For God’s sake, Putin was not “hitting on” Peng Liyuan. Also, there’s nothing wrong with Russian chivalry

I woke up this morning to some people asking me if Vladimir Putin was “hitting on” the First Lady of China. He had been caught on camera wrapping a shawl/blanket around her shoulders at the APEC Summit. Cue hysteria!

I explained that if a woman looks cold, a Russian man will drop everything and immediately give her a blanket/his own jacket/whatever. It’s not a sex thing, it’s just seen as good manners in Russia. This doesn’t, of course, mean that this gesture can never ever be flirtatious – but honestly, if a Russian man is flirting with you, there will be other ways in which he’ll let you know.

Protecting a woman from the cold is PARTICULARLY seen as good manners in Russia because of the complex cultural ways in which Russians treat the whole idea of being cold. For example, they always assume that being cold can make you very, very sick. Most well-mannered Russian men don’t even *think* about it when they offer you their coat outside – for them, it’s an automatic gesture.

Inevitably a friend wrote in to tell me this,

But don’t you think that Russian “chivalry” is more than a little sexist? It basically assumes that women are too weak to take care of themselves.

OK. So. People are entitled to their views on chivalry. But once again, it has important cultural contexts in Russia.

For one thing, Russia is not a very friendly place. It’s a macho society, where men are forever obsessed with the question of who’s dominating whom, and aggression is seen as a necessary survival trait, even in social situations.

Russian chivalry is one of the few ways in which people who don’t know each other very well will treat each other with politeness and kindness. I think this is one of the main reasons why it’s important to preserve it.

Secondly, Russian women don’t find it degrading. If anything, it’s one of the few expressions of hypermasculinity that isn’t made at the expense of a woman. It’s never about assuming that she is helpless – helplessness in women, I would argue, is NOT prized in Russia – it’s about recognition of her femininity as deserving of special attention from a man who, in most other social situations, is expected to act a bit brutish.

Honestly, no Russian man draping a blanket over a woman’s shoulders is thinking, “Stupid bitch can’t do it herself, and I, therefore, shall prove my masculinity by doing it for her.” It’s more like, “We can share a gentle moment in what is essentially an adverse world.”

Russian life is still built on ideas of survival and Russian women are the classic survivalists. They are expected to have both careers and babies. They are expected to do all of the housework and look glamorous while at it. Russian chivalry is a slight nod of recognition to all that – and it doesn’t, I would argue, obscure the very real challenges women do indeed face.

Most Russian gender norms are all kinds of screwed up. I wouldn’t put Russian chivalry on that list, though. Russian chivalry is nice. It’s sweet. And it particularly makes for a good change of pace when you’re used to men who won’t even *think* of, say, helping you with a heavy parcel (because God forbid they make you look “helpless”).

It may not always be appropriate at a political summit, but neither is it the sleazy, “OMG HE DID NOT” moment some people are trying to make it out to be.

Of all the things to be angry about when it comes to Putin, this just isn’t it.

*shrug*

All the king’s sweets (a song for overgrown children)

When you walk out into this night
You will find what you’re looking for
– Or maybe a little bit more.

Gunpowder on a stick
So sweet that it hurts to lick;
A border where lace confronts thigh
Patrolled by a a jealous eye;
A star in the forehead,
A golden sieve,
And all you can see
Is all you believe.

My darling, I took the rather bold step
Of stabbing the dragon
With a pen
In the back.
But nobody comes
And nobody cares,
I’m alone with the beast
I have not taken care.
He’s rather amused, giggling into his gold,
He’s not shy with his smile
Though his fangs smell like rot.

My darling, other heroes will come,
To fuck all the women, to drink all the rum;
I will not be among them, I was silly, it seems,
My bones will be toothpicks,
My memory will dim.
They’ll make armor from dragon scales
And wear it down to the pub
While my scattered molecules
Still demand all the credit.
(I told you, I’m silly,
I told you, it hurts)

You keep trying to reach me
Through other men
When they put their hands
On my exposed neck.
I wish you would fucking stop it,
But honey runs thicker than water.

This is my city, and I won’t share,
I’ll scrape the moonlight off the asphalt
I’ll pack away the flaxen air.
You’re only allowed
To exhale.

I told you, being a wife
I’m as dull as a butter knife,
Dull blades hurt so much more;
The last czar’s daughters would know.

Pearls of moisture
Gleam like satellites
In the spiderwebs
Between the trees at night.

Pearls of moisture
On my skin
Swiped by a burglar
As my years grew thin.

When we were young
We didn’t know
Our lover was night;
Night was the cream on the upper lip
Clotted to butter
From body heat;
Night was the watcher
On the cemetery wall;
Night was the angel
In the hospital hall;
Paint peeling off walls
Like silks off your mistress,
Tell me, who among us
Would dare take it all back?

very long engagement

Never a place to hide: on helping bring Arthur Kopit’s “Wings” to Russia (and a few other things besides)

New York’s Lark Play Development Center & Moscow’s Lyubimovka Festival recently conspired to have several great American plays be translated and adapted for the Russian stage. I was tapped to translate and adapt Arthur Kopit’s “Wings.” After Arthur and the other playwrights participating in the workshop flew in, we took my first draft and worked on the adaptation together, alongside director Daniel Romanov and a wonderful cast with the great Varvara Pushkarskaya in the lead.

At the same time that we were preparing a dramatic reading of “Wings” at the Meyerhold Center (named after Vsevolod Meyerhold, executed by Stalin in 1940), it was announced that Moscow’s Teatr.doc, where I began my career as a playwright in Russia, was being thrown out of its iconic basement facilities by the Moscow authorities.

While I was working on “Wings,” a number of people politely asked me why I was focused on bringing American drama to the Russian stage in the midst of sanctions, acrimony, threats of war, confusion, a destabilized and bloodied Ukrainian Donbass, and so on. “Do you even think it’s worth it?” the implied question was.

In the best of times, I never thought it was possible to retreat into art. The idea of art as a kind of pretty meadow where you can hide from life’s general BS always struck me as distinctly Soviet – and when I say “Soviet” I’m talking about the bureaucratic side of things, as opposed to the human side, because I mean no disrespect to the great artists produced by the USSR.

There’s a reason why “Swan Lake” played on Soviet TVs during the putsch in August of 1991. Officials had a view of art that was both utilitarian and naive. Art was a pretty picture you could transmit in place of reality – i.e. real art had nothing to do with reality.

This view of art endures, somewhat, in Russia to this day. It’s why an anti-constitutional law banning obscene language in movies and songs (books with obscenities must now come with special stickers) was passed. The idea of art as pretty, ineffectual, and uncontroversial is the idea that appeals to bureaucrats the most.

Still, there is what officials want to believe – and then there is reality.

The reality is this: working in the theater is a battle from which there is no retreat. Even when times are relatively good and no one is going around trying to shut down independent theaters – but especially so when times are not good. Especially so when you are scared. And sad. And tired. And when you can’t make up your mind as to what displeases you more – the world outside or the world inside you.

When I was translating Arthur Kopit’s “Wings,” I had to take mental health breaks several times. The play was constantly making me cry.

There are lots of reasons why a great play should make someone cry. My reason for crying was the reminder that it all comes to nought. The play’s heroine is a strong woman, a former stunt pilot, suffering from a stroke. She is forever altered. She will never go back.

(“There is now no ship to bear me hence, and I must indeed abide the Doom of Men, whether I will or nill: the loss and the silence”)

We are such fragile creatures, really. Nobody wants to be reminded of that.

In recent years, I had to deal with the loss of a family home, the second such loss I had to experience so far. I then had to deal with the loss of my beloved job. Now I’m dealing with the reality that theater is also not some mystical island upon which the forces of darkness may never encroach. Quite the opposite.

I often think of myself as Arthur Kopit’s heroine now. Flying through the darkness and unable to tether myself to somewhere safe. And you know, I realized that this is perfectly alright.

When you know exactly what is happening to you, when you are no longer trying to hide from it, when you cease to be a character in a horror movie, running screaming from the danger to the sadistic delight of your pursuer, you become free – so free that you’re not even sure what to do with this freedom at first. It’s like living under a molehill for all of your life and then finding out that there is a sky.

In the West, we are often used to thinking that we define the world – we are the observers, others are the subjects of our observation. As a product of at least three distinct cultures, I’ve always known what utter crap that is. When an entity like Lark collaborates with an entity such as Lyubimovka, I get the chance to demonstrate precisely why it is crap. Because when a play like “Wings” comes to Moscow, it’s Russians who are cast as the observers, for example.

This is why such collaborations are important – and this is why everyone asking me about “the point” of bringing American drama to Russia now is, in fact, misguided. We are doing what the entire Russian Foreign Ministry (which knows a thing or two about the high art of the irrational) cannot dream of doing. We see a text expand so much that it becomes a kind of space, a platform, a field – where people from different backgrounds engage each other as normal human beings.

You can’t hide in art, it’s true, but then again, that’s only because art exists beyond the state of hiding.

And so I’m really grateful to Lark & Lyubimovka. And to Arthur and Daniel, for being so good at what they do, and so good in general. And grateful to the actors, of course.

cast of wings and me and arthur and danya filtered

The night before we showed “Wings” in Moscow.

A statement on the state of things

I dreamed that a former lover took me by the hair
Wrapped my hair around his wrist
Like a chain.
He beat the people he loved with me,
Beat them bloody
So that they could never hurt him again.
And in the melee
I wondered where he ended and I began.
I called my hairdresser and said,
“Pasha, why did you make my hair golden again,
So that it attracts the attention of thieves
And other people of questionable character?”
“Sanctions, my darling, sanctions,” Pasha said.
“We all have to invest our precious metals on the sly.”
I dreamed that my mother’s television
Detached itself from the wall as gracefully as it could
And volunteered to be my headstone.
My mother shook her head and said,
“Well, I can’t say I’m surprised by the situation,
As you know, someone is trying to steal our Arctic,
Just pack it away and steal it,
In a suitcase with a false bottom,
A man in aviator sunglasses and a rudely colored Hawaiian shirt,
Is trying to do it,
Just like that.”
People were dying.
In the kitchen of a khrushchyovka
That forever has bits flaking off of it, like another callus
On the groaning, unkempt body of the city,
Cigarettes were being crushed to death
And people shook their heads
At the horrific carnage and cruelty.
I dreamed that someone kept calling my number
And telling me that I could come home now,
But when I looked over my shoulder,
All I saw was the eternal return.
And I said to it, “That’s OK, that’s really OK,
We’ve been here before, you and I,
Come at me, bro.
Come the fuck at me, bro.”
But even then thermodynamic free energy
Was packing its bags and putting them on the sidewalk,
All aggrieved
Making a big show of checking the time,
Waiting for a cab.
It was getting so much colder.
Tears were already
Freezing at the corners of my eyes,
Like tiny icicles, like daggers for a mouse,
And I was too proud to say
That they were the only weapons
I could fuck shit up with
At this time.

……

time is a flat circle

Why it sucks to be a journalist (and why people do it anyway)

In the West, the news is a commodity, a product. And the customer is always right. If you’re not giving the customer what they want – you’re usually screwed.

In places like Russia, the news is more like a government-owned resource. And the government gets to set the agenda on how said resource will be exploited. If you’re not giving the government what it wants (or getting a little too uppity or bothersome) – you’re usually screwed.

I’ve worked for both English-language Russian state media and Western independent media. I’ve been lucky so far. Lucky for having intelligent editors who set good standards, for being able to speak my mind, for being able to walk away when facing censorship. Lucky that I’m still, at this stage in the game, able to feed my family (on a diminishing income). Lucky that I’m not an exploited freelancer in a conflict zone (for now, anyway).

Im-not-anybodys ygritte says

But the more online harassment I experience, the more threats I receive, the more insults (many of them gender-based, others aimed at my complicated cultural and ethnic heritage) I hear, the more I have to wonder if I’m tough enough.

When I was writing about the fateful 2010 winter election in Kiev, there was an incident I’ve been loath to talk about. Perhaps a couple of my friends know. It made me feel vulnerable and unprofessional at the time. I certainly didn’t want to complain and make it seem as though I was afraid of anything.

I had argued with a security guard near a polling station. He insisted I couldn’t be on the sidewalk, talking to people. He thumped me on my chest and pushed me hard. I went flying on the black ice that seemed to encrust every surface that winter, landing on my back, hitting my head in the process. After the immediate shock and pain wore off, I let a woman who had just voted help me up. The guard had scampered off. I went back to doing my job.

The incident stayed with me, because the pain stayed. I had problems with my back before, but that one bad fall caused chronic pain that lasted for over a year. After I got pregnant, I had to seek out specialists capable of helping pregnant women with severe back pain. The pain sapped my strength and bank account. It still flares up every once in a while. X-rays so far have been inconclusive, and I am convinced that a part of it starts in the mind. Chronic pain is complicated, but it has its roots. Some are abstract.

People don’t like journalists – for reasons are both abstract and concrete. People take, ah, liberties with journalists, especially in countries with brittle regimes and a high tolerance for violence. People don’t like it when journalists tell them what they don’t want to hear. People don’t like it that journalists take money from either governments or corporations or NGOs – i.e., people don’t like it that journalists have a powerful need to eat every once in a while.

I’ve been both a reporter and a pundit – a reporter takes risks in the field, only to be shouted at for bias. A pundit feels like Cassandra with tongue in place, but no one listening anyway. Everyone is down in the comments section, bitching about how you’re the wrong ethnicity to have an opinion on some matter, while others are busy e-mailing you detailed odes on how awesome it would be when you’re finally gang-raped.

“You go out there and do your job!” People shout at me on the internet, from the comfort of their homes. I’m remembering the first story I did for The Moscow News – on a neo-Nazi stabbing in southwest Moscow. I visited the scene of the crime, talked to the neighbors of the victim, talked to the crying wife on the phone outside. On my way back, I had to walk through an apple orchard at dusk. Two guys began following me. They weren’t neo-Nazis, they were thugs, enraged at seeing a reporter asking questions “without permission” on their territory. Didn’t I know I could be “punished”? There was no one else around. We were in the middle of a major city at peacetime, but in a second it was brought home to me – how unsafe I was. I let them catch up with me, joked with them, bummed a cigarette off of one of them, discussed my story. I smiled at them. They eventually began smiling back.

Female journalists are lectured on “using our looks” and following “the principles of feminism.” We’re still seen as women first and journalists second – hello, “mother of three” headline! – but we must pretend as though this isn’t really so in our work.

In the company of bad men, however, there are no illusions. You appeal directly to their strength. A strong man wouldn’t need to prove his strength by hurting a girl-reporter, would he? Except sometimes, he would.

Our readers hate us. We hate each other. When I joke about dick-measuring contests on Twitter, I’m not really joking. Professional solidarity usually only appears when someone gets their head cut off – to be quickly forgotten.

Everyone knows that you don’t get ahead by being the best. You get ahead by proving that the others are worthless.

If you’re a young woman, prepare for the possibility of getting harassed, raped, or simply used by colleagues you look up to. And then, of course, they’ll tell their friends that you only got that one gig because [insert body part, outfit, etc]. Hoity toity male journalists will punish you for admiring them as surely as they will punish you for not admiring them.

girls see more blood ygritte says

(And if you’re ever, say, attacked while doing your job – men will write hit-pieces about it, minimizing your suffering while making your entire job about your looks. And when you start getting older, people will begin getting mad at you about it – and asking why the hell are you still on TV, you fat cow)

In times of conflict and tension, you will be seen as a tool first and a person second – by everyone from the security services to Jim-Bob who’s never frozen his ass off at a demo that swiftly erupts into violence when the boys with the batons move in, but will still write your bosses and demand you be fired for your “pro-[insert whatever it is that Jim-Bob doesn’t like at that moment] coverage.”

In a conflict zone, you will be accused of propaganda if any particular side appears to trust you – though trust is how you get people talking, how you get them to let you in, and how you get them to not kill you.

The late Andrei Stenin got the pro-Russia rebels in eastern Ukraine to trust him – so now I’m constantly being told that he deserved his death. Meanwhile a friend has reported extensively on the right-wing Azov battalion on the Ukraine side – only to be accused of being a “Nazi sympathizer” in the process.

When you acknowledge the pressure you are under, you’re weak and hysterical. When you don’t acknowledge it, it begins to do your head in.

I was in a bar in Kiev with a cousin last month, when your typical Douchebag Expat Stereotype who’d only been in the country for a couple of weeks but had oodles of opinions he was dying to share sidled up to us. In the course of trying not to talk to him, I found out that he follows the work of a friend of mine who has been reporting on the armed conflict in the Donbass. “He’s just so biased! And so cocky!” Douchebag Expat Stereotype ranted.

“So why don’t you go out there and show him how it’s done,” I replied – then instantly regretted my words.

The last thing you want to do is give a self-assured blowhard the idea that he can do this kind of job.

Meanwhile, one of the defining characteristics of the human race is our need to tell stories, to bear witness – and to pass the information on. I think that people tend to get into journalism because they’re human. And a little crazy. It’s a calling – in the sense that a pied piper is playing a tune somewhere. You stumble off the safer path and follow the song. You live to regret it and you live to love it – sometimes in equal measure.

but first well live ygritte says