It was all set: my colleague and collaborator, Dr. Piotr Gontarczyk, and I were flying to Moscow, compliments of the Earhart Foundation and the Institute of World Politics. Our Aeroflot flight resembled a kolkhoz. The rows were numbered but not the seats. A collective scramble for seating resulted as the detached flight attendants sported friendly frowns.
Smiling is in a short supply in Russia, as we were soon to find out. Passport control was rather lengthy but a breeze in comparison with the grim grind of the Soviet era and the volcanic anarchy of the Yeltsin interlude. Outside, a swarm of cab drivers descended upon us. We opted for a short dash to a bus stop. There a part-time gypsy cabbie offered us a ride for $30.00, three times less than his competitors 5 minutes earlier. Yes! Long live the free market.
On the way to the Renaissance Hotel, we talked about the False Dimitri, Piotr relished the Polish occupation of the Kremlin in the seventeenth century, I noted the boulders marking the place where the Nazi tanks were stopped before Moscow in 1941, and the cabbie pointed out a new IKEA store.
Construction sites hummed nearly everywhere along the freeway to Moscow. Western brand names graced a forest of billboards, a welcome camouflage for the endless rows of socialist projects, slums for the Soviet Man. The commercial growth of the Russian capital was truly impressive since I had visited there some years prior. We dropped our bags off at the hotel and were off roaming. One can now buy a map of Moscow’s subway system, formerly a state secret.
Having experimented with cardboard ersatz nourishment from street vendors, we opted for McDonald’s gourmand fare. Piotr amused himself by compiling the statistics of good manners. Out of 27 people observed, no one cleaned after himself, even though the trash receptacle was clearly marked and within a few steps from each table. “Oh, well,” he sighed, “it’ll take another three generations for good manners to return.” We walked around but soon it started raining, so we sat under a huge umbrella in a beer garden next to the Red Square and read newspapers.
In The Moscow News (July 21–27, 2004) exclusive, Poland’s erstwhile Communist dictator, General Wojciech Jaruzelski, defended his decision to crush Solidarity during martial law. Nonetheless, he praised the ex-Communists and others who advised Solidarity as “constructive” and “moderate.” Otherwise, however, the ex-dictator remains slavishly steady in his feelings. “I greatly love and respect Russia and the Russians of Russia,” he crooned to his interviewer.
Darkness enveloped Moscow well after 10:00 p.m. It was raining when we fell asleep. Rain brought brief relief from the heat. But for this momentary showery respite, it remained musty and grimy with the sun dropping lead balls of heat on our heads throughout our sojourn in Russia’s capital.
The next morning we descended into the subterranean labyrinth of the subway once again. I raced up an immobilized escalator, a seemingly never-ending telescope to the surface. Piotr traveled on a parallel operating escalator, laughing at me as I choked in the airless bowels of the metro. We trekked to Biblio-Globus, a huge bookstore right across the street from the Lubyanka, the secret police headquarters. We threw ourselves at some fantastic published primary sources on the shelves.
Here is another proof of change. The pro-Communist bias of the editors notwithstanding, the NKVD periodic reports on the details of life in the countryside would not have been available anywhere before 1991 save in the tightly guarded secret police archives. I escaped from the bookstore after 20 minutes, choking. The maintenance workers decided to weld in the bookstore during business hours. Without putting up any partitions or other safety measures, they mindlessly sprayed the customers, books, and gas pipes with a geyser of happily cascading sparks. That failed to discourage Piotr, overawed by the bounty of books. I scurried outside.
A sweet smell of leaded gasoline—the most characteristic scent of treeless Moscow—permeated the air. I sat down on a curb and watched the post-Soviets walking by. But for a few Asians, most were European. Dressed rather decently, most appeared frazzled, somber. One exception that promenaded by me radiantly was a Brittney wanna-be teenybopper who could fit right in the middle of Malibu, her cell phone chatter punctuated by well-pronounced English words.
Across the street, at the side entrance to the Lubyanka, a cop monitored the traffic. The system was simple. Luxury vehicles zipped by undisturbed. Old, Soviet-made cars were pulled over. One driver was subject to a thorough search. The cop took his documents and left him waiting, while going inside the Lubyanka for about 15 minutes. Later he emerged and impounded the car, admittedly a junker. After briefly protesting the seizure, the dejected driver proceeded on foot. The cop loomed on the curbside triumphant. A few minutes later his grim cybogenetic clone barred us from photographing the Lubyanka.
Loaded up with books, we snailed our way back to the hotel. We decided that the best antidote to the post-Soviet grime and slime as well as the unbearable swampiness of the Muscovite summer would be to shower as frequently as possible. And then we were on our way back to the city center once again.
The Red Square and the Kremlin: Stalin’s bust remained in its place, Lenin’s mummy as well, and the guards of honor paraded by the Soviet World War II memorial. Two days later an anchorwoman announced that Vladimir Putin intended to change one of the inscriptions on the memorial. It would no longer be “the battle of Volgograd” but, once again, “the battle of Stalingrad.”
Well, it did not seem like a big deal. In the West no one has heard anything about Volgograd; most have learned about Stalingrad. Nonetheless, in Moscow the talk of restoring anything that has to do with Stalin sounds eerily ominous. We were off to the New Arbat. Skipping the tourist trap full of Matrioshka dolls and pseudo-Russian T-shirts most likely made in New York, we hit another bookstore. Bingo! More secret police documents. Sweet.
Afterward we celebrated the score at the Hard Rock Café. It was nice. In Russia in general any sign of globalization soothed my soul. One felt more at home near anything that resembled the free market. Only sometimes one stopped to think whether the Mercedes billboard was a sign of Western civilization or a Potemkin village of brutal post-Soviet reality. Having rubbed against the grim, malodorous ex-Communist mob, one inevitably yearned to hug capitalist ads and to seek asylum in the soothing wholesomeness of the junior monstrosities of Western commercialism. One hoped that, in the post-Soviet world, commercial billboards meant security. Thus, we cherished a triumphant moment of psychological comfort compliments of capitalism Moscow-Style. Madisonska Avenue, rooo tooo tooo!
Not everything for sale was pleasing to the eye, though. In addition to cardboard cloned pseudo-Domino pizza and tourist “souvenirs,” we were taken aback by a modern-day slave market. As Piotr and I walked back home on our first night, a few hundred yards away from our hotel, near the Olympic Prospekt, at a fenced parking lot fittingly amidst garbage trucks and septic tank trailers, scores of teenage prostitutes lined up in rows.
Their “wholesaler” offered them to “retailers,” who pulled up in their SUVs and BMWs with the high beams on to scrutinize and collect a few each. The retailers waved pointing at their choices. The wholesaler—a stout woman—yelled at the girls. Several girls walked outside of the pen to relieve themselves leaving streams of urine dripping down the sidewalk. Some of them were very young. Children really. A number also sat in cars staring blankly, sleeping innocently, or smoking nonchalantly. A few made lewd remarks to the passers-by.
The police drove by, ignoring the spectacle. The slave market remained open every night we returned to our hotel. On our way to work we noticed that during the day the “wholesaler” supervised workers at the parking lot that also doubled as a sort of a lumberyard. Back to work. Piotr and I visited six archives. In four of them, we were encouraged to file applications to be allowed to research. They are still pending. However, we were permitted to research in two document depositories: The State Archive of the Russian Federation (GARF) and the Russian State Archives of Socio-political History (RGASPI). The latter has experienced a few name changes, but anything beats its original designation: Marx-Engels-Lenin Institute. We dubbed it for short: The Komintern. As we walked down its corridors, we noted a series of doors with plaques reading “Comrade Professor So and So.” And so on. I bet at least some of them had been KGB illegals in the West.
And like the secret police archives at Lubyanka, the Komintern was less than forthcoming. International Brigades? Classified. Correspondence between the NKVD, the Comintern, and Stalin’s underground in Poland. Classified.
Some things that had been de-classified under Boris Yeltsin were now classified anew. Sovershenno sekretno. Top secret. What was not classified? Well, Communist propaganda. One could order as many files as one wanted full of Bolshevik exhortations. Luckily, a few other things also remained declassified. Most notably, one could still study the origins of the Communist movement, including the Bolshevik revolution and the immediate post-revolutionary period.
And here and there among the files, a gem or two: a list of foreign progressive intelligentsia, Lenin’s “useful idiots,” who took money to expedite the cause of the “Great Proletarian Revolution” in their homelands; or a blatant admission by the Communist Party of Poland that “although intelligence gathering was not its direct business, it nonetheless would aid the cause indirectly by recommending and delegating appropriate comrades for the intelligence work in the occupied territories.” That was Komintern jargon for “bourgeois” Poland and Lithuania, really for any non-Communist nation. And in 1919 that meant the rest of the world, which, in Commie-speak, was “oppressed” by “landlords,” “capitalists,” and their “lackeys.” So, it was nice to be able to take a few valuable notes, even if the files we really wanted were not to be had.
Admittedly, however, the Komintern’s bookstore was well stocked. Once again we loaded up on a ton of hard to find documentary collections. Then, we were suddenly amused. Outside of the Komintern building, a sorry group of anarchists, flying their black-and-red banners and sporting a print of the “eternally living” Comrade Che, listened intently to yet another false prophet. A young university kid preached a revolution.
A few days later another demonstration took place, this one in front of the State Duma. An angry crowd consisted of retirees and pensioners. The “liberal” nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky descended among the mortals to bless them with a bunch of ruble bills. These closest to him threw themselves at the unexpected hand-out. Those farther away angrily threw dirt and plastic bottles at Russia’s top populist. It was hard to tell whether they were angry at Zhirinovsky’s demagogical tricks or at the fact that they stood too far away to grab the rubles. One would hope the former.
In any event, we were partly successful at the Komintern. At the GARF, it was a different story. A very competent and friendly supervisor prepared all the files we wanted and even copied a few super interesting pages for us free of charge. She was very kind and went out of her way to help us.
Here’s my very biased explanation. When I landed in Moscow, I resolved to conduct myself according to my ideal: being sunny, elegantly radiant, immaculately well-mannered, and ostentatiously polite.
Piotr warned me that if I kept smiling at the subway attendants, they’d deck me. He touted an opposite philosophy. “We must accommodate to blend in. We must be like them to achieve the desired results,” he preached. When in Rome, here the Third Rome, one should be sullen, churlish, and suspicious.
When the supervisor at the GARF helped us so kindly Piotr’s jaw dropped so hard it made the Kremlin bells chime. He admitted he had never seen anything like this in Russia and that was not his first research trip. Well, his way did not work at the GARF. Mine did. This is my story and I stick by it. Another triumph for feudalism.
Our trip to the Russian State Library (formerly the Lenin Library) in search of rare publications underscored both the continuity and discontinuity in the Soviet ways. The Library was permeated by the atmosphere of a relaxed Orwell. As elsewhere, one needed a pass to enter. A few years ago we would have been sent away if we had not brought along a picture to attach to the application for permission to research at the library. Now, Viva El Capitalismo!
The library bought its own cameras and computers and charges for taking the picture. The procedure was a mere formality. However, we hit a Soviet snag. A semi-pleasant lady, undoubtedly a hold-over from the bad old days, insisted that my name was “Khodakevia.” “Chodakiewicz,” I objected, showing her my Russian visa form typed up in Cyrillic. Nonetheless, “Khodakevia” it remained.
We walked up to the coat check. The lockers had different numbers than the keys attached to them. Only the coat check lady knew the trick. She winked, stashed our stuff, and we proceeded to another obstacle. This was a major one. A true Soviet woman, spray-painted hair and hand-painted eyebrows, just an inch above where her real ones used to be, she was grimly proud to be the Library’s Cerberus. “No, you cannot bring your computer in. If you do, you cannot take it out because it is clearly the property of the library.” Piotr objected: “But you can clearly see that this is my lap top and I’m taking it in.”
“No matter. You will not be let out unless you have stamps from every single section of the library you visit, attesting that it is yours. There is a militiaman to see to it.”
And indeed there was. We walked up to the catalogues. Two clones of Britney-Spears-at-the-beach-in-stilettos and a generously mustachioed unibrow with a stern frown of a female guard from the Lubyanka prison gaily clustered around their desk, solving a crossword puzzle. Annoyed by our rude interruption of their “work,” they stamped our passes and pointed out the catalogue section devoted to the area of our interest.
Having located the call numbers, we marched to the rare books section. There the lady in charge was rather pleasant and did not act inconvenienced, for a change. The books would be brought down for us the following day. Thump! we got stamped. Another stamp later, Piotr watched the copier attendant duplicate some articles we needed. He proceeded painfully slowly and charged us an arm and a leg. We were on our way out. Our passes were then taken from us by yet another lady. And the militiaman let us out indifferently, the computer and all.
That night we learned from the news that the prosecutor’s office issued a warrant for the arrest of Leonid Nevzlin, a close associate and business partner of the imprisoned Yukos oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky. Nevzlin was accused of arranging the murder of two persons.
A straw poll we took the following day showed that “The People” were happy that Putin chastised the oligarchs, even though the Muscovites griped that Nevzlin was beyond the reach of “justice,” hiding in Israel.
In reality, it was plain that Putin limited his anger to those who dared to defy him openly. The rest can sleep in peace. There is no sense in panicking the moneymen, Western investors in particular. Khodorkovsky styled himself a Russian Soros to his own peril.
This kind of a Moveon.org dissent simply does not happen in Muscovy.gov. As far as power is concerned, continuity happens in Russia. On July 26, The Moscow Times stressed the continuity between the Tsarist Okhrana and the Bolshevik KGB. The paper bragged about KGB agent Maria Konnekova, a honey pot who dated Albert Einstein. She was recruited by the wife of superspy Vasily Zarubin. Before Zarubin became the head of the KGB’s illegal operations in New York, his job was to interrogate Polish officers who ended up shot in the Katyn Forest.
Another Chekist eulogized in the paper, Colonel Helena Kozeltseva commenced her career in the “organs” in Moscow in 1938 at the height of the Great Terror. She retired as the deputy president of Moscow State University. It seems that in the course of her career, Colonel Kozeltseva mainly fought against the Nazis and rehabilitated purge victims. Concerning the latter, “she was deeply surprised to learn that there had been no grounds for arrest or execution.” Later, in the 1960s, she “discouraged” students from assisting dissidents like Daniel and Sinyavskii. A crusty 90-year-old, Kozeltseva “does not regret her activities in the NKVD or KGB.” She told her interviewer that “while working there, I saved the lives of many people who could have been exiled to camps or killed.” Now, that takes the cake. It is almost tantamount to a spunky old-timer of the SS officer corps spinning a tale of “saving the lives of many Jews,” while, of course, “following his orders.”
Hyperventilating, I re-read Ronald Reagan’s “Evil Empire” speech that I was editing for a Polish publisher. It worked. I got my breath back. I did not hyperventilate, however, when, several times, secret police troops and army commandos staged dragnets in the metro. They were unarmed and numerous, rather clumsy but efficient enough. They most definitely indulged in ethnic profiling. They were looking for the “black ones,” the chornye, or inhabitants of the Caucasus. As we did not fit the description, we were ignored. We saw how a few of the “black ones” were put against the wall and questioned.
I remembered that during my earlier trip I had seen Dagestanis, Ingush, and others running tiny market stalls in the Moscow subway. Now, most stalls were eliminated. Piotr claimed that was because the Chechen mafia protected their brethren from the Russian competitors. The Chechen Mafiosi thus clashed with the Russian enforcerers. Piotr even showed me an old battleground near the Russian State War Archive on Admiral Makarov Street. Right by the subway entrance, there had been clusters of makeshift stalls which one day were burned down and their owners chased away. That happened when Piotr visited Moscow in 1999. It had nothing to do with racism or terrorism: simply mafia wars. So—no Chechen merchants.
What else had changed? We saw no new Russians crassly flaunting their ill-gotten wealth. Sure, we could spot their silhouettes behind the tinted windows of their luxury Western cars, as they zoomed by us. But they were no longer omnipresent at regular clubs, lighting their cigars with hundred dollar bills. And there has been a certain degree of disillusion with democracy and liberty. Take a July 2004 survey, for instance, posted at http://www.romir.ru/. According to the poll, “70% of Russians and 41% Russian journalists would agree to some form of censorship.”
Of course, one can be depressed that most Russians oppose free press. On the other hand, we can interpret the poll to mean that “some form of censorship” can concern the propagation of pedophilia and other forms of social pathology. The fans of Robert Mapplethorpe are a few and far between in Russia, as well the proponents of homosexual marriage. Many Russians view at least some Western novelties as pathologies. Some of this has to do with traditional xenophobia. But some is a heaving revulsion very much in tune with similar sentiments of middle America. It is in the area of social engineering that the Russian resistance is at its stiffest.
The Russians will be recovering for a long time from their Communist nightmare. They do not want any more revolutions, cultural or otherwise. Free market—maybe. San Francisco—no.
Russia has been slowly patching itself up. We should encourage the healing process so long as it proceeds in a salubrious way, congruent with our national interests. With that on our minds, Piotr and I packed up to leave. We called our friendly gypsy cabbie. He was precisely on time. How un-Soviet! Things got even better at the airport. We flew LOT, and the flight was cozy and professional, despite the storm that delayed our departure.
Soon after we left, a terrorist blew herself up near a subway stop, killing at least ten people. Then Beslan happened and Putin responded by centralizing power some more. In a way, he has very few choices. To do nothing would re-empower lusty oligarchs, reassure kleptocratic bureaucrats, encourage centrifugal tendencies in the peripheries, embolden restive nationalities, and project the image of a weak Russia abroad. And that, from the point of view of Muscovy, would be a road to disaster.
The Russian federation is heir to both the Empire of the Tsars and the Soviet Union. Putin’s realm is not a Russian nation state. And it does not want to be one. Instead, the President has embarked upon a process of internal reform that can lead to the re-integration of the Empire on the traditional centralized paradigm. But simultaneously, Muscovy is meddling in the affairs of “the near abroad” and elsewhere, a tool of Putin’s centralizing project. Alternatively, interfering with the near abroad may become a tool of the centralizing project in Russia. Putin is thus can flex his muscle congruently both at home and abroad.