The surreal reality called Putin’s Russia

Why call it ‘surreal’ when it is very real and even dear to millions of people? It continues to look and feel surreal to me ‘on the outside looking in’ or ‘looking over the neighbor’s fence’. Metaphorically speaking.

This week I watched a documentary “Putin’s witnesses” by an exiled Ukrainian/Russian filmmaker Vitaly Mansky who now lives in Latvia (which actually makes me very proud that Latvia now is a haven for Russian dissidents but also makes me very sad that people are forced to leave their true home).  The story focuses on what happens right after Boris Yelcin, the president of Russia, on December 31, 1999 in a televised address to the Russian nation announces that he is stepping down as the president and has chosen a successor – Vladimir Putin. Putin then started as the interim president but already three months later won the official presidential elections and has been ruling Russia ever since.

It is also surreal to think back on that New Year’s Eve. The grandiose 2000! The world was celebrating the start of the millennium as turning some page in a magic book. Some were scared, especially many of my American friends expecting the infamous Y2K with stockpiled shelves, but most were euphoric to be a part of this history. (Actually I don’t remember much from that night.) Meanwhile in Moscow, Boris Yelcin and subsequently Vladimir Putin were making their own history.

Mansky has made a very personal film and things are seen through the lenses of his family. I guess I should not be surprised by the family’s reaction on that New Year’s Eve because they had a much clearer picture on the tragedy of this political decision. Still I was struck by Mansky’s wife Natalya commenting on camera: “I am horrified. We got the strong hand now which so many people want. Will see how the screws will start tightening! This is horrible. What will happen to us now. (…) The world is shaken. It will be afraid of us again.”

Another powerful scene is Mansky’s youngest daughter in the bathtub, holding her breath under the water. She is a shy kid who does not want to be filmed but more importantly – she has picked up the stress and anxiety of her family. And she tries to defy or push it away. But you cannot hold your breath for very long.

Of course, the world reacted with suspicion and shock that a KGB officer could become the president of newly democratic Russia. I remember my own shock was the return of the Soviet anthem. Yes, the lyrics were changed to reflect Russian patriotism but the melody was the same. For everyone still remembering this song about the might and eternal glory of Soviet Union, the real message behind the change was not lost.

The documentary reminded of another surreal aspect of bringing back this Soviet past through the national anthem. How it gets blended with more enduring symbol – the church bells! The choir was obviously made to sound like a church choir and the church bells were to give the whole thing a sense of “sacredness” and “eternity”. How in the world do you glorify the Soviet regime side by side with the traditions of the Russian orthodox church which the Soviet regime tried to completely annihilate!

I pulled off my shelf some books on contemporary Russia, realizing how tragically relevant are Mansky’s personal reflections in the film. Anna Politkovskaya, a Russian journalist who was assassinated in 2006, wrote in her book “Putin’s Russia” (2004): “We want to go on living in freedom. We want our children to be free and our grandchildren to be born free. (…) This is why we long for a thaw in the immediate future, but we alone can change Russia’s political climate. To wait for another thaw to drift our way from the Kremlin, as happened under Gorbachev, is foolish and unrealistic, and neither is the West going to help.”

Another very insightful book is Peter Pomerantsev’sNothing Is True and Everything Is Possible” (2014) about his time working in Russian media. “It was only years later that I came to see these endless mutations not as freedom, but as forms of delirium, in which scare-puppets and nightmare mystics become convinced they’re almost real and march toward what the President’s vizier would go on to call the “the fifth world war, the first non-linear war of all against all.”

Doing it step by step while well-meaning filmmakers film for history’s sake, while technocrats drink champagne after a successful campaign for someone who will later remove or even kill them, while people are dancing in the streets because they are recovering some national pride. These kind of modern ‘chimera’ states mutate incompatible truths and make you believe that it is desirable and that you are seeing more clearly than before.

So the “normal” in Russia continues but to me it looks like holding breath underwater. And one day you have to come up from this “reality” to start breathing normally again.

The Valentine’s rose from my unlikely friend in San Francisco

I had not thought of Wayne in long time… or the things experienced in San Francisco. But yesterday these special and very significant memories came back so vividly.

It happened while listening to a group of young foreigners, mostly American, who are spending time in Rīga. Not only to experience this beautiful city but also to get to know and bless some of its people. It is a group of young Christians who believe that in some mysterious but also practical ways God can use them to show divine love. Even to random strangers while giving out roses at a local coffee shop on Valentine’s Day. Or giving small gifts, Valentine’s cards and flowers to women who work as prostitutes on Rīga streets.

Suddenly it brought back memories of when I had just turned 21 and joined a very similar group. Except the locations were reversed and I, as a Latvian, traveled to the USA to study in Oregon and later spent one month in San Francisco. And the time in San Francisco changed me and left a very deep imprint on my heart.

Wayne was the biggest part of this story. The least likely person for me to get to know while in San Francisco and I met him on the famous (or infamous) streets of Haight & Ashbury. An area of the city which some decades earlier had become known as the hippy hub. The times had changed and Generation X had taken over but there were still plenty of flower and peace symbols, New Age shops, arts galleries, vintage clothes stores and very strong hippy vibe.

The streets were truly vibrant and there was a strong sense of community. Many friendly, interesting, creative, welcoming people but also many broken ones.  I was very naive and, for example, had never been around so much drug abuse. My mentor had to explain to me the bizarre and even dangerous behaviour I was often observing. But sometimes ignorance and naiveté is a bliss and I simply wanted to make friends without keeping people at arm’s length because of their addictions or mental and psychological issues.

That is how I met Wayne. We were walking down the street together with my friend Heidi, looking for people to hang out with. Then Heidi was approached by a homeless guy who first asked if we had a cigarette and launched into a long, serious conversation about the meaning of life. He was lightly drunk and kind of smug but my friend Heidi was not put off by it and they talked for a long time.

Meanwhile I was completely put off by his homeless friend  – an old man sitting on the sidewalk, completely drunk, dirty and smelly – who kept calling me to come and talk to him. I tried to ignore him and kept thinking to myself “I did not come here tonight to talk or hang out with you, an old drunk. I don’t even talk to old drunks like you on the streets of Rīga. Plus, you are weird and stink so bad. It will make me sick to be near you.”

He kept calling… and finally I gave in. Walked over, sat down on the sidewalk and turned my head where I could feel the fresh breeze instead of the stench of alcohol and uncleanliness. I was shocked to learn that Wayne was not so “old”. I had guessed a man in his 60’s but he was actually in his mid 30’s. Originally from Ohio if I remember correctly but had lived on the streets of San Fran for many years. Sleeping in the parks, under the bridges, eating in soup kitchens, drinking with his buddies and living one day at a time.

Little did I know that this was the first of many deep conversations. With a smirk, Wayne asked if I was with a group of Christians (which was clearly obvious) and then proceeded to talk about his faith in God (probably expecting to be evangelized). He told me he really liked the teachings and the life of Jesus but he did not like most of what is called ‘the church’. He even liked the evangelist Billy Graham and in his youth had sent money to this ministry.

That night I simply listened as Wayne did all the talking. It felt like he just wanted someone to listen. I did not even sense the typical manipulative “feel sorry for me”. His story made me sad, for sure, because he was a very intelligent guy with such a destructive lifestyle. The following weeks when my friends and I went to Haight & Ashbury, I started to look for Wayne and usually he was there. Often sober. Sitting on the sidewalk where we continued our discussions about life, God, joys and sorrows, friends and family.

Before actually remembering my name, Wayne started calling me “the Russian girl” and his “Russian friend”. The word got out and got stuck. Every time his other friends would see me, they would say “hey, you are the Russian girl, right?” (Since then I have learned to explain the geographic location of Latvia differently because as soon as you explain that Latvia borders Russia, many people remember Russia but forget Latvia. I say, for example, Latvia is south of Finland or across the Baltic Sea from Sweden or between Estonia and Lithuania 🙂 )

One evening we brought a big container of hot water, shampoo and scissors for any of the homeless men and women who wanted a haircut since one girl in our group was a professional hairdresser.  The police did not mind as we did it right there on the sidewalk. Wayne also got a haircut and for the first time we saw him without his dirty beanie. Afterwards the whole street block smelled like a shampoo and there were many happy, clean faces.

When it came to our last days in San Francisco, I was hoping to say “goodbye” to Wayne and to simply tell him that God does really love him and sees him whatever situation he is in and knows every hair on his head. And that I will continue to pray for him. It happened to be Valentine’s Day which I did not know since we did not celebrate such day in Latvia. I could not find Wayne in the regular spot but finally spotted him. He greeted me with a big smile and a red rose: “Happy Valentine’s Day, my friend! I was hoping to see you before your group goes back to Oregon. Thank you so much for sitting with me on the sidewalk, thank you for our talks and for listening me! I will miss it.”

So, here is the plain truth and the real mystery… meeting and getting to know this broken, homeless man turned out to be the most spiritual experience from my time in San Francisco and in fact one of the very significant spiritual experiences in my whole life. Which I could have almost missed by proudly walking by or looking over (and surely I have missed many similar mutually enriching connections and even friendships).

I planned to tell Wayne “I am glad I see you. But most importantly God sees you and really loves you.” But he beat me to it. By extending the rose as a farewell gift, he communicated without words which I translated it as: “Thanks for seeing me. I see you and God sees you. Most importantly God sees and loves all.”

For those who read this – happy belated Valentine’s!

Crossings that change direction

“Some people cross your path and change your whole direction”… Looking at these words written on a wall in front me while sitting at the most popular coffee shop on my grandmother’s street. (btw, this franchise is called Hedgehog-In-The-Fog in case you are looking for a cool place to hang out with friends in Rīga)

Simple but profound statement! Not just people, but also places… change the direction. Like Cairo, Egypt where I had the privilege to do volunteer work in different projects some years ago. For many Egypt may be a place to go on a vacation to some Red Sea resort, visit the Giza pyramids or other  places of ancient history. For others it may be a place to stay away from since there has been such political turmoil in the last decade and the news headlines often give a grim and confusing picture.

For me it was a place where I met some amazing people and learned some very important things. To name just a few – I learned about the Coptic church and other Christian communities and the challenges they face; learned more nuances about the geopolitics of the region; learned more about the Islamic culture and faith. I learned the life in different suburbs of Cairo (after spending time in most of them) but I cannot say I learned to love the public transport (you have to learn to be pushy) there. And, of course, the food (most of it very delicious).

The greatest impact on my life was the people. Like the team of Sudanese refugees who were learning to become teachers for their community in exile. The man with the vision was pastor Abraham (almost wrote “father Abraham” 🙂 ), a refugee from Sudan himself. He was from the southern part of Sudan before South Sudan was officially formed as an independent nation. He was so tall I had to bend my neck to look him in the eye (most of Sudanese men were very tall) and had the biggest, most reassuring smile.

“Cush Mission for Rebuilding” was exactly what its title meant. “Cush” is the name for the ancient kingdom mentioned even in the Bible. “Mission” was the calling and passion and “rebuilding” was the vision, dream and even courage. Many afternoons I stayed with the group as they were sitting in the circle and discussing all the challenges they were facing as refugees. And all the challenges they would face one day returning to their homeland. The group was inter-faith (Christian and Muslim) and they openly discussed the religious aspects of the violence, conflict and war in their communities back in Sudan.

Just by listening, I was overwhelmed by those hardships and obstacles but also inspired and personally challenged. In the midst of  a conflict where many people would blame religion as one of the causes of sectarian violence, I saw how religion can also be the greatest resource for peace building, restoration, healing and reconciliation. There were no easy, glib, cheep answers or solutions but there was an acknowledgment that faith and trust in loving, just and merciful God is a source for this hope and vision. What amazed me and went against all my preconceived ideas was how both Christians and Muslims were together learning from the life, words and works of Jesus of Nazareth!

As I continue being involved in peace building work and often in a religious setting, I often think of this experience in Cairo. It gave me a glimpse of possibility, not impossibility; an example of confidence, not fear; a taste of hope, not despair. Just like this letter which I kept.

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