The Mating Dance of the Blue-Footed Booby
Cathedral of the Ascension of the Lord, Kolomenskoe (Moscow), 1532
RUSSIAN DIARY, NOV. 6-20, 2016
(VISITING THE RUSSIAN FEDERATION AS A CLOWN)
Nov. 5-6: On the Way There
Made a big decision late in 2016; decided to do something entirely different, go back to Russia with the Patch Adams Clown Tour, which amounts to a fortnight in the country (one week in Moscow, one week in St. Petersburg), entertaining children in hospitals and orphanages, as well as a few visits to homeless adults and a lot of madcap clowning on the streets. This year the group consisted of thirty clowns, from a variety of Western countries: Australia, Austria, Canada, England, Germany, Holland, Italy, and the U.S.A., as well as several Russian clowns who joined us in Moscow and St. Petersburg. I was the only one in the original group of thirty who spoke Russian.
I left Jacksonville for Kennedy Airport in NY, dressed in the air-conditioned palm-frond hat that would be part of my clown costume in performance. People were looking at me, looking, probably thinking, “What the…” A few of them commented, “Oh, I like your hat. . . . oh, did you make it yourself?” As for me, the hat was my way of adopting the visage of a clown, making myself look ridiculous (that’s what clowns deliberately do). I felt ridiculous as well, and for the whole two weeks of clownery in Russia, I never got completely over that feeling.
On the long enervating Aeroflot flight from New York to Moscow I experienced a constant feeling of being superannuated, as if the world had passed me by. My first trip into the Soviet Union was 1972, forty-four years ago. In my capacity as professor of Russian, I had returned many times over the years, had even spent an entire year in the country as a Fulbright Scholar, teaching in the city of Great Novgorod. But even that was sixteen years back into the past, and in returning now, I was still operating, to a large extent, by old rules. While I was aging, staying mostly away from Russia since the turn of the millennium, new rules had emerged, and a new generation had caught up with me, passed me.
The Aeroflot flight was now fully a Western-style flight, complete with the sort of excess badinage that Soviet Russians had no tolerance for: the welcome abroad, the blather about the benefits of flying Aeroflot, and more. In front of each passenger was a complete home-entertainment system, which enabled one to watch countless things on a screen. The Russians knew how to operate this system; superannuated I did not. As I was to learn upon arrival in Moscow, the new Russian generation is as fully in thrall to computerized gadgetry as the whole rest of the world. Times have changed.
What better symbol of the spirit of Young Russia—and its congruence with the spirit of the capitalist West—than the “poverty chic jeans” (ripped in spots on the legs), worn by the young Russian woman who sat next to me on the plane? I was reminded of the times back in the nineties, when I was group leader for student study-tours in Russia. My female students, who went about wearing those ripped-up jeans, were the constant target of irate old ladies in kerchiefs, particularly when the jeans-wearers tried to enter churches or sites of patriotic importance. “They dress like that (complained the old ladies to me), and pretty soon they’ll have our young people doing it.” And exactly when it happened I don’t know, but now that “pretty soon” has arrived. At least while in Moscow and St. Petersburg this time, I saw no young men going around with their pants pulled down almost to their knees and their underwear showing. I suppose, however, that this American trend will eventually reach young Russians as well.
Nov. 6, Sheremetyevo Airport, Moscow: Clowns Welcoming Clowns
Along with me on the Aeroflot flight were four other clowns in our group, including the leader, Patch Adams, 71, a man whose whole life has been devoted to making people laugh, to healing through humor, and to flashing the bare bottom to the prudes and frowners of the world. His first visit to Russia was way back in 1974, and now he takes clown tours all over the world. Patch wears his clown gear 24/7; he is never not a clown. He has long white hair, dyed blue on one side, pulled back in a ponytail, and a handlebar mustache. Wearing pink-framed spectacles and a big red nose, he goes about in multicolored garb, in oversized clown shoes, his clown bloomers pulled up to reveal long, spindly legs. He loves to dance on those spindlies.
Going through Russian customs has also changed radically from the way things used to be. I still recall the tension of Soviet days, when grim-faced young (always very young) customs officials took your Western passport and eyeballed you long and hard. Bags were almost always opened, and contraband (say, Playboy magazines) confiscated. Now the officials in the booths are polite, welcoming, and nobody checks anything, no bags are opened. We waltzed right on through. Afterward we were greeted by a committee of welcoming clowns, all members of our group who had flown in earlier, and all decked out in outrageous costumes. Tooting horns and sporting dead (artificial) fish, the clowns began dancing around, blowing up balloons. Russian bystanders, passengers, taxi and bus drivers, vendors looked on in amazement, clamping on their faces that old familiar Russian face-look. At least that hasn’t changed (I thought), the standard generic Russian look—compounded of equal parts morose, phlegmatic and disgusted.
Then Patch Adams took out and brandished a pair of supersized white underpants, labelled, “World’s Largest Underwear.” Four or five of the clowns climbed inside the supersized, and they went dancing around arm in arm, chanting, “We all go round in underwear, underwear, underwear.” Some of the clowns approached little children who were passing by, offering them balloons. Most of the children seemed bewildered and frightened by this unusual spectacle. They didn’t want to take the balloons. Eventually, some of the Russian audience lightened up, began taking pictures of the festivities with cell phones. But many seemed less than amused by this outburst of bizarre exuberance. I couldn’t help thinking about the age-old Russian distrust of skomoroshestvo, the wild clownery of the minstrels and gleemen of ancient Rus—always associated with pagan religions, with chaos and disorder, and censured, condemned, therefore, by the Russian Orthodox Church and the autocratic authorities. The Soviets as well, to put it mildly, were not fond of this kind of behavior.
Nov. 6: Consumer Capitalism
Way back in 1972, on my first visit to Moscow, the place impressed me as a huge, grim, colorless warehouse, mostly empty of products and barely functioning at all. Back in those days, and in the times of many subsequent visits to Russia, you always felt as if there were just too much Collectivist Socialism at work. The country was drowning in Socialism. But now, as I rode the clown van from Sheremetyevo back to our hotel, the Katerina City, passing scads of burger joints (Бергер Кинг, Корнер Бергер), fast food galore, passing one car dealership after another (Toyota, Mercedes, Audi, etc., etc.), passing reams of car washes, gigantic Western-style shopping malls, used car lots, everything under the grim, slate-gray skies of an early winter (snow all over the ground), I couldn’t help thinking that over the many years since I last spent time in Moscow—twenty years ago—the city had become mired in exactly the opposite problem: a surfeit of consumer capitalism. In the old days practically nobody drove a car, and all the cars on the roads were of Soviet manufacture. Now practically everybody drives a car, Western-made cars are available in abundance, but, as a result, the streets are clogged with traffic. No place is easily reached now by automobile; no place and at no time, except maybe in the middle of the night.
The Katerina City Hotel, in downtown Moscow, resembles in no way the kind of old Soviet hotels I stayed in for so many years. It is modern, efficient, the staff is polite, helpful, and they even smile at times—although despite years of effort to inoculate staff everywhere in the American smile, Russians still do not smile as much as Americans. The hotel, nonetheless (our home for a week in Moscow), is wonderful. The buffet breakfast, available to us every morning, would have been available nowhere in the Soviet Union or the Russia of the transition period (the nineties). The closest you could have found such a buffet back then was in Helsinki, Finland.
We arrive at the hotel in our van and are greeted in the lobby by scads of other clowns, who dance around and play the fool in their welcoming joy, yelling, “Greetings, Welcome, Namaste.” Among the thirty clowns in the group, six or eight are like me: newcomers to clownery. But at least five others are professional clowns, who spend most of their days every year being zany.
To top off the impression that Russia has adopted the conspicuous consumption and bad taste that originated in the U.S., I turn on the TV in the hotel room, and the first program I see is a take-off on the pablum/crap shown on American television. It’s called something like “Russia’s Got Talent,” with a meretricious girlie pop singer crooning out banality, and the judges then going delirious over her beauty and grace—spouting out long encomiums, reams of utterly insincere inanities. Yes. Welcome to Moscow, where nothing is the same any more, where—as everywhere else in the world—people are panting, gasping to embrace American crass stupidity.
I turn off the television and sit jetlagged and enervated, as I always am upon my arrival in this country. On a table by the couch there is a bottle of drinking water, Svjatoj istochnik (Sacred Spring). I sit and watch the ever-so-subtle vibrations of the water at the top of the bottle. There is something soothing about watching water in a bottle or glass as it silently ripples and shakes. As if there were some hidden tidal pull at work here, an artificial moon working its magic upon any liquid in any container, including the liquid that makes up 80% in the container that is human you.
Nov. 7: Sergiev Posad
I was elated to learn that our first day of clowning would take place not in Moscow proper, but in the monastery city of Sergiev Posad, located some fifty miles north of Moscow. Elated because I naturally assumed that we would drop in for a tour of the monastery after our performance at an orphanage for deaf, dumb and blind children. The St. Sergius-Trinity Lavra (Monastery), founded by the ascetic Sergius in the fourteenth century, has been a focus for Russian spirituality for six hundred years. No other spot in the country is more venerated in Russian culture. Forced to play a minor role in the history of the Soviet Union, when all religion was denigrated and forcibly oppressed, the Lavra regained its prominent place in Russian culture after the fall of the USSR. Nowadays it attracts pilgrims, people seeking a more spiritual life, others hoping for cures from dire maladies.
Much to my surprise, as our clown bus drove through the city of Sergiev Posad and passed the monastery on our left, no one in the bus even bothered to look at the complex of churches and bell towers. Utterly uninformed about anything in Russian culture, the clowns went on joking, jibing, playing the fool in the bus, while I tried to attract the attention of those sitting near me. “Look, look out the window to your left.” This was when I first fully realized what a fish out of water I was in this group. Not only the oldest clown (by far), I was also the only clown with any knowledge of, or interest in, Russian history and culture.
It was even more to my surprise, and chagrin, when I learned that there was not to be even a brief stopover at the Lavra after our performance in the orphanage. The clowns had another appointment for that afternoon and evening. Our bus was to proceed to the dacha/country home of Maria, the founder of a charity for orphans known as “Maria’s Children.” There would be a dinner at Maria’s, followed by a talent show, put on by the various individual clowns.
Reaching our destination, we left the bus and entered a huge, labyrinthine building, the children’s home for the deaf, dumb and blind. We divided up into groups of two-three each and went into small classrooms where the children were learning and playing. I paired off with Simon, an American from Topeka. Neither he nor I had ever tried clowning before; we both were novices. As it turned out, this first clowning experience set the tone for me, and probably for Simon as well. Both of us are low-key individuals, more introverts than extroverts, and our clowning was of the quiet type. Simon had a cowbell with him, while I carried a bag full of various gifts: writing pads, pens, crayons, a tiny flashlight, a rubber lizard.
There were five deaf and dumb boys in the first classroom, all sighted. The oldest, Kolya, had just turned six, and he already was learning sign language. The boys were happy to see us and eager to interact with us. Touching the children is important. I noticed this throughout the whole two-week clown tour: children love touching you and being touched. Here in Sergiev Posad they also loved playing with Simon’s beard and ringing his cowbell. The five boys colored with the crayons I brought. In addition to interacting with them, I spoke at some length with their teacher. She was concerned about the upcoming American election, worried about Clinton and Trump, neither of whom she liked. Unable to forget the past, the fact that today’s date was once the major Soviet holiday of the year (The Day of the Grand October Revolution), I said jokingly to the teacher, “С праздиком (Happy holiday),” but she replied, “Oh, we never think about that any more.”
We spent forty to forty-five minutes with these boys, who were much exited and entertained by our presence. At one point the teacher had them perform a little round dance for us. After we left this group Simon and I went into a different classroom. This time there were two girls, and three boys, all of whom were blind. Simon and I enjoyed getting down on the floor with the children. One little boy wanted to wrestle; I ended up flat on my back, with him crawling all over me. One little blonde girl, four or five years old, was extremely articulate. She would learn about your looks by using her hands to explore—her hands were her eyes. She found a little flashlight in my bag, started turning it on and off—talking all the time, asking questions—then she began directing the rays of the flashlight into her closed eyelids. Apparently she had some sensation of light.
My rubber lizard was a big hit with this second group of children, as it had been with the boys in the first room, who even began fighting over it. I hoped to keep it with me for future encounters with children, but one little girl latched onto it. I ended up leaving both the flashlight and the lizard. This first visit on the tour, at least for me, was perhaps the best visit of all. The children were so happy to have us there, and it was a joy to bring them pleasure.
Nov. 7: the Monastery
All day long I was still thinking antiquated thoughts. Today was once was the biggest holiday of the year in the Soviet Union, but now the Soviet Union was so far into the past that even Lenin was fast fading into total historical oblivion.
We had lunch in the cafeteria at the children’s home—the Russian staples: beef in gravy, mashed potatoes, buckwheat and black bread—and after that I made my decision. I would stay here in Sergiev Posad and visit the Lavra, rather than going on with the rest of the clowns to the evening dinner and talent show. On the way out of town the bus let me off at the monastery, and I stepped out into the brisk air. Snow and ice all over everything. The sky was of the slate-gray color that sets in sometime in the Russian fall and hangs on all winter. Stopping off briefly at a little church named after St. Paraskeva Pyatnitsa, I made my way up the slope to the main entrance into the monastery grounds.
Crossing myself, as was everyone else, I walked through the huge arch at the entrance and entered the inner grounds. It was already four o’clock, and the visitors/pilgrims were sparse. I took a look at the lovely little steep-walled Church of the Holy Spirit (fifteenth century). Wanted to go inside, but its doors were locked. Then I moved on to the Trinity Cathedral, built in the 1420s. Inside there was a service in progress, with a choir of harmonizing voices. People were stepping up to the big sarcophagus containing the relics of St. Sergius, founder of the monastery (he died in 1392), crossing themselves, bowing, kissing the box in various spots, stepping away, bowing, crossing themselves. The Trinity cathedral also has iconic frescoes on its walls, done by Andrei Rublyov, the most famous icon painter in Russian history. Later, on a visit to the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow, I would stand before his most famous icon of all, Christ the Saviour, depicted as a very real living man.
I went into one other church, the monumental Dormition Cathedral, commissioned by Ivan the Terrible in 1559. By the time I emerged from that church it was already twilight—darkness comes early in the Russian fall and winter. I wandered around a bit more, enjoying the quietude, the peace of mind, then made my way back through the arch. Asking directions of a group of men who were smoking, I made my way up the hill to the train station. There was slush underfoot, snow had begun falling, and I was cursing myself for a decision I made that morning. Thinking that I would be largely inside all day, or on the bus, I had put on my running shoes instead of my winter boots.
Nov. 7: Women Working Behind Glass
As I approached the cashier’s box at the station, I had already begun laughing inwardly, because I was sure what would happen next. A lot has changed in this country, I was thinking, but the women selling tickets behind glass will always be the same. In Russia you constantly have to buy things by dealing with women who work glassed in; consequently, you cannot hear what they are saying. If you ask them to repeat themselves they are irritated, and then they begin yelling at you. I began by asking what a ticket to Moscow on the elektrichka (train run by electric wires overhead) cost.
She told me and I didn’t hear her. “Excuse me,” I said, “I don’t hear well.” Immediately indignant, she shouted out the price to me. I bought the ticket, but then asked her what platform the train was on. She didn’t want me asking that. She had better things to do than to tell me. Then I asked her how to get to the platform. Now, it would seem that all of these questions were legitimate—questions vital to the well being of the novice traveler. I had last been in the Sergiev Posad train station in 1983, so obviously I did not know my way around. But such questions in a Russian train station are not legitimate, and if you persist in asking them, the lady behind the glass will yell at you. She yelled. I suppose that this is the way glassed-in cashiers have operated for one thousand years of Russian history, and all the new Western ways that have recently penetrated the country—the service with courtesy and a smile that you run into (amazingly) everywhere—none of that counts for the glassed-in denizens of the cashier’s boxes.
Nov. 7: Russian Forbearance
Back in Moscow after the fifty-mile ride on the elektrichka, I rode the metro to the Paveletskaja station, emerged onto the street. A young lady whom I had asked directions while riding the up escalator got out her cell phone, found a map, and sent me off in the direction of Shluzovaja naberezhnaja Street, where the Katerina City, my hotel, was located. Now, it was dark, the snow had turned to hard rain, which made for watery slush and puddles all over the sidewalks. Soon my running shoes were soaked through, and I began cursing in English as I sloshed along. With typical Russian forbearance people on the streets were stoically negotiating the sidewalks, doing their best to make their way through this mess. I was the only curser. Still not sure exactly where I was, I asked another man for directions, and he told me to watch for an underground crossing. It would bring me out on the other side to Shljuzovaja naberezhnaja. On I sloshed, still blaspheming, for several more blocks, and then I suddenly noticed on my left a little café called Оки Доки (Okie Dokie). That’s a sign from above, I thought. Everything’s bound to be okay now, and it was. Right in the shadow of the Okie Dokie Café I found the underground crossing and moseyed/sloshed on back to the Katerina City. Went up to the clerk in the lobby and told him, “Слякоть в Сергиев Посаде нормальная слякоть, но в Москве у вас самая прогрессивная слякоть в мире (The slush in Sergiev Posad is just ordinary slush, but Moscow has the most progressive slush on earth).”
Nov. 8: Worst-Case Scenarios
Our job as clowns involves not only being crawled upon by relatively happy, normal children. It also involves visiting children who are in terrible shape. Today we were in wards full of such children. In places like this, the zaniness of clownery simply does not work, and the clowns have to come up with other things to do. We entered a ward full of children in wheelchairs, all of them severely retarded. We tried touching them, singing to them. There was one little girl of four, Tanechka, with a bald spot on the back of her head, with vacant eyes. I was rubbing her back, singing a Russian song, when she suddenly went into a rage, began shrieking, slapping herself hard on the head, then biting into her own wrist. After being in this hospital for an hour we left, and I, for one, felt that I had not done anybody any good. But who knows? When the children cannot respond you can never be sure how much, or how little, good you have done them.
Nov. 9. Gob-Smacked
Back in the hotel, I was still tormented by insomnia, the usual result of the horrible jet-lag that always gets me in the first few days of my stay in Russia. Could not get to sleep all night, and, if that were not bad enough, I put on the TV and learned the results of the American election back home. As the reporter on the German English-language network DW put it: people all over the world have been “gob-smacked” (British English for “punched in the kisser”). So, as it turns out, the glorious American people, ever anti-intellectual—perpetually insisting on their God-given right to be mindless—have elected as their president a man who is not only immoral, but is proud of his immorality and adverse to thinking as well, a boor and a demagogue, a man utterly unqualified for the job. I can think of nothing better to do than to go down for breakfast wearing the rubber Trump mask that I bought in a Halloween shop and brought along with me.
Nov. 9: The Ascension of the Lord Cathedral
Today I abandoned my fellow clowns altogether, remaining in the hotel to sleep all morning, from nine to two. After that I went out to visit one of my favorite places in Moscow, the Kolomenskoe Architectural Complex, built on high ground overlooking the Moscow River. I haven’t been here in sixteen years, and meanwhile they have reconstructed the wooden palace of seventeenth century Tsar Aleksei Mikhailovich, but not at its original site. Today it’s too late for me to visit the new palace, but, then again, what I have come for is available at its original site, and still standing in all its white-stoned glory.
This is the Храм Вознесения Господня (Ascension of the Lord Cathedral, 1532), built, so the legend goes, by Tsar Vasily III, to commemorate the birth of his son and heir, Ivan—who would go on one day to be The Terrible. This temple is the oldest “hipped-roof-type” (also called tent-roofed) cathedral in the country. At 62 meters in height, for years it was the tallest structure in all of Ancient Rus. The sheer height of it is astounding, and the name Ascension is so appropriate: its white stone walls ascend. You stand below looking up at its sheer architectural power, and you feel like ascending yourself, soaring hand in hand with Christ up past all the kokoshniki (architectural embellishments in the style of the Russian peasant woman’s headdress) and onto the ever-narrowing tip of the thing and then BIF, disappearing (still holding the hand of Jesus) into the clouds. Слава Тебе, Господи, Слава Тебе, Богомати, I’ve finally got done with doing this business they call Life in Flesh; now I can finally soar up on high, where I can let go and have myself a nice, long rest.
Darkness was coming on, and no one but me was left standing alongside the railing of the slope that led down to the Moscow River. Just me and Jesus, standing looking up at the Ascension Church, enjoying being there with that temple, communing with Russian culture—with which I have communed for over fifty years now—contemplating the Ascension.
Nov. 10: Palliative Care
Today we visited the palliative ward of the Izmailov Children’s Polyclinic, one of the best Russian hospitals I’ve ever been in—very clean, good equipment, reeking in efficiency. But then, all of the hospitals and orphanages we visited in the two weeks of the Patch Adams Clown Tour were way above average. I know this because—while working as a volunteer for the Red Cross in the nineties—I have been in many such institutions, both in Russia and in Central Asia. Some of them are gruesomely bad, dirty, with broken windows. Not sure whether the Western organizers of the Patch Adams Tours are aware of this, but the renowned Patch Adams is shown only the very best hospitals and orphanages.
Palliative care (same word used in Russian, паллиативный), is care intended to palliate, mitigate, alleviate pain. But the word “palliation” has now taken on the meaning of care of the dying. In visiting here we were dealing with dying children. What to do for them? That is the question. Another: does anything we do for them really help? Hard to tell.
Working in tandem today with Guillaume (Giyomshchik), a big-eyed professional clown from Montreal who has a handlebar mustache and a long, disheveled goatee, I approached the bed of a girl called Eugenia. According to the chart on the headboard she was eleven years old, but she looked more like five. Matchsticks for legs and arms, with skin chalky white, continuously kicking side to side with one Auschwitz spindle leg, she lay with wandering eyes. Using her pet name, Zhenechka, we improvised a song that consisted largely of that name plus various endearments. After getting Giyomshchik into the rhythm of the thing (“Zhenechka, slavnen’ka, Zhenechka”), I let him carry on with the melody while I switched to harmony. Did the dying Zhenechka, she of the one spasmodic leg, hear the song? Who knows?
Throughout the day I was developing a bronchial cough; I could feel an old chronic friend coming on: bronchitis. Many times over the course of the years, on my visits to Russia, the strain of the jetlag and the lack of sleep has brought on this ailment. I was hoping this year to avoid that same old same old, but it was not to be. At any rate, I was thinking in the palliative ward, let’s hope that I can spread a helpful virulent germ around here today, thereby hastening the departure of sufferers like Zhenechka for the next world.
Nov. 11-12 : Bronchitis
Badly sick for a couple of days. Hung out mostly at the hotel, trying to get better. I missed the clowning at a homeless center, which I would have liked to go to, as it was the only visit in the whole tour to an institution for adults. But knowing I had only two weeks in the country, I rebelled against spending most of the trip in bed. Slept all morning, then took a jaunt down to the Novodevichy Nunnery to visit “Russia’s Preeminent Necropolis” (headline in Moscow Times). Hadn’t been here for many years. The graveyard is notable for its spectacular sculptural monuments. Today many of them were covered in snow, which makes for interesting effects on the tombstones.
Came upon the renowned humorist, longtime director of the Moscow Circus, Yury Nikulin, who (in the sculpture) sits there on his backside, now perpetually holding a lit (supposedly) cigarette but never taking a drag. The dog at his feet was completely buried under the snow, but someone had kindly dug him out.
It was very cold and I was sick, so I gave up searching for the many famous Russian writers whose works I taught for thirty years in an American university. I had seen them anyway—the graves and monuments of Bulgakov, Gogol, Chekhov, Mayakovsky, many others—on previous visits here. I did find the grave of the great singer Lidia Ruslanova, and one of her songs, which I know by heart, “На улице дождик—Rain Outside”—kept running through my head as I stood there.
Today I missed the grand gala ball and auction for the charitable organization Maria’s Children.
Nov. 13: On to St. Petersburg
The Bunin Allée (Avenue with Trees)
The nicest thing, perhaps, that I discovered during my stay in Moscow was the existence of a new metro station, called “Бунинская аллея (The Bunin Allée),” which is way far southwest of the city, the last stop on the line. I’m the only clown who would take note of such a station, named after the arbors and tree-lined boulevards (linden-lined, birch-lined) in the works of the writer Ivan Bunin, but, then again, I’m the only clown who wrote, years ago, a Ph.D. dissertation on Bunin at Vanderbilt, and then who spent thirty years translating his literary works—published, finally, in 2006, by Northwestern University under the title Night of Denial.
Nov. 13: Musings and Cogitations While on the Bullet Train to Petersburg
Since the fall of the Soviet Union this country has become so much more civilized. I never thought I’d see the day when Russians on the streets were not yelling constantly at one another, playing the age-old Russian game of yell. Now the yelling women behind glass are the last of a dying breed. Or the day when drivers stopped to let pedestrians cross. The old (unwritten) rules stipulated that drivers—intent on claiming their right to the highway—would always speed up when they saw pedestrians. “Get out of my way; I own this road!” Now new laws have the drivers in rein. Big fines. They stop and let you cross. Civilization.
I last rode a train between Moscow and St. Petersburg twenty years ago. In those days things were much the same as in Soviet times. The train took eight hours for the trip. You usually went overnight and slept the journey away in sleeper compartments for four. The conductor would bring you tea. Not a bad experience, but the trains were slow, and the toilets consisted of a drafty compartment, stinking horribly, with a hole in the floor.
Now you ride a chic bullet train, clean and comfortable, with civilized toilets, and you make the trip in three-four hours. In the old times nothing was ever compatible with Western standards, but riding this train today, you could as easily be riding in France or Spain. Amazing, the progress of civilization.
Yet, as I sit on the train, looking out at the snowy countryside, I’m musing over the failure of Homo sapiens ever to make much progress. All the “going forward” that we talk about so incessantly never really gets that far forward. Why such gloomy thoughts? Because back in the States, with the election of Trump, we’re into a big New Era, a chance for Real Change, which Change could be going more backward than forward, which Change could even be Dangerous. Would that there were a way to stop the mutual back and forth of hatred that rules the U.S.A. One half of the country grits its teeth and shakes its fist at the other half, and that other half grits its teeth back and shakes its fist back. How did we get into this grievous situation? Don’t exactly know. What’s to be done about it? Don’t know that either, but I do know that real progress in terms of how the human psyche operates, real progress in human endeavors—notwithstanding the presence of wonderful new fast bullet trains—is the thing that never happens.
I’m nursing my bronchitis with vodka, the brand called “Air” [Воздух (пьешь как дышишь)], aware that vodka will not palliate my dark thoughts about the human race, and taking note of the warning on the bottle: “Чрезмерное употребление алкоголя вредит вашему здоровью (Excessive use of alcohol ruins your health).”
Nov. 14: St. Petersburg
Upon arrival last evening at our hotel (The Rachmaninov, on Kazanskaja Street), I led five other clowns on a brief walking tour of my favorite city. We trekked through the snow, passing first the Kazan Cathedral, right next to our hotel. I pointed out the Saviour on the Blood Church, just down the way along Griboedov Canal. Then we walked Nevsky Prospekt all the way to the Palace Square and Hermitage Museum. To the left from there we went scrunching along the pathways packed down with snow, past the Admiralty Building, on to St. Isaac’s Cathedral, all scaffolded up at the top. From there we took a right turn and proceeded to The Bronze Horseman, the most famous statue in all of Russia: Peter the Great mounted on his horse, right arm stretched forward, squinting to make out the horizon, since one eye (the left) was all snowed over.
Today we visited two different hospitals, first the one named after its founder, the Austrian doctor, Carl Gottlieb Rauchfuss, second a children’s hospital specializing in ambulatory problems and prostheses. At times on our visits I just sit back and watch the other clowns in action. Watch the children having fun. So many of these clowns are so good at what they do; you can’t help admiring them.
Maybe the highlight of my whole trip was something that occurred in the first hospital today. Here the rooms and corridors seemed to be teeming with very active, lively children. In the ward I first entered three small children were running and jumping, screaming and laughing at the antics of the clowns, while sitting alone on her bed, a girl of ten or eleven, brown-haired, very serious, wearing glasses, concentrated on a book she was reading. Her name was Katya.
The little children squealed, ran, jumped, while Katya sat, and the disconcerted expression on her face said, “Leave me out of the festivities; I want no part of this.” Several clowns approached her, in an attempt to get her involved, but she ignored them, kept her eyes on the book. She seemed to be thinking, “If only they’d finish their foolishness and leave me in peace.”
Eventually a nurse came in, had Katya on her back in the bed, administering to her in some way. Clearly uncomfortable with the procedure, the girl lay with tears in her eyes, while her book was left at the foot of the bed. It was “Stories from the Bible.” What to do? This. I walked up to Katya on her back, looked down at her and began to sing. It was what they call духовная песня (a spiritual song/prayer), sung by peasant women in Russian villages of the nineteenth century.
First verse: Миру заступница, Мати Всепетая, я пред Тобою с мольбой
(Intercessor for all the world, All-Hallowed Mother of God, I stand before Thee with a plea)
Second verse: Бедная грешница, мраком одетая, Ты Благодатю покрой
(Poor sinner that I am, all wrapped up in darkness, cover me, Mother, in Thy Bright Grace)
Third verse: Трудная жизнь, минуты страдания, Ты мне, молюсь, помоги
(Hard, hard life, moments of dire suffering, help me, O Mother, I pray)
She lay on her back, looking up with utter concentration, listening to the consolation of the song, listening. We never spoke a word together, but in leaving Katya, I hoped I had left her with a spark of succor, a way through whatever dark paths in her soul that she still had to walk.
Nov. 15: Dasha, Roma and Tima, Trump
We visited two children’s hospitals today, both great fun. One was the Institute for the Treatment of Bone Tuberculosis. Here Courtney (an Australian clown) and I spent time talking to a beautiful thirteen-year-old girl named Dasha, who was not ambulatory. She had a lovely temperament and a great smile, and she did her best to speak English. At times I helped her translate things she wanted to say for Courtney from the Russian. I left her with a necklace made by Native Americans, with two feathers hanging down at the bottom.
The Trump mask was a big hit here, more than anywhere else. Almost all the nurses and mothers wanted their picture taken with Trump. By now I had a performance routine down. I went around speaking out the mouth of the mask in Russian, asking somebody to help me find my pal Putin. I repeated the same words over and over. “Меня зовут Трамп. Я шут гороховый. Я первый шут гороховый Президент в истории Америки (My name is Trump. I’m a jackass-clown. I’m the first jackass-clown President in American history).” After that I sang “America the Beautiful,” beginning in English, but finishing off the last verse in Russian.
Made friends in the morning with a six-year-old boy named Roman (Roma). Gave him a calendar for 2017 consisting entirely of cats. He was thrilled. He told me, “My favorite animal is the cat.” Also gave him a writing pad and pen. His specialty in drawing was the tank. He drew me a picture of a tank, very carefully wrote out his name at the bottom, Рома, and presented it to me as a gift.
The highlight of the afternoon was three-year-old Timofey (Timothy). As clowns in multicolored outfits gamboled about, Timmy sat with his mother, dead serious, wide-eyed, muttering. “What’s that he’s saying?” I asked, and the mother, laughing, replied, “He’s saying Паук-человек (Spiderman).” So it turned out, Timmy was obsessed with the superpowers of the man-spider, and he was convinced that somewhere amidst this cornucopia of bright clownery his hero would appear.
Nov. 17: The Catherine Palace in Pushkin
Today we rode our bus out of town, to the city of Pushkin. There we visited the magnificent Catherine Palace, which I had been to many times, but never like this. The clowns capered and romped about in the magnificent parade rooms, danced amidst the splendor. I got to see the wonderful Amber Room again, and then we were off to the Psycho-neurological Orphanage No. 4. All the children here were severely retarded. Even the most experienced clowns are sometimes at a loss in a situation like this. The usual tricks—dancing about, blowing up balloons, tooting horns, singing songs—if they work at all, only work to a limited degree. You try to make the best of a sad situation.
Nov. 18: Winding Down
Our last visit to a children’s hospital this morning. I talked for a while with two six-year-old twin brothers, Misha and Matvej (Mikey and Matt). Passed out a lot more presents (calendars, crayons, writing pads, even toy cigarettes). One last go for the Trump mask, and once again it was received with hoots of joy. Everyone was posing for pictures with Trump. As for the children, the younger ones didn’t know who Trump was, but they enjoyed the mask. Mikey and Matt started playing run out of a ward shrieking, then run down the corridors pursued by the ogre in the mask. Great fun. Before leaving this hospital I gave away most of my clown props, including the palm-frond hat and the fake eyeglasses that I had worn most of the time. Assuming that it might be useful some time in the next four years, I kept the Trump mask.
There were times during this trip, especially during the worst bronchitis, that I wondered what I was doing here. Especially since at my age I was like grandfather to the group. But all in all, it was a wonderful experience. The clowns were so devoted to what they were doing, and such good people, it was a real privilege to be around them. Some of them were so refined in their performances that I sometimes just sat with the children and watched the entertainment.
I spoke with a lot of Russians all over about the American political scene. Didn’t meet a single Russian who liked Hillary Clinton; most of them hated her. But that is understandable, given that her husband as President was the first to perpetuate the Cold War by pushing NATO up to the borders of Russia, and given that Hillary followed the same anti-Russian “containment” policies as Secretary of State under Obama. As for Trump, the Russians appreciated his iconoclasm and showmanship, but they weren’t really sure what to make of him. But then, nobody else can figure out Trump’s behavior either, including Trump himself.
The best thing of all about this trip was the privilege of being able to interact with Russian children, with their mothers, with the nurses and doctors in the places we visited. In one hospital a woman there with her son, just checking in, said to me, “But you’re from America; they hate Russians in America, don’t they?” Well no, not all of us, at any rate. And if we could bring the haters along with us on this tour, could take them to the hospitals to see the children, the hatred would soon fade from their souls.
Griffin Statues on the Bankers Footbridge, St. Petersburg
Griffin Statues on the Bankers Footbridge, St. Petersburg