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

I just read gay Strelkov porn so you wouldn’t have to

Note: After I wrote this post, I made the decision to insert a bunch of gifs with hot men in them. It’s not for you – it’s for me. To preserve my soul.

When Heather McRobie alerted me to the fact that erotic gay fan fiction featuring Igor Strelkov (Girkin), former (?) separatist leader in eastern Ukraine (and he’s actually from Russia, btw), was for sale on Amazon, I knew I had to take one for the team. Kind of like Batman – if Batman sat at home in a bathrobe and wrote about porn.

bale is amused

So here are some essential facts about “Sucking Strelkov”:

- Great title!

- It’s all downhill from the moment you read that great title!

- And it’s almost as if this story, which is 5,7k words long, was written specifically for a journalist to discover it and start shrieking about it on the internet. Immediately, from the way it is written, you start to suspect that it was written by a journalist as well. Or, at the very least, someone who has done a lot of traveling in Ukraine in recent months. HMMMMMM.

daario winks

- The narrator is a lady. It makes me think the author is a lady.

- I’m not the main target audience for hot dude-on-dude action, but I can still recognize something hot when I see it (or read it). “Sucking Strelkov” is NOT hot. It’s not because the writing is bad, mind you. The author knows her subject matter. She knows, for example, that gay sex is a touchy (sorry) subject in Russia right now. She knows the Russian obsession with bureaucracy. She knows a whole lot, in fact.

jon snow knows

- Strelkov is tired, emotionless, and has a small dick. That, combined with the fact that Strelkov rapes a dude in this story, makes me think that a bunch of Novorossiya fans – who are generally all about manliness and glory, among other things – would get VERY pissed off if they read this. And maybe that’s the point?

- The Russian cult of heterosexual masculinity has been getting a lot of pushback in Europe in recent months. Everyone’s tired of Russians being all MANLIER THAN THOU all the time. This story appears to tap into that – whether consciously or unconsciously.

- This story is really all about rape, but the word “rape” is never mentioned. That also makes it realistic. Rape is often a tool of war – and in war zones, it frequently takes on an almost casual quality.

- The author doesn’t like Strelkov, but her brief descriptions of him make me believe that she has watched a fair bit of footage of him, at the very least. She taps into the ambivalence of his public persona really well.

- Did I mention that this is really, honestly, completely not hot?

- Paying nearly two dollars for this is a rip-off – but it also makes me think as though the whole “east Ukraine separatists” thing could be its own genre. If PTERODACTYL PORN exists, why not?

- I feel icky now.

loki is all like um

Oh my God, Becky – look at Pornhub’s statistics on Russia and anal sex videos

Someone who reads this blog has suggested that I write an overwrought essay about the latest Pornhub study, which has found that anal sex porn is “more popular in Russia than any other country.”

Naturally, I am very offended by the suggestion that my writing is overwrought, and I am stomping my foot as I let the eye-watering Moscow sunset bathe my form in amber-esque light, or whatever.

I also looked at the study and realized that there is quite a bit that needs to be said about anal sex and Russia, especially in light of recent events.

Some disclaimers:

By itself, the Pornhub study doesn’t provide concrete facts about Russia itself – no matter how many punchlines we can get out of citing it.

I really wish the Pornhub study came with dates attached. Are they tracking user data for the whole history of the site?

Finally, the plural of anecdote is not data, and so this isn’t going to be one of those posts where I use a porn site’s statistics to talk about Russian men and what they’re like in bed.

Moving on:

References to anal sex occupy an interesting niche in Russian culture. Because plenty of noise has already been made about Russia’s seeming anal sex obsession in light of its controversial law against homosexual propaganda to minors/general issues of homophobia, it’s worth pointing out some context.

For example, as political expert Pavel Svyatenkov brilliantly argued last year, a lot of Russia’s issues surrounding gay rights actually stem from the fact that anal sex is associated with humiliation in Gulag culture.

As Svyatenkov wrote:

“The philosophy of Soviet-developed homosexuality penetrated [translator note: pun not mine] even those social classes which, by definition, should not have harbored it. What does a manager mean when he says that his ‘bosses fucked [him] in the ass?’ He obviously means that he received a ‘severe reprimand from management.’ To put it in other words, the relationship between the powerful and the subordinate is interpreted via a homosexual sex act.”

Svyatenkov is specifically talking about attitudes surrounding homosexuality, of course. And his comments make even more sense in light of the Pornhub study. A taboo wouldn’t be a taboo if it didn’t have cultural roots/causes.

The Pornhub study, meanwhile, suggests that more people in general search for straight anal sex – though not by that much.

Prominent Russian sexologist Yevgeny Kulgavchyuk recently gave an interview to The Village, where he talked about how, in his view, very few women actually enjoy anal sex.

Quote:

 “I’m tired already of saving poor women from [anal sex]. Men who have watched too much porn are trying to conquer all of their women via the backyard. If the gentleman’s size is small, a woman’s erogenous zones are positioned a certain way, then some couples do get pleasure out of it. But for the majority of women, anal sex only creates painful sensations and anal fissures. And we’ve already talked about how sexual relations shouldn’t harm our health.”

Now, if you’re reading this in the West and you’re pretty liberal, there is a good chance that you are kind of surprised right now.

Obviously, our medical establishment does talk about the risks of anal – but then again, our prominent sexologists often focus on the fact that it doesn’t HAVE to be all that risky (or, for that matter, painful).

In general, I’ve found that Western sex columnists/therapists/whatever take the following view:

People should do what they want to do as long as they are being responsible and respectful of each other.

And that’s different from Russian sexologist Kulgavchyuk’s approach: He doesn’t trust his clients to figure out, and uses his position of authority to “save” a woman from unwanted anal sex.

And it’s not as if Kulgavchyuk is ZOMG in the wrong. He’s operating within a different matrix, where a) doctors are vested with more authority than their Western counterparts (look at the history of Soviet medicine to understand why) and b) women in heterosexual relationships are traditionally understood to be more vulnerable parties.

(For example, when I was pregnant, my doctor went out of her way to offer to sit down for a “chat” with my husband and explain to him that he shouldn’t be too demanding as far as sex goes. I hadn’t at all indicated to her that his attention was unwanted. But within the context of relationships in Russia, where people are much more frank about power differentials and abuse is sometimes understood as practically a given, it made perfect sense for my doctor to offer to “save” me.)

**So does all of that have to do with that Pornhub study?**

Well, we can infer that in this environment, one where mutual exploration/communication isn’t necessarily understood as the default, anal sex is considered way more of a taboo. If both men and women are being denied a middle ground where anal sex is something they can work on and even enjoy – even as they live in a culture that is relatively permissive and where porn is readily accessible – it becomes that much more of a forbidden fruit.

I also want to bring your attention back to Gulag culture. It would be a mistake to assume that it hasn’t found its way into heterosexual relationships as well. If anal sex is understood as the ultimate expression of dominance over a passive “victim,” as Gulag culture dictates, it’s going to be a phenomenon that will continue to generate both anxiety and fascination (it is my contention that Gulag culture hasn’t been done away with – it’s been sublimated). And why shouldn’t people search for that which fascinates them online?

Kulgavchyuk thinks that his patients want to screw their wives “in the backdoor” because they’ve watched too much porn. He might be right, but it’s a chicken-or-the-egg type question, actually.

Russia still lacks comprehensive sex education. In this environment, porn isn’t used merely for pleasure and entertainment – it’s also a way to satisfy curiosity and try to make up your own mind about certain kinds of practies.

you will get pregnant and die

You’re waiting for me to mention politics, and I will. Well, kind of.

Back in the spring, Mark Galeotti criticized Washington’s “aggressively cerebral” approach to the Kremlin.

I’m not nearly as thoughtful as Mark, so in the unlikely event that Obama asked me for my opinion, I would say something like:

“LOOK. RUSSIANS KNOW THAT POWER IS POWER. THEY HAVE FIGURED OUT A TERRITORY WITHIN WHICH THEY CAN BEND YOU GUYS OVER. THEY ARE BENDING YOU GUYS OVER. JUST PLEASE UNDERSTAND THIS CRUCIAL FACT. THIS IS HOW THEY THINK. THIS IS HOW THEY THINK!”

Once again, I refer to Pavel Svyatenkov’s assertion that power and subordination in Russia are often illustrated via the metaphor of anal sex.

Also, it is useful to remember that power occupies a different place in Russia than it does, say, in the States. In the U.S. we have a set-up that roughly translates to:

State –> Social/Political Institutions –> Individual

In Russia, it’s more like:

State –> Individual

There is no buffer.

And that lack of a buffer is expressed in Russia’s street culture (or kitchen culture, or, generally speaking, the private sphere), as the state bending you over and giving it to you.

I’ve said this is before and I’ll say it again: the best pop culture metaphor for Russian domestic policy is probably “Blurred Lines.”

“Well, that’s gloomy,” you’re probably saying. It can be. Russians are also quite funny about it.

And in that context, the Russian fascination with anal sex, as exposed by Pornhub, is also pretty damn funny.

Finally, and it really sucks that I have to point this out, but I will: desire is also just desire.

Maybe nothing that I’ve said here has ANY real, statistical bearing on Pornhub’s Russian fans.

It’s all just conjecture.

I haven’t heard of a single comprehensive study on the subject in Russia (Levada Center, I’m looking at you).

All I did was take some statistics and try to paint a picture that will fit them.

I am working backwards here.

;)

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