adopt this tip, and managed only a ‘hmmm’ and an ‘интересный (interesting).’ She took this to mean I didn’t follow and pressed the issue, continuing for another couple minutes with ample gesturing and mimed drinking. Finally, I submitted and threw her a ‘понимаю (I understand).’ I could feel that tonight wasn’t gonna be a tea night.

This was only the beginning, it seemed, as the next course, plain pasta noodles and meatballs with ketchup (better than it sounds), allowed her to vent her confusion over me eating bread with my pasta. “They’re made of the same thing!” she emphasized. Particularly strange for her was this morning, when I had a breakfast of pasta (spaghetti, she calls it, along with every other Italian noodle) and egg with bread, cheese, and meat slices on the side. Inna made it for me, and I am certainly grateful, but I’m not sure why she found it so strange that I ate it all when she was the one who set it out for me. I guess tomorrow morning I’ll skimp on the bread. When I finished cutting the meatball (another necessary step I’ve learned), I dropped the knife while moving the fork into my right hand. This, I suppose, is the main benefit of a division of labor between hands; avoiding the jarring clang of a falling utensil. There’s something to be said for that, and Inna did indeed, with an extended, gesticulating dialogue about etiquette in general with what seemed like, if translation serves, some rather personal digs. It might be for the best. At 20, on the brink of semi-serious adulthood, I should probably know much of this stuff already. Why does it bother me so damn much? I gotta also wonder how much of this stuff is cultural, and how much an elderly woman back in the States would find to criticize me about. Suppose I’ll have to find one when I get back home to compare.

In many ways, though, this rant has been completely unfair. It’s late, it’s been a long day, and I’m taking out some of my frustrations about being surrounded by this unfamiliar culture on my helpful, diligent, caring, host mom. She even did my laundry today. I don’t think she wants me anywhere near her rather delicate laundry machine, but that’s besides the point. I owe her so much for fostering me as I adjust to this new place and these foreign customs, and I will be forever grateful, I’m sure. Despite all the earlier negativity I do enjoy spending time with her; it’s a strenuous kind of enjoyment, but enjoyment nonetheless. It’s clear she has much knowledge to share. She’s already told me stories ranging from exploring the volcanoes of the Kamchatka peninsula to the French invasion in 1812, much of which I couldn’t understand but the gist was magical enough. When I walked into the kitchen for dinner this evening, I saw a note card on the table scribbled over with chemical formulas and equations. In a past life she was a geochemist. I asked her about it. She was analyzing a chemical reaction, apparently just for fun.

All that said, it is sometimes aggravating to have so much of our interaction revolve around criticism. The Russians are a very open people, and though I’m sure she means no malice it can feel like I’m constantly making these embarrassing missteps, some of which I don’t want to stop making. It’s sometimes hard to know where to draw the line.

It’s late and I’m tired. I didn’t get to the new Masha, but hopefully I will have more stories in the future.

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.