On Saturday I got together with some other people to take advantage of Moscow’s monthly “free museum” day. Valentina was our trusty leader and she had assembled our decidedly motley group to visit the Kuskovo palace estate on Moscow’s east side.
We saw the estate, sure, and it was pretty nice, I guess, as estates go. There was a fancy palace with a gorgeous ballroom and amazing wood-mosaic furniture. But far more interesting, in my opinion, were the conversations that came up along the way. Our group (some names have been changed):
Valentina– a human rights lawyer who defends migrants from police and immigration-authority abuses. She’s 34, an Old Believer, and has never had a boyfriend.
Elbek: a mid-thirties man from Grozny, Chechnya, who describes himself as a political liberal and a human rights defender.
Aziz: a 20-ish gay man from Uzbekistan’s Ferghana valley. Out and proud, he’s active in anarchist circles focusing on anti-capitalist, anti-racist, anti-sexist, and vegetarian politics.
Me: a confused 43-year-old American, seeking mid-life enlightenment through dubious work trips to Russia.
Upon arrival at the Kuskovo estate Elbek and Aziz immediately got into what would turn out to be the first of many political arguments. I don’t remember how any of them started. But this one was about the United States. Elbek was convinced that the United States always wants to do good in the world. Sure, he said, sometimes things turn out badly, but all American interventions come from a place of altruism. I looked at him skeptically while Aziz pounced. “How can you say that? You can’t judge anyone by what they say; you can only judge people or governments by what they actually do,” Aziz insisted. The men continued to bicker until Valentina pulled out some homemade pies. After making sure they were vegetarian, Aziz gleefully devoured the pie while returning to the discussion of American imperialism. Mostly I spent my time trying not to slip on the ice. Valentina watched as horse-drawn sleighs whizzed across the grounds, carrying visitors to and from the palace’s main entrance. The sun occasionally peeked through the clouds.
Valentina and I picked our way through patches of black ice up to the palace’s entrance. Once inside, we sat down to put on protective shoe felts that save the palace’s gorgeous parquet from the ravages of wet and muddy tourists. We waited for a while for the boys to join us; I speculated that they were still discussing American interventionism but Valentina assured me they were probably actually smoking. Was that better?
I adore tours and offered to treat us to one, but Valentina and I were the only ones interested and it seemed too expensive for just two people. Elbek was almost violently opposed to the idea of a tour, “I just don’t like it when people drone on and on about something, especially when it’s their job to do that. They do it for the money.” That last bit was one take on tourguides that I’ve never heard before.
Count Sheremetev, a friend of Peter the Great, built this estate in the 1700s. It was close enough to Moscow that it was purely designed for entertaining; no need for it to have a working agricultural area or even a place for overnight guests. So, yeah, it was a party house. The serfs living on the estate (who came with the land when Count Sheremetev bought the property) were used as actors in the theater Sheremetev set up to entertain his highfalutin’ guests. I wonder how they felt about that? Did they have to work their own little fields and act in plays?
Some of the original furniture is still present, but a lot of it got moved to the Sheremetevs’ apartments in Moscow and St. Petersburg. I’m amazed by wood mosaics, though. Check out this desk; I hope you can see that the design on the front is made up of tiny pieces of wood.
We wanted hot drinks, so we sat down in the café and surreptitiously ate more of Valentina’s baked goods. She brought these muffins– I guess you could call them that. She had run out of flour so she used rice instead and stuck them together with milk, chocolate, and dried black currants. It was a very odd sort of muffin and later I commented to Aziz that Valentina makes strange pastry. “Well, if you can do better, bring some next time!” Touché, my friend. Touché.
Over muffins and tea we talked about our lives. Valentina didn’t have tea because she doesn’t drink tea or coffee. She is an Old Believer, and they follow strict rules about eating and drinking. Aziz tried to convince her that it was immoral for her to eat meat, but she said she believes all eating is immoral. Plants are alive when we eat them, she said, so we are constantly killing living creatures for our own use. It is impossible to avoid this particular sin. I describe Old Believers in more detail here, but basically they are an ascetic branch of the Russian Orthodox Church.
Aziz nearly fell out of his chair when Valentina explained that all sexual acts that do not result in children are sinful. “How can you live like that? It’s a natural urge, so what are you supposed to do?” Valentina didn’t directly answer this question except to say that, as people get older, they feel it is a blessing to be freed from sexual urges. Aziz just shook his head in disbelief.
At some point Elbek jumped in and accused Aziz of trying to push his views on everyone. “Well, yes, ” Aziz answered, “I’m trying to help people see that their views are sexist and harmful.” But Elbek didn’t see it that way. “No,” he said. “You want to make other people like you. You want everyone to be gay.” Aziz denied this, saying he just wanted the ability to live freely without fear and Elbek just grumbled and looked away.
At that point Aziz said that he had to leave and I decided to go with him, even though it meant missing the ceramics museum. I was getting a little tired of the constant political arguments. It was starting to feel too much like an endless committee meeting.
On the way back to the metro, Aziz told me a little more about himself. He’s currently working as an intern at Novaya Gazeta, an opposition newspaper. The story he’s currently researching is on “baby boxes,” places where mothers can leave newborn babies that they do not want without fear of prosecution. He said it has really opened his eyes to some of the challenges women face. He’s been thinking a lot about sexism, he says, because some of his women friends that work with migrants struggle a lot with sexism among the people they serve. He asked me if I’ve ever experienced this. I told him that, yeah, it happens. In particular I remember some inappropriate touching from a certain Liberian man. But, like I told Aziz, I can’t solve all problems at once. For things like touching, I explain to my clients that this sort of behavior is just not acceptable. For other things, like vaguely sexist comments, I just sort of let them slide. I’ve got one job to do: defend my clients from deportation. If I try to also mold my clients into perfect little non-sexists, I’m never going to get any work done. But also, as I pointed out to Aziz, a large number of my clients are women. In Russia, on the other hand, most migrants are men so I’m certain that Aziz’s friend has more daily contact with male clients than I do. Plus, most migrants in Moscow come from predominately Muslim cultures and this culture-clash will be evident everywhere, even in cases where someone is trying to help them.
After I said goodbye to Aziz I started thinking: what have we got here? Today there we were four people who care deeply about human rights. But the differences among us were stark. Elbek was not prepared to accept homosexuality as normal. Valentina was not prepared to believe that her religion was in any way sexist or possibly racist. Aziz was not prepared to accept that people can be religious and still care deeply about people outside of their religion. And I….I was not prepared to accept that there will always be arguments among politically active people. In my head I know it’s important to keep having these discussions and not paper over our differences. But my heart gets so tired. At least we live in a time when we can all get together and go look at a Count’s party house for free.