Henry Rollins: My Trips to Russia
[Look for your weekly fix from the one and only Henry Rollins right here on West Coast Sound every Thursday, and come back tomorrow for the awesomely annotated playlist for his Sunday KCRW broadcast.]
The Olympics start Friday, Feb. 7, in sparkling, urbanite Russia. There has been surprisingly little coverage about the Games, compared with the reportage of Russia's anti-LGBT attitude, now under global scrutiny.
Before any American points a finger at President Putin and calls him nasty names, they should recognize that a lot of Americans agree with Putin on his stance against homosexual and transgender people.
I just hope there will be no attacks by Chechen rebels upon the thousands of people visiting Russia. I don't expect things to get better for LGBT folks in Russia anytime soon, as the people in that country can be an extremely change-resistant bunch.
Many years ago, when I started visiting Russia, I became interested in not only the history but also some of the writers. Mikhail Bulgakov's insane The Master and Margarita is a great read. Allow me to suggest the Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky translation. Bulgakov had to keep the manuscript hidden from Stalin's goons; it didn't see full publication until nearly 30 years after Bulgakov's death in 1940.
Also, check out the work of Daniil Kharms, who eventually died, it is said, of starvation, in his prison cell in 1942. Some of his hilarious and far-out writing has been neatly compiled in the book Today I Wrote Nothing.
The most captivating book on Soviet-era Russia I have read so far is Ryszard Kapuscinski's excellent Imperium. (His books Shadow of the Sun and Another Day of Life are amazing, too.)
Russia is tough. The history, the land, the people - brutal. I have been to Russia five times now. Never boring. Here's a journal excerpt from the first time I went in 1994:
09-23-94 Moscow Russia: 2237 hrs. "We got here from Holland several hours ago. It was a wild scene at the airport. We had a prearranged, easy walk through customs. We hit the baggage claim area and there was a ton of people waiting for us. At first it was cool because there were a lot of security guys and we could walk by and wave as we hauled our gear. Then we got out to the vans and it got intense. All of a sudden, people were all over me. Grabbing my clothes, hair, backpack and suitcase.
"Nearly knocked me over. I kept moving as best I could. Girls screamed and hugged me. I was pointed at a van. I got into it, two guys wearing 'Rollins Band Security' laminates jumped in. The van door closed and we were out of there, leaving everyone else in the band behind. It was like being on a Harrison Ford film. Another van took the other guys. We got to the hotel about 40 minutes later."
In 1998, I had a surreal two nights in Moscow onstage speaking in a large theater. A man I met only several minutes before the first show would be translating. I asked him how his English was. He made a "so-so" hand gesture and said, "Pretty good." Remember several weeks ago when President Obama spoke at Nelson Mandela's memorial and the man translating in sign language really didn't know what he was doing? I had the audio version of that, for two of the most uphill shows of my life. My audience was people with those single headphones cupped to their ear, looking at me in confusion. I looked at the translator. He shrugged.
A couple of trips later, I thought it would be best to take the Trans Siberian Express from Moscow to Vladivostok, one of the longest train rides in the world - in the tender month of February. I'd wanted to make this trip for years and figured it would be interesting to check out some real cold. I wanted cold, and for my sins I got it. A journal excerpt from my journey:
02-21-05 Tyumen Russia: 0548 hrs. "We pulled into Tyumen about 10 minutes ago. We took on some coal, and the perpetually angry woman who maintains the train car I am in went outside with her hatchet to knock ice off the side of the train car's toilet exit pipe. I wonder what goes through her mind when she does this. I put my coat on and hopped out. A man who works on the train asked, 'Deutsche?' I said, 'American.' He pointed around us and said, 'California!' and we both laughed.
"The cold is amazing. I was on the platform for a few minutes and even now, several minutes later, my feet, hands and ears are stinging.
"Now we're pulling away. Some old and sturdy buildings line the platform, rising against the blue and lightening sky. There are a lot of those massive apartment buildings I have seen in Moscow. I wonder why. Let's see what the Trans Siberian Handbook has to say about Tyumen.
"OK, this makes sense. The handbook says Tyumen is on the banks of the Tura River, which facilitates a lot of trade between Russia and China. Tyumen is the oil capital of Western Siberia. Apparently, during WWII, Lenin's corpse was secretly stored in one of the buildings at Tyumen's Agricultural Institute! I wonder what that meeting was like.
" 'Comrade Stalin, we have to move comrade Lenin, in case your indomitable will and vise-grip control of the people you are imprisoning and starving to death is not enough to push back Hitler's flouncing Nazi nellies! Koba, please give me the green lightsky for this company move!'
" 'Make it so. When you are done, send yourself off to one of our many concentration camps.'
" 'Yes, Comrade Stalin!'
"This is the kind of weather that can kill you. Without the right clothing, it wouldn't take long."
I got out of the train a week later. I had to get to the airport and fly back to Moscow. The taxi driver recognized me from music videos and showed me around. I saw Yul Brenner's childhood home.
May the best athletes win, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera!
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