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Past present, future tense for Russians

October 03, 2003|AL MARTINEZ

I have just returned from a gay romp in the former Evil Empire, to paraphrase a line from "The Producers." It was one of the more enlightening adventures that the energetic Cinelli has led me on, from Moscow up the Volga-Neva rivers to St. Petersburg, by way of New York and Helsinki.

Much of our visit was on foot, with Cinelli leading the way and me skipping along like a three-legged dog. There is no way to describe my wife's energy in ordinary terms. It awaits a cosmic definition, something on a higher plane, having to do with astral physics or Euclidian geometry.

By the former Evil Empire I mean, of course, the former Soviet Union -- we were in Russia. It is no longer the monster of the Cold War with its missiles and its hostile glares from dough-faced men with icy eyes, but a place of miniskirts, big smiles, Armani suits and "Can you pay for that trinket in American dollars?"

That is not to say that everything's up to date in a land whose favorite color under the Communists was gray. There's still a kind of grayness to the food in some places. While restaurants in Moscow and St. Pete, as they say, served up fine dinners, the food aboard a cruise ship was less than noteworthy, unless shredded cabbage and boiled potatoes are your idea of haute cuisine.

There were, in fact, times I had to turn to Cinelli to ask, "What is that?" as I stared at something indistinguishable on my plate. "It's probably fish," she'd reply hesitantly, adding, "I hadn't realized that fish had so many bones." I hadn't even realized it was fish. But going to Russia for the food would be like going to Boise for its night life. We travel to new places to talk to the people and to realize, though language and culture may define and divide us, how actually alike we are, we humans.

I thought about this one day as we walked through Red Square. A soft rain was falling over a place once burned into the American psyche as the bleak heart of the Cold War, where tanks and nuclear missiles were paraded before television cameras as symbols of a horror that lay just a hot-button away.

Now children run in squealing circles, families stroll across the stone-paved expanse, brides in flowing gowns kneel before statues to the war dead as part of a traditional wedding ceremony, and tourists fill the air with a dozen languages. I thought to myself as I heeded the rhythms of a new Russia: Was this the land, and were these the people, we once so desperately feared?

"Now," our English-speaking guide said to us, "we fear you."

Her name was Irena. She was talking about the "new America," a nation damaged by terror and responding with bombs and missiles. How far would we go, she wondered. What would our militarism do to the world? How afraid should they be? "A lot of us in America are wondering the same thing," I said.

We heard many times as we wandered about that we had to experience a Russian winter in order to truly comprehend the soul of the people. I'm sure that's true. And I think it is also true that one must consider the pain the people have suffered through Russia's dreary history to understand their fear of us. First there was the brutality of the czars, then the devastation of Nazi attacks, and finally the murderous regime of Joseph Stalin, as dreams of a "worker's paradise" shattered like glass in the postwar years.

Now, a decade into democracy, the people enjoy new freedoms and a new sense of well-being, but, they wonder, will it last? The grandsons of the old revolutionaries, the worried progeny of the Bolsheviks, ponder the transitory nature of happiness in a land that has seen too many tears.

There is a beauty to Mother Russia in the whisper of autumn, as the leaves of the aspen trees turn to shades of crimson and gold and the air snaps with the effervescence of chilled champagne. The multicolored, onion-shaped domes of the cathedrals and the gilt trim of the palaces glow against rain-darkened skies, and the ancient buildings of an old regime, as grim and stodgy as angry old men, stand shoulder to shoulder with the new, the bright and the gleaming.

If we look for beauty we can find it, even among hard memories of the bad old days. While Moscow is power, St. Petersburg is grace, sophisticated, artistic and creative. But it was Leningrad once, and Nazi steel rained down on it for 872 days, from 1941 to 1944, one of the longest sieges in the history of modern warfare. That it survived and is restored, honoring its past as well as its future, is testimony to the enduring power of beauty.

The fact that they seem unable to pour a decent martini there, or that I was mugged by a bunch of women on the steps of a bookstore, alters my opinion of St. Pete not a whit. But I'll get into that Monday. Stay tuned for Russia: The Sequel.


Al Martinez's column appears Mondays and Fridays. He's at

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