When the photos started arriving from Crimea and eastern Ukraine, I had a flashback.
I’ve seen those guys, the ones in the leather jackets who emerge from the crowd, filled with venomous purpose.
A few days later it hit me. Moscow in 1986. Church.
We were there for the Goodwill Games, the Ted Turner sports jamboree, one of the great events I have ever covered. Crazy Ted, wandering around Moscow, the holy fool, screaming about saving the elephants. The city, warm and gentle in high summer, hospitable if threadbare in the time of glasnost. Older Russians getting tears in their eyes when they talked about the suffering in World War Two.
My wife and I decided to go to church one Sunday morning, found a neighborhood Orthodox church, still open under the terms of Communism.
There was incense, singing, a ritual up front, while in the back, older worshippers, mostly women, moved from corner to corner, bowing their gray heads reverently, kissing icons of their beloved saints. We were taken back to another time.
The mood matched the feeling we received out in the street. While I worked at sports events, my wife took municipal buses to lavish circuses in distant neighborhoods. Old ladies appointed each other to watch out for her, made sure she got off at the right stop. We had also seen the old ladies brandishing umbrellas at traffic police who displeased them. This was their city, their world, still. Now, in church, in the heady cloud of incense, they prayed and kissed the icons.
Then, a few young men materialized, wearing dark leather jackets in summer heat. Three or four of them meandered through the maze of icons and paintings, but not reverently, not at all. They stared at the worshippers, moving among them, nothing physical, but most intimidating.
People ignored the thugs. I felt, well, I am an American, they might not want to menace me. In my pocket was a press badge that said: Игры доброй воли. I can still read it in Cyrillic and pronounce it. Goodwill Games. My wife and I stayed close to the thugs, spoke to each other in English.
I have no idea if we affected them in the slightest. There was no recognition. They sauntered through the church, and left by a side door.
I had not thought of them in decades. (I think more about Chernobyl, which had taken place a few weeks earlier, and still casts its poisonous shadow on the world.)
But when the photos emerged from Crimea and eastern Ukraine recently, I felt a twinge in the pit of my memory. Putin kisses icons now. It’s a different time. Thugs still emerge from the shadows, thrusting their shoulders and elbows around.
David Vecsey's sweet tale of distant love before the Web, now NYT Podcast, narrated by Griffin Dunne. Please see:
George Vecsey is Hofstra University's Alumnus of the Month! Read a Q&A with George here.