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Grigory Pasko: A Small Journey in Russia, Part 1

[Article introduction: Readers of the blog may have noticed that our intrepid Russian correspondent Grigory Pasko hasn’t been heard from for a while. No, he hasn’t been on vacation. On the contrary, Grigory has been busy traveling around Russia on assignment for the blog, interviewing ordinary Russians about how they see the future of their country on the eve of the upcoming State Duma and Presidential elections. This series of journeys will result in numerous articles over the next few weeks, plus some video material we hope to present in the near future. Below is the first article of this series, describing part of a journey Grigory recently took, following in the nearly 40-year-old footsteps of Venedikt Erofeev, author of a cult samizdat classic, the surreal travelogue “Moscow-Petushki”. Sadly, Grigory finds that little has changed since Erofeev’s day, and that the people still think they’re supposed to vote for whomever they’re told to vote for. – Robert Amsterdam] karta0820.jpg Sketches from a Small Journey in Russia – Part 1: Moscow – Petushki By Grigory Pasko, journalist “With the edge of consciousness, the very-very edge, I recalled how the avalanche of humanity getting off at Orekhovo got tangled up in me and absorbed me, in order to gather me up in itself, like some lousy wad of saliva – and to spit me out onto the Orekhovo platform. But the spitting wasn’t working out, because the humanity getting into the rail car was stuffing the mouth of the humanity getting off. I was dangling back and forth like a piece of shit in an ice-hole.” Thus wrote Venedikt Erofeev about his famous and by now immortal journey along the route «Moscow-Petushki». I recently travelled along the same route. Only not on a suburban local electric train, as the writer Erofeev had, but in a car. The purpose of my trip was to make a film about Erofeev’s heroes – the inhabitants of Russia. Pavlovsky Posad, Nazarievo, Drezna, Orekhovo-Zuyevo, Pokrov, Bolshiye Omutishchi, Petushki… I saw them everywhere, these characters from Erofeev’s book – instantly recognizable and completely unchanged since Soviet times. Even today, they could easily speak the words of the author’s hero: “all of your tales about a golden age are a lie and a despair”. And, having said, or thought, this, they, just like 40 years ago, continue to shuffle around the railroad station platforms, “like a piece of shit in an ice-hole”, unneeded by anyone, scorned and pitied, not sober a single day in all these 40 years, yet considering their life, generally speaking, to have been a success. Regarding it thus because they have never seen any other kind of life and most likely never will. Pavlovsky Posad – Nazarievo …In Pavlovsky Posad, renowned for its luxuriously decorated Pavlovsky head scarves, I couldn’t find a single one of the famous scarves in any of the central stores.

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An ornate Pavlovsky head scarf (photo from http://russia.rin.ru)

On the central square, the main building is a dismal-looking box made of red brick. This is the building of the Rayon administration. It’s a work day. People are bustling about with papers in their arms and a very busy look on their faces. Maybe 20 meters from this building is the city market. The sprightly Lena, who has come from somewhere down south, is selling watermelons and cantaloupes. The glint of money in her eyes, she instantly sizes up a passer-by and knows if this is a legitimate customer who will actually buy something or just someone who will waste her time. I managed to fool her for a brief moment, but in the end she still refused to be interviewed, under the pretext that “you’ll make money from this, but what’s in it for me?” But she wasn’t going to get off so easily – I immediately offered to pay her for her interview. “Oy!”, she cried at this most unexpected turn of events, and promptly ran into a house, which turned out to be something like an office and a warehouse all in one. Not far from Lena’s stall, a drunkard was tending to his bodily needs right in front of everyone. And everybody walked right by and pretended not to notice. The morning hadn’t yet even broken fully through the rain clouds, but a couple of friends were already pestering a saleswoman in a shop to give them some vodka: “Come on, don’t be a cheapskate give it up”. They didn’t have enough money for a bottle, but were promising to come by and bring it “tomorrow”. She was cursing them out in most unladylike fashion and kicking them out of the shop.

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Tank on a pedestal – one of the attractions of Pavlovsky-Posad (photo by Grigory Pasko)

Three little old ladies at the market started telling me – all excitedly speaking at the same time – how bad the local power is, forcing such poor and feeble people as them to pay a fee for the right to trade in carrots and dill, and even to produce “some kind of nenen” [they are mispronouncing “INN” – the “taxpayer’s identification number” that everyone is required to have nowadays as part of the state’s vain attempt to reduce rampant tax evasion—G.P.]. Their pension, they told me, was three thousand rubles [a bit more than $100 a month—Trans.]. Out of this, they pay 1500 for utilities and apartment rent. The rest goes for food and medicine. But medicine is expensive these days. And the power today – as, indeed, it has always been – is evil. But Putin – he’s good. The bureaucrats are bad, but the father-tsar is all warm and fuzzy. As my trip went on, I would often hear pretty much the same matra repeated in all the various cities and villages: life, in general, stinks, but tsar-Putin is good. And if it weren’t for all that fuss and bother about a “third term” (or, more precisely, the constitutional impossibility thereof), people were ready to vote for Putin at the drop of the hat. Sometimes interpretations would creep into the topic of the elections: whomsoever he appoints/anoints will be loved. How could I not recall the words of Erofeev here? “…The post of president ought to be occupied by a person whose face from a hangover can’t be bettered in three days But have we got people like that among us?” Right next to the little old ladies, 24-year-old Alexey was selling small cherries and equally small plums. They were so miniscule that just one glance at them made potential customers quicken their step and hurry on by. Alexey, it seemed, wasn’t very upset. He’s satisfied with life; he works as a driver in Moscow. Why in Moscow, and not in his home town of Pavlovsky Posad? Because everybody in Moscow works, because in there isn’t enough work for everybody in the hometown. Alexey said that he doubts he’ll vote in the general elections. They’ll “take care of everything” without him anyway, in his opinion. And in the presidential elections he’s going to vote for Dmitry Medvedev.

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The village of Nazarievo is nearly invisible among the untilled fields (photo by Grigory Pasko)

Nazarievo-Drezna The village of Nazarievo consists of one street. Grandma Lusiya was looking for a lost chicken and was glad to talk about life. But she categorically refused to be interviewed on camera – she’s got no teeth. She suggested I seek out young people. The first young person I ran into turned out to be an Uzbek. He’s building a house nearby with some comrades. A good house, luxuriant by village standards. The owner’s daughter Kristina, blushing, clarified that it would be better to take an interview from her grandmother Rimma in house #16. Grandma wasn’t home. But her neighbor, 77-year-old Nina Arsentievna, was, and she told me all about Nazarievo, and about her difficult childhood, , and about working at a military secret plant, which was called a “post-office box” for as long as she could remember [The exact locations of secret military facilities, and even entire “secret cities” such as Chelyabinsk-70 (the “70” is a post-office box number), were – and are –kept secret, with only a post-office box address given for them—Trans.]. “And what did they do there?”, I ask, knowing the answer in advance. “Why, that’s a secret!”, the old woman clarifies to this naïve and silly reporter. I try to calm Nina Arsentievna, and report to her that the Pavlovo-Posad military plant, which had produced safety fuses, was shut down a long time ago. The local residents had already told me about this, when explaining why there aren’t jobs for everybody in Pavlovsky Posad. “And who are you going to vote for?”, I ask grandma Nina. “Whoever they say to vote for”, she replies innocently. I tell her: “Granny, maybe at 77 years it’s time to start living with your own mind?” She is intensely silent for a moment and then reports for some reason: “So I buried my husband back in fifty-four…”. Two people are standing at the edge of the village. Inebriated, as is usual for them. They ask me what the film will be about. “About you”, I reply. “About life in general.” Yeah, life sucks nowadays, they say. Everybody’s a thief. They’re selling off Russia on the cheap. The oligarchs aren’t giving Putin any wiggling room. And it’s only going to get worse, on account of there’s no order. The shorter one of the two, Viktor, adds: “They’re going to keep it up until the ordinary Russian muzhik has just had enough of it, and then he’s going to pick up his pitchfork…”. I ask him to give an interview and say this on camera. The two men suddenly turn silent. “What’s the matter, Viktor?”, I ask. “Cat got your tongue? Just a second ago you were grabbing your pitchfork, and suddenly you’re all quiet.” Total silence. He intently puffs on his cigarette. And finally squeezes a few words out: “We’ve got ourselves a peaceful life here. And we want it to stay that way…” Erofeev wrote: “Oh, if only the whole world, if only everybody in the world were like I am right now, quiet and fearful, and just as unsure of everything: of himself, of the seriousness of his place under the sun – how good that would be!” Well, Venya [a diminutive form of Venedikt, which Erofeev uses in his book—Trans.], guess what? That time has come. It’s here. Congratulate your prescience, and all of us sinners, for having arrived at such a reality.

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Water tower and church – two of the points of interest in Drezna (photo by Grigory Pasko)

Orekhovo-Zuyevo Hanging out here and there on the square in front of the railroad station are drunk semi-naked young people in striped sailors’ undershirts and with sky-blue berets on the head. There is a wild and bizarre tradition in Russia (not an ethnically-Russian tradition, mind you, but one endemic to the entire country, regardless of national origin!) of gorging oneself in public on Paratrooper’s Day. Even though there are several dozen (also bizarre) military holidays: Tankist’s, Submariner’s, Artilleryman’s, Signaller’s… Two people are standing not far from the platform. I immediately and unmistakably recognized them as heroes of the «Moscow-Petushki» book. Life hadn’t been kind to them, and it showed, but they still displayed remnants of a sense of their own dignity and worth. They weren’t sober, but they were still able to stand on their feet quite decently. Their speech hinted at the presence of a mind and originality. “An interview? Sure, we’ll give one… If you give us a little something for beer. It’s a holiday, don’t you know… Okay, so we don’t exactly look like paratroopers. But in our hearts, though… Oof! And besides, we’ve seen combat. Where? Where didn’t we see combat! Afghan, Chechnya…” At least they didn’t start reminiscing about the Great Patriotic… I promised to give them a little something for beer. And so they spoke. The first one: “My name is Alexey Borisovich. I’ve been in combat. I was wounded. I graduated from Moscow State University Named After Lomonosov, law school. Worked as a judge in a people’s court. Then I became unneeded. My leg hurts, here. They say, we didn’t send you there… What’s the most important thing? An economic platform, that’s what’s most important…” My second interlocutor, if I can even use such a term, spoke in this same half-drivel/half-fable spirit. Only his role was that of a wounded long-haul truck driver. Another thing we discover in Erofeev is the inebriated Russian muzhik’s inclination to wax philosophical. One of his heroes expounds: “And then there was Hegel. This I remember very well: there was Hegel. He said: ‘There are no distinctions other than distinctions of degree between distinct degrees and the absence of distinction’. That is, if you translate it into normal language, “Who doesn’t drink these days?” My two muzhiks – the “lawyer” and the “trucker” – took my money with shaking hands and promised – for an appropriate fee, naturally – to find me other heroes to interview. I thanked them and went to the railroad station: there, with all the policemen milling about, I had a better chance of finding sober people. I later saw this pair of inebriated muzhiks again, in Petushki. Only they looked a bit different this time. And their roles that Destiny had doled out to them were no doubt different. But in everything else – their words, their gait, their mugs, their way of life – they were exactly the same as the “lawyer” and the “trucker”. I believe that when they were children – after all, they had had a happy Soviet childhood! – they dreamed of becoming lawyers and truckers, cosmonauts and policemen, sailors and scientists. They didn’t. It just didn’t work out. On those rare occasions when some statistics happen to appear about how many deaf, blind, legless, or unemployed people there are in Russia, I think about the countless “lawyers” and “truckers” all over the country whom nobody anywhere needs or has ever bothered to count. Indeed, how would you even go about counting them? They’re not prisoners, after all. Nor does anybody need them. So they just live out their lives. Like Erofeev says: “Humans are mortal… But once we’ve been born, there’s nothing you can do, you’ve got to live a little…”.

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