It’s Monday Morning in Moscow. Dark and cold outside but hopefully the sun will come out soon because this will be a day of seeing the city. Red Square is beckoning again. It will be good to be back there. It’s been been over 5 years … over 5 years since I came within a hair’s breadth of being arrested on Red Square. Foolish American!
It was 2006 and I’d been in Moscow for several days teaching a group of Russian and Ukrainian directors and actors the fine art of filmmaking. I was staying in an apartment on Tverskaja, the main street that leads directly to Red Square and the Kremlin. In fact, I was only a few blocks from the square itself. It was the last day of teaching and I was a little upset with myself because I had not been to Red Square yet and would be on a flight the next morning to Kiev.
So I had a brainstorm. Take a run to Red Square. Years ago I had vowed I would run 5 miles in every new city so the idea of a short run down Tverskaja to Red Square and the imposing walls of the Kremlin seemed like the perfect idea. Rising just as the sun was coming up, I put on running outfit, running shoes, grabbed my apartment keys and my point-and-shoot camera and happily took off down Tverskaja. What a glorious feeling (and it’s all down hill). I zigged and zagged through pedestrians, traffic and tunnels until I arrived at the grand entrance of Red Square. I took a couple of pictures and prepared myself for what was certainly going to be the stellar experience of entering the square. And I was not disappointed. It is awesome, intimidating (as intended I am sure) the towers of St. Basil glowing magnificently in the morning sun, Lenin’s tomb sitting like a fat cat on the side, confident, secure in its permanence. I jogged slowly around the massive square, in the silence hearing sounds of marching soldiers, rolling tanks and speeches projected through ancient PA systems. I arrived in front of St. Basil’s. Knew it was picture time. In my halting Russian I convinced an old woman to take my picture in front of this magnificent structure. Then, mission accomplished, I thought it would be a good idea to run out the far end of the square, give myself the opportunity to see a bit more of Moscow from another vantage point as I ran back home. I ran around a corner directly into barricades and a phalanx of policemen. I came to a screeching halt as they held up their arms, shouting at me to turn around and go back. Obedient tourist that I am I stopped. But this looked like another great photo op and I didn’t want to miss it. There was no one there to take my picture happily surrounded by Moscow’s finest so I settled for just a picture of Oleg, Vadim and Boris in front of their barracades. Bad idea.
The camera is rising to take a simple tourist photo. Boris is moving toward me arms waving. (Would have been a great photo. He would have been proud.) But the tone of his voice tells me ‘drop the camera, do not move, you’ve crossed a line’. I drop the camera to my side. Give Boris a smile (I don’t think he’s noticing). Slowly start backing up as he is approaching. Now, I don’t want to make it look like I’m running, but I don’t want to stay there and resist. Really don’t want to turn my back on him (that feels a bit dangerous). So I am doing that awkward dance we do when we know we are in over our heads and we’re trying to maintain some sort of dignity and we extricate ourselves from a potentially dangerous situation. Like running in an angry bear in the woods. Boris is still moving. He’s stopped waving (that’s good I think) but one arm is reaching out to me. I don’t know if he wants me to give him something or if he is just trying to push my
offending presence back into the square. I keep backing up, slight wave with the hand that doesn’t have the offending camera, bit of a bow now (and then I think, ‘no that’s for Japan, not Russia’). And I’m back in the square, feeling the protective comfort of some distant tourists. And suddenly Boris stops. And I stop. We are looking a each other. I try another smile. I don’t think Boris has smiled in many years. With another slight wave I casually turn and walk into the square. ‘Don’t start running, Mark. That won’t look good. Will look like you’ve done something wrong. Just walk, be a tourist, look at the sites. Blend in. Blend in!’
30 minutes later I’m back in my apartment taking a shower. 60 minutes later I’m standing in front of eager students discussing the complexities and challenges of directing actors. 3 hours later we’re sitting at lunch and I’m telling my host and other members of the seminar about my adventure in Red Square.
My host, Gerry MacCarthy (yup, an Irishman running filmmaking workshops in Moscow) is silent, horrified. I can’t imagine what is wrong. I look at the other faces … the same horror and shock. And then Gerry says, “What did you have with you?” With the great pride of a runner/tourist I said, “Just my keys and my camera.” Silence. Don’t they get it? Don’t they see what a great adventure this was? “No passport? No money?” With a logic that any child could understand, “the passport was safely in my apartment along with my money.” “Oh my God”, my Irish host gusts. “You are so lucky.”
Then they explain it to me. Seems that if Boris had stopped me and spoken to me he would have quickly realized that I was a foreigner and an American and he would have asked for my passport. The fact that I had no passport on me (safely in the apartment means nothing) would have meant that I could possibly have been detained for 48 hours until they decided what to do with me. And even if I had had my passport the fact that I had no money on me would have been disastrous. (The best place to have the money is inside the passport so that when Boris opens it he finds a little gift intended specifically for him. And, I guess, a gifted Boris is a compassionate Boris.)
So, today I will go out and be the best tourist I can be. Passport tucked tight in my pocket, a bit of cash in the wallet. And certainly a deeper respect for one of the many cultural differences I continually encounter.
And, coming soon, thoughts on teaching in Moscow.