During my summer in Boston, I came across a couple of op-eds by Mary Baker Eddy on the goings-on in Russia at the close of the nineteenth century, and I realized for just how long Russia has served as a kind of foil for the United States. Even before the rise of the Soviet Union and the beginning of the Cold War, even before we became rivals, Americans looked to Russia as the incarnation of old-world tyranny standing in stark contrast to America’s beacon of freedom. And in the highly self-serving op-eds that Putin and McCain each served up recently, we see that that this condition persists to a certain degree.
When Americans think about Moscow, I think the image they typically conjure up is the Moscow of the 90s in much the same way that people who have never left the South or the Midwest picture Times Square in the 80s when they think of New York City. It’s difficult to shake the stark imagery and Manichean drama of the Cold War when that defined our view of Russia for so long. But when I’m standing in a subway car surrounded by people swiping away at iPhones with ads for Audi dealerships on the wall, the only thing that really reminds me that I’m not in the US is the fact that the ad is in Cyrillic. So dramatic has the change in this city been in just a couple of decades that I’m repeatedly stunned by the fact that people exactly my age remember standing in lines with their mothers for bread and toilet paper. Russia is still a complicated place beset by inefficiency and corruption, but it has also made some stunningly rapid strides in the direction of what many Americans would call progress at least in terms of adopting Western consumer culture.
Vestiges of the Soviet era–and of an even older Russia–exist everywhere. There are the few remaining statues of Lenin, for example, and the utilitarian apartment buildings. But the remnants that stand out to me are the ones that more directly impact everyday life. You can tell, for example, that customer service is a recent concept here both because of it’s absence in some places and its almost aggressive presence in others. Russian service workers vacillate between the almost overwhelming enthusiasm of the Japanese and the hostile aloofness of the French. The employees at one grocery store chain all wear crisp green and white uniforms, and they take your fruits and vegetables from you and weigh them on the spot before you go to the checkout counter. Many gas stations are full-service, and if you decide to browse the selection of mugs in Starbucks, chances are a very cheerful employee will be right there to tell you all about them within seconds. Elsewhere, you will have to physically grab a customer service representative to get them to take your money. One time, after finishing a restaurant meal, I asked for my check and watched my waitress nod and then walk off to take a smoke break. Waitstaff–for whom a 10% tip is considered highly generous–routinely ignore you, which means you can sit and socialize for hours without feeling like anyone is trying to turn the table around but also means that you may sit there forever before you get your credit card back.
Of course, that’s if they take credit card. Cash is the standard here, even for very large transactions. Many cashiers will ask you to provide exact change, and a few will still get very irritated with you if you don’t have it, an attitude left over from a time when currency was scarce. In fact, my most hostile encounters with Russians have involved quibbles over change. The worst was at the food court of a mega-mall.
And then there is the paperwork. Every transaction that involves the Russian government requires everything besides a blood sample (actually, you need one of those to get a work visa) and a letter from your first-grade teacher. Things that seem like they should be simple turn out to be really complicated and vice versa. To get an apartment, you need to have a lot of cash in your hand and the ability to sign your name. There is no credit check or tax return requirement. The landlord just needs to like the look of you. (I just assume this means that they get to break your thumbs if you’re late on the rent). However, getting a bank account (getting a bank to allow you to GIVE THEM YOUR MONEY) requires two forms of ID, a notarized translation of your passport, verification of employment, and a bunch of other stuff I can’t remember. Right now, we are trying to get our belongings through Russian customs, which requires a letter from my employer (I need to prove I’m employed to bring my stuff in the country…why exactly?) and a notarized power of attorney to allow the moving company to pay the customs officials for me. To get this document notarized, I waited in a notary’s office for an hour and a half while it was passed around to three different people and while they found a translator who could make sure I understood what I was signing even though I prepared the document in the first place.
(Aside: I should note that bureaucratic nonsense is alive and well in the US as well and can appear just as irrational, judging by the letter I had to sign in order to prove that L. Ashley Squires and Laura Ashley Squires are the same person, a step that was apparently essential to the sale of my car in the state of Texas. Also, the US also puts foreigners through an unbelievable amount of bullshit, but this is my little complaint corner right now. The way to cope with it in either country is to be patient, have a sense of humor, and pray.)
But the secret of this Kafkaesque nightmare is that very little of it actually matters. All these papers you need are merely boxes that someone in some office needs to check, and it’s unlikely that they actually pay attention to what’s in them. But you need to do them correctly because one day someone might, and that will of course be at the moment when the consequences are the worst for you.
But elsewhere the lingering evidence of the Old Russia is simply puzzling and amusing. Occasionally, it’s delightfully so. The building I work in is a Soviet-era office building, one of those structures that was built quickly and has quickly fallen into disrepair. As is typical in Moscow, the public areas (lobbies, hallways, etc.) are dilapidated while offices and classrooms are fully renovated in the modern style. It still has a stolovaya, a cafeteria where lunch would have been provided to employees but where you can now buy a very inexpensive meal. At the entrance are two security guards who stop no one from walking in the building and a woman whose ostensible job is to issue passes that no one bothers to ask for anymore. She sits all day looking at an empty visitor notebook like a character from a Pynchon novel.
There used to be guards on every floor who would give you your office key and take it from you when you left for the day. This still exists but only on the nineteenth floor, which, incidentally, is where my office is. Every day, I ask for the key from a man who has probably been working there for 40 years and whose job it is to take it off a hook on the wall and hand it to me. When he’s not handing out keys, he watches internet videos. This is actually a Russian workplace custom that pre-dates the Soviet Union. In Dostoevskiy’s Crime and Punishment, there is a floor guard who fails to notice anything when Raskolnikov is murdering the landlady.
While it can occasionally feel like evidence of backwardness, this litany of customs and procedures and personnel that probably had a point that expired some time ago is really evidence of just how rapidly Russia has and is still changing. This country’s national literary tradition didn’t take off in earnest until Pushkin in the nineteenth century, and in just a couple of generations, it produced Tolstoy. And in less than a generation, it has gone from bread lines to Starbucks. This makes it often frustrating and even frightening, but it also makes it rich and exciting and dynamic. One of my Russian colleagues said that she left the US to return to Moscow because the stability and samey-ness of life in America just got boring, and I can see what she’s talking about. But truthfulness, this historical dynamism, this pursuit of chance at a breakneck pace and all the messiness that comes with it, is something that Russians and Americans share.