Blog by Sumana Harihareswara, Changeset founder

09 Jul 2001, 8:17 a.m.

Lenin, booze, metro, uniforms, guns

Hi, reader. I wrote this in 2001 and it's now more than five years old. So it may be very out of date; the world, and I, have changed a lot since I wrote it! I'm keeping this up for historical archive purposes, but the me of today may 100% disagree with what I said then. I rarely edit posts after publishing them, but if I do, I usually leave a note in italics to mark the edit and the reason. If this post is particularly offensive or breaches someone's privacy, please contact me.

Five-ride pass on the Moscow metro: 20 rubles.
35mm camera film, 24 exposures: 85 rubles.
Finally coming face-to-face with the fact that Russia has not, by a long shot, shed the last vestiges of the Communist State: priceless.

You see, the highlight of my Moscow weekend was an incident on Sunday night on Red Square, in which a member of the militia very politely, if arbitrarily, asked for and inspected my documents -- that is, my passport and visa -- to make sure that I was in the country legally.

I had just been awed. My second time on Krasnaya Ploschad (Red Square) really did it for me. It was night, I walked on the cobblestones, I saw the painted lines that must have indicated parade routes or places for ICBMs. Saint Basil's Cathedral awed me. The Kremlin awed me. I was in love with Russia. I was, as Lonely Planet's guide said, pondering the grand sweep of history.

John and I were walking back towards the main entrance gate, away from Saint Basil's.

What the hell happened here?
The canonical question.

Marx thought that human nature was just a product of economic conditions? That it could be changed? And I thought about some lectures I'd been reading (as a supplement/replacement for my almost-unusable Russian-language lectures on Russian history), and the odd nostalgia for the idealism of the early USSR.

John and I saw a man and a woman walking towards Saint Basil's. She was almost tripping on the cobblestones, what with her heels, and the fact that she and her companion were quite drunk. They were both clutching each other, and beers -- Baltika, I think. They passed us, singing quite loudly some traditional-sounding Russian song. Yet more canon.

And I wrote that down in my notebook, and a militia officer sort of near us approached us, and -- according to John, who heard better than I -- said hello, and introduced himself (obligatory as per Russian law, and to John "the stupid application of due process I've ever heard"), and asked for our documents.

I believe John said "of course." We reached for our money/dox belts. I remember the bright lights over the neighboring restaurants harshly illustrating the scene, the pattern of my clothes, and my hands as they unzipped the pouch. It was my first time that I had been asked for my documents in Russia. I think I was a little nervous, not in a threatened way, but -- at that moment -- more like a child about to recite a poem in front of his class.

He looked at John's passport, and unfolded his visa, and looked at it, and gave them back to John. And then he looked at my passport, and didn't unfold my visa -- my picture doesn't really look like me, everyone says so, what if he thinks it's not legit? -- but gave them back to me, and said something that meant that we could go on our way.

John had the presence of mind to say, Dobrii vecher (good evening). I don't know if I said anything.

So I've been thinking about this for almost a day now, as you might imagine. For goodness' sake, I got my documents checked in Red Square! I may as well come back from Russia right now, as it seems at the moment that nothing here can top that for sheer historical resonance.

First published by Sumana Harihareswara at