FIFTH COLUMN: New Russia Breeds New Type of Exile
- By Leonid Bershidsky
- Jun. 22 1999 00:00
This is actually the first in an intended series of columns about Russia's perpetual fifth column, the people who are sometimes referred to as "internal emigr?s."
We are a kind of secret society. Our hands meet when grabbing for a copy of The Moscow Times at the Radisson or the Starlite Diner.
We sit next to each other in the dark, crunching popcorn at one of the newly fashionable multiplexes. When drunk, we tend to switch to English.
Whether we put in crazy hours at various whitewashed offices or lead a bohemian existence, you will not see us in the summer tending our dacha plots. These plots are either overgrown with weeds or mown, American style.
When we talk to a police officer, we are so apologetic and decorous that we practically invite a body search.
What really sets us apart, however, is the fact that we have not lost our ability to be amazed by our country (this country, as many of us tend to refer to it).
Russia surprises us every day of our lives - not exactly the way it surprises foreigners, but as intensely. A cozy outdoor cafe with nice service is a surprise, but so is, say, the convoluted process of residence registration, or propiska.
We are, in a way, a downtrodden class - despite our reasonably high educational standard, we are notoriously bad at navigating the bureaucracy. Yet sometimes an internal emigr? gets to the very top of the government hierarchy.
A good example is Anatoly Chubais, formerly first deputy prime minister and presidential chief of staff, now head of the national power grid, UES.
Not only does he know a bagel from a bublik, he looks, talks and acts in such a non-Russian way that one look at him instills gut hatred in many representatives of the other four columns.
In fact, an internal emigr? looks more natural in a Parisian cafe sipping a coffee than he does waiting in line at a railroad station ticket office.
Throughout his life he has probably spent more time waiting in various Moscow lines than in Paris, but that balance is improving every year.
Internal emigr?s often tend to turn into real emigr?s.
A lot of them left Russia in the late '80s and early '90s, and many lined up at the offices of Canadian immigration lawyers when the financial crisis hit last year. But then some of them come back to be internal emigr?s again.
None of this is to say we are not fervent patriots. Many of us are obsessed with finding good Russian music to listen to and good Russian food to buy.
We will be heard screaming at the stadium when the national team scores a goal. Some of us even cheered when Russian troops went into Kosovo ahead of NATO.
We proudly count among our prophets none other than Russia's national poet, Alexander Pushkin, who, in "Eugene Onegin,'' claimed that Tatyana's famed letter to the protagonist was actually a poor reverse translation from the French. It was Pushkin, after all, who noted that he would happily spend time slinging mud at Russia and all who sail in it, yet take mortal offense when a foreigner tried to do the same.