Sunday, June 08, 2008

Bulgakov’s Haunts

Today is Saturday and I have been invited to the countryside, where unless it rains we will inspect the country estate of some long-dead nobleman. The past remains especially present here in Russia. I think it is because Moscovites have so much empty time to fill while out of doors and are surrounded by architectural reminders. They spend about three hours every day traveling, or even more if you count the lengthy trips to their dachas.

I think it’s a pity. Traveling is just time that is subtracted from the real projects of living. You cannot do anything useful or even think constructive thoughts while walking across cobblestones or wiggling your car through traffic or jumping onto the next step of a fast-moving escalator without falling. So Moscovites must live even shorter lives, for practical purposes, than those already statistically abbreviated by poor health and alcohol.

I think Russian men live to the age of 65, or even less, and if you take off 3 hours per day from that, it must reduce their usable life expectancy to about 62.5 years. It would seem to me that the most important thing to do for Russia would be to reduce travel time, but Moscovites seem not to think about that. They are willing to go to their dachas at least once a week, and to take taxis or subways great distances for their meals. There are excellent subways, but they don’t stop as close together as the ones in Paris or New York. I think the cheapest solution would be to put up fast cable cars above the street instead of digging more subways. The subways here are extremely deep; they served as air-raid shelters during World War II.

Another thing is the stress of the traffic! I have to give credit to these free-lance taxi drivers: they have amazing skills. If you stand beside the street with your hand out, approximately every fifth car will stop and roll down the window on the passenger side. You negotiate about where you want to go and at least half the time, they agree to take you there – for half the price of a “real” taxi. These entrepreneurs are all male, of course, and they demonstrate their acrobatic prowess by zipping fast through the tangle of cars with only two or three inches to spare. There are no relevant lanes and no speed limits, and often all the cars have to make a U-turn together. Many streets are ten or more lanes wide – though the concept of a lane is lacking – and drivers tailgate recklessly.

Pedestrians cross these streets by tunnels. There is a logical reason why such cabs are called “bombers.” But the idea is a good one. We in Toronto should start sharing rides with people so readily, for the sake of our climate – which is not, however, the motive of these bomber guys.

Unfortunately, women traveling alone never use such services and even consider a regular taxi risky. And for everyone, the tension must be bad for the health of the population. I try to remind myself to breathe smoothly and unclench my fists. Fortunately, I don’t think my blood pressure is a problem, but the experience can’t extend anyone’s life expectancy.

The bomber drivers seem to cover the whole spectrum of society, and their cars vary just as widely in age and national origin. Our last driver was Turkish, Ignat guessed, and his car was a rattletrap, but a trip offered three days ago was by a distinguished lawyer with a beard and a fine car.

His eight-year-old grandson sat in the back seat with me, wearing a spiffy tuxedo and ponytail. To my embarrassment, he had to inform me that he was a boy, not a little girl, and a violinist to boot. They were returning home after a concert where he had played Bach, Vivaldi, and Mozart. We talked in English about his career plans while up in front the grandfather told Ignat that the boy is a genius, not only as a musician but also as a mathematician. Grandfather himself had been involved in a famous case twenty-five years ago, defending a dissident who was persecuted. Ignat was surprised that I didn’t know about the case, since it had been covered in the world newspapers of that period. The lawyer has quit his practice since then, but he was not afraid to speak frankly about political matters. Nothing has got that bad, fortunately.

Besides the traffic, the most spectacular thing about Russia (and also Ukraine) is the proliferation of magnificent restaurants. Ignat is afraid to take me to the average fast-food joint (he believes we would get food poisoning) so I am sure that my sample is far from representative, but I have been eating superb food every day – usually in a restaurant with a spectacular décor. Two days ago it was a Belgian restaurant that offered about 100 Belgian beers in a supposedly ancient monastery. Our waitresses were nuns, wearing burgundy habits.

The next day I was invited to lunch at the Kremlin – or rather to a new tower that had been built outside the walls, in precisely the same style as a real Kremlin tower. My molded vegetable salad was served by another waitress wearing eighteenth-century garb and I chose the Siberian borsht instead of the Ukrainian one. I take borsht often, sometimes twice a day.

Yesterday after I had interviewed Vladimir Petrovsky, he told me that our café was a famous one that the novelist Bulgakov had frequented. Indeed, the opening scenes in his book “The Master and Margarita” were set here.

Ignat then led me a few blocks to Bulgakov’s house, which is a café now, but it was full already. People sat at small tables listening to a guitarist play and sing, so we wandered through the other rooms where Bulgakov’s belongings and photos were displayed. He was writing during the NEP people and into the 1930s, at a time when everything had been free.

He was the son of a noble philosopher who became an existentialist – at least if you count the kind of religious existentialism that was common in Russia before Sartre turned the movement in the direction of atheism. I came home and started reading The Master and Margarita, which I had bought two weeks ago but had not opened yet.

I loved the interview with Vladimir Petrovsky. He thinks about the world as a whole system, instead of a set of contradictory nations and empires.

He was the under-secretary general of the United Nations, specializing in disarmament and for nine years he ran the UN in Geneva. Now he sees that a totally different set of problems have arisen and require different approaches from everyone. He believes that the dialogues between East and West have diminished, with serious consequences, and liked my idea of trying to revive them. The earlier institution such as Pugwash, IPPW, and the Dartmouth Group may still exist, but lack energy. He thinks that instead of trying to revitalize them, we need new structures that don’t remind people of the Cold War.

I said I’d try to organize an international forum for the public on nuclear weapons in Toronto, and he wants to stay in touch and work on that with me. I think of it as outreach to the public, which has lost any awareness of the nuclear danger, and he thinks of it as a brainstorming session for new ideas. Both can happen. I don’t know whether DFAIT still gives money for such events. I’ll try.

Petrovsky also said that he is concerned about climate change – which pleased me immensely, since few of the Russians I have met do believe it is dangerous and caused by human activity. (Even the guy at Greenpeace took that position, along with Sergei Kapitza, who has the country’s most popular TV show on science) and yet, yesterday the official spokesman of the Russian government changed his tune and now says it is real – this presumably because the new president Medvedev had taken that line on the same day in Europe.

Medvedev even issued a DECREE: that Russia will reduce its carbon emissions by 40 percent by the year 2020. Being a dictator sure does simplify things! On the same day, the Democrats had to withdraw a much weaker bill from Congress because the coal producers and gasoline users would make it impossible for it to pass. On the other hand, a decree may not amount to anything real at all; it may have been issued only to impress Europeans with Russia’s good intentions.

Petrovsky is an exception. I am troubled by discussions with so many people who are struggling with conspiracy theories. Russians always talk about “provocations” and “provocateurs” – and no doubt there are such people. But once you start suspecting others of having hidden motivations, there is no end to the kind of paranoia you can get trapped inside. The only solution, of course, is to try to make others trust you by consistently telling the truth.

These people have a history in which it was often terribly dangerous to tell the truth, and equally dangerous to take others at face value. And as Lyudmilla Alexeyeva said, it is going to take a long time for Russians to get over their sixty-year-long history (much longer than Nazi Germany).

They are unable to do things for themselves because they were always supposed to wait for the state to tell them what to do and provide for their needs. Now they are learning how to take some initiative, chiefly through experience with civil society organizations. She says they are learning fast.

Regrettably, I see the other problem as worse – the suspicion that hidden motivations are behind everything that is going on, and that there are agents who actually orchestrate situations so as to trap others into doing things that they would not want to do. I talked to an FSB agent (actually, a nice guy) who claimed that almost all of the dissidents were informers because they had been intimidated into serving as provocateurs. Imagine believing that your enemies (or even your friends, against their will) would blow up people on their own side so as to pin the blame on YOU. That stuff does happen in Russia, and people mistrust each other because they know it happens.

But of course the Russians how have excellent reasons for mistrusting the US because of the encroachment of NATO and missile defence systems,not to mention Iraq. They see all US positions as reflecting a desire to harm Russia. Kosovo’s independence, for example, was granted just because Russians identify with the Serbs and feel wounded when the Albanians are considered as entitled to self-determination. (I myself don’t like the idea of granting Kosovo independence, but mostly because I think separatism is generally a bad idea, with bad consequences, but for Russians, the reason is that American hates Russia. So there’s a real revival of Cold War thinking here, even among people who are struggling with the ideas and trying not to get deluded. If Obama becomes president he may make the US more trustworthy, but it will still take a while for Russians to overcome their fears.

I meet mostly liberal people, but I can see how hard it is for them, since their habit is to look for hidden motivations. I had a dream the other night about it. There were wires under the carpet, all linked together in a tangle of nodes which could not be sorted out.

Yet there are conspiracies even in the West. Jeez—probably there is some real basis for doubting the official explanation of the September 11 tragedies. But I just don’t want to get into that kind of mentality because there’s no way to put an end to it once it has taken over your mind. I think it may take as long as Alexeyeva says for Russians to be straightforward, trustworthy and trusting people.

Now I must get ready to go to the countryside.

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Friday, June 06, 2008

Letter from Moscow

Tonight I will have dinner with a leader of the brave “Mothers of Soldiers” committee. I’m doing one or two interviews almost every day. Yesterday it was Yuri Dzibladze, a democracy and human rights organizer, and Andrei somebody at Greenpeace. Before that it was Sergei Kapitza and Mikhail Lebedev of Pugwash, and before that Grigory Yavlinsky, the leader of Yabloko Party. There had also been wonderful conversations with the stalwart old dissidents Lyudmilla Alexeeva (pictured here), Sergei Kovalev, and a current dissident Lev Ponomarov (who was seen on TV being beaten upon on the street by cops a few weeks ago). And a bunch of younger political activists. Dmitry Furman was wonderful. Georgi Arbatov is sick (he just turned 85), and so is Andrei Kortunov, but there will be others. Keep your fingers crossed about an interview with Gorbachev. It didn’t happen this week but may next week.

By now the overall picture is very clear; the variations that I observe are just differences in personal perspective. The current Russia government is even worse than I had expected – everyone tells me so -- and I already knew fairly well what to expect. But there are optimists and pessimists. The optimists (notably Alexeeva) believe that democracy may come in 15 years. Most say at least fifty. All of them base their greatest hope on the emergence of civil society organizations, though these are actually going under instead of gaining strength. Everyone says things are getting worse, not better, but a couple of people cherish some slight hope that Medvedev may be an improvement over Putin. Alexeeva says that the mentality here is developing much faster than it did in other countries. She points for example to the existence of a car owners association, which started originally to protest against a government plan to ban right-hand drive cars, which are common in the far East because they are imported from Japan. Now the association is protesting against the practice of turning off the street signal lights to let high officials drive through a clearing in the traffic. That’s a truly political action – but so far it has not got anywhere. We have been stalled in traffic repeatedly near the White House or the Kremlin – once for 1.5 hours during the evening traffic jam.

I am actually hoping to interview someone who is an apologist for the Putin regime. Probably it cannot be Yevgeny Velikhov, who will be away, but that would break my heart anyhow. He was one of the most passionate disarmament advocates, extremely effective under Gorbachev, and now he heads some big GONGO (government-organized NGO) designed to draw attention away from genuine civil society organizations. The members are elite citizens appointed by Putin, representing nobody. Mainly the way of repressing NGOs is to choke them with bureaucratic paper work and incessant inspections, plus taxing them until they cannot get anything done.

Nobody calls the system totalitarian – only authoritarian – though it ranks six on Freedom House’s seven-point scale of freedom, where China ranks at the very bottom, seven. Everyone knows about Freedom House. So far, the Internet is still quite free, and there are a couple of radio stations and one newspaper. No decent TV, though. By command, the TV shows are mostly Comedy Club and comic family sitcoms. Sergei Kapitza still runs his science show, though. I call him Russia’s David Suzuki, but unlike Suzuki he is never critical of the regime and has no fire in his belly at all. I sat in his wonderful old dacha (near Stalin’s country home) interviewing him while a plasma-screen TV set was showing a handsome couple having sex. Eventually he got up and switched it off, but without seeming at all perturbed by the content. (His wife had mildly observed that it’s unfortunate they show these programs in the daytime when children can watch.)

Nobody in Russia is at all worried about climate change. Certainly neither Kapitza nor the Greenpeace guy, who both said that it may turn out to be advantageous for Russia, which is such a cold country! And I have tried to buy copies of Al Gore’s DVD but it is nowhere available, nor was it for sale in Kiev. I am told that both Pugwash and IPPNW are “dead” in Russia and I evoked no interest when I reflected on ways of reinvigorating either one.

It is hard for me to gauge whether the anxieties that I observed are realistic or psychological pathologies. I am guided everywhere by a young couple who fear all kinds of possible dangers that I ignore. They always warn me to lock the door behind them when they leave and not open it to anyone until I have found out who is there. They will eat in almost none of the available restaurants (for sanitation reasons) and warn me against buying fresh food from the kiosks that line the street. There are some real grounds for caution, of course. The girl was assaulted and almost raped two months ago when she was returning home at 4 am through a wooded, secluded path. I saw the path and think that Toronto women would also avoid walking there in the middle of the night. But her assailant was a Central Asian, and this event has turned her boyfriend into an openly avowed racist. He was spouting off about it yesterday in ways that made me cringe.

This computer loses Internet connection every day, and it takes half an hour to fix it. I have asked him why he won’t take it to the shop but he says it was purchased by his stepfather, who would have to go with him and take his passport. Then they would take all day and not really fix it anyhow. So he has wasted 30 or 40 hours since I’ve been here fiddling with the computer. Is that realistic? I don’t know.

In other ways, however, he is liberal --keenly interested in politics but he will not join any group because it would harm his career. One day he says he will – but he has to choose very carefully when to do so, since he believes he can make no contribution now and might get beaten up or killed for any public activity. He wishes he could teach history in high school (he has an MA in history from Moscow State University) but says it’s impossible to earn a living that way in Russia, and that there are no professional jobs, so he will go into business, though he knows he is not good at that kind of thing.

Now I’m going to try to phone Vladimir Petrovsky. I once interviewed him at the UN when he was under-secretary general for disarmament. He’s leaving for Geneva soon and I hope to see him before he leaves. It may sound as if I’m having a miserable time, but I’m actually enjoying it all immensely.

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