Getting Settled In Moscow

Saturday, October 22, 2016

I've been in Russia ten days so far. After leaving Bozeman at the beginning of September I was in Amsterdam for ten days, then spent a month in Istanbul. I then went back to Amsterdam for a couple of days before flying here last week. 

So, for almost two weeks I've been living out of a suitcase. I had just a half-packed big backpack with me when I arrived in Istanbul so it was relatively easy for me to unpack and get settled there. By the time I left Turkey, however, my big backpack was pretty much stuffed, and my little backpack was completely full with books that I'd bought in Istanbul. In Amsterdam I picked up still more stuff, in the form of an extremely heavy suitcase that I'd left in the baggage storage room of Schipol airport back when I'd first arrived from Bozeman more than five weeks earlier.  

I flew into Moscow Tuesday night. My arrived coincided with the Fulbright in-country orientation, so I was put up for two nights at the Holiday Inn. On Wednesday we had meetings all day long, and on Thursday I checked out of the hotel and took a taxi to an AirBnB apartment that I'd rented. 

This was the same place where I'd stayed during the first and last days of the month-long trip to Russia that I took during the summer of 2015. I'd gotten along pretty well with the woman who owned it, and we'd become FB friendz since then.
Meanwhile, I needed to find a more permanent place to stay. I contacted a few realtors and had a couple of other leads, but nothing really worked out. It turns out that the housing market in Moscow is really competitive. It's a far cry from my experiences in the provinces as a graduate student in the first decade of this century, when I came to Russia every year but one. 

On those occasions, finding an apartment was a pretty straightforward matter. Over the past week in Moscow, on the other hand, find a place was a bit more complicated. Working with realtors, and finding some places on my own, I saw a series of dark, dirty apartments, while the rare places that I liked were taken off the market almost immediately after I'd seen them. In the end, I decided to accept the offer of my AirBnB landlady to live in another apartment she owns, at least for the time being.

Otherwise, I've just been settling in. I visited the National Library for the first time yesterday, and will hit the archive on Monday of next week. I've made a couple of trips out to the university I'm affiliated with--the Higher School of Economics--to take care of my registration. Earlier this week I visited the grave of the Turkish poet Nazım Hikmet, who is buried in the prestigious Novodevichy cemetery, where Anton Chekhov, Boris Yeltsin, Raise Gorbacheva, and other well-known figures are also interred. 

Visiting Nazım Hikmet's grave
But mainly I've been soaking up Moscow. I'm so incredibly thrilled to be here. Prior to this year, I'd spent about two and a half years total in various parts of Russia, mostly in Kazan (1.5 years), St. Petersburg (six months), and Ufa (four months). The longest I'd ever spent in Moscow, on the other hand, was a month back in 2004, when I was a graduate student. I'd passed through town plenty of times, usually on my way to and from someplace else in Russia, but when I visited last year--again, for only a few days at a time--it had been seven years since I'd been in Moscow at all. 

I was blown away. It was then that I decided that, if I were awarded a sabbatical, I'd spend at least part of it here. Of course, back then I hadn't counted on getting the Fulbright, and having the opportunity to spend so much time in this city. It really is a dream come true. 

First visit to Russia, 1993
I remember the first time I visited Moscow. It was the summer of 1993. I was living in Istanbul at the time, and came here with my girlfriend. She had turned me on to Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, and our commonly-help Russophilia was one of the foundational bonds of our relationship.  

We were staying at what was then called the Hotel Belgrade, located at the western end of the Arbat. After checking in--I don't even remember how we managed to find our way in from the airport--we decided to head over to Red Square. We marched up the Arbat, then got lost in the maze of streets known as "China-town" (not a Chinatown). Then, suddenly, we rounded a corner and there it was. 

I couldn't believe I was there. I remembered all the media images I'd seen of Red Square as a kid growing up in Michigan. For some reason, what came to mind that day was watching the news with my parents one day in the late 1980s, when Reagan was visiting Moscow. A few minutes after the report ended, the news station cut back suddenly to Moscow, because Reagan and his wife were taking an impromptu stroll through Red Square at midnight. I think it was the only time I ever heard my parents say anything nice about him. They appreciated the fact that even someone they considered a complete moron would have the curiosity and interest to take in a sight like this, and to want to show it to his wife. 

But of course, that was an optimistic time. After a period of several years, indeed decades, when it looked like the world could go to hell in a minute, suddenly things got a lot better, and quickly. It's a memory I like to hold onto, especially now, when the world once again can appear to be such a dangerous, unstable place. 

So here I am in Moscow again, and this time I'm living here. And while I recognize that life might not always seem great to people living here, and that I'm basically just a scholar-tourist who is here for an extended visit, I can't help but pinch myself and marvel at my good fortune. It's so incredibly exciting to be here, to speak a foreign language on a daily basis, and to research subjects that interest me. How did I manage to wind up with the best job in the world? How did I go from taking elementary Russian classes from a lady who lived down the street from me in Istanbul in the mid-1990s to spending an academic year in Russia on a Fulbright grant? 

Russian was the first language I ever studied out of sheer interest. Every other language I've ever studied--French, Italian, Turkish, Ottoman, Hungarian, Tatar, Arabic, a bit of German even--came with some sort of practical goal. But Russian--I began studying that language because I loved Russian literature and had had an amazing time in Russia during my first short visit in 1993. That, and the fact that I'd broken up with my girlfriend in 1995, was feeling sad, and thought that studying a new language might take my mind off of my sad feelings. So, drinking beer with a friend one night in Taksim, I mentioned that I wanted to study Russian. He told me that his university was hiring a Russian teacher and that one of the (unsuccessful) applicants lived in my neighborhood. A few days later, he called me up and gave her my number. And that's how it started. Not too many years later, I would be taking intermediate and advanced level classes at Princeton, and then not much longer after that I began visiting Russia on a regular basis as a graduate student and postdoc. 

And now I'm back. And, in a manner that brings back some memories from my early teenage years, the world again looks like it's on the fast-track to self-destruction. But perhaps that is one reason why the image of a US president and his wife taking a spontaneous stroll through Red Square stuck with me for so many years. It reminded me that even the ugliest of scenarios can change, sometimes even quite suddenly, for the better. That, while we shouldn't believe in Hail Marys, we still shouldn't lose hope and give in to despair. That the world really can get better in ways that we don't plan on or envisage. 

And in the meantime, at least, I feel like I'm again in the middle of something beautiful. 

Are you a Turk across empires? Order a copy today, then get another one for your libarary.

More commentary, photos, and links can be found at the Borderlands Lounge

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