Monday, May 28, 2007

REWIND: "My shoes are filled with Volga mud ... "

(Originally written in 1999, and published here on Dec. 4, 2005. It came to mind as I've been reading articles about the remaking of Moscow)

I knew we were in trouble when I saw the weather-beaten boat that had been hired by Allan Gamborg to take us out into the expanse of water that he swore was a river, but looked to me like a vast inland ocean.

A handful of pasty white male natives in flowery swimming trunks eyed us with curiosity from behind reeking cigarette stubs. There was an odor of gasoline in the air … or was it vodka?

It had taken more than three hours just to reach the village. We began the day in central Moscow on the inner ring road, with Allan pointing the car north through seemingly limitless, shabby cement towers, until at some point approaching sheer urban claustrophobia, we reached the open countryside.

A couple of reform-proof collective farms were bisected, and we probably passed through a time zone or two before arriving eventually at the Russian equivalent of Kentucky’s Land Between the Lakes, a big piece of land wedged between the confluence of three rivers, terrain dotted with venerable rural homes made of peeling painted wood, weekend houses (dachas) of the high-rolling city folk, and numerous indications that the short-term visitor would be utterly removed from the fast pace of urban life.

Allan’s dacha, a nicely built house of recent vintage, was being tended in his absence by a neighbor. Among her advance instructions were to garner and prepare food in anticipation of the arrival of the vacationing foreigners: The two oversized Americans (myself and Barrie Ottersbach), as well as Allan’s fellow Dane, the ever-energetic Kim Wiesener.

Scouting opportunities for profit, a stereotypically scarfed, elderly woman met us at the rickety gate of the compound, displaying a rather large and odiferous fish that she excitedly explained might well be the highlight of our visit to all of Russia. Allan bought it for mere kopecks, and with only slight trepidation it was slated for the outdoor grilling of meat and vegetables set to follow the boat trip to Sand Island.

Settling into our evening accommodations, we secured the perimeter of the kitchen against horse flies and bees, then examined the afternoon’s provisions. Bottles of expensive imported Budvar beer (each costing the equivalent of 50 cents, American), peppercorn-encrusted salami (already road gnawed), hunks of regional cheese and crusty bread were thrown into a bag. I slammed a clip into my camera and reached for Bulgakov’s "The Master and Margarita," some sunscreen and a vial of insect repellant.

The four of us strolled down a gentle slope to the marina, which proved to be a rectangular patch of murky river water enclosed by a roughly reinforced concrete wall, all gray and rust, perhaps a suitable home for pocket submarines during the late, lamented Cold War. It isn’t known whether our small boat was named the Minnow, but its tiny, coughing outboard motor sputtered like a leftover Trabant. The grizzled captain welcomed us aboard, his metal teeth shining, and our Volga cruise began.

The motor died more than once, but the captain expertly revived it when necessary, and the boat was steered into the middle of a huge open lake -- an impoundment, to be sure; even Russians don’t make rivers that big. It was a brilliant, sunny summer’s day with enough wind to create choppy waves that our small craft struggled valiantly to conquer. After twenty-five minutes, we slowed and began chugging toward a long, low island carpeted with pine trees.

When we closed to within a hundred yards, I noticed something peculiar about the shoreline ahead: There was no dock jutting out from it. In fact, there appeared to be no structure of any kind of the sort that would calm the nerves of an inveterate non-swimmer. Actually, being neither a swimmer nor a naturalist of any remote sort, I asked Allan: "Uh, well, exactly where’s the dock?"

"There is no dock," he said cheerfully.

We’d have to wade in like so many Douglas MacArthurs, except we’d be bearing beers and sausages, not guns, and we’d be wading right back out whenever Captain Ahabski returned for us – assuming, of course, that his long-suffering outboard didn’t go the way of Dzerzhinsky’s toppled statue in front of the Lubyanka prison back in Moscow.

It was later that Allan made the offhand comment that proved to be the mantra of the trip: "My shoes are filled with Volga mud." I could accept that, just so long as my lungs weren’t filled with Volga water. In the meantime, I held my Budvar close to my heart and stuck a naked toe over the side.

The Future Is the Past?

From the beginning of the trip, it seemed a strange sensation to be finally returning to a land that had captivated me so intensely earlier in my life.

In particular, it seemed quite wrong to be entering Russia by plane. Before, back in the dark ages of the 1980’s, I’d arrived after long journeys by bus or train, the latter taking me eastward through ever more mysterious and primitive circles of east central Europe. Being able to effortlessly glide into an airport in the belly of a Swissair jet seemed corrupt and decadent by comparison.

Sprawling, brooding Moscow remains the imperial capital of Communism, at least in physical appearance. Seventy years of urban methodology has been loosely draped with the familiar veneer of the capitalist west’s victory in the long running Cold War saga. Garish neons, intrusive billboards, cellular phones, even the occasional coat of paint -- all conspire to trick the unthinking visitor into believing that Moscow has become somehow Western.

Don’t believe it.

Perhaps it will never be possible for me to fathom Moscow with the precise clarity of an objective, unbiased eye. I first visited the Soviet Union when I was young and impressionable, during a time of geopolitical ubiquity, when hardly a press conference passed without Ronald Reagan making one reference or another to the evil empire centered in a city neither Napoleon nor Hitler could capture and hold.

In 1987, people queued around the block to glance for fleeting, rushed seconds at the mummified remains of Lenin, the founder’s fist clenched beneath the eerie glass. Exiting Lenin’s mausoleum in the shadow of the massive red brick Kremlin Wall, the pilgrim walked past idealized busts and burial places of the Soviet Union’s friends and luminaries ("there … that’s John Reed’s slot … "), then spilled out onto Red Square and girded for the inevitable bargaining for jeans and shirts and shoes.

Perhaps the hushed conversation was taken off the crowded street and into a dirt-cheap and dirty stand-up eatery, with the deal being sealed later over a shared bottle of vodka while seated on a park bench, watching the dignified old folks shuffle past, the ones who worked so hard for so little building the nation, their grandchildren circling them like tiny ice cream smeared Sputniks.

In 1999, with the long and fevered century coming to a close, my days in Moscow were spent thinking and drinking, a bit part from a Dostoevsky screenplay, flashing backward and forward from the eighties to the present, haunted by the past, confused by the present, but glad that it no longer was necessary to buy beer from the trunk of a cabdriver’s car or the hard currency shop.

Contemporary capitalism was user-friendly: Merely find the nearest kiosk, spend the ruble equivalent of $5.00, and walk away with more bottles of beer than could be comfortably carried.

Our Friends Share Their Knowledge.

In 1999, both Allan and Kim were living and working in Moscow, where they had first met in the 1980’s while studying at Moscow State University. Better hosts could not be imagined.

Barrie and I were taken for a tour of the KGB museum. We were hustled to the affluent northwestern outskirts for a meal in a theme restaurant where servers in peasant blouses ladled out ridiculously overpriced game dishes to mafia bosses, who were seated astride an artificial, babbling brook.

We viewed thousands of bootleg compact discs that were being hawked at the huge weekend open-air music mart somewhere west of the center, bought a few, and enjoyed the marvelous Kvass (a lightly fermented, carbonated beverage made from bread and malt) being dispensed from one of the old streetside tanks.

We visited a brewpub that could be reached only after passing through a metal detector, where the beer was mediocre, but the selection of pro-am prostitutes was diverse and entertaining, providing us with many new ideas for marketing like-sized American brewing establishments.

We walked along the Moscow River, viewed the city from the Lenin Hills, found the Patriarch’s Ponds, seemingly straight from Bulgakov’s novel, and drank good draft beer on a hot summer’s night while seated on a cement wall at the foot of Kim’s apartment complex, laughing heartily about the proximity of public toilets – out that way, behind the untrimmed shrubbery, where the light bulbs all had been broken.

Still, the excursion into the Russian countryside was the best part of the itinerary.

Beer Hunters Lurking.

I awoke groggy and disoriented. We had retreated indoors quite early the previous evening, aiming to avoid mosquitoes of Biblical proportions, and sat inside talking and drinking Baltika Porter from St. Petersburg in the odd glow of a never quite black summer’s night.

Allan’s local helper had been commissioned to prepare fish soup for a midday meal to be consumed just prior to making the drive back to Moscow, and this left us with several hours to explore. Allan proposed a drive to a nearby town.

Armed with bootlegged Jackson Browne and Bad Company CD’s that had been procured for next to nothing at the thriving music market back in Moscow, we set out for the trek to Kolyazin, a dusty and isolated provincial town that has the eternal good fortune to be dusty and isolated less than four hours away from Moscow – this being “good” because a brief look at any reputable map of Russia will reveal there to be hundreds of Kolyazins, most of them located in places that are so lost in the middle of nowhere that they might as well be on another planet.

The open road led through another unreconstructed Soviet-era plantation, then into the "city" limits. A right turn, a rutted dirt street sloping downhill, cracked and peeling pre-revolutionary houses … and at the bottom the street abruptly stopped at the water’s lazy edge. Ahead of us, one hundred yards from dry land, completely surrounded by water, was the steeple of an Orthodox church, which had been converted into an island by the river’s impoundment some years before, no doubt pleasing numerous atheistic bureaucrats at the time of construction.

Kolyazin’s bleak main square still was being overseen by V. I. Lenin, his statue no more weed-encrusted and neglected than the remainder of town. The market showed a few more signs of life. Accompanied by children who had sold their services as "protection" for a few cents – they were supposed to be guarding the car, but kept wandering off to invest their newfound wealth in ice cream cones -- Barrie and I bought a few bottles of beer and surveyed the trinkets.

Allan had determined that beer was available in one or all of three places: The market itself, a nightclub, and on draft in a genuine tavern, which was rare in the countryside. The market had bottles of Baltika (a good sign), and the nightclub was closed (also good, judging from the appearance). The tavern was located in a relatively new addition to an older building and appeared positively upscale compared to the surroundings, but once inside, the ambience was late Spartan: A few wooden tables, plastic chairs, and a window to order and collect the beers.

A young, engaging woman served us from behind the counter, noting to the ever-solicitous Allan that the beer was brewed locally and giving him vague directions to the site. As he relayed this information, I saw Barrie’s eyes following something at the base of the wall. It was an adapted garden hose, now serving as the line carrying the beer from the cellar to the tap. Nonetheless, it wasn’t bad golden lager, a bit yeasty and perhaps on the green side, but fresh tasting and refreshing. We resolved to find the brewery.

Back on the main highway in the outskirts of Kolyazin, we followed the barmaid’s ambiguous directions. Eventually Allan pulled over to the shoulder to ask a pair of slack-jawed pedestrians if they knew the location of the brewery, and in opportunistic fashion, they offered us this critical information in exchange for a small fee: A ride.

Moments later the car came to rest in front of what appeared to be a collective farm storage building, more gray concrete with rusty port wine stains down the sides, and no discernable activity on the premises. Our sweaty passengers swore to the authenticity of the site, and suggested that we ask for the proprietor in a cluster of houses at the end of a muddy lane that was sufficiently booby-trapped with potholes that Allan correctly feared for the life of the car. It was midday, and there were few signs of people to ask directions, so we elected to abandon the brewery chase.

Allan drove back down the dirt road to the highway, and as we pulled out I happened to see a hand-lettered, cardboard sign with an arrow pointing to the left and a single word in Russian, one announcing the site of the Grail: Pivo.

That’s “beer” in the Russian tongue.

It was a roadside beer stand, the mysterious local brewery’s de facto open-air tap room, nestled under the welcomed shade of trees in a farmyard littered with puddles, chicken droppings and fish bones, where a lady poured beer from a rigged faucet attached to a single keg, minus the needless expense of extras like refrigeration or television advertising.

At her disposal were six mugs, a basin of well water for rinsing them, and a bowl of rubles for making change. A half-liter of draft beer cost 25 cents, and the origin of the bones was revealed when I offered her a 20-ruble banknote for two beers, and in lieu of coins, she offered two small, leathery smoked fish in return.

Barrie and I chewed on the pungent freshwater fish jerky as Allan conversed with the proprietor, learning that the building we had found indeed was the brewery, that is was operated by a Moscow man who’d moved to the countryside, and that the business was growing.

The beer itself was the same fresh, golden, unfiltered lager that we’d sampled back in the Kolyazin pub. How good was it? I feel that it would be wise to subordinate any critique to the uniqueness of the setting, in this case sitting on a wooden bench, washing away the dust and midday heat with a cool (not cold) beer, and watching two hilariously drunk local farm workers in action.

Their extended liquid lunch break apparently having come to an end, along with the bulk of their money, the two staggered to their feet. One of them pressed coins into the hand of an old man seated nearby, who nodded and disappeared around the corner. Within minutes the old man reappeared, bearing a washtub filled with water, which he proceeded to dump over the heads of the delighted drunks. Soon their ancient Lada sputtered out onto the highway, and when we also left soon after, we were careful to drive the opposite direction.

Mother Russia & Sand Island.

The boat drifted toward shore, the engine was cut, and we were as close as we were going to get to Sand Island. If I intended to make the picnic and enjoy my salami and Budvar, I’d have to get my feet wet. To the surprise of none, Barrie had no doubts: "I’m going in," he announced, and commenced swaggering through the knee-deep water.

As so often before, I was quite happy to let Barrie do the blocking, and after my initial hesitation, I found the layers of black mud and decomposing leaves to be reassuringly soft between my toes.

Clambering up the wooded hillside, we established camp in a sandy clearing and watched through the gently swaying branches as the boat disappeared over the horizon. It was as peaceful an idyll as I’d ever known. The salami was greasy, the Budvar beer outstanding, the company of my good friends valued, and the mud – the timeless Volga mud clinging to my feet – unexpectedly reassuring.

Photos by Allan Gamborg, except for the Kremlin wall, which was borrowed from the Lenin Mausoleum website. Here we are (l to r): Roger, Kim, Barrie and Allan.

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