Then came the units who had nothing to do with Paddy, or Russia, or anything except the sheer joy of prancing down the middle of the street to the cheers of thousands -- the incurable parade-junkies: cheerleaders with pom-poms, a six-man Dixieland band in blue windbreakers, giant vegetables...and animals.
The animals made me so happy that I realized how much I've missed them in Moscow. This isn't much of a town for animals. So far I've seen pigeons, hooded crows, sparrows, and one rat. Oh, and on one memorable evening last October, a Bactrian camel. It was standing outside the Uzbek restaurant on Pokrovka, a bored handler holding its bridle. I was so excited I raced home, looked up "Camel" and "docile" in the bilingual dictionary, and zoomed back to ask, "Verblyud pokoren?" Unimpressed with my perfectly grammatical question, the handler nodded, and I patted the camel's soft, shaggy side.
Ever since then I've counted this noble Bactrian as one of my oldest Moscow acquiantances -- so imagine my delight at seeing it marching with its fellow animals to celebrate the genocide of the Celts! There it was, its two humps looking fuller but otherwise unchanged, trudging along with a Shetland pony, a llama and an elephant.
An elephant! It was a gorgeous sight, walking loosely inside its skin like a man who's lost a lot of weight, and blowing huge clouds of steam out its snout like a land whale. It wasn't a big elephant, but any elephant is better than no elephant at all.
And the dogs were out too: a single row of Irish terriers straining at the leash, and off to the side a lone Irish setter, dumb and hyperactive in the tradition of the breed. When I was a kid, my family, succumbing to crude ethnic nationalism, got an Irish setter. We named it Finn McCool, and spent a year trying to work with the autistic beast. After it ripped my brother's upper lip nearly off in a fit of pique, we decided that tribalism had its limits, dumped the setter at the pound, and stuck to Great Danes.
But even the setter seemed beautiful on Novy Arbat, so starved am I for animals.
As each contingent passed, I got more nervous, wondering when the real tricolour -- the Irish one -- would make its tragic appearance. The Irish flag is bitter grief in graphic forrm, a testament to unrequited love: the green of the Nation stitched together with the white of Peace and the Orange of Unionism -- graphic proof that the Green loves the Orange. But the Orange hates the Green. Which is why wearing that tricolour in some Loyal neighborhoods of Belfast, Glasgow and London can get you beaten to death with a half brick.
As for the third colour, the white -- well, it doesn't do anything at all. The white stands for Bono, Geldof, that whiny girl in the Cranberries -- for all the smug Irish Thames readers who hate even being reminded of the ghettoes of the North. Oppression in Burma? Geldof will be on the next plane. Oppression in Derry? Forget it.
In San Francisco in the eighties, we of Irish Northern Aid marched in the St. Patrick's Day parade like the wicked witch at the princess's christening: we were there expressly to spoil everyone's day, to rain on their parade. The Irish Consul used to make a point of walking off the grandstand when we passed, to demonstrate his disapproval of those who sympathized with violence (unless committed by the SAS, UDF, UFF, UDA, or LVF).
So attuned were the actual Irish-Irish among us to flags and colour-symbolism that they spent hours discussing what we should do when the Consul left the platform. I tried telling them no one in America would even notice whether some Dublin flunkey stayed, left or stood on his hands. I said we should stick to the basics that people needed to know, the horrific facts the Empire had successfully suppressed, like this:
- Q: What was the population of Ireland in 1845?
- A: 8,900,000.
- Q: And what was the population of Ireland in 1851?
- A: 6,600,000.
2,300,000 people crushed in an artificial famine in six years. We repeated that brief, simple historical catechism to every bored, cool Californian we could buttonhole.
And where does a Californian get off claiming a share in suffering he got second-hand? Well, the only claim I have is the genetic stigmata which appeared miraculously during the parade: sunburn -- in Moscow, in mid-March, while standing in deep shade on Novy Arbat! Verily by their melanoma ye shall know them.
What I remember most now is the crowd drifting home afterward. A handsome crowd, as Russians generally are, far handsomer than any tribe of the British Isles. Kids were carrying any flag available -- even the Irish tricolour, object of this strange, almost innocent homage by a people whose holocaust has come this century -- is still in progress, in fact. The population of Ireland started rising, for the first time in 150 years, during the l990s. Russia's population is still falling, a demographic disaster which has aroused gloating, rather than compassion. It's happened before: at the height of the Irish Famine, the British Prime Minister said, "This famine is a judgment of God on a stubborn and indolent people, and we must not ameliorate it overmuch." You can hear the same smug verdict about Russia, stated much less eloquently by every Fascist dick on American talk-radio.
And yet there were the Russians -this great and more cruelly crushed people -- cheerfully giving homage to a little crushed people. Does anybody have a punchline to that? I don't.