Suddenly you are increasingly in rooms with people raising their voices, and making arguments they had previously, themselves, dismissed. They are respectful and even warm, they are close, some are friends. There is no menace, but you have conversations where you are on the defensive all the time.
And in these rooms you are the representative of that enemy they are raising their voices about: you are asked to justify events that are happening from Kiev to California, from Tbilisi to Tokyo. It has become us and them and you are one of them. And they are right: I am. I’m a liberal, democratic, European socialist and I think that mess that they are showing me on their IPhone is still better than Russia. Shit is fucked in the west, I get it, but it’s more fucked here, and increasingly the man you worship is a big part of why it’s fucked in both places, those places being here and….everywhere else.
And all of this happened slowly and subtly over a decade or more. I had known I was different and would always be an outsider in Moscow, but it hadn’t mattered. Russians had been warm and honest and welcoming, and they still mostly are when I am there. But the ones I really connected with were becoming a minority and, with nearly all of them, the list of things you couldn’t say was growing. I found myself making mistakes more and more often with people, feeling uncomfortable. And it’s harder to do all this when you aren’t all that sure of yourself; the psycho/successful guys have it easier there.
I married a Russian and lived a decade in a flat with 5, then 4, of them. I went to their funerals, they christened my children in their churches, I taught their children in their homes and their schools. I saw their football matches and orchestras alongside them. I watched Yeltsinism fall and Putinism rise alongside them, I watched 911 and 7/7 happen with them, as well as their own tragedies, Beslan, Nord Ost and North Ossetia. And I learned that they are right when they say that we are softer in the west, weakened by the very comforts that they yearn for.
My best friends were Russians, or at least English speakers who were fairly well integrated into the country. I had less and less to do with the expat scene of bars and Starbucks and IPads, where people tell you excitedly that Moscow is crazy, like Paris in the 30s. It’s Berlin in the thirties mate, and I don’t really have time to hear about your screenplay. I have a family to feed you see. I remember when I thought exactly the same thing, and for the same reasons: things are distorted when you are looking at them through an empty shot glass.
St. Petersburg was built as a “window to the west” but now I read that idea as a matter of time rather than geography, 1991 to 2012 to be precise, though you can never be very precise with this stuff. However you define it, that window to the west is closing fast and, at this point, you might well get broken fingers trying to keep it open.