No longer content to hide under our beds, Russians are everywhere these days from fake memes and online trolling to NRA galas, Trump Tower and, maybe, even the White House. It takes me back to my year in Moscow, 1988. Gorby and glasnost were in, as was rock, long hair, and dissent. I felt so at home.
I was working on my study, which I hoped would be the crowning achievement of my academic career, “The Moral Advancement of the Soviet People Because of Their Contacts with Americans.” Although, much to my surprise, things weren't going so hot. My interviews with Russians would go well, until they found out I was American. Then they'd try to interest me in smuggling, you know, the usual – designer jeans, Playboys, nuclear warheads, toilet paper.
I got so discouraged I spent most of my time wandering the streets of Moscow, foraging for edible food. One twilight I ended up at the University of Moscow, a hotbed of the kind of activism we saw here in the states during the early eighties. Spying the bulletin board with its gigantic posters advertising a Milton Friedman Fan Club, a conference on how to smirk like Donald Trump (hmm, that might explain some things), and a colloquium on unenlightened self-interest, a small notice in the corner caught my eye.
It was an announcement of a meeting about, of all things, Lenin. Now this was an eye-opener. What would I find at such a conclave – a cabal of geriatrics planning sedition while comparing gall bladder surgeries? I grabbed the address and went straight there.
At the meeting, I found thirty people crammed into a living room the size of a walk-in closet, literally sitting on top of one another, eating cabbage rolls, sampling just picked mushrooms, downing shots of vodka along with Pepsi chasers, and arguing passionately about all sorts of intellectual topics. I knew right away I'd come to the right place.
I overheard a distinguished middle-aged gentleman with a salt and pepper beard argue, as he pointed at a bottle of Pepsi, that they “should not drink this sugary example of capitalist thuggery.”
“Dmitri, this is perestroika, drink up!” a woman next to him replied.
“Excuse me,” I interrupted, “what is the purpose of this meeting?
“What you see before you is our national tragedy, men and women who are in the grips of terrible oppression,” Dmitri answered, then began to weep openly and without shame.
“Dobryy vecher,” said the woman, “I'm Anna. I'm sorry. Dmitri is much too upset to talk. You see, we are a support group for unemployed Lenin statue makers.”
Dmitri then grabbed my shoulders, sobbing, “All over the world Lenin statues are being destroyed by peasants who don't understand great art. It is too much to bear!”
“But can't you make other statues?” I asked.
“Have you ever seen Lenin's face,” Anna replied.
She picked up a small statue off the coffee table. The room suddenly went quiet, everyone staring at this simple bronze statuette of Lenin.
“Look at this face,” she said, then she began to sing (to the tune of “Baby Face”):
There's not another one to take his place, Lenin's face.
I'm in socialist heaven when I see his pretty face.
“Look at these cheekbone,” Dmitri sobbed. “I can't sculpt anyone else!”
“Listen,” Anna said, “we all had years of training and were given all kinds of privileges by the state. We enjoyed dachas, vacations on the Black Sea twice a year, and toilets that actually flushed.”
Men and women began to cry. Some whimpered, “Imagine, a toilet that actually flushes.”
“But now,” Anna continued, “we have nothing. Nothing!”
Then Dmitri screamed, “Life is hell. It is unbearable!”
Anna slapped him, pulled his face close to hers and gave him a big, passionate kiss. Then whispered in a sexy Lauren Bacall voice, “Dmitri, let us dance, until we drop dead.”
The meeting quickly broke up, and we had one of those barn-burners for which Russians are justly famous. What an experience for an American in Moscow to be hung by his heels out the window in below-zero weather, while singing such great American favorites as “If I Had a Hammer” and “Rainy Day Women #12 and 35.”
Those Russians are such cards. I thought they had forgotten me, and to tell the truth, my feelings (not to mention my frozen extremities) were just a teensy bit hurt. But when the party finished, they dragged me back up, and everyone gave each other big hugs and kisses. Then we did the traditional Russian dance of Danceolovich Polnochke, which roughly translated means “The Groin-Destroying Dance.”
After several more shots of vodka with Pepsi chasers, we walked out into the early morning streets of Moscow, promising undying friendship. It was one of my most memorable experiences in Moscow, ranking right ahead of finding a clean bathroom in the Moscow subway.
Of course, there were many things I learned during my stay. Not to eat food without smelling it, not to let fat bearded men who have been eating cabbage kiss you on the lips, but, most of all, that though in Dmitri's word's “life is hell” we can make it if only we have enough vodka and an unlimited credit line from the Russian mafia, like you-know-who who used to smirk so well. Udachi!