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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

ESSAY: Moscow Starts Folding Up the Welcome Mat




I step off the curb and into the roadway, my right arm pointing downward at a 45-degree angle. Momentarily, the beams from the headlights of a purple Lada sweep across me as the car swerves to a stop.


I open the passenger door and lean in: Proletarskaya, 40 rubles. "Have a seat," says the driver, exhaling the last drag from a Pyotr I as he tosses the butt out his window onto the filthy asphalt.


The subway has shut down for the night, and it is approaching 2:30 a.m. on a Friday as he accelerates back into traffic, ignoring his side view mirror, along Leningradsky Prospekt. I reach behind me for the seat belt, one of the rare ones that is functional.


"No need to," he says. I know, I tell him, I just prefer to buckle up.


He snorts. "Where are you from?" he asks, looking at me.


America, I say.


"Ukh ty," he says, turning away to face the windshield. "Aren't you scared? I mean, right now, aren't you scared?"


Pensioners, communists, skinheads, students and soccer fanatics had gathered earlier outside the U.S. Embassy to protest the first day of NATO bombings of Yugoslavia. TV was carrying footage of angry Russians, some 2,500 of whom signed a petition volunteering to fight "For Serbia!"


A friend had, minutes earlier, cautioned me in her kitchen to "be careful because, as you know, our country is a little bit crazy." The early Friday edition of the city's 2,300,000-circulation daily newspaper, Moskovsky Komsomolets f which I had bought for 2 rubles from an elderly woman in the subway f carried the banner: "Bill Without Monica Has Gone Completely Crazed."


Below a cartoon depicted two jet fighters, inked in black, dropping bombs on a pastoral landscape with a modest city on the horizon. Upon one of the bombs was scrawled, "For Monica!" The United States was even blamed for an 80 percent jump in the price of eggs under the headline, "Clinton's Eggs," a not-very-covert reference to the source of the evidence scraped from a certain blue dress.


And the story on the nationwide protests ran with the headline, "Yankee, Go to ?" f which, in Russian, presages a crude term for a place far, far beneath your average Yankee home.


I turn to the driver. No, I say, I'm not scared. Maybe I'm naive, but ?


"Well, then, you're sufficiently naive," he says. "Listen, I will tell you the truth. Russians hate Americans. I know. They hate you. Several of my Russian acquaintances have said that they want to go out and kill Americans."


They also don't like people from the Caucasus, I say; the driver has light brown skin, termed "black" by most Russians, and I suspect he is among the Georgians, Armenians or Azeris who are harassed regularly by Moscow city police through so-called random document checks, and fines.


"I, myself, am from Azerbaijan," he says, exposing a top row of teeth capped in gold and framed in silver. "Everything is normal between us and the Russians. Even so, if they don't like us, they certainly hate you."


Indeed, things have changed a bit since I moved here in the fall of 1996. About three or four times a month I catch flack for being American from aggressive strangers. Usually it is words but, from guys hanging out at the street kiosks at night, drinking and smoking, it is also gestures demonstrating what they believe Americans are doing to the world.


I have toned down my actions in small ways: I no longer read English-language publications on the subway, or in crowded parks and squares; I speak English rarely on the streets, and then only quietly; I am more aware of who is around when I enter and exit my apartment building; and, if a group of young drunks happens to gather near me on the subway, I casually move to another part of the wagon in order to avoid any conversation that might reveal my accent, and beg questions about my country of origin.


Still, I feel fairly safe with my short hair, modest dress and Slavic looks. I have it much easier than dark-skinned people.


The driver pulls over near the Polezhayevskaya subway station. Proletarskaya, I say. I wanted Proletarskaya, across town.


"Ukh, ty," he says. He flicks the nail of his middle finger against the right side of his neck, indicating that he had been drinking. "Let's agree on 80 rubles," he says. Fifty, I say. That's all I have. Besides, I say, it's your fault.


"Fine, fine," he says, reorienting the car toward downtown. "Listen, I don't want to offend you. I'm only telling you the truth. Azeris, we respect the Americans. Look here," he says, "this city, this country is a disgrace."


The prostitutes are spaced out every 100 meters or so along Tverskaya Ulitsa, the main street in the city. He pulls over sharply next to a pair of girls in fur.


"Roll down your window," he says. "Let's talk to the night butterflies."


I feel a brief shiver of panic, then embarrassment, like the Boy Scout I used to be. It's nearly 3 a.m., and I just want to get home.


We get the lowdown on the price-to-service ratio. Their breasts, we learn, are size 2. "Any special services for our American friend?" he asks.


"Are you really an American?" asks one of the girls.


Yes, I say.


"What's with you and your Clinton?" she says.


What do you mean, precisely, I ask.


"What do you think?" she says.


The driver is laughing as we pull away. "See?" he says. We chat with four more night butterflies, one of whom submits to a squeezing of the goods by the driver f just to make sure they're the size she claims them to be.


He stops at my street, and draws my attention to the names of his son and daughter embossed on the glove compartment of the car. He invites me to go cruising for women sometime, that is, when he can shake free of his wife.


I lie that I have a girlfriend, and get out.


A Zhiguli sedan the color of butterscotch is parked in the icy alley outside my apartment building. Taped to the rear and side windows are signs on white paper in blue and red ink: "Clinton, the goat, has blasted YOU!" "Iraq, Serbia, soon everywhere!" and "Let's together crush underfoot the American insects!"


I walk in the door and listen to the messages on the answering machine. A friend asks me to call and congratulate him on his birthday, then invites me to the rescreening of his old documentary film: "Meet me in the subway at 3 p.m. tomorrow, OK? That is, I mean, if it's safe for you to go outside."


Bryon MacWilliams is a freelance writer based in Moscow.