The only time I was in Moscow, we were given a great hotel room facing the Kremlin and Red Square.
This was during the Goodwill Games, that strange sports jamboree put together by Ted Turner of Atlanta and “my Commie pinko buddies,” as he called them.
It was 1986, and the Goodwill Games -- Игры доброй воли, which I can pronounce from memory: Igry dobroy voli.
There was plenty of goodwill in the time of “glasnost” – open-ness – of the Gorbachev era.
The times they were a-changing, temporarily, and just about everybody was nice, particularly the babushka ladies, except when crossed.
The babushka ladies were of considerable age and experience – they had seen war up close, many of them were widows of soldiers since the early ‘40s. They survived on modest pensions with the hardiness of survivors. They would go around Moscow trying to find food they could afford. They wore loose, mostly black, clothes, and they carried umbrellas and were nicknamed after the ubiquitous scarves most wore tied under their chins.
The babushka ladies -- бабушки, pronounced babushki in plural -- were great to my wife, who was roaming the warm and festive city, seeking out art museums and parks where she could buy fresh blintzes and visit shops to see how people lived.
One day she decided to take in a circus in the outskirts of the huge city and was told which bus to take from near the hotel. She presented a circular about the circus to the bus driver, asking him to let her off at the closest stop, but then the babushka ladies took over.
They perused the map to determine how far, bade her sit with them, tried to chat across language barriers, and when the bus reached the proper stop, they propelled her out into the sunny Moscow evening with smiles and waves. The babushka ladies.
Later, she reported that the circus was wonderful, when we reconnoitered around midnight at the hotel room with the amazing view.
A few days later, she spotted the babushka ladies in action. She was roaming near Red Square and it was drizzling and crowd control was up. Apparently, a dignitary – Mme. Mitterand, wife of the French president—was taking a tour of the Kremlin, which involved blocking all traffic, including pedestrian, from at least a square mile.
The babushka ladies did not take kindly to the blockade.
They faced the police officers and soldiers and tried to reason with them – good luck with that – and then they began wielding their umbrellas, swatting the police on the arms and backs.
The police were polite to the babushka ladies, who were widely respected for their age and survival instincts during terrible times. Many officers turned sideways and did not try to stop the babushki.
(It was also true that for the Goodwill Games, the Soviet officials had imported officers from countries under the thumb. I was told by somebody that many of the officers did not even speak Russian but perhaps Kazakh or some other language of their dear captive friends.)
My wife knew that visceral protest so close to Lenin’s Tomb and the Kremlin was unusual; even babushki don’t normally protest like this. Something was changing. These well-respected old ladies were questioning authority in some new, tangible way.
We remembered the babushki after we got home; we thought of them during all the changes, including charges of government. As a matter of fact, a Russian translator we had met visited us for a few days in 1991 and sat tensely in front of the television as a crowd charged city hall. Her son was a student journalist, she said. He would surely be in that crowd.
Those tense times seemed to bring new days for Russia, but now, in the wake of tsars and Stalin and Khrushchev, there is Vladimir Putin.
We see grandchildren of the babushki are swarming around Moscow and St. Petersburg and other Russian cities to protest the cruel and highly dangerous invasion in Ukraine. The Ukrainian people are showing their courage, and in the big cities, Russian people are standing up for them.
Is this a signal for powerful people in Russia, whose foreign condos and business investments and even their passports are being sanctioned.
Putin – no doubt enabled by the blatant man-crush of the feckless Trump – is endangering a new generation of Russians to kill neighbors and also die for his mad cause.
I only know that babushki have given husbands, sons and now grandchildren for the whim of the current tsar.
May the courage of the babushki send signals, through the wielding of an umbrella.
Now the generations are speaking.
“They may hate the cultural context they now find themselves teaching in, but they love their work. The Achilles’ heel of schoolteachers, one all too easily exploited by politicians, is that they love their students.”
(One of the best reads in the NYT these days is Margaret Renkl, in Nashville. In her latest post, Renkl describes the dedicated core of “born teachers” – the majority, she submits.)
(From Madeleine Albright in one of her final interviews in February):
“Putin is small and pale,” I wrote, “so cold as to be almost reptilian.” He claimed to understand why the Berlin Wall had to fall but had not expected the whole Soviet Union to collapse. “Putin is embarrassed by what happened to his country and determined to restore its greatness.” – Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, recalling her first meeting with the relatively unknown Vladimir Putin in 2000. – The New York Times, Feb. 23, 2022.