Getting my Moscow on

Friday, May 24, 2019

These first two weeks in Moscow have been busy but fun. Frankly, it's great to be here again after two years, although I did feel some sense of trepidation prior to arrival. For one thing, my Russian was rusty. Whereas I speak Turkish on Skype to friends and, to be honest, never really feel uncomfortable when communicating in a Turkic language, the fact that I hadn't had a real honest-to-goodness conversation in Russian since returning to the US from my sabbatical two years ago weighed heavily on my mind prior to coming back to Moscow this year. How would I do? 

Not terribly, as it turns out. I've gotten back into my old habit of carrying around a small Russian-language notebook as a means of strengthening my active vocabulary, as well as keeping my diary in Russian. Fortunately, I know people in Moscow now after having lived here in 2016-2017, so even though it's a bit more exhausting for me to spend the day speaking in Russian, I feel like things are coming around. 

Kazan Cathedral, Red Square
Mainly, though, it's just really nice to be back in a place where I can speak a foreign language on a regular basis. That's what I miss most of all about living in the US. Even when I've resided, in recent years, in places like New York City or Washington, DC--places where I could, say, get my hair cut by a Russian barber or go to lunch in a Turkish cafe--it's not the same as being surrounded by a foreign language that I know. During the periods of my life when I've lived in Turkey, the former USSR, or even a place like Montreal, I felt like I was constantly learning something. Even something as mundane as waiting in line to pay my gas bill in Turkey in the 1990s seemed educational to me. Listening to a taxi driver babble on to me in Turkish or Russian is an educational experience. Listening to the same thing in English is just a nuisance, in most cases. 

The Kremlin and the Moscow River
And that, I guess, is one of the ironies of my situation. I got into academia because I was fascinated by foreign countries and languages, then moved out to remote spot thousands of miles away from the places that interest me most. And it's not really something that's particularly related to Montana--I think I would feel this way no matter where I lived in the US, because what I really miss is living abroad, not so much living in a city with a Russian barber or a few Turkish restaurants. So I do what I can--travel when I can in the summer, and come up with occasional schemes for a future in which I can once again feel like the world is my oyster. 

Will that ever happen? Who knows? But for now I'm on the road and concerned mainly with getting what I can out of my present circumstances. 

St. Basil's Cathedral
My first few days in Moscow were taken up mainly with taking care of bureaucratic business--registering with the police, visiting the university I'm affiliated with, and picking up my letters of introduction for the archives. Toward the end of the week, I visited one of the places I'm working--an archive called RGASPI--and put in orders for documents to work on the next week. The night before I showed up at the archive, I received some interesting news via a researchers' Facebook group that I'm a part of: the archive's reading room director--a fellow known colloquially as Misha--had, apparently, retired. 

Why does this matter? It doesn't, really, but I can't say I was sorry. Misha, a pudgy, pasty-faced guy in his 40s with coke-bottle glasses, was notorious among scholars working on Soviet history for his habit of loudly berating researchers. He directed his ire toward all kinds, but especially, it seemed that foreigners, women, and younger scholars were his favorite targets. My first day at RGASPI in 2016 certainly gave me a taste of his medicine, when I made the mistake of writing the numbers of both personal files and non-personal files on the same order form. Misha shrieked at me in a voice loud enough to resonate across the reading room. My face burned and I certainly felt humiliated. 

Metro station art
I can only imagine how I might have responded if I had been a graduate student working in post-Soviet archives for the first time. By this time, however, I was already a tenured professor who had logged many hours working in ten post-Soviet archives. While I had never really encountered someone exactly like Misha, I had nevertheless already been subjected to a number of interesting types already. So, whereas it certainly wasn't pleasant getting yelled at my first day at RGASPI, I just kept my mouth shut and tried to follow the directions as well as I could. Misha didn't bother me after that, but I did grow weary of listening to him harangue other researchers on a daily basis. On some days it seemed like every five minutes I'd hear his reproachful voice ring out whenever he sensed an opportunity to eviscerate someone for having made a mistake of some sort. 

More metro station art
Frankly, though, this kind of behavior used to be a lot more common in Russia and the former USSR more generally--lots of people in jobs dealing with the public felt entitled to use their position to bully and demean people. The fact that Misha even stood out, to a degree, for his behavior in 2016-2017 is evidence of the extent to which things in this part of the world have changed over the 25 years or so that I have been coming here. While my experiences with archival staff in the former USSR has generally been quite positive--indeed, often excellent--I do remember getting shrieked at back in the 1990s for attempting to register at a hotel, buy a train ticket, and obtain information from a tourist information office. In the grand scheme of things, Misha wasn't so bad--he did clue me into material that I likely wouldn't have found myself, which definitely made putting up with his antics worthwhile.  One thing is certain: RGASPI is a whole lot quieter--albeit less colorful--now.  

I've also been having some fun these days. Some Tatar friends of mine invited me to an iftar meal in a "Ramadan tent" next to Moscow's main mosque. It was an interesting experience. Every night, there is a different theme--the evening that I attended was a celebration of "Turkey Day," so the Turkish Ambassador to Russia was there, along with a variety of other Turkish and Russian dignitaries. There was also live (Turkish) music, a Turkey trivia contest, and even a whirling dervish. I spoke Tatar for most of the night--it was great. 

The following evening was doubly interesting. First, I attended a talk by Samuel Hirst on Turkish-Soviet relations in the 1930s at the Higher School of Economics, the university with which I am affiliated in Russia. It was a good talk, and I enjoyed being around a group of people interested in the parts of the world I work on--a relative rarity for me. Following the talk, a friend of mind and I went to a Red Elvises show. This is a group that I first became familiar with in Bozeman, as they pass through town every summer. The Red Elvises began as a band of Russian rock-and-rollers living in California, although over the years the group's lineup has changed. Igor, the lead singer and guitarist, travels with different sets of ensembles in the US and Russia. I've seen them now a total of six times--three times each in the US and Russia--and most of the songs have both a Russian and an English-language version. The show I went to last week was held in what appeared to be a former bomb shelter located deep in the bowels of a giant Stalinist building on Leningradskii Prospekt.  

"I wanna see you bellydance!"
Full disclosure: I've often fantasized about writing a book about Igor. He's a Turk across empires of sorts, bearing similarities to some of the other people I've written on. A child of Odessa and the perestroika era, Igor ended up moving to the United States to pursue his dream of becoming a rock and roll star. Today, he travels with different bands and sings in different languages--"I am a Rocket Man" becomes "Я космонавт Петров" and so forth. Some people might think his shtick is a little tired--Igor's quite the showman, and almost every song has a routine that the audience is encouraged to join in on--but I would beg to differ. And the greatest moments are when Igor--somewhat flabby now and middle aged, playing in a little basement somewhere in Moscow or a nowheresville venue in Montana--closes his eyes, steps back, and lets loose a guitar solo. Regardless of whatever cheesiness might envelop his surroundings, he's an international rock star at these moments, crossing frontiers and making people dance. 

It was hot as hell inside but it felt good to boogie again. It had been too long.

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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