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Us and them

The Third Component: Part I, Chapter 11

Alison Christy 4 January 2009

www.lablit.com/article/455

Photo Credit: Tim Christy

It’s one thing to send Latvians to gulags when you are the Soviet Union, and another to create an international incident by murdering an American when you are the Russian Federation

Editor's note: We are pleased to continue the weekly serialization of The Third Component, a novel by Alison Christy: a scientist at loose ends after earning her PhD sets off to Russia in search of a missing piece of her family's past.

Chapter 11

Changes in Salivary Testosterone Concentrations Predict Willingness to Engage in Social Aggression

If we can learn anything from history, it is this: Money may be the root of all evil, but the branches of the tree are made of nationalism.

Biology tells us that people are social animals, like dogs or sheep, and we tend to form tribes as our primary social grouping. The formation of a tribe necessitates an us-versus-them mentality: how can we be an Us if there is no Them? And even today, these natural instincts lead us to form tribes: me against my brother, me and my brother against our neighbor, our neighborhood against that neighborhood, our region against that region, our country against that country. It can be territorial, religious, social – we will take any excuse to form a group that defines us against someone else.

Money and power may be the motivation for all wars, but the people in charge who actually gain from war would never find foot soldiers to do their dirty work if it weren’t for nationalism, if people couldn’t be convinced that our Us is better than their Them and that therefore They should be destroyed.

We know this will not be a short war; we know this will not be a humane war. We know how the Russians gun down the dark-skinned, Muslim Chechens; we know that human rights abuses and war crimes are just the way they fight. We have to stop this war right now, at the beginning, by proving unequivocally that the Chechens did not plant those bombs in Moscow apartments.

This is not an easy task. We will likely see the people who uncover the truth behind the Moscow apartment bombings disappear or die in mysterious or bizarre ways.

– Michael Perch, from “Reply Hazy, Try Again: Predictions for the Next Chechen War,” The Moscow Voice, September 25, 1999.

It’s not that she’s obsessed with Michael Perch, Anna thinks. She is sitting in an open square under a large monument to a man in a three-piece suit, a Russian official or someone, reading the article she printed out at the internet kiosk. It is just that he is such a wonderful guide to the strange world of Russia. And, of course, she knows someone who knew him, who thought he had a beautiful soul. And then there is the disappearance, which intrigues her.

Could the government have killed him? She is skeptical. Certainly, his articles look polemic, but he wrote them in English, and Anna isn’t sure how many Russians would even read an English journal. And after all, Michael Perch was an American. It’s one thing to send Latvians to gulags when you are the Soviet Union, and another to create an international incident by murdering an American when you are the Russian Federation. Then there’s Marina, so overly emotional, so exaggerated: she seems just the type to come up with crazy conspiracy theories. And on a day like this, with the sky soft and blue and nothing to do but watch the people weaving so quickly and intently around her, the idea of a government killing a journalist seems patently ridiculous.

“Anna!”

She looks up automatically, realizing as she does that there must be hundreds of Annas in Russia, but she sees Sasha from Frank’s party hurrying across the square toward her.

“I am glad to see you are no longer bed-ridden!” Sasha says, shaking her hand enthusiastically. He tells her he was just at the Hotel Pekin, the ornate yellow building across the street, giving a Russian lesson to two Japanese businessmen. “Very strange, oh, but very wealthy,” he says. “They were very interested in finding Russian ladies to accompany them tonight. I said, please, gentlemen, I am simply a tutor, I am not the escort service.”

He laughs. In the daylight he seems less predatory and more charming. His heavy eyebrows move expressively as he talks, and his dark eyes are shadowed by thick, dark lashes. Anna smiles back.

“Have you eaten lunch?” Sasha asks. “You must allow me to treat you to a Moscow tradition: the business lunch.”

He offers her his arm as they walk, and she takes it, with some hesitation; she is not used to this kind of thing. He tells her that he knows Frank from Moscow State University, where he teaches Russian to foreign students, mostly college students on semesters abroad. She almost laughs, imagining his classes, the fresh-faced young women reeling from culture shock, soon to be swept away by the exotic teacher with broad-shoulders and a charismatic smile.

He tells her he attends every possible ex-pat function as well, including the English table at the Shamrock Pub. He tutors ex-pats for extra money, he says, so it is important to make connections. He tells her he’s tutored all nationalities, even once a man from Zimbabwe, but Americans are his favorites. “I love their attitude toward life,” he says. “I love the way they smile at things.”

“I don’t think you can lump us all together like that,” Anna says. She raises her eyebrows; she is aware she is being flirtatious.

“That’s the other thing I love about Americans,” Sasha says. “You think you are all so unique.” He moves in front of her to open the door of the restaurant (BUISNESS LAUNCH, the sign out front proclaims) and then moves in front of her again to pull her chair out, stepping aside with a little bow. It’s not a kind of attention Anna is used to, and it feels a little old-fashioned and artificial, but Sasha performs the chivalry well, as if Anna were unlike any other woman in the world, a delicate jewel that must be handled carefully, and she smiles in spite of herself.

**********

The sun is shining brightly as they walk out of the restaurant. The sky is richly blue and the cars parked along the street gleam in the sunlight. They have decided to walk down to a park called Patriarch Ponds. She and Sasha are talking and laughing when suddenly he switches to Russian.

She looks at him, confused, and he nods slightly toward the two young men ahead of them, leaning against a car, watching them as they approach. Both men have official caps, short-sleeved blue shirts and childish, round-cheeked faces. They pull away from the car as Sasha and Anna walk by. The shorter man holds out his hand to stop them.

Dokumenti,” he says. He is scowling, an attempt to appear threatening that is doubtlessly the result of prolonged mirror study.

“Your passport,” Sasha says to her.

Anna tells him she doesn’t have it.

“What?” he says. A flush of pink creeps slowly up his neck.

Anna can feel her own cheeks redden. “It’s at the hotel. In the hotel safe. They told me at the hotel,” she pulls up her shirt, rummaging awkwardly through her clothing to the belt wrapped around her waist, “they said I could show the hotel key? And I have identification.” She hands Sasha her driver’s license and the hotel key. “Is that okay?”

Sasha turns back to the police officers and begins explaining, gesturing to her and to her little ID card. The two men slowly shake their heads. They also gesture at Anna, and at Sasha, and they speak to both of them angrily.

“How much cash?” Sasha asks Anna softly. She tells him what she has. Her heart is pounding.

Sasha continues to argue with the officers, who seem to have found something wrong with his documents as well. The taller officer, whose round face is festering with acne, pushes Sasha’s shoulder threateningly. They gesture, frequently, at Anna.

Anna looks from one person to the other even though she understands nothing they are saying beyond the word Nyet. Police state, she thinks. Stone-walled prisons and drafty boxcars to Siberia. Her hands are trembling.

Finally, Sasha takes Anna’s driver’s license back and puts it into his own wallet. He takes it out again, this time with several bills behind it. The officers take the ID back and look at it again – this time apparently joking about Anna’s picture, which is admittedly not the best, she is grinning like an idiot with her eyes half closed – and then the shorter one hands it to Anna with a little sarcastic bow. They watch while she pulls up her shirt and opens her pants to put the ID back in her belt, and the taller one makes a comment that is clearly vulgar, while the shorter one laughs harshly.

Sasha takes his documents back as well, and the two officers walk away, laughing, cutting across the narrow street and shouting at a car that narrowly misses them.

Sasha offers his arm again and they walk on, faster now, so quickly that Anna almost has to jog.

“I’m sorry!” Anna says, as soon as she thinks they are out of earshot. “I’m so, so sorry!”

“You didn’t know,” Sasha says, softly as well. “Your hotel probably has a deal with the militzia that they will take your passport for safekeeping.” He tells her that he grew up in the town of Tula and doesn’t have the required registration to live in Moscow.

“They stop you sometimes,” Sasha says. “They are fuckers.” Then he laughs. “You look so scared! Really, you should not be so scared.”

“I’ve never actually seen anyone bribe an officer before,” Anna says.

“Welcome to Russia,” Sasha says.

{Continued next week}