So it’s been a pretty amazing last weekend in Moscow. I suppose, technically, my last weekend is still around the corner, but as I leave next Sunday and arrive back Stateside on that very Sunday, this was my last entirely Russian weekend! Crazy how times flies. Friday I skipped the group excursion to Yasnaya Polyana to stay in Moscow and venerate the relics of St. Matrona, a newer saint of Russia. What, you ask?! You skipped a funded trip to Tolstoy’s estate to bow before the bones of blind woman who is venerated as a Saint?! Yes. I will write more on that later, but to be honest, the day was so precious, I’m not quite ready to put it in prose. Saturday was a different excursion—I ventured out of the city to see Optina Pustyn, a famous monastery that has been host to a number of important Russian writers (Gogol, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky) and is to this day a very important spiritual and intellectual center of Russia. Again, I will have to put that whole day into words some other time but suffice it to say, it was wonderful and getting to go at all felt like a minor miracle, since it had seemed like it was going to be impossible during my time here.
So what am I going to tell you about? The Market. I had grand plans for today, I was going to go all over the city, visit monasteries, sculpture parks, bookstores and hit up a market on the outskirts that I’d heard was good for souveniring. Well….I started with the market (planning to work my way back inwards) and got entirely carried away. Yes, I got some good Russian gifts and took some cool photos, but the real prizes of the day were two conversations I had with sellers at their stalls. They were so delightful and fascinating that I left the market for home with a sort of semi-elation springing out of love for humanity and the crazy, whimsical, honest, generous conversations I had.
The market is called Vernisazh, and is located near Ismaylovsky Park, metro station Partizanskaya, for those of you who’d like to check it out when circumstances allow. A ten ruble (30 cent) entrance fee gets you into a vast complex of wooden stalls featuring rows and rows of all things Russian souvenir-y—books, clothing, posters, pure kitsch, antiques, handicrafts and art. There were much of the usual suspects—t-shirts with Lenin, Stalin, Chiburasha as Che Guevara (Chiburashka is an iconic cartoon character from the Soviet days, whose names can be cleverly rendered as Che Burashka on t-shirts!).
There had to be THOUSANDS of Matrioshkas, mostly traditionally painted, but plenty featuring Russian politicians or other world leaders. Not going to lie, part of me wanted to buy an Angela Merkel Matrioshka just because it’s so ridiculous. But then the punch line to my gift giving would be that sad sort of irony—Hey grandma, who the heck buys this Russian crap? Me! And I’m passing it on to you! One more potential case of terrible gift giving—averted.
There were lots of hats—fur hats, soviet army hats, big Siberian hats with hammer and sickle pins, etc. There were countless pins and badges and belt buckles and flasks with the red star and various military insignia. Busts of Lenin, Stalin, and Pushkin in all sizes. Traditional embroidered scarves and delicately painted eggs. Replicas of St. Basil’s, serving dishes shaped like firebirds (a unique character from Russian folklore), infinite vintage posters of hard working soviets at war against either the Drink or the Dollar. There was an amazing poster of a fat, flatly drawn man holding out a wad of dollars, and a ripped, dynamically rendered faceless Soviet who was just clocking him, his fist crashing into the face. Alas, it was actually a first print from the 50’s (or so I was told) and was over $100…
All right, enough with the stuff! Where’s that human interest I promised?
So one of my first purchases was of old stamps. Now, I’m no collector, but I love stamps, and I always try to buy some cool looking cheap ones when I can to collage with, or turn into jewelry (hence, I’m not a collector…maybe a “refurbisher?”). There were quite a few coin stands, but I only found two stamp guys. Of those, only one of them really had cheap ones that were for amateur collectors, i.e. he sold stamps in little sheets and not individually for the knowing buyer. I start perusing his wares, and when I ask the first prices, they were way out of my league, so I start to go. He insists I wait–he has very inexpensive ones, look! He shows me a pile of stamps, sold in little sets of 6. They’re mostly uninspiring, but the pile is huge, and as I flit through them, we start up a conversation.
The stamp man is older, has two gold teeth, is wearing a semi-Hawaiian print shirt, entirely open (it’s too hot to button up if you don’t need to). The conversation, of course, begins typically (and entirely in Russian):
“Where are you from?”
“Ah! Where in America?”
“Well, I grew up in St. Louis, which is in the Mid(dle) West of America.”
“You don’t have to say where it is, of course I know.”
“Ah, okay, yeah, well, I grew up there, but now I live in New York.”
“State or City?”
“You live by Brighton Beach?” (Brighton Beach is like America’s little Russia, its this entirely Russian part of Brooklyn, near Coney Island, where everything is in Russian, you can buy Russian food, Russian books, Russian newspapers. It’s quite a sight!)
“Oh, well, um, not really. I mean, its far away, sorta, but its still in New York.” (How to explain that even though Brighton is only 15 miles from my house, is at least 90 minutes on the subway, so it feels like another world…)
“Great! You can learn Russian there!”
“Well, yeah, I mean, I already am learning Russian in a different part of New York.”
“Of course you are, you can speak Russian.”
“So you’ve been here before?”
“To the market?”
“Yes, seven years ago, I was in St. Petersburg.”
“What? Seven years ago? Seven?” Like Russia didn’t exist then.
“Um, yeah, seven. In 2003. So yeah, seven.”
“You came here when you were ten?!” He says this seriously but then half winks.
“Hah! No, I wasn’t ten. Not hardly.”
“Devushka, please. You told me you came here seven years ago. I’m looking at you. You can’t be a day over 18. I think you’re 17. So that means you were ten.”
“Hah! Please! I’m not 17, not even 18, oh no, not at all. I’m twenty six.”
“TWENTY SIX?! So you’re married?! You probably already have a son!”
“Um, I’m 26, but I’m not married. I don’t have a son, uh, no kids.”
“So you’re “single”? (He said “single” in English: A vy (so you’re) singl?)
“Devushka! What’s wrong with you? I ask you if you’re married, you say no. I ask you if you’re single, you say no! Nonsense! And you try to say you’re also twenty six!”
“No no, I am twenty six! I have a boyfriend, that means, I’m not single, but that I’m not married either.”
“Hmmm…so you have a boyfriend. So you’re not “single” but you’re not married?”
Is this that complicated?
“So,” he proposes, “you’re somewhere in between, in some, some sort of in between place?” He seemed to think my relational status was akin to the 5th dimension…
“Yes, I am, yes, in that place.”
“Great. So, your dad is a millionaire?”
“Your brother then!”
“Hah, not at all!” (Sorry boys)
“Is your sister married to Bill Gates?”
Interesting, that she herself could not be a millionaire… “No, she isn’t”
“Hmmmm….” The pause in conversation lasts only a second. He smiles and looks at my bracelet—
“Does wearing that make you hot?”
“No…it’s not too warm of a bracelet, luckily.”
“That is lucky.”
I guess since men don’t wear big jewelry, they don’t know how these things work… Anyway, I end up picking out two little packs of stamps that I like and ask if I can get a special discount for two. Of course I can. Of course! For me?! Of course. Not just a discount, but he wants to give me a gift as well. Well, this whole “gift” on top of the purchase is not totally uncommon here. Often if you spend any more than the bare minimum, a friendly vendor will throw in a magnet or doodad as some sort of gesture of goodwill. So I’m expecting a pin of Medvedev (the president) or something, when he gets out a stack of postcards from behind his counter and then walks out to stand right next to me.
“Well devushka, you live in New York, right? You have Brighton Beach, right? Well, here, I’m giving you Moscow gifts! Does Brighton Beach have a Kremlin?” He asks this in all seriousness.
“No, no Kremlin.”
“Here,” and he hands me a vintage postcard of the Kremlin, “there isn’t anything like this in Brighton.”
“Does Brighton Beach have buildings like this?” He hands me a postcard of a Soviet tower. “No,” I dutifully reply, “there’s nothing like this at Brighton.”
“How bout this, look at this beautiful monastery! Does Brighton have monasteries? Beautiful monasteries?”
“Oh no, nothing like in Moscow. It doesn’t have any monasteries, but you know, Brighton Beach isn’t, um, a very Orthodox Christian area…”
“I know,” he scoots closer and whispers into my ear “there are no monasteries because in Brighton, they’re Jews.” His voice gets lower and I can barely hear him, “Its all Jews, because we let them out first.” [The first wave of emmigration during the final days of the Soviet Union was granted, for whatever reason, to Jews. For this reason, the mass arrival of Russian emigrants from the 80’s is heavily Jewish, although they are actually a minority in terms of general representation in the Russian population]
He retreats and resumes his normal volume, “And how bout this, our White House!” He shows me a postcard of what is the Russian “White House,” which is not actually the President’s abode, but a government building often compared here to our White House.
“You know your White House, in Washington? Its teeny tiny.” His voice gets high and he cups his hands together delicately as if he were cradling our little White House and all its Lilliputian inhabitants in his palms. “Our White House, why, it’s a real building! Not like they have on Brighton.” Poor Brighton. Poor DC. Not often conflated into one miserable architectural failure, I would imagine.
“You must know that Russians love stories, jokes, anecdotes, right”
“Well, when Barak Obama was elected, we saw it here in Russia, and I made up my own joke! Listen! You know what a barak is? (Same as English, “barrack”, although the Russian pronunciation is closer to how we pronounce Barak the name)
“Sure, its like, a house for many people in the army.”
“Exactly! A little house for people in the army. Or…in prison! You knew that right? That prisoners live in barracks?”
“Okay, here it is—after the election in the United States, the White House was a Barak Bomzha!” He burst out laughing. “I wrote that one myself!”
A Barak Bomzha means, the ‘barrack of a bum’ in Russian, and sounds—sorta—like a decent pun because it can be pronounced very similarly to Barak Obama. What’s great is that I don’t think he was trying to hate on Barrack by calling him a bum, he just loved that it was barak, which could be a Russian word, followed by what could conceivably be a Russian word in the genitive (the –a ending means “of” in Russian for masculine words. So it works). Which moves to me bring up a point about the word “Bomzh” or bum. The Soviet powers that were LOVED acronyms. Like mad. I mean, it continues today, but every other word in soviet speak is actually an acronym, so its impossible to know what’s going on because people tell you some historical fact—oh, this person was the MDV of the MMKVD but then the PPE of the SSRPRL combined with the MRFDP and now they’re just a TTP. Ohhhhh, I see, what a reversal of fortunes…Anyway, even the word for bum, which sounds a lot like our word, is actually an acronym—its B.O.M.Zh.—“без определённого места жительства” or “without (a) specified place of residence.” If you want to know what one looks like (I’m sorta being facetious), peep the wiki article:
So all jokes aside, I was given my last postcard, prefaced by:“Devuska, you love the Russian language. You love Russia. You love Russians, like me. [he winks and thumps his shirtless chest] Therefore, you must love the greatest of Russian poets, look!”
And he thrust out a postcard of Pushkin and then placed it in my hand.
We both sensed the poetic closure to our acquaintance.
“I love Pushkin, who doesn’t. Thank you for the gift.”
He looked at me, smiled with the tiniest hint of sketch (oh Old Russian Men!), and said, “All is well, you have everything, absolutely everything.”
I walked away kind of feeling like I kind of did and continued with a sense of victory—the Russian language and Russian stamps were in my possession! I genuinely laughed at a bad pun and so the world may just be okay after all!
I decided to check out the upper level of the market, over whose entry read a sign saying “Hall of Art.” This upper level was much less souvenirs and much more legit antiques. There were quite a few men selling old icons, or pieces of them, all at prices that, alas, prohibited me from snagging them. All except one, which I bought from an adorable old man who only asked me what my name was, and after hearing me say “Brittany” asked, “How is that translated?”
I replied, “Oh, its not really translated, its only a name in English, I think.”
“Ahh…my, my, a name that is only in English. Hmmm, are you at least from England?”
“I’m from America.”
“Oh my, America…well, yes, that explains that. A name that isn’t translatable…hmmmm….”
At all the other stands, when I would draw close to the icons (they’re like magnets!) the vendors would dissuade me, murmuring, “Devushka, these are very expensive” and I would retreat back to the sidewalk, tail between my legs and continue on my way, wondering how they came to possess these amazing images…
Although the market was supposed to say open until six, by three most were wrapping up their things, no surprise as in general the crowd seemed thin and the heat was almost unbearable. I was cutting across the almost empty mezzanine of stalls to leave altogether when I heard someone yelling, “Does that work?” and turned around.
I was being pursued by a wild-eyed, snaggle-toothed, shirtless man, who repeated, “Devushka! Does that work?”
Confused, I pointed to myself and said, “Huh? Do I work? Here?”
“No, no, your camera, does it work?” The man pointed at my Nikon strung round my neck.
“Ah yes, it works. I’m just not taking any pictures right now.”
“Devushka, please, take some pictures of my things. These are very special things, why are you not photographing them?”
He motioned to his wares, laid out on tables and blankets. It was a pretty motley collection, but I obliged and took a few shots.
He came closer to chat, I noticed that his hair was either cut by himself, blindfolded, or a very shakey barber. “Look,” he said, “I have all kinds of stuff, and even art. I have some art work that I’ve made myself.” He picked up a painting of a neon rooster and showed it to me. “I painted this myself. I’m no professional. I haven’t had any training, I’m self-taught, you know? I went to the mechanical institute, but I never graduated from any art school, you see?”
“Oh sure, I see” I tried to say that in a way that didn’t make it seem obvious that his rooster didn’t look professional.
“You know, I have no training, so that means I’m not like other artists. I don’t paint from training, I paint from myself, from my inside, from my mind. I don’t paint like anyone else.”
He had two pieces out that he asked me to meditate on. I couldn’t help myself, so I asked if I could take a picture of them.
“Of course, but only if I’m in it.”
Here he is:
I thanked him and he said that now I needed to have his autograph, afterall, “I’m not a humble man.” As he rummaged around looking for some paper, he began to tell me of life. It was amazing. Unlike most others, he was entirely uninterested in me, uninterested in America, in why I was in Russia, didn’t try to even sell me anything once. None of that small talk, no nonsense, we went straight to the heart of the matter.
He gave me his autograph, as well as his address, his father’s address in Yaroslavl, his mother’s name, and his brother’s address in St. Petersburg.
“Will you be in St. Petersburg?”
“No, I leave Russia in a week.”
“You can never know what will happen, I’d better give you his address to be safe. He fought in Afghanistan, and he has a medal.” He motioned towards his left breast, like he was awarding himself a Purple Heart.
“Wow, in Afghanistan!”
“Of course. My father was also in the army, in Soviet times, he was awarded two medals. You know, he’s from Dagestan.”
“Yes, Dagestan. It’s funny, because my whole life I have thought about Dagestan and how it is part of me, part of my father. But I’ve never been there. Somewhere that I have never been is a very important part of my life, imagine! My mother is from the Crimea—that’s why I wrote down her town.”
“Oh, yes, right here, I see.” What he actually wrote—this is wild—is my name (he’d asked what it was for the autograph) and written “Britony from Krymganina” (his mother’s town).
“You know, I’m a real “crazy artist” [he said “crazy artist” in English], a real fool [durak]. Its true though, there’s no other way to say it, I’m just a ‘crazy artist.’ You know this term, right?”
“Well, that’s me, a crazy artist. You know, I never joined the Communist party, I was never one of those members of the Official Soviet Artists Group, nope, I rejected all that.” He leans in and whispers to me, “I’m actually a very stupid man, I’m quite stupid, I’m not made to do many things. So I did things for myself. You know, mostly I write poetry, that’s my real work. I’m a poet. I have books and books of poetry I’ve written, but for what? You see how I live, I barely make a living here. I make 600 rubles a month from my art—you know what that is? It’s twenty dollars. You think you can live on twenty dollars?”
“No, no, you can’t, that’d be very hard.”
“I know, you can’t live on that, but I make no money. It’s the truth. You know, they threaten to throw me out of here, they threaten to throw all of us out of this place [he gestures to his fellow vendors], then what? Why just throw us out, why not hang us as well?”
I’m not sure how to respond, especially because he’s not actually ranting, he’s just telling me, enthusiastically, but not frantically, not angrily.
“You know what I don’t understand, I don’t understand how people there”—he points to a window of the administrative building for the market—“how they can look out their window at me and do nothing. In the winter I come here and sell stuff and I’m wearing boots to my knees and a heavy coat and I’m still freezing. I just stamp around to keep warm and I see them warm in their office and they’ve never invited me in. They never help, they pretend they don’t know I’m in the cold. But that’s life. There’s a girl here who sells things with me, she’s a Bomzhik [tiny Bomzh], she’s not here right now, off on a walk, with God knows who. But she’ll be alright, you know, some of us will be alright, even if the people in the warm never invite us in. You know, I have a child, who lives with me, and I live with a woman, and she has two children, and we get along, you get along in life, you know?”
“But then, sometimes, you wonder, what for? Why? Why? Why doesn’t someone just tell you how to live? Why can’t there be a clear way, this way that you know—hey”–he thrusts his right arm out, towards the yellow brick road he wants–“Go straight down that way in life and everything will be fine. It’ll all be in order! But no.
“And you know, right now, there are probably people in flying saucers, flying, flying, flying around the earth. And they’re wondering the same thing, in their saucers—why am I flying around? Why am I here, is this the way for me to go? Should I be flying in this direction? Both of us are wondering this. There must be a third way.”
“Yeah….” I mean, I do agree, there must be another way, between selling broken Soviet memorabilia, and being an alien with existential issues (or a kosmonaut? Not sure who he though was in the saucers, but I don’t think kosmonauts get in saucers, only rockets).
“And then you wonder, why is all this the way it is, but still, you know the only thing we’re left with?”
I look at him wide-eyed, “What?”
“Responsibility. We’re still responsible, accountable, for our lives, even if no one told us the path to take and if no one invites us in. Responsibility. [Otvetvenost’]”
I was dumbstruck, because this was the single craziest moment of full-circleness ever. I’m writing my master’s thesis right now (hah, supposed to be writing it, taking a break while here…) on Bakhtin, a 20th century philosopher, theorist, and linguist. I’m specifically looking only at his early essays on art and ethics, because I think there’s a lot be explored in how he decides that ART and LIFE are related. How, you ask, are they related? In his exact words: responsibility. Ta-da! A funny word in Russian, because it can be translated in English as “responsibility” or “answerability”—and Bakthin claims that you must respond to life with art and be accountable for everything, artistic or interpersonal, that you ever do. Bakhtin criticizes art that doesn’t influence life, and life that is not influenced by art. How can these two spheres remain apart when they should be integrated? Because we refuse to be answerable for each, we refuse to acknowledge that art must be answerable to life, it must respond to all of life in its joy and agony and complication and humanity. And life must respond by acknowledging that art can do this, that art can change and impact all that joy and agony and complication and humanity. In a nutshell. It actually takes him like 300 pages to almost make that point. The collection of essays I’m working with, and slogging though at a terribly slow, uninspired pace, are called “Art and Answerability.” And here Sergei just told me the key to life is Answerability. Astounding.
He didn’t stop there though. I tried to pry my mind away from Bakhtin and dwelling on the chances that a “crazy artist” and self-taught painting vagabond would come to the same conclusion as a classically educated It-Man of 20th century literary theory.
“We only have answerability/responsibility, because we don’t really have truth. What is Truth? You know?”
I paused and tried to think of how to tackle this one, and lost my moment to interject.
“Its Jesus, of course. He is Truth. And because of him, the disciples knew Truth. But, us, well, it’s hard, I don’t know. Then you have Mohammed, who made this very big book, a huge book, that he carried around, telling people that he could organize their lives.” He starts to walk back and forth with his back hunched, charading a huge book in his arms. “’Look!’ said Mohammed, ‘I wrote a very big book about how you must live.’ This of course isn’t Truth, but people want to know how to live, he told them how to live. So it’s all difficult to say, difficult to understand, what we should do.”
I didn’t move, rapt like a disciple at the feet of a master.
“Take for example, Chinese people. They come here, selling crap. And you don’t want to like them, why are they here, selling crap to us, when we’re already poor, when we already don’t have any money to buy things? But then, my friend, he tells me, look at the Chinese, you never see them begging, they’re never on the streets asking for money. They just want to live.”
“And I think he’s right. The Chinese, I mean, there’s no reason to hate them. I just don’t understand them, we have no common language. But then, I think about it, and we do have a common language. We sell stuff here, and we don’t beg, and we want to live our lives, so this is a common language, and they can’t help it if they all have to work in factory to make crap. That is their fate. Fate has forced an entire people to make junk, but, it would seem, they are like us, wondering if there is a third way.”
A patron who had been staring at Sergei’s wares for a while and trying to catch his attention interjected at this moment—“Hey! How much is this plate?!”
Sergei, in what could only have been an effort to get rid of him, shouted “A thousand rubles!” (Which is a ridiculous price–$30—for someone’s old plate!)
“A thousand rubles?!”
“That’s right—who needs more stuff at prices like that?!” Sergei retorted.
He shook his head at the man and then made a sweeping gesture over all his things—“Look, look at this stuff. You know, people can’t live without stuff. They can’t live without it. That’s why I sell stuff. But I don’t need it. You know why? Other people, they’re whole world is their stuff. But I have opened the world of my mind, and I live there. So I don’t need stuff.”
“Well, so here’s what you’ll do”
“You’ll go to the New York Times and tell them you have a story for them, an interview with a real ‘crazy artist’ a real character!”
I laugh—genuinely—“You know,” I tell him, “I actually live in New York, but I certainly don’t work for the New York Times.”
“Please! Who cares if you work for them—you’ll go to them, find them!, and tell them: Here! Look! Please! I have an interview with a real Russian artist. Do you watch television?”
“I don’t have a TV.”
“Well, you should get a Russian boyfriend, he’ll have a television, then you can watch it in case I’m ever on.”
“Ah, okay, we’ll see.”
“Hmm, well, I should probably get going…” I could have listened more, but I was actually melting into a puddle, and also was afraid that if I heard too much more, I’d start to forget everything…as it was I was trying to subtly jot down notes (fyi: this conversation was much much longer, I’m just giving you the parts that I can remember well enough to honestly pass on…)
“Well, here, you probably don’t have internet if you don’t have a television, but here’s a website you should visit.” He wrote down the website that features his art on the backside of the autograph sheet, which was actually the program for an opera that was staged in August of 1950. His autograph (below) was accompanied by the epithet “poet of the land.”
He also jotted down his father’s Dagestani name, “Amet Khan Sultene,” and told me there are 35 different ethnicities living in Dagestan. Then he gave me his phone number and in all seriousness looked at me and said, “If you ever get bored, just call.”
Oh Sergei, I will keep that in mind.