Saturday, May 28, 2011

Reporting from Moscow: A Get-Down With Black Russians

Last night, I spent the night in my brother’s office-slash-guestroom in Clearwater, Florida.  I arrived at his home close to midnight, found the key where it was hidden, and let myself in.  Everyone was already fast asleep, and soon I was too, after almost 24-hours of continuous travel homeward.

The last time I slept in this room, I lay in bed, crying.  It was December 8; the night before I was to begin my long journey abroad.  I felt exhausted from wrapping up affairs at home, handling logistics, and saying my goodbyes.  And I was afraid.  The road ahead—which was to begin in Russia—had me feeling scared.  Really, really scared.

My sister-in-law entered the room and tried to soothe me.  But I was a bigger-than-usual mess, and the tears kept flowing.  She called for backup, and soon my brother joined us.  Together they told me that I didn’t have to go; that I could change my plans; that I could delay my flight until I felt more ready.

I had a million reasons why I couldn’t take their suggestions.  I had already quit my job, given up my apartment, put all my things in storage, and so on.  But, perhaps more important in my mind, I had already announced—bragged, even—that I was leaving; that I was going to write a book; that I was taking a big adventure.  The exit, planned over months, was meant to be grand:  I would board a plane on my 40th birthday bound for Russia.  How could I not follow through now?  What would people think?

“It doesn’t matter what people think,” my brother said, imparting his usual, older-brother wisdom.  “You have to do what’s right for you.”  My sister-in-law agreed, but also understood my dilemma.  “You could stay here and write your book,” she offered in suggestion.  “We can just call the office Moscow.”  I laughed at the thought of pretending to everyone that I was in Moscow, when really I was holed up in my brother’s guestroom.  In the end, my heart appreciated knowing I could stay, but it also knew:  I had to be on that plane the next day.

Looking back over the past months, I now know all the things I would have missed had I let fear throw a wrench in my plans.  I know I would have missed one of my favorite experiences of all time on this trip, and that is, my night getting down with Black Russians at a mad-crazy holiday party.  Here’s how I got the invite.

One evening, I sat on an adjacent beanbag in the common room of my St. Petersburg hostel with my host, Irina.  Russian television was on, and we started chatting over the commercials.  Irina told me that she is Caucasian, meaning, she is from the Caucuses; northern Ossetia, to be more precise. 

“I’m Caucasian, too,” I said. 

“What do you mean?” she asked, curiously. 

“That’s what we call white people,” I explained.   “Like, our race is Caucasian.  So, if a white guy is suspected of committing a crime, the cops will say, for example, that they’re looking for a Caucasian male, 35-years old, wearing a blue sweatshirt, or something like that.  Caucasian means the person is white.”

“Actually, Caucasians here are considered black,” Irina said. 

Now, it was my turn to question.  “What do you mean?” I asked, looking at her light-colored skin.

Irina then explained something I didn’t know.  Apparently, in Russia, certain groups of people who are ethnically different—particularly people of the Caucuses, including Ossetians, Chechens, and others—are referred to as “blacks,” perhaps due to their darker features.  They face discrimination and social exclusion by ethnic Russians.  In fact, just days before, race riots had erupted near the Kremlin Walls after a football-related brawl that left one Russian dead.  The trouble had spread to St. Petersburg.

I listened to Irina intently and with great interest.  I knew a little bit about some trouble between Russia and other regions, like Georgia, Abkhazia, and South Ossetia, but I didn’t know anything about discrimination against so-called black Russians.  I told Irina that, from my perspective, I couldn’t really spot the difference between the ethnic Russians and so-called black Russians, either.   

A couple days later, Irina and I sat together in the kitchen, having a snack.  She looked at me and said, “I would like you to be my guest at a party I’m hosting on Thursday.  You could come hang out with black people and see what they’re like.” 

Intrigued, I asked, “what kind of party?”  Irina then told me that she is a teacher of traditional Ossetian dance, and this was a very special holiday party for her students; approximately twenty-five in all, all Caucasian.  There would be a banquet with special food from the region.  “And we will have our special dancing,” she told me.  “Kind of like how you have hip-hop in America.”

I was worried about the absence of party clothes in my backpack, and expressed this concern to Irina.  She assured me whatever I wore would be fine.  “We just want you to come,” she said.  “Do you think you’d be interested?” 

I told her, in a manner of speaking, that I was totally down with it.

Thursday night rolled around, and Irina, her mother, Alla, and I met at the hostel.  We drove to a restaurant reserved just for the party somewhere near St. Petersburg’s city center.  Irina was wearing a beautiful maroon-colored dress that I had watched Alla knit and sew throughout the week. 

We entered the restaurant and I saw huge spreads of food and wine covering each table.  The girls were beautifully dressed in fancy party dresses.  There were also lots of young, handsome men, smartly dressed, hanging in cliques and tossing back vodka shots.

Being an outsider, and the only white-Caucasian in the room, naturally I was feeling stand-out and nervous. I noticed some sidelong glances, and quick looks, and even a couple stares.  It felt like all eyes were on the American stranger in black jeans.  And worse:  the chill in the air seemed to have followed us inside.

Soon I realized that the students were not just watching; they were also waiting:  waiting for their chance to talk to the American guest-of-honor.  It wasn’t long before the ice broke and I had a steady stream of people and introductions and handshakes and questions.  Many expressed genuine excitement to be meeting and talking with an American, and from Los Angeles!  We talked, and laughed and feasted on scrumptious, authentic Ossetian dishes, including some kind of cheese and meat pies that I still wake up thinking about.

Several formal toasts were offered, and soon the Ossetian dancing commenced.  It was fascinating to see this young, hip generation carrying on the old traditions of their forbears.  Some time—and lots of vodka later—the music turned more to rock and hip hop.  My new friends pulled me onto the dance floor, and that’s how I came to get down with bunch of so-called black Russians at an awesome Ossetian dance party in St. Petersburg, Russia.

As the evening wound down, I sat with a group of young men and women who knew English pretty well.  They asked me what I knew about Russia.  “Whatever I learned in Rocky IV,” I said, joking.  They knew Rocky IV, and one of them laughed and said, “we know Rocky Balboa!”  I wondered aloud whether they knew that Dolf Lungren isn’t actually Russian, something I had just recently learned.  They responded in unison:  “He’s Swedish.”

On a more serious note, one girl asked if discrimination against blacks in America had gotten better since Barack Obama was elected president.  Everyone turned to look at me, waiting for my answer.  These kids knew what it was like to be black and discriminated against.  Now they wanted to know what things were like for their comrades in America.

It was a tough question, I thought, and one to which I really didn’t have an answer.  But, judging from the eager looks on their faces, I knew I needed to offer something. 

“When I was your age,” I began, looking around at kids twenty years my junior, “it didn’t even seem possible that a black guy could be President of the United States.  And today--there’s one sitting in the White House.  So, obviously, things can change.”  They smiled, and seemed both satisfied and encouraged.  Perhaps there was hope for them.

In the days leading up to our dance party, many people were seriously injured, and some killed, in race riots between ethnic Russians and the so-called black Caucasians.   In a rally in Moscow’s Manezh Square the previous week, people were heard to be shouting “Russia for Russians!” and “f@#k the Caucasus!”  I was thinking of the current troubles as we said our goodbyes with warm embraces and kisses and well-wishings for the future. I hoped, as we parted ways, that change would someday find its way to Russia. 

The next day I woke up thinking about the party, which was without question one of the most interesting nights I had spent in all my travels.  It was then that it dawned on me.  If I hadn’t gotten on that plane, I would have totally missed the once-in-a-lifetime get-down with a bunch of sweet, young Caucasians.  And that would have been a shame.