On September 24, 2012, I will leave Moscow after three years of living here, a few weeks shy of the day, thirty years ago, that I was born here. In between, I managed to have half a childhood here, a whole life in America, and a fellowship that brought me to Moscow, on September 12, 2009, for nine months. Instead, I stayed for three years. I never expected to stay that long, and I never expected that these years would make me a real, live journalist. (Medicine was always the completely unrealistic back-up plan.) I never expected to interview the kinds of people I did, I never expected to be able to speak real, educated adult Russian well enough to go on local television, I never expected to see the kinds of things I did, I never expected to write this much, and I certainly never expected that it would be so hard to leave. I never expected to fall in love.
After a fourteen-hour journey via Zurich, I will land at Dulles International Airport, and I will begin my life in Washington, D.C. I will get a new beat and new colleagues. I will make new friends. Perhaps I will come back to Moscow for the occasional story, but my life will be in the Chesapeake basin. And, after months of heartache, Moscow will slowly become a bright blur, fodder for dinner party conversation, or a handshake to inaugurate me into the secret society of all the other American journalists who have come through this place and come away transformed. It will become yet another factoid about me.
But folded deep into those anecdotes will be the fact that this foreign city is also my native city, a place where I feel both completely at home and completely alien, a place I’ve loved and hated for so long. Buried in there will be all the details I will forget with delight and remember with longing. And before my memory irons them out, I want to make note of them.
When I leave Moscow, I won’t miss the traffic and the pollution and the boom-town prices, but I’ll miss that a gypsy cab for $6 still gets you just about anywhere.
I’ll miss the beautifully Soviet metro stations—the stained glass, the marble, the utopian, gilt mosaics. I’ll miss the fact that you rarely have to wait more than a minute for a train. I won’t miss stepping inside at nine in the morning past a cloud of peregar, the smell of metabolized alcohol.
I won’t miss how much Russians drink, but I will miss drinking with Russians.
I won’t miss the late-night debates in which you find yourself falling down an epistemological black hole. Down there, nothing is provable and nothing is knowable, except for your sparring partner’s increasingly bizarre pronouncements. In Moscow, I have debated the following topics: whether or not the archived kill-lists with Stalin’s signature are forgeries; the allegation that I am naïve for thinking that American traffic cops generally don’t take bribes; that I am a C.I.A. spy; and the reason America is a more successful country than Somalia (hint: it wasn’t founded by black people). I’ve also been asked to prove how smoking causes lung cancer.
I won’t miss the casual racism and the relax-I-was-just-joking anti-Semitism. I will miss the fact that just about everyone can do a killer Georgian accent and knows a truly wonderful Jewish joke.
I will also miss the fact that, with the anti-Kremlin protests of the last few months, there is still a place in the world where you can debate the things the West has long ago stopped talking about and long ago started taking for granted; that, here, you have conversations full of big words and basic concepts like “freedom” and whether government officials can have fully private lives.
I won’t miss the fact that abstraction can get boring.
I won’t miss the casual misogyny, but I will miss the fact that it makes for excellent copy, as it did when Bolshoi prima Anastasia Volochkova quit the ruling United Russia party and the partyresponded as follows: “Women, like children, are susceptible to changes in mood. In this sense, Anastasia Volochkova is a real woman.” (As one American friend here once noted, “It’s like ‘Mad Men,’ but with worse clothes.”)
I won’t miss living in a city where virtually everyone is white and wearing an Orthodox Christian cross, where the only places of worship you see are the onion domes of Orthodox churches, and where the Church and the state are in such close cooperation. The medieval beauty of the architecture wears thin when there’s nothing to contrast it to, and when you know of the abuses happening under its aegis. A monopoly is a monopoly is a monopoly.
I won’t miss the fact that Jewish culture and Jewish people have largely disappeared from this city, and that another monopoly—Chabad—has become the only way to be Jewish here.
I will miss the fact that, when you go to someone’s birthday party, you have to bring them a gift or flowers. It gets expensive, but the moment when you hand it over is so nice. And when it’s your birthday, you may have to pay for the food and the booze, but you can barely get the flowers home, to say nothing of the gifts.
I won’t miss the fact that there is no trust in the Russian system: not in institutions, not in people. I will miss the strength of the bonds it breeds when you find that trust.
I will miss the fact that Russians are not afraid of what we in America nervously call “the L-word,” or the messes it can get you into.