Tuesday, August 25, 2009

I Still Wonder How It Ends...

Before I lived in Russia, I studied there twice. The first time was in January 1992, days after the Soviet Union voted itself out of existence. I spent a month studying Russian at Moscow State University. We were supposed to be living in the foreign-student dormitory there, but about a week before we left for Russia, we were told that they dorms had run out of food and they would find another place for us. I spent a month living in Russia at a trucker hotel miles from the university.

The second time I studied there was the first semester of my senior year in college, fall of 1992, when I studied at Krasnodar State University in Krasnodar. At that time, Krasnodar had about a half-million people. We lived in the dorms and conditions were so bad that the professor who came over with us completely overhauled our academic requirements for the semester. Originally, we were supposed to pick some topic about Krasnodar -- history, culture, politics, whatever -- and make a huge senior-project type of presentation. One of the requirements was producing a 20-minute lecture in Russian and then a 20-minute lecture in English about your topic. That worried me, but having been in Russia before, it didn't worry me as much as wondering where I was going to find posterboard and markers for my presentation.

In any case, as I said, the professor decided that conditions in Russia had deteriorated so badly at that time that our main concern was going to be the basics of finding food every day and making sure we weren't overrun by Chechen refugees who would somehow throw the whole city into a riot (in September 1991, the Chechen-Ingush autonomous government was dissolved, and in November, Yeltsin tried to send troops to Chechnya). There were weeks when basic staples were missing from the stores (the week cheese was gone was a particularly rough one), and I still have my sugar ration card.

It became very easy to think like a Russian -- to carry your bag everywhere you went just in case you found something useful, to share information if there was a sudden glut of something unexpected (friends would come back from the market with reports of a box of Snickers or extra Fanta, and we would all rush off, hoping to get some before it was all gone), or to keep some information to yourself. If opportunities came, you took them, and sorted them all out afterward.

It was in this spirit that one day I accepted the invitation from some people on the trip to go see a movie. I was friendly with these other three Americans, but didn't hang out with them often. They lived in the other dorm. But it was a weekend and most of my friends were off with their host families or studying, and I didn't have much else to do, so, having not seen a movie in Russia, accepted their fourth ticket.

I asked Amy what the movie was going to be. "I'm not sure," she said. "I don't recognize the name. It's something from, like, Roman times. Like Ben-Hur, or something."

Krasnodar has an impressive movie theater, the Avrora:

and it took a tram ride, a bus ride, and a long walk to get there, because the university was located in an awkward part of town, far from the center.

We went in. The theater was full of large groups of very young soldiers in their dress uniforms. Clearly they were on their weekend outing. There were also some couples here and there, but the vast majority of people in there were soldiers. There weren't any older couples, or families, or groups of young people, the way young people go to see movies in the U.S.

When we walked in, everyone stopped to stare at us. This was not unusual. We stood out no matter what we did. In Krasnodar, strangers lectured me for wearing shorts, because that's what children wore. (This always annoyed me -- if I wore shorts that reached my knees, that was bad; if I wore a mini-skirt that showed off my butt-cheeks, that was OK.) An old woman ticked her tongue and shook her head at me when she saw my (male) friend and I smoking on the street: "When young men smoke, it's not good, but when young women smoke, it's VERY BAD." People would lecture the young women of the group for sitting on the ground or benches without a blanket or newspaper (or, preferably, the lap of a young man) under our tender woman parts; sitting without protection would make us barren. We knew we stood out, we knew we were obvious, and walking into a packed movie theater and being stared at didn't seem like anything out of the ordinary.

It was fun to go do something semi-normal in Krasnodar, where anything you tried to do was always set about with difficulty. Our dorm rooms had no phones; there was an outside phone at the dorm entrance that only made local calls. Calling outside the city (or country) meant an almost-all-day trip to the central phone exchange, which is another blog for another day. Grocery shopping (there were no cafeterias at the university) was another all-day proposition. Anything you wanted to do was going to take more time and effort than you thought it would, and finding everyday things to do was a challenge. So to pick up and go to a movie, and find some escape, and feel semi-normal, was a real pleasure.

None of us had ever heard of the movie Caligula before, and so neither the title nor even the opening scene set off any warning bells for us. Not even the involvement of Bob Guccione made us consider what what coming.

Stunned, embarrassed, choking with hilarity and horror, alternately covering our eyes in disgust and covering our mouths to keep from screaming with laughter, we sat through about two-thirds of the film, until finally Gretchen pulled herself together and said sensibly, "We need to get out of here. We don't want to be here when this film is over."

She was right. It was evening and would be dark by the time the film finished, and with hundreds of frustrated soldiers and four American women and a big park next to the movie theater, it was not a good place to be. We got up and left, and laughed on the tram and bus all the way back to the university. That is the story of how I saw most of Caligula in Russia. I still have the ticket stub.


  1. Anonymous7:38 PM

    There are some things a mother is happier knowing long after the event--not that you went to "Caligula" but that life in general was as bad as it was.
    Would you like the DVD for Christmas?

  2. Sharikov11:24 PM

    It's a happy ending.