My time here in Russia is frequently punctuated by academic conferences and travel. This past week I’ve been swept up in a whirlwind of activity, both personal and professional and I’m just barely getting my bearings again, frankly. It doesn’t help that I have no matching clothes. You’d think I’d be better at packing, but for three weeks in, variously, Moscow, Hanoi, and Minsk, I managed to pack five pairs of shoes and no decent tops.
Arriving in Moscow with my impossibly heavy and useless bag I metroed from the train station way out to the working-class neighborhood of Perovo, where my dear friend Anya lives. I wanted to be able to spend as much time as possible with her so I found an AirBnB near her apartment. But Perovo is one of those neighborhoods that was served unfavorably by Soviet architecture; masses of block-style apartment buildings turned grey by the hazy winter light. Somehow I missed out on the navigation gene that my parents’ possess in spades, so I spent about a half an hour going up and down the stairs in the underpass while I tried to find the correct route to my apartment. This is *with* the help of the GPS on my iPhone.
Eventually I got to my host’s 2-room apartment, where he greeted me warmly. Evgeny is a middle-aged man, older than me by a few years. He’d never had an AirBnB guest before, which is why things were a bit strange at first. He had cleaned all of the food out of the refrigerator so that it was for my sole use and even installed individual keyed locks on all the bedroom doors. The few times I peered behind him into his own room I saw a massive, hulking pile of junk. Almost like he’d taken an earthmover and just shoved everything from one room of the apartment into the other.
Evgeny made me some tea while I recovered from marching my heavy suitcase all around the neighborhood. When he offered me some honey I demurred until he explained that he keeps his own bees out at his dacha in the Tula region. I tried a spoonful and I can honestly say it was the best honey I have ever tasted in my entire life. It tasted like flowers in a spoon.
The hot shower I took must have frightened Evgeny into thinking that I was going to spend hours in the bathroom every day, but I needed to ease my sore muscles. Clean and soothed, I made my way to the Institute for Social and Political Research to see my colleagues/friends. I was super excited because my colleague Sergei has maybe been voted into the Russian Academy of Sciences. He was already a corresponding-member, but this would make him an official ACADEMIC. It’s a big deal. Especially for a young guy like Sergei. I brought along a bottle of whiskey from Tucson, whiskey that I’d been saving to give as a gift. I knew I was going to Vietnam in a week so I had planned to give it to our host there (as a thank you and also as a sort of pathetic and ridiculous apology for the Vietnam War because I am both pathetic and ridiculous). But Sergei’s becoming an Academic seemed like a much more appropriate whiskey occasion. Sharif was there– he’s that older man from Tajikistan who has developed a fondness for me– and he brought homemade plov. This is going to be awesome.
Except Sergei wasn’t there. And he wasn’t there because he wasn’t voted in to the Academy; they told him he was too young. Afterwards, colleagues from across the city needed to see him for various reasons so he wasn’t able to be at his office until a couple hours after he was originally expected. By that time my whiskey once again became pathetic and ridiculous but there was no way to take it back; I had offered it before finding out the news. But now what were we going to do, drink it down in the middle of the workday? Well, I guess that was Sharif’s idea because once Sergei did arrive Sharif happily gulped down a few glasses of it. Sergei himself just had a taste. I had a glass but it immediately gave me a headache. Operation Whiskey was an abject failure, my friends.
The good news is that I did get to see my dear Anya that night.I hadn’t seen her since February! And since that time she’d gotten engaged and I’d come to live in Belgorod! So much to catch up on, we spent about three hours eating and chatting. I got home very late to Evgeny’s to discover that he has a bit of a cockroach problem. Luckily, it seemed confined to the nighttime and to the bathroom and kitchen. I don’t know who scurried faster: me to bed or the cockroaches from the light. At least we held each other in mutual contempt.
My friend Anya’s bachelorette party was the next day and, thank goodness, it was a quiet homestyle affair. It must be age but I just don’t seem to have the energy anymore for nights out at clubs. We ordered pizza from Papa Johns and had some champagne. Most of the evening was taken up trying to decide what cake fillings she should get for her wedding cake. The bakery had sent over twenty-four samples of cake– TWENTY -FOUR! I decided there was only one reasonable reaction to this situation: a spreadsheet. Exhausted from all the tasting and rating, we toasted our friend’s soon-to-be-married life and went to bed early like the old ladies we are.
The conference organizers surprised us the next day with tickets to the Bolshoi ballet! I’ve never been– not in all my years of travel to Russia. So I was pretty excited. The theater sparkled in the dark evening snow. The mood inside was electric. Some people were even wearing tuxedos, and ladies were in evening gowns. Swept up in the excitement, I drank a $10 glass of champagne just because it felt like the thing to do. It was La Bayadère, apparently a gold standard of classical ballet. The action took place in a kind of make-believe India and the costumes featured a lot of wispy harem-pants. As the dancing started and I peered through my binoculars, I realized I’m probably not the right person to take to the ballet. I really do have a bit of the OCD in that I like order and symmetry (I’ve been blessed not to have the kind where you’re constantly washing your hands or checking the oven). And ballet is also very OCD so, while you’d think this would be a match made in heaven, it was not. The third act of this particular ballet has a sequence where about thirty dancers are on stage all doing the exact same thing. The dancers, known as the corps de ballet, synchronize their movements over and over and over again as they shift down a ramp and onto the main floor of the stage. The Boshoi’s corps de ballet is particularly well known for their ability to do this well. You can see the scene I’m talking about here, as performed by the Boston ballet:
But, despite the mastery, all I could notice was the small difference in the dancers’ movements—arms at ever-so-slightly different angles, feet circling just a smidge differently than all the other feet. I can take this to mean only one thing: it is physically impossible for the dancers to be completely, absolutely identical. BUT ALL I COULD SEE WERE THE DIFFERENCES.
The next morning I finally got down to business. This year’s conference was not held at the Academy of Sciences (thank goodness– it might have been a bit of a sore spot for Sergei) but at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations, or MGIMO as it is known here. The plenary dais was populated by bigwigs– including a representative from Russia’s newly re-organized migration service. All congratulated us on concentrating on the important and timely topic of migration. And then they all left. Leonid Leonidovich Rybakovsky, one of the most senior scholars there, pointed this out immediately. “This always happens! Officials come to these things and thank us for our work. But because they never stay, they never learn anything. They just keep doing what they’ve always done and it turns out a disaster. The people who need to hear what we say most ignore us entirely.”
Oh, Leonid Leonidovich. Don’t I know it! My presentation at this conference, after all, was about U.S. border militarization and about how militarizing the border neither prevents unauthorized crossing or terrorism. Instead, it creates pop-up industries like human smuggling and causes large-scale demographic changes within the country. But who listens to that? Well, certainly not the American electorate, who have just elected a man whose main campaign promise was that he would build a wall between the U.S. and Mexico. Officials, whether in the U.S. or in Russia, don’t listen to academics about stuff like this because it’s more about politics than it is about actual policy. So how about all the politicians go live somewhere together and the rest of us can all live in places with decent migration policies?