Though, in my opinion, the ‘battle for Red Square’ between St. Basil’s and the Kremlin, was won by GUM…I nevertheless witnessed a War of Apocalypses, between Russia and America, on Red Square – 24 June 1996, on a Sunday afternoon…
It was a cloudy, overcast day; almost too hot, but the clouds made it comfortable. Most, under the daily bombardment of summer having apparently evacuated the city for their dachas, Moscow was very sparse of people, and very peaceful and quiet. Red Square was predictably occupied with its visitors, tourists (and hawkers) making their leisurely walks, talks and photographic memoirs. A large, somewhat dispersed group of Americans had made their presence known by their characteristic summer dress, loudish talk and laughter, and physiognomies. (Why is an American face so discernible?)
Small groups here and there of fives and sixes; a few individuals photographing others. I reflected how each one of them had been convinced by camera companies that they each must have their own camera – the partial ludicrousness of which was visible when a large group photo was taken by the photographer needing to do the same picture with about thirty cameras. They would surely feel naked, as tourists, without their cameras – even if they would only look at the photographs a few times in their lives. Whether they would have any real experiences in Moscow or not, they could at least later prove they had actually (physically) been in Russia, even if that which is interesting in Russia is almost invisible to most people’s sights and cameras. It is said that, bare as one must feel, a person takes experiences with them through the grave, and beyond; I am unaware of photographs often being placed in coffins to promote their eternal expedition, so I am dubious about taking photos, rather than having experiences.
Shorts pants, and special shoes designed for hiking or walking (in a city)…why, again, are their faces so unmistakably “American”? “T-shirts” with designs showing various brand names, pictures, the other places they had been, causes they supported, etc.; they ambled here and there across the expanse of Red Square.
They had gathered near the circular, whitish-stone “Lobnoye Mesto” sitting and standing around for a group rest. Knowing, as I learned from experience, that I have the good fortune to look more Russian than American, I decided to eavesdrop on the gathering, as I am permanently fascinated to more deeply understand the nationality in which I was born and lived most of my life, but which I left for Russia in 1994. And so, with highly attentive ears, and casual, seemingly-indifferent eyes – I went and stood near them, like some innocuous Russian American spy.
They were mostly young, in their 20’s; I supposed that they were tourists come to see the new Russia, and the old. I heard fairly typical common banter and chat – hardly the kind of talk to easily give me clues into the deeper national psyche. The vocabulary and pronunciation had changed noticeably little in the twenty odd years since I had been their age. Why were they here I wondered…then came a clue. An older, chaperone-aged woman, in her tired forties, with a “country accent”, said to a small group, “When we gave him the Bible….” I did not need to hear the inaudible remainder of whatever she was said.
Aha,…so they were a group of American “Christians”, probably come together from some church in America, to help save poor “Jesus-less” Russians. I wanted to hear more details, of the various conversations here and there on the steps of stones, so, seeing an unmistakable, unhappy-looking Russian man standing amidst them, I, casually, indifferently, ambled up to stand next to him as if he were Russian camouflage. I did my best to act and seem Russian; and indifferent to the Americans I was so intent on secretly studying. Did they see that I was actually an American I asked myself? The unhappy Russian – with a tired, somewhat distraught face– asked me quietly, in Russian, whether I believed that Russia was in an apocalypse. I (silently thanking him for thinking I was Russian) smiled and said «Наверно», and edged a bit further away from him. He had heard in my voice – what he had not seen – that I was a foreigner, and, after a few moments observing me, turned away visibly dissatisfied.
Soon he began to talk, in passable, broken English, of his visions of apocalypse in Russia and the world. Slowly, as he unfolded his complex tale of the coming apocalypse, the small group of Christians, listening attentively to him, grew in number. I quickly realized – with surprise and delight – that I was “innocently” standing in the midst of what might well be a very interesting conversation. Americans bringing Jesus’ salvation to Russians, engaged right beside me by a Russian prophesying (in a full but quiet voice) Russian visions of the Apocalypse. I was sure these American missionaries to Russia had their own Biblical version of Apocalypse.
His tale was grandiose, and global. The American missionaries listened to him with a quiet, serious attentiveness I could not understand. Though they listened politely to his extraordinary descriptions, they only acknowledged him with a non-committal “ahunh” which I doubt he knew the American non-meaning of. Would they laugh? How would they politely stop the conversation I wondered. Hardly speaking at all, they whispered whatever comments they had to each other. He unveiled the “information” he has received “mystifically” as he mis-said it. The Mother of God would appear in the heavens above St. Basil’s, and the Archangel Michael would be battling somewhere else with evil, fallen angels. In New York, the forces of “666” would begin to do some machinations from the World Trade Towers, and some sort of Satan would arise there from the “Atlantic Sea”. The unknown, coming comet as it neared the earth would melt the northern polar ice cap, Australia, Japan and other places would go under water. In Israel, three world-powerful men would be doing some mysterious activities he did not explain more. The “Great Mason of Europe” would rule there, as the American Sixth Fleet did battle with angels over the Pacific Ocean. “666” would rule, probably beginning in the year 2000 or 2002 AD, but no one knew whether this would begin on December 25th or January 6th . His images were dramatic – his “mystifical information”. But still, since most average Americans would have dismissed such ideas after half-of-a-minute as those of a “crazy”, I was amazed at why these were listening with such serious attention. What were their versions of apocalypse?
Finally, one of the older Americans in the group, asked the Russian of his “source of information”. “Mystifical”. He repeated: “Mary would appear over St. Basil’s, and rule Russia”. “No,” the American stated, “you are deceived”. He seemed to be the leader of the group by the way the younger ones looked to him for some response. “You’re completely wrong; that’s not what it says in the Bible.” He spoke in an assured tone, with a voice which followed a pattern in such certain church leaders – the cadences and attitudes in his voice might even have beginnings in 19th century America, when Biblical fundamentalism really became defined in America and England. They, this motley collection, were clearly not at all educated people. Whatever state in American they had come from, these were people who would have few real experiences in Russia – innocent, good-willing perhaps, but an illiterate group of people who imagined Russia needed their help.
After a woman assured the Russian that Mary was just a physical human being, not divine at all, the American group leader continued, with a certain strange attitude in his soul: “Jesus will not share his Kingdom with any one.” It seemed to be an amazing assertion to make so confidently – how did he know what Jesus would do I asked myself; I had not expected to hear this. Why did Jesus – in this American Biblical-literalist’s view of Apocalypse – need to be so exclusive of his power, I wondered?
It was a battle of Biblical and Apocalyptic visions – Russian and American. Russian: global, fascinating, with a blending of cosmic, magical and earthly – angels fighting with the US Sixth Fleet, Europe ruled by a “Great Mason”, and the USA about to undergo its own equivalent to Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Russia by one man living in New York. On the other side, I could tell that the listening Americans were “one-book” Biblical-literalists. They had their own absolutely true version of the Bible and Revelation; and “Jesus (no mention of Christ) would only save the righteous, as the Bible said.” And certainly Mary was not a part of the story. “The Bible contradicts everything you have said”, retorted the American in his “Biblical- fundamentalist-church-leader-voice”.
Then it was over. They, the Americans, had finally decided that he was a delusional prophet; he had the wrong version of the Apocalypse, and they simply turned and walked away without further word. He had said that they could either believe the true “information” he had told them he must tell the world, or not. He had been on TV he said. Unimpressed, they had turned away without further comment. Only occasionally some of the younger American women would secretly glance at him, probably looking for any obvious signs of craziness and delusion. But from his clothes and face, he could not be easily rejected as a poor deluded prophet. They seemed more sympathetic to him than simply critical.
The Americans gathered again as a group “to go see some more stuff before dark”, as the group leader (who had spoken to ‘the Russian prophet’) said – the first “stuff” being, as he mentioned: “the flame to the eternal soldier”. As they walked away seemingly indifferent to their Russian encounter, and I, heading home in the opposite direction, reflecting on this mini War of Apocalypses on Red Square, the Russian man stood alone, arms crossed, with the same unhappy look on his face on the steps of Lobnoye Mesto.
Russian mysticism – American Biblical Fundamentalism. Visionary knowledge (“mystifical”) – The Written Word of God. I wondered if somehow there should not be some middle between them to keep them both real…
It was still a quiet evening in Moscow, when I thoughtfully arrived home from the War of Apocalypses on Red Square.
First published in the magazine English, #35, October 2001, p. 14.