Even though Whitney Houston’s sad demise at the age of 48 was no great shock, the Russian reaction to the news still managed to surprise me.
First of all, people placed flowers and ribbons at the American Embassy in Moscow, which was a refreshing change of pace.
The American Embassy around here has mostly been in the headlines lately due to the ongoing clash between conservative and liberal values, with activists and opposition leaders accused of betraying their nation by hanging out with the new U.S. Ambassador to Russia, Michael McFaul. But death has a way of sweeping politics aside, however momentarily.
Whitney may have had a very long, and very public, decline - complete with famous meltdowns - but in the end, the fact that this woman, who started out as yet another one of “America’s Sweethearts” (an idiotic cliche, when you think about it), apparently lost her battle with substance abuse, is no joking matter.
Even her music, most of it dated even by Russian standards (it may be cruel to point this out, but many famous has-beens from the West can still draw sizable crowds in Moscow, and that is probably yet another consequence of having an aging population), suddenly gained an entirely new context. One of my neighbors, famous throughout our building for loudly blasting dance music, was suddenly blasting “I Will Always Love You” - apparently without a hint of irony.
I met one of my other neighbors, the mother of a very large brood of adorable children, out on the landing a little later, and she was angry about the music - but not for the usual reasons. “I don’t want my children listening to that stuff!” She snapped. “Houston was a drug addict, and I feel really bad for her, but she sets a horrible example!”
This brings me to my next point - in Russia, where a very high-profile battle against drug addiction is being waged, Whitney Houston’s early death makes for a particularly damning cautionary tale. Hard drugs have claimed entire villages, decimating their populations. I’ll never forget a trip to the Vladimir region about a decade ago - walking alongside my friend, a village doctor and former army physician who once went through the hell of war in Afghanistan, I was shocked to see the number of houses that were boarded up.
“Drugs” was my friend’s curt, unhappy reply. Entire bloodlines had disappeared this way, he told me later. The parents dead of old age, the kids overdosing after letting the household fall apart first, the houses standing vacant, their roofs leaking, mice chewing through the floorboards - a vision of a string of mini-Apocalypses.
Most addicts, particularly in Russia, aren’t rich like Whitney was, you see. Their lives fall apart in less glamorous ways. They don’t have managers, they don’t have posses, they can’t turn to an expensive clinic staffed with courteous professionals when they feel themselves to be on the edge. They just die - usually horribly - and when they die, few people seem to care. Or so it used to be, anyway. I think more people care now than ever before.
On a more recent trip to the same village in the Vladimir region, I was heartened to see that some of the old, boarded up houses were hosting new families - with new lives and new beginnings.
“Most of these people are distant relatives of the dead folks,” my friend the doctor told me. “People move in, they move on. That’s the best you can hope for.”
In this landscape, Whitney’s voice, no matter how controversial to some, will still continue to soar - from radios and stereos and MP3 players.
It’s ironic that the song that she will be mostly remembered for - originally written by Dolly Parton, who’s still going strong at 66 - is an ode to the notion that love is forever, considering the fact that Whitney’s own life is a testament to the impermanence of most things.
But impermanence, I think, is something that Russians understand better than a whole lot of other people.
The views expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.
Trendwatching in Russia is an extreme sport: if you’re not dodging champagne corks at weddings, you’re busy avoiding getting trampled by spike heels on public transportation. Thankfully, due to an amazing combination of masochism and bravado, I will do it for you while you read all about it from the safety of your living room.
Natalia Antonova is the deputy editor of The Moscow News. She also works as a playwright – her work has been featured at the Lyubimovka Festival in Moscow and Gogolfest in Kiev, Ukraine. She was born in Ukraine, but spent most of her life in the United States. She graduated from Duke University, where she majored in English and Slavic Literature. Before coming to Moscow, she worked in Dubai, UAE and Amman, Jordan. Her writing has been featured in The Guardian, Foreign Policy, Russia Profile, AlterNet, et al.