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Feature Story December 12, 2003
Meeting the NatsBols
By John Dolan Browse author Email
Page 3 of 6

My first try at seeing the Smolensk Historical Museum, just down Lenin Street from the Tsentralnaya, failed because the power was out. It was warm in the lobby though, so I sat happily a while as platoons of schoolchildren trooped in behind their teachers, only to be told melodramatically, "We're in darkness!" So I got lunch at a bakery/produkty: a loaf of raisin bread, two sweet rolls and three cans of coke for 40 rubles; and walked back to the hotel. You could live very cheaply here, if you had my unhealthy fondness for bread and fizzy drinks.

Campaign posters were everywhere, most of the big expensive ones featuring United Russia's grizzly (which I swear they stole from the California state flag) and the slogan, "Persuading by deeds."

Other posters gave a better indication of what life is actually like in a provincial Russian city, particularly the ones offering to buy hair. Selling your hair is a big business in Smolensk, judging by the number of posters offering to pay "top prices" for natural hair (less for gray or dyed hair). "Top prices" means "up to 650 rubles." Again, I kept translating the prices into Moscow terms: if my hotel room cost as much as a Kitai-Gorod latte, then a Smolensk woman's hair costs as much as dinner for one, two stars. Without wine.

I ate my 40R lunch in my room, looking out the window at the snow falling on a parking lot. As I watched, a car pulled in, parked, hesitated, then pulled out to park again. A man got out, looked anxiously at his parking job, then checked the locks on the two driver's-side doors and started to walk away. He stood in the snow for a long two seconds, then went back to check the passenger-side doors as well and hit the remote on his car alarm twice, just to hear that reassuring chirp, before he walked away. Possession still seems tentative out here.

With no phone in my room, I had to find the main post office to buy a phonecard. It turned out to be in one of those vast Soviet buildings that have no usable space inside their gargantuan facades. I haven't seen such pompous and cramped designs since I stopped frequenting universities.

Then it was down to the grim business of trying to reach the NatsBols from the phone down the hall, using the 9-digit pin number of the card,plus the 11-digit number for Sergei's mobile on the phone. After a couple of hours of trooping back and forth to the phone, I finally convinced the NatsBols I was staying at the ratty old Tsentralnaya; they'd transposed me to the upscale Rossiya, where Westerners stay.

Thanks to the hotel's weird acoustics, I could hear the NatsBols coming long before they reached my room, and was surprised by the gentle sound of their voices. You always think radicals are going to be noisy, aggressive people, and they almost never are. It's the mainstream people, the buyers and sellers, who yell; the fringe is, as a rule, very polite. Limonov, their patron, is the perfect example: it would be hard to name a more polite, reserved citizen of Moscow.

When I opened the door for them, I got my second shock: I knew these people! Not them, personally -- but I knew their likes, had known them long ago in California. These sudden identifications are dangerous, facile and often misleading, especially across cultures, but I stand by this one: these were kin of the punks of San Francisco, long ago.

There were three of them: Sergei Fomchenkov, the Duma candidate and head of the Smolensk NatsBols; his wife, Taisiya Osipova; and another party member, Ilya Kondrashyov.

It was Taisiya who seemed most familiar. She was taller than her husband and wore a heavy, dark wool coat. She was almost protective of Sergei, and seemed a little older than he was. Sergei was quiet, watchful; Ilya, an excited bearded fellow, was the most effusive, often finishing the other two's sentences for them.

And of course we were all very awkward. I wonder how much social awkwardness has to do with extreme aesthetics and ideology, actually. They do seem to go together, in my experience. I remember confessing to another punk vet -- who looked, now that I remember, a lot like Taisiya--that I'd gone to those shows at Temple Beautiful alone, and come home alone, for all my wild thrashing up in front. She said, "So did I. We all did." Ineligible romantics, in a very unromantic culture, a cool culture.

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