Somewhere in Northern Spain, January 27, 2010 -- I cooked spaghetti today for the first time in Spain. With this fancy, new-fangled stove I can’t use cast iron, I have to use cookware called Victroceramic. I finally, with “sis’s” (I’ll call him “Drushka”) help, learned how to use the stove, but still don’t know how to use the oven.
Also hadn’t found the spice basil here. No wonder! The Spanish name for it is albahaca. I wouldn’t know it if it bit me. Bought something today that was pretty ubiquitous and billed as “the most popular spice in Spain.” Aha, I thought, maybe that’s basil! Turned out to be parsley – perejil. I wasted 3.30 euros – about $ 5 -- on that.
Reminds me of the old joke Bill Trossen, a delightful straight housemate in Wash., D.C., used to tell: “What’s the difference between pussy and parsley? Nobody eats parsley.”
Oregano was easy to spot – spelled the same way as in English. Estragon, ditto -- almost. Thyme? Finally found it – tomillo. That’s thyme? Anyway, the spaghetti was okay, though not spectacular.
The old Vietnam era song – “parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme” would have been pretty tough in Spanish: “perejil, salvia, romero y tomillo.” No wonder it never caught on here!
Got an SMS (text message for you unititiated) tonight from Sergei asking why I hadn’t written. As it turned out, I had written him today by email and suggested he plan to come no earlier than September (though I still don’t think he’ll be able to get a visa at all), because I will be gone all summer and he doesn’t know the language or anybody to help him with it. Repeated that in my SMS, to which he replied that he would plan to come in September. He says he is “fine” and doesn’t need money. Has a good job. Loves me and misses me. Okay, that’s one I can quit crying over. Except when I think about “our song” that he used to play a lot for us a lot: “Don’t You Forget About Me!”
I feel better already.
But have found myself repeatedly crying over Misha. Why? Is he trying to send me a message? Is he dying? Ill? In prison? There’s nothing I can do, but that doesn’t keep me from feeling sad – no, despondent – for him. I must cut this out. It’s not good for me. Also Basil emailed me: “He made his way around Europe for eight years; I think he’s okay.” But it wasn’t -30 degrees in Europe.
Still, I wish I knew. I’ve had two dreams about him. In both, he turned up okay; though in one, he had turned straight. :-)
Also heard from my sister Evelyn today. She’s been visiting her daughter – my “Christ-er” niece – in Pennsylvania. That’s why she hasn’t written. Her daughter, Melanie, who has singlehandedly tried to fulfill the Old Testament admonition to “populate the earth” and now has god-knows-how-many children by equally god-fearing hubby Michael, once tried to “convert” me from my life of sin and degradation. “Just trust in Jesus, he’ll make you straight.”
I tried not to insult her, and replied simply, “god made me like I am and I don’t think he makes mistakes.” But I was thoroughly repulsed. Haven’t heard from her since, though I’m sure she’s still praying for me to renounce my evil ways and turn straight.
Met yesterday with Drushka and an acquaintance who has business in Russia. Drushka was there to translate. The acquaintance, Miriam, also has a 14 yr. old son. She invited us to dinner at her place. Hey, a 14-year-old is better than no son at all. And he will grow! In the meantime, must keep my hands off him! Oh, she says he speaks “a little” English. That’ll be my entrée. No pun intended.
In my bookless state, I find myself re-reading some long-forgotten tomes, including Three Who Made a Revolution, revised by historian Bertram D. Wolfe in 1964 – almost half a century ago – about Lenin, Trotsky, and Stalin. It’s made me try to put into perspective my own thoughts about Russia – very difficult to do.
I’m reminded of a semi-joke: Never try to express vast concepts with half-vast ideas. But I’m going to violate this maxim because I’m neither a historian nor an economist. I do, however, have a license to make half-vast observations:
I first visited Russia in 1993 as a tourist. As an Army Counter-Intelligence Corps agent in the late ‘50s, I had spent a year in the Army Language School in Monterrey, CA, studying Russian – five days a week, six hours a day. In true Army fashion, when I completed my year of Russian, I was sent to Germany and went to German language school, never to speak another word of Russian.
In those early cold-war years, we were taught to pity the Russians. They loved freedom just as much as we Americans, and had been deprived it by the Communist hierarchy. I felt a sympathy with the Russian people, and always wanted to visit Russia to see things for myself. This of course was impossible during the communist regime, and so when a gay square dance troup announced a trip to Russia in 1993 – four years after the collapse of the Soviet government -- ex-partner Jim and I were more than eager to go.
I had great sexual experiences on this trip, not yet understanding that these young beautiful Russians were using me as much as I was using them. I met Tioufline, invited him to my home in Seattle, went back to Russia in ’94, ’95, and ’96; and finally in 1997, when I had reached the U.S. retirement age of 65, sold and gave away everything I had and moved to Russia, to build with Tioufline a new life, starting by buying an apartment for us.
Tioufline, of course, stole the apartment, and wound up costing me probably a quarter of a million dollars in Moscow rent over the next 12 years. But I stayed for three reasons: Good sex, a busy life of teaching English to bright young students, and to be a part of the development of the new Russian democracy.
Communism had fallen, after all, and what else was there for Russia?
But Boris Yeltsin was president. What an unmitigated disaster. Alistair Cooke, I believe, once described Ronald Reagan as an “amiable dunce.” If Reagan was an amiable dunce, Yeltsin was an amiable drunken dunce. If he ever drew a sober breath, it’s not recorded. Since he called his government a “democracy” (but surrounded himself with safe “family” who in the grand Russian tradition, stashed away millions – maybe billions, who knows? – of dollars in Swiss bank accounts), Russians tremble today at the thought of a “democratic” government. If I recall correctly, his popularity sank to something like three percent!
Finally, ten years ago he decided to turn over the reins of government to a trustworthy ex-spy who could be trusted not to prosecute him or the “family” for their economic crimes. He appointed – anointed – Vladimir Putin. Putin kept his word.
However, he has also brought Russia back into the “dictatorship” fold. Not the dictatorship of the Stalin era, it’s true. No one is (publicly) executed, and not that many – Khodorkovsky and his Yukoil oligarchs are some glaring exceptions – are undergoing long jail terms, but there are some good state reasons for that, which I’ve detailed in long-ago chapters of “The Red Queen.”
You can criticize the president, the prime minister, or the state – as I frequently did -- as long as too many Russians don’t hear you and you don’t make waves. But even that’s getting harder to do, and is one of the reasons I finally decided to get out.
For 12 years I taught English – and damned well, or so I was frequently told. And then in September, the Russian immigration service changed the rules. One of the reasons was that “incompetent and untrustworthy teachers were unfit to mold young Russian minds. Foreign teachers might sow seeds of doubt in the invincibility and correctness of the Russian state and its rulers” – which of course I did in regard to both Vladimir Putin and to the ruler of my own country, George Bush, in roughly equal measure.
In any case, now not only do teachers have to have diplomas – which I have -- they also have to have the U.S. State Dept. attest to the diplomas’ veracity. A big pain in the ass. Also, teachers began falling under the rule of having to have their visas renewed every 90 days. I could have probably gotten around that through my connections at Touro Univ., but it was just too much hassle.
Furthermore, the government is getting further and further from a democracy. (So, for that matter, is the U.S. Bush, with his “war on terrorism” declared war against the citizens of the U.S. under the guise of “protecting” them. They fell for it.) But the Russian government doesn’t even have to pretend. It reminds the Russian citizens of the good old days of the tsars and commissars. And there has been progress. Today citizens can air their complaints without fear of arrest. They just can’t print them. And Putin’s coming to power made it quite evident that if Russians love freedom, which has yet to be proved, they love political stability more. That has been proved by recent history.
There are, of course, exceptions, like my once-and-future dissident friend Andrei Sh. But they get arrested and jailed in unapproved “demonstrations,” and so do not pose any real threat to the status quo.
And then there was my living situation. Sergei, much as I love him, was a disaster, a loose cannon. Unpredictable. I never knew what he was going to break in the next fit of rage -- justified, perhaps, but still unpredictable and unacceptable.
And the cost of living kept going up and up. So, generally, did my income, but how long could I keep this up? And why should I?
Also, I’m getting old. Why should I put myself through those tortures when the sex is no longer worth it.
So what does all this have to do with Three Who Made a Revolution? In re-reading it, I’m reminded of the state of abject slavery Russians found themselves in during the decades of the tsars and the communist party secretaries. One of the senior papers I had to proof in my final days of Touro was a dissertation by a graduating student, who quoted Victor Chernomydryn that anybody who heads the government of Russia is eventually going to wind up as a tsar or commissar, because that’s what the Russian people want. My ex-Soviet diplomat private student Dmitry didn’t think much of that because Chernomydryn himself was something of a dunce and because Putin is no Stalin. When Stalin issued orders they got carried out, Dmitry points out. When Putin issues them, they’re just as apt to be ignored.
Still, I think there’s something to it. I don’t see how Russia can ever be a real democracy. Lenin saw to it that the communist government was no democracy, and I don’t think it’s any more likely today. For that matter, even the U.S. is becoming not a real democracy.
And Russia has picked exactly the wrong time to turn capitalist. Capitalism depends on a constantly expanding consumer base. U.S. economist Kenneth Boulding many years ago made the statement that “anyone who contends that we can have infinite growth on a finite planet is either a fool or an economist.” I might add, “or both.”
Now we’re not only running out of oil, but out of water, out of soil, out of breathable air, out of fish in the oceans, out of liveable climate. Now Russia turns capitalist?
One of the books I now want to read is Marx’s Das Kapital. When I was in college, Marx was so smeared by his association with the communism of the Soviet Union that I’m not even sure we had any of his books in the Florida Southern College library. One of the things I’m finding out is that he never saw Russia as blazing the communist trail. Lenin and others paved that track.
Now I want to see what Marx really has to say about capitalism vs. other forms of economics and government.
I find I have to digress one more time, because I can’t get my mind off it. I was going to quit now, but I can’t.
My former Russian language teacher in Moscow, Irina, went to America quite a few years ago to teach Russian language and culture. There she discovered that she was in fact gay, and fell in love with a young cafeteria worker. When she could no longer extend her visa, she had to return to Russia last fall – sans her lover, Lisa. But just before she returned, they found that Lisa had a very aggressive form of cancer. The prognosis was not good. Irina grieved because Lisa was ill and her family didn’t love her and take proper care of her. And Irina couldn’t be there with her.
Irina was in emotional turmoil, but there was a brief respite. In January, Lisa was able to go to Russia for 10 days to visit Irina. I, of course, was already in Spain by that time.
But almost immediately after Lisa returned to America, Irina wrote that she was in the hospital again – in a coma. Yesterday, in the Internet café where I send my emails these days, I received the following message: “Lisa passed away Friday night.”
Of course, I cried. Why am I crying so often these days? I think it’s because there is so much sadness around me – Sergei, Misha, and now Irina. Irina helped me pack my books to come to Spain. She was a good friend and truly good person. Because barbaric religious Russia doesn’t tolerate gays, she didn’t even know that she was. And just as she finds herself, finds blissful happiness, the love of her life, Lisa is taken away from her forever. It’s simply not fair.
Because Irina has spent roughly the past decade – her prime earning years -- in America, she is considered too old (approaching 50) to get a job in Russia, despite her incredible experience and knowledge of English. Russia has no age protection laws. And Irina has no social security, not even the couple of hundred dollars a month most Russians get, because she was teaching in the U.S. and therefore not earning money in Russia.
She has her own apartment, but doesn’t have the money to pay utilities or buy food. Her family lives in Moscow. Because of the economic crisis, her sister has lost her job and with her two daughters is living with her mother. There’s not room for another adult. She can’t tell her family that she is gay. She is suffering through Lisa’s death alone. I’m the only person who knows she’s gay.
My tears are understandable, and so far unquenchable.
Anyway, to quote another dead icon, Walter Cronkhite, “that’s the way the world is spinning tonight.”
Next time I’ll tell you about Spain.