I was recently invited to lecture at Georgetown University on U.S.-Russia relations. As a group of young students in their L.L. Bean and designer backpacks spoke about their upcoming trip to Russia, I felt a rush of memories — of my own experiences in Russia as a twentyish legal exchange student from Hawaii in the summer of 1997.
I attended Moscow State University’s intensive summer law and Russian language program. This University’s reputation of excellence goes well beyond Russia’s border and draws hundreds of international scholars each year to attend its language and interdisciplinary programs.
It all began at Moscow’s formidable Sheremetyevo Airport. When I haltingly explained that I would attend Moscow State University, the rather stern indifference of the security and customs officials changed to welcoming smiles and pats on the shoulder. My boxes of macadamia nuts, panty hose, chewing gum and blue jeans, (my trade goods) which I so carefully packed, were never scrutinized and generated a wink and a nod—those were the days.
When I arrived in Moscow during the summer of 1997, the year before the collapse of the Russian monetary system, my expectations were still predicated on the existence of a Marxist-Stalinist police state, which is still the prevailing popular thinking in some American intellectual circles. Instead, I found Russia to be a society in transition, sometimes violent, lurching towards a form of democratic capitalism.
My first day at the university included a cafeteria breakfast of dry bread, dated salami and a suspicious looking gruel (Okroshka). I met with my professor, Tatiana, half expecting a reincarnation of one of the Press sisters, perhaps the shot putter from the 1960s.
Instead, my teacher was a fair approximation of a Playboy pin up. I can never recall dozing off in Ms. Tatiana’s class. As I would learn throughout my three-month stay, Russians are very direct—when they like or don’t like someone they will tell you. Tatiana demanded complete focus and dedication, but my thoughts wandered towards exploration and possible adventures in my new metropolis.
Already, I considered myself to be a shrewd businessman. One of my first objectives was to take my stock of trading goods to the notorious Moscow flea market where I expected the vendors and small traders would be “easy pickings.” As soon as I entered the market, I was astonished by the size and sopce of the place.
Within half an hour of frantic trading, I realized that I was a mere novice and had traded away almost all my stock of goods for some old Russian army belt buckles and dented samovars (imitation bronze) along with a ceramic bust of Lenin. The woman lamented loudly in Russian that she could not believe that she was trading this invaluable bust of Lenin for Hawaiian chocolate and a pair of panty hose.
When I came to class the next morning, I attempted to give my full attention to Tatiana’s lecture, but instead I began to plot my infamous “Train Ride,” an adventure that truly introduced me to Russian hospitality.
The evening of our trip to St. Petersburg, my compartment consisted of a Russian minstrel singer of dubious talent who sang with great enthusiasm, a babushka, who was eventually reduced to praying, and a middle-aged Russian bear of a man called Leonid who had served for many years in the Russian military. After several shots of vodka, I invited Leonid to come to Hawaii for a visit. Beaming with delight, he produced a bottle of vintage vodka which he passed around. Over the course of the next five hours, he and I alternated between drinking two bottles of vodka and impromptu Greco Roman wrestling to the fascination of the crowded club car. I had boasted repeatedly about my wrestling prowess so Leonid proceeded to clamp a headlock on me, reminiscent of the best of Alexander Karelin. Towards the end of the last bottle a draw was declared, much to the approval of the assembled passengers and my fellow colleagues. The next eight hours remained a blank and I remember being helped off the train in St. Petersburg. Thankfully, damage had been minimal and a few rubles saw us on our way.
When I returned to Moscow, I fell into a new career as a translator and business negotiator for my fellow students. Since I understood, at best, less than half of what I was negotiating, it was probably fortunate that I left Moscow within ninety days. My most demanding area of business was interceding with the gornichnayas (house keeper and student monitors) who were hanging up on all international callers who did not speak fluent Moscow Russian, much to the anguish of my fellow students who were trying to call home for money. My percentage was small, but steady. One side benefit was an unforgettable relationship with a lovely Italian student named Chiara who spoke no English and extremely bad Russian, but we managed somehow.
I miss the camaraderie of those vodka parties, even though my back has never been the same after several tumbles attempting Russian balalaika dancing on the head table at the infamous Hungry Duck.
But more powerful for my young mind was a performance by the poet Yevtushenko, who read his poem Babi Yar, as well as the beautiful but haunted dacha home of Boris Pasternak. This is still the unchanging face of Russia for me.
Finally, even leaving Russia turned out to be an adventure of sorts. I was detained and almost arrested on a suspected weapons possession charge until closer examination by a cadre of security officials and an x-ray scan determined it was a cigarette lighter in the shape of an antique firearm. Smiles and handshakes. Do svidaniya to Russia.
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