American Hospitality, Russian Style
A few friends and I show up to a nondescript storefront on the corner of a busy intersection surrounded by food chains and major corporations. Waiting in anticipation for the store to open, we organize our reading material and discuss our plan for the day. Between the three of us, we’ll pour through several Russian-language newspapers, eat food unique to the area, talk with the shop owners and their guests, and think about our own special reasons for why we’ve become such devoted regulars.
The owner arrives in her European SUV with a Russian flag hanging from the rear-view mirror. We greet her with the usual Dobroye utro gospozha (“Good morning, ma’am”). The owner and her daughter step out, dressed from head to toe in usual European fashion. Russian norms dictate that you rarely leave the house dressed in anything less than your finest garments. We follow them inside, admiring the various paintings by local artists, which are scattered amongst flags of the Russian coat of arms. The counter is lined with business cards of fellow Eastern Europeans — mechanics, real estate agents, hair stylists, photographers, and members of the local Orthodox Church.
We peruse the four Russian newspapers, piecing together the meaning of their contents. We can smell fresh pelmeni and borsch being prepared in the kitchen. Samples of various candies, soup, and fresh black tea are all complimentary. Hospitality is not only customary in this place, it is real. All the employees treat us like old friends. We wander through the small aisles, reminiscing over various foods we’ve tried during our past travels in Europe. The halva, a sesame seed breakfast treat, tastes exactly the same as it did in the cafes of Odessa. To others, various chocolates bring about memories of Germany and Poland. We joke about the many Americanized versions of European cuisines often found in non-traditional stores and restaurants.
Throughout the day, we attempt to interpret the small conversations amongst the various customers who filter in and out. This form of immersion provides an immense improvement over the comparatively primitive conversations we share under other circumstances. Eventually, the three of us combine the two larger tables and spread about papers that cover the entire complexity of the Russian language, ranging from the many grammatical cases and verb conjugations to our own personal notes and methods used for memorization.
My interest in the whole of Russia began a bit unconventionally. Following an enlistment in the Marine Corps, I began working for the Federal Bureau of Prisons. My time spent inside such a vastly complex criminal world fueled my fascination with the upper echelons of intricate criminal organizations. I regularly interacted with Mexican Mafia generals, Aryan Brotherhood leaders, and various other elite gangsters. I could plug any of their names into an Internet search engine and pull up various news articles and government documents pertaining to their criminal activities.
Eventually, I began to work inside the ADX Penitentiary, commonly known as “Supermax.” The backgrounds and affiliations of the prisoners here dwarf the careers of those in less imposing prisons. In a sense, these men no longer even exist. They’re buried underground, behind multiple centrally controlled doors, and overseen by a division of the FBI. They can’t so much as blink without their actions being monitored by audio and video devices.
Working in Supermax, I learned about and took a special interest in the vor v zakone, or Russian Mafia. I became intrigued by their history, modern sub-culture, and how vastly expansive their current empire actually is. I read books about their formation in the gulags of the Soviet Union and how their current operational tendrils have spread to every profitable corner of the globe.
Inmates and guards alike have plenty of time to talk in Supermax, which is what we did. We figured none of us had too much to lose or gain from these talks one way or the other. Still, no book, movie, or documentary can compare to standing on the other side of an eight-inch-thick steel door, talking to the same man you’ve read about in a book. I also discovered that a prisoner will tell you almost anything when he’s removed from his traditional reference frames and buried underground for decades in an eight-by-twelve cell. This unfiltered discourse not only sparked my interest in the Russian Mafia, it fueled my curiosity in Russia as a whole.
Not long after, I arranged a five-week stay in Odessa, Ukraine. Once there, instead of living in a relatively Americanized hotel, I rented a one-room flat in an off street in a random part of the city. I adapted to the local customs as best I could and spent the entire time interacting only with the locals. As a result, the locals welcomed me with open arms. And what did I learn? That they’re more connected to the basics of what it means to be human. For instance, during the summer, it’s the norm in many areas to retreat to a summer home, or dacha, and spend a few warm months farming, relaxing, and generally reconnecting with each other. This family closeness seems to be lost in many Western cultures, where happiness is often determined by one’s material gain or occupation. Their genuine approach to life is why I plan to postpone my pursuit of a degree and take advantage of an opportunity to teach at an elementary school in a rural Russian city. These charming people and their admirable values embody my ongoing interest in Russia.
My friends and I often see the same values in the local Russian and Ukrainian communities. It’s why we spend many of our days in this little Slavic oasis blending into the American Dream. The owner brings us a fresh, hot pot of tea. There’s no need to check our watches. The time passed is evident by how far the shadow has shifted on our predominately stationary books. The average person can only verbally translate dialogue for roughly one hour. We’ve obviously been at this for a while – reading, translating, writing, interpreting, speaking – evident by the uncommon mistakes that are now starting to show. We loosely pile the papers inside our books and shove them to the side. We sit there quietly, enjoying our fresh tea, all the while feeling strangely detached from the familiar world outside. Deep down, some of us want to just stay in this vastly different yet curiously comfortable atmosphere. Our gaze is broken by the owner, who steps outside to retrieve a table and a few chairs. Without her asking, we get up and help her bring the items inside. We finish our tea, pack our bags, say our goodbyes and cross the border back into America.