28 September 2006

In the Night Kitchen

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From Saturday night: I’ve had a great day visiting my honorary nephews, attending a meeting of the small group of Elektrostal Friends, and taking photos; it’s time to go to bed.

About 12:15 a.m. I get a call on my cellphone. It’s a local student of English whom I’ve come to know over the past few weeks. He has three friends with him, and they all want to know whether I’m up for a discussion.

I look longingly at the bed, and at the clock, and check my intuition: is this foolish, or worse, dangerous? Do I know this student well enough to go out, despite all the warnings I’ve been sternly given about street crime, and join this spontaneous party?

My intuition gives me a green light. I’m off into the night, walking two blocks to the Oktyabr cultural center. As I emerge into the light of the Oktyabr square with its spotlit fountains, a knot of young men is heading in my direction. Yes, it is the group. They want me to speak English—one of the students wants practice. He explains that he didn’t get into the linguistic institute in Moscow the first time he took the entrance exam, and the next time he wants to succeed. (“The examiner told us, by mistake, that we were not to use the ‘-ing’ verb form, but it was too late for me to change my answers,” he explained.”) At least two of these four guys can use English well enough for any situation I could imagine them getting into.


We were striding down the street toward the home of one of the students, the one whose English was not good enough for the linguistic institute. It is getting later and later. We pass the fountain on Lenin Prospect--where did all that foam come from? "An anarchist action!" Is this a statement or a guess? They want to buy some wine, but by now they have to find a 24-hour store, so we divert from due south to a westward path, to a store that one of them recommends. On the way to that store, one of our number drops out. He has to get home in time to leave early the next morning.

Who would be buying wine at 1:30 a.m.? There’s only one other customer in the store, a woman who looks at first glance as if this is not her first late-night expedition for alcohol. With two bottles of Russian red wine in hand (not in my hand, for the record!), our little gang heads for N—’s house. As we draw near, another member of our delegation drops off to go home and sleep, leaving me with two companions.

As we resume our southward path through Elektrostal, we are stopped by two young women. What could they want? Cigarettes, as it turns out. “Here in Russia, it is completely acceptable to ask a stranger for a cigarette. Unless you are a nonsmoker, you are obligated to give one,” explains the older of my two remaining companions. However, he continues, if someone in a multicolor beret and cheap sports pants stops me for a cigarette, make tracks: they might be a gopnik, an antisocial tribe who’d just as soon “smash my face like a head of lettuce” than actually take a cigarette. And if I’m stopped by private or auxiliary security officers, some of whom are “gopniks in uniform,” I should demand to see an actual policeman.

With these sobering warnings, we approach the group of buildings in which our destination is located. Many Russian apartment-building complexes have fairly elaborate arrangements of courtyards between the streets and the buildings, and then among and behind the buildings: I’m warned that these are no-man’s lands. However, we successfully navigate the paths, obstacles, above-ground pipes, and children’s play equipment, and arrive by about 2 a.m. at N—’s house. “Don’t worry, my mother won’t be angry, says my English student, which of course makes me worry more. But he’s right. She emerges from her bedroom, wrapping a robe around herself and, as we sit down in her kitchen, she reaches into a cabinet and finds at least three different kinds of cookies. She also introduces me to their two cats.

With introductions out of the way, the two remaining members of my late-night delegation and I have exactly the kind of kitchen conversation that I’ve always said I love about Russia--but this time my fellow conversationalists are well under half my age. Over the next two hours, we touch on the following fascinating subjects among others: corruption, democracy in Russia (“If Alexander II had not been murdered on the eve of his planned reforms, we would be in better shape; we would be a constitutional democracy today”), and how to translate the words “envy” and “jealousy” in Russian. We talked about video games, role playing, and theology. (“Some people think I’m an atheist, but I believe in the one true God. I just don’t trust churches. Their leaders want us to feel guilty, but God wants us to love Him and each other. He is ready to forgive us, but the church people aren’t.”) We even spend nearly half an hour trying to decide on the best ways to translate the concepts of “redemption” and “exculpation.” One of my young companions tells the Biblical story of the winegrower and his hired hands to illustrate his point.

Finally, at about 4 a.m., I realize that I need to go back to my apartment, a bit more than two miles away, and get some sleep, or my chances of being coherent at Moscow Meeting on Sunday will diminish significantly. I expected to call a taxi, but my friends bring me back to earth: at this time of night, it will take a half hour or more, so it’s better to walk—but they’re ready to accompany me. So once again, our diminished group emerges on the street, and with more lively conversation to animate us, it seems only a short time before Pervomaiskaya 13 is right in front of us. I fall into bed and sleep until 11 a.m.

I don’t vouch for spontaneous overnight parties as the most accurate ways of learning about youth culture, hoodlums, or other aspects of contemporary Russia. Many of my friends’ observations seemed very perceptive, and others seemed more like conspiracy theories. But for sheer joy of conversation, it's hard to beat the Night Kitchen.



Back to the present: Nor do credible theories emerge from impressions gained from watching television, but I've seen a lot more TV these last few weeks than I probably see in an average year in the USA. Just a few impressions:

World War II remains a huge interest here. Almost any night of the week, one station or another is showing a film related to the war. Elektrostal’s station has devoted a lot of time to documentaries on the development of the atomic bomb. Along with the historic emphasis of these war shows, there seems to be a higher level of uncritical militarism.

Most TV here, as at home, is extremely escapist but there are a few nice exceptions. Among all the national networks, NTV seems to retain the most capacity or desire to present political content, or content apparently designed to increase political conversations among viewers. One program presents debates among political figures, with viewers voting continuously for the debater who seems most effective. “Most effective” doesn’t necessarily mean most theatrical—when I watched Zhirinovsky face off against a liberal debater, his opponent seemed to win handily despite Zhirinovsky’s slashing, domineering style. Another NTV program presented a discussion on the merits of the case of a breakaway Moldova province that wishes to become part of Russia. How does the value of self-determination match up against the sometimes competing value of territorial integrity? With this sort of good coverage on NTV over several evenings, it’s fair to ask, “Who says politics needs to be boring?”

While we’re on the subject of political programming on NTV, this evening the Segodnia news program included a segment on the question of a referendum on changing the Russian constitution to permit Vladimir Putin to run for a third term as president. The head of the national election commissions made it very clear that, in his opinion, the idea of such a referendum is unrealistic. There’s not enough time to hold a properly-organized referendum before the mandate of the present legislature expires.

One more moment of politics on television just happened. As I was writing the above, Rossiya network’s Vesti news program was covering the White House’s efforts to discount the intelligence report on the the utter failure of the Iraq adventure within the context of the “war” on terrorism. The Rossiya report included Pakistani president Musharraf’s appearance on Jon Stewart’s Daily Show.

(Later: Sadly, the headline news now is coverage of the Congressional discussion of the rules for holding and interrogating foreign suspects in the war on terror. The whole world is watching us bargain with the devil.)

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