Monday, May 3, 2010

Dispatch from Moscow

by today’s Urban Chameleon contributor Jelani Cobb

Note: Dr. W. Jelani Cobb is the chair of the History Department at Spelman College. He is a recent Fulbright scholar who has been teaching Black history in Moscow for the past three months. To give you a mental picture of this scene: imagine if Suge Knight was a kind hearted-CNN-Black history-cultural-expert-commentator, walking around Russia looking for a soy chai latte . Can we give Dr. Cobb a round of applause for his Urban Chameleon self.

The day started with me breaking the buckle on my belt as I left for campus, so I was forced to walk around Moscow sagging like a rapper. Then some students escorted me to the subway and I stopped at a newsstand and requested a bottle of "vodka" instead of a bottle of "water" (the words are similar in Russian because "W" is pronounced as "V"). Then after making it onto said subway with one of the students I managed to trip and land squarely in the lap of a Russian Army officer.

But the students loved my talk on slavery and the origins of the civil war so I'm putting this one in the "W" column. Even the other situations had silver linings -- I learned the word for "belt" (pronounced Ree-Mean"), learned that the difference between vodka and water is largely in the accentuation and that Russian military look very dour in those gray uniforms and fur hats but can be very tolerant of uncoordinated Americans.

On the other hand, not everyone on Moscow mass transit is so tolerant. I had a fascinating experience on the trolley. An elderly man looked at me and then began speaking curtly to the student I was with and abruptly turned his back to me for the rest of the ride.

Thinking like an American, I assumed this was something racial but it was something far more subtle and interesting than that. The only word I caught during his tirade was "Americanski." The student (who introduced himself to me as "Andre, like Dr. Dre") later told me that he'd said "At one time Americans knew not to come to Russia and speak so loudly."

Yesterday was "Red Army Day," kind of the Russian equivalent of Veteran's Day. I'm told that crowds, distinctly skewed toward the older set, gather to chant old slogans and praise the "protectors of the motherland" in tones that betray a strong sentimental streak for the old days.

Come off that kind of sugar high onto a crowded rush hour trolley car to see a large American laughing it up with a young Russian who speaks perfect English, is writing a thesis on Lyndon B. Johnson's civil rights policies and carrying a copy of Hunter S. Thompson's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas in his hand and you can see how it might make a man go Kruschev, so to speak.

I suspect he was, in effect, pining for the good old Cold War days when Americans were kept at arm's length, not invited to campus to help shape the minds of Russian youth. It goes beyond simply the stark lines of East and West that were perilous but, ultimately, fairly simply to comprehend. Yuri Rogoulev, a historian at Moscow State who specializes in FDR and the history of the New Deal, told me that people long for the status and sheer geographical size of the world power that they once lived in. But there were also practical considerations. The breakup of the Soviet Union meant the dissolution of more than political bonds. Families were strained as relatives in one place found themselves in a separate country from their siblings, aunts, children. It's as if people in New England one day woke up and found that they needed a passport to get from Connecticut to Massachusetts to visit relatives and depending upon how the two states were getting along they might not be able to enter at all.

Moscow itself is a fascinating blend of those currents. There are staid Soviet era buildings being crowded out by high rises and bathed in pink neon light from the billboard ads for Samsung computers or the latest BMW sports car. (I told Andre that I have a habit of taking photos of advertisements when I'm abroad because it gives me insight into what people think about. He said "Yes," and then pointed to a sign above a medical office and said "We Russians think about gynecology.")

I thought it superficial but the first thing I noticed about Moscow was how incredibly well-dressed people are. I mean, they are, like, New York stylish. (I saw a woman wearing a purple fur coat and managing to make you wish more people knew how to wear a purple fur like she did.) But even that is part of this dynamic of pushing the old ways deeper into the recesses of history. As Yuri pointed out to me "For nearly a century we were forced to dress like proletarians. Now people want to run in the opposite direction."

Interestingly, Andre wouldn't translate the old man's outburst until we got off the trolley (and I do wonder if he told me everything the man said) but I burst out laughing at the thought of me be decried as an agent of western encroachment, globalization and probably espionage for good measure. "Dre" felt a bit of empathy for him, though. "There are really old people who miss those days. It's sad."

As for the lecture, I talked, they took notes; I cracked jokes, they laughed. They asked questions, I answered. A cellphone went off and I was polite but firm about them being on silent during class and they all were eager to talk to me more afterward.

Happy about all of it.

To learn more about Jelani Cobb visit

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