Becoming a Russophile

26 Dec

Someone should have warned me. They should have made it clear, as I descended into a madness it seems that only I can understand, that once I fell off, there was no going back.

“Don’t go droppin’ yerself from this here ladder,” says this Someone, who sounds unreasonably Cajun. “When ye fine-ly land on solid ground, ye’ll only be in the land-a discomfort, low self-esteem, twenties-a dollars on books ye’ll never read and above all—a hankerin’ fer a culture most-a yer peers’ll consider obsolete. No siree Bob and Jesus Christ. You do not wanna leggo-a that rung.”

I was sixteen years old, embattled with your run-of-the-mill high school drama. It was a small school, so I couldn’t always escape my peers, but DeviantArt was always a good place to hide. And there, I became reacquainted with the 100 Theme Challenge.

One hundred random words, posed to spark the imagination of fan artists and fan writers; it was something I had once attempted to tackle the year before, with an epic 20,000-word Card Captor Sakura fan fiction that remains unfinished. I felt the tendrils of inspiration tickling the back of my head, pulling shades of characters together, the faintest outlines of a plot forming on the horizon. This flavor of inspiration was different, however. It wasn’t the familiar saccharine of fan fiction. Rather, it felt original. It was the soft hum of a story waiting to be told. It was the subtle heat of characters longing to be found.

And in that moment, a plot was born.

The gates were open and out came the rush of creativity. Realism be damned. This was the most fun I’d had crafting original characters since grade school. I sketched a scene and wrote 150-200 words based on the picture. The more I drew, the more I realized I shouldn’t draw anymore. The more I wrote, the sharper the characters became, the more coherent the plot.It was my first thriller. Dmitri, my first anti-hero. Aleksandr’s openness and friendliness was infectious.

“When ye fine-ly land on solid ground, ye’ll only be in the land-a discomfort, low self-esteem, twenties-a dollars on books ye’ll never read and above all—a hankerin’ fer a culture most-a yer peers’ll consider obsolete. No siree Bob and Jesus Christ. You do not wanna leggo-a that rung.”

I stopped drawing after the eighth challenge (prompt: family) and switched mediums.

On March 15th, 2006, I wanted to know if Dmitri would order his coffee from Starbucks.

I had let go of the ladder’s rung and was falling deep, deep into the Rabbit’s Hole.

Scenes grew.

Russia was no longer That One Place over There with No Consequence to me at All. It was visible. It was real. She had trains and malls and apartment buildings. Cars clogged her highways and streetlamps burned amber and weather reports played on old radios. She had slick sidewalks in the wintertime. There was a guitar in every household and a song to be sung at every occasion. Twenty-six rubles made one US dollar. Churches were ornate, but in a different sense than my more familiar Catholic cathedrals: bright and colorful onion domes with powdered sugar snow on top, like little pastries. There were sounds associated with Cyrillic letters; it was no longer Backwards R, it was the letter “ya.”

Characters became deeper.

Dmitri had a middle name and a mother complex, caused by her not being really “Russian.” Isaak was in love with an American intern. Aleksandr was a new uncle, but a long-time law enforcement officer and was altruistic about his role, having never accepted a bribe. Dmitri and Aleksandr knew each other, then they didn’t, then they did again, then I settled on them being strangers.

Back when Facebook was cool, I was able to make a friend from Perm, who would tell me little details or answer questions I had about the culture. Now, she corrects my Russian papers before my professor grills me.

Today, almost five years later, I still have my fan girl moments whenever I see something Russian-esque on TV or in the media. Even if they get everything wrong. (Read: Rolland Emerich’s opus, 2012). I’m even tempted to see The Darkest Hour, an awful premised PG-13 horror film with a rating of 20% on Rotten Tomatoes—just because it takes place in Moscow. Or…at least a soundstage that looks like Moscow.

Russia was no longer That One Place over There with No Consequence to me at All…she had trains and malls and apartment buildings. Cars clogged her highways and streetlamps burned amber and weather reports played on old radios…There was a guitar in every household and a song to be sung at every occasion. There were sounds associated with Cyrillic letters; it was no longer Backwards R, it was the letter “ya.”

I have a long stack of books about Russian history and culture which I still haven’t read through. Though, when I need inspiration, I at least flip through the index and attempt to find something. I check out Russian movies on YouTube when subtitles are available, and they generally aren’t. I watch Disney movies dubbed in Russian instead.  I’ve been to Russian Orthodox services. Listened to Russian pop-rock (from the late-1990s to the mid-2000s; last.fm doesn’t seem to know anything more modern).

Even Russian guys have me turning my head.

I’ve become quite the accidental Russophile.

And it all started with a cup of coffee.

In case you’ve got a hankering for the Original Fan Fiction 100 Theme Challenge that got me started on this wild and crazy journey, here’s the link.

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