Sunday, November 22, 2009

I know a person here in Moscow who, while having a casual conversation, always pauses before saying the word 'Ukrainians' - and never says it. He says the word 'khokhly" instead, always. He once asked me why 'khokhly' are getting so emotional about being called 'khokhly.' I had a question of my own instead of an answer: what is is that makes an otherwise normal, educated person, who's wasted half his life voting for Yavlinsky's Yabloko and cursing Putin, substitute a totally legit word for the one that, as he himself admits, is making somebody nervous? How does his mind work? I can't imagine myself substituting the word 'Russians' for 'katsapy' every time I talk to a Russian, I told this guy. Let me try, though, I added. And then I spent five minutes or so pausing and saying 'katsapy' instead of 'Russians' whenever that word came up. It wasn't a fun exercise. I felt like shit. And the guy grew visibly uncomfortable in those five minutes or so, too, which was kind of funny. He didn't admit feeling uncomfortable, though, and moved on to another subject instead: the origin of the word 'Ukraine' - okraina, outskirts, borderland and all that, the usual crap. I told him I had better things to do than having a discussion on this subject and left. I haven't spoken to him ever since. He admitted being a senile ass to another person right away, apologized through that other person, which was somewhat poignant, but I really do have better things to occupy myself with than having those silly conversations with him ever again.

Writing about Putin's sense of humor isn't one of those 'better' things, and I thought one tweet about it would be enough: "Putin trying to impress Tymoshenko with his cab driver sense of humor (RUS)"

But then a former colleague posted a response on my Facebook page today, which made me realize that my description of Putin's sense of humor was a bit misleading - and offensive towards cab drivers. Basically, there are too many cab drivers who are way cooler than Putin, even though he once considered becoming one, too, and it's unfair and rude to generalize like this. My sincere apologies to cab drivers.

Also today, I was forced to dodge the guy obsessed with the 'khokhly' word - our paths do cross every now and then - and it got me thinking in analogies again. What if Yulia had followed up on Putin's jokes about Yushchenko and Saakashvili with a bunch of her own - say, about Moscow mayor Yuri Luzhkov, his ridiculous leather caps and his inane attempts to do geopolitics stuff in Crimea instead of just keeping Moscow clean and happy. Like Putin's jokes, that wouldn't have sounded funny, and Yulia is a good girl, too, so she just giggled along with everyone else and played the femininity card, making one awkward joke of her own, about not wearing a tie - unlike Saakashvili. Would have been counterproductive of her, of course, to ruin that lovely endorsement that she'd just received from her Russian colleague.

Speaking of Yulia, Putin and Luzhkov, I've recently stumbled on an item (RUS) about Konstantin Korolevsky, the brother of one of Yulia's most prominent teammates, Natalya Korolevskaya (I wrote briefly about the two of them at the end of this lengthy post). This guy used to be the first deputy head of the department of urban construction policy, development and reconstruction of the city of Moscow, but this past summer he was transferred to Putin's "government apparatus," following rumors of Luzhkov's displeasure at the results of Korolevsky's work and some allegations of major corruption. So who knows, maybe Yulia and Putin are cracking jokes about Luzhkov during their private meetings. Because, all things considered, it's hard to imagine the two of them discussing Anton Pavlovich Chekhov: Putin must have been joking when he said they would.

Our foreign affairs ministry, via the deputy foreign minister, announced that the joking episode had been taken out of context by some media and politicians, and that the Tymoshenko-Putin meeting had been quite productive at many levels. Among other things, what really hurts here is the fact that Yulia and the current foreign affairs minister Petro Poroshenko appear to have finally made it up, just in time for the 2010 election. Had they not been fighting ever since Yushchenko's 2004 victory, causing the mess of Sept. 2005, who knows, maybe Ukraine wouldn't have ranked #146 (out of 180) on Transparency International's Corruption Perceptions Index now. This, of course, isn't exclusively their fault, and Russia, too, is #146, while Georgia, led by the butt of Putin's jokes, Saakashvili, since 2003, is currently at #66, but still.

Another reason why I decided to apologize to cab drivers is because of a guy who drove me home today. An ethnic Georgian, born and raised in Moscow, with family in Batumi, he was telling me of how much things have changed in Georgia in the past few years. It used to take months to get through bureaucracy while getting registered as the owner of real estate, and now you can have it all done in a single day, without running around from one office to another, bribing everyone along the way - now you just submit all the paperwork at one office, and they don't even want to take a box of candies from the grateful you. Traffic cops are not taking bribes, either - they are not stopping cars indiscriminately in order to demand a bribe. In the Soviet times, he said, Georgia was considered to be the most corrupt republic, and people used to think that it was impossible to change anything, took corruption for granted, but it turns out that if the authorities start doing something to stop corruption, things do change for the better eventually. Funny, but we didn't really mention Saakashvili in the course of this conversation - but, obviously, much if not all of the credit went to him.

We didn't mention the Putin-Tymoshenko joking episode, either, and we didn't have the time to discuss the Aug. 2008 war. And, at one point, the guy said he was a "pro-Russian person" - because he grew up here and cared about things - and, at another point, he said that he liked Yushchenko, but thought that, unfortunately, he was a weak leader. He also told me of how he had lost his driver's license once and then drove some 400 km across Georgia, and the police didn't stop him once - because he didn't violate any traffic rules, he said. To all this, part of me wants to say, Go figure, and another part of me thinks that it all makes perfect sense. Life, after all, is a crazy mess, full of contradictions and halftones.


  1. Great have a talent for this kind of writing

  2. Putin's sense of humor toward Ukraine seems to strike an intimate chord with Tymoshenko.

    At any rate, it's no joke how Georgia has left Russia and Ukraine far behind in fighting corruption.

  3. While "khokhly" has just a reference to the hairstyle of proto-Ukranians, the word "katsap" means goat. All the worse its roots are Polish.

  4. Or, perhaps, the word katsap is a borrowing from Turkish and means "butcher" - kasap...