Russia: “An Echo of Moscow”

Tverskaya, Feb. 23, 2005 – from this set

Shortly after the Duma elections last December, I saw this article and wanted to translate it. I didn't have time then, and in truth it's a fairly challenging text to translate, since it is all about mood and atmosphere. The furor around Putin's Luzhniki speech has faded, but Nizhny Novgorod, where part of the article is set, is still in the news as the location of Medvedev's one official day speaking as a candidate and (perhaps less significantly) as the region singled out by the New York Times in a controversial article about the Kremlin's (ab)use of “administrative resources,” so this seems like a suitable item to post as we await the inevitable result on March 2.

By way of background, this piece was supposed to appear in the Moscow weekly Bolshoi Gorod, but the head of the publishing house that prints BG decided not to print it as written, and BG's editor chose to publish it on his ZheZhe rather than edit it. The comments on the blog where it was posted suggest a range of assessments of that decision – mostly praise for the article, but also some averring that it was proper not to publish it, because it's not “journalism” and is more suitable for a ZheZhe post, or that it's an “empty” tale describing a political reality that has existed for years but is just now being noticed by the creative intelligentsia (it is indeed something one could see hints of a few years ago).

Comments elsewhere (and there were many, at the time) speculated about censorship or self-censorship and led in some cases to soul-searching online discussions among old friends divided by their opinions of Russia's path… but I should let the piece speak for itself.

An Echo of Moscow
by Roman Gruzov
c. December 3, 2007

The city before the elections

In late November it was cold in [Nizhny Novgorod], and the people handing out United Russia fliers on the streets were bundled up in scarves against the chill. Nizhny covered in snow feels oppressive to a person unused to the Russian provinces. The industrial areas which die out towards the evening and the touching wooden downtown, restored in some places and lop-sided and half-abandoned in others, seemed like some sort of different, unknown, incomprehensible and thus not entirely safe country. There were campaign banners on every corner, so the word “Putin” was always visible from several angles at once.

I stopped a car on the banks of the Oka and thought about those banners and about why they seemed different in Nizhny than at home. To be honest, I always paid attention only to the most odious images. For instance, on the corner of Liteiny and Nevsky, on the building where the editorial offices of Afisha used to be, there's a gigantic group photo that covers up the entire facade, with the caption “Putin's Petersburg.” The second lady from the left has such a ghoulish smirk that it looks like she's promoting the next of the “Dozor” vampire movies and not the Presidential line. Not far away, a poster on a pillar reads, “You are in Putin's plan,” and my gaze has been stopping on that pillar for a month, too, but only because it's odd – he's not in my plans, but I am in his. In Nizhny the quantity of these pictures is something qualitatively different, perhaps because based on the way the locals look, it's hard to understand what they have to do with these banners.

I was picked up by a green Moskvich with a driver of indeterminate age wearing yellow wraparound shades and a shabby sheepskin coat. The radio was bellowing frightfully, and I thought the speaker's voice sounded familiar. But as we drove alongside the still unfrozen river, I had a moment of doubt – the rhetoric of the person shouting from the ragged car speakers about jackals and foreign embassies was just too coarse. I thought, “Could it be Zhirik?”

The driver turned the volume up louder – louder than was proper, so much louder that it became unpleasant to be in the car. After a couple of minutes I was sure that it really was the President speaking – the radio was picking up the TV broadcast from Channel One. I felt uneasy – at any other time I would have asked the driver to turn it down, but I kept quiet. The voice coming from the radio was too insistent, the city too incomprehensible, and the driver's murky gaze from behind his yellow glasses too unpredictable. I had absolutely no desire to argue with him about politics – practically for the first time in the last seventeen years I decided that it would be better to hold my tongue. It was unpleasant, strange and somehow radically new, all at the same time – to be driven around a dark, cold city, listening to the stadium responding to the speechmaker, and to feel that you are living an a new, different time, a time when if you don't know your interlocutor's mindset it's better to stay silent. And we did stay silent – we drove along and listened as various not-so-picky people made speeches at the stadium. Then the driver drew his hand out of his tattered cuff and sharply turned off the radio. It got quiet. Then he said:

“Those assholes!”

He glanced at me out of the corner of his eye, opened the window and spat angrily into the frosty evening.

In Moscow the next day I learned that many of my friends had been through something similar during the past few days, and that for almost all of them the feeling of a qualitative shift was surprisingly connected with something trivial – not with the Luzhniki rally, but with some silly story. One friend's kid got sick from paint fumes, because they were painting the school starting first thing in the morning, rushing to beautify it in time for the elections. Another got into a fight with drunken teenagers on the street, and at the police station noticed they had “I'm for Putin” scarves around their necks. And in response I told everyone how to my own surprise I had been afraid to ask the driver to turn down the radio.

When I returned to St. Petersburg a day later, there were heavy trucks with barred windows parked by the train station. There were more police on Nevsky than there were pedestrians, and the farther I went the more men in uniform surrounded me. Closer to Palace Square, when the police turned into riot troops, I realized that it was because of the dissenters. There was no march whatsoever – a dozen or so pensioners stood by watching the hundreds of soldiers who had secured the square. Then they came up to me, looked at my press card, and put me in a police bus.

“You have a laptop in your bag,” said a calm, mustachioed officer, “and today only journalists accredited by the Main Internal Affairs Directorate [ГУВД] are allowed to be here. Let's take a ride to the precinct, and we'll take a look at what you've got in your computer.”

In the new era this was normal, and I climbed into the dark freight box of the truck without a fight. Inside were about six dejected Tajiks, a gray-haired old man with a hearing aid and teary eyes, and a radical who looked like a sad demon with horns of hairsprayed dreads. They drove us around the city for a long time, and tears flowed down the old man's cheeks from the wind blowing through the cracks in the truck. It was unpleasant to see, so we looked out through the cracks – at the police, roaming about on Nevsky among billboards showing “Putin's Petersburg,” and at the people avoiding the billboards and the policemen. Everyone was silent, but this time I knew for sure what everyone else was thinking. And after three more hours or so they photographed us and let us go – all but the radical, who didn't want to hold a number up to his chest for the camera. My number was 809.

“Assholes,” said the Tajiks, stepping out into the fresh air.
“Assholes,” I agreed.
The old man said nothing.

That was the winter; let's hope the spring will be different. Some observers seem hopeful.

By the way, the imprecation that is repeated in the middle and at the end of the article is “суки” in the original (literally, “bitches”), so I took a bit of license with it – though not much license, actually. According to my trusty Русско-английский словарь ненормативной лексики (М: Астрель, 2002):

Сука ж. […] 3. груб.-прост. Употр. как бранное слово Cf. bastard, shit, asshole (used as a term of abuse).

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