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Sunday, December 22, 2002

Seminar Stories
I’d better write about last week’s seminar before too much more time passes, or I might forget some of the juicy details. Actually, “juicy details” makes it sound as if there were scandals and shocking revelations—the sort of shenanigans that conference attendees in Malcolm Bradbury or David Lodge novels get up to—and there weren’t, but it was exceedingly cool and a little bit strange.

First, the strange. The seminar was held in a Soviet-era conference center about an hour out of Moscow (or about two hours when I went because of the pre-Constitution Day holiday traffic). The accommodations were a weird mix of minor privations and spoiled-brat luxury. For example, there weren’t actually any beds—just couches with the back cushions removed. Thick ‘70s-style cellulose sheets were placed on top of the couch’s coverlet—not tucked, mind you, they weren’t really big enough to be tuckable—as if their only purpose was to protect the couch from nocturnal emissions. There was a blanket provided, but the rooms were so hot that you had to strip off the second you closed the door behind you; using the blanket was unthinkable. (Am I complaining that the room was too hot? Hell, no!) Since I was an “expert,” I had a room to myself, though the seminar participants had to share.

The real throwback was the food—there was lots of it, and I was certainly never hungry, but it was, well, weird. The breakfast buffet was massive, with way more choices than at the fancy Western hotel I’d stayed at in downtown Moscow. All manner of Russian milk products—a version of fromage frais whose name I don’t recall, yogurt, egg custard; kasha; cold cereal; bacon; hot dogs; fruit; the sort of breakfast choices that I associate with Holland/Germany/Scandinavia: rolls and cheeses and cold cuts (some of which were very stinky for first thing in the morning); and then bowls of cold, chopped vegetables: beets, corn, carrots, cabbage, peas, and monster platters of parsley. (Nothing says “good morning” like a plate full of parsley, I always say.)

Lunch, which was served around 2, was the meal I understood least. It always seemed to start with a featured appetizer presented nouvelle cuisine style on a big plate: a sardine, a slice of tongue, or some other morsel of meat. On the table were cold vegetables (yes, I know many of them are actually fruits): sliced cucumbers, tomatoes, peppers, and, of course, parsley; once, there were some kidney beans sitting on a leaf of lettuce. Once the appetizers were cleared, big hunks of mystery (to me) meat would be brought to the table. To say these were tough would be an understatement—anyone brave enough to attack the chunks would then have to fish great hefts of inedible gristle out her mouth. Then we had a choice of peculiar soups: goat, spinach, etc. After that was yet another choice—generally between fish or meat, though the meat was usually very tough and the fish more bones than flesh. Dessert was fruit, piled high on the table. As a special treat, we experts were plied with Russian beer to wash down the grub (though often I was the only one decadent enough to accept). A “new Russian” who shared our table one day sighed, as he extracted some huge bones from his fish, “I swear this place hasn’t changed a bit since Soviet times, especially not the menu.” For me, this was a bonus: time-travel tourism.

I’m afraid I can’t tell you about dinner, because I never managed to stay awake that long. In all my years of traveling, I’ve never had my ass kicked quite so comprehensively by jet lag as on this trip. Writing this exactly one week after I returned, I’m still a chrono-mess—the last two nights I pretty much passed out at 7 p.m.

Anyhow, before you start to think that all I did at this seminar was fret about cellulose sheets and gristly meat, let me assure you that it was—and I say this despite my lifelong membership in the cynic’s club—life-changing. About 120 participants—split pretty evenly between the genders—came from the “regions” (I now recognize that this is Russian for “boonies”): lots from Siberia and bunches from the Urals and the Volga basin, the Caucasus, Kaliningrad, and Krasnodar. Their suits may not have been Moscow chic, but the peeps inside them were sharp as tacks. (When I got back, I told an American friend who spent several years in Russia that I was hooked, she e-mailed back: “It is interesting that you cite the folks from the hinterlands as clinching your Russia-bug—they are so friggin' poor (i.e., not Moscow nouveau riche) that they are forced to ‘remain Russian,’ hence more black bread, poetry and doses of Russian soul. Don't know that you can find that in Moscow much anymore.”)

Each session was two hours long, but this was broken down into a 30-minute presentation and a 90-minute question-and-answer period. As one of the Brits said, in Britain or the States, you’d get about three polite and very superficial questions after a talk; here the participants worried the speakers like dogs going after sheep. Particularly with the Russian speakers, no matter how exalted (and some were very high-level visitors—the deputy editor of Izvestiya, the general director of a TV network, a member of the Duma, the author of the new law on the media, etc.), as soon as the talk ended, the hands would fly up. The questions were smart, aggressive, and confrontational, but at the same time completely respectful. In Russia, it’s clearly culturally acceptable to have a no-holds-barred discussion without any ill-feeling. (It’s a good job debate isn’t an Olympic sport.)

It was the sort of gathering where you could learn more in two days of dinner-table chat than in years of study. Attending the presentations of the British and U.S. participants—John Lloyd of the Financial Times, New Statesman, Globe and Mail, Les Echos, my God who doesn’t he write for, the man’s a genius (for real); Ben Wegg-Prosser of the Guardian (who I knew from his attempt to start a British version of Slate); Andrew Brown of the Channel 4 parliament show, Powerhouse; Claudia Kolker from Houston; the Washington Post’s Anne Applebaum—was a media studies master class, and hearing the Russians speak made me want to give it all up and become a Russia hand. I also got a huge blast from meeting Pilar Bonet, El País’ Moscow correspondent, who I’ve been reading for years. She too was incredibly smart and friendly and funny—and let’s face it, any time I can drink beer with lunch and speak Spanish with a journalistic hero in the same day is cojonudo.

In the end, though, it was the school’s organizers who had me reaching for the Kool Aid. When a couple of last-minute scheduling snafus meant they had to somehow fill six hours of programming on the third and final day, they turned one of the sessions into an impromptu reflection on “tolerance” with six or seven people—a mixture of staffers, graduates, and friends of the school, all but one of them Russians—sharing personal experiences on the topic. I’ve been to dozens of similar sessions in the last 20 years and have grown pretty much immune (I could lead a diversity seminar in my sleep), but I was incredibly moved by this one. Afterward, it was impossible not to realize that after the last couple of hundred years of Russian history—serfdom, Stalinism, totalitarianism—even attempting to set up truly free, democratic institutions is a remarkably brave and slightly crazy project. It’s such a difficult task, but at the same time, it’s absolutely essential.

Apparently, my session (the shockingly vague “How the Internet Is Changing U.S. Journalism”) went down well with the punters, so they asked me to come back again. My parka and snow boots are standing by.