Slipping on the Wild, Wild East

By Mary Bruce

The Zephyr, Galesburg


I don’t get it—Russia, that is. I didn’t get it when I taught in Moscow last fall, and still don’t.  Russia is the most complex place I’ve ever visited, much more complex than the USA, and perhaps more than many European and African countries. At first, I thought the complexity was because of Russia’s size, big enough to hold three USAs. Now I think a good bit of my not “getting it,” results from its contradictions. Truth, like banana peels, is always slippery, but seems particularly so in Russia.


      In Moscow seventy-five year old women beg for money on the newly capitalized streets, streets that hold penthouses, high class brothels—oops, I mean “bars” e.g. “The Babylonia” and restaurants that charge $95 for brunch.  Sprinkle these contradictions with some of the world’s best architecture, music and art, and you have some idea of the mysterious nature of “Mother Russia.” Why, for example, is Krushev not allowed to be buried among the country’s heroes near Lenin’s tomb yet Stalin is? Khrushchev tried to make peace and began reforms. Stalin’s reforms resulted in xxx million innocents either executed or exiled to Siberia.


 In Russia, modern violence dances with communal trust. Last fall in Moscow, there was a murder every week. First, a man trying to reform the banking system was gunned down as he left a health club, his face shattered, as a newspaper picture showed. “A contract killing,” the TV calmly announced.  Then an oil magnate, then a couple of rich people met their ends through contract killings. I considered these victims as rivals in venture capitalists’ grab for Russia’s oil and timber—that is until the murder of journalist Anna Politkovskaya, an assassination aimed at shutting her up. When police entered her apartment, they found her newspaper essay naming names and dates of torturers and victims gone, her hard drive erased, but all monies intact. Later, when Anna’s posthumous article foretelling her own death and implicating Kodyov of Chechnya came out, suspicions about Putin dissolved. Dissolved, that is until, Litvinenko a former KGB spy who had been investigating Anna Politkovskaya’s death, was poisoned in London. “In a deathbed statement, the 43-year-old declared, "You may succeed in silencing one man, but the howl of protest from around the world will reverberate, Mr. Putin, in your ears for the rest of your life."


So much for this stream of “whodunits.” To me, then, the murders, whether economic or political, signaled simply a phase of the country, like the rise of our Robber Barons in the late 19th century, or perhaps the frequent shootouts in the Wild West. In fact, I wrote home about the “Wild, Wild East.” 


But now I realize this analogy is wrong. Our Wild West shoot outs took place on undeveloped, uncivilized (by Europeans anyhow) land. Russia is an ancient civilization, first Christianized in the 8th century. It has endured eons of oppression by the “Yellow Hoards,” czars, priests, and soviets. Yet it has birthed the world’s greatest art, music and architecture. In the midst of shady political and economic killings, Muscovites stroll in Puskin Square, Miakowsy square and along boulevards named for and sporting statues of artists. The ordinary person attends concerts, ballets, operas, the way we do the movies, in gorgeous buildings with gilt-edged seats from little more than $7 a seat. My assistant, Svetlana, on a trip to the USA exclaimed when she found the symphony hall attached to a university. “Why should it be attached only to the intelligentsia? Culture belongs to everyone,”


 Perhaps this concept of “everyone,” explains the palpable trust that vibrates between people in city parks, on metros, at midnight in the Kremlin. With all the skuldudery in the newspapers, I was shocked to see, and also to feel, the trust between city people. The city park near my dorm was always filled with young parents with strollers, old couples tottering arm in arm, groups of teenagers drinking beer (but not drunk or loud), and lovers twined around each other on benches. No one was “watching out”—alert for trouble. No one watched her purse, or glanced about suspiciously. This certainly wouldn’t happen in a Chicago or New York City park. Marina, my boss, and I, along with many others, strolled at midnight in the lit-up Kremlin. There simply was no fear.  Men gave up their seats to me on the metro; strangers offered to translate when I was obviously not getting anywhere. Finally, I caught on. The society was communal, not individualistic like us.


How then to explain the trust between the people in the parks, in the Kremlin, in the streets when they routinely contend with contract killings and ambiguous, secret government dealings?  I found one answer from an ordinary woman who remarked, “Oh, I never worry about my safety; I’m not important enough.”  Then there is a famous quote by a Russian author. “One can never understand Russia; one can only believe in her.”


Perhaps my most realistic answer lies in how the Russians received me.  In Moscow, strong anti-American sentiment prevailed in newspapers, on television, in professors’ lectures.  Yet I was popular.  I asked my director why I was successful when Americans were so despised. She crinkled her eyes and pressed my hand   “We, Russians, have learned through hard experience that governments come and go, but the people-- the people--remain the same.” She smiled. “That is why.”  


And that is why I love Russia, for its people, the people whose generosity overlooked my bumbling. “Mother Russia” has a warm-heartedness has probably been around for …God knows for how long.


Between bouts of wanderlust, Mary Bruce teaches English at Monmouth College. In her twenty-two years there, she has traveled extensively, directing student off-campus programs in England and Zimbabwe. She is the recipient of several Global Partners Awards to Kenya and Tanzania and three Fulbright grants, the latest in Moscow, Russia. In her spare time, she writes and has published short stories, a poetry collection and novel. Dr. Bruce is married and has two sons, one grandson and two granddaughters. Next to them, she considers the Midwest her creative inspiration