03 September 2015

Elektrostal shorts

Election rally: the view (above) from our corner of the courtyard. Below: the candidate notices my camera; a kids' activity.

"Give your children love. Leave the rest up to me."

That's a rough translation of the signs on either side of Anton Kotov's mobile campaign stage. Kotov is a candidate for city council in Elektrostal's fourth precinct. For me, this rally in the courtyard of our housing complex was an unusual glimpse of retail-level election campaigning in Russia. I include it here because I suspect that most Americans (and others?) probably don't get many opportunities to see politics at the grassroots in Russia.

The crowd was a respectable size for a political event. Attenders listened good-naturedly to Kotov's speech, which was organized around the theme of education. (A natural choice -- Knowledge Day, the national holiday opening the new school year, was just two days away.)

Kotov is the Liberal Democrat candidate for this precinct. As he spoke, campaign workers for the United Russia party were working the crowd with brochures for their candidate, Vitalii Shaparnii. The elections, for municipal and regional legislatures in dozens of locations around Russia, will take place September 13.

Registering "my arrival as a foreign citizen in the Russian Federation" -- a chore utterly familiar to every expatriate living here (or their employers) -- took up nearly a full day, including assembling the forms and copies and signatures and then taking them to the Federal Immigration Service office in the familiar yellow building at the corner of Lenin and Polyarni prospects.

Usually, the process goes pretty smoothly, but not the last two times. In my previous visit, it emerged that not only did I have to register, but by a new rule that went into force last February, my contract, and Judy's also, had to be registered. In fact any contract for employment made with a foreign citizen by any employer must now be registered with the government within three days of the signing and dating of the contract. By the time we found out about this, two of the three days had already elapsed, and the immigration office was unable to supply a copy of the crucial blank or any relevant instructions.

After considerable searching, I found the blank online. Filling it out correctly was a matter of trial and error, and only my third attempt received approval. Any Russian would smile knowingly at this story, but I also need to say that one of the office employees showed me great kindness in going over my first draft in detail and explaining obscure points. The more normal practice is to refer clients to an immigration lawyer. The office also let me return multiple times outside the normal hours set for receiving such forms.

Today, I ran into a different problem -- a first in my many years of registering. I arrived 30 minutes before the start of the appointed hours, and was therefore high up on the list that established the order in which we supplicants would enter the office. (This list is normal practice for queuing up at government offices; it is organized by those who are waiting, not by the office itself.) But for some reason the process was unusually slow today, and the office closed just after the person ahead of me -- representing the British School -- made it in. The officer in charge told me "Go and register at the post office."

Mir street post office. Source.
The post office! Why not? I had done that once before, seven years ago, when the procedure was simpler, not requiring a power of attorney from the Institute or a copy of my contract. Also, the post office doesn't have all the prior records that the immigration office has, so errors wouldn't be caught right away. But it was worth a try; I have only one more day remaining in the mandatory registration period, so making another attempt in tomorrow's slot in the immigration office seemed too risky.

I walked over to the post office on Mir street near the Institute. There was one window open for requests like mine, and it was also the window for selling stamps, receiving packages, selling magazines, and giving out registered mail. I was second in line. The friendly but slightly worried clerk said, "I normally don't handle registrations for organizational employees; I'm not familiar with the regulations." I assured her that I'd been sent there directly from the immigration office, that I had registered successfully many times with the exact same documents I was giving her, and that the only reason I was not going directly to the immigration office was that they were simply too busy -- that's why they'd sent me to her.

She began the complicated task of preparing my papers for transmission (to the exact same office I'd just been in), but also served other customers while I waited to one side. This is where I got to see what her work life was like, and I was very impressed. One elderly customer wanted five stamps, but clearly her little pile of coins was not sufficient. The postal clerk patiently and kindly counted her coins, sold her two stamps, and gave her the change. A disabled customer came in for some magazines, and was confused about whether he had received the previous issues. Again she sorted out his anxious questions with patience and kindness. She found a plastic envelope for a customer shipping a huge box somewhere. Yet another customer needed to know how to send a money order to someone on vacation. Again, patience and reassurance along with clear instructions. In short, this postal clerk may have missed a calling as a pastor. At the end of the process, I left the post office with my stamped registration certificate ... and a feeling of admiration for that clerk.

You may wonder at this story, because you have likely seen the same sort of service at your own post office. But the Russian postal system is held in low esteem by its customers, who complain frequently about rude customer service and slow delivery times. I've personally never seen rude service at the branch we usually use (right on our own street), but this experience at another branch, where I requested a complicated task on a busy day, also seems to point to another side of the story.

Black Lives Matter. Finally, being in Russia doesn't shield me from USA politics and its peculiar zoology. I'm dumbfounded to learn that the slogan "Black Lives Matter" has evoked such negative feelings, to the point of suggesting that the movement that has gathered around this declaration is racist and even terrorist. I don't know which explanation would be worst -- lack of empathy, ignorance of history, or cynical media manipulation of white fear.

I don't understand the rejoinder that "All Lives Matter." In the abstract, all lives do matter, including every group whose members' lives are marginal to those in power. Palestinians come to mind. People on death row. People imprisoned without recourse at Guantanamo. Unborn babies. Families seeking to enter the USA or the EU so that their kids can eat and are safe from bombs. Why oh why isn't it obvious that the statement "Black Lives Matter" aims itself, by its very nature, at a specific target, a specific phenomenon: in the USA, for many generations, Black Lives have Mattered Less, and sometimes apparently Not At All!

When that situation is remedied, and not a moment earlier, the slogan can perhaps be treated as self-evident and consequently retired. In any case, those who have not honestly engaged with the situation that evoked it are not qualified to demean it.

P.S. One of the values that make me truly proud to be an American is due process (as in the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution: "No person shall ... be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law...."). It is extraordinarily urgent to keep flagging any situation where this wonderful value is subverted. The whole world is watching, including those leaders who love to see us fail, and thereby divert attention from their own lack of the same. In this crucial task for any nation claiming the rule of law and the equal protection of the law, citizens and police officers are actually on the same side. There is no contradiction between saying "Black Lives Matter" and "Police Lives Matter"; both sentiments are worth stating distinctly and clearly; neither trumps the other.

More from the political zoo. The media appetite for Donald Trump is being documented statistically, for example here and here. And it doesn't end at USA's borders. In my first cab ride in Elektrostal, late last week, the radio was carrying an analysis of Trump. I kept my mouth shut, mostly.

26 years ago, Oliver Sacks wanted to be remembered like this. (US Public Broadcasting's Newshour.)

From one of my favorite Russian cultural commentators: If American students are Hermione, Russians are Harry Potter.

Part two of James Tower's Quakers and Jesus series: Toward a Quaker Christology.

Several years ago we were in Oslo and had a chance to hear the Russian-Norwegian pianist Natalia Strelchenko rule the keyboard in a delightful concert at the National Library. (In this post, I had the nerve to compare her to the Funk Brothers' Earl Van Dyke; even so, she wrote to thank me for my comments.) Since then I've continued to collect her recordings and follow her career.

Natalia was attacked in her home in Manchester, UK, last Sunday, and died from her injuries. I sat here in front of my monitor in disbelief, reading the BBC News item, and tried to get the article to read some other way, but it stubbornly continued to report her murder. My heart goes out to her family, her son (apparently injured -- in the same attack?), and her many friends, colleagues, students, and fans.

In place of my normal blues dessert, here's a video from a concert Natalia Strelchenko played in Norway in 2011, part of the Henie Onstad Art Center's Liquid Piano series. First, early Liszt, then late Liszt. I've never seen a serious pianist play serious music with such fun....

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