So with three days left in Kazan, I had nearly made it to the end of my eight months in Russia without any lasting harm to my person. But out dancing at the Egyptian-themed underground gay club last night I was taking a little break, sitting at a table but still whipping my hair around to the bad music, when I must have somehow miscalculated the angle of my sarcastic head-banging and managed to connect the bottom of my left front tooth with the edge of the table, and thwack, crack, I brought my hand to my mouth in horror and spat the corner of my tooth into my palm. I held myself together, went out and danced to the Lady Gaga song my friend Sergey had requested, made cheery conversation on the ride home, the whole time keeping my tongue pressed firmly against the missing corner of my tooth. But as soon as I closed the car door and turned my back to the taxi, the drunken tears of self-pity started flowing. I played out all the other front tooth trauma’s of my life from the chip I’d lost to the Georgian rock star’s ring (eventually replaced by my childhood dentist) to the ricocheting tree limb that knocked the same tooth out of its socket while on an ill-fated camping trip near the end of my relationship with the encephalitic Texan (popped back into place by an intern at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital). I sobbed for my busted tooth, my always tortured relationships, my seemingly unconquerable personality flaws and the consequences of all my careless mistakes to date. However, by the time I got into my apartment, made some tea, exploited the time difference to call my parents and have them schedule me a dentist’s appointment for the following week when I’d be home safe and sound in the States with a clean slate for the adventures ahead in Georgia and Tajikistan, I realized that if *this* is the worst thing that happens to me in Russia, then I am making it out OK.
To compensate for the gratuitous bout of self-pity, I made the following list of all the various ways that I could have died or been irrevocably injured over the past eight months that make a lost chunk of tooth look pretty trivial, if not pretty. I apologize for any gross generalizations and mischaracterizations of the Russian people. I do love many of them dearly. It’s just been a long slog in Kazan and I’m now biased by my broken tooth. I promise in the next month to play catch up with the blog and tell happier tales of mosques and villages and hipster dance parties that will shed a far more flattering light on the Kazan experience. Til then, here are the top ten ways I could have died in Russia:
As you may recall, I flew into Moscow when Russia was burning. The city was choked with smog, huge numbers of people were dying from heat stroke, Miriam had disfigured her foot stepping into one of the underground peat bog fires that were raging out of control alongside the forest fires that were engulfing whole villages at a time and rumors of skyrocketing levels of carbon monoxide contaminating the air and a fire tornado on its way to wipe out whole sections of the city, (thankfully neither of which delivered on the mass deaths they promised), had us all in a panic. And while this was by all accounts an exceptional state of affairs for Russia, once I was settled in Kazan and reading the Russian headlines on a daily basis, I couldn’t help noticing that fires in residential buildings, bars and clubs are an unnervingly common occurrence, seeming to break out almost once a week and claiming the lives of 3-8 people per fire. (Note: the real statistics are worse than my impressionistic ones-- an average 500 fires a day and a total of 18,000 fire deaths in the year 2005).
This hit close to home one night in January when someone put out his cigarette on an upholstered booth at the Leprekon, one of Kazan’s two fake Irish pubs where I used to go after singing class with the other international students, and within twenty minutes, seventy people had been evacuated in a panic, the pub had burned to the ground and the bodies of four guys in their mid twenties and early thirties who hadn’t made it out were found in the back. And while, the Leprekon fire wasn’t on the scale of the Khromaya Loshad’ disaster at a nightclub in Perm Oblast in 2009 where fireworks set the thatched ceiling ablaze and killed more than 150 people, it was sad and scary all the same. And made sadder and scarier by the government’s response which was to arrest and fine the management of the Leprekon rather than to take any sort of pro-active preventative action like sending fire inspectors out to make sure other bars and clubs are up to fire code.
Meanwhile, of the three apartments in which I’ve lived and the many more I’ve visited, not one has had a smoke alarm installed. Again, you would think that if there were a recurring problem responsible for regularly killing off a part of the population, the government might step in to mandate or businesses might see a market for or people themselves might start demanding a simple, cheap form of technology to help solve it, but no, Russian fatalism wins again. No piece of plastic can save me from my fate so why bother.
Lesson #1: A broken tooth is far better than going up in flames at home or in a Russian club.
Since the snow started to fall regularly in early November, the sidewalks of Kazan have been covered in a thick sheet of ice that has in turn been covered over with compacted snow. As a result, falling has become a part of everyday life. It’s a game of ratios though. When I first started walking on the snow, my feet would hit a slick spot, do their uncontrolled skidding dance under me and 6 out of 10 times I’d topple to the frozen ground, usually winding up on my side with a bruised hip. Over time though my feet must have started communicating more efficiently with the balance centers of my brain because I would hit just as many ice patches, do the skidding dance but recover 4 out of 10 times, then 2 out of 10 times to the point where falls have become more of a once a week rather than twice daily event. The fall I most feared was the head-first tumble down the iced-over steps leading to the pedestrian tunnels that help you avoid death by traffic (See Number 9: Crossing the Street). Every time I’d walk down these stairs, where there was often not a single spot with any exposed concrete or packed snow to get even a little traction under a boot, the same thought loop would play out in my head. I’d imagine myself falling forward and breaking my teeth at which point I’d put my tongue over my teeth to protect them only to remember that if I fell with my tongue over my teeth I’d likely bite through my tongue and still break my teeth so I’d remove my tongue and continue shifting my weight backward. Thus, when I finally did fall down the icy stairs I landed squarely on my ass and uncontrollably slid and thumped my way down another three steps. And thankfully in the end, the only time I met with the dreaded forward fall was on a simple sidewalk not the steps and I somehow miraculously wound up landing in a yogic plank pose with my arms braced and holding me suspended off the ground. Sadly, no one was there to witness this triumph.
Kazan winter mode
Not sure if the walking on ice and snow effect is translating fully
One more try at capturing the absurdity
Oh and I nearly forgot the deadly icicles that hang suspended off of nearly every gutter and lamp post and claim at least a few lives every year. My friend Matt on his first day visiting Moscow in January actually fell victim to one. We were waiting for a light to change to cross the street when I felt something cold and hard smack the back of my neck. I thought it had been nasty kids throwing snowballs at us because we were speaking English. But no, a sizable icicle had fallen from the lamppost under which we were standing, crashed onto Matt’s head and shattered it into pieces that flew in different directions catching me in the crossfire. He lived but had a massive headache for the next two days (though that might also have had something to do with the eight bottles of wine we drank at a dinner of three).
Men knocking massive icicles and accumulated snow off a roof
The more ordinary but still treacherous variety of icicle
Lesson #2: A broken tooth is far better than splitting my head open on the ice, snapping my neck in a fall or death by falling icicle.
3. Random Violence against Foreigners
So why would I think that icicle hitting my head might have instead been teenagers attacking me and Matt for speaking English? Because minding your own business if you’re doing it with a smile or in a foreign language is a provocative act in much of Russia. Most people walking down the street or waiting for public transport keep dark, grim expressions on their faces with eyes that look down or maintain a cold, dead stare into a nearby void of despair. Smiling, it is said, readily identifies you as stupid, or a foreigner. The distinction is not important because they’re kind of the same thing in Russian eyes and both deserving of corporal punishment. There was this one German guy, studying Russian at Kazan State University who disproportionately bore the brunt of this phenomenon for the rest of us. He was a lanky and mild-mannered bookish looking guy with little wire-rimmed glasses who on two separate occasions, once sitting at a bar, once waiting at bus stop, was randomly punched in the face by a passing Russian man. In a tangentially related note, when I told my academic adviser at the university that I had decided to escape the suffocation of living with a house mother and would be renting my own apartment, she made a tsk-tsk-tsk-ing noise and advised against it. She told me an open-ended cautionary tale of another American PhD student who accustomed to living alone rented her own apartment in Kazan and as a result had a “very unpleasant incident.” I was left to insert whatever outcome might change the decision to live on my own. It all seemed better than living with a khozyaika for another three months.
Lesson #3: A broken tooth is far better than being punched in the face, mugged, raped or murdered, (the risks of which are all far better than living with a house mother).
4. Emergency Services or Lack Thereof
While the risks to my personal safety in living alone seemed much lower and less concrete than the risks to my sanity in living any longer with a house mother, I often did wonder who in the world I would call if something bad were to actually happen to me from a home invasion to a serious fall on the ice. Of course I programmed the Russian equivalent of 911 into my phone but I’ve heard enough Russians grumble about thirty minute delays in ambulance response and police sometimes not showing up at all when you call them to wonder if it would even work. The Russian approach to personal security seems to bypass state provided services in favor of calling on friends and family. I then spent a long soul-searching time wondering who in Kazan would not only care about my well-being but would also be capable of doing something to protect it in the event of an emergency. The list was short and dubious as most people seemed to fall into one category or the other starting with my American friend Ian on the one side and ending with Azhat Arzlanovich the chief bureaucrat of the international office at Kazan State University on the other. Make all the donut jokes you like, I really do love the American police for obviating my need to ever make a similar list of friends and family at home.
Lesson #4: A broken tooth is far better than bleeding to death while waiting for the ambulance and/or Azhat Arzlanovich to arrive.
5. Exposed Wires and Open Construction Sites
In the days before the streets were covered up with snow and ice, they were abuzz with construction or not so much construction as we know it but gaping pits of mud, exposed wires and tubes stuffed with soda bottles. Not only were these construction pits dubiously marked and left completely open for someone to fall into, but if you followed the arrows of the signs steering you away from this danger, they most often redirected you to walk into oncoming traffic. Moreover, in my daily walking in Kazan I seem to have encountered a disturbingly high number of fallen and/or dangling and exposed electrical wires. I can only assume that more people don’t die from contact with them because they never worked in the first place.
Lesson #5: A broken tooth is far better than falling into a construction pit and/or being electrocuted.
Sure, terrorism can happen anywhere but the last time I took the Aeroexpress train from downtown Moscow to the recently attacked Domodedovo airport, the security was making everyone put aside their bags on tables and walk through metal detectors. When they saw me coming with two big bags strapped to my person, one of which contained my laptop, cell phone and I-pod, all made of metal, they took pity on me and waved me through without making me take off my bags. The metal detector didn’t go off. At which point it became clear that the whole system was designed to make people take off bags that the security officials then did not open or inspect so that they could walk through metal detectors that weren’t turned on, as if this farcical inconvenience was going to deter an attack rather than just delay it by twenty minutes. I am also highly skeptical of the bomb-sniffing dogs, the last of whom I encountered at the Kazan airport. He was a mutty looking German Shepard so overly interested in sniffing the pink back-pack of a six year old, which I can only imagine contained some really tasty snacks for her trip, that his handler had to pull him forcibly away. Note to the Russian officials: you can make the argument that “security” is an ineffable concept only fully guaranteed by God and that Americans are naïve to think their petty procedures will save them from their doomed fate, but if you train your dogs and turn your metal detectors on you at least stand a *chance* of protecting your citizens.
Lesson #6: A broken tooth is far better than being blown up in a terrorist attack.
7. Domestic Flights
While Russia’s domestic airlines at least seem to be buying retired European planes from the 1990s rather than Soviet ones from the 70s and 80s now, flying domestically in Russia is still a treacherous business. I know this is terrible and prejudiced but when I get on a BA, Delta or Lufthansa flight, the captain’s stoic voice, even if heavily accented in English, inspires confidence. I relax in my seat with the knowledge that he is a rational human and thus even if he doesn’t care about me personally, I can depend on his own desire to live and to excel at his profession to keep me safe. However, when the shaky accented voice of a Russian pilot comes over the airplane speakers, I’m never entirely convinced of his rationality, professionalism or preference for life over death. In the back of my mind, again in a completely unfair and prejudiced way I know, I imagine that in the face of some disaster, a storm or a failed engine, rather than taking active measures to address the problem our beleaguered pilot might instead just shake his head and light one last cigarette as he gives us all up to our collectively doomed sud’ba.
Lesson #7: A broken tooth is far better than going down in a fiery plane crash.
8. Gypsy Cabs
My primary mode of transport in Kazan when I’m not sliding around on the ice is the gypsy cab, which by Russian definitions is anyone with a car willing to stop and charge you money to take you in a direction they’re willing to go. Once you get over the slightly sketchy dynamic of getting into a car with a strange man, (I figure I can always jump out if things go amiss), it’s actually a very convenient system as there are far more people with cars willing to go out of their way to make an extra few rubles on the way home than there are actual taxis. The more problematic dimension of this mode of transport is that, particularly late at night, the drivers are often drunk. And I know as an American what I should do in this situation is immediately tell the guy to pull over and get out of the cab. I shouldn’t be putting myself at risk or pay him money that encourages this behavior. And yet it’s always a bit greyer than that in the moment. Like last night on the way to the club where I broke my tooth, I got into a shoddy old Lada whose overweight middle aged driver had to reach across me to shut the door properly. He was driving relatively normally which for the typical driver in Kazan involves careening perilously around corners and stopping short at red lights despite the considerable ice on the roads. I didn’t think much of it until over the course of the standard conversation about where I’m from and whether I have a husband and why I’m going out at 10:00 at night, I slowly began to notice that he didn’t have a funny accent but was actually slurring his words. By the time I felt somewhat convinced that he was actually drunk, I was only a few blocks away from the club and didn’t want to get out into the cold and ice on my unsteady going-out shoes to hail another gypsy cab driver who was just as likely to be in the same condition.
Lesson #8: A broken tooth is far better than careening off the road with a drunken cabbie.
9. Crossing the Street
While Moscow is certainly worse than Kazan in this respect, the sometimes drunk and always impatient drivers on the roads make crossing the street on foot a dangerous proposition. The Soviet planners had the miraculous foresight to build a solution to this problem into the city in the form of dark little underpasses known as perekhodi. However, not only are said perekhodi often a 10-15 minute walk out of the way in the wrong direction but at night with only a few people on the streets it often feels more dangerous to go alone into a dimly lit tunnel than to take the risks with the traffic above ground (I was grabbed once by a guy in a perekhod in Tbilsi and luckily managed to push him off me and run, so maybe I’m disproportionately sensitive to the danger of the perekhodi as a result). And by law, a pedestrian is allowed to cross the street at the zebra striped crosswalks and cars are required to stop for them. The problem is they don’t. If you’re lucky they’ll swerve or slow down but only in a threatening manner intended to convey the message that the next time they will not be so accommodating.
Despite what you’d imagine, women drivers seem to be worse about this than the men, as if in finally inheriting a hard power advantage that is the SUV their husbands bought them they’re deliciously pleased to jump into the game of using physical force to intimidate and push around those weaker than them. One of the worst, most disturbing videos I’ve seen over eight months of watching disturbing videos on the Russian news is of two young sisters blithely walking down the street when a local official’s daughter’s car speeding out of control runs up onto the sidewalk and slams into them, throwing them into the air and onto the front stoop of an apartment building where they lie like rag dolls. And while the moment of impact is hard to watch the most disturbing part of the video is the daughter’s reaction to the accident. She rushes out of her car to inspect the damage, grabs her purse to call Daddy on her cell phone and not once even glances over at the girls, one of whom is lying dead, the other severely injured, let alone attempting to help them or call an ambulance. Don’t worry though, Daddy made sure she won’t ever actually have to go to jail for this.
Lesson #9: A broken tooth is far better than being taken out by a Mercedes SUV.
10. Failure to Thrive
I have never been suicidal. Quite the opposite I really like life in general, my life in particular and spend a disproportionate amount of time thinking about all the things I want to cram in before its sad inevitable end. Still when you live in provincial Russia for eight months, consuming news stories that confirm the everyday complaints you hear about the rich and well-connected using their economic and political power to live above the law, fucking over the powerless everyday people in the process—from the innocent man getting thrown in jail because his relatives can’t afford the bribe to get the false charges against him dropped juxtaposed with the gang-rapers of a 13 year old girl paying their way out of prison to the stories of all the human rights workers and journalists who attempt to draw attention to these flaws in the system getting beaten or killed—there is a certain death of hope and dampening of the human spirit that wipes out if not the will to live altogether, then certainly the motivation to fight against cruelty and injustice and the drive to make the world a better place.
In the end, after a long day of having doors slammed in my face, fighting with bureaucrats, slipping on ice and avoiding downed wires, I sometimes open up a bottle of wine and let my mind drift to my new favorite daydream. It’s a romantic vision of myself crossing the street, radiant, smiling, and in an instant mid-stride with skirts billowing and hair flowing, I’m taken out by a massive SUV careening through the crosswalk driven by an oligarch’s mistress and everything snaps to black. Now that this is the best my fantasy life has to offer me, it's clearly time to get out of Russia.
Lesson #10: A broken tooth is far better than a broken spirit.