Anhedonia is a type of depression that brings on indifference towards the world and all its things and people.
What used to get you going — let’s say wildlife photography — suddenly seems tedious, and so does everything else. For about two weeks during an otherwise wonderful trip to England, I had this condition — not for everything, just for everything Russian. This was a problem because I was going back to Russia, and so completely does the Russian cultural vortex encapsulate the actual landmass that everything in Russia is Russian. Chinese restaurants? Russian — expect mayonnaise. Trees? Especially Russian. Even I am Russian when I go back to Russia, because I immediately start arguing and snapping at anyone I can. Thus the anhedonia I experienced in transit morphed into active hatred upon arrival. I’m not the only one who has felt psychic anguish upon return to Russia — I know one woman who cried the whole duration of a six-hour flight. The weird thing is, Tracy and I both, most of the time, like Russia.
“Miss, you’re going to have to put your backpack in a locker,” an attendant in a grocery store in Moscow told me, not unpolitely, on my first day back.
It was a hiking backpack and big. “Do you have any idea how hard it is to get this thing on?” I basically yelled. “All I want to do is buy yogurt. Why do I have to take the backpack off?”
This is normal behavior in Russia. Seriously. “And that,” I thought, as I strode through the grocery store, backpack on, “is just one more reason why I hate this stupid country and all of its things and people.”
If this seems like an ungenerous, unfair, and hypocritical statement, it is. And if I seem ungenerous, unfair, and hypocritical for thinking it, I am. I suspect that this part of myself comes from the days when we threw spears and belonged to different tribes; the slanty-eyed tribe, the unseemly black body-hair tribe, the Russian tribe, and so on. Back then, in the days of constant tribal warfare, perhaps people hated other tribes with reason. I had no such excuse.
The rhythm of Russian pop songs, which we in the U.S. would recognize as Jewish Klezmer-sounding, seemed loathsome. The old women, lined up on the sidewalk selling flowers looked like beady-eyed toads. And the people, into whose eyes I glared in the train station waiting room, were surely among the earth’s meanest, ugliest, and stupidest. But then Yulia, a friend from Novosibirsk, met me at the train station in Moscow, and we made our way through the subway to Nastia’s apartment, where we were to stay that night. Nastia’s mother opened the door in a more fashionable, more Moscow version of the housedress that all Russian women own, and said, “How do you like Moscow’s heat, girls?” It was then August, and Moscow was sweltering, and sweat beaded down all of us. I changed into the version of the Russian housedress that I own. We ate borscht and kielbasa. When the sun began to dip, we went out for a walk in Gorky park. By the time Nastia closed the door of her apartment behind us, I had already revised large parts of my active hatred for all things Russian rule. But then Gorky park in the summer completely overpowered it.
I’m Facebook friends with a television director named Igor who lives in Moscow. Once on my newsfeed, I saw a picture of him in a T-shirt which read “When a man is bored of Moscow he is bored of life.” That’s what that evening in Gorky Park felt like. There were fountains, and a skateboard park where the snowboard park normally is, and tea huts, and duck ponds with ornate bridges over them. All trees, flowers, and shrubs assumed their places in the florid vision of one landscape architect. On the edge of the Mosckva river we watched waltzers, and then walked 20 yards farther, and watched salsa-dancers. A boy with a backpack on, holding hands with his girlfriend, stopped in front of the salsa dancers too. He began tugging at his girlfriend’s hand, after five minutes, with red cheeks, she relented and they joined the dancers. We walked on, and roller-bladers whizzed passed us. When Yulia began saying, “This is sensory overload, but I can’t look away!” we lay down on giant pillows and watched the constant parade of gorgeous women (Moscow’s specialty) with their somewhat less attractive dates.
Swamped and pacified and then lulled back into the Russian cultural vortex, I took a plane to Novosibirsk the next day. The passenger to my left, the passenger to my right, and I formed the companionable group of strangers you sometimes see on airplanes, and we talked about the relative merits of the American foster care system versus the Russian orphanage system the whole way. The plane landed at one at night. Both taxi companies I called were busy. No one at my large Catholic social aid organization knew when I was returning because the email I had sent to my boss had gone unnoticed. Luckily, my one American acquaintance in Novosibirsk, the Fullbright student, had also been on the plane — I spotted him at baggage claim — and his friends Jean-Pierre and Masha, gave me a ride, too.
Masha drove and Jean-Pierre navigated by holding an iPhone and saying, in moments when we were completely lost, “I am in control, I am in control.” He was French, Masha Russian, and English seemed to be their language of love. Finally we turned onto the dark street that leads into Boogrinkoo, my neighborhood. “You live here?” said Masha, horrified. “Yes,” I said proudly. We turned a corner and the car’s headlights lit up a man dangerously close to the car. “I think he wants to kill me,” said Masha. “I think he’s going fishing,” I said.
Past the darkest stretch of street in Boogrinkoo, the stretch that borders the forest-park, lies the gates of my organization, which are locked at eleven o’clock sharp every night. It was now nearly three. Masha parked the car in front of the locked gate and looked around nervously. Boogrinkoo isn’t the most dangerous part of Novosibirsk, but it’s on the list. To our left was a metal shack where thugs hung out during the day, and possibly at night too. Behind us was ragged apartment building. Everywhere else was forest, and where there is forest, girls disappear. That’s what people tell me anyway. Again, it was now nearly three. If the night grandmother — the person in charge of the place until 6 am — didn’t answer the phone, I told Jean-Pierre and Masha, I would be staying with them. But she did answer, and I slid under a broken bar in the iron gate, into the garden of the orphanage, in the domain of the nuns, where there was order and care in everything.
The sun rose at five and I didn’t sleep a wink that night. At six-thirty, I left the compound to buy some food, forgetting that stores open at eight and not seven. Few people were out on the street. Though it was now broad daylight, it was not yet hot. A drunk staggered to the entrance of an apartment building, his day just ending. The fruit-sellers from Uzbekestan were just beginning to set up their tent. Crates of green and red grapes, more luscious and more fragrant than any I have ever seen in the U.S. surrounded them. The tram thudded past. Every thuggish-looking young male I passed on the sidewalk sent another jolt of adrenalin through my veins, and I felt ready, for Russia, again.