Schmooze Like a Yankee
- By Mark Teeter
- Dec. 28 2007 00:00
|To Our Readers|
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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.