“I quit my job!’ Mo-Yee exclaimed.
After sixteen years in Hell’s Kitchen she was moving to Las Vegas.
“I’ll have two extra rooms,” she continued. “You can come visit me with Ryan!” I’d only known her for about ten minutes.
The hustle of New York will eventually overwhelm the most hardcore of laid back singles, making Mo-Yee keen to sacrifice the convenience of her iconic neighborhood for the warmth and space of a desert city.
In the hallway beside her stood a young man, mostly smile, who introduced himself as “Tim…Mo-Yee’s neighbor.”
Tim had nice arms, a firm, muscular butt that reminded me of a grapefruit, a smooth, boyish face for a man nearly 30, but more intriguingly, an accent of Eastern European origin.
When I asked Mo-Yee why she chose Las Vegas she said, “I have friends there, and they all have houses with pools!”
“Are pools sensible in a city without water?” Tim pondered aloud.
As we emptied Mo-Yee’s modest no bedroom apartment into the hallway, Tim lost no time asking personal questions. I was eager to oblige, answering without any hesitation because I knew I could reciprocate to satisfy for my selfish curiosity. He asked me some good questions, and made some compelling pronouncements. “I can tell that you are also from Eastern Europe.” He was surprised when I told him my great grand parents emigrated from Italy during World War I, but it’s possible that their ancestors were Slavic.
Mo-Yee’s couch/pull-out bed was her heaviest piece of furniture, and without Tim’s intrinsic strength a danger to my atrophied frame. He smiled and greeted every neighbor on a first name basis as we lugged the couch to the moving truck on the street, and effortlessly heaved the couch onto its immovable lift gate. I was clad in gloves and coat, but Tim was caught coincidentally in the cold in nothing but a t-shirt, prompting my assumption that he preferred the cold weather.
I didn’t allow Tim a moment to warm himself before asking, “Where are you fr—“
“Russia,” he answered quickly.
Yesssssss I squealed on the inside. I had a grain of credibility: “My girlfriend is from Moscow!” I offered triumphantly. (She left when she was eight.)
As we took trips up and down in the cramped elevator I prodded further into his life. It took Tim five years to secure his green card before moving to New York five years ago. Now he was enrolled at Hunter College, studying geography, and searching for a job.
I was so excited to talk with him about his Russia that I was the one engaging conversation. Tim stepped into the packed elevator, and I nosed around, looking for space to stand.
“Will there be room in the elevator for me?” I asked.
“Of course there’s room!”
I wanted to know everything. As the elevator descended I surreptitiously asked, “Are you from Moscow?”
“No,” he said. He seemed to hesitate, so I pushed. “Where are you from?”
We returned each others gaze.
The answer left his lips in slow motion.
“Siberia.” he responded.
“Wow!” I exclaimed. “That is so far away!” Assuming all expats live the same lives I lamely joked, “No wonder you wanted to get out so badly.”
“That was mean.” His voice and eyes became stern simultaneously.
“I’m sorry,” I implored, entering damage control mode to save whatever was left of my face. “I didn’t mean to offend you. What I meant was that Siberia is a very cold place, the coldest inhabited place on earth in fact, and that you must have wanted to get somewhere warmer.”
“You could have said that then.”
The opportunity to restore our good will closed when the elevator doors opened. Like before, Tim immediately jumped out and began stacking Mo-Yee’s numerous boxes of wine in the lobby. My questions were leading towards a discussion of geopolitics, while Tim’s questions suggested an interest in an individual’s origin. We talked about other topics before the job was complete, but I felt an awkward divide between us. I never attempted another apology, and Tim never explicitly forgave me.
My rudeness aside, our differing conversational viewpoints are linked.
The quest for power is the driving force of geopolitics, and individuals are nothing but pawns in the scheme of nations.
An attenuated peek into Medieval Siberia is revealing.
Russia shares its borders with China, Mongolia, North Korea, Kazakhstan, Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Belarus, Ukraine, Georgia and Azerbaijan. Siberia, aka North Asia, is five times the size of Canada, and makes Russia the world’s largest country. Siberia’s population is around thirty million, and although these people are of Russian nationality, as recently as the 2002 census 95% of inhabitants are Slavic and Indo-European ethnicities. The remaining people are Mongoloids, Uralic, Turkic, and tribal peoples of Eskimo-Aleut, Yukaghir, Manchu-Tungus, Chutkotko-Kamchatkan.
(I’d met another Siberian man a few years back, and he was of Mongolian descent. Though he was a minority by census standards, he came from a family with means, since he was studying to receive a Master’s in Art History at private university in New York.)
The Mongols, lead by Genghis Khan, conquered most of Asia before the 1200s. When Möngke Khan died after conquering modern day Iraq and Syria, infighting began between his descendants, resulting in a civil war, which divided the empire into four separate Khanates. Modern day Eastern European Russia fell under control of The Golden Horde, from the Ural mountains to the Danube River, bordering the Black Sea and the Caucus Mountains, and east into Siberia, although Siberia was divided by the other Mongolian Khanates at the time. In the 15th century the Horde began to disintegrate and subdivide into smaller Khanates that were Turkic speaking, which allowed The Grand Duchy of Muscovy (Moscow) to fight off the Tatar rulers under the leadership of Ivan III, establishing Russian Tsardom.
The Novgorod Republic was a medieval Russian state that was also under the rule of the Golden Horde. They often explored Siberia and were even paid tribute from Ugric Tribes. As Muscovy expanded it’s power, they fought with the Novgorod Republic for control of the northern Ural mountains, where land was rich with resources, and absorbed the republic. By now, These combined nations were now freely exploring Siberia to the west of the Ural mountains from the Northern stronghold, subduing tribes by 1500.
By the mid 16th century, as the Tsardom of Russia continued expansion east of the Ural mountains, they defeated the Turkic Khanates that sprung up after the fall of the Golden Horde, thus freeing up the Ural mountains for mass migration of Russian people into eastern Siberia.
Russian exploration of this vast expanse of hard earned land was akin to the overseas expansion of Western European powers during the age of discovery. After Russia put a temporary halt to exploration during their Time of Troubles, they began exploration again, this time led by the Cossaks of the southern Ural mountains that were hunting for valuable fur and ivory.
More Russians explored Siberia from European Russia, finally reaching the Pacific Ocean in 1639. Fortresses were established, and taxes collected. By the mid 18th century Alaska and the Arctic coastline were discovered. During these years the Russians faced some resistance from local tribes. Other times they provided protection for nomads in exchange for a fur tribute and assimilated with the locals. New government was formed with the people of Irkutsk, and Siberia was redivided into new guberniyas.
By the mid 17th century the Russians came into contact with the Chinese after conquering most of Siberia. They disputed over land for thirty years before drawing some borders and coming to some peaceful trade agreements.
The Russians that migrated into Siberia were hunters, fugitive peasants, and Old Believers (Russian Orthodox Protestants). Siberians were so removed from central Russian authority that they were forced to rely on their own thrift and cunning to survive the harsh Siberian winters. Criminals were welcomed and received cordially, given paid positions. Everyone needed to pitch in to cultivate the immense plots of land. Central Russians had to moderate their family’s food, but the food was plentiful in Siberia.
The first university in Siberia was built in 1880.
What Tim did (learning a language with another alphabet, obtaining a green card, moving across the world to a new continent) is courageous. I chuckle when I look at a map but that is because I am very afraid to do this myself.
Just because Tim moved to New York doesn’t mean that he doesn’t miss his family, or isn’t proud of his motherland, or isn’t in awe of the beauty of the Siberian bush despite the cold. We might both agree that America is a land of opportunity, but that doesn’t make Siberia a hell hole.
In fact, Siberia is a desirable destination for a misanthropic and cynical metro dweller like myself, just as New York seems desirable for a friendly guy like Tim, born into an empty wilderness.
By now Mo-Yee is floating in a pool in Las Vegas.