Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Russian Affair, Part 13

How do you know when you've fallen out of love? I don't remember, because like pain and grief, falling out of love is difficult to recall. But I think one day you realize, much after the fact, that things are different.

It happened that June of 2004. One Sunday afternoon, some guys from the newspaper invited me out for the day. We'd drive to Mezhdureshensk to meet some of their friends, then have the banya – the Russian sauna - and eat shashlik (meat on skewers) in a park by the river.
We went to the office of their friend Victor, who had lunch prepared for us. I soon realized that Victor was the type of person who expends most of his energy trying to impress everyone else with his wealth and power. After lunch, we picked up Victor's mistress - a tall and stunning blonde half his age - and then to a computer shop, where he bought her a printer. Then we were taken to the mayor's office so that Victor could give the mayor a birthday present. The large and lavishly appointed office was crowded with hangers-on, who were there to give the mayor expensive gifts also. It was an ugly display of pomposity and bootlicking. I looked at the gifts - a laptop computer, leather briefcase, imported champagne and scotch - and thought about the orphanages that I had visited in the area in the past few days, overcrowded dumping grounds for Russia's unwanted, where there were not enough blankets to go around, and infirmaries without even aspirin. The largess of the mayor's office sickened me.

I saw other signs. Putin was proposing to halt foreign adoptions and allow work only by charitable organizations registered with the government – an impossibility for a small charity like our Books for the World. On a more personal note, the excitement and energy had gone out of some friendships, and my original Russian colleague had inexplicably severed our communication. I began to feel as if I had overstayed my welcome.

I had seen almost nothing of Julia that visit, save for a brief meeting for coffee on my last day there. To her, and to my friends at the offices of the Kuznetsk Worker, I said "da svidanya," even though that literally means "until later" in Russian, and I knew that there would be no later. I knew that I would never ride that slow, clattering trolley across the Tom River; never again see the clouds of orange, black and white smoke billowing from the stacks of those steel mills; never stroll along Kirova Street in the evening; never again, never. It was really "goodbye" this time.

No comments: