We’re out this week, but we’re re-posting some of our favorite pieces from 2012 while we’re away. We hope you enjoy—and have a happy New Year!
At three in the morning, Almaty’s tiny airport is no match for the crackling expanses of sky and snow. As we rise from our seats, the local women shrug on their fur coats, shape shifters assuming animal form. New York hasn’t seen much winter lately, and I’m glad of evidence that the seasons still exist—even if I had to come on a business trip to Kazakhstan to find it.
The long smooth road from the airport is lined with luxury-car dealerships and dilapidated beer shops, their signs askew. “Double beer!” one sign cries, sounding drunk. The streets are named after poets, heroes, and Soviet institutions. (Meet me at the intersection of Goethe and Komintern. Sentences like these are the reward for time spent in the former Soviet Union.) We pass a fluorescent Eiffel Tower standing sentry in front of a shopping center. “What’s that?” I ask the driver. “The Eiffel Tower,” he answers, matter-of-fact. I’m reminded of a Kyrgyz woman who told me that the Great Wall of China did not exist. Though she herself had visited the wall, she insisted that the section she’d seen was the only real part, built recently to dupe foreigners. “But you can see it from space,” I protested. “The Chinese are very clever,” she answered. “And those Buddhas in the caves? You think those are a thousand years old? All from the eighties. Trust me.”
At an artist’s party in Kiev I once spoke to someone who said he didn’t believe in AIDS, though two of his friends had died of it. “It’s all psychological,” he said. I was in Ukraine working with AIDS organizations, and when talking about my job I met with much skepticism from the general population. On the beach in Crimea I had an argument with a group of Russian men who asked, “If HIV exists, what does it look like? Have you seen it? Can you draw it?” They looked at me with pity when I admitted that I couldn’t draw the virus on a napkin. “How can you be so naïve?” one of them asked me. “Can’t you see that AIDS is just an invention of the pharmaceutical companies?” I was exasperated and tongue-tied. When conspiracy is taken for granted, when paranoia has become common sense, how can you persuade someone to trust the scientific method? With the sum of our collective knowledge so far exceeding the scope of any single person’s comprehension, we’re forced to rely on a certain credulousness, a belief that the information we’re given is provided in good faith. Otherwise the wider world is dark, and what is real is only what we see and touch.
On the other hand, the supernatural can never be ruled out. During my last trip to Central Asia, in 2011, the Kyrgyz Parliament sacrificed seven sheep to drive out the evil spirits that were making it impossible for them to reach consensus. (These might have been the same evil spirits that caused the ousting of the president and the ensuing ethnic violence a year earlier.) The Parliamentarians assured the public that the sheep had been purchased with private funds, and that once the animals had completed their civic duty their flesh had been donated to local orphanages. Acquaintances told me that exorcism by animal sacrifice was often necessary; one woman said that after a ghost terrorized the night guards in her office, they had to sacrifice a sheep to drive it away. Like the omnipotent Chinese government or malevolent pharmaceutical companies, ghosts offer an all-purpose explanation, covering everything from political deadlock to fear of the dark.
With ghosts and conspiracies lurking around every corner, it’s easy to develop an acute sense of unreality. This effect is heightened by the lingering, uncanny sameness of many post-Soviet places, despite their enormous geographic and cultural variety. With its universalizing schemes, the Soviet Union made everything look vaguely alike. This can give the impression that you’re walking through a dream; everything is familiar, but not. In Bishkek I trudge through the slush to the central post office, which looks eerily like the central post office in Kiev. The building crouches on the corner in just the same posture, wearing the same weary expression, and for a moment I’m not sure where I am. I have a similar sensation when riding the escalator in the Kiev or Moscow or St. Petersburg metro. Descending into the earth in identical tunnels on identical escalators beside babushkas in identical fur hats, I feel that I am participating in a mythical process, like Alice falling down the rabbit hole or the Pevensie children climbing through the wardrobe into Narnia.
The demented skepticism and occult sympathies that I’ve encountered on my travels have sometimes left me wondering whether I was losing my mind. But I am soothed by the Soviet Union’s legacy of communal memories, which are so standardized that it’s relatively easy, as a foreigner, to become conversant in them. I soon learned the songs people sing when they drink, read the poems people most often recite, watched the films that are quoted endlessly. Familiarity with this small body of common culture gave me a sense of belonging. Coming from a country with a seemingly infinite variety of subcultures, I was happy to be in a place that still had a well-defined canon.
At the same time, though, there was a surreal quality to the standardization of memories as well as places and objects. When I spent a Fulbright year in Kiev I sublet an apartment that hadn’t been renovated or refurbished since the 1970s. Because of the Soviet mass production of distinctively designed goods, an apartment like mine was not only reminiscent of the places where my friends had grown up; many objects were actually identical to those in their childhood homes, like the orange and white polka-dot tea set or the plastic radio with no knob to change the station. (In the old days there was only one station.) Two friends, one from Kiev and one from Chisinau, once sat in my kitchen and had a detailed conversation about the trappings of their childhood—the color and texture of their school uniforms, the look of the labels on common foods. It was all the same, as if their childhood experiences were composed of manufactured mass memory. A conspiracy of nostalgia.
Traveling from Almaty to Bishkek by car we cross mountains that are round and bare, as if troubled water had been frozen suddenly. A blizzard retreats to reveal impassive sheep (will they be executed some day in the name of legislative harmony?), a bundled-up shepherd, a frost-rimed herd of horses. When I cross the border the guards look at my American passport and giggle, singing “America! America!” A few days later we fly over the Pamir Mountains, which rise miles above the cloud cover. Just as Bishkek’s post office reminded me of Kiev’s, the Pamirs remind me of the cliffs along the coast of Crimea, where I once spent an August. A white sea laps against jagged rock faces. The waves have turned to clouds, summer has turned to winter—but the shapes are the same.
Sophie Pinkham is a student of Russian literature who lives in New York City.