About twenty minutes into last night's performance of Anna Karenina: The Musical, a troupe of professional ice dancers rollerbladed onto the stage for a choreographed routine in which they weaved in and out of rolling benches and foot-bound dancers. In the corner, a rapping conductor in a leather waistcoat narrated, while crepe paper snowflakes fluttered from the rafters. Immense digital video boards behind the stage gave a richer visual image of snow meeting the surface of a frozen lake. Down in the orchestra box, the band pulsed energy into the Moscow Operetta Theater: a combination of driving electric bass, and one of the most articulated bassoon lines one could imagine. Later, peasants with sickles would mix traditional Russian dance with elements of American break dancing. A laser show sliced through the constantly moving backdrop, and the intensely talented singers repeatedly put goosebumps on the arms of audience members. It was manic, intense—and actually quite true (and respectful) to Tolstoy's text. Babushkas and teenagers clapped along with the music, from the somber and ominous opening, all the way through the final scene, in which Anna sang herself into the path of an oncoming train.
I left the theater with that tremendous buzz one feels when they've just encountered something spectacular. You've felt it before: maybe an incredible meal, a sight you've waited years to see. A first kiss, maybe, or something spectacular and unexpected that came from nowhere—that blindsided you with excellence or beauty or power or pure, innovative brilliance. The feeling of encountering something that you know you'll never experience in quite the same way, ever again. A truly singular moment. As I stepped outside, Moscow was glowing. One of the two-ton, glowing red glass stars from the Kremlin was visible just over the near skyline. A sprinkling of actual snow fell. The air was crisp and cool but comfortable. It was a dream.
Then, I turned on my phone.
The world, that phone told me, was on the brink of hell.
Except that it wasn't. And it isn't.
Through Facebook and Twitter feeds, I read that Russia has called the families of its diplomats home, that relationships between our countries have deteriorated beyond the depths of the Cuban Missile Crisis. That 40 million people have been evacuated in the face of a coming war. That in the Middle East, planes with their reds, whites, and blues configured into different patterns are flying ever closer to each other, with ever more ominous cargo loads.
Thing is: none of this is exactly true.
Pieces of this are true, but they're uneventful little shreds that would get a shrug or an eye roll instead of a page click, if stated in their most strictly true form. But we live in a world that revolves around page clicks. The (patently false) rumor that Russia has called home the families of its diplomats in preparation for war actually started to circulate the Internet in the early afternoon (local time) Wednesday. At that moment, I happened to be in the middle of Moscow traffic, seated in the back row of a van full of a dozen Fulbright scholars and program staff, on our way to the U.S. Embassy for an introduction to the consular services available to us while we're here. If the world really was on the brink of war, I don't imagine we would've arrived to find a group of American soldiers tossing beanbags at plywood targets in the embassy courtyard. I won't dignify the British tabloids that initially passed along this information by providing a link, but it's easy enough to find if you really want to. I'll admit that it got my pulse up for a few minutes. But a few moments of investigating the source material led to a simple understanding that in this instance, the truth had been pummeled into submission. Here's a more reasonable explanation, as offered by Snopes.com. Simply put: Russian social and political elites—much like their America, British, Saudi, German, and Chinese counterparts—love to send their children abroad to study at prestigious universities. An official merely suggested (as has happened in past instances, both in Russia and in all the above listed nations) that perhaps one should educate one's children in one's home country. Not unreasonable. But our click bait culture quickly twists that entirely logical suggestion into the brink of mutual destruction.
Reporters in both countries do it. Readers in both countries lap it up.
The evacuation of millions? It's a drill, one that takes place every year. No evacuation, just emergency preparedness. Security is a very real thing here, and it's taken seriously. Malls have metal detectors and guards at every entrance. Most shops and restaurants have security. Where the U.S. Has countered threats of globalized misbehavior through digital means, Russia has taken a more visible approach, utilizing drills and in-person security.
There is a gas mask in the dresser drawer at my hotel. I'm sure if I posted a picture of it, and enough folks shared it, some tabloid or another would use it as proof of some impending calamity. Then a reputable source would pick it up, salivating at the double-benefit: they get the clicks, but there's also plausible deniability to pass off on their source once the threat proves untrue. This is how the bulk of news organizations work now—mainstream or otherwise. I started my writing career as a reporter. Let's just say I'm glad I took up teaching when I did.
Are there very real tensions between our nations? Absolutely, and they require attention and gravity. Panicking about poorly written, half-baked online reporting? Save your blood pressure and go back to arguing about whether Dylan deserves the Nobel Prize. It's more productive, I promise—and that's not saying much.
Politics—domestic and international—have become sports rather than occasions for sober consideration. Maybe we never had sober consideration—but never have we been so loud of a cheering mob when it comes to global affairs. The U.S. Election is case in point. From my vantage, the whole thing seems to have turned into an exercise in arguing or complaining or grandstanding or executing some other personal agenda more than actually treating elections as a tool for corporate and personal growth of the individuals who comprise a nation.
And that's a shame.
During the 1992 presidential election, I remember sitting in the back of the car as my parents drove home from voting.
“Who'd you pick?” I asked.
“That's personal,” my mom said. “You don't tell people who you vote for. You just do what you think is best.”
Boy, has it become decidedly un-personal. It's identity. It's status. It's a marker of intellect or toughness or regional pride. It's opportunism. It's everything except an introspective, personal choice about governance.
Increasingly, we use digital platforms to treat global politics the same.
And if we don't stop making up fake conflicts in the name of being titillated—in the name of having something to share with an OMG! precursor—we're eventually going to talk ourselves into an actual conflict.
So, what's really happening in Moscow today?
In the corner of this coffee shop, a couple of kids are playing guitars. The lady across the table is practicing English with her daughter, using a well-worn textbook. Two tourists are picking out which mug to buy. On the sidewalk, a bigger group of tourists are pointing at restaurant possibilities. Next to them, a man plays the flute for tips, and he's making a killing. A girl in the corner of the shop is eating a piece of cake with her eyes closed and the most complete look of satisfaction that could possibly wash over a human face. The barsitas are playing a game, trying to say latte in the accent they guess belongs to the customer. They're not doing very well, and everyone is laughing.
Across town, parents are watching their children ice skate on a rink set up inside a shopping mall. And the cast is gearing up for another night of Anna Karenina, while another thousand audience members are not yet ready for the transformationally brilliant thing they're about to see.
The people of central Moscow, right now, are doing normal everyday things. Just like you are.
The thing here—and the thing we must always remember, regardless of what headlines say, regardless of which assumptions get baked into opinions—is that most people everywhere are loving, peaceful, friendly humans who just want to teach their children well and work hard and sleep comfortably at night. That's all.
As mentioned above, this particular dispatch comes not from Siberia, but from the center of Moscow. After in-country Fulbright orientation on Wednesday, I had the opportunity to stay on in the capitol for a couple of extra days, interviewing potential participants in the Fulbright Foreign Language Teaching Assistant program. It was a wonderful opportunity to meet with dozens of bright, motivated young teachers who have dedicated themselves to the teaching and learning of languages, both Russian and English. The best way to get a true understanding for the heart of a culture is to listen to its teachers tell their stories, and there were some spectacular stories during the last two days from people who are passionate about making a difference in the lives of their students, present and future. The future of Russia is in remarkably good hands with these bright, engaged educators moving up the ranks, full of ambition and energy. Many of these folks will be on their way to the U.S. this coming fall, and I dearly hope they'll be treated with the kind of vigorous warmth and overflowing kindness their countrymen and countrywomen have provided to me.
Some folks have written this week to ask whether I'm alright and whether I feel safe. I can say that unequivocally, I feel welcomed by a nation full of kind, thoughtful people who are full of the curiosity I value so dearly; full of hope for great days, weeks, and years ahead; full of love for each other and for the beauty and challenge that is life. I feel safe, warm, enriched, and happy, and I hope that when all of us see the fear-mongering reports that will undoubtedly continue to criss-cross the globe in the coming weeks and months, that my dear friends on both sides of this fragile planet will think of each other as the loving and optimistic, cheerful and good people that we all are.
Now that I've proven I'm alive and well, I'll keep things that way by following the most important rule--the weekly Fulbright disclaimer: The views expressed in this blog are my own and do not represent the Department of State or the Fulbright Program.
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