Becoming a Russophile

"And I'm freeeeee. Free fallin."

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. I sketched a scene. 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, my first ambiguous antagonist.

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. She had trains and malls and apartment buildings. Cars clogged her highways and street lamps burned amber and weather reports played on old radios. She had slick sidewalks, damp with melted snow or freshly fallen rain. A guitar sat in the corner of every living room; a song to be sung at every occasion. Twenty-six rubles made one US dollar. Church ceremonies were so much more elaborate than my more familiar Catholic Masses. Bright, colorful onion-domed buildings were a stark comparison to the more Gothic cathedrals I’d come to know as God’s house. Cyrillic letters made sounds; it was no longer Backwards R, it was the letter “ya.”

Characters became deeper.

Dmitri had a middle name and a mother complex and had an iPod full of jazz classics. Isaak was in love with an American intern and liked to have a beer after work with The Guys. Aleksandr was a new uncle, but a long-time law enforcement officer and was altruistic about his role in society, 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 when 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.

I have a tall 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 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; doesn’t seem to know anything more modern).

Becoming a Russophile was quite the happy accident.

And it all started with a cup of coffee.


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