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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