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Feature Story December 12, 2003
Meeting the NatsBols
By John Dolan Browse author Email
Page 4 of 6
Maybe all erudite extremists are shy romantics with murder in their hearts. The only time I've seen the conjunction dramatized correctly is in the French film Queen Margot, when the weak King finally agrees to the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre his Medici kin are demanding -- but insists that they kill 5,000 key dissenters, not just the few dozen they'd had in mind, "So there'll be no one left to yell at me!" That is the sort of radicalism I understand. And the little room was thick with it, as we milled around shaking hands.

Embarrassed by the grime, I suggested we go to a cafe, and they agreed, puzzled. (I realized later they were expecting to hold the interview in the room.) Thus began an excruciating half-hour, as we went through the whole garderobe protocol at a bar across the street only to be blasted out by the inevitable karaoke. Finally the three of them thought of another place, and we headed there, crunching over the ice.

As we walked I asked Sergei about the beating I'd heard he got recently. Did he know who did it? Was it political? He wasn't sure who did it, he said--but added that since he had no private enemies, and wasn't involved in business, it was obviously related to his Duma campaign. As we went upstairs to a cafe, he explained with shy pride that "Smolensk has always had very fierce politics. It's a tradition. You know, some of the biggest gangsters in the country come from here."

Civic pride was one of the things that struck me about the NatsBols. It extended to the smallest things: as we waited to get our coffees, Taisiya pointed to the little metal pots the woman was pouring from. "Coffee boiled in sand," she said, and I noticed for the first time that the little pots were sitting in hot, ash-colored sand.

Before we could drink them, this cafe too closed. The lying proprietor told us the room downstairs would still be open, but when we trooped downstairs another woman told us it was all closed and shooed us into the street. The three radicals and I went quietly and stood awkwardly in the middle of the street.

This is the kind of crisis these professional journalists never mention. Where do you interview three shy revolutionaries in a closed-up provincial city? I was going crazy with worry, standing there with the snow lashing us, when Sergei suggested that we simply go to my room, as they'd expected all along. So, with many babbled apologies on my part, we headed back to the Tsentralnaya's warm, grimy corridors.

I wanted a few pictures of the three of them, so I got out the borrowed camera and posed them on one of the beds, only to discover I could not make it work. This was another of those debacles that never seem to happen to George Orwell or Connie Chung. I'd get my three interviewees posed properly, press the button -- and nothing would happen for about five seconds -- and then, as I was putting the camera down, it would flash, blinding us all in the dim light and no doubt producing a fine photo of a corner of the ceiling -- the sort of picture the Dustin Hoffman character in Rain Man would be proud to include in his portfolio.

But it paid off, because everyone got to try their hand at the camera, and it relaxed us. We actually laughed, and it was easier to talk. Sergei said he'd trained as an electrical engineer, and that his career was the source of some of the slogans I'd seen on his posters, like, "Let's black out the bureaucrats." Another slogan which used similar images of sudden darkness had actually been banned by the local militsia as too aggressive.

They were particularly proud of one poster which showed Sergei, in NBP armband, holding up a sign with Yeltsin's face in a sniper's bullseye. The caption was, "Let's take up a collection for a hit man!" Sergei said that when they carried that sign, one old lady had said eagerly, "Oh, sonny, just let me go to the bank and get some money! It's a wonderful idea!"

The local cops are not so amused. They seized 50,000 copies of the Smolensk NBP's newspaper, Na Kraiyu (On the Edge), on the grounds of "illegal agitation." They weren't particularly angry at the cops, though, reserving their hatred for the FSB and OMON. Ilya said, "Every day one of us gets arrested. The cops don't even hide the fact that they've been told to pick up an NBP activist. They even say they're sorry sometimes. The FSB just gives them the order and they have to carry it out. But they do it without violence, just because it's their job."

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