Last Saturday your intrepid Ace City Beat Reporter set out for the antiwar demonstration at the American Embassy, determined to get the story at all costs -- as long as it didn't involve actually talking to strangers or understanding spoken Russian.
It's not that I don't speak Russian. All I need is an hour or so between utterances to get over my hysterical deafness. Under real-time conditions I can barely understand strangers when they speak English, let alone Russian. So my Ace Reporter technique relies heavily on eavesdropping and furtive glances. Eavesdropping seemed particularly appropriate for reporting on the antiwar/anti-US demonstration, since I expected that the crowd would consist of the snarly old Sovoks you see on TV holding up red flags. If those people heard my American accent, they'd shuffle up and grind me to death with their walkers. Or yell at me, which would be worse.
Luckily Saturday was very cold, which meant that Katherine and I could bundle up in anonymous Moscow clothes: dark blue watch caps, dark blue coats-dark-blue everything. We've been lucky with our clothes. We came from the frigid Presbyterian south of New Zealand, where Calvinism conspires with year-round sleet to make dark blue and black the dominant colors. It was a relief to find that they're the colors of choice for Muscovites too, at least in the Winter. Along with the pallor we owe to Dunedin's year-round rain, the dark clothes allow us to blend so well that Muscovites ask us for directions a dozen times a day. (By the way, is it just us or do Muscovites seem not to know the city very well? Half the population seems to be lost at any given moment.)
But when we came up out of the Barrikadnaya station, it was cold. Seriously cold. We've become experts in cold over the past few months, making distinctions like a first-generation Eskimo coming up with those infamous 26 words for snow. There's the nice dry cold that you feel in your lungs; the serious feel of -30, where your fingertips freeze and your snot turns viscous; and wind-chill, which attacks the face rather than the hands.
Saturday was wind-chill cold, the kind that slaps you in the face the second you come up out of the warm, fish-oil smelling Metro (Another quick question: why do Metro stations smell like my Omega-3 capsules?) By the time we got near the Embassy our faces were frozen. If anybody hit me on the nose, it'd fall off like the Sphinx's -- another reason to avoid direct contact.
There were cops all around the embassy. The first set just looked at our papers, but ten yards on there were more of them, and meaner. I tried showing my American passport, but the cop just snarled "Vsyo ravno!"
Why does journalism have to involve so much yelling? In fact, why do other people have to exist at all?
It turned out the demonstration was on the other side of Novinskii Boulevard, which is about as wide as the Mississippi. From the Embassy side the demonstration was just a small forest of red flags. The Yankee imperialists were going to need binoculars if they wanted to see it.
We stumbled down the other side of the street, dodging cars and slush. They don't make it easy for people to demonstrate at the Embassy. Finally we reached the demo and did our best to mingle.
The Sovok oldsters were the first thing we noticed, probably because they fit the stereotype you get from TV, where they always do a close-up of a petulant old lady holding a picture of Stalin, just daring anybody to badmouth Uncle Koba.
The second thing I noticed was another TV cliche: the fact that we were right in front of a Yuppie clothing store called "Podium." It made for an easy, prefabricated, familiar irony: isn't it funny, Russian communists making their last stand outside a trendy fashion shop. But then I got annoyed with that ready-made "insight," and tried to see some real detail.