So we’re up to our nostrils in all things Russian these days and people are worried sick that the US is soon going to be Moscow on the Hudson, as well as Moscow on the Mississippi and Moscow on the Rio Grande and Moscow on every other river and creek and bayou in the country. We’ve become so suffused with Russia paranoia and things have become so edgy that Representative Trey Gowdy, a Republican from South Carolina and chairman of the House Oversight Committee, wants to get to the bottom of all this Russki stuff. He’s urging that folks come clean about all their contacts with Russians.
Gowdy minced no words in his call for full disclosure. “Someone needs to get everyone in a room and say, from the time you saw ‘Dr. Zhivago’ until the moment you drank vodka with a guy named Boris, you list every single contact with Russia.”
Pretty hard to misunderstand that kind of demand.
Now, I consider myself a loyal American and a patriot, and in this stressful time I think I should, like all good Americans, come clean about my association with Russians. So here’s my confession: A long time ago in Chapel Hill—a town of known leftist tendencies that US Senator Jesse Helms once said could function as the North Carolina state zoo if you put a fence around it—I had contact with Russians. And in that spirit of full disclosure that Representative Gowdy is demanding, I’d like to tell everything I can recall about those contacts.
It was the summer of 1977. I’d signed up for a summer school course at Carolina. I had a good friend from Raleigh, a brilliant linguist who was fluent in Russian, German and Polish and could probably make himself understood in at least half a dozen other languages. He was good friends with some Soviet (as we called them in those days) exchange students.
He was especially good friends with a guy who I remember only as Evgeni—or, as he may have spelled it in Cryillic, Евгений. Evgeni was, until Vladimir Putin came along, the image that popped into my head when anybody mentioned Russians.
I’ve learned over the years that it’s generally not a good thing to think of groups of people in stereotypes. It can get you into trouble in lots of ways. And yet, Evgeni pretty much perfectly fit the American stereotype of a Russian. He was big, blond, loud, and backslapping friendly with a booming voice that could have been heard by Sarah Palin on the other side of the Bering Strait. And he could drink all the residents of any small rural American county under the table.
I don’t remember the first time I met Evgeni, but it may have been when I bumped into my friend and him on Franklin Street. During my introduction, my friend probably said something to Evgeni in Russian that sounded something like this: “Das vidanya. Spragelly meestslamy mas y telly joo davastli.” And then a huge grin spread across Evgeni’s face and he extended a hand the size of a bear’s paw and wrapped his fingers several times around my hand as he shook it.
I saw Evgeni regularly, always in the company of my friend. One day, my friend asked me to spend a Friday night with Evgeni. I think he had a date and he didn’t want Evgeni tagging along. Evgeni knew very little English at this point, and I knew no Russian. But what the hell, I was game. I figured with enough beer, everything would be OK.
And it was. We hit many Franklin Street watering holes that night, and downed many beers, and exchanged no intelligible language that I recall. But alcohol, in the hands of open-minded and imaginative imbibers, can erase language barriers and be a remarkable facilitator of communications. We made ourselves understood with gestures, backslaps, facial expressions and noises. And when all else failed, we ordered another round. By the end of the evening, we were drinking buddies even though we had not exchanged a single coherent sentence.
As the summer progressed, Evgeni’s English improved, as did his ability to calculate American prices in terms of his Soviet background. I recall him asking the price in American dollars of something he wanted. Someone told him. He was silent for a few moments as he mentally converted the cost in US currency to the Soviet economy. He became wide-eyed when he’d finished the calculation. “Is two cheekens!” he exclaimed in disbelief.
I had another memorable encounter with Evgeni later that summer. This time I was stumping down Franklin Street with a cast that covered my left leg from my foot to just below my knee. How I got that cast is an anecdote that makes a great story, but it’s a story that I’m not ready to publicly disclose. I will say this, however: It involved excessive alcohol on a Friday night, misplaced youthful exuberance, and one of the worst decisions I've ever made. Still, no laws were broken, no property was damaged, no cops were involved and no one except me was injured. I never received a bill for my visit to the emergency room at North Carolina Memorial Hospital, so I assume it was covered by my student health insurance.
Anyway, I was somewhere near the Varsity Theater when I heard this booming voice above the Franklin Street traffic noise. It was speaking Russian. I have no idea what was being said, but it sounded like “Vee lee! Vu dees eu da!” I think I must have looked skyward, because my friend said afterwards that I looked like I’d heard the voice of God calling to me.
It was, of course, my drinking buddy Evgeni, and he was concerned about the cast on my leg. I don’t remember much else about that encounter. I’m sure my friend explained to Evgeni what had happened to me and he thought it was hilarious and slapped me on the back.
I saw Evgeni occasionally during the next year or so. I remember parties with other Soviet exchange students. I remember these guys downing tumblers of vodka like it was ice water, and feats of strength and loud conversations, mostly in Russian. I never picked up any of that language, so I have no idea what they were talking about. But since the conversations seemed to involve calls for more vodka and challenges to arm-wrestling, I don’t think anything subversive was being said.
That’s all I recall of Evgeni. I think he left Chapel Hill sometime in the late ‘70s, and I haven’t heard from him since. So this concludes my debriefing of my Russian contacts.
A final note to Representative Gowdy. I also saw Dr. Zhivago. A long time ago in Charlotte. With a couple of friends. I’m still good friends with that guy from Raleigh, and he still speaks Russian fluently. And sometimes I use Russian vodka for my vodka martinis. That's all my Pусский contacts, I swear.