In December 1993, fifteen years after I left the Soviet Union, I returned to Russia for the first time. I was born and grew up in Latvia, and for me Russia had always been a foreign land, a terraincognita full of the exotic and mysterious. Since childhood I had been charmed by it and overwhelmed by its passion and force. I think I knew it very well, and pretty much as an insider, having spent long periods of my childhood in the Central Russian village of my maternal grandparents.
I had also been to Moscow countless times, but never spent enough time there to get to know the city intimately, to understand truly its temperament and rhythm. This trip was supposed to be my first serious encounter with Moscow, which I approached both as an adult and a stranger. I knew many people there and had read about the city all my life, but I had no feel for it and felt apprehensive about going there—as I might have felt about traveling to Calcutta, say, or Singapore. Nor were the people whom I was going to meet your average, everyday muscovites; rather, they were mainly representatives of the countercultural bohemian milieu: not the easiest crowd to deal with in any country of the world, least of all Russia with its perpetual dark times and social confusion.
The trip became an endless exercise in trying to be super-cool. In my real life I can be super-cool for some 20 minutes a week. That's all that life requires of me and I manage to do a pretty convincing job of it when I have to; but if you're not naturally super-cool, pretending to be for any length of time takes a very heavy toll on your nerves. Moscow took a very heavy toll on my nerves from the moment I arrived: I looked from the plane’s window into a nasty gray December Moscow morning and immediately hated it. And I kept hating it until I left.
Americans were out of favor these days with Moscow bohemians. It was not always like this, but by then they've come to see Americans as spoiled, pampered, lazy and even stupid. Things had to beexplained to Americans constantly. This was annoying to muscovites, and a waste of time.
I was better than a “real” American, since Russian is my native tongue and I grew up in Latvia. I was better because I “understood” things without additional explanations. And I understood from the very beginning, in my first chat with my hosts as we drove from the airport to the city, that the ability to understand things immediately was a necessary condition of getting accepted in Moscow. Not being able to understand instantaneously what was going on in the country in general as well as in each particular social situation, missing the meaning and nuances of what was being done and said and why, was unforgivable, utterly uncool, and led to being labeled a Dumb American. Which, of course, was the last thing you wanted to be.
I was also given to understand immediately that Moscow bohemians resented being studied by all sorts of Western scholars—which I was. They would talk to you as afriend, but not as a scholar. But becoming accepted as a friend wasn't easy—you actually had to prove that your interest in them was purely human, and God forbid scholarly. And to prove that point you had to drink lots of vodka with them. Enormous quantities of vodka.
My situation was stupid and ambiguous and false, and after a while I stopped saying that I was from the States and began introducing myself as a Latvian anthropologist, which understandably made my life a little easier.
In December 1993 I found the Moscow bohemian underground in the darkest possible mood. The depression began right after the events of October, when Boris Yeltsin’s loyalist troops shelled and stormed the White House—the Russian Parliament building in the center of Moscow. Now, the unexpected victory of nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky in the national parliamentary elections deepened the feeling of doom and gloom. At bohemian flats and artistic lofts many were talking about fascists coming to power. Some spoke quite seriously about emigrating to the West, running for their lives. Everyone seemed to feel that were Zhirinovsky to come to power and become the president, none of them would last too long.
These were serious concerns. Many were confused and scared. Some were talking about preparing themselves for descending deep into the underground, while others were talking about preparing themselves for resistance, even armed resistance. But all they could do at the moment was laugh at themselves, at Zhirinovsky, and at the democrats who had failed so miserably in the elections. Not that any of this was really funny, but it did capture the essential quality of Russian humor today: It's brilliant, sharp, witty, and biting, but also deeply dark and tragic—anything but funny. It's nuthouse humor— graveyard humor. You read it in newspapers and hear it in rock ’n’ roll songs. It's ubiquitous and still is a major part of today’s Russian discourse among passers by in the street, babushkason market squares, and bohemians at parties. In December 1993 the perception was that these were the last days, because history has ended and there was only an abyss ahead, and everyone knew it.
Saturday night Khlap met me at the exit from the Tsvetochnyi riad Metro station. We were planning to go to Petliura’s—a famous artistic squatter community living in abandoned buildings in the center of Moscow. I had read about this Petliura in The New York Times Magazine and was very interested in seeing his compound. Khlap said that tonight there would be some sort of performance. He didn't know what kind, as he had never been to Petliura's before.
Khlap was my closest Moscow friend and sort of a host, and also the lead-guitarist of a rock band called GAZA, whom I had met during their nine-month stay in Ann Arbor, Michigan while I was in graduate school. He's a talented poet and composer, more the former than the latter, but at the time he was exploring a new career as a publisher and had given up his music. He was also in the darkest possible mood, owing to having been kicked out of his house by his former wife. Now he was leading a new life as patriarch of a small countercultural commune consisting of him, his new wife, Natasha, her former husband Pasha (a punk), and a terrible junkie chick they had picked up on the street—along with a huge old dirty dog and a young artist named Tolik, who was a nice fellow but had an enormous black eye. Khlap, Natasha and Pasha the punk were running their publishing house from the kitchen of their slumlike, central Moscow apartment. Starting a communal family at 37 years of age is a feat not too many are capable of, and Khlap was depressed over this, too. Some of his friends viewed this new beginning in his life as the utmost folly, but Khlap himself saw in it an act of antiestablishment heroism, though it was hard to tell in today's Moscow who, exactly, constituted the “establishment.”
If anything was certain, it was that this nebulous “establishment” was the one thing the bohemian underground unanimously despised and tirelessly tried to scandalize, even if everyone had a different target in mind. Some hated the new rich, some hated the official press, some hated the Yeltsin democrats for their arrogance and incompetence, and still others hated foreigners for being rich, materialistic, and giving Russians bad economic advice.
We reached our destination and walked into a large courtyard, in the middle of which stood a huge structure —a frame covered with transparent plastic in the shape of the Tower of Babel, connected with the building by a flimsy wooden bridge. From one corner of the large building surrounding the courtyard we could hear the powerful thumping of a drum, and Khlap used it to lead us to a door. We had no idea what sort of performance we were about to see, and the lonely sound of the drum sounded utterly out of place in snow-covered Moscow. But in accordance with the rules I wasn't supposed to act surprised, and I didn't. We entered a cold and empty foyer and, from there, followed the drum into a half dark room where the performance was apparently taking place.
There were just five people in the room. Three of them sat on the bench in the middle and looked into the corner where the drum beating was taking place. In the corner I saw two people sitting on wooden boxes—a man and a woman wearing heavy winter coats. Between them on another box stood a dark wine bottle. Next to them on the floor stood an old reel-to-reel tape recorder playing a melancholy tune. Both of them held large, flat drums in their laps, similar to the ones American Indians or the Eskimo peoples in Russia’s far north use for ceremonial purposes, and they beat these drums mercilessly, while their faces remained utterly expressionless.
When we entered the room one of the people sitting on the bench got up and silently poured dark wine from a large plastic canister into plastic cups and handed them to us. The guy had a long, drooping Slavophile moustache, was disheveled, and looked tipsy. We understood the wine thing as a sign of welcome, took our coats off, put them on the floor by the wall and sat down on the floor. There were pictures hanging on the walls of the room, all of them containing the same elements: Shining antique surgical instruments —tweezers, forceps, clamps, knives etc.—layed out on black velvet, framed, and covered with glass. The one next to me, containing especially menacing surgical and dental instruments, had a phrase written on its frame in golden letters: “Make a human out of yourself.”
We sat on the floor for a while listening to the drumming, which would go on for a while, then cease to a silent pause, then start fiercely again, while the drummers' postures and faces would stay unchanged and totally detached from their activity. Suddenly I was hit with a realization that seemed striking to me at the time: “This is conceptualism in action!” something the creative Moscow underground is famous for. Conceptualism was developing right in front of me in the corner of the room: The drummers stopped beating their drums, passed a bottle of wine around and took swigs, and then resumed. The thumping was monotonous and lonely and not particularly rhythmical, quite unlike anything I'd heard before. The tape recorder kept on playing and I finally recognized the music on the tape: It was playing guitar songs by Bulat Okudzhava, the first Russian singer/songwriter and an ancient symbol of underground Moscow. Usually I absolutely loath his rattly, goatlike, melancholy crooning, but contrasting with the insistent and haunting sound of the drums it sounded somehow appropriate, and I made a mental note that in this underground-Moscow context Okudzhava didn't sound as offensive as I'd remembered.
Though I was sober, I felt I was being swept away by the whole Moscow milieu into which I'd suddenly been plunged. It was a feeling of euphoria, of being overwhelmed by the strangeness of the show, the intensity (however pretentious) of their behavior, and their stonecold, unshatterable cool. I thought: Yes, Russia is intense; it's no surprise sentimental Westerners like me go mad about it. I looked at the two beating drums and the pale faces, especially the woman’s. It was almost translucent in the dark, narrow, very clear, and delicate. She was not beautiful in the usual sense, but there was that devilish glimmer of life in her eyes, a glimmer that was supposed to drive men crazy, and I felt I knew her type and her story instantly. She was one of these crazy Russian girls who have “trouble” written all over them, the ones who constantly run away from home, change husbands, give life to children they love but have no time for, their lives an irreparable, painful mess. They are awful mothers and nightmare lovers, but they are great friends, with bleeding hearts and an overblown sense of justice. They are like witches with superior powers of enchantment; men follow them into an abyss as if following the call of the Pied Piper. As the evening drew on, my moment of intuition was proven very close to the mark.
When they finished beating their drums the two got up and thanked the audience for participating in “the action," as they called the performance. Now we introduced ourselves to the people in the room. Khlap’s name was familiar to them, though they had never met him before. When Khlap introduced me as an American scholar of Russian rock music, our new acquaintances looked surprisingly, genuinely interested and ready to talk. The male drummer, Sasha, and the woman, whose name was Ania, turned out to be husband and wife. As it was Ania’s birthday, they invited us to their place to celebrate; but since we had half an hour to spare we went first to see the famous Petliura.
Petliura’s squatter commune of artists occupied a four-story brick building. It used to be just an empty shell of a building and the occupants themselves had renovated it, turning an apparent derelict into a glamorous bohemian compound full of shabby and sleazy radical chic. It reminded me very much similar communal artists' living quarters and performance halls I'd seen in Ann Arbor, New York's East Village, and in Washington, D.C. The similarity was still stronger inside: walls painted black, or covered with colorful surreal murals, exposed beams, running lights. One room of the first floor looked like a bar, where fat girls in black lace dresses and black lipstick were serving drinks to hip-looking patrons. More drum thumping blasted from the speakers. Another room looked like a “previously owned” clothing store. Its walls were lined with hundreds of hangers holding vintage and antique dresses and suits. Rows of men's and women's antique shoes lined up on the floor.
In the foyer under the sign “smoking area” stood a garden bench on which sat a lonely man dressed in “Banana Republic” khakis. Khlap came up to him and demanded to see Petliura so we could interview him. The man answered in Russian with a powerful English accent—he was an American, as it turned out, and said he was waiting for a taxi to arrive with his wife and daughter, whom he wanted to show this remarkable place. Switching into English I asked what was he doing there and if he was a journalist or a scholar of sorts. “Oh, no, no," he said, “I'm just a businessman. Work for this American investment company.” Then the entrance door opened and from the cold entered a vision of American pre-Christmas family bliss: a tall blond woman in a mink coat and a shy teenage girl with a sweet smile and braces on her teeth. They looked as if they had come directly from a day of shopping at Bloomingdales. As the family went into the bar chirping happily, I noted that somehow they didn't seem completely out of place at Petliura's.
A fellow dressed entirely in black and with a modish haircut came up to us and Khlap demanded to see Petliura right away. “Here is an important scholar of the Russian counterculture,” he said, pointing at me. “He came here all the way from the Library of Congress in Washington.” The guy seemed pleased to hear about the Library of Congress's interest in the Russian counterculture and promised to fetch Petliura for us.A few minutes later he reappeared in the company of a tiny, fragile-looking man who looked like a junkie. His pale small face was covered with stubble, he was wearing a small fur hat, and an old, dark overcoat over his naked torso, and the outfit was completed with baggy slacks and wingtips. Though he seemed to be shivering from the cold, he retained a certain decrepit glamour and acted as if he were very much in control of the situation. Between him and the guy in black, it was clear who was the flunkey.
The newcomer introduced himself as Petliura and shook our hands, neither refusing to be interviewed nor mocking the "American scholar," as I'd supposed he might. His confidence suggested, in fact, that Petliura was actually doing okay, having reached a level of recognition uncharacteristic for a simple homeless artist. My interview confirmed this hunch. Petliura already had something of an international following and existed on a totally different level of recognition and sophistication from most of his Moscow peers. In fact, I had the impression that no matter what happened to his commune in the future, Petliura would come out all right.
I was curious about his unusual name, which is actually the name of a Ukrainian nationalist leader from the time of the Russian civil war. “Well you understand that Petliura is not my real name," he said. "My real name is Ivanov or Sidorov, something like that: a simple Russian name. It does not really matter what it really is. I took the name Petliura because I liked how it sounds. I did not know who Petliura was at the time. I only learned later, and I still like the name. So it stuck.”
And then without waiting for our questions Petliura started, in a very articulate and practiced manner, to tell us the history of his commune from its early days in the late 80s, when the building was a total ruin, to today’s troubles with Moscow developers who wanted them out of what had suddenly become a valuable piece of real estate. He spoke with special pleasure of fights the commune was constantly having with Moscow's homeless riffraff, and how the communards “beat the shit” out of their adversaries. All members of the commune took part in these fights, including Petliura, and they had all been beaten up. “So sometimes we beat them up. Sometimes they beat us up. But the place is still ours, which means that we've always won so far," he said. But the developers were another story; they had already bought the building as well as the local zoning committees, and the battle had entered a new and very dangerous stage, with adversaries in the form of bureaucrats and lawyers. Now they had to write letters, go to hearings, submit to mediation, and start a lobbying campaign, and Petliura, who imagined that support from the West could be helpful, wanted me to write something about the struggle to preserve his artistic enclave.
As to himself, Petliura described himself as a fashion artist and announced that he was working on a book about the history of fashion from the Middle Ages to the present. He had already assembled a collection of "fashion statements" from all different historical periods in what amounted to a museum of style, from which the commune members were welcome to borrow. This explained his peculiar outfit: “So I am dressed like this today," he said, pointing to his bare chest, "but tomorrow I might dress as a 19th century hussar. Who knows. It depends how I feel. Fashion is an extension of one's mood, one's sexuality. This is what I am writing about in this book. It's about the philosophy and psychology of fashion.” Petliura said his group had already attracted lots of attention in Europe, particularly Germany, and that he hoped to publish his book in the West, where his wife, a German,was working to help their cause.
Back in the courtyard we met our new friends the performance artists, who were waiting for us. A couple of others, a tall skinny guy and a pretty, very young girl, had joined the group; everyone was dressed warmly for the cold December night, and several of them were wearing huge knapsacks on their shoulders. Its was a long walk, they said. In long coats and big boots they looked like the village petitioners of the early 1920s, who would come to Moscow to seek audiences with Lenin and to look for the Truth in the big city.
At the courtyard gates we bumped into two tall, broad-shouldered, well fed man in unbuttoned business coats, beneath which we could see handsome double-breasted suits, white shirts, and ties. They had the plump, round faces of provincial simpletons, in contrast to their impeccable outfits. Politely they asked our ragtag group if there was an entrance to a "businessmen's club” in this courtyard. No “businessmen's club” here, was our answer, but someone pointed into the darkness and said “Perhaps, it’s down the street, I saw lots of foreign cars stopping down there." The businessmen thanked us politely and walked on, carefully stepping in their shining shoes on packed ice covering the pavement. I thought the group would make jokes about them when they'd gone, or at least some ironic comment, but nothing of the sort happened. I asked, “These were NEPmen?” (referring to the period in the 1920s called the New Economic Policy, when a temporary liberalization of state economic control produced a small but flamboyant class of bourgeoisie, known for a lavish lifestyle that contrasted with their lack of culture.) The guy next to me answered: “Yes, they're biznessmeny .""You don't like them, huh?” I asked. “I think you’ll have a chance to find out when you learn more about what we do,” he answered, and we marched on into the night.
All-night kiosks are one of the redeeming features of the generally uncomfortable Moscow existence, and something we're totally deprived of here in America. Now we stopped at one to pick up a load of alcohol. I bought a huge bottle of Stoli, while Khlap, a few steps away at the flower stand and wearing a mysterious expression, purchased three roses. This was an extravagant gesture, because flowers cost as much as a good bottle of vodka, and as this evening was to prove, there could never be enough vodka at a good Russian birthday table. The gesture was very characteristic of Khlap, a great romantic, and Ania was touched almost to tears when shereceived the flowers. But it was also clear that getting outrageously expensive roses on a December night, from a stranger who happens to be the same half-starved kind of bohemian as you, is a pleasant but not entirely extraordinary event. Gestures are made often in Russia, and they are appreciated.
I hadn't liked the guy with the slavophile mustache at first; I thought he had an "anti-Semitic face." But he turned out to be a very pleasant and witty interlocutor whose Russian speech was beautiful; he also had a deep knowledge of dialects and folk idiom. On top of this he displayed an unexpected knowledge of social philosophy and anthropology, and he was talking a lot about his experiences doing research with northern tribes in Siberia and the Far East.
“I remember your face,” he told me. “I saw you a couple of days ago at the Auktsyon concert at A-club (a St. Petersburg band, which was playing at a popular club). You were buying lots of rock magazines there, and you looked at our magazine, but did not buy it.”
“Oh, I'm sorry," I answered. "If I had known it was your magazine I would definitely have bought it. What was the name of your magazine?”“Vugluskr," he said, and its first issue was just out from the printer's.
Now I remembered the publication, which had been crudely made with a photocopier and stapled together. I also remembered the guy’s face. His name was Cyrill.
“I don’t remember why I didn't buy it. Something tipped me off that it perhaps was a Russophile publication—perhaps the name. I mean nothing is wrong with Russophile publications, but I was mostly interested in the rock ’n’ roll press,” I explained to Cyrill.
“That’s fine,” he said “No problem. We’ll give you a copy at Ania’s apartment. Her apartment is like a headquarters for the magazine.”
“What sort of magazine is this anyway,” I asked.
“Well you take a look and you’ll see,” answered Cyrill “But it has a lot to do with anarchism.” Anarchism sounded good to me, and I started to salivate.
The plaza before the Tsvetochnyi Riad metro station was packed with people even though it was pretty late. Kiosks were doing a brisk trade. Babushkas as always offered their miserable wares—a bag of pickles, or some sauerkraut, or a pack of Duracells or a Mars bar. Here in the presence of human warmth the customary Moscow ice covering the pavement started to melt and the ice now was covered with water. This made walking still more difficult and treacherous. From time to time Khlap and I had to hold on to each other to keep from falling in the slush. It was as if we were walking on a high-altitude glacier, and the degree of danger was about the same: Falling down and fracturing a bone in Moscow in the middle of the night presents you with a situation as hopeless as if it had happened in the mountains. Suddenly, as if reading my thoughts, Cyrill, marching next to me, cupped his hands in front of his mouth and yelled, “Ehehhey, ho ho, hey hey,”imitating the way people call each other from a distance in the mountains or a forest. The drummer Sasha, walking just a few steps ahead of us, turned around, put his hands to his mouth and replied: “Ehehey, hey. Where are you?”
“Wait for us,” yelled Cyrill. “Ho, Ho, Keep walking,” joined the tall guy who had joined us after the performance. “Hey hey yey,” yelled Sasha. “Ehehhey,” replied Cyrill. The people around us started turning their sullen faces in surprise, some smiling and pointing their fingers at us. “Is it still far?” Cyrill yelled to Sasha, who was just a few steps away. “Far, far,” Sasha answered, now imitating an echo in the mountains. “Keep walking,” yelled the tall guy. They kept doing this to my and the crowd’s amusement until we had crossed the treacherous plaza.
This mild joke was so timely and appropriate for the surroundings, so full of allusions, that it instantly turned into a conceptualist performance. It worked so flawlessly and had such an instantaneous resonance with the crowd that it seemed not an improvisation but a piece of theater staged in advance. Which it of course was not, but as I learned later, this group of people continuously improvised all sorts of mini performances, using the street environment for their props and addressing their “actions” to people in the streets.
Thus we marched through the night laughing and talking in a pretty upbeat mood in anticipation of warmth and drink. Near Ania's apartment house, a huge dark monstrosity of Stalinist architecture, we bought more alcohol at the all-night kiosk: a strange and, as it proved, dangerous collection of drink. It included a bottle of something yellowish made in Poland called Pina Colada, a bottle of Amaretto liquor, also probably made in Poland, a bottle of rum, and a few bottles of beer. After this we cheerfully went up the totally dark staircase, illuminating our way with cigarette lighters and matches. In the apartment I was pleasantly surprised when the hostess didn't make us take off our shoes at the door, which naturally leaves you barefoot and vulnerable, a dreadful Moscow custom I learned to despise. The apartment, as always in Moscow, was huge and cavernous and full of life. We were introduced to Ania's mother, a professor of mathematics, her eighty-something grandmother, Ania’s daughter from her first marriage (a sweet, roundfaced eight-year-old), and a huge bearded guy with a smiling, friendly face, who turned out to be Ania’s former husband. There was also a tall, sullen woman with a colorless face and a cigarette clenched between her pale lips, who was wearing a bathrobe and was clearly not very happy to see our noisy group. She was a nurse from a Moscow hospital who was boarding in the apartment.
Ania’s mother, grandmother and ex-husband went into the living room and kitchen to make the party arrangements, while the rest of us went to the room Ania shared with her husband Sasha, which also served as their study and a conference room for occasions like this.
In a room cramped with books and tapes and heaps of magazines, Cyrill showed me a copy of the magazine I had neglected to buy a few days earlier.It generally had an anarchist and militant green agenda, with furious attacks on Yeltsin’s democratic establishment and calls to boycott the parliamentary elections. It strengthened my growing conviction that “official democrats” were out of favor in countercultural underground circles. And this was certainly the underground itself, as I was to see next: Ania, her face gleaming with passion, stood a few steps away speaking animatedly. As I complimented her on the magazine she said: “And this is a very timely publication. People are so confused and upset. Everyone has lost a sense of direction. It's hard for everyone to overcome the shock of October  events. Do you know how many families in Moscow lost their husbands, brothers and sons defending the White House?”
I did not know.
“Many,” said Ania.
“Yes,” added Sasha, “we're talking hundreds.”
“We're organizing a drive to collect funds to help these families,” Ania said.
The way it was said left me no chance to ask the question that immediately entered my mind: “And what the hell were all those husbands, brothers and sons doing defending communists in the White House? Were not the ones they defended just a bunch of scum?”
I bit my tongue, shamefully revealing my naïvete and lack of the all-important “understanding.” Anyway, the answer to my question was in comments people were making all over the room: “How could those bloody bastards [the democrats] shell people in the very center of Moscow? People on the barricades around the White House were defending not communists, but democracy, freedom of expression, political assembly, association. They died for basic human freedoms. And the country is rapidly sliding toward totalitarianism.”
During the conversation, Sasha unplugged the telephone. “I know they're listening and following us,” he said to me with a smirk, “so sometimes we have to be careful.” This was like deja vu —it reminded me of my Latvian childhood in the Brezhnev era, when during heated political discussions my parents' friends would turn the phone off or place a pillow over the receiver. Happy days were here again. Or was it just the paranoia of would-be revolutionaries?
While dinner was cooking, we had a chance to talk about my new friends' artistic and political activities, which overlapped. Ania and Sasha were the core of the group, a conceptualist performance-art entity that had started in the late 80s, but occasionally they recruited the help of friends. The performances themselves were highly planned, rather than spontaneous, and designed to lead the audience to certain conclusions; but while each show revolved around a central concept, the details were improvised. There was a strong satirical element, linking their art to the “scandalization of the Philistines” theme of American "happenings" in the 1960s. The addressee of their satire and criticism, and often the object of it, was a Soviet/Russian Everyman, often with his inherent Philistine tendencies.
They had started staging their happenings (or "actions,” as they called them) in empty and half-ruined buildings around Moscow and on construction sites. During the first one that ever took place, as they told me not without a dash of pride, “entirely nothing happened,” except that a few of their friends actually showed up. Encouraged by this success, they organized a second action which they called “A Winter Walk on Ice” and which consisted of a walk on the half-frozen Moscow River somewhere in central Moscow. The turnout for this action was amazing: A whole crowd of youthful participants descended on the ice, walking slowly and with the help of ropes, to the middle of the river, where the ice ended. What was very important here was the combination of absurdist action with “mortal danger.” This took some commitment on the part of the participants, and as time has proven, this combination of absurdity and danger is an important part of the group's style—sometimes with tragic consequences.
The next action was the most complex logistically and had to do with penguins—not real ones, but hundreds of cast-metal cigarette-butt dispensers in the shape of overgrown King Penguins that the authorities had ordered for the ill-fated 1980 Olympics. The penguins were placed all over the city, in the hope that thousands of visitors would use these taseteful receptacles instead of casting their cigarette butts all over the city. It goes without saying that most of the penguins were to go into the garbage heap of history without ever experiencing a cigarette butt inside of their mouths. When the Olympics were over the penguins remained standing all over Moscow, most of them virginally innocent. Then they were collected, taken to a yard, and placed standing in rows like the famous Chinese clay soldiers. There one day they were “unearthed” by Ania, Sasha and their associates. They took several penguins home, though they were heavy and it took two people to carry each one, and since their original pink splendor had faded, they repainted the penguins in natural colors. Then they started carrying penguins all over the city and placing them in all sorts of important strategic points—Metro entrances, in front of the central post office, on major street corners, and so on. Everything here constituted an “action”: conceiving the idea, going to the yard, hauling the penguins home, painting them, carrying them around. And the most important part, of course, was the reaction of muscovites witnessing the “action." Apparently, they were ecstatic to see the penguins again.
Another action, not the most celebrated but one of the most satirical, had to do with a Russian language pun where the same word that denotes “eggs” also means balls (i.e. testicles). Ania, Sasha and their comrades discovered a long stretch of wooden fence surrounding a construction site on one of the major Moscow streets. At night they clandestinely came to the fence carrying cans of bright red paint and brushes, and wrote in huge letters: “Paint eggs!” as an imperative—which also could be read as: “Paint balls!” With rapture they imagined what was going through the minds of muscovites as they walked by this bright red slogan. The idea was to provoke a thought, to awaken people made numb by the grave intensity of everyday life. It goes without saying that in a couple of days the slogan was painted over. But the original paint was so intense that no sooner had the new paint dried than the letters came through again. So the wall was painted over repeatedly, but Ania and Sasha claimed that until the fence was disassembled at the end of the construction project, it was still possible to read their “shock into enlightenment” slogan.
But their most famous action was the result of a tragic event. In the kitchen I had a short conversation with Ania’s mother, the mathematics professor. She told me that this happened to be a very special day for her family and friends, because it was not only Ania’s birthday but also the six-month anniversary of the tragic death of Ania’s younger brother.
“What happened to him?” I asked.
“He was murdered by the guards of a Moscow restaurant,” she answered.
I said I was sorry, but the picture I imagined was of a restaurant brawl in which a young mafioso or banker gets killed. I was terribly wrong, as it turned out. The brother was not a nouveau riche Russian partying away in a plush restaurant and hadn't even set foot in the place when he was killed. Later in the evening I asked Ania what had happened.
“He was breaking windows in the restaurant and the guards came out and the friends he was with took off and he took off too, but something happened and the guards caught up with him.”
A picture of a young drunken punk engaged in hooligan behavior appeared in my mind. You do not go breaking windows in plush Moscow restaurants these days without risking getting killed. Again I was wrong.
“We never even got to see his body,” Ania said. “A few days later they returned to us just an urn with his ashes and his clothes.” All that remained of the boy. He was 20.
A couple of days later, during my second visit to their apartment, I learned why Ania’s brother was killed. “Our Moscow comrade Max Kuznetsov was murdered while conducting an anticapitalist action -- breaking windows in one of the Moscow restaurants,” said the St. Petersburg anarchist magazine "Black Flag," which Ania showed me. Her brother had become a revolutionary hero and a martyr, and his memory was cherished by his comrades in arms. This was no longer a child’s game. People were dying here for their convictions. Silly penguins were turning into serious stuff, which still did not make much sense to me.
Two months after Max's death, still in shock and disbelief over the grotesque reality of how he'd died, Ania and her friends decided to conduct an action in the “slain comrade’s” honor. Somwhere they found a huge tree trunk, almost the height of two people. Sasha used an axe to carve out a statue of a man that looked something like the stone statues of Easter Island, complete with a head, face, torso, legs, and a huge naked butt. Carving took Sasha all day, during which Ania, who was a professional dancer by training, covered herself in rags so that it was impossible to tell her shape or gender, and danced by the roadside in a busy intersection, in sight of her husband. When the statue was ready, they turned it on its head and planted it head-down in a flower bed, its huge rear-end facing a fancy private sporting goods store across the street. When Ania and Sasha came out in the morning they found the statue toppled, lying in the dirt. Whoever toppled it had tried to carry it away, but it was apparently too heavy. As Sasha and his friends were struggling to return the statue to its original position, the owner of the sporting goods store crossed the street to demand an end to this insulting activity. But the “bourgeois pig” was laughed at and sent away cursing.
Next night the statue was toppled again and assaulted with an axe. Thus the game continued until one night the statue was apparently cut to pieces with a chainsaw and hauled away in a truck. But the "action" was declared a total success; it even caught the attention of a French artistic exchange organization, which invited Ania and Sasha to work and perform for a month in France.
It took the birthday party forever to start. Finally I went into the kitchen and saw four people standing around the stove, where a pot of milk was warming. When it was sufficiently warm Cyrill, who was in charge of the whole action, started pouring Uncle Ben’s Instant Mashed Potatoes into the pot, stirring it with a spoon, and chanting like some kind of shaman: “Eeee ooo eeee oooo eeee.”
“He is bewitching the potatoes,” said Ania “He is saying a blessing on Uncle Ben’s.”
At the table the first toast was drunk for Ania, the birthday girl. The second was for her slain brother. The third was proposed by Ania’s mother: “I want to drink this one for Igor” she said, pointing at the Teddy bear-like face of Ania's first husband, which was already red from vodka. “I want to drink to this man who did and is still doing so much good for Ania and their daughter Olena. And I have to say he has taken lots of abuse from Ania. I mean lots of abuse. But he was always there when he was needed. He would go in the middle of the night to Kostrama to fetch Ania who has run away there. He would work and support Ania, who is the sweetest daughter but not too much of a worker or money maker. He still helps Ania and Olena. We all would die hungry if not for Igor’s constant support. Thank God he has a good job and is this great engineer that he is.”
We drank to Igor who protested mildly.
Then there was a pause and sort of quiet. Sasha said: “Shall we do an anthem?” And the others agreed. Slowly picking up the tempo and volume they sang a song made famous by the Ukrainian anarchists in an old Soviet film about the Civil War called “Valerii Parkhomenko”—“Liubo, Brothers, Liubo”—“It’s good, brothers, it's good.” It's a sad song that I remembered from my childhood (it was probably written by some Jewish intellectual, a literary scholar or critic, with a last name something like Eikhenbaum, but it was considered for a long time to be a folk song.)
Everyone at the table sang except for Khlap and me, their faces very serious. They sang with no trace of irony or sarcasm, which was usually so overwhelmingly present in everything they did or said. And then one after another loudly, clearly and solemnly they sang a whole bunch of revolutionary and Civil War period songs. This was fun, though I was rather confused regarding the degree of their seriousness. None of them smiled or even smirked, or gave away their true feelings about the songs. Their performance was practiced and smooth. They knew all the words of these ancient songs that had been mocked and ridiculed so much in Brezhnev's time—the time of my youth.
Thus they sang toward the dramatic conclusion of the evening, toasting in the interludes to“the victory of the international anarchist movement," to “death to bourgeois pigs," or to “the end of the Yeltsin/Gaidar 'democratic' dictatorship” and the vodka was poured plentifully, mixed indiscriminately with other, deadlier liquors at the table. Polish Pina Colada was drunk on top of Polish Amaretto, rum was drunk on top of that, and it was all chased down by shots of vodka.
In the middle of all this drinking and singing more guests arrived—Khlap’s new wife Natasha and her ex-husband Pasha the punk. They were immediately integrated into the celebration and took part in drinking and singing with a vengeance.
Pasha the punk was a cocky dude. From the moment of his arrival he took it as his personal responsibility to prove that I didn't really understand what was happening in the country and had no clue to interpreting bohemians' reactions to current events, and that I actually was just another dumb American. I thought he was tactless and provocative, but it turned out that he didn't really like anybody, and as a real punk he was ready to scandalize everyone except for Khlap and Natasha—his family. Like the anarchists he knew all the words to all the songs, and even better than the rest of the crowd at the table. And it was not too long before Cyrill, who was sort of “in charge” of the singing, accused Pasha of changing some of the words.
“Not at all,” answered cocky Pasha. “You just don't know the right words for this song.”
“What do you mean I don't know the right words?” Cyrill sounded offended. “This is the way I've sung this song for years.”
“So you were wrong for years,” answered the punk.
“Hey, what makes you think your version is better?” asked Cyrill.
“Because it's the right version," answered the punk.
Thus they argued for a while, and their dialogue at first sounded like a joke, another exercise in performance art. But it wasn't, and both were getting more and more worked up. Finally they decided to step outside, and everyone laughed as they made their way from the table into the long dark corridor and out onto the staircase. Pretending to be a naïve foreigner, I asked if they were planning to kill each other, but someone said they were only kidding and were going to have a "little talk."
For about 15 minutes we forgot about them and talked about Ania and Sasha's experiences in France. They were far from being enamored with the French way of life, finding the life of French artists very difficult and the dependency on grants and stipends stifling. Looking for funds was almost a second job for their French friends, robbing them of energy for their artistic endeavors.“They're all like puppets dancing to the music of the ones who pay,” said Ania. “We are so much freer here. When we want to go to work we go. When we don't want to go, we don’t go. We don't need much money for anything other than basic survival. Our time belongs to us. We are free to do what we want and we don't belong to anyone. We could not live in France.”
Suddenly Natasha, Khlap’s wife, who had sneaked out to see how the two were doing on the staircase, rushed in screaming hysterically: “They are killing each other out there. Pasha is all covered with blood. The bastard is beating him.” Men at the table excluding myself got up and poured onto the staircase. As a guest I decided to keep my cool, though I was dying of curiosity to see what was happening.
Natasha kept yelling: “Does not your friend see that Pasha is drunk? Does not he see that he was joking? What sort of friends do you people have?”
Only the women and I stayed in the room. We could hear loud shuffling and cursing coming from the staircase. Ania sat very straight, suddenly sober and melancholy. “Singers!” she said with contempt. “They sing songs all their lives but they never learn anything. All the ones who were really able to sing left this stupidity and now live in all these good countries—good clean countries!—and write songs there and do worthwhile things.” She looked very calm, pale, tired and beautiful. My drunken head started to spin for a moment. These bewitching eyes... Crazy Russian beauty...
The fight on the staircase intensified. Curses became louder, punctuated by screams of pain. Ania’s mother ran outside. Ania’s daughter stood in the corridor looking outside, trembling. “Perhaps we should interfere,” I suggested and got up. “I wouldn’t even bother for these idiots, “ said Ania.
I walked to the door and looked outside into the dark staircase, to see a ball of tangled human bodies rolling around the landing. I could see some arms swinging to deliver a blow, Khlap’s face distorted in a grimace, as he was trying to hit Cyrill on the face, and Pasha's face covered with blood. The huge figure of Igor was trying to pull them apart. The human ball rolled across the landing and hit the door of the apartment on the other side, which swung open. Out jumped a short, stocky, middle-aged man as if from a Jack-in-the-box. He had a beard and glasses and the face of a typical Moscow intellectual, and without asking any questions he began throwing punches at anyone he could reach with his fists. Through the open door I could see towering bookcases full of books in his apartment.
Half an hour later we stood in the street near Ania’s house, leaning against a wall. Since I had come to Ania’s with Khlap the only appropriate thing for me to do was to leave with Khlap and his battered troops, although truth be told I really wanted to stay at Ania's with the anarchists. Pasha, still bleeding from his nose, was holding his right arm with his left and insisting that it was broken. “Those fuckers,” cried Natasha. “They broke Pasha’s arm.”
Khlap was staring into the distance and massaging his bruised hand with bloodied and skinned knuckles. His face was contorted in pain, which had little to do with broken knuckles. His lips started twitching. Tears appeared in his eyes. I felt a lump in my throat. Loosing my cool I grabbed his face with my hands and yelled into it: “What the fuck? What the fuck is with you?” He looked away and tears rolled down his face. “Fucking country," he said.
“As for me,” said the unsentimental Pasha, breaking the moment of our post-battle unity and bonding, “As for me I need a beer.” I readily went to an all-night kiosk and brought back two bottles of beer for my comrades. Natasha was nervously smoking. “We all have turned into animals here,” she said, addressing nobody.
I got back to the apartment of the friend with whom I was staying at 4 a.m. My kindly host, an electronic music composer, was as always working in his home studio playing keyboards and recording. “What the hell happened to you?” he asked. “You look like shit, man.” And I felt like shit and was still shaking all over. My friend immediately pulled a bottle of vodka out of the fridge, and some boiled potatoes with sour cream and pickles, and the healing ritual began. Four shots later I was telling him about the night’s events and trying to make some sense of it all.