Russian Society: Community Organization in Moscow
A typed posting in the entryway of my white-brick building in Moscow announced a community meeting for December 18, 2005, at noon on the children's playground. The meeting was to address the idea of gating off the residential area on the northeast side of chernograznaya ulitsa (literally "black dirt street" - which is also pretty dirty) between staraya and novaya bacmannaya ulitsa (directly in the center of Moscow in case you want to personally come and see the area I am talking about). Odd as it may seem to have an outdoor meeting in the winter - it was snowing on this Sunday morning - and little did I care one way or the other for gating off the community, I was sure that the meeting would not disappoint my expectations that this would not resemble anything in America or Western Europe.Seemingly huddled on the playground in one massive lump of black, gray and dark blue was indeed a group of people at ten past twelve. The same stereotypical Russia one sees in photos from the Soviet Union - an absence of readily apparent individuality and serious expressions on the faces. Upon closer inspection, however, the mass was in fact divided into a myriad of small groups, who were talking about everything from the noise on the second floor last night to the latest gossip concerning mutual acquaintances. Behind their literally colorless outfits were, like everywhere, those with more curtious expressions, others with more humorous ones, some with more Mongolian features, still others with inquisitive looks when they caught sight of me with my long hair (for Russians) and glasses. But each conversation I heard while walking around the group touched only infrequently on the creation of a gated-off community.And this wasn't just at the beginning of the meeting! True, while every conversation invariably turned to the subject from time to time, it was a settled matter; it was conceded by all but one lady that this was appropriate, necessary, "good". There could be no lengthy discussion about it, so there was no reason to pay undue attention to it. Hence there was also no general speech, no moment when everyone fell silent and listened to a speaker outline his view, which would then be followed by debate. The participants listened curtiously and incredulously to the one lady who objected. As one polite though persistant man, likewise dressed in a typical black leather jacket with dark blue Adidas jogging pants, said in a tone of disbelief: "All the instruments are in place; there's money; there's the opportunity; there's organization" ("все инструменты есть: деньги есть, возможносты есть, организация есть"). When I burst out laughing at what was to me a good reflection of the Russian belief in absolutes, as if the fulfillment of these criteria for any plan made such plans worthwhile at all times, I noticed that no one found it as funny as me. For them it was exactly the point: we can only benefit; there are no disadvantages.Eventually, after about half an hour of this informal talk, the rolly-polly man who spoke about all the instruments being in place approached me and asked if I understood what they were discussing. The exact reasons for wanting to gate off an area in Russia do not just concern "less desireable elements" such as homeless people and alcholics, who are pretty rare at the edge of more affluent central Moscow (where we are) in comparison to other areas further outside the city center, although he did make a vague reference to this benefit. One of the major problems, on display every morning (9-10 a.m. here) and especially in the evening (7-8 p.m.), is the traffic. Before they placed a concrete barrier in the middle of one street inside the residential area, drivers with knowledge of the neighborhood would not drive to the intersection of staraya bacmannaya and chernograznaya, but would cut right through the back streets between the houses if they had to turn right onto chernograznaya.After a brief exchange where I explained that everything was more or less clear, made a joke about the decentralized nature of the meeting, which he affirmed by saying that a few different people were responsible for different groups, I finally inquired as to whether it was necessary to sign something. No, there was nothing to sign, just like there wasn't really anything to discuss: you are just being informed about the proceedings; someone will come to get your signature later. A friendly silence silence ensued, equally familiar from many other conversations and reminiscent of the scene in Sevastopol Stories where the two brothers meet at the front and find only enough words to talk for a few minutes. Why? There was little in common (общего мало). You do not break such moments of silence with a dumb question or polite remark the way we often do in the West to bridge over a potentially awkward situation. Nor does one party necessarily leave the other. So we stood next to each other in silence and looked out in front of us, each thinking his own thoughts.