Since I had the honors of being Time Magazine's Man Of The Year last year, I was interested to see who would join the elite ranks of Time's Men Of The Year this year. (Okay, so technically I shared that honor with every other human being on the planet, but when I looked in the reflective surface of my issue of Time Magazine, I didn't see any of you people; I just saw me.)
And it's Vladimir Putin!
Call me a crazy-assed, ignerint, gaywad, proto-fascist, dork--but please, not to my face--but I like the guy.
In 1999 and 2000, I had the opportunity to travel to Moscow, capital of the Russian Federation, and provide a russian NGO with technical assistance to launch an HIV prevention initiative. In total, I made three trips over there, and I have to say that Moscow was the most amazing place I've ever been. It's a beautiful city, steeped in history. The russian people are a soulful, doleful bunch. Sit down next to somebody in the lounge of a banya and right away you're talking about What It All Means.
And the history.
I read John Reed's Ten Days That Shook The World, the book that inspired Warren Beatty's movie Reds, prior to my first trip, and so I got off the plane ready to be steeped. At what other point in human history has a people taken it upon itself to shape their own destiny on such a scale as transpired during the Russian Revolution? Okay. So the results were pretty tragic in many respects, but still, gotta give credit for pluck, huh?
And I remember having lunch with a woman who was serving as my translator. About my age, we started comparing notes on our reminiscences of life in our respective countries during the 1980s. I told her about how I was sure that Soviet missiles were on the launchpads, ready to strike, about the nuclear non-proliferation movement, and about the fear and paranoia that pervaded the Reagan years. She told me that the russians saw the United States as unprincipled cowboys, hellbent on destroying the Soviet Union. In the worldview of her and her countrymen, the US was the crazy person in the room with the gun. We had a poignant moment when the same thought hit us at the same time: thank God the missiles never left the launchpad, and so fifteen years later, both of us could be sitting here in the Alexander Gardens outside the Kremlin on a beautiful day in June.
And also, once I got to know a russian, I would ask them what they remembered from 1991. Back then, the Old Guard decided that Mikhail Gorbachev's reforms had gone far enough and it was time to return to the Bad Old Days. Tanks rolled through the streets but the people of Moscow put their lives on the line to go and face down the Red Army. And the people, and Boris Yeltsin, the Moscow Party Boss, held the day.
"I headed towards Ostankino... We were all so scared... We didn't know what would happen..."
Russia at the turn of the Century was quite a place to be. Everything was up in the air. Most people scraped by on the equivalent of about $40 a month. But everywhere in Moscow, in their black Lexus's and Range Rovers with tinted windows were the Novii Ruskii, the "New Russians." Clad in Armani (also black) for the men and Versace for the women, they'd shop in the exclusive stores and go to the nightclubs and restaurants with astronomical prices, places that catered only to them. I thought at the time that they were the equivalent of the late 19th Century robber barons in this country, amassing fortunes unchecked. What Russia needed was a rough riding Teddy Roosevelt to rein them all in, level the playing field, and lessen the human misery that often comes with reaping a huge fortune by making opportunities available to everyone.
And along came former spy-master Vladimir Putin. And he did just that.
And yeah, he's run roughshod over freedom of the press and decided that regional governors would be best installed by him rather than by the electorate. But from what I hear, all across the country, and not just in Moscow and Peterburg, there is emerging a russian Middle Class.
And another thing. Russia is a Great Nation with a rich history. And distinctly russian art, architecture, literature, and philosophy. Putin has leveraged russian oil resources--which he nationalized--and once again made Russia a major player on the world stage, answerable to no one, charting their own course. Standing up to American hegemony is no small feat, and for the Bush administration, it's wildly inconvenient, but Putin is doing that, too.
Oh. And there's rumors that he's secretly gay.
And his hand-picked successor is a guy named Medvedyev, which I believe translates as "Little Bear."
On one of my last trips to Moscow, I was invited to a party. I thought it would be, y'know, a party. In somebody's apartment. Hors d'oeuvres. Drinks. It turned out that it was a Party. A huge bash with hundreds of people. There were tables piled with food, wine, vodka, dancing, music. And, of course, the toasts. At one point, my host rose and announced that the next toast would be given by "nahsh droog amyerikanski," our American friend, meaning me.
My mind raced.
"I propose a toast to the russian people, the greatest lovers in the world!" (Some laughter, nervous and otherwise.) "Why do I say the russian people are the greatest lovers in the world? Because the russian people love life. They love food and drink and music and laughter and dancing and stories and poetry and family and friends. Every russian man and woman I have met here has been a true and ardent lover of life. But life has been a cruel lover to the russian people. They have given her their hearts, but Life has repaid their love harshly, often with poverty, violence, and deprivation. But no matter what Life gives them, russians only love Life all the more. The russian people know a deeper love than any the world over. And that is why I say that the russian people are the greatest lovers in the world. And I raise my glass to all of you! 'Nastrovya!"
It went over big.