My wife and I sat in a restaurant on the Arbat, a pedestrian promenade that had existed since the 15th Century, and while waiting for our entrees we wrote postcards to friends in the States. Numerous flat panel TVs hung from the dining room walls, all of them tuned to a Russian CNN-style news station. A crawl at the bottom of each screen unspooled a continuous ribbon of Cyrillic—swift, delirious, like a roller coaster I’d love to ride. Soft Slavic syllables had swaddled me all week, the “sh”, “ch” and “zh” of a well-cushioned language. From St. Petersburg to Moscow, I had grown used to the way “H” was “N” and “p” was really “r” and “Я” sounded like “ya.” Certain words now stood out, especially those involving coffee (кофе), restaurants (Рестораны), bars (бары) and the bank (Банк)—but nothing on these TV’s was familiar. Then “Pussy Riot” zipped past. I blinked at the Arabic letters. Knowing the words did not make them make sense.
My wife was jotting a few comments on the back of a postcard that depicted the Red October Chocolate Factory on an island in the Moscow River. When the phrase flashed by again, I pointed to the TV. “Check it out.”
Ever since our vodka picnic in the park the other day we had both been giggling a lot. There we sat in the grass, sipping a fine Beluga from water glasses we’d taken out of the hotel room. In Moscow, drinking in public was well tolerated.
We had had no major incidents while traveling. Lesbianka weren’t persecuted in Russia, but Kathy and I knew to play it safe. If asked by hotel personnel, we would claim to be sisters. If pressed more specifically, we would say that in our country it was customary for sisters to sleep in the same bed. Kathy and I had rehearsed this. We knew the strategy for successful lesbianka. Which, of course, was pretty deflating in itself.
Like kissing your sister.
So we had had no major incidents. When we first arrived in Moscow, a man tried to attach himself to Kathy. We came up out of the Metro and paused for a minute to consult a street map, all of which made him think we were two ladies from Kazakhstan who needed his help.
This was our honeymoon. We would not be needing his help.
Kathy and I shook him off and left the Sukharevskaya Station, not sure at that point exactly where our hotel was. Rush-hour Moscow hustled brusquely past. Traffic shrieked. A broad boulevard stretched just south of the station, suitable for a military-parade. Fleets of office workers on foot charged down the sidewalk, surge after surge, a steady mechanized flow headed toward slab-like high rises. Under Stalin, the days of the week were renamed so that Monday through Friday followed Monday through Friday with no Saturday and no Sunday in between. The weekend disappeared altogether—and production went on unabated. Forced labor became a cultural norm here. Employment was neither innocent nor simple. Probably more people had died while working in Russia than anywhere on earth.
Cobblestone lanes fanned out just north of the Metro. Dragging our wheeled luggage behind us, Kathy and I bumped along single-file, like geese. Moscow had been built on low marshy land. It was humid. We were sweating. We looked less like ladies from Kazakhstan than hapless refugees. The neighborhood was a shabby collection of cracked and crumbling stucco buildings and numerous sushi restaurants. The side streets were as narrow as alleys, and when I glanced to the right or left down a couple of them, I saw faded onion-dome churches in the distance, their weathered hues bleached out in the muted afternoon light. All at once Kathy stopped before a grimy brick building and declared that she had found our hotel.
I looked at the doorbell we would have to buzz to gain entry to the lobby and then the two flights of steep steps we’d have to schlep our stuff up to get to “our” hotel—and I had my doubts. But Kathy was adamant.
So up we schlepped.
The stairwell reeked of cigarette smoke. Littering the landing was a handful of spent lottery tickets. We pushed through a smudged glass door, and Kathy rushed over to a woman behind the desk to let her know that we had a reservation. The woman took one look at us and said, no, we did not have a reservation. Her smile possessed a meaning I was not equipped to translate. As it turned out this was a rent-by-the-hour hot pillow hotel. It had a strip club one flight up. The woman was kind enough, however, to unfold a map of the neighborhood and show us where our hotel actually was.
Only funny mishaps for me and Kathy in Russia, in other words—no major incidents. We could sit in a techno-trendy restaurant on the Arbat, happily writing these postcards, and know that Survivalist Cyrillic was coming through for us.
Our waitress spoke a little English. When she brought the wine, I asked her about Pussy Riot. The expression on her face turned solemn, and she took a moment, as if choosing her response with care. It was a feminist band, she told us.
“Poonk rh-rrrock,” she trilled deeply, like a growl. She set the wine carafe down on the table and air-guitared an angry stab-like chord. Members of the feminist band had shocked the public, she said. She glanced at both of us and shrugged, then poured the wine into our goblets. The feminist band had stormed the altar in Christ Our Savior Church, she said. They beseeched the Virgin Mary to rid Russia of Putin.
“A poonk prrrrrrayer,” the waitress said. She seemed less offended by these antics than perplexed, but her cornflower blue eyes nonetheless darted from my face to Kathy’s, gauging the effect this information had on the Americans. The members of the band—three young women—were in jail, she told us, awaiting trial.
“Political prisoners in Russia,” Kathy breathed when the waitress had gone.
I nodded. Some of Kathy’s relatives on her mother’s side—Ma’s people—still lived in Warsaw. They had known Communist oppression well into the 1980’s. My in-law’s now. “Pretty grim,” I said.
Westerners like us visiting Russia for the first time brought a certain biased awareness. It was difficult not to see things through the prism of preconception. Although the trappings of a free society were everywhere—the haute couture on the Arbat, the Coca-Cola in the bodegas, the high-spirited young people with their smartphones and iPads, the opulence—these things could not transform an appalling social history. Appropriately, the word “pogrom” was Russian. Also “gulag.”
That morning we had ridden the Metro just to look at all the propaganda art devoted to Soviet triumphalism—the mosaics and exotic marble panels in the Mayakovsky Station, the elaborate stained glass displays and chandeliers in the Novoslobodskaya Station. When transferring from the 5 line to the 7, we had walked past the bronze bust of Karl Marx on its stone plinth. Later, a vendor in Red Square had held up a t-shirt that showed a cartoonish, stylized Lenin flipping the bird. “Foo King Revo-loo-zhan,” she had said. Sporting 3-inch heels but with a traditional headscarf knotted under her chin, this vendor was a total babushka babe: a middle-age woman with a warm smile, sapphire eyes and deep creases bracketing her mouth. She nudged me. She knew I would laugh. It was a sunny afternoon, about 25 Celsius, and the sky was a vivid silk blue above the Kremlin’s red brick walls. She knew tourists got a kick out of edgy post-Soviet Era souvenirs.
People like me who had been children during the Cold War felt a little thrill when someone lifted the Iron Curtain a bit to reveal a cryptic Stalin or a hilarious Lenin. It was like a cultural joke. Every afternoon on summer days, not far from where this vendor sold her t-shirts, the impersonators set up shop outside the hulking Russian Historical Society building and made themselves available for photos: a Trotsky lookalike, Brezhnev, Uncle Joe. These affable pretenders smiled a lot more than the real hardliners probably ever did, which both underscored the irony and also obliterated the illusion, an effect that allowed everyone to interrogate past horrors from a public place in the clear light of day.
Sitting here on the Arbat, I looked down at the postcard before me—a winter scene of St. Basil’s, its colorful onion domes lightly dusted with pristine snow. I thought of the punk feminists being held in the Moscow jail. Our Occupy Movement in the U.S. came to mind, as did civil disobedience. Thoreau. The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King. New Hampshire’s motto: Live Free, or Die. I thought, uncomfortably, of Joan of Arc. Then Patrick Henry. Because I was born into a tradition of rugged individualists, when I thought of stirring cries like “Give me liberty or give me death!,” I visualized something swift and honorable—a fast patriotic death, devoid of atrocity: firing squad, guillotine, the gallows. I didn’t see nails being driven into a person’s shoulders. I didn’t see a man digging his own grave and then being buried alive in it.
The restaurant had filled with young Muscovites, all of them fashionably coiffed, some wearing True Religion jeans or Vera Wang or Michael Kors. They were fun. They were forward-looking. They were spontaneous and optimistic.
Yet their land had known the ceaseless, ongoing martyrdom of ordinary citizens everyday. People had been killed like martyrs here without ever even having a cause, or knowing with what desperation they needed one.
I looked across the table at Kathy “We are a pussy riot.”
She scoffed and kept writing a postcard.
“Seriously. We’re married. Two women. I mean, come on. No one would look at us and think ‘pussy riot’, but….”
“Good,” she interjected.
“But here we are.”
Kathy laid her pen down and took a sip of wine. “We can’t even reach across this table right now and hold hands.” She shook her head. “No. We are not a pussy riot.”
I gazed upon my adorable bride.
Our ‘punk prayer’ back home had been fraught with its own aggravating and irritating features. In our own country. Although two women could get legally married in Iowa, not everybody embraced this state law. When we made plans for our post-wedding dinner, a traditional, family-run Italian restaurant came to mind, one whose dishes we really liked. Then we started thinking...
“Italian,” Kathy had said. “As in Catholic Italian?”
“Family-run,” I had intoned, “and with family-values?”
We were profiling like mad, but it was hard not to.
Would the restaurant figure out that lesbianka had reserved a table for 12 in order to celebrate their marriage and somehow disapprove? Burn our entrees? Be inattentive? What if Ben, Kathy’s 14-year old son, began clinking a spoon against his water glass, the traditional “request” for a newly married couple to kiss? Would we feel free to do that--? Would something untoward happen on our special day just because we were lesbianka?
Seated across from me right now, Kathy had set her wine glass down and begun writing another postcard. Bent to the task, she tipped her head to one side, and the flickering light of the many TV screens in this restaurant played in her hair. She was right: we were not a pussy riot.
Ours had been rather paltry concerns when you stacked them up against purges, deportation and execution. I picked up my own glass and drank.
In St. Petersburg a few days ago, we had visited the ornate onion-dome Church on the Spilled Blood, a glorious cathedral built to enshrine the very spot where Tsar Alexander II was assassinated. Why this blood and not that? came the small and pragmatic but non-monarchist voice within me. It wasn’t the first time in Russia I had had a reflexively egalitarian thought. The more we walked around Peter the Great’s picturesque city the more insistent such thoughts became. The area had been swampy and low-lying—a coastal marshland—but slaves and war prisoners had been forced to move boulders and rubble into place for the city’s foundation and also to construct the canals. It was grueling work under extreme hardship. Ten thousand workers perished each month. My heart skipped a beat.
Every step you took in Russia was on spilled blood.
People had been ground down and used up here--liquidated. The land was a catacombs.
The young men and women sipping frosty cocktails in this restaurant were dressed for the evening with a carefree eye for fashion and style, as if they themselves were ornate onion-dome churches. They had a happy brightness about them. Their joy was heartening but also heartbreaking. Each and every one of them probably had a relative two generations back who had been starved by the State or whose village had been machine-gunned from the sky by low-flying government aircraft. It would take more than high-spirited 21st Century prosperity to cleanse that away. One generation, no matter how buoyant, was not enough. Russia traced its sovereignty back more than 1000 years. The place had known countless massacres across many regimes—killing as relentless and unremitting as clockwork—the tally staggeringly industrial in scope. No matter how remote the historical past, no matter how distant it was or to what extent it might seem to lack a present day pulse, these sophisticated young people nonetheless bore a legacy. A cool shirt didn’t change that.
Our waitress slid a bowl of borsch before me and sliced some bread on a plate. I watched, a little mesmerized, this offering of bread timeless and customary—a ritual all its own in a wheat-rich land like this. Her grandmother in a head scarf and her great grandmother had tilted the knife like that, had held the loaf just so, their aprons dusty with flour and their hands powdered white, while a toddler with rolled up shirt sleeves banged a measuring cup against the floorboards at their feet.
Someone like me might feel tired or hungry in Russia, but the fact was simply this: I would never be tired like people in Russia had been tired. I would never be hungry.
In a couple weeks our friends back home would receive our postcards. By then the rest of the world would be mixed up in the plight of the feminist punk band. Madonna would weigh in, Paul McCartney, Sting. After the young women were found guilty of hooliganism and sacrilege, they were sentenced to two years in a prison colony. Even Fox News carried the story. I was sitting in Ma’s kitchen in rural northern Michigan when the report came on. She and Kathy were over at the stove, fussing with the kielbasa and pierogis amid a clatter of pots and pans and the occasional exclamation in Polish. They didn’t hear the verdict announced on TV. Ma’s refrigerator was a collage of photos—the grandkids and great-grandkids; the Detroit Tigers and John Paul II, the first Polish pope. A devout woman in her 90’s, she kept the schedule for Mass at St. Casimir’s Church on her refrigerator, too.
The whole time we were in Russia, Ma had confessed to us that morning, she prayed for us. “Each and everyday!” she said. We were sitting under an apple tree on her farm. Kathy and I had bought a honey cake for her in the Arbat right before we left Moscow, and we were dunking thick pieces of it in coffee. Ma said she worried that we would get rounded up and be locked away. She said she burned a candle every night.
Northern Michigan has some of the darkest skies in the U.S. I imagined the small flame glowing in her pitch-black dining room, its soft flicker bathing the icon of the Dark Virgin in golden light. Ma’s household altar. To Christ her Savior.
She hated Putin.
She loved the Church.
She had a punk prayer, too.
About the Author:
Barbara Haas is a repeat contributor of fiction and nonfiction to The Hudson Review, Virginia Quarterly Review and The North American Review. Her MFA is from UC-Irvine, and she teaches in the Creative Writing & Environment MFA program at Iowa State University.
About All Accounts:
All Accounts and Mixture is an annual online feature celebrating the work of LGBTQ writers and artists. For this series, we seek work from authors who self-identify as "queer," while acknowledging that this designation is subjective and highly personal. Our goal is to provide a forum for writers whose voices might be mis- or underrepresented by the literary mainstream. Submissions open May 18th and run through June 19th. Poetry, prose, visual art, reviews and interviews will all be considered.