Russians have a bad reputation in Goa for their unruly behavior. Many say they are unfriendly but it’s probably due to the fact that few speak much English and just appear to be standoffish. In the north several beaches are completely taken over by vodka drinking rowdy Russians – even the signage is is in Russian. Has anyone been to Brighton Beach in NYC recently?
We’ve heard stories of the Russian Mafia buying up large parcels of land in an attempt to launder money. Just yesterday we heard a story of an altercation breaking out between a waiter and a drunken Russian tourist. The Russian pulled out a knife and stabbed the unsuspecting Goan waiter. The culprit fled and was chased by an angry mob wielding bricks, bottles and stones. Narrowly escaping with his life, he jumped into the sea. After treading water for several hours, he was ironically saved from drowning by a local lifeguard!
But all of this is not the case for us – our experience has been completely different. We’ll start with Natasha, a Russian woman staying next door to us. An easy going, mellow yoga teacher back home. She’s the perfect neighbor never makes any noise in her room, comes and goes who knows where, and when we see her she’s always smiling and easy to engage in conversation. Natasha speaks good English because she lived in Sacramento with her husband for ten years. Not excited about returning to Russia two years ago, her first complaint was the long cold winters. But more bothersome is the pollution – with the rapidly expanding economy many people are now able to buy automobiles spewing out carbon monoxide. As in the US, the majority of the money seems to be held by only a few.We briefly met her two years ago when she was attending a yoga retreat and found Agonda to be as special as we do, and has returned now for a month. She’s even commented she likes the music she hears coming out of our room at lunchtime, predominantly jazz.
Another guest where we’re staying has also been here numerous times, but this is the first year we’ve become friendly. In her 40s, Tatiana’s a striking character – with long platinum blond tresses, often piled high on her head. She speaks very good English for a Russian. In only the last ten years, English has become the preferred foreign language taught in schools, over German and French, thanks to the computer age.
Tatiana spends a lot of her time traveling, financed by a smart move fifteen years ago. When property values were inexpensive, she bought a building with apartments and a shop in Moscow. Keeping a small flat for herself, she rents the rest of it which is more than enough to finance her excursions around the world. Staying two months in Agonda, she’s always on the go and has rented a stylish white motor scooter that goes well with her red swimsuit and blond hair. Tatiana’s a strong swimmer and semi-professional photographer – one of her photographs of a fisherman in Agonda won an online competition. With a lighthearted view of herself and life around her, she has a smile that makes it compulsory for you to smile back!
The Russian family who last year stayed next to us in the guesthouse have now rented a house in Agonda village, away from the beach. With a kitchen and several rooms this suits them much better and doesn’t cost more than the guest house. As mentioned last year they are a very serious couple, learning Aurevedic medicine, and working through the maze of mystic philosophy this country has to offer. At present they’re reading the sayings of Krishnamurti. Staying three months, Irina home schools their nine year old son and visits the beach only at sunset not wanting to spoil her soft milky white skin with a suntan. Irina’s husband Jalil, who is older, has had long talks with Gerard about what it was like living in the Soviet Union and more interestingly when the Union collapsed. He’d spent 18 years in the military and quit one year before that. Jalil said many people sensed that something was seriously wrong at least five years before the dissolution. When asked if he was a card-carrying Communist, he said, “Of course, I was in the military. But even as a child I felt a discrepancy between what the government was saying and the everyday reality. factory workers and other unskilled laborers, who earned little money but were taken care of by the state, suffered the most when the Union finally ended. They had nowhere to turn as factory after factory closed no longer subsidized by the central government. On the other hand, during the Soviet period, it was the businessmen who were under constant suspicion for being budding capitalists and had found it hard to survive. But later, they benefited the most from the gigantic economic opportunity. In fact, anyone with a business inclination did well.
Gerard asked, “But was there a sense of disillusionment?”
“Yes, of course, amongst the old guard. It was a very bitter pill for them to swallow.”
Jalil is the first Russian we’ve met who was old enough to go through this turmoil and see it from both sides. Our life is a little fuller from knowing these people who shared with us. They’re far from the stereotypical Russian tourist that come to Goa.
Last summer Gerard saw a program called Secrets of the Dead that was about the Cuban Missile Crisis. He can remember the “Dive and Duck” practices they had to do at school then – as if ducking under a desk was going to give you any protection from a nuclear bomb! There was no doubt that the world was on the brink of nuclear destruction. But little did anyone know that this crisis boiled down to the decision of one individual! Kennedy had imposed a navel blockade around Cuba stopping any Soviet ships carrying war material. Both countries were sending their submarines to the opposing borders. But this story focuses around one diesel-powered Soviet sub which had reached the blockade. It had been submerged for some time and out of communication with Moscow. They were also running very low on battery power and needed to surface soon. The US navy destroyers were well aware of their presence and dropped depth charges trying to persuade them to surface. With no communications with Moscow it was not clear if war had been declared or not. In the sub they were not clear of the destroyer’s intentions and after a lengthy discussion the sub decided it would deploy nuclear warheads fearing that war had already been declared. In order to go nuclear the three top officers on the sub had to agree. Two of them were in favor of deploying, but the third said, ‘No!” The whole crew were against his decision, calling him a traitor for disgracing the Soviet flag and letting down the mother country. But he remained determined, saying, “ We don’t know for sure if war has already broken out. But then why are they bombing us? the crew demanded. Try as they may, they were unable to convince this officer and were forced to surface. Now realizing that there was no state of war, this lone officer was still in complete disgrace. The destroyer gave orders for them to return to Russia which they did. When the commander of the destroyer was questioned what his response would have been if the sub had filed its missiles, he said, “Do I really need to reply? Of course! All of the naval blockade would have deployed their nuclear weapons, no questions asked!”
Back in Russia, the dissenting officer was called a traitor – a disgrace to his uniform he was thrown out of the navy. Lived the rest of his life in obscurity, and died in 2002. Ten years later his wife decided to make his story public. This man should have been hailed not only as a national hero but a hero of mankind. He deserved the Nobel Peace Prize instead of living his life in disgrace! When Gerard told Jalil, he was not surprised and said this is how the Soviet military operated. You would think all Russians would know about this story – but they don’t. Gerard was so moved, he’s taken great pleasure in telling it to every Russian he’s met! The consistent reaction is the same as his – completely overwhelmed thinking how close we came to nuclear holocaust.