Dancing With the Bear
An On-line Book by Liam Guilar
Presented by the Idaho State Univ. Outdoor Program. Designed & edited by Ron Watters.
Text and photographs © 1999 Liam Guilar and used by permission (see permission notes).
MOSCOW AIRPORT is a dingy place; dirty, shabby, more like a tired railway station than an international airport. Dingy and intimidating. After the almost antiseptic cleanliness of Tokyo it seemed drab and second hand. This is the side of Europe I had forgotten after seven years in the Australian sun; the shoddy almost dismal quality of the light.
The passport controllers were pallid, juvenile blonde boys in uniform who all looked like they needed a good meal. They took a long time to scrutinise each passport. While we waited it was impossible not to feel uncomfortable, even guilty. This was Russia, after all, this is the place where we had always been taught that Bureaucracy is rampant and brutal in its indifference to the needs of the individual, where we could not expect justice and fair play, a place where bribery was a way of life. As if to confirm this a sign on each booth said: "The offering of gifts to the passport controller is illegal."
And then the baggage room. If anyone wanted to create a system that would induce paranoia, they should study the international airport system. You wait, watching the baggage going round, waiting and waiting, and the longer your bags take to arrive the worse your imaginings. We knew the boats were on the plane, but was our other equipment? Mark found the JAL representative who told us our boats were arriving and two scrawny punks in baggy green overalls carried my boat into the hall. "Tweny dollar" one said. "Bring the other one," I said. They did and against my better judgement I paid them. At which point we reminded ourselves that fifty dollars was supposed to be the average monthly wage in Moscow.
The man at the customs desk seemed bored by the whole thing, and only called me back to write "Kayak" on my declaritisia. Dragging our boats and pushing our trolleys we forced a path through the waiting crowd. At least Victor, who had taken over the organisation of the Russian side of the expedition, had no difficulty recognising us.
Parting with our boats, which were whisked away, we were introduced to Julia, who was to translate for us, and followed her outside to wait for Victor's car. There's always an abrupt jolt stepping out of an airport. You leave the labyrinth. You move from structure to chaos. Confusion. Cars milling, policemen, who everyone seemed to be ignoring, waving and whistling, cars pulling over to park on the pavement. Grey European light, drizzle and cold, and the damp smell of dirt. We piled into Victor's car and set off along the Leningrad-Moscow road towards the city with Julia translating and questioning us. We both got the feeling that she wasn't translating everything Victor said and at times she seemed to be arguing with him. Mark was convinced they were married, they had the body language of a bickering couple.
The road was broken, pot holed, flanked by birch trees and broken down cars and cars stopped to sell things and brown petrol bowsers selling (black market?) petrol. We passed grim blocks of high rise flats with washing draped hopefully on the balconies like sad little banners, past a street market where there were numerous melons in the rain, and finally up a narrow mud splattered side street, past a huge pile of overflowing rubbish, to an old apartment block.
The paint was white and cracked, the building's number hand painted
in black, the path overgrown. We reached the darkened doorway
through torrential rain, then paused to bring our bags. Inside the unlit
entrance hall four men sat on the dirty stone steps, a discarded cigarette
throwing sparks near our feet. The lift was small, old, a European
nightmare, big enough for two people and two bags. So I followed Victor
up the stairs, glad the landings were unlit, leaving the strange debris
at the bottom of each flight of stairs just a vague mess that needed avoiding,
After the size of Australian houses, even the cheap ones I inhabit, the flat seemed tiny. A clothes stand on the right, a narrow corridor leading to a room full of discarded scuba gear and snow skis and heavy duty woodworking equipment, where we dumped our bags. The hallway is narrow parquet, uneven and noisy. A right angled turn leads past the toilet and bathroom to the kitchen. Off the kitchen is another room made up as a bedroom. The Kitchen is small, the table barely big enough for four adults crammed into a corner by the window which looks out over the road.
In Moscow people were being killed for flats like this.
The table was laden with food, and there were two ladies waiting for us. The younger would be our cook for the week we stayed in Moscow, the elder her mother who had cooked our dinner. The meal was excellent, giving the lie to the stories we had heard about Moscow food shortages. After the meal Victor introduced us to the Russian expression: "No talk without an open bottle" and we discussed our plans for the weeks ahead.
As far as I could make out there had been a little creative misunderstanding going on. Our boats would be flown to Dzhambul, and that would cost us a little extra. There would be five Russians on the river, and a German girl who spoke English and Russian. One member would be joining us for the Pskem, and he would bring Trevor and Jackie's climbing gear with him.
Victor, who would not be with us on the river, seemed organised. Dressed in a denim jacket and jeans and a fancy grey patterned shirt, he wouldn't have looked out of place in Surfer's Paradise. Julia didn't translate everything he said; she paraphrased, sometimes merely engaging in dialogue. The tone of voice and body language suggested that the dialogue was not about clarification.
"No serious talk without a bottle". We were too tired to do anything but sip our vodka, much to the ladies' amusement. Over pineapple soft drink we discussed our plans for the week, paid Victor and were left to contemplate infinity. As Tanya and her mother did the washing Victor informed us that the hot water had just been turned off in this block of flats. I didn't know whether to believe him or not but it made having a bath an exercise in creative contortion.
I tried unsuccessfully to phone my wife and finally gave it away and
went to bed, thinking this flat was the kind of place where you could be
forgiven if you woke up in the morning thinking you were a cockroach.
* * *
In L'Etranger, Meurseult spends the day at his window, watching the world go by. It would be a fruitless exercise where I live, as all you'd see is cars and trucks and the occasional dog walker. But the corner seat by the window here overlooks the street below. The street is narrow and dirty, wide enough for two very careful small cars, with a pile of exploded rubbish bins at one end, which was to become my landmark. A large horse chestnut tree was outside the window, and between it and another tree my ignorance left nameless I could see a patch of Ul. Elb. and a fraction of the local park. There is a set of swings, some soccer goals just visible, but the pitch looks to be, from the window, clay or gravel.
While I drank coffee and waited for Mark to wake up, something that was to become a morning ritual, an entertaining parade of people passed across this little stage. My books remained unread and I watched, fascinated. There are business types in long coats and suits, carrying briefcases; men with short hair, smoking and hustling along, their narrow shoulders in denim or leather and women and children and dogs and old women with shopping baskets or improvised trolleys. Kids strutted past in bright tracksuits.
Settling back into being a European, I sat and watched the clouds part, and soon there was enough blue sky to make a sailor a pair of trousers, my Grandmother's way of discerning if the day would be fine or not. An old lady walked her dog round the park. She had a staccato, rolling gait, and the dog was a black rat dog that hustled along the way all rat dogs do. She wore a long heavy drab olive overcoat which reached to her calves, and calf length boots. Her head was obscured by the left hand tree.
The flat was getting to me; it seemed the kind of place that makes western European writers so self-centredly neurotic: the taps drip, the hall light won't turn off, the fridge, full of jars of pickles, won't close properly, the door to the stove keeps falling off and two of the gas rings don't work. The floorboards are so uneven that silent movement is impossible, the windows jam and the latches seem merely there because windows should have latches.
It is the architecture of neglect, shading towards poverty, and it bangs the northern imagination back on itself. There is no possibility for expansion, no room to reach beyond the crowded streets, except for the seasonal lurch towards optimism in spring. This is the landscape that inspired a Kafka, that could lead someone like Sartre, who was supposed to be intelligent, to have a character declare; "There are no adventures left."
Remembering the almost antiseptically clean light of the Australian sun I suddenly understood why so many of the crusaders never went home. Most of their lives they must have struggled to stay warm, stay dry, in their draughty northern castles, hounded by their wives and dogs and retainers in the shadows and the gloom. Suddenly the vast sweep of the deserts, the clean air and the smell of spice; from foot-rot and rust to the warm dry desert air.
Tanya arrived promptly to make breakfast and lunch. Despite the rumours of food shortages she prepared enough lunch for my family, four kayakers and Gut Bucket. At nine thirty our translator hadn't turned up. By ten thirty we were idly speculating about the possibility of there being a plan B. I tried my kindergarten Russian on Tanya, but she was not confident enough to speak English and not patient enough to encourage my Russian. Besides, I think she already knew her mother wasn't singing. Victor arrived. He worked the telephone overtime and then a very apologetic sounding Julia told me there had been a disagreement.
Back to the table for morning tea. Victor speaks no English. We speak no German, and very little Russian. But we quizzed him about the rivers. Much laughter, much confusion, but by miming and drawing and pointing to words in the dictionary (The pocket Oxford Russian Dictionary, don't leave home without one) we confirmed our faith in Samurai Russian. We learnt something about our rivers, and learnt the technical Russian terms for some things we would want to avoid.
Then Victor drove us into the centre of Moscow.
It is a city of Paradox. A mixture of mind numbing opulence and staggering ugliness. The huge Russian Hotel looks as if it were built by yet one more unimaginative child with a set of grey lego blocks while the gilded domes of the Kremlin churches look like illustrations from a book of fairy tales. Beggars loiter in the subways; barefooted gypsy women with dirty children, and legless men in wheel chairs or old women too tired to lift their eyes or their hands; and the well dressed Muscovites hurry home with their new video players and Sega games systems.
We were back in Europe. Old Europe with its huge blank buildings and wide littered streets. A Europe staggering under the stifling weight of its past, still trying to define the world in terms of itself and America, ignorant of the fact that it had been left behind by the new powerhouse of Asia.
The traffic was anarchic. If there were road rules we couldn't fathom them and the number of damaged cars probably testify to their absence or their lack of enforcement. But then I remember thinking the same thing about Paris when we tried to drive through on a hot August Bank holiday in two mini buses dragging two overloaded Kayak trailers. Driving into Moscow I had the impression that the carnival had finished the day before and everyone had gone home. The little kiosks on the pavement and the litter gave the impression of a fairground which had spilled on to the streets and remained when the rides had shut down. We parked on the pavement; simply drove over the gutter and double parked. And met Olga, who was to be such an important factor in the success of our stay in Moscow.
Olga; small and energetic and endlessly patient with all of our questions. A thin pale face framed by long black hair. I think we solved the fitness problem rushing around Moscow on foot trying to keep up with the frantic pace she set. Like the best of guides, she would personalise the landscape for us, with stories of her own childhood as well as the more usual tales for tourists. Her English is very good, though heavily accented. But I soon found myself in the ludicrous situation of having to translate Mark's Australian into English so she could understand what he was saying.
We drove towards Red Square. For the ex capital of the most powerful nation of the world Moscow seemed dreary, dirty, shabby even in the sunshine. And full of people eating ice cream. Leaving Victor we entered the subway. Street vendors had set up stalls inside, and there were beggars, a feature of subways everywhere, and buskers and spivs. The buskers here were a group of acoustic musicians. There are two songs, two voices immediately apparent; the sound of the live musicians, the accordion players and the other buskers playing Russian music, and radios blaring amplified western rock. The accordions are losing. As we drove into the city the cars beside us blasted out Michael Jackson, Billy Joel, Dire Straits, the Beatles.
And then we were in Red Square.
We entered on the cobbled slope of the square, and St. Basils seemed to rise out of the ground to meet us. The first sight is literally thrilling, and I could have stopped and cried. Nothing had prepared me for the alien beauty of the thing, of the fact that after all these years, I was there. When I was a child the Russians were The Enemy. The Russian bear had been a character from a nightmare, a slavering starving figure, perched on his nuclear arsenal; not just a badly mixed metaphor but a bogey man for Europe, the threat the politicians had reverted to to keep us in line, as though we were recalcitrant children who needed to be frightened into submission. Russia was the reason we couldn't spend money on hospitals or old people, or schools. We had to have weapons and more weapons, because one day the Russian bear was going to come storming out of the east in his attempt to take over the world.
Russia, by existing, defined the West, the Free World, and justified the lunatic nationalism of the space race and the criminal, dangerous extravagance of the arms race. I remember the annual film of the may day parade, the lines of tanks and goose-stepping soldiers, the obvious threat to world peace and civilised values, and the nameless men who stood on Lenin's tomb and smiled and waved for the camera.
On my right the red brick of the Kremlin wall, with the clean squat shape of Lenin's tomb nuzzling against it, or growing parasitically out of it, depending on your politics. It is closed on Mondays. But we watched the changing of the guard. You'd need a video camera to convey the bizarre clockwork movements of the soldiers as the clock strikes the hour. I had heard that the Guard consists of soldiers carefully chosen from country boys or the children of workers. They are pared off carefully with partners of the same height, leg length, and oval features. Apart from practising their intricate movements, they are stationed in Moscow and have the daily services of an army psychiatrist. They'd need one.
As we walked across the square we were assaulted by doll sellers, post card sellers, Russian stamp sellers, photographers and little children begging for money.
We strode on.
The interior of Saint Basils lacked the majesty of the exterior, it
is a dim warren of small cells, like any monastic institution.
Olga told us about the architects. When they had finished, the Tsar had asked them if they thought they could ever build a more beautiful building. One version said they thought they could, one version says they thought they couldn't. Both versions agree that the Tsar, to make sure they never would, had their eyes put out.
Perhaps it was from a fear borne from such experiences that a later generation of Moscow architects were a little more careful in their dealing with the rulers. Olga showed us a building that was obviously supposed to be symmetrical but the left and right wings were starkly different to each other. Stalin had arrogated to himself the right to veto any plan during his rebuilding of Moscow. For some reason two versions of the building were presented in such a way that when Uncle Joe signed the paper, he signed across both plans. The architects were too scared to ask him which one he wanted and so they built the middle, which both plans had in common, and then flanked it with one wing from each design.
Escaping from Red Square and its beggars and street vendors we set off to find Marx square, where Mark had arranged to meet one of his professional contacts. In the ex-marxist capital of the world we could find no one who knew where it was. When we did find it, opposite the Bolshoi theatre, Carl was covered in American Graffiti: NWA, Public Enemy, and what used to be called "Choice Language". While Mark talked soil erosion with Alexie I quizzed Olga about her life in Russia. While we talked three adolescents arrived to skateboard on Carls' pedestal. They were dressed in jeans and under their open shirts they wore the universal black T shirt, decorated with skulls and weapons and all the other boring symbolism of "Heavy Metal" music. They weren't very good skateboarders; my students would have laughed at them and dubbed them "Try-Hards", but they exuded that quietly prickly air of moody contempt universal to disaffected Teenagers.
At the time I thought that twenty years ago Olga and I could not have had our conversation, especially in such a public place. Realistically, there had never been a time in Russian history when such a conversation was possible. The Russia of the Tsars was as riddled with police, spies and informers as the Russia of Lenin and Stalin.
I liked Olga's stories, I instinctively liked her. But the great danger in travelling is to generalise from very little information. Any one with any intelligence, no matter what their nationality, is dissatisfied with their country's political system. But in Russia the dissatisfaction went deeper than the individual's universal frustration with a system he or she cannot control. It seemed to manifest itself as a despairing weariness. During the putsch against Gorbachov, Olga, like so may others we would talk to, had feared the creation of an anti-intellectual state regressing towards a popular wish for a "New Stalin." She still feared it would happen. Like so may others she had backed Yeltsin, but was now feeling betrayed by a man who had promised much and had seemed to deliver so little. It was true that food shortages were a thing of the past, that many western goods were now available, but the prices were frightening compared to wages which had not risen to meet inflation. Crime was on the rise. Ten years ago, a woman told us, you could walk alone after dark. Today, she shook her head.
We would meet many Russians who wanted a return to the "Good Old Days" of Stalin; and not just old people lost in a new society their lives had not prepared them for, but younger people wanting direction and stability. It is hard to believe. There are few Russians who don't know about the brutality of Stalin's years.
The problem with understanding Russia and Russians is that while we are predisposed to accept that the Chinese are inscrutable and the Japanese incomprehensible, we expect to be able to read Russians because they look like us. Strip away the politics and somehow we expect to find an average "westerner" cowering but ready to be helped towards the daylight by a little free market economy.
The truth is that Russia is inscrutable for the simple reason that it does not fit into the ready made metaphors we have been brought up with. When the wall went down and the Communist party was banned, the old political maps, crude at the best of times, became useless, their crudity obvious in their inability to describe the subtle nuances of the new situation. The language and ideas, especially the metaphors and similes of social and political commentary in the English language media, are not subtle enough to deal with a mentality that is the product of a culture developing in this vast landscape at the intersection of Asia and Europe. The simplistic dualities of western thought are inadequate to describe the atmosphere in Moscow. We tend to think in terms of East and West, Free and non free: Right and Left, Communist and Fascist. The vocabulary of political abuse becomes blatantly ridiculous if you step back from it and ignore the geography. Living in Australia all "East and West" is North.
For Russian women the struggle to be free has meant the struggle to be economically free enough to stay home. The revolution owed much to the woman who worked in the factories and the fields. In the Station of the Revolution, the statues of the heroes are male and female. At the same time it seems that tasks around the house were, and perhaps still are, clearly divided into men and women's work. After a full day at the factory or the office, the woman was expected to collect the child from school or nursery, and cook and clean in the evening. Now, according to Olga, women want to be able to chose to stay home and bring up their families. They could do this if they had a good husband with a regular job. But, she added, characteristically, there were few of these around. Most Russian men drank their wages, forcing the wife to go out to work.
As if to enforce this the people in the park, sitting on their benches, were drinking enthusiastically from a variety of bottles at the same time as well dressed office workers, their ties undone for the lunch time break, wandered past gripping half empty bottles of beer. The Russian love of alcohol is legendary, and their reputation as drinkers is, I suspect, mostly deserved. The fact that medieval Russia was Christian is even attributed to the fact that when the time came to chose a religion the choice was narrowed down to Christianity or Islam and Islam was rejected because of its intolerance of Alcohol. One set of statistics claims that during the ban on alcohol under Gorbachov more Russian males died as a result of drinking home made hooch than in the Afghan war.
An old woman, her poverty engraved in her face and evident in her clothes staggered past, her open hand outstretched in that most explicit of gestures. There was no one near her, the gesture must have been so automatic it was no longer the response to the presence of another person, just a response to getting through the day.
Soil problems solved, meetings arranged, we headed off to VDNKH.
At the entrance to the Underground elderly women were selling a newspaper.
Stalinist said Olga, and hurried past.
If the outskirts of Moscow had made me think of a carnival ground the day after it had shut, at the Exhibition of Our National Achievements (VDNKH) the carnival was not only over but the squatters had moved in. This is what the great Roman cities must have felt like after the legions had gone home and the barbarians had moved in, too lazy to knock the place down, too ignorant to know how to use it.
At the entrance a rocket swoops majestically skywards as a tribute to the heroes of space exploration. Another generation of children were using it as a slide. The ticket windows were closed, the great doors open. I had seen a tourist video of Moscow which showed this place on a sunny day, full of crowds milling around the wonderfully hideous fountains; and knew there was a cosmos pavilion here which I wanted to see. On my video there is a crowd there too, gawking at the evidence of the Russian space program. As the "Space race" had been such a part of my childhood I wanted to see the Russian version. Instead of striding into space to embrace a future fresh with the possibilities of starting again, the Americans and Russians had defined the manned exploration of space as a race, and carried with them the mentalities and attitudes of seventeenth century colonialists. The first astronauts went to the moon to stick a flag on its surface and proclaim themselves, not human beings, but Americans.
The grass is overgrown, uncut, untrimmed, and the fountains are silent. The melancholy sound of an accordion player is drowned by amplified western rock music. A few stray people stroll between the gardens, bottles in hand, and the thin smell of woodsmoke advertises the shashlik sellers, who stand beside their barbecues with blood stained aprons. Flies investigate the candyfloss, which hardens in the evening air, and we wandered past the exhibition halls which were shut or selling something.
By the stone fountain which raised ugliness to a form of beauty, Olga told us the story connected with it. There is a beautiful lilt to her vowels, and a melodic rhythm to her speech, but she confused her pronouns. "There was a beautiful princess living in the mountains. She fell in love with a young man. He brings him to the mountains and made him make things. But he was in love with another girl so he let him go..."
We reached the cosmos exhibition I was looking for, and the hall is now full of shiny, expensive American cars. As we entered the guard stopped Mark and pointed to his camera and made it obvious he was not allowed to take photos. Why he thought anyone would want to photograph a heap of imported American junk is beyond me. We wandered along to the very end of the hall until we came to a small corner where some of the exhibits were left. A model of the Apollo-Soyuz link up had been left stranded, suspended from the ceiling. I remember this! I remember watching this on television. The bastards had junked my childhood to sell expensive American cars that most Russians couldn't afford if they lived to be a thousand.
Roma fuit. Urbis concidatus.
Olga said that the park is untended because no one can make money out of it any more. According to my guide book funding was cut in 1990.
We returned to our flat, tired but satisfied with our first day. As we reached the door the sound of loud rock music greeted us. Tanya was waiting for us, our dinner cooked, and there was another Victor there who we dubbed, with great originality, Victor2. A tall, dark eyed, thin shouldered boy with a young man's confidence. Body language again. His English is good. I asked if Tanya had been working all day. "For 2 hours" he replied. "Then she rest," he added with a sheepish grin. She quizzed him about his reply. "Don't worry," he replied, smiling, "don't worry."
Their radio was tuned into a time warp. Nights in white satin, Bad Moon rising, ....later Victor2 would tell me about the excitement of Michael Jackson's coming visit, although the price for tickets was so far beyond his means that it was an impossibility for him to go.
They left us, to go dancing I hope.
End of Chapter
4 . . .
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