MOSCOW, July 18, 2006 -- The Red Queen was standing there minding her own business last Tuesday when all of a sudden her screen was filled with a multi-colored poster bearing a silhouette of a map of Russia, the Muslim crescent and star, a smaller silhouette of the map of Chechnya and a fierce looking wolf.
“Samil Basayev is not dead. He is live in our hearts,” it proclaimed.
And at the bottom: “hacked by Dzigsz and Dengesiz Team.”
And suddenly we found ourselves an unlikely pawn in the vendetta between conquering Russia and rebellious Chechnya.
Shamil Basayev was Chechnya’s leading terrorist. He claimed credit for some of the most hideous acts of violence against the hated Russia: The Dubrovka theater siege in Moscow in 2002 that left 129-170 dead (fatality reports differ), and the hostage-taking at the Beslan school in 2004 that killed 331 – mostly children.
Leaders tend to have followers; so when he was blown to smithereens in a thunderous explosion in Ingushetia on Monday (the details and cause of which seem to change daily) his army of Chechen patriots and sympathizers were simply continuing the fight any way they knew how, including hacking into an apolitical (well, relatively) gay blog in Moscow to declare that the battle is not over.
“He is live in our hearts.”
Well, speak for yourselves, Dzigsz and Dengesiz. While I have just as great a sympathy for the Chechen cause as I have for the Iraqi cause, I have no stomach or sympathy for the kind of violence Basayev perpetrated any more than I have for the equally repugnant violence of the Russian occupiers against which he was retaliating – or of the unspeakable atrocities of the American occupiers of Iraq.
Escalating retaliation is not generally a step toward peace; what’s going on between Israel and Lebanon now, e.g., could start WW3.
Basayev’s demise couldn’t have come at a better time for Putin, leading some pundits to suggest that the Russian security force, the FSB (KGB updated), have had him in their sights for a very long time, but they needed him alive for propaganda purposes, to rally the sometimes flagging support of the Russian people.
As long as Basayev was committing atrocities, there was unqualified support for Russia’s oppression of Chechnya.
But when his death would serve a greater purpose than his life – to prove to other G8 leaders that Russia, unlike some of its Western counterparts, knows how to handle terrorists -- it was time to push the button.
It’s a clever ploy certainly, and not unprecedented. I recall that the Bush administration shortly after the Afghan invasion repeatedly cited an elusive Afghan terrorist, purportedly a member of the al Quaeda network, whose terrorist activities were said to be posing a serious threat to American forces in Iraq.
But they just couldn’t seem to find him.
It was later revealed, columnist Chris Floyd reported, that the CIA had had this dude in his sights the whole time, and was begging Bush to let them take him out.
Bush’s reply? No, we need him to justify our war in Afghan. We need somebody to hate. So he was left to keep killing U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan.
Isn’t it amazing how much alike these two terrorists -- Vlad and George -- think?
On the other hand, there’s a lot to suggest that the explosion that brought Basayev’s death was sheer accident.
The official version is that Basayev and three other rebels driving a KamAZ truck and two Russian made cars were “blocked” by Ingushetia security forces and local police, and that the explosion occurred “as a result of a special operation.”
While the head of the FSB was telling this story in the Kremlin, the FSB’s Ingushetia branch was repeatedly telling reporters that the explosives in the truck had been detonated accidentally. They had relatively quickly identified three of the dead men, but 15 hours elapsed before investigators realized that the fourth man, whose body had been blown to bits, was the long-sought Basayev.
One version has it that he was betrayed by one of his henchmen for half a million bucksi. Another says that the arms trader they bought the munitions from had secreted a radio-controlled detonator in the arms, which was touched off on cue upon directions from FSB controllers. Still another says a guided missile honed in on his mobile phone.
They will settle on the fiction that reflects the most glory on the FSB. In the meantime, one question that is not being addressed is how a truck full of explosives and weapons and bearing Russia’s most wanted man had been able to wander around at will over the roads of Ingushetia, a country almost as tightly controlled by Russian security forces as Chechnya.
Police officials “could always be bought by Basayev,” exiled rebel envoy Akhmed Zakayev told reporters by telephone from London. “It was never difficult for him to buy people who could help him move from one place to another….”
Final score: One underground terrorist, responsible for the deaths of hundreds, perhaps thousands, is dead. But other overt terrorists responsible for the deaths of many tens of thousands still remain – driven in their bullet-proof limousines to be honored and acclaimed before the world in the sparkling splendor of czarist palaces in St. Peterburg – unabashed by and oblivious to the terror they sow daily.
I was on my way to meet Dima, my potential new “facelink” computer boyfriend (Chapt. 208) at 2 p.m. Monday when he called saying he was at work and busy. “Could we meet at 4? I’ll call you at 3.”
At 3 he called: “Could you help me with a shoe problem? I’ve got a hole in my shoe.”
“Let’s meet and we’ll talk about it.” Sure, I wouldn’t mind buying him a cheap pair of shoes for 20 bucksi or so if it’s an emergency.
We met at 4:20 in the metro. He was about 5’9”, unremarkable appearance, a little chunky, with a fashionable tan and gleaming white sports shoes with a hole in the heel. He had lied about his age. He was more than 19 – maybe 22. But that’s okay, I had lied about my age too.
“I have to buy a new pair of shoes,” he said. “There’s a shoe store on the New Arbat that has the shoes I want.”
“How much are these going to cost?”
They cost 6,000 rubles ($ 200). I have 2000. I need another 4,000.
Then he went on to tell me that the 2000 which he was about to spend as partial payment on a pair of fashionable sports shoes was all the money he had to last him for the next two weeks.
“Do you really think it’s wise to spend your last 2000 rubles on a pair of shoes when you won’t have anything to live on for the next two weeks?”
“Oh, but I have to buy them now,” he insisted. “It’s the end of the summer season, and they’re on sale. If I wait for the new fall collection, the new ones will cost 10,000 rubles!”
To a Westerner, the Russian’s debonair attitude toward money is both maddening and irresponsible in the extreme. If you’ve got it, spend it, even though it’s your last.
I first noticed it in Andrei Tioufline, because the money he was insisting on spending the last of happened to be mine. But I’ve observed it in countless others.
It’s especially unavoidable if you’re invited to a Russian’s apartment for dinner, drinks, what-have-you. You’ll know they’re down to their last ruble, but they will spare nothing to lavish hospitality on you. It’s very generous and thoughtful indeed, but it’s also very stupid, and makes me so uncomfortable I can’t enjoy their spread.
What are they going to eat tomorrow if they spend all their money buying meat and wine to feed me today?
I have never found the answer to that one. I’ve never stayed around till the next day to find out.
It’s a tradition that stems at least in part from the chronic high inflation rate after the Soviet collapse: It won’t be worth anything tomorrow, might as well spend it today!
But it also has a lot to do with prestige, impressing your neighbors, the time-honored American preoccupation with keeping up with the Joneses.
It is such a widespread Russian tradition that the LA Times Moscow correspondent did a double-page spread on it which was reprinted in the Moscow Times.
The article focused on the flood of fakes that pervades the Moscow markets, which enables many Russians to look rich and powerful, though they may be poor as churchmice. It’s especially useful for hustlers.
The Economic Development and Trade Ministry has estimated that 50% of all consumer goods sold in Russia are fake, the Times reported.
About the only brand names they don’t try to synthesize here are the ones on cars – BMWs, Mercedes, Chrysler, etc. – for obvious reasons.
“If there is a world capital of audacious fabrication,” observes LA Times reporter Kim Murphy, “it must be Moscow, where fake is never a four-letter word.”
Now they’re even offering fake vacations. You can disappear for a week and come back with a Copacabana tan and a picture of you in front of the Christ of the Andes, and your colleagues will never know you weren’t really lounging with other millionaires on the exotic beaches of Rio de Janeiro.
Won’t they be jealous!
One fake Rolex is so good that it’s developed a cachet of its own and is sought after and worn with double pride.
One of the most persistent and easiest fakes to come up with here is an education. In nearly every metro station there are one or two people with signs offering fake high school and university diplomas. The LA Times writer reported haggling over a medical degree from Moscow State University. They finally settled on just over 500 bucksi.
I could probably get a doctorate in Journalism for a couple of grand.
Wouldn’t you be jealous!
What good is a fake degree, you may ask. If they hired you on the basis of it, wouldn’t they soon find out that you don’t know your ochko from a hole in the ground?
My friend Boris told me that a friend of his bought a degree that got him entrée to a clerical job, which he continues to do quite well. They have never found out he didn’t really graduate from the university.
Maybe the real message is that education is a waste of time and money.
For that matter, even if the degree is real, it often doesn’t mean anything. Yegor is buying his way through the university, test by test. And former student Andrei K., now a top manager in a small IT company, is working on his MBA at a local university. He hires a professional thesis writer to do his papers for him, and his secretary does his homework. He does attend class from time to time.
And what are my students at Potemkin U. learning from me? But I look like a prof and sound like a prof and speak native English! Appearances are everything.
You must understand the importance of appearances to understand the Russian appetite for fakes, says one authority quoted by The LA Times.
The Russian attitude is that “It’s better to look like something than to be something,” he told the reporter. “I know people here who have not very much money at all, but who will buy a very big car so that other people will see that he’s rich, he’s powerful.”
The guy is not exaggerating.
And of course, this reaches down into the ranks of poor gay kids who come to Moscow to find a future. “To be rich, you have to look rich.” It can make being a sugar daddy an expensive proposition.
Which is why after my encounter with Dima, I told him I wasn’t available after all. My boyfriend is returning, I lied. And in the course of the conversation, he informed me that he was quitting his waiter’s job the next day. Who is he going to live off of?
I clearly made the right decision.
And actually, I only half lied. Vanya from Nizhniy Novgorod called and said his plans to move to Moscow had been delayed, but he’s still coming.
But the experience also pointed out something else that’s probably long been obvious to everybody else: the tawdriness with which sex is swapped on the internet. “Hi, name’s Pasha, age 19, HWP, like rap, wanna fuck?”
My discomfort sounds strange coming from a guy whose main reason for staying in this otherwise generally intolerable hole is sex. When former boyfriend Misha threatened to tell the landlady I was running a queer bordello (Chapt. 2) he was shocked when I told him that “I love every guy that I have sex with.”
And I was serious. I loved, certainly, him – and Anton and Yegor and Shurik and Sasha and…. – I loved them all. And here we are standing in the subway looking at each other for the first time and making a deal: “You buy me shoes, I’ll let you suck my cock.”
I didn’t love him. I didn’t even know if I liked him. So maybe I’m really just an indiscriminate romantic. I see you, I fall in love with you, I suck your cock and take care of you. But notice the sequence! Mind you, I fall in love very easily. But if the sequence gets out of order, it doesn’t work.
But it was obvious that for him, the sequence made no difference. Buy me shoes, suck my dick.
In the meantime, Igor is inching his way back up the fantasy ladder. Friday and Saturday night he was not only garrulous, but loving! He’s calling me “honey” again and Saturday he and Yuri helped me do a slaughter on the kitchen roach population.
He went to Elk Island Park at the edge Moscow after the massacre, which had left hundreds of the repulsive creatures on the floor with their legs in the air (kind of like a college frat party, only these guys weren’t having fun). He got home about 1 a.m. after the uniformed bandits called cops had robbed him of his new cell phone, radio, and even his one-month metro card.
I had gone to bed, but he came in and sat on the bed and we chatted. I swore at the cops in Russian and English. “That’s okay,” he reassured me. “I’m living a good life here.”
“Yes, I’m having a good life with you. I like living with you.” I did a Putin number and hugged and kissed him on the belly (Chapt. 208). “I think I love you,” I said.
“I think I love you, too,” he replied, bending down and kissing me.
But sex is still out of the question for him. And he’s still denying that I’m gay. It has also become apparent that this change in personality occurs only with a push from alcohol. He drank on Friday night and Saturday night, I discovered, but I didn’t call him on it because he drank responsibly and didn’t get out of control. But on Sunday night, he got really drunk, passed out on the couch and spilled beer all over himself, the couch, and a blanket.
At last! I’ve bought a bicycle. I suppose you’d call it a granny bike – 6-speed, collapsible, aluminum, bright yellow, and light enough to carry up and down stairs. I’ve coveted one for years, but put off buying one because of the maniacal Russian drivers. But if I stay on the side streets, sidewalks, and parks, it’s relatively safe and delightfully pleasant.
I’ve already ridden my “yellow peril” to some of my classes that aren’t too far away. I even rode it in a slight drizzle this morning, which wasn’t too noticeable with my Seattle Mariners baseball cap.
My Peter fantasy and I met Sunday afternoon, though our swimming party was called off because his parents’ car had been involved in a minor collision and had to be repaired.
When he found out I had bought a bicycle, and that it only cost $ 150, he said he would buy one with his next paycheck and we can go biking together on weekends.
I think this beautiful boy likes me! Our time together is so pleasant and passes so fast. He said he would like to take my advanced English course at the Institute of Diplomacy in October if it’s offered, but he isn’t sure if he’s at a high enough level.
So we’ll meet next weekend and I’ll test him again to find out where his weaknesses are, and we’ll work on them between now and October. It will give us an excuse to spend more time together.
And maybe work on my weakness.
Zhorik has been stationed “almost in China,” according to twin Sergei, who called me Saturday morning. I asked Sergei to send me the address by SMS. But haven’t received it yet.
Igor will want to write him a letter, so we will get the address – if not from the twins, from Igor’s own parents or from Zhorik’s father, Valentin.
I remember the assurances Zhorik made – even after he was inducted (Chapt. 105) -- that he would unquestionably be stationed in or around Moscow. Anyway, I can put off confronting him on his lies about the money I gave him to bribe his way out of the army (Chapt. 203).
I suspect by now he’s wishing he had used the money for what it was intended instead of whatever he used it for. It’s too bad for both of us that he scammed me. I think we had a pretty good thing going, and it might have lasted a long time.
My visa has been renewed without problems, which means my paranoia over my association and friendship with former dissident and continued FSB target Andrei Sh. is unfounded – so far.
The more time I spend editing his 80-page drama about life in the psych wards of the Soviet system, the more I’m convinced that he’s created something of a masterpiece. Unfortunately, I don’t know how to help him get it to the attention of critics and publishers who count.
But he’s a yogi, after all, and possessed of -- if nothing else -- patience. We’re meeting this weekend to talk more about it. Unfortunately, without the accompanying inspiration of his inspired samogon, or moonshine, I’m not sure how creative we’ll be. He insists a little firewater would be good for me. But I’m not so sure.
Former English Exchange colleague Bill Skyrme, a straight, all-round good British bloke (he loaned me $ 1,000 for the twins last year – Chapt. 155) who doesn’t have the same sexual incentives that I have for staying here, is giving up the battle with the bureaucracy and moving to Portugal to live with his son.
He thinks I should get out, too, but I’m not ready yet.
And judging from the e-mail I got from Hong Kong Harry over the weekend, I may never be. Harry’s at the moment doing research at Univ. of Ill. in Champlain, “an absolute dump,” he says. “It is ugly, nothing going on, nothing to do, no cultural or intellectual life. I could never see living here….
“I have also pretty much decided that I do not want to live in the US…. The US has moved too far to the political right, is dominated by fundamental Christians…and is no longer a free country. I don't think I can live in a country that is not free, and unfortunately that includes Russia as well.”
To raise the “I’m living in your future” spectre, it once again sounds like you’re already there.
So, Harry, where do we go from here?