The Hat: in Search of Traditional Russian Culture

Our correspondent sought, and found, remnants of old Russian culture during a visit to the modern day Soviet Union.

| January/February 1989

  • Russian culture - chess outdoors on a winter day
    Of all the images called to mind by the words "Russian culture," chess and fur hats must surely be among the top ten.

  • Russian culture - chess outdoors on a winter day

One January evening long ago in New Hampshire, a Russian emigre schoolteacher described the following ritual from his youth, a revealing fragment of Russian culture. "There comes a night," he told me, "always in winter, when an old man knows it is time, not necessarily to die but to discharge an obligation. He'll pick a boy, usually a grandson, sometimes a godson, but often enough just a village child he happens to like. The two will lock themselves in a quiet room with a bottle of vodka. Then, over the next several hours, assuming the vodka lasts that long, the old man will tell the young one the story of his life. To be sure, it is a kind of ordeal, for the lad typically gets sick or passes out altogether. Nevertheless, the next morning he will consider himself grown up, a man. He will walk down the village streets with a different gait."

That anecdote came to mind as I stood in Moscow's Red Square with my 17-year-old son, Paul. It's not that I thought he would find some old man to share a ritual with here in the forbidden empire, it's that I hoped I would. My boy had already received his driver's license, after all, probably as close as American teen-agers get to a rite of passage, short of marriage or basic training. On the other hand, I was intent on finding traces of traditional Russian culture rather than just doting on contemporary Soviet society. Educated at a time in the U.S. when the great Russian writers were all the rage—Tolstoy, Chekhov, Dostoevski, Turgenev—I dreamed of wearing a fur hat and racing in a troika through a birch forest, the snow keening into my cheeks, a pack of wolves or maybe agents of the Tsar catching up. Romantic stuff. But most of all, I wanted to hear earthy stories of Mother Russia, about the passage of generations or the grip of winter. What better vehicle than some grizzled old-timer willing to tell them?

On our second day in Moscow, the woman appeared, striding across the hotel lobby like a procession of one: jewelry clinking, French perfume wafting before her. Very solidly built but attractive, she looked about 40. Heads turned, Russian and otherwise. She had noticed us admiring the native lacquered boxes in the gift shop, she explained. Would we be interested in seeing her own collection? Much better quality, much better price. Upstairs, room 654.

We went up and she promptly offered us a vodka, taking one herself. On the bed lay open suitcases full of lacquered boxes, sure enough real beauties and half the price of those in the government-run shop. She described herself, in excellent English, as a freelance retailer, which seemed somewhat euphemistic inasmuch as she then offered to change money for us at the black market rate. Paul, I could tell, was nervous about this. We looked at each other, still mildly jetlagged, still paranoid over the possibility of room buggings and covert luggage searches. Indeed, the evening before he had concocted a Kiplingesque scheme to detect the presence of Soviet surveillance, placing one of his blond hairs across the zipper of his duffel bag as we left our room. The telltale hair lay undisturbed when we returned, a token of integrity, oddly disappointing.

But here, in Olga's digs, it might be otherwise. Were we being set up? His eyes scoured the drapes and the rustic paintings on the walls. He looked down a lampshade, trying to spot a mike.

"You realize, of course, I am married to an American, a professor in San Francisco," she now informed us, pouring herself another vodka. Her reddening cheeks showed it was the real stuff, not anything theatrical. "He is the fourth."


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