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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Never Reveal Real Motives To Anybody

An earnest young man cornered me at a fete the other day to tell me he had the solution to Russia's smoldering Chechnya problem. "The Russians, who need Chechnya like a hole in the head, are holding on to it," he posited. "The Chechens, who really can't survive without Russia, are trying to break free." True enough. "It could all be resolved in a matter of days," he promised, "if only both sides said what they really need from each other."

Granted, you could solve most of the world's problems that way, ending wars and lowering the divorce rate as well as the number of marriages -- but where did this young man think he was? In this country, whose people pride themselves on their frankness and openness, there is no misstep worse than setting out your agenda openly.

Recently I was at the theater with my partner, my grandmother and a friend of hers. While my grandmother and her friend were adjusting their hairdos in front of the mirror, I walked over to the stern-looking gray-haired lady selling programs. "How much are the programs?" I asked.

"Ten thousand."

"Can I have two then?"

Pause. And then a growling, "Zachem?" ("What for?")

"Zatem." ("That's what for.") I didn't feel like explaining that I had my grandmother and her friend with me. That, you see, would be making my motives known, when what I really wanted was to assert my right to waste four bucks on two utterly uninformative pieces of paper, which I needed about as much as Russia needs Chechnya. That is, I needed them because they were part of the ritual: My grandmother would take hers home and place it on the table as something of a conversation piece for the next few days; I would add mine to the towering pile of wastepaper the cleaning lady carefully lines up and balances every few days.

"As you wish then," the program lady conceded. "But I wouldn't advise it." It sounded sinister, as it was meant to: I was to think she too had a hidden agenda, possibly, just possibly, something dangerous -- a program just might have blown up in my hands the moment the audience began to applaud in unison.

The way we deal with one another in this country is a lot like the way a car mechanic and his customer deal with each other anywhere in the world. "Your car needs everything replaced, but I don't really need the business, so you'll be lucky if I do just the one or two most expensive repairs for you," the mechanic says. "Hell, I don't even need this car," responds the customer. "I was planning to sell it tomorrow, so I just need you to make sure it isn't covered in a cloud of smoke next time someone turns the ignition key."

Of course, every car owner eventually finds a mechanic with whom she strikes a perfect balance of deception, which, in the car-repair universe, passes for absolute trust.

So this young man who would end all wars -- he surely knew this about Russia. He must have had a reason for suggesting a solution so laughably simple. So just in case, I agreed that he was making a most insightful point. If we understood each other right, I just might become his most trusted mechanic. I mean, journalist.

Masha Gessen is a staff writer for Itogi magazine.