To Russia, with love: Side notes from World Festival of Youth and Students
Those who leave and those who stay.
- Total Shares
It was around five in the evening, I was having a pint of dark beer and a pie made of cheese, meat and mushrooms alone at a cafeteria in Russia, when a man entered and shiftily approached the attractive woman at the counter. He spoke softly, as though he was whispering something to her, unsure of either what to order, or where he was. The woman wore discomfort in her eyes. The man looked in his mid-30s. He was slim, his dark brown hair unkempt and his beard in want of a trim.
After a few minutes, I saw him settle for a Borscht, a kind of sour soup you find commonly in Russia and parts of eastern Europe. He seemed disoriented and had a vacant air about him, he also kept looking over his shoulder as though he was being assailed by an imaginary demon. From the corner of my eye, I saw him trace the length of the cafeteria, opening different doors, trying to locate the washroom. The woman, meanwhile, looked at me, pointed towards the man with the slightest movement of her head, rolled her eyes and smiled.
Suddenly, I didn't feel like a stranger in her country.
It was mid October in Adler, a satellite town of Sochi, where the Winter Olympics were held in 2014, and autumn was in full bloom with trees turning flaming red. While temperatures in Moscow were nose-diving to zero degrees Celsius, the weather in this beach resort spa city by the Black Sea was cool and sunny with occasional spells of rain, frequently licked by icy winds racing down from the snow-capped mountains that spoon the Krasnodar Krai region. I had arrived two days before and still wasn't sure why someone had paid for my ticket to Russia.
Lenin looks on from a mural on a street in Sochi. [Photo: Jairaj Singh]
Two months ago, I had applied to attend the 19th World Festival of Youth and Students on the recommendation of a senior colleague and friend, who, in turn, had heard about it from a Russian embassy official. The approval, the tickets and visa came through precisely three days before the event started, just when I had lost all hope.
When my friend and former colleague and I disembarked the plane after a journey of almost 18 hours at 4am, we were met by a young bespectacled woman, who had been coordinating our travel, and solemnly informed that our accommodation was filled up due to a surplus in the number of expected delegates. The only recourse for us was to wait for four more hours at the airport till further instructions. When we whined for an hour, she took pity upon us, spoke to her boss and helped us book the nearest hostel, so we could rest.
At Moscow airport, we were joined by a young and enterprising couple from Chandigarh, who, apart from dabbling in various things like hosting talks and conferences at home, also run a blog. We were part of the same agency, New Generation, that had brought us to Sochi to attend the festival.
When we woke up the next day, we began to text, mail and call all the people we had been in touch with regarding our travel. The woman who had received us at the airport began to avoid my calls, but would intermittently send messages that began with "Dear", saying how truly sorry she was, but that her job was only to oversee our travel arrangements, not more.
I ventured out of the dormitory and thought it wise to speak with the receptionist, to ask if she knew any better of what was in store for us. After about half an hour of trying to communicate with a woman who faintly resembled an American television actress, had silver hair and a tiny diamond embedded in her front tooth, we shamelessly resigned to the fact that neither of us had any clue of what the other person was trying to say. I switched on my phone and opened Google Translate app in vain and fortuitously discovered how seamless communicating with foreigners who speak in an alien language could turn out to be.
The sun poured down like honey on an autumn day in Sochi, Russia. [Photo: Jairaj Singh]
Sadly, it didn't help at this particular moment. She, too, didn't know what we were expected to do. She did, however, point us to the cafeteria, where we helped ourselves to our first typical Russian breakfast that comprised sausages, cold fried eggs, mashed potatoes, an assortment of breads filled with mozzarella cheese and potato, and black coffee to wash it all down. As we began to acclimatise to our new surroundings, we received a message that a cab was on our way to pick us up and take us to a hotel nearby, in about 15 minutes.
When a car did arrive about two hours later, we had won new friends at the hostel and cafeteria, who couldn't help but marvel at the strangeness of our sight and were also extremely keen if we could part with a few of our coins from home, before we left.
Our situation didn't drastically improve at the hotel. We were met by a staff who was not amused to see that we had no hotel reservation and had camped in their lobby. In the midst of this, we realised there were also two more of us there who seemed as lost as us - a young woman from Tajikistan, a journalist who lives and works in Moscow, and a young woman from Beijing, China; both, it turned, out spoke fluent Russian. (I learnt from them the two most important Russian words I would repeat wherever I went - "thank you" and "sorry"). They, too, had been brought to Sochi by New Generation.
In a few hours, as we got to know each other over Indian biscuits and savouries and shared misery, a tall, bald and surly looking Russian man approached us and said we could get rooms at the hotel, provided we behaved ourselves. We were too glad to take offence or protest. He also told us that we had to reach the venue, the Olympic Park, by ourselves and arrange for our own accreditation, otherwise we wouldn't be allowed to attend the festival.
Olympic Park, the venue of the World Festival of Youth and Students. [Photo: Jairaj Singh]
No, help wasn't coming.
The day, like sand, slipped from the fingers to night by the time we surfaced from our rooms, which although faced the sea, bore the distinct smell of a dog that had crawled in and died, looking for dinner. Little did we know it would take an entire day standing in serpentine queues to get our accreditation to attend the festival that we had been flown to Sochi for.
Russia took me by a pleasant surprise. I had been warned of how entrancingly beautiful the women were going to be, but I didn't expect to be greeted with the sight of a sprawling cosmopolitan city of beautiful cathedrals with golden cupolas and Baroque-style palaces with serrated towers and pointed roofs ensconced snug among tall glass buildings, malls with enormous LCD screens and gleaming six-lane highways and flyovers looping around each other like strips of strewn ribbons.
We had a layover of eight hours in Moscow, and although the airport is an hour's drive from the city if the traffic complies, we took a car to see the famed Kremlin and Red Square. I was reading David Remnick's Pulitzer Prize-winning Lenin's Tomb: The Last Days of Soviet Empire and history was disturbingly vivid in my mind.
Sadly, we didn't make it all the way. It was raining by the time we reached the heart of the city. It was bitingly cold. We saw beautifully-lit buildings along the way that looked like monuments, but were actually stores, and on the streets impeccably well-dressed women milled about, as though they had just hopped off from a fashion runway and were heading to the nearest bar for a drink. We hurriedly sipped some delicious berry tea at a cafe and rushed back, soaking wet, to catch our next flight.
The World Festival of Youth and Students at Sochi was clearly Russia's most formidable and famous personality Vladimir Putin's pet project. No one in their half mind would host participants and delegates from more than 150 countries - from North Korea to Sri Lanka, to Syria to Tanzania - and draw more than 10,000 youth from nether parts of Russia, to attend a week-long event whose main agenda was to be "anti-imperialist, anti-fascist, anti-colonialist" and a rejection of "the aggressions of the Western powers". That and the fact Putin addressed the audience at the opening ceremony and also made an appearance at the closing ceremony.
The festival was not only a show of strength and might for Russia, with fighter jets materialising in the azure sky canopying the venue by breaking the sound barrier with sudden dives and somersaults, but also to tell the world that the State does not languish in the dark ages, as it's so often portrayed to be.
The conferences and talks at the festival were dedicated to fake news - most notably by Russia's foreign ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova - space and technology advancements, healthcare, environment, culture, international relations, student movements and policies as well as the fight against xenophobia in the US. To lighten things up, it had events and activities such as music concerts, dance performances, film festivals, photography exhibitions, motivational talks, sight-seeing tours, ice skating classes and sports competitions. It was all quite overwhelming.
This year marked the 70th anniversary of the festival; for Russia this was the third in a row, the first in post-Soviet era. The spirit was warm and welcoming. It was an ambitious project to encourage young people to engage and form deep connections, so much so that they left free condoms in every participant's lodging.
Despite only a glimpse of Putin, the 65-year-old Russian president's visage seemed eerily ubiquitous, from souvenir shops selling T-shirts with Putin wearing sunglasses and captioned "Strongest. Most Powerful. Since 1999" to coffee mugs of a photoshopped Putin bare-chested and riding a bear in the Russian wilderness, there was no escaping him.
Putin T-shirts for sale. [Photo: Jairaj Singh]
Reports in the media in the run-up to the festival had suggested that Putin has been desperate to promote his image as a progressive leader to the youth with an election around the corner. He needn't try too hard. At a club one evening, a young man, who had consumed one too many beers, accosted my friend, and asked, "You like Russia?" Yes. "You like Putin?" Yes. "Oh yeah, I love India..."
Vodka, as any guide book on Russia will tell you, is very dear to Russians. It comes from the Slavic word "voda", which means water. You will find it in all general stores - some for as cheap as 250 RUB.
At one restaurant where I ordered vodka, I got a glass with 100ml of it. The waitress, with a bemused look, asked if I wanted any mixers to go with it. I said no, knowing full well that this was a trap. Russians are known to frown upon those who mix their national drink with soda or juice. You also cannot be seen sipping it. In fact, only a day before, while I was waiting for my friend to finish getting a haircut, I saw everyone in the salon listlessly glued to a comedy show on television. Naturally, I couldn't understand a word of the programme, but the gag that was running on it was fairly simple. Three actors were sitting at a makeshift bar and making fun of how foreigners approach vodka.
Under the glare of the frigid blue eyes of the waitress, I poured a little vodka into a fresh glass to make a smaller peg, and then tossed it back, with the flick of a wrist. It didn't burn my mouth, windpipe and stomach as I had expected it to, instead it was smooth, light and made me feel snug inside. A warm glow crept over me. I revealed a weak smile, momentarily forgetting the well-known Russian saying, "a smile without reason is a sign of idiocy".
I couldn't help but arrive at a sweeping generalisation that Russians like to drink and smoke (their cigarettes are dirt cheap) a lot. In fact, the only people who would summon the courage and accost us on the streets were smashed drunk to know what they were saying. Yet, they were polite. Mostly curious to know where we were from.
Socially, the men came across brusque and confrontational. You couldn't tell whether they were asking you for a cigarette lighter, or just wanted to snap your neck like a twig. The women, on the other hand, looked fiercely strong, hard-working and responsible, who took great pains to look beautiful. In clubs it was the women who downed shots, danced on the table and seemed to enjoy the most.
It is also way cheaper to get drunk in Russia than find water. In a department store a litre of water is available from 16 RUB to 90 RUB. Even the restaurants don't offer it, unless you ask. You can get a drink for close to the same price and you won't even feel guilty about it.
Vodka is cheap and plenty in Russia. [Photo: Jairaj Singh]
One morning as I was taking a walk near the beach, I saw an elderly gent help his inebriated friend stand on his feet. It was 11am. In the hotel where I was staying, I took a wrong turn one evening and, instead of entering a bar, walked into an alcoholics anonymous meeting. At a club, a professional "cheeky" dancer told me she had spent a fortune, much to my horror, buying Indian medicines for her mother suffering from a liver condition.
I spent an entire afternoon bonding with a Georgian man who runs a small wine shop in Sochi. In Lenin's Tomb, Remnick writes about Stalin's fondness for Georgian wine. I asked him if it was true, he nodded and said I could have a glass at 30 RUB and taste it for myself. He seemed so pleased to chat with me about his Georgian roots, dual citizenship and family holidaying in Italy that he even offered me the next glass of wine for free, while he made me listen to some Indian doctor in his country singing Raj Kapoor's "Mera Joota Hai Japani" in Georgian.
I was told that this was the particular Georgian wine that Stalin loved. [Photo: Jairaj Singh]
When I put up a status message on Facebook that all the women I met in Russia asked me about Mithun Chakraborty and sang "Jimmy Jimmy Aaja Aaja", my father replied that my grandmother had visited Moscow in the 1960s. On the streets people would stop and call her Nargis. I can't help but wonder how she must have managed to get by in a place that speaks so little English.
Conversations can be difficult to have, especially when you're a stranger in a strange land. Most times you don't want to come across as intrusive when you approach someone, you feel reticent to break the silence that envelops people, even respect it, and when you decide to break it, you exercise utter caution, lest it dispels the enchantment.
The woman at the cafeteria, Elmira, signalled for me to come over to the counter when the man left. She said he was a junkie and lived on the streets. I asked if he bothered her, she said he wouldn't dare to because he knows she's a local. We talked for a while and she told me a bit about her life. How Sochi had changed after the Olympics, that even though tourism brings in more people to the city, prices have shot up exorbitantly over time. She said she helps her aunt out at the cafeteria when she can, but her actual job is at the airport.
I typed my questions, she typed her answers. We didn't have much in common. We allowed comfortable silences to punctuate the conversation. We were complete strangers. We could have easily pretended to be different people with each other, but for that moment, it felt, we chose to be ourselves. I bade goodbye to her.
I left with a sense of hope and loss, for those who leave and those who stay, the size of Russia.