“One cannot rationally fathom Russia.
One cannot measure it with a measuring stick.
It has a special nature.
One can only believe in her.”
-Fyodor Tyutchev, Romantic Russian poet
During a slow weekend this past July in St. Petersburg, Russia, Rob Madole, Tim Nunan, and John Nelson started scheming, started to talk of raising hell. They had been through almost two months of Russian-language boot camp–perfecting Slavic soft L’s and memorizing correct linguistic declinations for vodka toasts. It’s easy for a man to become stale after White Nights—the period of twenty hours of daylight experienced in Petersburg from mid-June into July—and one wonders what to do once the attack on the circadian rhythm ceases and the residual effects of habituation ensues. These chaps needed escape, so from a remote location near Canal Griboyedova in downtown Petersburg, Madole sent clandestine electronic epistles to let his plan be known. Madole has been living with Max Kenneth’s former Russian host family, and so Kenneth takes the night train from Moscow. Then, in Flaubertian narrative simultaneity, Antonioni Saab flies to the Motherland from Paris. All five comrades decide to participate in Madole’s birthday plan—a weekend at his host family’s dacha. A dacha is a seasonal or year-round country cabin for Russians in the exburbs of capital cities within Russian and former republics of the Soviet Union. The dacha is not a sign of wealth, as even the poorest of Russians seem to have a second cottage, no matter how shabby and pitiful; starting with the reign of Peter the Great, dachas were given to loyal vassals by the tsar, and during the Soviet era, leaders provided chunks of land and huts to even common place citizens. Some farm at the dacha or keep modest gardens, but mostly the dacha provides an inexpensive weekend respite for families to indulge in heavy eating, heavy drinking, and trips to the bayna sauna (the Russian answer to the “gym”). “New Russians” have dachas with swimming pools, tennis courts, elaborate Turkish baths. But the dacha of our investigative reporters had but an outhouse and a barely-workable sink. Yet adventure called, and youth pumped in their veins. With three Russian young women and three Russian young men, the Americans ventured the rural areas of the Leningradskaya Oblast, Petersburg’s province.
There is an ancient Russian proverb, derived from the Old Church Slavonic, that goes, “What happens at the dacha, stays at the dacha.” Our reporters, though, refused to obey this heeding. They had to be forthcoming. And so these are their tales:
As a Beck look-alike slams the side door of a Russian minibus against my left arm for the fifth time in twenty minutes, the contents of my grocery bag freely tumble onto the not-so-sanitary floor. Our journey from St. Petersburg to the dacha, I can already tell, will be a long one. Soon, the bus will drop us off at the kind of spectacularly creepy train station I thought only existed in David Lynch movies. That is, the kind of station where we find ourselves observing the spectacle of Russian youths skidding up and down a road on dirt bikes until they burst a tire. The kind of station where, next to a drunken teen relieving himself on a pet food store’s side entrance, a supermarket seems to sell nothing but beer, vodka, and Dallas Light cigarettes. On the platform, stray dogs mingle with a rather gloomy gypsy selling Nescafe clocks to an elderly man in a three-piece suit. And of course, the token drunk makes an appearance, greeting my travel companions and me with a charmingly idiosyncratic “fuck you Englishman,” while hurling a chunk of spit in our direction and flashing us a smile.
At 8:30 in the evening, the train arrives at the station. By 10:00, we disembark somewhere outside of St. Petersburg, and follow our Russian counterparts to a modestly imposing wooden structure. This is the dacha, which soon reveals itself to be significantly smaller than it appeared from outside – an unfortunate circumstance not improved by the Russian decree that all non-Slavs will share the floor space in the attic, under posters of Lenin and a photoshoped, birthmark-less Gorbachev.
After dropping our belongings upstairs, we head to the makeshift front yard, where a decomposing log will serve as our faithful, thoroughly uncomfortable couch. Wasting no time, we begin to cook diner over a campfire. By midnight, it’s time to dig in. A lot of effort has been put into the preparation of this meal, and it shows: the barbecued meat, complexly conceived salads, and savory pasta all hint at a quasi-superhuman desire to stay conscious between the endless vodka toasts so emblematic of the dacha experience.
Three beers, two hours, and nearly a dozen vodka shots later, it is past two in the morning. “Let’s go to the lake,” the Russians propose, as if it were our sacred Slavic duty. Curious about this “lake,” we gather together near the closet, where we are told to grab a few jackets and hats distinctly deigned for 1980’s Siberia, before beginning our march to the water. A young man named Sasha leads the way, while proudly blasting European house music from his exceedingly high-tech phone.
Before we know it, we are face to face with a truly gorgeous lake. Save the pile of garbage stacked neatly in a corner by the water, the view is flawless, and we agree to celebrate nature’s beauty with two or three more shots of a newly opened cognac. “It is time,” begins a Russian, with a subtly menacing grin, “we will go swimming…” Though in almost any other circumstance, we would have politely declined the offer, we all find ourselves mechanically driven to accept blindly the rather unappealing proposition. Without a word, we strip to our boxers, and jump into the mildly radioactive lake. By the time we head back to the comfort of our clothes, we are thoroughly soaked, profoundly drunk, and decidedly confused. This is when the two nude Russians come in.
Staring into the water, and contemplating the beauty of the landscape, I catch a glimpse of a sight so unholy I hesitate to even mention it. As I gaze at the distance, I see Sasha and his terrifyingly Soviet friend slowly emerge from the glistening lake. Naked. Comfortably and effortlessly swinging around their members, they serve up one last round, before requesting that I take a picture of them posing nude by the water. After the photo-shoot, Sasha’s friend Alek, a Soviet Steve Buscemi of sorts, grabs the bottle by the tree, and effortlessly inhales yet another shot. He immediately regrets the swiftness of his action, as becomes obvious when he vomits on a tree near the road. Unfazed, he looks back at us with a smile, before lifting his index and ring fingers, signaling his clear desire to “rock on,” despite the momentary physical malfunction.
Not long after the unexpected, unsightly and unclothed episode, we begin the journey back to the dacha. Once home, I lose no time in passing out on the floor beneath Vladimir Ilyich Lenin. All the while, the Russians proudly blast their national anthem in the front yard, while toasting just a few more shots. It is five and the morning.
They say the dacha is where one goes to relax. From what I’ve seen, there is no room for relaxation in Russia. There is the stress of work in the city. There is the relative calm of one’s apartment. And finally, there is the modern day Sodom and Gomorrah simply known as the dacha.
Russians are the subject of an overwhelming host of generalities. I wouldn’t be able to count on ten hands the number of times parents’ friends or curious neighbors, upon hearing that I would be spending the summer in Russia, cracked some tired joke about vodka or babushkas, or expressed some concern about the growing police-state and Russia’s (in the yellow words of many pseudo-intellectuals’ favorite free-trade rag The Economist) descent into a “neo-KGB state.”
But what surprised me during my two month stay in Russia was the extent to which Russians lived up to the generalities about them, and it took me a long time to decide whether it was a sort of consciously adopted national personality disorder or whether it was something genetically inherent. After all, what other culture as literate and scientifically advanced as Russia would accustom itself to Krushchev-era homogenous apartment complexes, to a threatening and capricious police force, to rampant alcoholism and a male life-expectancy of 59, to years of Soviet rule, to Stalinist purges, to censorship, to disappearances…and through it all, almost be proud of it?
After all, at my host family’s house we drank our instant coffee from mugs with Stalin’s face emblazoned on them. I think it was on my birthday in July—when my gracious host family lent me their dacha for the weekend as part of my master plan to have the four other American students a group of Russians our age head to the country for a weekend of Russian-style debauchery and revelry—that the Russian approach to life began to make some sense to me…or rather, that the archetypal Russian male, he of the 59-year life expectancy and stoic demeanor, became clear and sympathetic to me, in the form of one of our guides to the dacha, a 19-year old Navy conscript named Stas. I had met Stas before that weekend; he was the boyfriend of Nina, the granddaughter of my host babushka, dear Roza. Babushka often complained that Stas was too short for her Nina, because, after all, she was from Tartar stock, descended from Genghis Khan, too tall and noble for a stout little guy like Stas (and I have a sneaking suspicion that she still hoped Nina might marry Kenneth, who had stayed with Roza two summers before on the same Princeton program).
I had never spoken with Stas, though; since my Russian was still barely passable in the first few weeks, our relationship was more on the level of grunts and head-nods. At the dacha, Stas came to embody for me the stereotype of the Russian male persona. For the entire two and a half days we were there, he wore an unzipped black jacket with no shirt under it, smoked in an endless unbroken chain, spent not a single moment sans beer in hand, and, as far as I could tell, stayed as distant from the kitchen and dishes as was humanly possible in as cramped a place as our dacha. It was hard to detect any kind of change in his demeanor from alcohol; after innumerable toasts and liter-sized cans of beer, he was as stoic as ever: in any given social situation he was content to stare off into the distance, cigarette idling in the hand that held his half-sipped beer.
One of the nights I thought it would be funny to show the Russians a game I play when drunk around a fire that my cousin calls “chinchilla,” in which you pick the hottest coal you can find and try to juggle it in your hands like a hot potato, passing it from person to person. When it got to Stas, he calmly licked his finger, doused enough of the coal with his spit so that he could hold it comfortably in his hand, and put the whole thing—burning with orange embers—into his mouth, and smiled, the smoke from the extinguished coal now curling out of the corners of his mouth. Somehow we started talking at one point about politics, and who the next American president would be. This ended up being the most verbose I ever saw Stas, as he laid out for Nunan and me the naked facts of the matter: how Hillary could never be President; after all, what relevant political figure would ever take a woman ruler seriously? And, he insisted, it’s a widely accepted fact that women don’t accomplish things; say what you will about Stalin, Stas argued, but he got things done.
A few hours later, as the sun was threatening to rise over the horizon, we were stumbling to the liquor store for more vodka, and Stas walked over the sharp gravel of the rocky train tracks barefoot—stoic as ever smoking another cigarette, as I stumbled next to him blearily on the verge of passing out.
It wouldn’t be a stretch to call him the perfect amalgamation of all our Russian male stereotypes, but there is something about confronting a living being, about striking a middle-ground in broken language, that humanizes even the grossest caricatures, makes it impossible to forget the soul fluttering somewhere underneath, a soul humbled by historical and personal contingency. The idea seems silly to Americans, in a thoroughly assimilated culture, to want to live up to a national idea of yourself. After all, nationalism’s last breaths as a movement sputtered out almost before the end of World War II. But the idea of a Russian Character is not extinguished in Russia, and it lives on in people like Stas, consciously or unconsciously acting out a sort of cultural wish fulfillment.
The Russian soul to me is a self-made concoction, at once inherited and worn like some garment, assumed without affect or pretense, but out of a purely natural desire to have more to live for. Stas’ friend Alek told me he wanted to be an army psychologist, and I was impressed—he was the same Alek who vomited spectacularly while skinny-dipping at the lake and who for two days played a never-ending stream of Euro house music from his cell-phone. I didn’t expect to hear him articulate that kind of initiative in his ambitions.
But when I asked Stas who he wanted to be, he only shrugged his shoulders. After all, he had learned to be content with the person he was, and to only expect as much as a Russian male has come to expect after years of Soviet rule and its virtually anarchic aftermath: to be able to stand shivering naked under a starlit sky on the shore of a freezing lake, cigarette furling smoke into the summer air—warm for once…shishkabob and more vodka toasts waiting back at the warm dacha, and a reprieve, however brief, from the life of a polluted city and a navy you never wanted to be conscripted into in the first place.
I remember mostly the peculiar smell of kvas in her hair, the strain in her eyebrows (flitting monarchs separated by violent plucking with Stravinsky in the background), the tiny blossoms protruding from her shirt, there in my Petersburg komnata overlooking the Neva with pookh from poplar trees streaming during White Nights. (Cue the strings!) No, no, completely and absolutely, wrong. It was mead. I remember mostly the peculiar smell of mead in her hair, the honey thickness lavishing in the glory of her effulgence. A Viking honey beer, it was sticky, now dripping, now moist. Her little bonnet, her lavender skirt. (Saxophone please!) Before coming to back to this land of intellectual rigor and fabulous societal efficiency, I spent the summer of my nineteenth year in and around the Marinsky Theatre, taking swigs of Sovietskaya champagne, napping during the final aria of Evgeniy Onegin. During the applause, I would stand and mutter: “Ya Vas lyubil bezmolvno, bez odezhdi.” A youthful ploy, a conjuring of words, a gimmick with gumption, gall, and moxie to alter the Pushkin text, to exchange “hopeless love” for “clothesless love.” My wordplay since in Russian has proven abysmal.
My youth! (Percussion!) My youth, that speck of glorious light in the dimness of my existence, that existence itself a fleeting ember between the dark cloak of the unknown between my mother’s womb and my grave. The crying, the forceps and years later the huffing attack and subsequent sepulture. In my youth I was caught in this claustrophobic tranquility, this cushy affluence in smoky rooms with the aroma of Latakia tobacco from Cyprus or perhaps a nice Cavendish Blend, and orange Venetian blinds chosen by my French governess, and crystalware from Athens, and Egyptian cotton towels, and warm bubble baths with oils from Sevastopol. Then glorious, now so oft forgotten. I lived with Roza Amirovna, a former engineer in a Soviet button factory, and her husband Vladmdimir Panasovich, an ex-Trotskyite turned staunch Marxist journalist for several questionable rags in Piter. Nina Alexeyevna, their granddaughter, spent her days memorizing poetry and her evenings at the ballet. Dark eyes the hue of the Black Sea. Leading up to my recent return to Petersburg for a weekend at the dacha, I anticipated seeing her (of peculiar hair) in my old abode. She was charming the way she’d wake me every morning during my home stay: “Bonjour, mon cher…Vous avez rêvé?” She was charming. I use the past tense tensely and not inappropriately.
Maybe, it was the peculiar smell of horseradish vodka biting in her hair. The fault of Stas, some crackpot medical student for the Russian navy. Her little spirited gait, her aspirations for cinematic fame, her kopeks dropped in the dirty hands of gypsy children. Gospodi! This was the Petersburg I remembered when I took the night train Bistraya Strel’ya from Moscow to the Venice of the North to have a dacha weekend with my former landlords in celebration of Rob Madole’s birthday and his secret machinations. And how, in Lenningradskaya Oblast outside the charms of Piter, how divine the lake can be. This is a town of 4 a.m. mist on a placid lake, rising, streaking off our bodies at dawn, a majestic fog surrounding this nook of red-trunked firs as we shiver ourselves warm in the carnival that is Russia—we the newest members of the troupe in our Western caravan. We are in costumes of winter hats, fur coats, pea coats, trench coats, fall jackets, tweed blazers, pre-Revolutionary uniforms, and as we’re walking down a deserted road as it starts to become morning, dandelion-quill clouds appear in the sky. This is a march after the salad of mayonnaise, tomatoes, dill, cucumbers, ham. This is a march after three sticks of shashlik, four vodka shots each, two cognac rumichki, and some champagne under our collective belts. An old gypsy song in Russia called “Black Eyes” warns, “You cannot live without champagne,” and with the particularly gripping genitive form of champagne linguistically compelled by the absence in “without,” we must obey. The freezing water seems less cold after a shiver, a hick-up, a Harlem shake. This is Leningradskaya Oblast, folks, a slight tremble of humanity outside of Petersburg, where I still consider home to be at 1/3 Maly Prospekt.
Two naked Russian bodies—Sasha, the grandson of my old Russian host babushka Roza and his comrade Alek, are running in and out of the nipping water screaming about how they’re Spartans. Alek poses for a picture in front of his aunt, heaves out some onerous vodka, and throws his body back in the water. These are Spartans who walked an extra 30 minutes to buy vodka and beer at the magazin before their 4 a.m. swim—they’re flexing, showing their asses, dancing around and playing from their cellphones. There’s silence in Bumblefuck, Russia for a moment, and then Sasha’s cell phone plays out Mika… “Relax. Take it EEEEE-asy…”
Bottles line the railway tracks we crossed at night. Neo-Trotskyites and die-hard communists carry fishing poles and spit sunflower seeds at this ungodly hour in this ungodly city. Clouds burst out like mountains. Fifteen-year-old girls with jutting hip bones and faces of malaise drink Gin & Tonic in a can. This is the life. This is the life at the dacha.
When I told my landlady and summertime mother in a strange land that I would be leaving shortly for a weekend at the dacha, she was rather taken aback. On so many occasions, I had demonstrated or had seemed to demonstrate such totally infantile tendencies that this proposition, so normal, so Russian, both impressed and astonished her. If you are an American arriving in the Russophonic world, you are a child. You speak as a child, you cross the street as naively as a child, and like a child you come to terms with the hard facts of life (“So the hot water’s off all month, is it?”). As the weeks dragged by, I learned some of the rules of the different games and developed a functional life in Petersburg, but my host mother would never believe it.
She did not doubt that I was capable of harboring decidedly more mature interests, namely vodka and girls, but somewhere in the deep recesses of her mind, she knew that I could not be trusted to the take the trash out. I can’t say that I entirely disagree with her.
As it was Rob’s birthday, I volunteered to supply the drinks, a purchase which proved so large that I received the dubious honor of membership in the Norman’s Alcohol Supermarket Discount Club. Had I appreciated the distance I would be required to carry that damn bag, or had I known that the one store within twenty kilometers of the dacha was a liquor store, I might have planned differently. We live and learn, I suppose.
The dacha we lived in proved to be part of a dacha complex. Still underdeveloped and heavily wooded, the forest hid scores of small houses perched precariously on zigzagging plots. I had the pleasure of exploring those plots early Saturday morning in a fruitless attempt to recover my glasses after the previous night’s revelries by the beach. Half-blind and in a stupor I miraculously found the lake, but needless to say my glasses were gone. I am convinced that a goods merchant is, even as I pen these words, carrying them across the wide expanses of the Russian steppe to a bazaar in Tashkent. If my Guess frames do not fetch a good price, they will be packed up with the other trinkets and carried across the sands to Panfilov or Dushanbe where swarthy men in turbans will steal away with my prescription lenses under the Central Asian stars. But I digress.
I walked in circles for hours praying that I would stumble randomly into my rat’s nest of blankets on the attic floor, or at the least find some companionship; I could die in these remote woods of Lenningradskaya Oblast, but I did not want to die alone. Old women tended to their vegetables, and little children shrieked in a language not taught in any school; yet they were as unreachable to me as the men who lay asleep, which is indeed where I should have been.
By the afternoon, consumption had resumed apace and the bottles began to pile. The scenic view at our local lake was marred only by the large pile of trash that seemed to be permanently deposited there as a solution to the aforementioned stack of garbage back at the house. In the city, it is all too common to dispose of bottles by hurling them at the pavement, a crime of which I am not in the least bit proud, but alas guilty just the same. In the country however, there would seem to be a lack of sufficiently hard surfaces. Gratuitously despoiling nature is a close second on the list of Russian proclivities, falling just behind the incommensurate joy found in creating physical danger. I don’t recall exactly how we disposed of our refuse, at the direction of our hosts, but it was not in the tradition of leave no trace. We spent the day lounging at a farther-off lake, and in retrospect the canoe anchored twenty meters offshore in two feet of water that we chose to commandeer seems a bit strange. What was it doing there? Whose was it? These are questions that can only be asked in an air-conditioned dorm room thousands of kilometers away in suburban New Jersey. At the dacha, it doesn’t matter that this canoe’s existence is so profoundly arbitrary, because everything, down to the goods merchant’s caravan route is arbitrary.
That’s what I love about Russia. We are all children there; there are leaders, and there are bullies, and there are the beautiful girls we like to stare at from the confines of the schoolyard. Everyone guesses everything. Your priorities and expectations are not grounded in the assumption that things will work, rather maturity, if it exists at all, is an almost Zen-like understanding that things usually won’t work and that life will still go on anyway. To an American college kid, this drinking and debauchery should seem familiar, but it is not. Its character and its quality is completely other, and given the choice between a weekend at the Street and a weekend at the dacha, even I—the critic of so many things Slavic—must pause and consider what I truly value in life. Marx wrote, “All fixed, fast-frozen relationships, with their train of venerable ideas and opinions are swept away, all new formed ones are obsolete before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and men at last are forced to face with sober senses the real conditions of their lives and their relations with their fellow men.” The dacha is a black square, the mass of the universe condensed to absurdity, condensed beyond recognition. I love it.
Granted: he apologized for Hitler. But not for the food and drink, not for the canoe and night-time dipping, but for one young Russian, Stas, do I most remember my weekend in 54 Kilometer, Russia. The scene: I stand next to Stas, a twenty-something Russian with a pudgy face who stared into a campfire on which there burned marinated meat as we spoke. I had a half-liter of beer in my hand, and two in my stomach, and, wanting to improve my Russian some more, asked Stas for his thoughts on politics:
TN: So … I’m interested in Russian history, but it’s never clear to me what Russians on the street actually think. Do people really love Stalin? Or is that just something made up? I mean, who … who, who would you say was the best leader (vozhd) in Soviet history?
S: Leader? There can be only one leader of Russia, and that was Stalin. Anyone who says that the Soviet Union was the country of anyone else but Stalin is deluding himself. No Stalin, no Union. It’s simple.
TN: And Gorbachev? Most people in the West think that Gorbachev was an important leader for the Soviet Union, for, uh, for better or for worse.
S: Let me tell you: Gorbachev? Ask someone on the street, tell him the name, ask him who the guy was, and he’ll give you the same response: “Gorbachev? Who was Gorbachev?” Like I said, there was only one true leader of the Soviet Union, and that was Stalin. Gorbachev’s perestroika destroyed the Union, and for that reason Westerners say he was a “leader.” But Gorbachev, the Union? I’ll repeat my answer: who was Gorbachev?
TN: And Putin?
S: Well, Putin … Putin comes closest to being a Russian leader in the tradition of Stalin. You don’t understand how things are here: here you try to go out on Palace Square and say, “down with Putin,” and you’re finished. Clearly only an idiot or an insane man would ever attempt something like that. But we have stability, you know, and after Gorbachev, and that idiot Yeltsin, you must give Putin credit. He took something that was nothing – Russia, that is – and made it something again. You may not go out on the squares or streets to protest, but you have your dacha. With politics in Russia, it’s like Gorbachev. Ask the street sweepers who Gorbachev was, and he’ll ask you, again: “Who was Gorbachev?” And again, ask him what he thinks about politics. He’ll tell you: “Politics? What is politics?” At this point, conversation on Russian leaders seemed to be running dry. It was time to move to topics more American.
S: A question for you, Little Timmy (Timoshechka). The people on the television say that Hilary Clinton, that this woman, may become president of the country. Do you – would you vote for Clinton again?
TN: Well, Hilary isn’t my favorite candidate, but, sure, why not?
S: “Why not?” She is a woman. Woman is not suited to rule. This is something you must grasp about politics. Politics is a basically male activity. Take a conference of political leaders, take Putin and put him in a room with – you said you studied German? – put him in a room with Helmut Kohl– and they can talk to one another as men. This is an equal dialogue. This is something that a woman cannot do. And you know this. When I am talking to you in front of this fire, I talk to you from myself as a man to yourself as a man. And if you want something from me, then you recognize that you must take it from me, as a man from another man. Woman will never be able to do this.
TN: … well … what about Angela Merkel, or Golda Meir? They were women, and –
S: This is again the problem. Angela Merkel in a room with Putin? This is a joke. Western countries may say that they are for a woman in office, but they do not realize that politics has been and always will be a man’s activity. This was the problem with Gorbachev. He forgot that politics had to be a manly activity, and the Union slipped from his hands. This is about power and war, if war is needed.
S: Again, only men are capable of bold decision and helping their country. Do you think a woman could have saved Russia from the drunkard Yeltsin and perestroika? Or look at Germany, you said you studied German history, look at Germany in the 1930s, when Hitler became Chancellor. Before Hitler, again, a man, took power, Germany was a pathetic country. One of the smallest countries in Europe. But in only, what was it? Eight years? Seven years? He made Germany into one of the most powerful countries in the world, and only he could talk to Stalin on equal terms. A woman would have never done this.
TN: Well, maybe so, but a woman also probably would not have started the world war or killed so many Jews.
S: Yes, killing the Jews is a problem.
TN: A large problem.
S: Yes, yes. That may have been too much. Perhaps a woman would not have done that. But nonetheless – maybe there were problems because Stalin was the leader and was stronger than Hitler, but can you really imagine a woman’s doing that? Would a woman ever have tried to save Mother Germany in the same way he did, in the way that Stalin did, and in the way Putin does, I hope?
TN: I don’t know.
S: This is the brutal reality of politics, and this is why Hilary cannot become president of your country. If I were an American, I would do everything in my power to prevent her from becoming president. Otherwise, you will ask in ten years, as we do now, “who was Hilary?” Countries – countries are like women themselves. They need a man to guide them.