Various and Sunny Sundry - 5/17/07
Spring has finally sprung for real in Samara, and with it has returned not only the full, green leaves. With the air warm enough to enjoy its presence and the days long enough to forget the winter, I have regained some of the hope and enthusiasm I originally felt about my time here. The stale hopelessness and grinding boredom I felt through the winter, no matter what the level of my activity, has attenuated to a thin nagging anxiety. My depression of the last couple of weeks has lifted and I'm ready to finish this grant period with a bang... really, I am... I swear..
There have been a number of things I've wanted to blog about lately, what with all this talk of a new cold war and all the crazy events surrounding Estonia. I've simply been either too busy or too lazy (or both) to sit down and blog about them. Well, there's no time like the present.
I've been trying to gauge the general opinion among my friends of the recent movement by the Estonian government of a Soviet-era memorial
to fallen Soviet soldiers in WWII, and the near-violent reaction
by Russian pro-establishment youth group, Nashi [meaning literally, "our", but assumed to mean "our people"]. Most of the friends I've asked about it seem to tacitly agree with the Russian media's portrayal of the move by the Estonian government to transplant the memorial from the center of Tallinn to a cemetary for WWII veterans as support for the defeated Nazi government and for fascism in general, though as one friend put it, "it's hard for most Russian people unless they can read English, because they can only get media controlled by the president."
On the eve of Den' Pobedy
[Victory Day], sitting in front of a mangal
[open grill for shish-ka-bobs] at my friend's dacha, I discussed the Estonia question with a friend of mine who works high up in the local Nashi organization as a tim-bilder
[team-builder], who seemed to genuinely share the outrage of Moscow and the Nashi organizers. She felt that Estonians were clearly stating their support of fascism. When she asked me my opinion, I said that firstly, I thought it was a different country, so not really something I would say concerns Russians (who have enough memorials to WWII), and that secondly, from what I'd read, it didn't have to do with support of Fascism, so much as a statement against what Estonians (and the rest of the Western world) see as the Soviet Occupation of Estonia, beginning in 1940, before the front with Germany fell behind Estonian territory and predicated by the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact
, at the signing of which Stalin was present. She didn't really know how to react to this and we silently watched the fire for a moment. As a conciliation, I said, "well, either way, these demonstrations seem to me to have been paid for by someone, and that this is a case of politicians using people." She agreed with that, though probably had the Estonian politicians in mind.
The issue came up again, more recently in a rather amusing context. My friends Jeremy and Jenevieve, who are here on an English Language Fellowship from the embassy, organized an American Film Showcase at the local American Corner. Both because I like watching movies, and because I feel some degree of duty to participate in the local representation of the good side of American culture and society, I decided to help out. On Sunday, I presented Annie Hall and lead a brief discussion of it. On Saturday, we had showed Crash, the 2005 film about race relations in America. During the discussion afterward, perhaps the liveliest of all eight discussions we held, a young girl named Anna, stood up and said, "our government and youth groups like Nashi make a lot of actions about racism. Does your government also do things about this issue..." Given the vague Russian nationalism inherent in the group's name and what I percieve as the recent xenophobia directed toward Estonia, I was very curious to know what this girl was talking about. After the discussion was over, I asked her about the actions Nashi had lead against racism. She explained that she was referring to the recent protests against Estonian Fascism. I asked, "doesn't the name Nashi refer to the Russian nationality?" "No," she said, "Nashi refers to all the people who are joining together to solve these kinds of problems." In the context of a discussion of the movie, Crash, it seemed like a funny take on the meaning of racism.
A couple weeks ago, I had the opportunity to see another kind of protest altogether. Sveta, an acquaintance I know through the support group for PLWHA told me that people would be meeting on Sunday to hold a demonstration in protection of the regional library from "commercialization." When I got there, I was delighted to see what seemed like earnest and light-spirited political activism, of the kind I was used to participating in when I lived in New York.
When Sveta invited me, I mentioned briefly that I was interested, because I'm usually involved in political activism in America and I hadn't met many Russians interested in Politics. She said, "this isn't about politics. It's just for the interests of the people." This, I think, was an important hint to the way Russian society works: politics is the sphere in which corrupt politicians compete to grab dirty money. Everything else, including the public interest and any action related to it, is completely divorced, a different category.
However, this looked just like political activism in America...
and I would say that the Samara government saw it as such as well. Though the police response to our thirty or so demonstrators couldn't compare to the thousands of riot police that come out for the meager demonstrations of "the Other Russia" in Moscow, what started as a pair of cops harassing kids for playing punk music unpleasing to the their ears over a loud speaker from his cell phone...
eventually became an escort of two police trucks and two KGB cars (oops, I mean FSB, excuse me).
Considering the demonstration was unpermitted, though, I wouldn't consider the reaction bad at all. There was a TV journalist present who worried me more, because of her open suspicion of the foreigners present, asking me strange questions in disbelief that I was a foreigner. I was
worried she was ready to report on the presence of foreign spies at the march (A friend of mine who works for the Moscow Times once advised me, "if you meet a regional journalist, run in the opposite direction as fast as you can." Apparently the guy on the right agrees.) At the end of the march, when we reached the the library under question, the demonstrators performed a little sketch about the need for interest groups to pay money for access to library materials.
One of the demonstrators, Tanya [see below], spoke really good English and I interviewed her, briefly, to get her explanation of the demonstration. I am trying to figure out how to make that file available here.
Last night, I met up with my friend Natasha. I have known her since my last trip to Russia in 2004, and have at times felt very close to her. She is fairly unique in Samara, in that she is an unmarried businesswoman in her late twenties. She has traveled around the world including trips to England and India, and here in Samara, seems to know everyone in the music world. She is particularly into trance, and likes to take ecstasy at raves.
Yesterday, we met up early in the evening and sat with some of her friends and her new boyfriend, who I was meeting for the first time, to drink beer and watch the sunset over the Volga from Ploschad' Slavy
[Glory Square]. We chatted about life and music and a little bit about my work. In particular, we talked about empathy and its involvement in sustained happiness, as Natasha had just looked at my website and I guess read my training on empathy and behavior change. Her boyfriend Dima, asked if one can change one's own biochemistry by sheer force of will. I said something about changes in Serotonin that are associated with meditation. "I'm talking about something else," he said. A little later he joined me as I walked down the hill a bit to take a pee. As I stood, relieving myself, he asked me, "In general, how do you relate to HIV," he asked me. "Well, I fight with it, that's what I do," I said. "Because I'm HIV positive," he told me. "Seven years already. I think being happy is the key to staying healthy. I don't take any medicine or anything."
As we walked back to the group, the shadow of the horizon already spreading over the green blades of grass, we had a quick discussion of antiretroviral therapy and I gave a little speech about why I believe it is effective, and why sometimes happiness isn't enough support for the immune system in the war against HIV. As we approached our friends sitting on some sort of irrigation pipe, beer bottles lying on the grass around them, our discussion thinned out and dressed itself in vaguer and vaguer terms. As I sat down, I wondered if Natasha knew and if it was wrong of me to protect Dima's confidentiality, as I automatically do.
A bit later, as the night settled in, we decided to go to Podval
[literally meaning Basement], the town's only rock bar, at which I am now practically a regular. There was an emo concert playing of a band from Kiev, called Marakesh. The lead singer was a stringy adolescent-looking kid in his early twenties. Dressed in black and with his long bangs hanging over his face like a wedding veil, he scratched out whiney songs in both Russian and English. He had an awful accent. We sat at a table and got drunk, eating dried fish and squid with our beer. I grew to really like Dima. At one point they passed around poppers for some reason. Dima took a big deep inhale and then sat in a stupor for five minutes.
The subject of drugs came up, and this lead to a discussion of heroin addiction and HIV. Natasha did know about, it turns out, and Dima told me that he had gotten infected by the bad heroin from Central Asia. It was profitable for Central Asians, he told me, to weaken the Russian race. We argued for a while about whether it was possible to infect heroin with HIV, so that all users became infected (it is not possible, because HIV dies in contact with air), but ultimately I didn't push too hard. This is a commonly accepted myth among heroin users in Russia.
Later on, Dima went to the bathroom and I was finally alone with Natasha. "Natasha," I said, "I like Dima a lot. Please just tell me you use condoms." A sad smile came over her face. I had seen this smile before. Months ago we were sitting in her friend's kitchen, when she got a text with some sort of bad news. She was suddenly very upset and tears started to creep from the sides of her eyes. Then she smiled this smile, and from her purse pulled out a little plastic bag with a pill in it. She put the pill on her tounge and looked up at me with her big sad eyes. That very same smile under them.
"Dan," she said. "I'm HIV positive too."
"Really? Since when?"
"Well, probably by now," she said.
"Have you been tested? Let's go get tested. You should know for sure. You should see a doctor."
"It's too early isn't it Dan? There's a window period of six months, right?"
And here I was getting all proud of myself for all these fancy trainings I'm doing. Recently I've been so excited about the upcoming two-day seminar I'll be leading in Saratov, a whole three day retreat planned around my seminar for all the organizations doing case management there. In the face of this reality, though, it all just seems so pallid, so foolish. How do you stop a thing like this from happening?
Labels: demonstrations, Estonia, HIV, spring, WWII memorial