Thursday, May 31, 2012

The New Russians / Yoani Sánchez

The New Russians / Yoani Sánchez
Translator: Unstated, Yoani Sánchez

The plane touched down in the middle of a Havana night and the tourists
pass through the international airport terminal where dozens of Cubans
offer them taxis, rooms for rent, rum or mulatas. A young man approaches
a short dumpy visitor and, squatting close to his ear, asks "Mister, you
like cigars?" but the answer comes with a strong and well-known accent,
that tells the daring vendor the origin of the traveler. These are the
new Russians, who come not for business but for pleasure, who have
stopped calling each other "comrade" and who now carry their Visas or
Mastercards. In short, they seem less and less like those who for
decades sustained our social experiment.

It has been over fifty years since the Cuban government resumed
diplomatic relations with what was then called the Soviet Union. Those
who lived through that time have told me it wasn't easy to overcome the
accumulated prejudices against the inhabitants of the first socialist
territory in the world, those who were seen by many of my compatriots as
part of an advanced colonization. Life demonstrated that the alarmists
were not entirely wrong.

In the great naivete of our collective childhood there were no
differences between Ukrainians, Turks or Lithuanians, as we believed
them all a single extension ruled from the Kremlin. On the other hand,
the cultural abyss between the homeland of Lenin and our fun-loving
Caribbean island made one scholar admit that "Cuban and Russian hearts
beat on completely different frequencies." However, geopolitics tried to
match us up, without much success. Unlike other European countries,
where Communism rolled in with the tanks commanded by Stalin, in our
case it came with a subsidy, with boats full of oil that called at the
ports of this Island every month.

"The Russians are coming!" cried some, frightened, while others
responded, "Welcome to the Soviets!" Choosing between one word or the
other was, for a long time, more than a linguistic dilemma, it was the
taking of an ideological position. When Cubans of my generation started
to be aware of the world, in the early eighties, no one was tearing
their hair out to choose between these two words that history had forced
to be synonymous.

So we watched Russian films and rode in Soviet Ladas. The downtown
restaurant, Moscow, disappeared in a mysterious and voracious fire, and
to the west of the city they raised a hideous building that would serve
as the headquarters of the USSR embassy, which we jokingly christened
the "control tower" both for it architectural profile as well as its
political evocations. Those were the gray times, when we kids lived
trapped between the teary Eastern European cartoons and the interminable
discourse of the then robust Maximum Leader.

At the beginning of the nineties, with the collapse in those parts, the
official discourse eliminated the references to former mentors. They
erased them from the text books and removed the photos of the leaders in
the fuzzy hats with earmuffs from the Museum of the Revolution, while
national history was rewritten downplaying the Soviet presence in our lives.

The cultural impact of this abrupt departure made itself felt
immediately, especially on movie posters, where the American productions
— and it continues today — pack the theaters and only rarely are
replaced with the old classics distributed in another epic under the
symbol of a soldier and a peasant girl carrying a hammer and sickle.

To the surprise of many, an agreeable surprise of course, television
premiered the series The Master and Margarita based on the unforgettable
satirical novel of the awkward Mikhail Bulgakov. On the national scene
the Bolshoi Ballet — once the flagship of Soviet culture — returned to
perform again and, according to those who attended, defrauded the
demanding Havana public. But nothing is like that era when the
memorandums flew from the palace of colored domes to our sober Council
of State.

After years of little interaction, the visitors from the other side of
the Urals have returned. They are no longer seen in large groups,
dressed in pants always one size too big and white shirts with the
sleeves rolled up to the elbows. They are no longer those foreign
technicians who had the right to buy in stores prohibited to us, and who
sold on the black market the trinkets they bought in those so-called

We haven't gone back to calling them "los bolos" — the bowling pins —
that appellation half mocking and half affectionate, honoring the lack
of sophistication of their industrial products, full of rough welds,
divorced from aerodynamics and comfort. Now, the returning comrades of
yesteryear compete in the discos, look like businessmen, and wear French

They are entrepreneurs showing off their computer products, such as the
well known Kaspersky anti-virus, before the astonished eyes of those who
once saw them in their military uniforms. A couple of years ago they
even had an exhibition area at the International Book Fair. Their
shelves were filled with diverse topics, including self-help, with very
few titles of Marxism and Leninism. They walk among us and no one
screams in fear, "The Soviets are back!" Because it's clear to everyone
that they've returned and, swimming at our beaches or drinking a mojito
in some tourist bar, they are — clearly — Russians.

30 May 2012

From Cuba Libre on El Pais

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