Wednesday, March 26, 2014

The Americans Come to Visit

After six months of trying to sell Moscow as a hot tourist destination, I have finally secured my first visitors, Alli and Leah.  I had advised them to learn the Cyrillic alphabet before coming so they’d be semi-functional, but only Leah agreed to take on the task. I guess she decided literacy was overrated because when she arrived on Saturday, she couldn’t even read her own name, which was poorly transliterated on her Russian visa as “Li.” Alli’s survival instincts have kicked in and she has been making a valiant attempt to master the alphabet—she likes to sound out all the metro stops and has been taking her phrasebook everywhere.  She still can’t say anything other than “what's your star sign?” and “thank you,” but it’s been good for my self-esteem to hear someone speaking Russian even worse than me.

The three of us on the Moscow River

The weather has been uncharacteristically amazing, so we’ve visited nearly every outdoor space in Moscow.  But after three days of traipsing around outside, I decided we needed to 1) see something cultural and 2) get their visas registered. With Alli and Leah trailing me like ducklings, we metro-ed over to Red Square to pay our respects to Lenin’s corpse. Having visited the Soviet Union’s founding father twice before, I knew that we weren’t allowed to bring in bags, cameras, or phones, but I wasn’t sure where we could leave them. At the head of the line were two police officers who looked no more disgruntled than your average Russian, so I thought I’d see if they could be of any assistance.

Me: Excuse me, where is the garderob?
Female Police Officer: You mean the kamera khraneniya?
Me: I don’t know…the place for bags and cameras. [For the record, both garderob and kamera khraneniya refer to a place where one leaves their stuff, and there is no way they didn’t understand my word choice.]
Male Police Officer: There is no garderob.
Me: Really? But the sign said—
Male Police Officer: Maybe it’s in America.

Then he gave me a self-satisfied smirk and turned his back on me. I thought about firing back a pithy response, but I try not to argue with people who have the power to throw me in jail. That and I’m linguistically incapable of making comebacks in Russian, so that was also a limiting factor.

In the end, the coat check was within eyesight and we were able to turn our bags over to an even more irritable Russian before queuing up for the metal detectors. Though Leah set off the sensors, we were yelled at to keep moving and they didn’t bother to pat her down. I’m not sure what it says about a country when they have tighter security at hockey matches than the Kremlin, but that’s a puzzle for another day.

Lenin's final resting place

Lenin’s mausoleum feels even larger up close, and the black and red granite is sufficiently intimidating. It took a second for my eyes to adjust to the darkness, but the unsmiling guards don’t let you dawdle. We descended into the tomb and into the main chamber where Vladimir Ilyich’s body is is laid out on a scarlet platform. Volodya looks much the same as he did the last time we met—slightly waxen, not quite real, and delightfully creepy. I’m hoping to look just as good when I’m 90-years dead.

After giving Alli and Leah their share of culture, it was time to tackle the process of visa registration. Perhaps this reflects poorly on me as a hostess, but it was definitely done in the front of a Lexus parked outside a metro stop. I guess we’ll find out if the whole process was legal if Alli and Leah manage to avoid a trip to the gulags. Nice as Siberia is this time of year, I think America and its allegedly ample supply of coat checks is preferable.

Alli and Leah explore the Arbat

Alli and me on Red Square

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Escape from Siberia

Getting out of Siberia was no small feat, and involved a 14.5-hour journey that spanned 3,350 kilometers. At midnight (Omsk Standard Time), we piled ourselves and our luggage into Sasha’s Land Cruiser and said goodbye to the fortress. I ended up squashed between Vanya and Dasha, with a bundle of 2x4s jutting out in the space between Dasha’s and my heads. Sasha fired up the engine, lit up the first of many cigarettes, and we set off into the Altai darkness. As we dodged patches of ice, herds of animals, and head-on collisions, I realized it was still up for debate whether I’d make it out of Siberia alive.

This was not my idea

At 4:30am, Sasha dropped us off at the airport, and then continued on to Novosibirsk. We settled in for a 2.5-hour wait at the airport café, which was broadcasting news from Crimea. After watching unending footage of Ukrainian-cum-Russian citizens professing their love of Putin and Russia, I made the mistake of calling it “propaganda.” That pulled Nikita and Vanya out of their sleep-deprived stupor, and in their pro-Russia fervor, they told me they would be reclaiming Alaska next. Please, Russia wouldn’t stand a chance in a Putin/Palin showdown.

Я люблю Путина = I love Putin

Perhaps to get me back for my propaganda comment, Nikita and Vanya loudly referred to me as an “enemy spy” as we went through security. It seems this isn’t as egregious as saying “terrorist” or “bomb”—although I nearly lost my Nalgene, I was let onto the plane. Five hours of flying and 2.5 hours of cabbing later, and I was back in my cozy, Soviet flat overlooking Leningradsky Prospekt. I was so excited to be home that I showered Belka with kisses, but she put a stop to that by biting me. It's good to see I've been missed.

Monday, March 17, 2014

The End of the Siberian Affair

Yesterday we sat down to one final luncheon before the Oligarch and Elena departed for Novosibirsk. The Oligarch thanked me for joining them, and reiterated Gennadiy’s statement that I am now “part of the family.” He took the sentiment one step farther, however, by offering me a Russian passport. “Just say the word, and I will call the right people.” I laughed it off, but I don’t think he was joking.

Once the Oligarch and Elena left, I discovered I was in for a boozier, more Russified version of Home Alone. There were still eight of us in the fortress, as well as a formidable quantity of vodka, and that fueled a heated debate over who won WWII. Russians think the Nazis were beat by the Soviets at Stalingrad, even if Americans are all about the Allies and D-Day. I think it’s natural that each country emphasizes their own achievements, but the Russians see our ignorance of their contributions as a personal insult. When I tried to explain that it was all a matter of perspective, Vanya started throwing figures at me, reminding me that the USSR lost 22 million people in the war. “Maybe the Americans just fought better,” I suggested. He didn’t take kindly to that one, but thankfully, that exhausted my ability to goad him in his language. And anyway, the Russians were ready to take the party upstairs for some song and dance.

Before we called it a night, there were still a few more rounds of toasts to make. This time I opted to deliver mine in Russian, saying something about how I appreciated having the chance to spend time in a place most Americans never see with such a wonderful group of people. I thought it was impressive enough that I was speaking Russian, but yet again, I was chastised for not delivering a 10-minute soliloquy. However, Nikita 2 managed to make an even shorter toast when he stood up and said, “To America!” Given how angry everyone is with Obama and the US these days, I was flattered that they were willing to raise their glasses to America. If Cold War II breaks out, at least I’ll know I did my part to prevent it.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

The Siberian Slaughter

It seems the Oligarch plays fast and loose with his “no red meat” rule, allowing for the occasional lamb slaughter and shashlik feast. The Nikitas procured two live lambs on Thursday, and the Ghostwriter volunteered to slit their throats. I can’t say I’m sad to have missed the event—I can still hear the pigs screaming from the Spanish matanza I attended two years ago.

One of the lambs before the slaughter

The deposed lambs spent 24 hours marinating, and on Saturday, we got down to roasting them. Everyone pitched in on the lamb preparation, and I ended up getting tasked with “putting garlic in them.” I was given a knife, and shown how to cut slits in the lambs’ sides and fill them with garlic. Since I’m still running with the story that I have a not-entirely-plausible meat allergy, I attacked both carcasses like the most enthusiastic of carnivores. I must have done a decent job because everyone insisted I taste my handiwork. “Maybe this time you won’t be allergic,” suggested Elena, sliding some meat my way. I cursed my invented illness, but declined, and my pescatarianism lived to see another day.

With me outnumbered seven to one by the Russians, the only English spoken was when I delivered a lackluster toast. “Much too short!” they exclaimed. “This is Russia, you must make a speech!” But someone else had already stood up to take their turn, so I was saved from another failed attempt. I did my best to follow the conversation, but I only understood about half of what was being said. Luckily, Russians are more expressive than I initially thought, and I was able to interpret an argument between the Oligarch and the Ghostwriter. What started as a civil discussion about the book they’re working on quickly turned into a heated dispute, culminating in the Ghostwriter coming around the table to scream in the Oligarch’s face. But after a minute of them yelling at full volume, the Oligarch kissed the Ghostwriter on the cheek, and they put their arms around each other, clinked glasses, and took a drink together. If only Putin and Obama could solve all their disagreements that way.

When I noticed that everyone was getting thoroughly soused, I decided to whip out my favorite Russian phrase and told them they were all “пьян как сапожник” (drunk like a cobbler, i.e., excessively drunk). This is literally the only phrase I learned during my first stint in Russia, and it is so outdated that it probably hasn’t been used this side of the Khrushchev era. My accent only added to the ridiculousness, so naturally, it was a huge success. 

After we’d put a dent in the Oligarch’s Italian wine supply, we got into a spirited game of billiards. In an exemplary display of athleticism, I managed to sink the cue ball twice in a row. Nevertheless, Nikita planted a kiss on my cheek and said, “We still love you, Jessica!” and the Oligarch told me I should stay in Russia forever. I think it’s safe to say I’ve officially dethroned Edward Snowden as the most popular American in Russia.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

The Oligarch’s New Clothes

Breakfast is usually served around 10:30, so I’ve been taking advantage of the morning hours to get some writing done. Yesterday, I went to the kitchen around 9:30 for some tea thinking no one would be up, but I was sorely mistaken. Having postponed his morning gym session, the Oligarch was badgering Olya for his morning coffee. And he was doing it in his underwear. I don’t know if he forgot pants or if he just didn’t care, but his tighty whities were doing a poor job of keeping the family jewels contained, and nothing kills your appetite like a sexagenarian’s package.

I kept waiting for someone to comment on his attire, but no one said a thing. The Oligarch instructed Olya to make breakfast, mentioning that two people were coming from Novosibirsk to discuss business. I figured the arrival of colleagues would remedy the situation, but as usual, I can’t begin to fathom the inner workings of Russians. Not only did the Oligarch greet Sasha and Lidia with enthusiastic hugs, but he also transitioned into business mode without batting an eye. He even asked Lidia if she wanted “яйца,” a word I’m fairly certain refers both to “eggs” and to a man’s balls. Lidia fielded the question with aplomb, saying, “I’ll take an omelette.” Good call, Lidia, I think we’ve all had our fill of яйца this morning.

My time with the Oligarch and his girlfriend is quickly coming to a close. They leave Monday afternoon, and the rest of us return to Moscow on Wednesday morning. However, the Oligarch has made it clear that Elena is a fan of me and they want to make me a permanent fixture in their lives when I finish my Fulbright in June. Ten days is one thing, but I don’t think I really want to become part of the Oligarch’s orbit. But do I tell him this now, or after they take me to the Seychelles next month?

Friday, March 14, 2014

Masters and Slaves

There are ten of us here and, as far as I can tell, our rank breaks down based on where we’re staying in the house: upstairs, downstairs, or servants’ quarters. Obviously, the Oligarch and Elena are upstairs, as are the ghostwriter and his daughter. Downstairs, but in equally swanky bedrooms, are Vanya, Nikita 1, and I. Nikita 2, Anatoly, and Olya are relegated to the remaining downstairs wing, which is accessible through a side entrance and was clearly designed for servants. I find the divisions strange, particularly because the Oligarch treats all of the males listed above alternately as best friend or footman, depending on his mood.

The Oligarch decided he wanted to go ice skating on Wednesday, so he had his staff transform the front yard into a veritable Siberian ice disco. Once the sun had tucked itself in for the night, Nikita 2 lined the perimeter of the rink with lights, Vanya set up outdoor speakers and started mixing, and Nikita 1 fired up the BBQ. Work done, they shifted into friend mode and joined the oligarch on the ice. I grabbed my skates, failing to think about the fact that there is a serious difference between a homemade ice rink and the Zambonied works of art I am used to. When I realized that the Oligarch’s rink was the kind of affair an impoverished Oksana Baiul would have trained on in Ukraine circa 1994, I realized I was way out of my league. The Russians, meanwhile, were gliding over the cracked surface like swans.

The ice rink by dusk
The Oligarch noticed me hobbling onto the ice and waved Vanya over to help. I insisted I was fine, but my protests fell on deaf ears. Pretty soon Vanya was holding my wrist-guard clad hand and skating me around the rink like I was in seventh grade and it was a Friday night at the Bellingham Sportsplex. I don’t know if the Oligarch was trying to play matchmaker or if everyone tired of skating that quickly, but the ice mysteriously cleared, leaving Vanya and I holding hands in the moonlight with “We found love in a hopeless place” blaring from the speakers. I hope the absurdity of the situation wasn’t lost on Vanya.

Eventually, Nikita and Nikita returned with some sausages to grill, so I suggested we join them. They greeted us with a bottle of vodka, and since I didn’t want to be unfriendly, I quickly succumbed to peer pressure and a shot. But that led to them teaching me the phrase, “Между первой и второй — перерывчик небольшой" (very liberally translated to maintain the rhyme scheme: “Between the first and second shot, a long break is for naught”). I kind of loved the saying, so I joined them in a second round. But as should now be obvious, vodka drinking in Russia is a slippery slope, and before I knew it, we were taking another shot for “our parents.” But even after three shots, the Nikitas and Vanya were still unsure of my allegiances and asked, “So are you a master or a slave?” I’d like to think I fall into neither category, but the downstairs posse is decidedly more fun. That said, I did abandon the Nikitas and Vanya at midnight so I could rest up for my 8am gym appointment the following day with the Oligarch. No need to anger the man who holds my return ticket to civilization.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Enter the Oligarch (and Girlfriend)

My period of starvation was rectified on Monday when Anatoly and Vanya took me to a nearby village to go grocery shopping. The drive took us through rural Russia, which looks like it has been forgotten in time. Log cabins and ramshackle wooden houses make up small hamlets, and Siberian cows and horses roam free. I found it charming, in a rather rustic way, but Vanya commented, “It looks like there was an atomic explosion.” It should be noted that Vanya’s English is not as non-existent as he led me to believe. After one beer in the airport, he started translating a few Russian phrases into English for me, and after some vodka yesterday evening, he was borderline conversational. When I pointed out the correlation between his alcohol consumption and English levels, he said, “If I keep drinking, I’ll speak Chinese.” We’ll see how that unfolds.

Once we reached the grocery store, I found myself in food heaven. Never mind that this was a tiny Soviet-style market; to me it felt like Costco. I started listing off vegetables faster than the shop attendant could get them, and a second shop attendant had to join in to help. When I’d cleaned out the produce section, they calculated my bill on an abacus, and Vanya picked up the tab. The drive home led to the wonderful discovery that I could get cell service outside the fortress, so I fired off a text to a friend in Moscow saying, “Vanya and I just bought out an entire produkti, I might marry him simply out of gratitude for saving me from starvation.” His powers of language may extend to telepathy because a few hours later he asked me when I was going to invite him to the United States. If not for the oligarch’s girlfriend and her crates of food, my parents might have had a Russian son-in-law.

Tuesday brought the arrival of both the Oligarch and his girlfriend, Elena. The two of them are quite an interesting pair, and have defied many of my preconceived notions of oligarchs and their mistresses. The Oligarch, it turns out, does not eat red meat (or dinner) and has the energy of a man half his age. Yesterday he chastised me for not joining him in the gym in the morning, took six of us on an alpine expedition with the dogs and a pair of rifles in the afternoon, belted out Russian show tunes in the evening, and finally dragged us all out for some night skating around 10pm. His English is spoken with similar vigor, albeit with a severely limited vocabulary.  He compensates with enthusiasm and personality, and his accent is so ridiculous that it guarantees his jokes are always funny. I’ve tried to avoid the topic of politics, but that hasn’t stopped him from letting me know that he thinks Obama is an idiot, that Snowden is a hero, and that Putin is saving the world, one Ukrainian peninsula at a time.

Elena, on the other hand, is much more subdued and a far cry from the stereotypical Russian girl I was expecting. She washes her own dishes, puts the Oligarch in his place when he gets too misogynistic, and is probably more in touch with reality than my freshman year roommate. I did, however, get some interesting gossip on her from one of the staff members, but the “upstairs/downstairs” drama will have to wait for tomorrow.

Typical Siberian village

Typical Siberian fortress

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

The Oligarch’s Entourage

Saturday night found me standing at Domodedovo Airport with 18 kilos of luggage and more than a few butterflies in my stomach. Just as I was contemplating hightailing it back to Moscow, I spotted Vanya in the crowd. He was making a beeline for the bathroom, and told me to wait with “that bald guy.” As helpful as his description was, I think I would have found Nikita faster if Vanya had just said “the guy with a tower of suitcases and two Caucasian shepherds.”

I cobbled together a brief explanation of who I was, and Nikita introduced himself, Knyaz and Graf. The latter two (Prince and Count, respectively) are six-month old puppies, but that doesn’t mean they are puppy-sized. They are both larger than any dogs I’ve ever seen, and most wolves as well. When I voiced the concern that they might make a meal out of me, Vanya promised that my fears were unfounded. “No, they won’t eat you. They might kill you, but they won’t eat you.”

The remaining members of my travel party are Gennadiy (a ghost writer), Dasha (his 16-year-old daughter), and Lilya (their Dachshund). They are all veterans of the Altai, but Gennadiy immediately welcomed me to “наша семья” (our family). I hope he meant that with a lowercase “f” and not in a Godfather-esque way, but anything’s possible at this point.

When we landed in Siberia at 6am, the sky was still dark and snow was falling in fistfuls on the runway. We were met by four drivers and three cars, which took us on the 5-hour drive through the mountains to the stone fortress we’ll be calling home for the next week. Chez Billionaire is just as over-the-top as one might expect. While its architecture is meant to be in the vein of a Viking lodge, the décor is a cross between Russian bachelor pad and Central Asian Buddhist with a healthy dash of oligarch ostentation. There is a wine cellar, an indoor lap pool and banya, a guard’s tower flying the Russian tricolor, and poster-sized photos of Putin and the oligarch.

Upon arriving, we sat down to lunch, which was not the feast I had hoped to find. It turned out the fortress has been shut for most of the winter, meaning that there was nothing in the house but a fridge full of sausages and meats. Though I had warned the oligarch’s office I was a vegetarian, no one seemed to have forwarded the message along. Yesterday I subsisted on three eggs, two pieces of toast, and buckwheat groats. I’ve exhausted the egg supply, and may have to barter with the locals for fruits and vegetables, assuming I can figure out how to get out of the fortress. Thank god I brought Vitamin C with me to fight a cold—I may be the only member of this party who escapes without scurvy.

The oligarch and his girlfriend are meant to arrive today, and my excitement to speak some English is palpable. I have been speaking more Russian in the last 36 hours than I do in a normal week in Moscow, and while it’s great practice, I think my brain is ready for a break. But maybe that’s just starvation setting in.

Friday, March 7, 2014

An Atypical Week

It’s been a strange week, even by Russian standards. And since I’m disappearing into the Siberian wilderness tomorrow where the WiFi will likely not be as reliable, I should take advantage of this last blogging opportunity before I return. So here’s what has made this week particularly noteworthy:

1) I finished the first draft of my first novel.

It’s unequivocally awful, and I’m scared to go back and read through it, but I wrote a novel (albeit a very rough draft). I really love the last sentence of the twelfth chapter, but everything else I’ve more or less blacked out. I feel like I entered a fugue state and a novel sort of appeared on my hard drive, so I can’t say with absolute certainty the FSB didn’t write it. On the other hand, I know I’ve spent a lot of hours with my internet disabled listening to the same album on repeat for a month straight, so I must have been doing something productive for all that time.

2) I now own faux fur-lined ice skates and have a one-way ticket to Siberia. 

On Wednesday, I get a call from Vanya,* a random errand boy to the billionaire. Vanya directed me to meet him at a metro stop outside the city center to go ice skate shopping, and I headed off hoping this wouldn’t be the way I ended up dying. Outside the metro, I located the car described in Vanya’s text, which was being driven by what the Russians would describe as a “gopnik.” He was dressed in track pants and tennis shoes, a sweatshirt that involved some denim detailing, and a skull cap. Obviously, he spoke no English. I made small talk with him, attempting to ascertain what exactly it is he does. Unfortunately, that is not a phrase that translates literally, and I ended up asking him, "What are you doing?"

Vanya: Right now? Or do you mean in general?
Me: Yes, like work.
Vanya: I'm the guy who buys ice skates.
Me: Right...

He took me to a store that carried all manner of skating and hockey equipment and I was fitted for skates. Vanya and the salesclerk tried to determine if they were too tight or too loose, if I had room for my toes, and if my heel lifted up too much. These questions were all far outside of the realm of my limited Russian, so there was some pretty ludicrous pantomiming going on at this point. I just kept repeating, "It's fine" with my unfailing American accent.

Vanya had also been directed to buy me elbow pads, wrist guards, and knee pads, which makes me think he’s not spiriting me off to Siberia to kill me.  As we walked back to Vanya’s car, he asked if I liked my new skates.

Me: Yes, it’s my first pair of skates. We don't really skate that much in America. 
Vanya: Yes, I noticed by your country's performance at the Olympics.

I laughed uncontrollably, mostly out of excitement at having understood his joke. It turns out Vanya is also part of the Siberian entourage, so this is not the last we'll be seeing of him.

3) The Ukraine Situation

I don’t pretend to be any kind of political expert, so let’s just finish with a great meme.

*Name has been changed. 

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

My Encounter with a Russian Oligarch

For those of you who have better things to do than follow my blog, Part 1 of this adventure started here

Today I had my first encounter with a Russian oligarch, which was even stranger than I had expected. I was given less than 24 hours notice of our meeting, which left me scrambling for attire that would be fitting for a job interview. I left all of my conservative work apparel in America, but I don’t think that’s something Russians girls have ever heard of. In fact, most Russian skirts are so short that the wearer requires a Brazilian wax before stepping out in public. Thus, I decided to go straight to the section of my wardrobe that I would normally reserve for nightlife. I made Liz evaluate my outfit, asking if I looked like a prostitute.  “No!”  she said.  “Well, maybe like an executive prostitute, but definitely not a cheap one!”

When I arrived at the office, the woman who’d previously interviewed me smiled and said, “I’m so glad you’re wearing business attire. I meant to remind you not to wear jeans or something.” I can’t decide if I’m more horrified that someone would wear jeans to a meeting with a billionaire or that she deemed my outfit office appropriate.  She also warned me not to speak too quickly and gave me some other advice, but I missed most of it because I was otherwise occupied ensuring that I was seated in a position that wouldn’t lead to a Basic Instinct moment.

I was told the oligarch was quite busy and would probably only give me five to ten minutes of his time, but we ended up chatting for about 20-25 minutes. He was charismatic and friendly, but didn’t actually ask me a single question about my experience. Instead, he filled me in on the particulars of the job and told me that it really came down to a personality fit. To test that, I’d need to spend more time with him.

“How about coming to the Altai Mountains with my girlfriend and me for ten days? I own a hotel out there. You’re not bothered by -20 °C weather, are you?”

I nodded to the first question, shook my head to the second question, and was shuffled out of the office with a copy of his memoirs, a promise that his girlfriend would take me shopping for ice skates later this week, and the nagging suspicion that my mother’s warnings about harems weren’t totally unfounded. A Siberian adventure with a Russian oligarch is a good idea, right?  Right.