I was going to write about something else entirely, but thoughts and other things conspired and interfered and changed my mind. First, if you are my regular reader, you know that I am moving, and so I’ve been doing much talking lately about home and leaving it and being away from the places we love. Second, it’s snowing outside. When I look out my window and see only the tops of the evergreens thickly covered with the shaggy white throw and the mess of wind-swept winter cotton in the air, I feel the sudden dizzying squeeze in the pit of my stomach – it is nostalgia, piercing thousands of miles in a moment like a fantastical transporter, and I am almost home. As if. A little.
Third, I have just read an article that made me think of Russia – a short article so good and so rare in kind that I would like to offer you, my readers, a link and a chance to read it for yourselves. Titled “What I Will (And Won’t) Miss About Living in Moscow,” this is something between a reflection and a report by Julia Ioffe, an American journalist who’d spent three years in Moscow and came back to the U.S. in September of 2012, on her impressions of the Russian capital, its life, and its people.
I try to avoid exposure to films, TV, and writing by American sources that have to do with Russia. More often than not, they contain factual mistakes, unintelligible Russian, emotional or political biases, and/or are built on the stereotypical premises the roots of which run back into the Cold War mentality. More often than not, they range from annoying to offensive, with a side helping of heartbreaking.
There are exceptions. This is what I find so noteworthy about Julia Ioffe’s article: born in Moscow, having lived her whole life in America, and having spent the last three years in the city of her birth, she seems to have come to care for and to understand it deeply enough to love it and to judge it in her own special way. She did not become Russian, but she became…of Russia. Her article is not in its majority complimentary to Russians. Yet many of the things Julia Ioffe criticizes and what she says she’ll miss are astutely identified and, to me, comment on how Russia is, how it is different today from how it was 25 years ago and how it is still the same, how Moscow is unique and how it is all of Russia in a wad, what I still – even from this distance of time and space – have been taking for granted about my first home and what Julia and I both appreciate about it.
I don’t know the Russia that Julia Ioffe knows. I left Russia almost 22 years ago, when it was still Soviet Union, and I’ve only been back a few times since to visit, though, of course, I speak to the friends who are still there, I read what Russia writes, listen to what it sings, and watch the moments of its life notable enough to become news – more often than not wishing they had not. Still, I’ve never lived in Moscow. My Russia was Leningrad, and it’s a well-known fact in Russia that Leningradians and Moscovites are as different as their cities are, and you can respect both, but you can only love one of them with your true and deepest heart. You belong to one or to the other – and that’s the city where you dream you will rest, the one you write your songs about. Moscow and Leningrad are like New York and L.A.. Like Mobile and Boston.
Well, maybe not that different.
I was reading Julia Ioffe’s article and couldn’t help but begin to compare notes. I don’t know her Moscow, not really. But I suppose she inspired me to think in those terms: what do I miss about my Leningrad? So much… What do I miss most of all? What do I NOT miss? Will our lists overlap?
Here we go.
Like Julia Ioffe, I miss the palatial grandeur and beauty of the metro so ennobling, so casually majestic that not a single piece of trash could ever be found on our metro floors. Unlike Julia Ioffe, when I came out of the metro in Leningrad, I got to keep the feeling. Instead of a taxing mix of medieval onion-dome architecture and screaming vertical modernity, I lived inside an 18th c. work of art – a city created as a single monument of granite, gold, and marble laid out in expansive scapes between the rolling Northern river and the weightless, endless Northern sky. I miss my city as one does a loved one, a grandparent – and in some childish recess of my mind I believe that it misses me. Kazansky’s arms are open to accept me into a melting embrace. The Bronze Horseman is looking West, keeping watch for me. Every stone is waiting for my footsteps, for the palm of my hand. For my lips. I miss my city dearly, longingly. Maybe, most of all.
I do not miss the daily commute to the city from what we called the “bedroom areas” – residential parts of town that had grown around the center city and housed most of our 5-million population. Not much art there (with few but notable exceptions), just high-rise apartment buildings, supermarkets, department stores, schools and after-school children’s centers, parks, train stations, energy stations, movie theatres, and so on, networked by broad, tree-lined streets and punctuated with huge puddles of indeterminate depth or snow piles of the same height, depending on the season. Unlike Julia Ioffe, I never took a taxi anywhere – it was an unthinkable luxury in those times and used mostly to get to the airport. Like Julia Ioffe, I stepped – pushed my way – into public transportation past the cloud of peregar. Trams, buses, trolley-buses, metro cars filled with the smell of yesterday’s drinking. I do not miss my face being squeezed tighter and tighter into the backs of heavy coats as people pushed in, more and more, at each stop, stuffing human filling into a bus like extra sweaters into a suitcase. I don’t miss the habitual moments of panic when I could no longer breathe. And then the bus would stop at a metro station and exhale and spill its cargo, like phlegm, in a single liberating cough, and we’d forget our panic and hurry into the next tight squeeze.
Like Julia Ioffe, I remember the “late-night debates in which you find yourself falling down an epistemological black hole” – the long hours, into the morning, crowding each other’s tiny eat-in kitchens, over the mandatory tea with black Russian bread, and butter, and home-made preserves. Unlike Julia Ioffe, I miss every minute of them. I grew up talking, arguing, debating. As a child, I fell asleep every night to the muffled voices of my parents, behind two closed doors, drinking tea in the kitchen and reading thick monthly literary journals and talking to each other. Russians talk. Big-city intelligentsia talks incessantly, about everything, in brain-breaking spirals and knots, mixing politics and poetry, paranoia and nostalgia, desperate nihilism and stubborn idealism into an addictive potion poisonous to newcomers, and it brews over those kitchen tables the dark, shuddering depths of Russian literature, and it brews philosophy and revolution. Soviet intelligentsia is now an aging remnant. Jews are mostly gone. New Russian intelligentsia is struggling to be anything more than a thin, effervescent breath of freshness in the murderous aridity of power-mongering and cut-throat capitalism, in the ruins of the education, health, and justice systems. But Julia Ioffe tells me that Russians still talk. And then there is hope.
I miss Russian people. Soviet people. I definitely don’t miss all of them. What Julia Ioffe calls “aggression and rudeness in every interaction” we used to call, quoting a great comedian, “our unobtrusive service.” I don’t miss arrogant, dismissive disrespect of store clerks, bureaucrats, plumbers, and doormen – everyone with just enough power to make our lives miserable on a shallow, irritating level. Casual disregard for privacy and dignity. Ubiquitous, unchallenged bribery. Julia Ioffe misses the “creative sarcasm” this lifestyle engenders and our “twisted sense of humor.” She should come hang out with me. She is very, very right. I miss Russian comedy badly, hungrily, replaying old Soviet movies and stand-up routines, re-telling old Soviet jokes. Scouring the internet for the new. Nothing with fewer than three levels of meaning would pass muster with us in the old days. I don’t know how many they accept today. I lived in Russia just long enough, I suppose, not to acquire – to become – the creative sarcasm of my people. I am Russia’s twisted sense of humor, hello. I don’t know if I miss the fire that forged it, but I do miss those who can listen to it without wondering what my damage is.
To be continued…