From Russia With Luck

From Russia With Luck

Feeling Shitty for the Sake of What Might or Might Not Be Luck

It was a Thursday in mid-October, National Boss Day in the U.S., to be exact. But it didn’t matter. I don’t have a boss. And, we were in Moscow, Russia, and hauling ass toward Red Square to see Lenin’s tomb, which closed at 1pm. We needed to see the stuffed and waxed dictator. When we arrived at Resurrection Gate, through which I could see the large expanse (400m x 150m) of Red Square, the high end GUM shopping center on the left and the considerable battlement walls of the Kremlin on the right, it was 12:20, and we had some time to kill.  Just outside the colorful gate, there were people throwing what seemed to be money.  More precisely, there were people taking turns standing on a circular inscribed bronze tablet embedded in the cobbles[1] and tossing the items, most often with a smile and cameras flashing, demurely over their shoulder, as if to say “Not that I believe this works or anything,” or, “Now I can say I’ve done it, on to St. Basil’s,” or “I have no idea what the hell I’m doing, but everyone else is doing it, and when in Russia…”

Being curious travelers, my friends and I stopped and watched. One tall woman with long blond hair took to the plaque in jeans and high boots and smiled before throwing something glinty over her shoulder. Before it hit the ground, and in confirmation that this was in fact money, and not say crumpled tinfoil, several babushkas, who had been standing quietly behind her, suddenly broke out in a flurry of activity and fought to catch the item in midair. When they failed, the group bent down in their coats like a crowd of pigeons over breadcrumbs, scrambling wildly for the tossed change.

This action seemed akin to throwing money in a well, but maybe there was something more beneficent about it than just having a wish granted. Also, there was the problem of the money not hitting the ground sometimes, which, if this had to do with making wishes, would seem instrumental to sealing the deal. If some babushka catches your coin, does the wish not come true? Or, does the bestowing of the wish get reassigned somehow to the babushka who caught your instrument of aspiration, so that she walks off with the tired bookish-looking guy you’ve been eying since you stepped out of Teatralnaya Metro instead of you?

I walked up to Stalin (well a man dressed up like Stalin who was charging to have pictures taken with him) to find some answers. I was wary of getting too close him, afraid that by being in his vicinity, he would charge me for time spent with Stalin, picture or no.  He turned away from Napoleon. I didn’t speak Russian and he didn’t speak English. I spoke to him in Serbo-Croatian (SC), another Slavic language, which I kind of know, and which kind of got me by in some situations in Russia before, barely. We resorted to broken English and what I think are very communicative and effective internationally understood hand gestures.  He said “For love” and lifted his shoulders, eyes and hands upward. “Em…for good…future,” he adlibbed and waved his right hand in front of him as if he were unrolling a scroll. “For luck?” I asked. “Svetno?” (which means luck in SC). He gave me an empty look. I nodded my head as if to say, “I understand, don’t worry,” though I firmly believed that he had either no idea what this tradition that occurred before him every day was about, he simply didn’t care, or he might suddenly become more clear for a few rubles. I almost wondered if someone had made up this tradition as an apparatus, albeit a poorly devised one, for fundraising. But faux Stalin basically confirmed in a vague sort of way the vague notions I had about this tradition: that there’s nothing more interesting to it than tossing salt over your shoulder, except that you can’t make other people move for salt. That’s not altogether uninteresting or unilluminating given that wishing wells that I’m inured to are heavy with neglected coins.

It seemed apropos in a week in which the Dow Jones had its largest and second largest point drop in its history. I wondered whether I should toss money, or join the ersatz numismatists. I decided to toss a kopek, the most worthless unit of money I had on me. It was an utterly joyless moment. I cringed as my friend took a picture of me and had this moment fixed on celluloid. I had no reason for doing it and felt badly about the movement behind me when my kopek sailed through the airspace near Red Square. I didn’t want whatever was the result of this activity.

My friends and I moved on to the tomb. We were nearly turned away at the gate by an officer who told us that Lenin’s tomb was closed, though it was clearly indicated that it was open for another half hour.  Within moments, we were approached by a man who offered to take us on a “private tour” for 700 rubles (roughly $25). This would enable us to get in, even though it was “closed.” I guess this was lucky in a twisted kind of way. Whether or not luck was the result of my flying kopek, I’ll never know. I was divested of my vest at a banya, swindled out of twenty bucks at a small-town bank outside Moscow, and charged $50 dollars more than locals at the Marinsky Theater. But provided that I was also given a ride at night by a strange young girl after being dropped off by a bus in a small town in the black of night, and walked to destinations I was seeking by generous strangers I called our “travel angels,” I was open to whatever odd brand of “fortune” came my way.

–Rozalia Jovanovic

[1] Which I later found out, via Fodor’s, marks kilometer zero for the Russian highway system.

(Photos by Rozalia Jovanovic.)