“We are not Asia. We are not western Europe. We are just Russia. Why do we have to be like this or like that? We are just Russians. We have our own civilization, our own alphabet, our own language, everything our own.”
-Victor Bodarenko, Publisher (Art of Russia, Andrew Graham-Dixon)
What to write about Russia that hasn’t already been written thousands of time, more eloquently by more talented men? In my first attempt (which I scrapped) I started with a truncated history lesson, which quickly fell apart when I realized I didn’t know some pretty big things about the biggest country in the world. Which begs the question: what do we really know about Russia? Beside Vodka, Mail Order Brides and Kalishnakovs. I’m pretty sure we- being anyone born during the Reagan regime which promoted commodifying natural resources, deregulating economic oversight of corporations, and racing to outspend the Soviets in order to topple the Berlin Wall for the Free Market Economy to go global- don’t know much that isn’t pure propaganda. Or out of a John le Carré spy novel or a Tom Clancy techno-thriller. So it was with much trepidation I wrote the following excerpt in my journal while seated in my compartment on the Trans-Mongolian Express en route to Irkutsk from Ulan Bator:
It is helpful to not over-analyze the situation into which you are about to dive headlong. If only to tame the growing inkling of a hunch that you are way out of your depth here and would do well to apply swift pressure to the emergency brakes and exit the vehicle rushing through frozen steppeland toward the Siberian border. You could always find a way to go around. China to Tibet, into Nepal, through India and then up through…hmmm. Well, there are always the Stans to consider- Kazakh, Uzbek, Afghan, and all the others- maybe you could… Wait, you are just being silly. Though often one-way in the hey-day of the Gulag-bound Soviets, this is a well-traveled route taken by millions of people for well over a century. Your fellow train riders should at least be polite if not friendly, and ignore you if not spit on the capitalist red white and blue blood in your veins, if anything, but even that, nah…you’ve seen too many Cold War era B movies. Rich people fly first, hell, any class. Who takes the train any more? The salt of the earth. Hah, people with no better choice is who. People, tovarich, like you. Give in to it. Accept your fate. Sit back in your second class seat and wait for Mother Russia to come to you. There’s likely to be some milk left in that great Slavic tit of hers, you could probably scrounge up some vodka around here somewhere, and there’s plenty of ice outside. White Russians anyone?
Like gossip heard around water coolers and soft mutterings whispered in corridors it is a risky thing to try to generalize about things which we don’t actually know to be true or false. So I demur to answer the tedious, “How was Russia? Was it like this…?” when asked by curious anecdote seekers, with easily categorizable sound bytes hearkening back to demeaning cold war era nicknames, but prefer to confuse with offerings of “Well, you know the Cossacks…” or “Once a commie, always a commie…”, simply for the fact that a ten-day transit visa through anywhere is tantamount to more confusion than clarity. What you get is a whirlwind of imagery that amalgamates into a liquor-tinged jambalaya that is nearly impossible to recall after the fact without at least some of the original conditions.
Hence, the bloody mary by my side.
Five days of speeding through the frozen eastern steppes, where the derelict houses resemble those itinerant dwellings of Mongolia more than anything typically Russian (but the question is what is typical for Russia?) until the landscape gradually gives way to more and more grassland, allows one time to think beyond the stereotypes. The steppe folds back to reveal a rolling country of verdant foothills which herald the Ural mountains, the Eur-Asian continental divide. Random trees coalesce into great swaths of majestic forest. The faces of those provincial folk who live along the lifeline of the train track steadily change from dark to light. Where before animal husbandry was the norm, now crops are sowed and reaped. Buildings of a bygone era, mostly onion-domed orthodox churches and dilapidated nuclear reactors, dot the wild landscape more and more as the train persists in its caterpillar-like creep toward the cities of the west: Omsk, Ekaterinberg, Perm, Kazan, Nizhny-Novgorod, Moscow, St. Petersburg. Despite seeing and absorbing all of this and more, I have only myself for a guide, and have to go by appearances until something more substantial comes along.
Hence, the beard.
The Russians are well known for their beards. And their beard lore. Apparently Ivan IV (Mr. “Terrible”) believed it was due solely to the beard that Russia rose from antiquated medieval fiefdom to imperial nation-state. A few years later the thoroughly Europeanized Peter (Mr. “Great”) decreed that all Russian men had to shave their beards and levied fines if they did not. Though variations persist, from then on, no Russian leader would ever sport a full beard again. Trotsky and Lenin made the philosophical goatee popular throughout the Beat Generation and Stalin patented the bushy bigote that would later become Tom Selleck’s claim to fame: The Magnum.
Whatever your stance on Russian politics, beards, etc., until you have been there, sporting at least a ten-day growth, you won’t know how at home you feel until you have stepped off the train after five days of green pastures into the central station maelstrom of babushkas hawking flowers and fresh herbs, Putin matroshkas on sale next to dollar packs of cigarettes, and emerge onto the shiny Benz and Rover-packed traffic snarled roads, wander past the wide soulless boulevards into the small canal-fed byway and happen upon an alley of cheaply built pubs and beer stands, where you are eating fresh dill pickles and drinking shots of vodka in plastic cups in a tree-lined public square in central Moscow as a makeshift electro-polka band strikes up gritty ditties, after which cute punk rock chicks come up with ruble-filled Converse asking for donations with smiles you can’t deny and the homeless looking men you’re talking to (but not understanding) keeps saying “Amerikanski” and gesturing to the sky with explosive blue eyes, you lean back, drain your cup, and pause to scratch your chin. It’s a natural movement. People think you look pensive or introspective. The truth is simple. Beards are itchy. You’re not an anachronism when half the men in the crowd are all synchronized scratchers, you are amongst your people, despite the language barrier. That’s what the food and drink is for. Given this level of camaraderie, your initial fears now seem unfounded. The thick fuzzy beats and accordion music start to meld with the thick, chilled vodka, those cute rocker girls have now doubled in numbers and are buzzing about like bees smiling and winking, and as you reach for the best pickle you’ve ever had, whilst simultaneously sliding into the pulsating vibrations of the zone of tremulous dancers, you let the midsummer night sun wash over you and you give in to the inevitable.
Hence, the ineffable Mother Russia.