There couldn’t have been a single event at the root of what would eventually develop into my fascination with Russia. It’s just a part of me that grew over time. I was born weeks before Ronald Reagan was elected President of the United States, and my spastic growth from a vague useless blob into a young, thinking boy coincided perfectly with the so-called second cold war. Russia, or the USSR, as it was mysteriously and ominously acronym-ed then, was the other side of everything. We had Pepsi and Mike Schmidt and David Lee Roth videos, and they just had bears and vodka and gulags and it was cold as fuck all the time and you had to wait in line for bread.
I was always drawn to anything and everything evil or outlawed, anything that I could put on and wear in defiance of authority. I wasn’t trying to be different or weird. If I was, that wouldn’t even move the needle anyway. Everyone wanted to be Judd Nelson, or Han Solo. Being bad was cool and no one wore helmets. That’s what the 1980s were all about.
Still, despite Russia being the absolute most evil thing imaginable in 1980s America, my taste for its folklore would develop slowly, small piece by small piece.
My best friend through all of those years was my Siberian Husky wolf dog, Kody, which was actually short for a Russian name with about six syllables. My love of dogs began with him. Then Jack London’s Call Of The Wild was the first novel I read. That took place in the Yukon technically, but it was all part of the logical genesis of my obsession with the stories of the dogs of the Soviet Space Program.
America red, white and blue-washed this part of history, but aside from our putting a few dudes on the moon, Russia was kicking our asses in space. In 1975 they got a lander on Venus, one of the most extreme planets in our entire solar system. It’s the hottest by far, and it rains sulfuric acid, but Russia’s Venera 9 chilled there and sent back postcards. Even when we landed Curiosity on Mars in 2012, American reporters were calling it the first time anyone had ever done such a thing. Yankee please.
But even before all of that, stray Russian mutts were being trained for space flight, being perhaps the most well-equipped animals on Earth for complex tasks in extreme conditions. The first animal in space was a stray Russian dog, and the first animal to return safely from space was a stray Russian dog. Two Russian mutts named Belka and Strelka led an entire team of animals into space, including a rabbit, a bunch of mice and a couple of rats, who became the first Earth-born creatures to go into orbit and return alive. If the dogs were named Sparky and Fido, this would already be a Disney movie. Forget about Fievel.
To be an American child of the 80s is to inherit certain values, and rooting for the underdog is up there, if not on top of the list. I’m not saying they were better than us. But they had to be cool to be worthy villains, and they did things, and won battles that should have been impossible.
And yeah, Russian bears steal jet fuel to get high. And those stray dogs have learned how to use Moscow’s public transportation system to get around by themselves. And everyone mounts cameras on their dashboards because the legal system is a joke and/or corrupt. And they have cat theaters. And they are technically still fighting World War II. And all of these thoroughly hilarious and awesome things are just a few of many thoroughly hilarious and awesome totally true things about this country that’s literally bigger than Pluto, but Russia is having a weird moment right now, even by Russia’s standards for weirdness. And it’s probably because President Vladimir Putin is gay.
I’m speculating, of course, but in my experience, the only people that are really scared of gay people are people that know, deep down, that they have a little gay in them. And they can only live with that by assuming that everyone has a little gay in them, and if they let the gays shake their perfectly toned asses freely, then it’ll just be too much temptation, and all gay hell will break loose. And we all know the truth so I’ll spare you the PC exposition, but the point is that among many insane things about Russia lies the fact that they are trying to pretend that they have solved the problem of gayness, just in time to host the entire world in Putin’s favorite vacation spot and the Florida of Russia, Sochi, for the 2014 Winter Olympic Games.
There’s reason to be outraged at that, and I don’t mean to make light of how extraordinarily offensive it is, but I’d honestly love to be in Sochi right now just to witness this unique moment in human history. Because the crazy is at critical mass. It’s just all falling apart, and I think I would risk the high possibility of a terrorist attack, just to experience it in person.
This morning, the opening ceremonies begin, to be televised here on NBC tonight. Per the long-standing tradition, these ceremonies will showcase points of Russian pride in a giant parade of sorts, or a Disneyland ride through Russian history. And as entertained as I would be if this ceremony featured drunken bears on motorcycles, Putin himself taming leopards, and mocking of the Japanese, that’s as unlikely as it would be sad. That would be like a kid picking on himself just to fit in with the other kids that are bullying him. But Russia’s delusional high self-esteem would keep them from even recognizing any such mockery as anything other than acts of sabotage by a fringe of spies who they would inevitably accidentally admit to preemptively spying on via hidden cameras in the bathrooms of the hotels that they had Serbians (mostly) build before being forcibly deported back to neighboring terrorist training grounds without pay.
But I am fascinated, nonetheless, by all of this. I am fascinated by the decision to invite T.A.T.U. to perform as the Russian Olympic squad enters the arena. The band’s name is a shortening of a Russian phrase that translates to “this girl loves that girl.” They are a band ostensibly dedicated to lesbianism, they make out constantly both onstage, and in their videos (in which they often appear naked). And they shall herald in the home team in a country that has outlawed all forms of gay propaganda, in a city that claims to have “no gays.”
Of course, the girls are not actual lesbians, and the fact that they agreed to play the ceremony at all is not the only proof of this, but this mutually assured hypocrisy completely fascinates me. More than the fact that Putin’s favorite band, also performing in the ceremony, is called Lube. That’s hilarious, but at least it’s easily chalked up to a semantic coincidence.
In 1994, despite the Olympic games taking place in Lillehammer, what we remember is the Fargo-like, thoroughly American farce of figure skater Tonya Harding having her rival Nancy Kerrigan viciously attacked in Detroit trials. Then Harding sold one of the first real “sex tapes,” featuring the guy who had hired the attacker only to turn around and testify against Harding as part of a plea deal. It was all stranger than fiction, comically tragic, and it was one of those moments in pop culture that transcend the passing topical fads. It was up there with the Challenger disaster, Baby Jessica, and the OJ trial.
Only time will tell what we remember most about this worldwide presentation, with its extravagance that reaches far, far beyond all available means. Hopefully it won’t be anything truly catastrophic. But Russia has an untouchable reputation for mind blowing, bat shit insane achievements, intentional and otherwise, and they’re on the world stage now. Best of luck to the world’s Olympians, and also to the legacy of human culture as it marches towards this weird milestone.