A half-hearted Apocalypse of sorts

In the place I used to be from, they have an old legend about a band of warriors – horses, sabers, embarrassingly well-fitted leather chaps, etc. The legend goes that the warriors were brave and noble and fought on the right side of history. Most retired in peace and died nonviolent deaths.

Except for the one warrior that kept on living, that is. He kept on living and living. Last anyone’s heard of him, he was 700 years old and counting.

Impossible, you say. Imagine the paper trail someone like that would generate over time, you say. A warrior wouldn’t be a warrior if he listened to the objections of people on the internet, though. And anyway, there was a lot for him to do. War never goes out of style.

The legend goes that a few hundred years into his deathless existence, the warrior – let’s say his name was Nik, it’s a good name – was riding along through some dusty little town where chickens roam the main square. It was hot and he was thirsty, and he found a tavern and bought some beer. Some things in existence you don’t get sick of, not even after centuries.

A beer wench brought Nik his beverage, and leaned down conspicuously, as beer wenches are supposed to do, but before he got a good look at her tits, he noticed her eyes. And her tits stopped mattering then, and Nik felt uncomfortable. And the beer wench felt uncomfortable. And the joy drained out of the day.  Continue reading

Jack of hearts

Men have always said, “Don’t you dare write about me.”

Max never said anything of the sort, because writing didn’t exist for him, not really. It was real the way Australia might be real to someone in Europe. You’d see people from Australia posting on Twitter when the night was too hot for sleep and that would be as far as you were willing to cross into that particular reality. Not that Max had a Twitter.

One time, a drunk cab driver hit Max with his car outside a highway gas station somewhere in darkest East Ukraine. Max, who was drunk himself, got up from the asphalt, dragged the cab driver out of the cab by his hair and started punching him. Max’s friends told me this story, so I know he didn’t make it up (I hadn’t known him to make shit up, but at that point, I had worked as a journalist for too long to believe people outright most of the time). They said his then-wife had been literally hanging off of his arm, trying to make him let the cab driver go. He had several broken ribs and fingers at the time. What was impressive, they said, was how his anger was bigger than his pain. I think about that anger often, as I watch the news from East Ukraine.

“Goddamn it, Natalia,” you just said. “This trick of telling us about Ukraine via the prism of Dudes You Used To Date is getting old. If that’s what you’re doing again…”

That is exactly what I’m doing again. And it’s also not what I’m doing at all. That is not what I meant at all. That is not it. Etc.

Max, whose name isn’t really Max, didn’t date me. Instead, he came to see me at odd times. One time, he came to pick me up from the airport, after I’d flown in from Dubai. I was expecting my parents, but there was Max instead, grim like the weather, a bomber jacket on him I have never forgotten, because of the way the collar felt against my fingers.

“What are you doing here?” I said.

“I’m taking you home.”

I wanted to say something dramatic about how I have no home, but I was too tired from the flight. The familiar road from Borispyl Airport to Kiev was curiously empty, and it made me briefly wonder if the world had ended.

Timing is everything. It’s what John Donne knew, and Keats, and Dire Straits, and the man who once served Max and I beer in a roadside cafe, then turned around and said that it’s technically too early for beer anyway, but that we look like adults willing to take responsibility for our bad decisions. How we laughed. How small my hand felt in his hand, then – and my hands aren’t exactly small. How absolutely feral, his presence. Hungover, I rested my head against the complicated topography of muscle underneath his shirt.

Every once in a while, you need a man to be your wolf, carrying you on his back through the night.

When you don’t have that – well, you stagger on through the night on your own accord, and you skin will cry tiny seams of blood from the brambles, and you will probably get old prematurely, and none of that will be a tragedy, in the end. Or, rather, it will be a tragedy that’s muted in a very English way, on in an Anna Akhamtova way, when she struggles to get the glove onto the wrong hand, because she is distracted.

You might expect me to write that I took Max for granted, that I took youth and freedom for granted, but honestly, I don’t think I did.

And when he carried me on his back through the dark after we left some bar, I shuddered with every step he took, and staring sideways at the moon, I felt as though I might go cross-eyed, and I asked the pale face of the moon to not punish me for my happiness, and when we walked together we would stop and light candles in every open church we came across, and when I felt my hair streaming down my back as he undid my topknot the sensation thickened my blood into amber, and my breaths were very, very slow and light, and I felt afraid of disturbing the way the atoms in the room had arranged themselves. And when I asked him, much later, if he had been happy, he raised an eyebrow at me and told me not to ask extremely dumb fucking questions. It was just that the time allotted to us was short.

In Moscow last month, there was a heat wave before the cold spell. The air kept getting hotter with the dawn, humming with invisible energy, stifling the breath and blooming wild roses on the children’s cheeks, growing more and more unbearable with the minute, until the entire damn pressure cooker erupted in thunderstorms around lunchtime, making me pause in the street, palms up in exhausted gratitude. It felt as though if I stood there long enough, the rain would wash my thoughts away.

I have been concerning myself with work, with a new play, with my son’s immediate needs, with chilling the champagne. I have never felt more stupid or more uncertain about anything.

I just wanted to write that “I have never been more afraid,” but that’s not exactly true.  Continue reading

In which I spend entirely too much time responding to the same damn argument creepy Ukraine crisis trolls ALWAYS make around here

Recent articles on paid troll organizations in Russia haven’t surprised me – ’cause they’re not that recent a phenomenon (though lately, it seems, they are going after Western publications with a vengeance). The thing about a paid troll is that you can rationalize their actions. When I get messages that are apparently sincere in their utter hatred – I don’t know what to do. Well, aside from responding with gifs, I guess. The guy below is one of the “regulars” here. My latest appearance on a HuffPost Live panel has upset him. 

For a Russian state media hack, you are remarkably good at crying crocodile tears about what’s happening in Ukraine, the homeland you have egregiously betrayed.

Russian trolls are also fond of blathering about “traitors” among us. At least they usually do it in a more entertaining way.

Lest your readers forget, you worked at RIA Novosti before moving on to Russia Beyond The Headlines. YOU’RE A HACK.

A grateful hack, too. Grateful to have worked at The Moscow News/RIA Novosti, grateful to have stayed there all the way until the bitter end, grateful to have excellent Russian colleagues at Russia Beyond and in general.

johnny depp says deal with it

And the fact that you appear to be taken seriously at decent media just makes this reader want to dig around and see who it is you’re doing favors for and the nature of these favors. The public at large knows that Russia is very good at using supple young women to promote its agenda abroad.

See this accusation keeps coming up AGAIN and AGAIN, and it’s really interesting, because what it basically comes down to is that, “All Russians are barbaric neanderthals. All of the editors at the Western media outlets you work with are also barbaric neanderthals. Sexism is not cool when the Russians engage in it, but it’s perfectly OK for me to be a sexist dick, ’cause my name is not Vladimir. I’d never accuse a man of what I’m accusing you of, but I’m still an enlightened member of a clearly superior society.”

Right.

you don't say david tennant

It is not a fucking compliment, Natty. Whores engage in more honest business.

ACCUSING A WOMAN OF SLEEPING WITH HER EDITORS IN ORDER TO GET PUBLISHED IS NOT A FUCKING COMPLIMENT?!?!?!?!?!?!?!

Your Twitter attacks on Timothy Snyder have been duly noted. Who’s paying you for that huh? And is the money really that good?

EGAD. Someone has discovered my secret gig! I get paid to disagree with historians on social media! Now this has totally RUINED things for me, of course, because now everyone is going to want to sign up.

Honestly what makes you think as if you are even worthy to speak on the subject of Snyder’s work? You are barely educated.

It’s true. As we all know, people who disagree with Timothy Snyder on the internet have all graduated from the Center for Kids Who Can’t Read Good and Wanna Learn to Do Other Stuff Good Too.

mugatu says youre right

In conclusion, go ahead and be a ‘comfort woman’ for the Russians if they pay you so well. Just don’t imagine it will save you from the Gulagg. Whores are especially expendable at time of war.

Because I was somewhat trained in literary criticism (my professors will probably disagree on how well I responded to the training), I am actually amazed that it takes this guy so long to just come out and call me a whore. You can kind of see him building up to it, then abandoning that track, then coming back to it, for reasons that would probably be fascinating if I was into serious criticism of batshit comments on the Internet.

Also, “the Gulagg.”

And quit your crying about how “bad” you feel about what is happening to Ukraine. Collaborationist pigs don’t get to have have a voice. In any just society they’d cute off the pretty hair of yours and march you through the streets. Bitch.

You know, I’m not going to pretend that crap like this doesn’t get to me. It’s really low, obviously deranged, and it comes from what appears to be a very tiny group of people on the Internet, but it still gets to me sometimes. Especially now, when things are so hard, on various fronts. When they are too hard to even talk about.

arya is tired

PS you looked like a whore at HUFFPOLIVE today. But this is what you people do isn’t it – show skin when you have nothing interesting to say except for the usual “rah rah Russia” dung.

Good to know that me wearing a damn sundress in the middle of a heatwave in Moscow can now also be used against me.

Just in case anyone is wondering, this is what I looked like on HuffPost Live today:

Screen Shot 2014-06-05 at 22.54.47

I know I shouldn’t be responding to any of this. I know I shouldn’t be justifying anything – or, for that matter, producing actual screenshots of what I looked like on a political panel in order to counter a stupid troll – but it’s the kind of week when merely ignoring it, deleting, and forgetting doesn’t help.

It especially doesn’t help that one of the people who writes me these things is very much a “real” person, someone whom I have a friend in common with back in the States, someone who has been to Russia – so not the kind of person you can stick into the “anonymous crazies” folder you will then demonstrably burn.

And it’s especially hard, because things in Ukraine are not getting better. The east of the country is descending into full-blown civil war. These aren’t just headlines from far away – this is personal, and it is terrifying, and dealing with trolls in the midst of it is profoundly ugly, and I can only cope with it by ridiculing it publicly, I guess.

And breaking out the ice cream after that. And the mint juleps, which go well with this heat, and make everything that much more tolerable.

am i the only one

 

Kiev’s brittle spring

I’m one of those people who can’t sing by herself. Someone else has to hit the first note for me. Two of my aunts are music instructors  – one disabled, the other partially disabled these days – and they both say that it’s an issue of confidence, of being sure. As if that hidden first note is trying to tell me something.

In another lifetime altogether, when neither one of my aunts was particularly sick, I would take long trolleybus journeys downhill to the best theater in Kiev. That winter, the air was so cold that it literally glittered. I couldn’t afford to be ethically fashionable and bundled myself into an enormous fur coat I had discovered in the back of the closet.

It was only a matter of time before I would return to the States. That was pretty obvious. The States was where the life was. Mine – and everyone else’s. The States had a credit ratings system, good roads, and HBO. I would rent a room in Brooklyn and write a blog complaining about not being able to get laid as often as I liked. Assuming I partied with the right people, it would inspire a television pilot eventually. Or some dorky, deceptively undersexed-looking man/bird-thin woman in a vegan sweater would offer me a book deal. It was how I pictured it, anyway.

The future had been clearly penciled in, but before it came, there was plenty of time to write, party, and stumble out of taxis into blustering sunrises with curly-headed clouds tossed aside by a strong wind that seemed to blow into Kiev both from the East and the West simultaneously.

I started writing plays largely as a means of amusement for myself and the actor friends who rode in taxies with me. “I would SO love to, like, be in a one-act that you wrote, you know? Don’t tell me you can’t write in Russian! You totally can!” they would tell me, never underestimating the power of cheap flattery. But we all loved each other too – in was that were obvious and not obvious.

Then bearded men from Moscow started showing up and giving their pronouncements on these plays. When they poured me vodka, it always overflowed.

I sat next to one of these men at a party in what passed for the theater’s foyer, where chairs were glued to the ceiling and a large tank overflowed with lethargic turtles. My friends sang. My throat opened up on the second note and I joined them – and the man snapped his head in my direction with a surprised look. He told me later that he had never heard women sing like that. They were old, calcified songs, the notes etched on mineral deposits below the dark basements of the city.

After I sung myself out, I kissed him goodbye on the cheek. I was leaving for a road-trip to Poland in the morning. He went back to Moscow in a couple of days and I didn’t think of him, I didn’t think of him at all (maybe once or twice did I think of him. Maybe a little bit more).

I realized recently that I hadn’t seen April in Kiev in years. The April rain here must contain some kind of chemical in it that strip layers off of everything – including people. April is a month of dangerous clarity and what’s increasingly clear right now is that we are all dangling off a precipice and below us are the hard, shining peaks of war.

Continue reading

Goodbye to The Moscow News: on riding off into the sunset yet again

“Again the well-worn saddle creaks,
And the wind chills an old wound;
Monsieur, where in the name of hell have you wound up?
Can it be you can’t afford a bit of calm?”

After nearly four years, I am leaving The Moscow News. Now that our owner, the RIA Novosti agency, has been liquidated, the paper has been put on hiatus, all of our social media channels are frozen, and the audience we have worked very hard to build has been left wondering what’s going to happen next. I will not be with TMN in the next chapter, so I will not be the one answering that question.

I do sincerely hope that the paper will be reopened – and that it will thrive.

I also have words of advice for everyone interested both in the media and in Russia.

To say that the future is uncertain is to say that the celestial void is somewhat daunting to behold. What’s especially hard to accept is that with regard to Ukraine, nothing may ever be the same again. It’s a scary, painful time. And it’s almost bizarre to observe how the stuff of headlines and news reports also has to do with your family and fate.

Personally speaking, I have been asking myself whether or not I would change anything if given the chance to go back. The answer is “no.”

I’ve also been asking myself how I really feel about everything – and in the end, all I can think about is how grateful I am for every single day I spent in the company of amazing people, doing something I loved. 

So here’s to love. And to the past. And to the future.

the musketeers agree