Russia on My Mind
Wistful remembrances of the country's rougher days.
The night was far from young when I flagged down what I thought was a typical gypsy cab in St. Petersburg, Russia, in early 2003. In fact, since the sun was just starting to show itself after the more than 16 hours of darkness that is the norm at that latitude at that time of year, suffice it to say that the night was actually dead. Luckily, though, I wasn’t, even after the fatal amount of vodka I had imbibed throughout the course of that long evening. But if the copious amounts of booze didn’t kill me, something else just might. Or maybe someone. Maybe even the man driving the silver Mercedes I had just gotten into. Hmm. Perhaps, this wasn’t a typical Russian gypsy cab, after all.
It didn’t take me long to come to that conclusion. Whether it was because the driver took off in the opposite direction that I had told him to go in or the feel of his fleshy hand on my denim-clad knee, I’ll never know, but within seconds I was suddenly sober, sensing that if I didn’t take some sort of action quickly, something truly tragic (and just plain stupid) was about to happen. And so I planned my move while his hand continued to knead toward my thigh and his gruff larynx blabbed on in Russian about how he liked Latvian women, which, on the plus side, demonstrated that at least my Russian accent was improving. Unfortunately, this wasn’t a time for self-congratulatory kudos. Improved accent or not, I needed to reach into my American grab-bag of MacGyver-style survival skills and get the hell out of that car.
I had never read a survival guide, but I distinctly remember being told by a college boyfriend once that if I ever needed to escape a moving vehicle, I would need to tuck, roll and protect my head. And so while I waited for the grabby driver to slow down to take the next corner, I furtively unlocked the passenger-side door and readied my gloved fingers on the door handle. On the count of three, I was going to jump out of a moving vehicle for the first time: Raz…dva…tri!
A few nanoseconds later I lay sprawled out on the ice-covered alleyway. I don’t recall if my form was decent, but it must not have been too poor, as I somehow pulled off this feat without any major bleeding, at least externally. I did tear my pants in the process, as well as lose my scarf, which I suspect the would-be John — or, more likely, Ivan — grabbed onto as I flung myself out of the luxurious sedan version of the proverbial rape van, but those losses were minimal barters in exchange for what quite possibly could’ve been my life. In short, I had never felt so relieved.
However, as epic of an experience as that was, when I finally made it back to the Russian dormitory-cum-hostel where most of my friends had retreated to several hours before, I was greeted with camera flashes, laughter, and a whole lot of indifference.
“You guys! I just fucking rolled out of a moving vehicle!” I told them.
“Great. Whatever. You didn’t lose my passport did you?” one person said.
The lack of empathetic reactions from my friends, both Russian and American, at first stung more than the minus-20° wind gusts that blew tiny specks of ice into my unwrapped face as I stumbled, bruised, several blocks back home. However, after countless other near-death experiences in Mother Russia — or as I’ve come to know her, That Perpetually Drunk Aunt Who Flashes Children at Family Gatherings — I would soon come to realize that activities such as rolling out of moving vehicles were just another part of life there, at least in the early part of the decade.
Almost everyone I know, including myself, has had a gun pulled on them. Eh.
Several of my friends, including myself, have been followed and harassed on Moscow’s public transportation system, with threats of violence, rape, and robbery. No biggie.
My friend’s Russian boyfriend once had to punch a girl in the throat when she tried to choke his girlfriend. Yawn.
Another friend of mine got beaten up by club bouncers. Twice. Shit happens.
And still another friend got whipped with chains on the Metro by skinheads. The only reason I didn’t is because he dove on top of me, using his backpack to stave off further injury. “Oh! That reminds me: Do you still have that book I lent you?”
Quite frankly, while these incidents for some reason garnered reactions amounting to little more than shrugs at the time, looking back, we all feel lucky to be alive, especially with our bodies (save for our livers) relatively intact.
Yet while I’d never want to relive any of those objectively terrifying moments — as I’m sure none of my friends would either — I can’t help but feel a strange sense of accomplishment. I feel like we all deserve medals, T-shirts or, in some cases, prison tats that read, “I survived Russia, pre-second-term Putin.”
Today, however, Russia is practically an altogether different place, one where MacGyver-style survival skills aren’t a necessity. And nowhere is this more evident than in Moscow, a city that stood as the capital of one of the bloodiest regimes in history and, save for the only time I’ve ever had to roll out of a moving vehicle, the city where I spent most of the first half of this decade living, working and witnessing the city’s transformation into a viable Western-seeming city.
I saw Moscow’s second IKEA open at the end of 2001 (the first one opened its doors in March of 2000, while I was still a student in St. Petersburg). Subsequently, I saw the first suburban shopping malls sprout up, too. I saw the spread of Westernized grocery stores overtake the old guard, in which you paid for your goods before you collected them (which meant standing in at least two lines as opposed to one). I saw the openings and closings of many a club and bar, with each round seeming a little bit less ridiculously outrageous and uniquely Russian than the last. Most importantly, I felt safer with each passing year. However, despite the IKEA openings and viral-like spread of suburban shopping malls, the wild grit and grime of a once very different Moscow — a place where one could easily imagine chancing across the devil as happened in Bulgakov’s classic Moscow-based tale, The Master and Margarita — always shined through, or more appropriately, always sullied my shoes. Did I mention how dirty Moscow was?
When I went back to visit in 2006, though, having been back in the United States for over a year, I felt like I was in a totally different city. Moscow was a bit cleaner, more orderly, and much more expensive. Gone were the days where one could eat (albeit not well) on less than a dollar. Arrived now are the days where street food costs as much as a full meal (albeit not a delicious one) at a U.S. restaurant. Moreover, Moscow’s main thoroughfare, Tverskaya Ulitsa, is now chock full of Western chain boutiques, with the ultimate in democratized shopping, H&M, set to open in 2009. Hell, there’s even a Starbucks on the Old Arbat, a street that once housed a mafia front disguised as a Chinese restaurant, featuring menu items like “Nut the Cash” and “Fried Pork Iron.” It was so perfectly Russian.
But perhaps most telling — it’s probably no coincidence that there are increasing calls to take Lenin, the idol of many a Russian for over 70 years of the last century, out of his above-ground mausoleum and literally nail his coffin shut.
Those changes, however, prepared me little for a sight that would instantly be burned into my memory as indelibly as that fateful night in St. Petersburg. One day in that summer of 2006, I decided to visit my old apartment, housed in a squat building erected under Nikita Khrushchev. I witnessed several of these types of buildings — aptly dubbed a khrushchevka — torn down in downtown Moscow back in 2003. While I realized then, as well as when we signed the non-law-abiding lease that included a force majeure clause covering the buildings inevitable implosion, that there was a possibility that my khrushchevka would also perish under the city’s redevelopment efforts, I never quite believed it. In my mind, my khrushchevka, located in the courtyard of a much better looking building on Bolshaya Ovchinnikovskiy Pereulok near the Tretyakov Gallery, was far too filled with history to ever be destroyed. The four-room apartment had at one time housed several families, before it was privatized in the 1990s by our landlords and later rented to a trio of American girls, including myself, in 2003. This apartment wasn’t just a home — it was a place where I created (and sometimes tried to subsequently forget) hundreds of memories. But in 2006, the physical place attached to so many of those memories lay in rubble. It was then that I knew it was truly the end of an era, a dangerous and backward era, but also an era that made anything seem possible — bad, good, and inexplicable.
In 2008, though, Russia’s direction is much clearer than it was several years ago. For better or worse, it’s more or less a European city. While it still exudes its fair share of Russianness, including a hefty rift between the rich and the poor, a sexist culture that will shock even the most traditional of American women and an alcoholism problem that rivals few other places on Earth, it is not the same place where many argue I wasted the best years of my life. Yet while gypsy cabs might still be the norm in Russia, today you probably won’t need to know how to roll out of one. • 21 November 2008
Marissa Payne is a freelance writer in Washington, D.C. In her spare time she writes The Anti DC.
Image by llamafloor via Flickr (Creative Commons).