by Hank Leukart
August 27, 2012
In post-Soviet Russia, friends make you.
Finding friends in Moscow is easy when you make an effort to live like a local.
St. Basil's Cathedral, a quintessential Moscow tourist attraction, sits on the western edge of Red Square. (view all Moscow, Russia photos)
OSCOW, Russia — “Cheburashka! Skazhi [say] Cheburashka!” Marina demands, as we drink two shots of Russian vodka together. She is an effervescent Russian medical student, with long blond hair and classic features, who doesn’t speak any English. We’re sitting with our mutual friends Anna, Alena, and Sasha at a Caribbean-themed dance club near Moscow’s Barrikadnaya Metro station, and we’ve already downed three shots of vodka in celebration of Alena’s birthday. Though I’ve only been in Moscow for three days, I’ve already verified that the stereotype of Russians being obstinately dedicated to their vodka is entirely accurate.
In my quest to live like a true Muscovite and avoid behaving like a predictable tourist, I started my trip avoiding Moscow’s typical tourist haunts, like the Kremlin, the Bolshoi Theatre, and the State Museum. Instead, I contacted Anna — a thoughtful, English-speaking Russian children’s book editor with a round face, short blond hair, and piercing blue eyes — using the backpackers’ mecca Couchsurfing and asked her to let me tag along during her normal weekend activities. Anna, an unapologetic thrill seeker, soon introduced me to her friend Alena — a warmhearted woman with curly, brown hair searching for a publishing job — and the three of us spent the afternoon at the All-Russian Exhibition Center (VVC), people watching and riding vomit-inducing, Western-style carnival attractions. Afterward, when the two asked enthusiastically if I’d like to join the rest of their friends to celebrate Alena’s birthday, I jumped at the opportunity.
Though I’ve only known Anna, Alena, and their friends Marina and Sasha for a half day, their genuine personalities make me feel warmly included, as though I’ve known them for much longer. Since I don’t speak any Russian, Marina has spent the night trying to teach me a catalog of profane Russian words, a project which has mostly consisted of her screaming, pizdabol and idi na khuy, the Russian equivalents of “fucking bastard” and “suck my dick,” at me until I dutifully repeat them correctly. But, I can tell that the word she is trying to teach me now, Cheburashka, is something entirely different.
“Chew-burr-ash-kah,” I slowly repeat. “What does it mean?” The group laughs. Anna, who always sensitively comes to my rescue when she detects my cultural confusion, explains: “Cheburashka is a small, bear-like animal, who was found in a crate of oranges and lives in a telephone booth. His friend is a crocodile.” I’m so baffled by this explanation that I assume that either she’s translating a handful of words incorrectly or the cultural divide between me and Russia, in this case, is simply too vast. But, Alena looks sympathetically at the confusion on my face.
“It’s a classic Russian animated kids movie character,” Alena explains. “It’s Marina’s favorite! You can’t really understand it until you see it on VKontakte.” I joined VK, Russia’s Facebook, earlier in the week in an attempt to better integrate myself into Russian culture. Upon signing up, I discovered that, not only is the website better-designed and easier to use than its American counterpart, it provides access to almost every TV show, film, and song ever made, for free, thanks to Russia’s weak intellectual property laws. I make a mental note to see the mysterious Cheburashka before leaving Russia.
The five of us spend the night dancing and drinking until past 3 AM. I note that Moscow is the only place I’ve ever visited that fulfills locals’ promises that it’s a city that never sleeps. When I ask the women about their lack of male friends, Marina immediately launches into a spirited but indecipherable Russian tirade, which Alena succinctly translates for me as: “Russian men are pizdabols [fucking bastards].” So, Anna, Alena and I instead discuss our favorite TV shows and movies, including Glee, House, and The Truman Show. I’m surprised and impressed by their deep knowledge and love for American culture, and I’m so convinced of Anna’s good taste that I persuade her to watch all three seasons of the excellent, prematurely-canceled, teenage detective drama Veronica Mars.
After singing a bewildering (to me) Russian-English-hybrid version of “Happy Birthday,” we all leave the club at around 3:30 AM. I expect that we’ll head back to our respective homes, since the women live in a northern Moscow suburb, and I live in an apartment next to Patriarshiye Pond near the city’s center. But, the group offers to walk with me to my apartment, which I interpret as a friendly and protective gesture toward me, the Russia-ignorant American. As the five of us walk the neighborhood’s streets, packed with never-sleeping Muscovites in upscale cafes and the Patriarshiye Pond park, Marina narrates every step of the way with a barrage of enthusiastic Russian. I ask Alena to translate, but Marina is speaking so fast that the only thing Alena manages to say is: “She’s crazy.” So, as we wander through the neighborhood, I simply watch Marina talk. I can’t understand a word of her animated tour of the neighborhood, but the vitality in her eyes, her energetic body language, and the big smile on her face make me think that she’s very different than most Russians, many of whom seem to scowl constantly, a habit ostensibly left over from Russia’s difficult Soviet period.
Even though I’ve been left out of the Russian-only conversation, I’m still disappointed that Marina’s bubbly Russian tour has come to an end when we finally arrive at my apartment door at 4 AM. Now, I’m expecting the girls to say goodbye, but Alena asks me if we can continue her birthday party in my apartment. I’m exhausted from dancing, my brain is swimming in alcohol, and I’m unsure how I can possibly entertain four Russian women by myself. But, not wanting to reveal that, unlike Muscovites, I’m an Ohioan who rarely drinks Russian vodka and needs regular sleep, I invite them inside.
Quickly, I find myself sitting awkwardly in my Moscow apartment in the middle of the night with four Russians, two of whom don’t speak English. I try turning on the TV to watch the Olympics, but the coverage, of course, is in Russian and follows only the Russian team. As mind wanders, an idea rushes into my head of something to do that doesn’t require any of us to talk to each other — a necessity due to our language barrier.
“Charades!” I announce. “We’ll play charades!” Even Alena and Anna, the English-speakers in the group, have never heard this word. “It’s a game where we act out words and phrases,” I explain.
“Oh, pantomima!” Anna exclaims. Quickly, everyone understands, and I divide the group into teams. The game is a runaway success, and we play for hours, using a Russian-English dictionary to help us produce clue ideas. For much of the game, Marina is my acting partner, and though our language barrier makes it impossible for us to talk to each other, I discover quickly that the two of us are the best charades team in the room. In a particularly funny moment, she manages to successfully portray a blond-girl, Russian-speaking version of Barack Obama. Marina’s energy makes communicating wordlessly with her surprisingly easy.
At 7 AM, with Anna asleep on my bed and most of us out of charades clue ideas, Alena announces that, now that the Moscow Metro has started running again, they had better return home. Yet, after they leave, I realize that Russian charades has prevented me from getting tired. I wonder if I’m already turning into a true Muscovite.
On my laptop, I visit VK and start watching the first episode of Cheburashka (with dubbed English dialog). In the classic Russian animated film’s first scene, I see a small creature, which looks somewhat, but not completely, like a bear, emerge from a crate of oranges. After the zoo rejects him (“The critter is an unknown species!”), he moves into a telephone booth, and lonely Cheburashka sadly fills his time by playing with a spinning top by himself. But, when he sees a posted advertisement — “Young crocodile wants to find friends” — he goes to meet the crocodile, named Gena, who is, adorably, playing chess by himself. The two decide to “build a house for those who don’t have any friends” to help all of the lonely people in the world.
I find Cheburashka utterly charming, of course, but more importantly, it underscores the great importance of loyal friendship in Russian culture. Marina’s dedication to Cheburashka and all of the girls’ exceptional kindness toward me immediately starts making cultural sense. Wanting to see more, I watch another Cheburashka episode, in which Gena plays a garmoshka (a Russian accordion) and sings a quirky, adorable song in celebration of his own birthday:
A magician will come in a blue helicopter
and will throw us a show for free.
Then, he’ll stay for the party,
and when he is departing,
he’ll make candy grow on the trees.
What a pity
that a birthday
comes just once a year.
Yes, at Alena’s party, we substituted charades for a magician in a blue helicopter. Nevertheless, as morning sunlight streams into my Moscow apartment’s windows and I watch Cheburashka present Gena with a birthday gift, I feel the strong, unique bonds of Russian friendship wash over me. I decide that it truly is a pity that Russian birthday parties come just once a year.
Read the second essay in this series about living like a local in Russia, in which I visit an underground communications bunker left over from the Cold War.
Vomit-inducing, Western-style carnival rides entertain visitors to the All-Russia Exhibition Centre (VVC).
Beautiful people enjoy cocktails on the terrace of Strelka at Moscow’s trendy Red October, a former chocolate factory. The Cathedral of Christ the Saviour and Patriarchiy Bridge can be seen in the distance.
In an episode of the classic Russian animated series, Gena (the crocodile) opens a birthday gift from Cheburashka.
How to Experience the Nightlife in Moscow, Russia
- OVERVIEW: Fly to one of Moscow’s three international airports. From any of the airports, take the AeroExpress train and transfer to the Moscow Metro. From there, it’s easy and inexpensive to travel to most locatons in Moscow.
- RED OCTOBER: Take the Metro to Kropotkinskaya station to visit Red October (Krasnye Oktybr), a chocolate factory that sweetened Moscow’s air from 1913 to 2007, recently has been converted into one of the city’s hippest nightlife destinations. Check out Gipsy Bar, considered by many (or, at least, those good-looking enough to get past Russian “face control”) to be Moscow’s best dance club, complete with an outdoor terrace filled by chaise lounges, ping pong tables, and a photo booth. Also, be sure to visit Strelka’s sumptuous outdoor patio for dinner or dessert. The food at Art Academy is also good.
- SO-HO ROOMS: Ride the Metro to Sportivnaya station to see So-Ho Rooms, one of Moscow’s most popular dance clubs. Again, “face control” can be difficult, but if you wear fashionable, elegant clothes (no sneakers and no ripped jeans; jacket and shirt), you increase your chances of being admitted.
- TIKI BAR: For a less elitist Moscow night club experience, go to Barrikadnaya station to check out the Caribbean-themed club we visited for Alena’s birthday: Tiki Bar. Professional dancers lead salsa and merengue dance routines for those looking to get their Latin groove on, and the kitchen and bar serve decent food of all kinds and drinks ranging from Caribbean cocktails to Russian vodka.