Recently, on one of the last warm days of the years, I was sitting outside on a bench, soaking up the sunlight.
A man approached me, his eyes glassy. He was mumbling nearly incoherently and stuck out his hand to shake mine. It was immediately obvious that he was drunk.
Drunk: *mutters incoherently in Russian*
Me: Izvinitye no ya ni punimayo uchin horasha pa russki (Sorry, but I don’t really understand Russian very well)
Drunk: Pravda? Pachemu bwi in nyet? (Really? Why not?)
Me:: Patemushta eta Maldova sichas, frate (Because this is Moldova now, man)
The drunk shivered and I watched his overtaxed brain switch gears. After a moment, he began to speak in halting Romanian, asking me for money and a cigarette. I had neither and so he went on his way after a moment.
He wasn’t the first drunk to approach me since I moved here. I’d say a dozen or more men, easily recognizable by their shuffling gait and red faces, have initiated conversations with me. In one sense, they’re easily the friendliest people I’ve met here so far, although in another sense they’ve all been nothing more than unpersuasive beggars.
But that one drunk on a sunny afternoon got me to thinking. All of the beggars and pitiful old (or old-looking) men I had encountered have spoken Russian – he was just the first one who spoke enough Romanian to continue to talk to me. He was genuinely perplexed that I didn’t speak Russian, and I could tell that at first he thought I was being sarcastic. But I don’t speak Russian very well; just enough to get by in simple situations.
And that’s when it hit me for the first time, although it should’ve been blindingly obvious from the beginning. I am now living in what was the Soviet Union. I am now having conversations (albeit simple ones) in Russian. And the whole situation is immensely surreal.
Flashback to the year 1988, a time that I remember extremely well, although it doesn’t seem possible. A “hair band” named White Lion, consisting of a European lead singer and American musicians, released a “power ballad” called When the Children Cry (YouTube video).
It begins with these lyrics:
Little child, dry your crying eyes.
How can I explain the fear you feel inside?
‘Cause you were born into this evil world,
where man is killing man,
and no one knows just why.
What have we begun?
Just look what we have done.
All that we destroyed, you must build again.
When the children cry, let them know we tried.
The bench I was sitting on when the bilingual drunk approached me is next to a children’s play area. Maybe the swings nearby reminded me of that ancient music video, I don’t know. But I remember when that song was new, and I knew what that fear they were talking about meant.
It’s almost inconceivable now to think of the Soviet Union as a real thing and yet I, and every single person I had ever known, up to and including my oldest relatives, had grown up in the shadow of fear of a world war. Our propaganda masters had convinced us that we were the “good guys” while the other side had done the same thing.
But by 1988, the tide was turning. The politicians still loved the “Cold War”, just as they do today, but for millions of people around the planet, it was no longer viable. We were tired of the killing, and the tanks, and the missiles. It wasn’t making sense any longer. The mood in the air was turning towards glasnost and perestroika, a new opening, a relaxation of the hatred and the alienation.
In 1988, I met a young Russian boy named Anton, who was visiting America under the Soviet Union’s new relaxed rules. He hailed from Moscow, the very capital of the “Evil Empire”. And yet… and yet he was an ordinary kid in every way. My friends and I marveled at him, not for his accent, but precisely because of how normal he was. We took him to a movie theater and we all laughed at the same jokes.
And now here I am, all these years later, and while I haven’t quite made it to Moscow, I am inside the territorial limits of what had once been the shadowy domain of the alien, the opponent, the unknowable and mysterious enemy. I’m sitting on a bench talking a language I am just beginning to learn (Russian) to a man who is older than I am, and must remember those days of fear as well as I do.
But I never told him I was American. I figured that it would be too much cognitive dissonance. His brain was already fried by the potent stew of his addictions, and I didn’t want to add to his burden. Instead, I went home and dug through my musical archive until I found an old power ballad that had risen up through the murky depths of my memory.
The Soviet Union is gone, crumbled into dust. The wars and killing haven’t stopped but maybe, just maybe, it’s enough for one citizen to have an ordinary conversation with another citizen on a peaceful autumn afternoon and neither of us care that once upon a time we would’ve been enemies.