Magazine article Russian Life

For the Price of a Hat

Magazine article Russian Life

For the Price of a Hat

Article excerpt

Thirty years ago this month, I took my first trip to Russia.

I was a college student discovering a new world, haplessly idealistic, overcome by wonder. We traded jeans for rubles, were bounced about like Pachinko balls in the under-stocked arcades, rendered numb by the litanies of Intourist guides, and chased from a elite disco by threats that the KGB was coming to break up the fun, having learned that foreigners were in attendance.

A few days before our departure from Leningrad, a handful of us fell under the influence of a black marketer. He snuck us into his dingy apartment block, and pulled a box full of ancient icons out from under his bed. I spurned the icons, instead bartering my warm down coat for two fur hats.

It was on that frosty January evening in 1982, running coatless back to my hotel (I could really have used Gogol's overcoat at that point), that I was bitten by the Russian bug.

The symptoms of the resulting ailment will be familiar to most readers of this magazine: a disproportionate interest in tsars, commissars and any author whose last name ends in ov, oy, or sky; a strange affinity for potatoes, dill and vodka; a grudging acceptance of the preeminent role of Fate and Serendipity in one's life; and an irrational tendency to argue about things from the Russian worldview, while simultaneously realizing that such arguments are often ridiculous. And so on.

My Russophilia disease, because that is what it is, really, has been stoked over the past three decades by dozens of trips to Russia, and of course by the experience of living and working there in 1989-90, when so much was changing so fast. …

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