Thursday, July 21, 2005

Unaffordable Luxury

In Bolshoy Gorod, Masha Gessen writes about the journey she made with Garry Kasparov to the south of Russia, and describes the problems involved in attempting to make Russian realities comprehensible to those who have never set foot in the real Russia, which begins beyond the main cities of St Petersburg and Moscow:
"Well, you have to understand what happens when you travel outside Moscow." I was utterly ashamed about the series of banalities I had said over the phone to the editor of New York Times Magazine. "Russia is a very big country"; "Moscow is not Russia." And the most betraying phrase of all, the one each of my sentences began with: "Well, you have to understand."

The editor was trying to understand. She remembered the word stability and asked: "Is the opposition really smothered right at birth? And everywhere? And on orders from Moscow?" I replied that stability is really a necessary minimum when you're thankful that nothing's falling apart. And that the further away you go from Moscow, the more fragile that balance is. In conditions like these, an opposition is an unaffordable luxury. And you don't need any special orders from Moscow to understand that. The editor grew dismayed and, it appeared, began doubting the veracity of the story I had just told her.

And the story of my five-day trip with former chess champion and current opposition politician Garry Kasparov in the North Caucasus and in southern Russia was incredible indeed. I joined him on assignment from the New York Times Magazine, but no one anticipated the scoop that I was about to get. In five days, Kasparov managed to get himself turned away from 10 places. When he went to the Kizlyar refugee camp, he was warned off in the traditional manner: "We cannot guarantee security." When he planned to attend an awards ceremony at a children's chess tournament, the head of the Dagestan Chess Federation was threatened with losing his job. In an armored conference hall in Beslan, someone suddenly started showing the cartoon Madagascar. Outside, someone sprayed ketchup on us. In Vladikavkaz, they didn't let us in on the pretext of a fallen curtain (we can imagine that it was an iron one), while outside a local community center children gathered for a drawing contest accompanied by outrageously loud and endless "Chunga-Changa." In Stavropol they shut down the airport because they reportedly found rocks on the runway. In that city, every institution - from the community center to the city hotel, as if on cue - declared that their electricity had been cut off. Even though in the hotel, televisions, refrigerators, and air conditioners seemed to work just fine. They didn't let us land at the Rostov and Taganrog airports either - this time without any explanation. We had to rent taxi vans to get from Stavropol to Rostov. A young man at a Rostov public library noted that he had never seen a politician riding in a taxi van before. Meanwhile, in the library itself, a water pipe was said to have ruptured.. In each of the regions, Kasparov was always pursued by a couple of cars - we counted 10 in Stavropol alone.

At the end of the last day of our trip they finally let our airplane land in Rostov - so that Kasparov and Co. could hurry off back to Moscow. "Can you believe that only five days and four nights have passed since we left Moscow?" Kasparov asked. "It feels like a month and a half." Most importantly, it was hard to believe that five days ago we were an excited group from Moscow, content, smug, traveling in a chartered plane (by the way, the VIP room in Stavropol we reserved in advance was suddenly closed on the day of our arrival for "failure to conform to regulation"). Now we presented a pathetic picture: exhausted, dressed in clothes ruined by eggs and ketchup.

That is a separate story. When the heavy hand of a bodyguard bent my head down, I only heard shouts and felt something sticky on my face. It was cold, so I decided it wasn't blood. And I couldn't see anything - the stickiness was not transparent. When I touched my head, I felt broken egg shells. I rubbed my eyes. Kasparov was standing next to me. Usually, he rarely loses self control, but his face was twisted. On his face was a sticky, shiny liquid: he had been hit with two eggs. It was certain that the egg that hit me had been directed at me.

This is what we "have to understand:" we traveled from Moscow into Russia. It's not very stable there, beyond Moscow. The balance there is so fragile that if an opposition leader opens his mouth, everything crumbles.

After a couple of hours, I tried to wash off the remains of the raw egg that had dried in my hair along with the eggshells. It was in the Vladikavkaz hotel, a nice place, recently renovated. There's nice furniture and a new TV set. Rare drops of warm water fell from the faucet. It wasn't that there was no one we could complain to, it was that there was nothing to complain about: this is what is considered to be prosperity in the provinces, this is stability. In reality, this is the necessary minimum, the water is almost hot, so that you can wash every morning before work. In these conditions, getting eggs in your hair is an unaffordable luxury.

See also: Hiding Behind Children
The Fathers of Beslan and the Silver Mercedes Jeep

No comments: