LEAVING ST. PUTINSBURG SEPTEMBER 24, 2012
On September 24, 2012, I will leave Moscow after three years of living here, a few weeks shy of the day, thirty years ago, that I was born here. In between, I managed to have half a childhood here, a whole life in America, and a fellowship that brought me to Moscow, on September 12, 2009, for nine months. Instead, I stayed for three years. I never expected to stay that long, and I never expected that these years would make me a real, live journalist. (Medicine was always the completely unrealistic back-up plan.) I never expected to interview the kinds of people I did, I never expected to be able to speak real, educated adult Russian well enough to go on local television, I never expected to see the kinds of things I did, I never expected to write this much, and I certainly never expected that it would be so hard to leave. I never expected to fall in love.
After a fourteen-hour journey via Zurich, I will land at Dulles International Airport, and I will begin my life in Washington, D.C. I will get a new beat and new colleagues. I will make new friends. Perhaps I will come back to Moscow for the occasional story, but my life will be in the Chesapeake basin. And, after months of heartache, Moscow will slowly become a bright blur, fodder for dinner party conversation, or a handshake to inaugurate me into the secret society of all the other American journalists who have come through this place and come away transformed. It will become yet another factoid about me.
But folded deep into those anecdotes will be the fact that this foreign city is also my native city, a place where I feel both completely at home and completely alien, a place I’ve loved and hated for so long. Buried in there will be all the details I will forget with delight and remember with longing. And before my memory irons them out, I want to make note of them.
When I leave Moscow, I won’t miss the traffic and the pollution and the boom-town prices, but I’ll miss that a gypsy cab for $6 still gets you just about anywhere.
I’ll miss the beautifully Soviet metro stations—the stained glass, the marble, the utopian, gilt mosaics. I’ll miss the fact that you rarely have to wait more than a minute for a train. I won’t miss stepping inside at nine in the morning past a cloud of peregar, the smell of metabolized alcohol.
I won’t miss how much Russians drink, but I will miss drinking with Russians.
I won’t miss the late-night debates in which you find yourself falling down an epistemological black hole. Down there, nothing is provable and nothing is knowable, except for your sparring partner’s increasingly bizarre pronouncements. In Moscow, I have debated the following topics: whether or not the archived kill-lists with Stalin’s signature are forgeries; the allegation that I am naïve for thinking that American traffic cops generally don’t take bribes; that I am a C.I.A. spy; and the reason America is a more successful country than Somalia (hint: it wasn’t founded by black people). I’ve also been asked to prove how smoking causes lung cancer.
I won’t miss the casual racism and the relax-I-was-just-joking anti-Semitism. I will miss the fact that just about everyone can do a killer Georgian accent and knows a truly wonderful Jewish joke.
I will also miss the fact that, with the anti-Kremlin protests of the last few months, there is still a place in the world where you can debate the things the West has long ago stopped talking about and long ago started taking for granted; that, here, you have conversations full of big words and basic concepts like “freedom” and whether government officials can have fully private lives.
I won’t miss the fact that abstraction can get boring.
I won’t miss the casual misogyny, but I will miss the fact that it makes for excellent copy, as it did when Bolshoi prima Anastasia Volochkova quit the ruling United Russia party and the party responded as follows: “Women, like children, are susceptible to changes in mood. In this sense, Anastasia Volochkova is a real woman.” (As one American friend here once noted, “It’s like ‘Mad Men,’ but with worse clothes.”)
I won’t miss living in a city where virtually everyone is white and wearing an Orthodox Christian cross, where the only places of worship you see are the onion domes of Orthodox churches, and where the Church and the state are in such close cooperation. The medieval beauty of the architecture wears thin when there’s nothing to contrast it to, and when you know of the abuses happening under its aegis. A monopoly is a monopoly is a monopoly.
I won’t miss the fact that Jewish culture and Jewish people have largely disappeared from this city, and that another monopoly—Chabad—has become the only way to be Jewish here.
I will miss the fact that, when you go to someone’s birthday party, you have to bring them a gift or flowers. It gets expensive, but the moment when you hand it over is so nice. And when it’s your birthday, you may have to pay for the food and the booze, but you can barely get the flowers home, to say nothing of the gifts.
I won’t miss the fact that there is no trust in the Russian system: not in institutions, not in people. I will miss the strength of the bonds it breeds when you find that trust.
I will miss the fact that Russians are not afraid of what we in America nervously call “the L-word,” or the messes it can get you into.
I won’t miss the fact that seemingly every educated, professional woman my age happens to also be a single mom. I will miss the fact that kids are a natural part of everyone’s life here, rather than a special, perfectly-planned project.
I won’t miss the fact that nothing is planned here, that everything on every level is slapdash and knee jerk, that everything happens, as the Russians say, “from the cunt.” I will miss the fact that this means you don’t have to plan with whom you’ll have dinner two weeks from now, and that your social life can be spontaneous, organic, and sincere.
I will miss the strange and colorful expressions. (And that, as they say, is “speaking truth to the uterus.”)
I won’t miss the fact that there is only a handful of decent bars and restaurants in this city of 15 million. I will miss that this means that most of them are like Cheers, and that you are guaranteed to bump into half your friends on any given night. It also makes you a better cook.
I will miss ordering water in a restaurant and having the waiter ask you if you want it “room temperature, or cold?” with a look on their faces that suggests that opening the latter door will lead you to a desolate place of upper respiratory demise (see below).
I will miss the way that Russian journalists will readily drink beer with you till 3 am on a school night. I won’t miss thinking about what it does for their product, or mine.
I will miss the addiction to social networks and text messages like “Look at my FB page!” I won’t miss the loss of productivity. Actually, I will.
I thought I wouldn’t miss the ubiquity of emoticons – especially, the ones with no eyes – but I was wrong.))))
I will miss the heels, but not the painful fact of wearing them on a long Moscow trek.
I won’t miss the bad lip jobs and the bad Botox jobs, the obvious hair extensions, the mullets that have slowly been beaten back into neck bangs, the range of men’s footwear, which ranges from pointy to cheese-grate, the male purses, the men’s jeans that are tight and loose in absolutely paradoxical places, respectively. I will miss the people watching. A friend visiting from New York confirmed: Moscow beats the Big Apple with its manicured hands tied behind its back.
I will miss the amazing medical theories I’ve heard here. Pimples? Try massaging your face with semen. Migraine? Must’ve eaten too much mayonnaise. Gynecological cancer? Too much lady-stress. I won’t, however, miss the fact that I’m afraid to go to the doctor’s office here. (Once, my friends’ six-year-old daughter broke her arm and, when the doctor saw the x-ray, he did a double take, pulled a medical reference book off the shelf, and started feverishly reading it. A friend of a friend was mistakenly told he was HIV-positive, and lived with this diagnosis for about a week.)
I will miss the fact that you can get antibiotics and just about anything else over the counter. I won’t miss people breathing down your neck in the pharmacy line, asking why you picked out such expensive medicine. (There is no word in Russian for “privacy.”)
I won’t miss needing my passport for everything, including returning a pair of flip-flops to the store. I will miss bank tellers looking at my American passport and asking me where the Russian is.
I won’t miss the fact that in Russia, the absence of the rule of law is sublimated into the tyranny of the procedural guideline and the dictatorship of the technicality. Without the right notarized slip of paper, the saying goes, “you’re a doodie.”
I won’t miss the fact that no one ever seems to have any change, especially cashiers. I love that it’s made me good at arithmetic again.
I won’t miss the aggression and rudeness in every interaction. I will miss the creative sarcasm it engenders in all participants.
I will miss the twisted, clever Russian sense of humor.
I will miss the laser precision with which Russians answer questions. “Isn’t there a café here somewhere?” “Yes.” “…and where is it?” “Second floor.”
I will miss the long and freezing Russian winters and the heat-generating habits they inspire. I will especially miss the warm, short Moscow summers, when it gets dark close to midnight and the whole city seems to live in outdoor cafes.
I will miss how tough Moscow makes you, and how miserable, and the way it teaches you to hunt out and savor the good. I will miss the dizzying happiness born of those moments. In three years, I’ve never seen anyone crying in the street.