Schmooze Like a Yankee

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The holidays are nigh upon us! On Monday evening, a weary Moscow begins its annual fortnight of well-deserved, well-oiled and largely apolitical revelry. Meanwhile Americans, as my mailbox shows, are already enjoying their more socially correct holiday break, merrily sending one another ersatz seasonal greetings so inoffensive they defy litigation. True to form, President George W. Bush has shown a more aggressive holiday spirit, demanding last week that the storm-damaged National Christmas Tree be gradually stabilized through an "elf surge" of tiny Halliburton subcontractors. Ho-ho-overrun!

Yet one Russian may be too busy to join the celebration. Outgoing President Vladimir Putin has spent all December furiously politicking and photo-oping, clearly intent on achieving a stratospheric recognition factor before leaving office. It hasn't always been pretty, either. Putin's recent metaphor for certain Russian democrats -- "jackals scavenging at Western embassies" -- offended both democrats and sensitive jackals everywhere. His choice for the next president --someone even more vertically challenged than himself -- was ungraciously self-aggrandizing, too ("Here's the baton, shorty!") And if self-promotion wasn't enough, Time magazine obligingly made Putin Person of the Year, and arguably the world's most recognizable middle-aged white guy.

Enough! Relax, Vladimir Vladimirovich, we won't forget you! Enjoy the holidays, let your presidency wind down, and your next job be less spotlight-driven. Fame is overrated, as I can attest from personal experience. Sort of.

A modest level of recognition -- something below notoriety but above anonymity -- gradually attaches to your name, I've discovered, if it appears regularly as a newspaper byline. When I identify myself at social functions, people sometimes pause in mid-handshake, neurotransmitters a-firing, and ask "Don't I know you from somewhere?" The reality of this quasi-celebrity hit home to me recently when a fellow reception guest voiced admiration for several of my recent columns. This was quite flattering, of course, until it emerged that I was not, in fact, Boris Kagarlitsky.

What good is real fame, anyway? Not much, judging by some near misses and actual meetings I've had in Moscow with the genuinely famous. I just missed former U.S. President Richard Nixon, apparently, at Spaso House in 1986; this was probably best for both of us, since my desire to consummate his impeachment could have meant uncivil words, a hotfoot or worse. I missed Queen Elizabeth too when she dropped by my local parish in 1994. This may also have been fortuitous, since the cheerful, American-style greeting I might have offered Her Britannic Majesty -- "Hi, queen! Hey, nice hat!" -- would perhaps have lacked the requisite couth.

Several actual rendezvous with the august have also been pretty underwhelming. Given some 10 seconds in a receiving line to chat up Patriarch Alexy II, I burned maybe half my shot clock repeatedly mispronouncing "Your Holiness" in Russian. And my chance encounter in the corridor of a St. Petersburg hotel with the androgynous glam-pop showman Filipp Kirkorov was judged a major missed opportunity by my students, who complained, "You could've strangled him and saved us decades of glam-pop torture!"

But if Dame Fortune accidentally does conk me with her fame stick, I do have three non-Putinian, X-chromosome-enhanced role models to draw on for famous-to-not-famous interaction. With apologies to Ecclesiasticus, let us now praise famous women, starting with the late Pamela Harriman. In 1992, I was dispatched to lobby Mrs. Harriman -- Washington's reigning social lioness, doyenne of Democratic politics and intimate of world leaders from Churchill onward -- for support of an important Russian-studies funding measure. When my turn came in the petitioners' line, I smoothly presented the issue as "Uh ... buh-buh-buh ... what that last guy said!" Mrs. Harriman graciously pretended this was both English and irresistibly persuasive, and the field of American-Russian studies was saved. Don't ask me how.

At a historical conference in Athens on Soviet alternatives to Stalinism, I found myself seated for lunch next to Oscar-winning actress and sometime Trotskyite gadfly Vanessa Redgrave, a striking woman who effortlessly radiated a stage presence that made you feel hopelessly unprepared for the role of person-having-lunch-with-Vanessa Redgrave. To her credit, the famed actress-cum-activist suffered Mr. Nobody-having-lunch-with-her very kindly, setting aside her most idiosyncratic (OK, nutbar) political views and engaging me on a first-name, cigarette-sharing, wasn't-that-an-interesting-film basis -- and apparently enjoying herself in the bargain. If this magnanimity was simply acting, I bought it anyway. You would've, too.

Yet most simpatico, in the end, was Yelena Bonner -- Mrs. Andrei Sakharov to much of the world, and herself an iconic figure for her decades toiling in the vineyard of Soviet human rights advocacy. After a group dinner with Dr. Bonner in 1992, I approached her to add my own word of thanks for inspiring all manner of Davids to challenge the Soviet Goliath, campaigning tirelessly for the good and decent in a society that rewarded cowardice and bad faith.

"Yelena Georgievna," I began, "I just wanted to say ... what you did ... those years ... we were always ..." The good doctor decoded this fumbling speech, regarded the fumbling speaker and said with a smile and grace that can't be feigned, "Thanks for the thanks, and you're welcome."

Fame is fleeting, but its nobler echoes linger. A good New Year's resolution for soon-to-be-ex-President Putin might be to give his laurels a rest and spread the generosity of spirit shown a stranger by these three famous women.

Meanwhile, as Tiny Tim might put it now, "Generic blessings, every one!" -- and apologies to Kagarlitsky if he's been asked about my columns.

Mark H. Teeter teaches English and Russian-American relations in Moscow. His next Arbat & Main column will appear Jan. 21.