Olympic Games and Chewing Gum

 

My classmate Tamara was insistent. We needed to stay for the Olympic games in Moscow in the summer of 1980, in order to approach foreigners and ask for some chewing gum. I still remember her training us how to do it. You approach a foreigner with a smile, a ten years old Tamara said, raise your eyes so you can look into their eyes directly, and slowly ask in English: “Uncle, would you have any chewing gum, please?” Her mother, a medical researcher who visited international conferences, taught her how to ask for chewing gum. There was no chewing gum in the USSR.

 

For us “foreigners” were all American. It did not really matter whether they were from the US or not. The fact that Americans boycotted those Olympic games did not stop us from imagining them coming and providing us with things. Being quintessentially “American” meant wearing a cowboy hat and blue jeans, putting legs on the table, speaking loudly, and chewing gum. Oh yes, and sunglasses. How to become an American? Get some gum and start chewing. Of course, it was also an appalling and rude thing to do. Any properly brought up young person knew that. But that was the whole point, to be transgressive. Tamara was the most outspoken member of our class on matters of style. Every morning she would make comments about our clothing and appearance, positive or negative. I always felt it was not very Soviet of her. Just when she also told us that gum is a form of currency, we could exchange it later for other things we wanted.

 

Other classmates and I were stunned. Asking foreigners on the streets to give us chewing gum was a challenging plan. Not only we had not started learning English by then. The very idea of approaching a foreigner was a no-go and we all knew that. Foreigners were rare and not allowed to mingle with us. Moreover, everything was done to make us spend that summer outside of Moscow. I spent it in the south of Moldova working on corn fields (that’s another story). The Moscow Olympics memory for me was a carpet that my parents brought from Moldova. It depicted the symbol of those games, a Russian toy bear, Olympiyski Mishka, in green and blue colors, and hung in my room for decades.

 

Recently a different friend shared her chewing gum story. She spent that 1980 summer in Saint Petersburg. One day, on a visit to the cruiser Aurora (famous for participating in the Winter Palace siege by the Bolsheviks in 1917), a foreign man approached her, smiled and offered some gum and candy. He said “hello.” Many thoughts crossed her mind: Should I say hello in return? Should I take his candy? Would it mean that I am betraying my motherland right here right now? One of her close relatives traveled around the world for work, but never talked about it at home. What would that relative say? Would I cause him any trouble by this contact with this foreigner? Can I smile? She remembers to this day how frozen she felt at the moment, a little kid with a country on her shoulders. As she was describing her feelings and their vivid memory, we were sitting at a Mexican restaurant in Moscow in the summer of 2013. We concluded that her ten years old daughter is unable – thankfully – to understand those feelings today. The girl speaks three languages that she can practice on a regular basis. And she can buy gum at any bus stop in Moscow. I asked what happened at the end, on that summer day on the cruiser Aurora. “I said nothing to him, but took the chewing gum,” she answered.

Putin’s Soap Operas

I noticed a new trend in Russian soap operas: the small town folk theme. Townspeople are now the main characters, and a small town, a cross between a city and a village, is their backdrop. These new productions rely on multiple layers of cinematic familiarity. First, they have the same features as pre-war Soviet, Stalinist films: shiny and aestheticized old-style machines (ambulances, household products, tools, all local, not imported), women and men with pure and noble souls, often expressed through reserved sexuality or simply the absence of sex, just kisses and repressed hugs, and of course, bad characters are selfish and wear mini-skirts.

 

Second, the only food eaten by these Russian souls is Russian. TV ads interrupt this goodness with their offerings of Italian pasta and Asian noodles. Just as the ads fade on our Japanese- and Chinese-made screens, the audience can switch back to pre-imported life. The characters do not shop in supermarkets, they are rarely seen shopping at all (another familiar trope of evil consumerism). When food appears, it’s usually presented as a blessing from “the grandma’s garden.” The table with familiar all-Russian offerings is the only table around.

 

And of course, the aesthetic familiarity of Russian extended communal life. Everyone is helping each other, lending money, time, expressing care and non-stop concern. A woman-cleaner notices something bad is going on behind a building, and immediately calls the police. She knows the policeman by name and they save lives. A lead character works tirelessly and faints from fatigue because she is so devoted to her community. A man only thinks about larger good and not sure how to reconcile this communal ethic with his all-to-selfish love for the simply dressed, always ordered-hair, heroine. Non-Russians are nowhere to be seen. Come to think of it, no references are made to the outside world either. No one is watching current news on TV, or playing computer games. They do use cell phones though.

 

These small towns look like phantom territories from Shaymalan’s films. TV crime dramas, often set in large cities and popularized in the 1990s, are considered now as too rough for Putin’s Russia. The government-controlled channels want to present a softer, better image of the country. On the other hand, if one shows a Russian village with only kind doctors, sober tractor drivers, unpolished but quaint surroundings and working machinery, Russian audiences would laugh out loud. This is a smartly constructed non-land of Russianness that has never been and will never be.

 

For an American counterpart, I would suggest Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman. “Townspeople” in this series also act as a backdrop for topics that frequently take on nation building themes. Their main audiences (let me make a wild guess here) are white / Russian women of reproductive or peri-menopausal age, drawn to the emotional side of nation building on television: a love story. If children and extended family are involved, it’s for the better as there are even more opportunities for tearful moments. They are well done, I must say. I found myself crying.