21 November, 2007

Russia #1: Life in the bubble

As a journalism student at UF I took a couple of years of Russian-- not out of any great interest in the Soviet Union, but basically to fill a language requirement.

In 1991 the Russian department offered summer classes at Moscow State for a ridiculously low price. So I could either stay in Gainesville running my ass off in my hum-drum waitressing job or go have an adventure in a foreign country for less money. It was basically a no-brainer, a default decision that changed the course of my life.

That trip, from beginning to end was a surreal experience. We lived in huge, rat-infested dorms which were crawling with roaches that devoured anything left out uncovered, including Advil! We grew used to having insects scurry over us as we slept-- one day in class my ear started itching and I pulled out a half a spider!

The organizers left us to our own devices where meals were concerned. There was no food provided and we never did find a reliable source. The cafeteria was hit or miss-- aside from one meal which consisted solely of tomatoes I don't remember ever being able to eat there. We subsisted on a diet of ice cream, vodka, brown bread and the occasional khachapuri in dimly lit, smoky Georgian cafes.

During a very memorable outing in Leningrad we got caught in a riot. We were out enjoying the White Nights when we came upon a rowdy group of inebriated sailors. They started causing trouble so we crossed the street to avoid them. Suddenly a paddy wagon screeched to a halt in front of us. Anyone who had any sense at all started running. We stayed rooted to the spot.

The police were brutal and indescriminant. I watched in morbid fascination as an innocent bystander near me got clubbed and collapsed; his briefcase and glasses skittered to the curb, carried along by the momentum of his fall. A woman in a flowered dress panicked and ran past only to be beaten and then engulfed in the stampede of wild-eyed frightened people.

I remember that summer in superlatives. The USSR was imploding, the atmosphere was electric and we were experiencing history in the making. I felt alive in the midst of all the chaos.

I was also intrigued by the romantic literary idea of the dark Russian soul and wanted to experience life there first-hand. When I returned to Florida I changed my major to Russian and upon graduation I sold everything and went back to Moscow. I had no job and no real plans-- just a strange feeling that I needed to be there and that everything would work out fine.

In the end I spent more than three and a half years in Russia. I led a life of extremes; swinging wildly between states of elation and despair. I had interesting jobs, traveled to bizarre locales and met and married my husband. But I was also witness to a kidnapping at gunpoint, had a baby left in my stairwell and became accustomed to the sound of gunfire and the occasional dead body lying in the street.

We lived nextdoor to a mafia gangster who assured us that he'd "taken care" of whoever kept setting our mailboxes on fire. (it never happened again.) Our car got stolen and then returned, and we actually laughed when a colleague accidentally fired off his gun in the office.

One day several men with machine guns stormed into a restaurant we ate at regularly. They opened fire, killing two people and wounding several others. If it hadn't been for a cold that had kept me in bed that particular day we would probably have been there and could easily have become one of the casualties.

It often seemed as if human life had very little worth in the Russia I knew.

M and I were driving down a small side street one evening when six men with machine guns suddenly stepped out of the shadows in front of our car. Their faces were covered by ski-masks and they were dressed in fatigues. They yanked M out of the car at gunpoint and demanded to see his papers. He couldn't understand them and I pleaded for them to let him go. When they figured out that we were not whoever they were seeking they let us go. We were silent on the way home-- if they had killed us there would have been no witnesses.

I suppose it's not surprising that that kind of atmosphere can have a corruptive effect on the soul. We lived in a temporary suspension of ethics safeguarded by our foreignness and the naive belief that we were invincible. I smuggled telecom equipment across borders (and got caught!), bribed government officials and laundered money for the insanely corrupt company for which I worked. I came and went on dodgy visas and got held at the border on more than one occasion, a situation which could usually be remedied by tears and US Dollars surreptitiously folded into passports or other documents.

When M was offered a job in Brussels in 1996 we jumped at the opportunity. The violence and sheer aggressive nature of the city was starting to wear us down. We had alternately loved and hated our time there and agreed that it was time to leave the surreal bubble in which we were living. I am astounded now when I look back at how recklessly, how carelessly we lived.

As soon as we left Russia I reclaimed my integrity and common sense.

It seems strange to recall these experiences so many years later. Although they may sound incredible these stories are not exaggerated and there's plenty more where they came from.

This might become good blogging fodder to spice up the bourgeois content I've been churning out lately. Sorry that this post ended up running so long-- this has opened up a floodgate of memories for me! More (shorter!) stories to come...

(Move on to Flashback #2:  Turkmenistan)


Greg said...

Holy crap! What an amazing life you've lived, yet I do understand how when in the midst of living it it can seem "normal." Thanks for sharing this

Goofball said...

Wow...that is a different Betsy than we got to know so far. Not that we didn't know yet that you can be very crazy :p...but those adventures????? A bit in contrast with the parenting stories you sometimes give, I must say :p

Those stories do sound unbelievable and extremely scary. I don't think I would have stayed there for a week in a similar environment. You should join the Soap Opera Sunday and elaborate a bit more if you feel like it. This was already very cool though! Especially since you survived it.

Gardner said...

Very intriguing and well told stories.

I'm still a bit in shock. Your life is definitely better than any of the Bourne Identity movies.

Laura said...

WOW WOMAN!!! What a story! Thanks....now I want to read the next chapter...Time to write a book,

GL'sD said...

I'm with Laura, write the book already!!!!

Runaway Rubber Duckie said...

That is amazing, really! I would love to hear more about it. You should write all those in more detail and post them up! It's really cool, and i am particularly Russia - obsessed. so I would love to hear more!

anno said...

Amazing stories! I am just a teensy bit envious that you were there, just as everything was changing. But then, a day with those bugs would have sent me running away, screaming, and I would have missed it all. Like everyone else, I'd love to hear more; hope you have some plans...

C N Heidelberg said...

Fascinating post!

I would never have had the guts to stay...go you!

ian in hamburg said...

No need to apologise for a post like this, Betsy. I'd like to learn more about your Russian adventures.

Jen of A2eatwrite said...

This is fascinating, Betsy. So different from Krasondar of 1987 and Anapa of 1989. I'd love to compare more experiences. You were there close to the time I would have been there for my dissertation work, had I decided to go that route. I'm relieved I didn't, for I'm not sure I could have stomached that life.


Astrid said...

Goodness me!! It's incredible that you stayed for so long.

Thanks for sharing. And yes, you should write a book about these experiences :)

anno said...

Just to let you know... I shared this with my middle-school kids today, who were VERY impressed, and who thought it was MUCH livelier than my usual classroom offerings. Thanks for letting me use it!