Vodka with Gennady
In late May 2015, my father and I traveled to the provincial town of Ustyuzhna, Russia to deliver the gravestone of a deceased relative. Nested 500 kilometers east of Saint Petersburg in the agro-industrial region of Vologda, Ustyuzhna has remained relatively untouched by the cosmopolitan transformation occurring in Russia’s urban centers. Politically speaking, Ustyuzhna natives are informed by – and only by – Russian state radio and television. My brief stay in Ustyuzhna revealed that the collateral propaganda of the escalating information war between the Kremlin and the West has had a profound effect on the hearts and minds of ordinary Russians.
Ustyuzhna is located in deep Russia. Eighteenth century Orthodox churches stand abandoned among Khruschev-era apartment blocks. Tzar-era merchant houses nestled in overgrown weeds cast shadows on Soviet-made cars.
We found a bed and breakfast in a village just outside Ustyuzhna. The host, Gennady, a stalky Ustyuzhna native, greeted us in the front yard. Glancing at our car, Gennady grew visibly nervous. My father and I appeared and, in some ways, behaved like foreigners, but we were fluent in Russian. As we arranged our night’s stay, Gennady avoided any extra interactions with us, cutting any and all small talk short. In retrospect, Gennady’s nervousness was probably justified. We arrived unannounced in a flashy borrowed BMW with a 400-pound granite gravestone stuffed into the hatch. Needless to say, Gennady was convinced we were Mafiosi of a particularly high level.
That same night, I threw together a simple dinner and invited Gennady to join us. Gennady blushed heavily, profusely thanked me for the offer and, in an expectedly nervous manner, politely declined dinner. It became clear to us that Gennady was afraid. It was at that point my father had to make a difficult decision: Would it be less awkward to maintain our mysterious Mafiosi facade than to reveal to Gennady that we were American citizens?
“Well, then join us for vodka,” my father insisted.
Gennady, like a true Russian, caved in on the vodka offer.
Three shots of “Tsarskaya Vodka,” accompanied by “Zakuzkas” (chasers) of pieroshki (the Russian equivalent of baked pizza) and pickled peppers lightened the mood, and Gennady’s anxiety marginally subsided.
After our fourth shot, Gennady gathered the courage to engage us in conversation.
“Gentlemen! I can’t seem to figure you guys out! I have to admit, your appearance, your vehicle, and body language makes you all appear very suspicious.”
My father let out a chuckle, followed by a deep sigh, and proceeded to pour our fifth shot.
“Gennady,” my father replied, “We aren’t mafia. We’re American citizens. I left Russia in 1979. My son,” my father continued, pointing his shot glass toward me, “was born in America.”
Gennady, both surprised and somewhat relieved, struggled to gather his response. Uncle Sam had been exposed and Gennady didn’t know what to say.
In an awkward silence, we decided to have our fifth shot.
Suddenly, the silence was broken. “Do the Americans really hate us that much?” Gennady asked sincerely.
Our response to that question evoked a passionate geopolitical discussion, during which nearly two bottles of vodka were consumed between the three of us. It wasn’t discussed which side was “right” or “wrong” on the subject of, say, the Ukraine crisis. Instead, the social implications of Washington and Moscow’s geopolitical disagreements came to light.
Gennady assumed, based on state-media reports, mounting US-led sanctions, and the propagandistic rhetoric that has recently infiltrated Russian political thought, that the relationship between the US and Russia had irreparably deteriorated. With regards to the Ukraine crisis, Gennady feared the inevitability of war between the US and Russia.
“This is not Iraq, Libya, or Syria,” Gennady said. “The Donbass [the war-torn region of Eastern Ukraine] is far too close to home.”
The Donbass, which is Ukraine’s Southeastern Russophone region, has been mired in a civil war that has left over 8,000 people dead. The turmoil has led to a massive refugee crisis; according to Russia’s Federal Migration Service (FMS), 1.034 million Southeastern Ukrainians have crossed into Russia since the eruption of civil war. A small number of those refugees, according to Gennady, ended up in Ustyuzhna, where locals have struggled to house and provide work for the displaced.
There we were: two American citizens and Gennady, a retired police chief and a veteran of the First Chechen War, discussing geopolitical crises that have led to the highest levels of tension between the US and Russia in decades.
As our supply of vodka steadily decreased, so did the clarity with which we conversed. Inevitably, our conversation took an emotional turn. Gennady revealed to us his dream of visiting New York City, and asked us if it would one day be possible for a retired police chief from Ustyuzhna to visit the US -- to which we drunkenly and confidently replied, “DA!”
I offered Gennady what remained of the second vodka bottle.
He politely refused. “No thanks, I’m driving tonight.”