Russia. The very word sends a shiver of excitement and fear through me. As an 80s teenager in the cadets and briefly the reserves, I always thought I'd see the Soviet Union in a radiation suit with a rifle. I was polishing boots, playing glockenspiel & trombone in a marching band, and learning to "neutralize" Russian sentries and tanks. But I got kicked out of the militia for having faked my age, communism collapsed and I wound up living in Moscow playing guitar in a rockabilly group called Merzky Beat, making music with the people I'd trained to kill.
By day, my bandmate DK and I had jobs doing corporate reconnaissance for the music major BMG. We'd drive all around Moscow in the company Merc, blasting demos we'd recorded for the label, paying the requisite bribes to cops who'd randomly shake us down as we went to meetings with all manner of music industry mafia, each of them scheming to use us for access to international record company cash, yet kept inline by an ex-KGB protection racket on our payroll that we hoped to high hell would keep us safe. I had my doubts that a $5 an hour bodyguard would take a bullet for me, but I learned not to think about it too much.
It was 1997 and Moscow was going through a sexual revolution. Everyone was getting it on, San Francisco 60s style. Life was harsh and the nightclubs were an orgy of forgetting. There were no taboos. People hadn't heard of homosexuality in Soviet times and for many Russians it was as new an idea as this thing called "vegetarianism." If you don't eat meat, don't you die? How do they have sex without a vagina? Oh! Really?
In some circles it was considered fashionable and trendy to be gay and I heard Muscovite men were going bi-curious as something to boast about -- it was yet another new thing to have sampled in an era of exploration, experimentation, decadence and massive change. It makes me wonder if we're only getting half the picture of the situation in Russia today?
Of course there was also homophobia then too. There was a rumour that EMI's representatives were protected by a gay mafia group who anally raped people instead of knee capping them. But the climate wasn't one of repression, a faux-lesbian pop duo like Tatu could have broken big then like they did a couple years later.
As a non-Russian, I had an immunity to mob violence (only one foreigner had been gunned down at that point). Whatever the battles in business were, the world peace that made it possible for us to get together carried warm sentiments along the lines of: "A Canadian! Welcome! We might threaten to fuck you up, but it's awesome that you're from The West and that we're able to sit here talking to each other."
"That's okay, guys, no one gives me death threats back home so this is really exciting -- plus I'm just glad we're meeting in a boardroom not out in the cold of a nuclear winter. And by the way, have you heard the Bowie album we're releasing next month?"
"We love Bowie! It better not be like crap Tin Machine record."
Constantly the Russians and I would enjoy finding the things we had in common (e.g., a dislike of Yoko Ono), and it was equally interesting to find the things we differed on. I'd never heard of Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space and they'd never heard of Neil Armstrong, the first man on the moon. Go figure.
While I lived in Moscow, it was the third most expensive city in the world yet the average Muscovite officially earned just $200 USD a month. The army, teachers and pensioners hadn't been paid in months, corruption was rife and violence hung in the air.
A system had developed in which everyone had to pay to someone for protection. Whether you were General Electric Russia or an old babushka selling kittens in front of a metro station, you paid to a krysha (a roof) and the big question was, does your roof leak?
Life felt hopeless for many and at street kiosks around the city, poor folk stood scraping together their rubles to buy cheap pirated vodka, downing it on the spot, drinking to forget, not caring that the moonshine could turn them blind. "Biznessmen" would drive by slooshing them with their BMWs, out to get rich or die trying as a couple dozen a week did.
People complained to me that then-president Boris Yeltsin was weak and that in the history of Russia, the nation had only prospered when ruled by strength. The country was falling apart and its future looked even bleaker than its past. So, reckoning London was probably a better city to be a musician in, I said goodbye to Merzky Beat and got my ass out of Moscow not long before the banks collapsed amid a run on deposits.
On New Years Eve 1999, after a decade of decline, I heard the surprising news that Yeltsin had broadcast his resignation saying, "I want to beg forgiveness for your dreams that never came true." In his message, he appointed a newcomer named Vladimir Putin as the man to lead Russia into a new millennium.
Over the next years under Putin's command, the standard of living in Russia grew. And grew. And grew some more. For many, a prosperous future that had never seemed a possibility began to materialize. It wasn't a Western future like the Poles or the Czechs got, but Westernization wasn't something the Russians wanted. Not everyone readily accepted Putin's reign, but most agreed to the unwritten social contract of 'You increase our lot in life, you may lead us.'
Like with Iraq and Libya, many Westerners don't understand why a strong harsh leader in Russia is a necessity. We laugh at Putin posing shirtless on horseback and fail to appreciate that he could be photographed with his finger on the nuclear button. A button he's kept his hand so far away from, we collectively seem to have forgotten that it's there. To my mind, its kinda awesome how Putin's kept Russia's nukes in the closet, even if its crap he's been putting their gays in it too.
A Vietnam vet I met at a Moscow diner in '97 thought it would be wonderful if I gave Barry McGuire's old anti-war classic 'Eve Of Destruction' its first Russian release. I did, and I remain mindful of its lyric, "If the button is pushed there'll be no running away. There'll be no-one to save with the world in a grave."
I'd love to see the conversation around the Olympics shift to include celebrating our current peace with The East. It's not guaranteed to go on forever.
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