They are the sources of the paced slivers of sound played across seasons, sounds I awaken to, sounds that inform my days, Their sounds, although varying in tone and intensity, are always paced, steady, sure. This summer morning it is the soft swish of small tree branches, cut and tied to a wooden pole. There has been a storm in Moscow and they are sweeping up the fallen leaves and twigs. It is seven o’clock in the morning. I know this because that is always when they begin their work in front of my building. It is the same sound in the autumn, but lasts longer, as they sweep up the fallen leaves. In the winter, their branch brooms are replaced with plastic shovels. If the snow is deep the sound is soft, if the night has been bitter there is the crunch of the snow’s crust being broken. Laying under my covers, the heat pumping, I know when I have awakened that it is a Moscow morning so bitterly cold that people will close their eyes when the step outside for fear that their eyeballs will freeze. I know this because the sound of metal assaulting hard packed ice informs me. There are other sounds: the harsh buzzing of electric saws as they fell sick trees, the sound of their shovels as they dig trenches, the tapping of hammers. There is the creak of old steel carts carrying large cardboard boxes as they move towards the building to empty the waste from the garbage chute. They transfer it with bare hands, sometimes pausing to look through it to see if there is anything they can eat: stale bread, overripe fruit and vegetables.
It is a daily struggle for them to be only the well paced sound of their labor, for if their actual voices are heard or should they ever really be observed, no good, only bad can come of it-hateful glances and verbal abuse at the least. In the hyper patriotic, nationalistic Russia of today, they are the hated “others”, the immigrants from the “stan” countries – Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan who cross over into Russia, legally or illegally, to find work and send some money home to feed their families. They are to Russia what the Mexicans are to America – hyperexploited workers, working long hours, often in dangerous conditions, for very little money – necessary but much hated. Doubly hated because many are Muslim. Putin does not threaten them with a wall.
In the old days before the Soviet Union shattered under the perpetual economic and political assault of Western Capitalism, they were part of it and Russians were part of their regions. Stalin shuffled people around like chess pieces – Crimean Tatars were forced out of Crimea and to the stan lands, Russians too were sent there if their work was needed, and people born in the “stan” countries, came to live in the Soviet Union . The 1989 Census showed that more than 30 million people or 10.6 percent of the population, born in the “stan” countries were living in the USSR. Then they were “comrades” and enjoyed all the benefits of Soviet citizenship. When they chose, and they it was their choice, to leave the Soviet Union, they suffered economic consequences, and in time became the hated “black” others – the silent servants of average Russians.
I had not been in Moscow more than a month when I was seized upon by Natalia. I have written about her in the past. She seizes upon me because I am, to her and to others like her whose professions revolve around their ability to speak English very well, a precious find: a well spoken American who can help them raise their level of English. I do not mind because in return, I am wined, dined and escorted around Moscow. On the second or third day we are standing in the Metro. I watch her eyes narrow, watch anger rise in her, and I do not understand why. Through clenched teeth she tells me “Look at them, those Blacks. They are everywhere.” I am American and know what “black people” look like, and I do not see one. I think she has lost her mind. It takes me months to understand that she is talking about the immigrants from the “stan” countries – the “Tatars”.
I am not in Moscow two months, when once again, I find myself in the company of an English speaking Russian. She asks me where I live and I tell her Perovo. She tells me not to worry, she will help me “get out of there.” I don’t understand. My apartment is very nice, and I live across from Peroski Park. I have no desire to leave. Her eyes go wide. “But Perovo has so many Tajiks living there.” I ask her what a Tajik is? She looks at me, her eyes wide with wonder. “You are a very ignorant woman,’ she tells me.
I of course, have no hatred for Tajiks. In fact, I am quite fond of them. I have met many who grew up in the former Soviet Union, former military officers and professors, scientists who were just so interesting and intelligent. Lenin himself was “Tatar” I find most “Tatars” as people from the “stan” countriesy are generally called, to be kind, particularly to old women like me. I also think they very attractive and exotic looking people. I am also quite fond of them, because I am one of them. I am, despite being born in America, a “Lippkia Tatar” – the Tatars who settled in what is today Belarus and Lituania. My family has lived in and around Lida, Belarus for over 600 years. I am a direct descendant of Jebe, one of Ghengis Khan’s greatest generals. To his ancestor was given the title “Neiman Beg” – Prince of the Neimans. Through that title, passed on from father to son, I can trace the history of my Tatar bloodline. I am both Belarusian and Tatar royalty. So when my Russian companions voice their small and narrow prejudices before me, I smile and tell them, that I am Tatar. They look at my eyes, and notice, that despite the fact that they are blue, they are but small slits….very Asiatic. They continue to gaze at me, mouths hanging open, a slight blush on their cheeks, and nodding their heads. Then I remind them of what Vladimir Putin once said: “Scratch a Russian and you will find a Tatar.”
At the end of their days, those who make the sounds that define my days, will begin their final task of the day – clipping the small branches from the trees and hiding them in small corners for the morning. I will feel the common bonds that bind me to them; blood and the life of a immigrant in a strange land.
Mary Metzger is a 72 year old retired teacher who has lived in Moscow for the past ten years. She studied Women’s Studies under Barbara Eherenreich and Deidre English at S.U.N.Y. Old Westerbury. She did her graduate work at New York University under Bertell Ollman where she studied Marx, Hegel and the Dialectic. She went on to teach at Kean University, Rutgers University, N.Y.U., and most recenly, at The Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology where she taught the Philosophy of Science. Her particular area of interest is the dialectic of nature, and she is currently working on a history of the dialectic. She is the mother of three, the gradmother of five, and the great grandmother of 2.