Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Some Russian stories

One of our first trips out of Krasnodar was to the Black Sea coast, near Divnomorskoye. It's a beautiful drive through the foothills of the Caucasus (kind of reminiscent of the Smokies), down to the sea. Misha, my father-in-law, brings his canoe with him whenever he goes, and enjoys paddling up and down the shoreline.

Now this is Russia, of course, and things aren't quite the same and as easy as they are here. You actually have to register the canoe with the local authorities (the equivalents of the Coast Guard and the police) in order to use it. So, Misha duly registers with the proper people, which has to be done on a daily basis; he actually called twice a day just to make sure. Very prepared, very smart man, my father-in-law.

Still . . . towards the end of the second day we are there, I look up from where I am sitting, enjoying the evening, and two guys, one in camo fatigues, the other in a police uniform, are purposefully strutting across the rocks towards us. I had a small shiver of fear, and even Anya tensed up a bit, but Misha is cool as a cucumber. They immediately start demanding to see his papers, and he quickly disarms them, with a laugh. He not only shows the appropriate documents, he whips out his cellphone, and asks them to call their boss, who he knows quite well and whose number he has in his phone. You could actually see these two roosters visibly deflate as they spoke with their superior, Misha joking and laughing with them all the while. After verifying that there were no threats to national security from the canoe, they scurried back across the beach. I asked Misha what had really changed from Soviet times; he replied, "Well, now you can actually own a canoe."

Basically, these guys were looking for bribes. If they can catch you without the proper papers and documentation, they can toss you in jail; of course, something can be worked out for the proper amount of roubles. Even if you have the right documents, if they're not properly filled out (i's dotted, t's crossed), well . . . And this isn't just at the beach--it's everywhere. Most people adapt, and adapt well. I think of Anya's parents as a particularly shining beacon of sanity in this country undergoing profound changes. You can rage against how things happen there, or you can adapt, and learn how to live within a flawed system.

There is money in Russia, at least in some parts. A lot of money. And everyone is grabbing for it. Is it wrong to want to make money? As a proud capitalist, I say of course not. But for the first time in almost 100 years, cash is flowing freely in Russia, and everyone wants their share. They grasp at it quickly, hungrily, as if it is going to dry up any moment and they need to get theirs before it all disappears. So there seems to be almost an underlying sense of desperation, almost a sense that things are tenuous, and could fall apart into chaos. I felt like I was at a raucous party, where the revelers were teetering on the edge of a dangerous drunk, and at the slightest provocation, a huge fistfight was going to erupt, dragging everyone one into it.

We were only about 120 miles from the Russian/Georgian border, although South Ossetia was about 300 miles away. I first heard of the conflict when a friend of Anya's mother stated that the Georgians (with American aid) had without provocation invaded Ossetia, and destroyed the city of Gori, including a city hospital. I was quite shocked, but didn't really have access to the news or internet. Of course, things weren't quite what we were told, as we found out a few days later. Almost a completely different story. I am not well-versed in the tribal divisions in the Caucasus (couldn't tell an Ossetian from an Abkhazi), but I thought this article (kind of long) has a pretty good summary of the historical background to the current conflict. It certainly doesn't paint the Russians in a good light, but I suspect it is more accurate than what was reported at the time in Krasnodar.

No comments: