Rule 1: Don’t Bring Up Chechnya

Aka the biggest social blunder I’ve made so far

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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.