The Taiga Home Companion: Letters Home from Moscow, 1993

Introduction | 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10 | 11 | 12 | 13 | 14

Part 4: John Reed...Not!

April 2, 1993

John Reed was a young man from Harvard who went to Russia, witnessed a revolution, wrote a book that was read by hundreds of thousands, almost got shot by an illiterate Red Guard who couldn't read his press pass, died of typhus and got buried in the Kremlin Wall.

Zach Schrag was a young man from Harvard who went to Russia, couldn't even find a revolution, wrote some e-mail that was read by dozens, got through a checkpoint manned by a militiaman who couldn't read his press pass, and will come home safe and healthy, thank you very much.

John Dos Passos was a brilliant novelist whose book, "Nineteen Nineteen," contained incisive mini-biographies of John Reed and Woodrow Wilson, but mentioned the Boston Police Strike only in passing.

Zach Schrag was an unenthusiastic student whose thesis, "Nineteen Nineteen," described the Boston Police Strike ad nauseum, whose e-mail contained a mini-biography of John Reed, and who, when confronted with a charades teammate who was trying to act out "Woody Allen," guessed "Woodrow Wilson" instead.

Does this make everything clear?

What I saw of the Revolution

I've been putting off this broadcast, not because I've been held captive in some grimy cell in the Lubyanka, but because the week has been embarrassingly calm. You see, Sunday was the big day. I'm sure you all saw the photos--Communists with banners unfurled, Democrats packing Red Square, and Yeltsin rallying the faithful. Well, to make a long story short, I got a late start and missed the damn thing.

I arrived downtown, with full camera gear, around 1:30 pm, hoping to find the Communists, who, I figured, would be more interesting than the Yeltsinites. But there was no indication that anything was going on. There were lots of people, to be sure, but they were all strolling around, shopping. The only crowd I saw was a bunch of Hare Krishnas (they have Russian versions of their texts), and my search for adventure was constantly interrupted by people offering in pretty clear English to sell me postcards, fur hats, military caps, Russian dolls, and God knows what else. Red Square was blocked off by a large group of militia, as it had been all week.

I decided to head up Tverskaya (formerly Gorky Street), because I had heard a rumor that the Yeltsinites would be marching down it. Again, a lot of people, all shoppers, Big lines at Pizza Hut, McDonald's, and the new Italian candy store. I went up to the statue of Prince Whoozit, the founder of Moscow, where I had seen some Yeltsinite demonstrators on Friday. Nothin'. I sat. I was tired.

I was heading downtown on Tverskaya again, when I saw a car whizzing uptown, stopping at each traffic cop (GAI) to relay some message. Immediately afterward, the GAI guys began diverting traffic, so that Tverskaya became empty save for buses and some ominous looking trucks full of what appeared to militia. This is it, I thought. There's going to be a parade! So I waited.

And I waited. An hour passed. Nothing. I bought some index cards at a hard currency office supply store. (In Moscow, one never stops shopping, really. If you see something that you have been having trouble finding, grab it immediately, even if you're in the middle of something else.) Still nothing.

It was getting late, I was tired, so I decided to walk downtown again. When I got to the foot of Tverskaya, it was the same as before: the usual Sunday strollers. Then I happened to look to my right, and what did I see, but. . .

A whole mess of Army trucks!

Wow! Was this it? Troops in Moscow? I approached rapidly.

It turned out that I had finally found the Communists. Over the hoods of the trucks I could see the Soviet flag and the black/yellow/white banner of the fascists. But between me and them were about a hundred militiamen, in and out of buses, and they weren't letting anyone through. Their trucks had blocked off one of Moscow's major roads, just for the sake of sealing off the soreheads.

I decided to take the metro to the other side of the demonstration, to see if I could get in that way. As I exited the other metro stop, a young militiaman saw my camera bag and shouted "MOLODOY TCHELOVIK!" (Young Man!) as I went through the turnstile. Uh-oh. I showed him the camera, but he demanded "documenti." So I honest to God whipped out my Harvard Crimson photo ID, which he examined carefully before cheerfully waving me on.

I thought I had made it. But once on the street I saw that there were at least two more checkpoints between me and the action, and that they were manned by senior militia officers who looked like they were taking their job more seriously and would be more likely to read English than the guy I had gotten past. So I said to hell with it, and went home, buying some more Bulgarian wine on my way.

Now, I know I made a lot of mistakes, starting with not making a better effort to find out exactly where the demostrations would be (something that 100,000 people figured out) and ending with my giving up too easily. But what I want to get across here is that Russian demonstrations are unlike American demonstrations, in that in Russia you need "razreshennie" (permission--a very important factor in Russian life) to photograph a demonstration, just as you need it for everything. Growing up in Washington, where the Mall stretches invitingly to every and all political agitators, it didn't *occur* to me that it was possible to seal off the entire center of a capital during a demonstration. And confronted with these seas of grim-faced militia, I just didn't know what to do.

Next time I will be better prepared, if there is a next time. But for now, suffice it to say that this "constitutional crisis" is having such little effect on life in Moscow that it's difficult to get swept up in the events even if one is trying, and it is no trouble at all to not know that they are happening at all.

In the meantime, there is more to photojournalism than dodging bullets or loading film into your camera while hanging from the landing skids of a helicopter. I had four assignments for The Guardian this week, all of them brief, one-shot deals: a restaurant review, a cafe review, a happy hour review, and a pic for a feature called "Next Station," essentially a "Metro station of the week" box. No action, no tanks, not even any more topless go-go dancers. But a great way to get to know a country.

Before I started working for the Guardian, my attempts at photographing Russians were pretty unsuccessful. If you go up to a Russian on the street and ask to take his picture, he will most likely tell you no. But if you introduce yourself as a photojournalist for a magazine, you get a very different response. Not only is the answer generally (in English) "No problyem," but people suddenly WANT to have their pictures taken. And you, the photographer, become the center of attention, with people vying to get in the frame, to practice their English with you, and to find out who you are.

As I said, I shot four assignments this week, and in each of them I had the same experience. Entering a place, giving my now-practiced spiel "I am a photojournalist for the magazine <> We are writing a review of this place. Is it possible to photograph here?" Then I start taking pictures, until the whole marketplace/restaurant/cafe is full of smiling people pointing at each other and shouting "Him! No, me! No, the girl!" At which point I begin running out of film so I say, "Everybody, together!" and take a group shot, leaving everyone satisfied. And then the questions begin--Which magazine was that? When will the pictures be in? Where am I from? How much is a 1967 Kennedy half-dollar worth? At times I feel that I have dropped into some isolated village in the Third World, such is the curiosity I arouse.

The image that comes to mind throughout all of this is that my camera has become one of those engines that scuba divers use to to themselves along. I just grab onto it and suddenly I am going places. I've met, and chatted with, bartenders, musicians, American exchange students, drunkards, fruitsellers, busboys, and a guy who calls himself "Russia's second hippie," having lived the hippie lifestyle since 1969. We talk about politics--nothing very deep; the Russians mainly want to tell me how difficult things are. They ask about prices, for they know that Russia is moving toward world prices for all goods, and they want to know when they can expect the inflation to stop. They offer me things: a seat at our table, a lemon, a quick tour of the hotel. I talk to them in Russ-lish, though as my lessons proceed I am able to say more and more in Russian. In fact, this job may be the perfect complement to Russian lessons, since it requires that I go out and talk Russian with a lot of different Russians, but I don't need to be fluent or anywhere near it to be able to do my job.

Somehow, what the camera alone could not do, the camera plus a folded-up back issue of the Guardian can. They can turn the Russians, with their reputation for gruffness, into friendly, welcoming people I have met. And turn Moscow into an inviting town.

Viewer Mail

(The State Academic Russian Choir, in the name of A. V. Sreshhikov, comes on stage, sings the "Viewer Mail Theme" from Dave Letterman, and departs.)

Sorry for not having more blood and guts, thrilling adventure stories, folks. Maybe next time.

Pacifically yours,
3axap (Zakhar).

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