Oh the legendary Moscow playground! That cheerful place where small-time criminals gorge on sunflower seeds, off-duty cops make out with their girlfriends, and political debates between pensioners rage like the wildfires of 2010!
The new catchphrase is that “public politics are back in Russia,” but on the playground, they never went away. Even the emergence of a better class of children-oriented spaces in Moscow is in itself political - often highlighting sharp class divisions that influence the growing rift in Russian society. I’ve seen hawkish grandmothers go to war over a modern playground located next to a nice building, adamant that the residents of the nearby khrushchyovkas should not pollute the ambiance of their pristine bench.
Occasionally, children are spotted on these playgrounds as well. The bulk of Russia’s population is rapidly aging, but with more young people flocking to urban centers, the next generation is already busy testing out the swing-sets and throwing sand in each other’s eyes.
And that next generation is getting political as well.
This isn’t shocking, of course. When I was a child back in the early 1990’s, I had a political opponent in the face of a whiskery, ancient woman I only knew as “Arkadiyevna,” (her patronymic name) her first name having been lost to time (and possibility senility - though that’s not very funny, when I think about it). Arkadiyevna was nostalgic for the good old days - when little boys and girls were made to memorize poetry about Vladimir Lenin, to be recited when called upon.
I knew Lenin as the guy who had the royal family executed - as well as a bunch of other people. My own grandmother had explained to me that nice people didn’t have little hemophiliac boys shot. As such, I was appalled by Arkadiyevna, whom I recast in my imagination as a particularly bloodthirsty bolshevik, a gun hidden somewhere in the smelly folds of her outdoor coat.
Arkadiyevna would not be outdone, terrorizing me with constant requests for poetry about Lenin every time she caught me by the seesaw, shouting that “nice girls always have something to recite about Vladimir Ilyich!”
It was a drama that only ended after Arkadiyevna succumbed to the flu one winter. I felt bad about our arguments, then. Arkadiyevna seemed so imposing - and had turned out to be so fragile, in the end. It began to dawn on me that she wasn’t an opponent after all - just a remnant from days long gone, completely unadaptable to the brave new world.
I was reminded of Arkadiyevna when I walked past a playground this week, and witnessed a fight between two robust pre-schoolers. “I’m not afraid of your grandmother!” One of them shouted. “She’s so old and stupid that she’s voting for Zyuganov! He’s a dinosaur! Raaaar!” A comic impression of a dinosaur followed.
Clearly, the kid was quoting something an adult had said within earshot - and putting his own spin on it. Clearly, he believed that one of the candidates in Russia’s 2012 presidential election was an honest-to-God dinosaur.
I laughed so much on the walk to the subway that I nearly cried.
The Russian saying goes that real political discussions happen in the proverbial “Soviet kitchen.” But that’s truer of the colder months.
Ready or not, spring has come to Moscow - and people are taking their arguments and dramas outside. Soon, migrant workers will be giving old swing sets new paint-jobs. Teenage girls straight from the films of Valeria Gai Germanika will smoke defiantly on the edge of the sandbox. Toddlers in unbuttoned jackets will come down from the lofty heights of their strollers and take their first unsure steps.
And public politics will continue to be the subject of inter-generational shouting matches - to be drowned out only by the stereos from parked cars late at night.
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.