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Feature Story July 26, 2002
By Mark Ames Browse author Email
Page 3 of 7
And Vadim didn't let his people down. After probing my defenses, he finally found an opening, a way to get the conversation going.

"So, where are you from?"

"The States."

"Oh. Is it nice there?"

"It's paradise," I said. "I miss it horribly."


"The most beautiful women on earth. You've seen our movies?"

"Of course," he said. "Titanic is one of my favorites."

"America is like a fairy tale. The women are all thin and sweet. Money grows on trees. People will just invite you into their homes from off the street. And the best thing of all is that when you don't want to talk there, they don't talk to you."

"Really? That's interesting," Vadim said. "And I come from Moscow. Have you been to Moscow? Oh, listen to me! Of course you've been to Moscow. How else would you have boarded this train. Well, how does Moscow compare to America? Or let me ask you this: have you been to Cheboksary? It's a nice place, but of course it isn't Moscow. Moscow! I think it's as good as any capital city in Europe, don't you? Of course..."

And on and on and on...I learned that Vadim is a producer of "pop" and "boy bands like Carte Blanche." Thank you, God, for putting me in the same cabin with a boy band promoter. I know I deserved it, but I couldn't quite place the sin with the punishment. Was it because I'd given crabs once to Olga?

As Vadim talked, I lay back on my cabin bed, grabbed a novel by Andrei Volos about Russians stuck in Tadjikistan after the fall of the Soviet Union, and read. That didn't bother Vadim. He talked while I read. I didn't even offer him courtesy mumbles. I don't think he cared whether I was actually listening or not. He just wanted an ear, physically, to be there as his tree fell in the forest, falling over and over and over. Like devushki who dance in front of mirrors in discos. They don't really care if they're dancing with anyone else -- they really prefer to watch themselves -- but it's somehow more satisfying for them if someone's there while you watch yourself dance, or listen to yourself babble.

My heroes in the Volos novel were the Russians who didn't talk much. There was one character -- he'd spent years building a house on the riverbank in Haramabad before some Tadjik warlord drove up, put a gun to his head and said, "We're going to the registrar now, you're signing the house over to me." The story was all too true -- I'd seen and heard enough stories like that in Kosovo, after NATO took over. The Albanians first threw out the Serbs and slaughtered them, and later, when they had to be a bit more discreet about their ethnic cleansing, they made the remaining Serb residents offers that they couldn't refuse. Gun to the head, sign a form at the UN registrar's "legally" handing over your property, get paid a hundredth of what it's worth. The Russian, my hero, gave in to the Tadjik bandit, selling his house for a measly 200 dollars. Seething, he uses the 200 to buy a machine gun from a Russian borderguard soldier, sets it up in his house, and waits all night and through the morning for the warlord to arrive. The ending to the tale was disappointing -- it turned out that a friendly Tadjik warlord killed the evil warlord as a favor to the Russian. The Christian point being that, uh, there are good Tadjiks and bad Tadjiks. Volos was looking for the Booker Prize with that PC ending, and he got it. You have to lie to win a literary prize.

* * *

Within hours after my arrival, Ilya, my local contact, met me at my hotel and drove me to the Chuvash republic administration building to meet with Natalia Volodina, the Press Minister and "Vice Minister."

I was only able to get one question off to Volodina. Her answer to that one question took up sides A and B of my microcassette tape. I'll sum up what she told me: the reason Cheboskary is such a nice town is because of her boss, President Fyodorov. The reason people are living longer and the roads are better paved and the pay has gone from barter to cash and the newspapers aren't repressed is due to the fact that Fyodorov has served three terms as president, and should be able to serve several more.

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