Chesterton Tribune

From Russia with love: Expat John Kosmatka reports from Moscow

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First Column from John Kosmatka: I am in Moscow, I am in Moscow


Six months ago, John Kosmatka abruptly resigned his seat on the Chesterton Town Council, left his home in what he has called the nicest place in the world to live, and decamped to Moscow to accept a position with the Department of State at the U.S. Embassy.

It would be a momentous career change for any person but for a man eligible to join AARP it’s a breathtaking one.

Kosmatka now wears four separate photo ID badges when he goes to work at the Embassy. (What exactly his responsibilities are Kosmatka has declined to say for security reasons.) He’s getting the hang of the scams which the free-marketers in Red Square like to perpetrate on tourists. And he’s learning to differentiate the Old Russians who miss the tender mercies of Communism from the New Russians who rather like the buccaneering lifestyle of go-go capitalism.

Kosmatka tools around the city in an ‘87 Honda Accord because anything better would be like driving a Jag in a demolition derby. He has not yet ceased to marvel at the quantity of untaxed alcohol consumed by Muscovites. And his red hair has been a subject of mirth and comment in a country not known for carrot-tops.

At this moment he’s braving the same Russian winter which froze the Grande Armee and the Wehrmacht in their tracks.

Kosmatka is of an age to remember the Cuban Missile Crisis, an agitated Kruschev pounding his shoe in a speech at the U.N. and promising to bury the U.S., the whole LeCarre-cum-Clancy melodrama of the Cold War. So the warm welcome he typically receives from Muscovites—especially those of the same age, who remember the same things—is all the more stirring. “Even though Reagan referred to the Soviets as an evil empire,” he says, “we have a lot more in common than we do separating us. Both sides were once told to dislike, mistrust, and almost hate the enemy halfway around the world. Today, local Russians often smile and shake your hand when they learn you are from our country.”

Friends of Kosmatka will not be surprised, however, to learn of the one thing for which he is perhaps most wistfully nostalgic, found in great abundance in Chesterton and apparently not at all in Moscow. “The days of ‘shortages’ and expensive black-market blue jeans have passed,” he says, “but those who remember the ‘bad old days’ choose to save everything ‘just in case.’ I have yet to locate a single garage sale in the world’s third largest city.”

In the following dispatch and in two more to appear on an occasional basis, Kosmatka reports from Moscow.


I am in Moscow, I am in Moscow


First in a Occasional Series

The “adventure” commenced on July 6 when the 767’s wheels touched down on the Russian runway. “Yesterday’s dream” suddenly became “today’s reality.” I was extended the courtesy of a very short wait in a special line designated exclusively for diplomatic passports. The “in-processing,” although quick and painless, also included a 20-second stare-down (which seemed like 5 minutes) between myself and the seasoned “gatekeeper.” After neither of us blinked, I was informed that I was free to exit the airport.

I was promptly greeted by a fellow American embassy employee who was assigned to be my “sponsor” and orient me to “Moscow means” and “embassy etiquette.” Baggage was loaded into the waiting embassy van driven by a Russian National.

As we passed the stores and road signs along the way to my new “home,” the Cyrillic letters of the Russian language seemed to taunt me. The strange letters seemed to be saying: “You should have studied the language more thoroughly.” As we passed a McDonald’s, I noticed a Coca Cola sign and at that moment I felt instantly reassured and optimistic. “Should have,” “would have,” and “could have” are not in my vocabulary. Fifteen years from now I don’t want to be lamenting a lost opportunity, so I guess that’s why I’m here.

In some aspects, Russia equals or exceeds our great country. In other ways of doing things, it is still a developing country. I’ve always felt that people are basically the same everywhere, and barring many years of governmental dogma and indoctrination, that’s probably the case.

English is taught to Russian schoolchildren. When in need of directions, I always seek out someone from the age of 15-30. Many times their pride shows when communicating with Americans or Brits. Ironic as it might appear, it’s often the middle-aged men and women who show distrust and have no interest in being helpful or communicating. To them, it’s their turf, their rules, and they’ll openly tell you that the US of A is to blame for their current plight if it’s less than pleasant.

While most Muscovites reside in apartment complexes of 17-25 stories, I am in an almost new townhouse condo with three beds and three baths, and with no rent or utility bills, I feel quite warm, comfortable, and fortunate. The housing facility is gated, guarded, and secure, but one has to assume that “ears” are present, so I seldom talk out loud.

The Metro

The world’s third largest city, with a population of 14 million, has a transportation system unequaled anywhere in the world. Along with electric streetcars, buses, and taxies (legal and otherwise), the Metro subway system is the primary people mover. Over 9 million riders get from point A to point B every day, more than the number of riders in London and New York combined. For about a quarter, you can travel anywhere the Metro lines will take you throughout Moscow. Essentially, the city has one circle line which belts the entire city—sort of like I-465 in Indianapolis—with 18 spokes going outwards to the far-flung areas of the city. One never has to wait more than three minutes for the next train to arrive.

I could best describe the cars as similar to the ones on the South Shore except older and much faster. There’s never a transfer charge for switching lines, and the whole system rocks and rolls like a Jimi Hendrix guitar solo. Originally built deep underground as fallout shelters during bombing raids, it’s no secret that American nukes would demolish the entire system in times of serious conflict. While the depth of the circle line is 200-300 feet deep, the spoke lines, built later, were dug at only half that depth.

Quite often the seats are all taken and you must stand and hold on to one of the overhead bars for support. The locals have developed a sense of “Metro balance” and can often be observed reading a novel without hanging on, seemingly oblivious to the entire process. It’s also not unusual for a gentleman or gentlewoman to gladly give up his or her seat so that an elderly man or woman can sit.

The Metro has about 175 stations and each has its own peculiar decorating theme. Graffiti is extremely rare in the Metro or anywhere in Moscow, although I’m sure you could locate some if you tried. The above-ground entrance on the street to each station has a large letter “M.” By typing the words “Moscow Metro map” on the subject line of a Yahoo engine search, you will see the entire Metro map and it will begin to make more sense.


Immediately upon arrival, I signed up for the “Survival Russian” class. Taught by a local, it’s helped tremendously. Prior to the class, I had been listening to some Russian language CDs bought from a bookstore, as well as two cassette tapes on loan from the Westchester Public Library.

The Russian Cyrillic alphabet has many letters not in the English language. For instance, a circle with a vertical line is their letter “F.” An inverted “V” is a Russian “L,” the letter “R” is actually the Russian “G,” and a “C” is a Russian “S.”

Still, one becomes quite adept at using pantomimes, body language, expressions, and tones of voice in order to communicate. To me, it’s all part of the fun. I now feel somewhat comfortable getting around or just shopping. While purchasing a TV, I could tell that the sales clerk was a new employee. She smiled and seemed courteous and sincere. Upon leaving, I decided to have some fun and do my Arnold Schwarzenegger imitation. I blurted out Hasta la vista, baby, and she’s likely still laughing over that funny American with the (krasna) red hair.

I am in Moscow

My language teacher, Yelena, suggested looking in the mirror immediately upon waking every morning and saying out loud three times I am in Moscow. This, she said, will help you through the day when unusual “happenings” get your attention.

Moscow is a very clean city. Not only do they water and sweep the streets, they also sweep the busy sidewalks. It’s just that the brooms they use are made of two-foot long tree branches at the end. I noticed an entire crew of about 30 landscapers cutting the city grass on the side of the road. Instead of a lawnmower, they were all using weed whackers. I went to a store where one person’s job was to weigh a bag of potatoes, another person took the ticket and your rubles, still another person put the potatoes into a bag, and a manager was all the time just watching everyone work.

Drivers park and drive on sidewalks, pass on the shoulder of the road, cut off drivers all the time, and actually “create” extra lanes. I’ve seen drivers decide to angle park when they couldn’t fit into a parallel spot, with their rear wheels over the curb and their front ones sticking out about two feet into traffic.

I am in Moscow, I am in Moscow, I am in Moscow.


Posted 1/27/2005