"In Russia, you have to be careful what you say in journalism," she said "especially if you're a woman. You've heard of Anna Politkovskaya, of course." I admitted that I hadn't, and she explained that it was journalist who, as she put it, "named a few names high up." A few days later, she was mysteriously killed. Her killer was never found. There were rumors about who was behind it all of course, but no one was ever charged.
She also explained how Putin gained popular support and why Medvedev was losing it: strength. "The Russian people only respect someone who appears to be strong. Putin was strong. Medvedev doesn't seem to be the same way. If you have a less strong president following a strong one, there will be problems."
She dropped me off, offering to send me a couple articles she and her friends had written. I'm not sure she'll follow through-- she wasn't very happy with me for leaving town so soon, but if I'm lucky she'll see past that.
Just a couple hours later, I had a quick chat with a Russian returned from years in Germany. I told him a story to see if I could get one in return. I got it.
The story I told was from when I was just a kid. My father and I were driving home, coming towards the Fremont Bridge, Queen Anne Hill in full view. I don't remember what prompted it, but he said "I'm not sure if you ever got a full picture of what a nuclear weapon could do if dropped on Seattle." I agreed, and he explained that it would destroy everything we could see at that moment and a great deal more besides. And he said that during the cold war, it was half expected to happen at any time. It was hard to imagine. But every once n a while afterwards, I tried. Just a few weeks ago I was wandering around Irkutsk, Russia, thinking that not so long ago, the fathers of the guys my age were wondering if at any minute this land, these people, and this town I was now walking around was going to be destroyed without warning by the United States.
The Russian said they didn't really expect that to happen. In fact, he told me that a lot of the things that concerned us in the West didn't register in the USSR. The Cuban missile crisis, for example, was hardly noted. "Maybe there was a little story saying missiles had been installed in Cuba." He told me "That was it."
He also told me something about Moscow, that it had changed immensely over the last four or five years. I asked what it looked like before.
"What is the word, in English, where you take all of the rubbish in your car and throw it out?"
"Yes. That's it. It looked like dump."
It certainly doesn't anymore. The metro stations with the mile-a-minute escalators descending further than you can see from the top look like they'd come from a French palace, aside from the red stars and communist imagery everywhere. I'd seen clean, well-running subways, but they didn't have tiled ceiling, painted frescos, or chandeliers. Above ground the city feels grand. It's big enough with wide streets yet still has the old European architecture. Everything is expensive there. The police cars in the middle of town are sleek black sedans with a single blue light perched at the jaunty angle of a mobster's fedora. The women walk in stiletto heels the span of my hand, and the men wear suits shiny enough to use as emergency airplane signals. The high school kids are kicking around hacky sacks next to red square, and posters for the massive theater scene are all over town.
I could hardly believe it was the same country as the Siberian town I'd been walking through before. There, in Irkutsk, the city bus system was a set of converted minivans with paper signs in the windows. They went slow enough that instead of taking one, I simply followed it on foot to my destination, actually arriving a couple minutes before it would have. The long distance bus station was a dilapidated stone and sheet metal building out of a post-apocalyptic TV series. And the only cop car I saw was a frightening black military vehicle that looked like it had rattled it's way back from the the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
St. Petersburg was again different. The city center was a beautiful set of five-story architecture, canals, and cathedrals. But when I got to my couch surfing host's place by bus, I had to make my way through to weeds and rubble to the front door, go up an elevator with no lights, and enter a crusty apartment on the eighth floor with chunks of floor, ceiling, and walls missing, and a door to a balcony, but no balcony. This is how the starving artists live in Russia: post soviet style.
It was the first country in months where I could blend in and look like a local, as long as I didn't smile. To us, it looks stern. But to them, the smile seems to be a fake veneer, whereas the default expression of a Russian in the street is an honest one.
There is a lot of treasure to be found, like in the Kremlin's jaw-dropping armory chamber filled with jewels, gold, and carriages with doors that could be unhinged and hung in the Louvre. Then the amazingly inappropriately named "Hermitage" museum in the middle of St. Petersburg, one of the biggest museums in the world. But the thing that really struck me was the growing art scene, especially the posters for theater everywhere. I was expecting the ballet, but not the spoken work. My Russian is nowhere near good enough to take it in, but I think if you do, this is going to be a place to watch for more performing arts very soon.
After leaving it, I spent a little time sitting in a cafe in Estonia, munching on a marzipan-covered rum ball in old town, and looking up a few things. Anna Politkovskaya is not alone. According to Journalists without borders, Russia ranks as the third most dangerous country for the profession behind only Iraq and Afghanistan. The claims are disputed, some of the "unsolved" mysteries in fact have had people arrested and charged with murder now behind bars. But it still makes me wonder. I'll still be waiting on those articles.
So I'll be leaving the place behind along with memories of mountain biking in Siberia, watching home videos of Russian summer camps, and having a traditional Russian accordionist unexpectedly play "summertime," leaving me the only one in the room who knew the words. Then there was the classic goodbye of crossing the border seated next to a drunken sailor who kept offering me swigs from his enormous bottle of Bailey's, and watching most of our bus pour out at 1am to rush the duty-free shop and refusing to move until someone was fetched to open it. The sailor covered me up with his leather jacket as I slept and gave me a somewhat unexpected bear hug before leaving after we pulled into the EU at sunrise.
And that's the start of the next region: the European Union.
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