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.

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.