YOU HAVE NOTHING TO FEAR EXCEPT, WELL, EVERYTHING
“Don’t go to Russia,” said chef, author, and TV personality Anthony Bourdain during a May visit to my hometown. Bourdain had already confessed to eating sheep testicles in Morocco and a raw seal eyeball during an Inuit seal hunt as well as an unwashed warthog rectum in Namibia, so why was he warning his audience against Russia?
I had a special interest in this question since, earlier that same day, I’d put down a deposit of several thousand dollars on a rail journey from St. Petersburg to Beijing. A few months before, Barbara had asked if we could do something special for our 30th wedding anniversary. I said sure, figuring she meant a drive to Apalachicola for the local oysters. It turns out she wanted to spend a month on the Trans-Siberian Railway.
As it happened, it wasn’t the food Bourdain was troubled by but the vodka. “I had two shots with breakfast, between seven and nine with lunch, and from fourteen to sixteen shots with dinner—every day. And every night, there was a 95 year-old Russian grandmother who could not only outdrink you but toss you over her shoulder and carry you home.”
Then again, the rest of the world has always been afraid of Russia. As Edmund Wilson points out in Patriotic Gore, the Czar’s Russia swallowed up the innumerable peoples who made up the old Russian Empire, and after that, Stalin, while indignantly denouncing imperialism, devoured the Balkan and the Baltic countries and those of Central Europe.
Russia’s imperial phase seems to be over (though the Georgians wouldn’t say so). So what’s that country up to today?
As our plane began its descent to the St. Petersburg airport, I thumbed through the “Getting Around” section of The Top 10 St. Petersburg guide, which warned, among other things, of police shakedowns, noting that police supplement their meager salaries by stopping pedestrians, discovering a non-existent irregularity in their papers, and then demanding an on-the-spot fine of twenty dollars or so. Okay, I’ve been told to move on a couple of times in Baton Rouge and Tallahassee, but that’s because I was loitering; no cop in either of those cities ever said I had a “fine” that could be settled on the spot by a double sawbuck.
It was also suggested that visitors watch out for the dropped wallet scam, whereby you’d return a wallet to the person who’d dropped it and be told that an enormous sum was missing, that you’d better return it immediately, and so on. If this were not enough, the Top 10 guide also suggested that visitors might be attacked by skinheads.
None of this happened. We went out every night in St. Petersburg and Moscow and walked home unmolested; police, people with wallets, and even a handful of bald guys with tattooed necks and gold teeth either treated us cordially or, like most people in every big city, ignored us altogether. Still, both before we left the States and after our return, people who knew about our trip said, “Arent’t you afraid to go to Russia?” and “Weren’t you afraid there?
We didn’t even run into the problem with vodka that Anthony Bourdain had. The closest I came to overindulgence was one evening in Ulan-Ude, when we drove out of the city to a community of Old Believers, descendants of the schismatics who split with the Russian Orthodox Church in 1666 as a protest against church reforms. We had dinner with three wonderful old ladies who offered half a dozen toasts and poured as many shots into us, though as their table was covered with pies and pickles as well as roasted and jellied meats of several kinds, there was plenty to eat and, with all the pauses for songs and dancing, plenty of time to eat it in.
SAME AS THE OLD BOSS
That said, daily life in Russia can be unsettling. For one thing, I’ve never seen so many broken-down cars, buses, and trucks by the side of the road, always with two or three men under the hood who raised themselves and gave me the woebegone look that says, as the skeleton said to the three knights in the medieval tale, “As you are, I was; as I am, so you will be.” I had the same look when I was a teenager and a college student, and now those guys were giving it to me, though I knew then that one day I would be able to afford a car that didn’t break down every other day, whereas these down-and-outers were in their forties and fifties and looked as though it’s unlikely they’ll ever be able to say that.
Something else that makes me wonder if a country hasn’t fully developed yet is its inability to handle reasonable-sized currency. Many a street vendor missed out on a deal because they couldn’t break a 500-ruble bill (about $17) for a religious icon or a a sack of apples. And attempts at changing a bill for 1,000 rubles (around $33) at a hotel desk was consistently met with white-faced terror; even in the bigger cities, I was usually told “it’s not possible.”
An article by Vladislav L. Inozemtsev, a professor at the Moscow School of Economics, in the Spring 2011 issue of American Interest called “Neo-Feudalism Explained” says that Russia hasn’t changed that much since the Czars and is unlikely to any time soon. Yes, there are new economic freedoms in post-Soviet Russia, but political freedoms are “incompatible with its feudal perspective. Thus Russia will not soon look like any country in Western Europe or North America. It will not collapse, and it will not radically evolve. It will simply be.”
And columnist Alexei Bayer, in the May 30 issue of The Moscow Times, writes that “in many ways, communism is still alive and well in Russia. Today’s . . . functionaries are the country’s huge army of bureaucrats who have no responsibilities and feel no pressure to do anything.” In Bayer’s description, the government of Putin and Medvedev sounds like the imperial court with its numberless minor noblemen with no greater goal than to catch the Czar’s eye and get an even cushier post than their present one.
There’s no better way to size up Russian life than to contrast it with that of its neighbor, Mongolia. The people in Ulan Bator were as different as they could be from their Russian counterparts just across the border in Ulan-Ude, and not merely because they were Asian. In a word, they were goofier, more happy and playful, more prone to giggle and jostle each other on the sidewalk; six year-olds shouted “Hello!” at us, practicing their school English. The Mongolians, too, had been oppressed by the Soviets from 1921-1991, but the Russians were persecuted by other Russians.
When I ask Senge, our guide in Ulan Bator, if he thinks Mongolians are happy people, he says, “Sure, yeah!” and breaks into the Alfred E. Newman smile that I was to see repeatedly over the next few days. When I ask why that would be so, he thinks for a minute and says, “Well, the Buddhism we practice is a joyful religion” and then “the nomadic lifestyle is built on cooperation with others.” But I wonder if the Mongolians are simply happy their oppressors are gone. Like incest survivors, the Russians were persecuted by other Russians, so they pass the ghosts of their tormentors every day.
THE BIRTH OF THE BLUES
As I’ve described it so far, Russia for centuries has been a Petri dish for that cultural yeast we call the blues. In America, downtrodden folk have always responded to the blues three ways: by playing music, by going to church, and by drinking strong liquor. A song like “Preachin’ Blues” by Son House covers all the bases; here a church group segues quickly from salvation to their love of corn liquor. Oppression creates soul, and soul can take the form of a fish fry, a hootenanny, a roof-rattling gospel service, or all three.
Now granted, there are all kinds of religion in Russia. On one side of Ulan-Ude is a monastery where a Tibetan type of Buddhism is practiced, and on the other is the worship house of the Old Believers. And there are mosques throughout the entire Russian Federation. But adherents of other religions don’t have much in the way of bragging rights. A Jehovah’s Witness once told me her sect was the fourth largest religion in Italy, but I don’t think the Vatican has much to worry about, and the analogy holds for Russia. Dostoevsky called the Russians a “god-bearing” people destined to regenerate the world, and so far the Russian Orthodox Church hasn’t denied the charge.
And in this they have the full consent of the people. In Ekaterinberg: The Last Days of the Romanovs, Helen Rappaport quotes a British military observer during Bolshevik times as saying:
To every Ruski [sic] religion was not just a convention or fad, but the fabric of his life. Old and young, rich and poor, good and bad. It was a daily revelation and a solace. I don’t mean just bobbing to Ikons and signing the cross and sniffing up incense. I mean that in their hearts a lamp was lit and kept trim and holy . . . they reached a depth of emotions which we westerners hardly skim.
In Saint Nicholas’ Cathedral in St. Petersburg, we witnessed a service that was positively operatic, the priest’s voice rising higher and higher in song as the seven-person choir sounded like seventy thanks to acoustics better than the ones in many a concert hall. In the nave, an older woman suddenly dropped into a four-point stance and began to do lunges with her right leg. (“That’s too religious!” said Natalia, our guide.)
But religion isn’t just for the babushkas in Russia. Our twenty-something guide Tatiana in Ulan- Ude chattered happily about her rebirth into the Church and said she was like many other young people who were returning to the religion of their grandparents.
To their peril, the czars insisted that orthodoxy was a mystical gift passed down directly from God, which made it logical for the Bolsheviks to slay them and substitute the secular religion of Communism, complete with its own creed, songs, vestments, and so on. But the czars were right: Communism is a museum piece these days, while the last czar and his family are now saints.
The Church on the Blood in Ekaterinburg is built on the site of the house where Nicholas II and his family were shot and stabbed to death by drunk, maladroit softies. Men driven more by ideology than bloodlust, they vomited and wept as they chased the Grand Duchesses around the cellar, the screaming girls slipping in their parents’ blood.
The Romanovs are depicted as saints there now, and as I drew close to peer at one painting, an old lady batted me aside so she could kiss the feet of the Czarevitch. As Helen Rappaport writes, “the needy, the hopeful, the despairing” now find in “the martyred Imperial Family a way of atoning for the past, for the depredations of 73 years of Communism, for the loss of Russian national and spiritual identity.”
POETS AND OTHER CRIMINALS
Suffering is the very stuff of art, of course, so it’s not surprising to learn that Russians are absolutely nuts for poetry. A Russian colleague at my university told me this:
You’re not a [real] Russian unless you know lots and lots of poetry. An army colonel gave me a ride once and recited poetry for an hour and a half! When you date someone, you find out how much they know about poetry before you go any further. But in America, when I tried to get my students to go see Andrei Voznesensky, a young man said, “But, Professor, in our country, if you like poetry, you’re gay.”
“Poetry is respected only in this country,” Osip Mandelstam said; “there’s no place where more people are killed for it.” Though he died on his way to Siberia, for a while Mandelstam was tolerated by Stalin, partly thanks to Bolshevik leader Nikolai Bukharin, who warned Stalin that “poets are always right, history is on their side.”
Another writer who did time in the gulag, Varlam Shalamov, grew up with a book-hating father, recalling that “Father never spoke to me of [the poet] Butyushkov. From this I conclude that my father did not like poetry, feared its dark power, far from common sense.” There follows a line from Batyushkov: “O heart’s memory, you are stronger than reason’s sad memory.” Then Shalamov praises Batyushkov’s “power over the word, which was freer and more unbridled than Pushkin’s . . . preserving the most unexpected discoveries.” No wonder people love poetry and the powerful fear it.
In “The Gift: Joseph Brodsky and the Fortune of Misfortune,” which appears in the May 23, 2011 issue of The New Yorker, Keith Gessen notes that “the whole country was going crazy for poetry” in the first days after the Stalinist era. Then things went pear-shaped: for several years, Brodksy and other poets were rock stars, but when Krushchev was humiliated during the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, he lashed out at home, lambasting a group of young Moscow artists “faggots.”
Still, can you imagine any US writer describing a period in our history when the whole country was “crazy for poetry”?
UNCLE IVAN WANTS YOU
Much of Russian art strikes one as intoxicated; take Andrei Konchalovsky’s film Siberiade, which Dave Kehr, in the January 16, 2007 New York Times, calls a “grand, inebriated epic,” one that “seems drunk on its own lushness and scale.” Or Mikhail Bulgakov’s tour de force novel The Master and Margarita, which swerves from character, setting, and historical period with the cheery mania of a bum reeling through the city with a bottle in his hand. Reading the latter made me think of my harder-drinking days, when I’d look up to see someone in a chair who might have just sat down or who’d been sitting there for hours.
There’s a quicker way to get drunk in Russia, though, and a patriotic one. This year, Russia announced plans to quadruple the tax on vodka, meaning that every 50-milliliter shot you drink will put more kopecks in state coffers. In the April 16, 2011 New York Times, Mark Lawrence Schrad, in a piece called “Moscow’s Drinking Problem,” quotes Russian finance minister Aleksei Kudrin telling reporters in 2010 that “the best thing that his fellow citizens could do to help the country’s flaccid national economy was to smoke and drink more, thereby paying more in taxes.”
It was ever thus, it seems; in 1591, English ambassador Giles Fletcher reported that Ivan the Terrible encouraged his subjects to drink up in state-owned taverns where “none may call them forth whatsoever cause there be, because he hindereth the emperor’s revenue.”
With a friendly pat on the back from whoever’s in charge, today Russians consume about 18 liters of pure alcohol per person annually, more than twice the internationally recommended limit. Alcohol poisoning kills 40,000 Russians a year as compared to around 300 in the US, though some of those are tax dodgers who drink everything from cologne to shoe polish and even jet fuel as well as unregulated home brews.
That said, the different types of “moonshine” (my hosts’ translation) I sipped on more than one occasion were among the tastiest drinks I had in Russia. I liked the horseradish vodka I had on my first night in St. Petersburg, though it’s definitely a once-a-year drink. When I caught a mild cold, I was urged to chug a shot of honey-pepper vodka that was delicious and straightened me out faster than a fistful of antibiotics.
After the meal with the merry Old Believer ladies, my favorite drinking experience was at a Georgian restaurant in Ulan-Ude, where skewers of grilled meat were sided with a carafe of Russian Standard vodka and its accompanying pitcher of mors, a diluted berry juice. A shot of Russian Standard, a glass of mors, a nibble of lamb or sausage, my lovely wife across the table: believe me, I’ve had worse evenings.
In the issue of The New Yorker that features the essay on Joseph Brodsky, Jill Lepore quotes Clarence Darrow as saying “no one can find life tolerable without dope. The Catholics are right, the Christian Scientists are right, the Methodists are right, the drunkards are right.” (Lepore says Darrow thought his own dope was pessimism, though actually it was compassion.)
And ordinary Russian people are right, too. Armed with the triple anodyne of poetry, vodka, and religion, they respond as the resilient always have to a state that once oppressed them and now ignores them. I came to their country in fear, and I left in love. The more time I spent with the Russians, the more I felt at home with them, probably because they reminded me so much of the peoples of the rural South that I grew up with. The Old Believer ladies told me that all of their songs are sad ones—blues songs, in effect.
So whether you look now or five hundred years ago, when you peer below the surface of Russian feudalism, what you discover is a country of writers, drinkers, and believers. I imagine two Russians sitting at a table, a bottle between them. The one says, “Thank god for poetry,” and the other replies, “I’ll drink to that.”
Author’s Note: The books and articles I’ve quoted from in this article are identified in it by title and author. I also drew from Rachel Polonsky’s Molotov’s Magic Lantern: Travels Through Russian History and Orlando Figes’ Natasha’s Dance: A Cultural History of Russia, an invaluable guide to its subject. Additional background information was provided by Nina Efimov, Joseph Eska, Adam Garfinkle, and Robert Romanchuk. Thanks as well to Lee Congdon and Karlanna Lewis for help with the Russian phrases that got us into hotels and restaurants and kept us out of trouble.