Saturday, November 7, 2009

Giving Up On Sasha

In Moscow: Day 8

Yury Luzhkov had a brazen plan, and ever the politician, made an audacious promise to accompany it. Weary of the snow that falls on the country’s capital, and sick of the expense of cleanup, the mayor of Moscow decreed in mid-October that it would not snow in his fair city this winter. With the approval of the city council, Luzhkov hired the Russian Air Force to spray clouds outside Moscow, encouraging snow to fall before it reaches the city limits. We wake up Sunday morning to find Mr. Luzhkov no different than American politicians: full of expensive promises he can’t keep. A light blanket of snow has fallen, likely the first of many this winter, the mayor and the Russian Air Force’s attempts to control the weather notwithstanding.

We walk through Luzhkov’s snow to an English-language church service in an old theater school. Attended mainly by ex-pats, translation into Russian is provided via headset for Russian speakers. Midway through the service, the kids leave for children’s church, which Faith translates for them. When our service ends, we find Faith standing on a bench directing the entire class. Nothing in the scene surprises me; Faith is a natural ringleader, no matter who’s involved. I shake my head in bemused wonderment. “We learned about the Christmas story,” is Faith’s only explanation, as though it clears everything up. We lunch at a little café in one of the theater’s nooks and crannies. While the wait is insufferable, the food is tasty and inexpensive by Moscow standards. A sink on the café’s back wall substitutes for the napkins they do not provide.

The metro whisks us to the city center and Kremlin. Along the way, we stop in front of the Lenin Library to feed pigeons. Anton, twelve, catches several and gives them carefully to other children. Some kids feed sunflower seeds to birds tame enough to eat out of their hands. We circle the Kremlin wall and honor Russia’s Unknown Soldier. Turning right, we climb a hill beside the State Historical Museum, and get our first glimpse of Krasnaya Ploschad, known to Americans as Red Square. At the far end of the square stands Russia’s most iconic symbol, gloriously flamboyant St. Basil’s Cathedral. It’s the ninth time I’ve seen it, but cresting the hill by the historical museum, it still takes my breath away.

Built in 1555-1561, legend claims Ivan the Terrible was so smitten by its design that he blinded the architect to ensure a masterpiece its like would not be constructed elsewhere. While Ivan was not above maiming and killing, the subsequent activity of the St. Basil’s architect suggests the legend is only that. More recently, Josef Stalin thought the cathedral obstructed the exit from Red Square, and he entertained repeated notions of its destruction to facilitate his military parades through the square. Today, gazing in awestruck admiration at an edifice without equal, we are debtors to the architect who curbed Stalin’s ambition, trading his freedom for airing his opinion, doing time in the gulag for threatening suicide if the folly was consummated.

The kids pose in front of the cathedral and most good-naturedly pose in the chill. We retreat into the ritzy GUM Mall (pronounced “goom”), home of upper crust western merchandisers like Cartier, Dior, and Estee Lauder. A glass and steel arcade covers the three-story mall, and bridges span the main hallway. In Soviet days, the mall was nationalized and never suffered the shortages for which the rest of the country was infamous. Faith used to wait for hours in lines here that snaked through Red Square for the opportunity to buy whatever GUM had in stock. It was advantageous to know an insider employed here; this inside information might glean a shopper a coveted item otherwise unavailable. Faith once went to GUM to purchase shoes. When she reached the head of the line, those available were three sizes too small, but she dared not bypass them. Such was life in the Soviet Union. Paradoxically, things in GUM today are less attainable than in communist times; grossly inflated prices ensure most people there are working, browsing, or warming up.

On our way out of Red Square, we see two men dressed as Cossacks outside the State Historical Museum. The kids stop to ogle them, and the men browbeat us to pay for a picture. As we hesitate, Faith works her magic. The men ask her if the kids are orphans; when she says, yes, we’re here to spend time with them, the Cossacks tell us to take the picture free. I ask Faith later how they knew the kids are orphans. “They have good eyes, and know orphans when they see them,” she says cryptically.

We enter a bookstore, and Dima shows us a section where he has already read most offerings. The store is distressingly overcrowded, making browsing a bane rather than a pleasure. I recall an insightful book I read about marketing. Researchers observed shoppers in stores to determine how many times they could be jostled while looking at an item before they abandoned it and moved on. They found buyers would tolerate being bumped from behind twice, but not thrice. The researchers called this result the “butt brush effect,” a name and concept burned into my brain. While in this bookstore, I conclude the research was not done in Russia, since the butt brush effect would come into play after three seconds, and the bookstore would go out of business within days. Of all the things that would make life in Russia doleful, I find the overcrowding everywhere to be among the most egregious.

On the way home, we visit my favorite Russian store, Eliseevsky’s Gastronom. Formerly known as Gastronom Number One when nationalized in the Soviet era, the supermarket sells gourmet foodstuffs and houses my favorite pastry counter in the world. The ceiling and walls are carved and gilded, and chandeliers illumine the products. I worry I’ve irritated Faith with my incessant requests for Eliseevsky’s and their peerless chocolate croissants, but one bite reminds me I can withstand her impatience. Faith thinks I should buy a croissant in a street underpass and save the Eliseevsky mark-up, but the ambiance of the store is worth every ruble to me.

All week, Alexander M., eight, known by his nickname Sasha, is challenging. He lags behind, fights holding hands, and struggles with correction. I worry as we walk through the metro, holding his hand at times as he strains to get away, that someone might think I’m a foreign kidnapper. Sasha doesn’t cooperate at St. Basil’s and whines at the smallest provocation. Every few minutes our walk is punctuated by, “Sasha, nyet!” or “Where’s Sasha?” He worries me because his getting lost could shut down our program, and because the way he’s acting, he’s not likely to find a family. I can’t in good conscience put a child like him on another trip when other kids also needing a chance will be more compliant. Sasha needs good parenting, and I hate to think at his age, his behavior on a single trip might doom him to a lifetime as an orphan. I desperately will him to behave, more for his good than ours. When it doesn’t work, I decide dejectedly there are other, more likely candidates for adoption. Knowing there are more kids than families, Sasha's second trip would take a chance from another child. I resist giving up on anyone, but can’t harm other innocent kids who need families as badly as he. It’s a helpless feeling seeing an eight-year-old unwittingly making a major life decision alone and unawares.

There’s nothing feel-good about it, just a good faith judgment call, trying to help as many kids as possible get home forever. But right now, I have no reason to believe Sasha will go anywhere other than back to his orphanage.

See accompanying photos and videos here.