If there was ever a song I didn't expect to hear crackling through the overmatched PA at the "nomad olympics" in Ulan Bataar, Mongolia, it was Aerosmith's "Mama Kin." It was no stranger than anything else happening on the stadium field, though: the annual Naadam Festival celebrates the so-called "three manly arts" of horse-racing, wrestling, and archery (though the latter included some truly badass women archers); as well as the manly diversion of sheep anklebone shooting, which took place in a nearby pavilion. We had bought the tourist-priced tickets to the opening ceremonies in the local 10,000-ish stadium, involving the marching in of the Mongol "flags," which looked like nothing so much as Muppet wigs on sticks. The PA announcer had the guttural, nationalist enthusiasm of a wrestling play-by-play man, which was appropriate, since the field was now full of giant, hairless Mongolian men in light blue Speedos and what I can only describe as a skin-tight, lavender or red shrug - arm coverings tied across their bare chests with a bit of string. (At one point in the past, wrestlers wore full shirts. After a woman was found to have competed in a match, the uniform was altered to expose their, in some cases still pretty womanly, chests.)
Mongolian wrestling is admirably simple. The unmasked luchadors approach, grapple, spend most of their time trying to trip each other, and whoever hits the ground first loses. A handful of robed-and-behatted judges, looking like Nickelodeon versions of Catholic bishops, mill and hover and declare winners. The victors then perform a slow-motion high-stepping victory dance, turning to face all 360 degrees of the crowd with hands held high. It has all the lumbering grace and pathos of the dancing elephant in the center ring.
The bench seats of the stadium were packed; my wife Maria and I, on a circumnavigational world tour, sat in what had obviously been designated as a "foreigners" section, squeezed between two French boys and a Canadian lady. It was while concentrating on keeping my ass from falling asleep that I almost missed the kid in the full Nazi stormtrooper uniform walking by.
He and his skinhead buddy were making a determined circuit of the whole stadium, glowering straight ahead and daring someone to object. He was in black shirt, black cargo pants tucked into boots, red-white-and-black swastika armband and all. His buddy was standard skin: red braces, white t-shirt, blue jeans, Docs.
"What the - did you see that?" said Maria.
The Guardian made note of the rise of Mongolian neo-Nazis in 2010, noting that "with their high cheekbones, dark eyes and brown skin, they are hardly the Third Reich's Aryan ideal…It is, by any standards, an extraordinary choice. Under Hitler, Soviet prisoners of war who appeared Mongolian were singled out for execution. More recently, far-right groups in Europe have attacked Mongolian migrants."
The article describes a group of nationalists obsessed with defending the racial, and sexual, purity of the Mongols, particularly against the "imperialistic, evil" Chinese: "Some believe Beijing has a secret policy of encouraging men to have sex with Mongolian women," and transgender Mongolians have been a target.
I met a gay European named Jay, the manager at an expat bar in Ulan Bataar. It's run by two mining executives, an Australian and a New Zealander. In point of fact most of the bars in UB are expat bars: "They're pubbing up around here for sure," said the Australian, a ruddy, sunburned man in an open shirt, who bought the place six months ago as an investment but mostly for something to do. "A lot of them empty whenever you walk by and wonder, what's going on? Then you realize, with all the money-laundering…there have been a lot of changes over the last few years, for the better. It's not so dangerous; the corruption…is still there, but they're trying to keep a lid on it. Anyway, none of that here - we're trying to have a nice place, where you can bring your family. Here, take my card…"
His business partner, the New Zealander, "left when I was 22, never been back…Been here 15 [years]. It was better before. The politics are so…sensitive."
Jay himself is a barrel-chested loudmouth of indescribable origin: "Bottom line is I'm Belgian…Hey amigo!" he greeted a Mongolian busboy. He was, indeed, born in Belgium but part French, part Native American, part a long list of other things I didn't have time to transcribe. "I had a consulting job in Belgium making 12,000 euro a month, with a 7000 expense account. I would walk into restaurants and the waiters would say, 'oh, welcome, let me get you some champagne!' But it was bought by a company with 10,000 employees and I thought, who needs it! I was working for British Telecom, vice president, flying to London for meetings. The first few times was great, like a movie! But then I thought what a waste of money. My father couldn't believe it."
He met his current partner twelve years ago, a Mongolian from the Gobi Desert who'd moved to UB at 11, become a ballet dancer at the State Theatre, and met Jay in Belgium.
"And then you decided to move here?"
"God, no! I hated it. You couldn't get good wine, you couldn't get toothpaste, you couldn't get Dove soap. People were always asking me, can you bring soap?…It was amazing for me, [coming] from Belgium, a country with 450 people to the square kilometer, to come here, which is completely deserted. I take these trips to the country, it is beautiful, sure, but five hours later it is the same mountain and the same valley! A huge country and it all looks the same. So the mining [boom that began in 2006], they take two mountains, who cares! I say, we could have driven an hour and it would look the same."
Maria pointed out later that the nationalists may have a point about outsiders coming in and exploiting the country, but that they're barking up the wrong tree with the Chinese - it's these western mining corporations that are tearing open the mountains, flooding the political system with money, filling the Irish pubs opened so politicians can launder their bribe money.
Jay's second job is teaching English. "They've been taught by the Russian system: read this grammar, copy down everything, the teacher is up here like a god. I said, 'Put away your notebooks. We will talk.' They said nothing. So I provoked them: I said, 'Mongolians are corrupt.' They said 'No!' I said, 'Oh yeah? Raise your hand if in the past four years you never gave your teacher a bottle of vodka for a grade.' And they got so mad, that got them talking! Ten minutes later I said, 'Listen to yourselves, you are talking English!'"
His partner, a slim, quiet waiter - he'd quit dancing after a knee injury - glided up and deposited our food: cheeseburgers, with fries; a salad with blue cheese and cheddar. After a week of mutton and airag, the fermented horse milk that is the national drink, good old American comfort food was more appealing than usual.
"Well, the airag," said Jay, ordering more vodka for the table, "You have to understand how it's done here. You are in a tent all winter eating nothing but horsemeat, and it blocks you up. Then when the warm weather comes, you have nothing but airag for seven days, ten days…it cleans you out."
"It is very difficult to live my lifestyle here. Even the staff doesn't know. Two ultra-nationalists followed me into the office last week, they said, 'It is against nature, the way you live, if you stay here we will beat the shit out of you.' My friend, a Filipino who manages [a pizza place], he dates a Mongolian girl, they kidnapped him in a car and beat him up, stole his ATM card and pin number. Another friend got a note pinned to his door saying 'The elections are over, now it's time for foreigners to leave the country.' I come to work every day with a bodyguard - I don't need to be beat up and be in the hospital two weeks!"
He leapt up to supervise a table setting. His t-shirt, in giant letters, said "I <3 BJ."
Ultra-nationalist thugs, of course, are a danger anytime you have a stagnant backwater whose best days seem irretrievably behind them. We'd been in Siberia for a month before this and had heard a mouthful from the local punks. The touring circuit we had been on, from Croatia, Serbia, and Hungary through Ukraine and Russia, is one that would be familiar to anyone from the German squat & youth center routes and the No Idea/Plan-It-X axis: young, idealistic kids who love Fugazi and Hot Water Music, planning anti-fascist action days and running leftist info-shops and zine exchanges. Their politics are correct, they're fighting the good fight: "I wouldn't move from here to St. Petersburg or Moscow, no," says Kostya, our host in Tomsk. "I don't like cities, they are moving too fast….It's hard here, though - if you want to make some change, that is - against the grain."
"It is hard to put on punk shows officially here - I mean [to publicize them] with posters and Facebook and so on. Some people will show up and wait for you after the show, you know what I mean?" Kostya runs a small punk label and has been putting on shows in Tomsk for years. His great-grandfather was a Kazakh kulak ("wealthy peasant"), exiled four different times. Another was an NKVD officer working with the Chinese army ("I've seen pictures of him. I think he was - not really a nice guy. He looked - typical.") His father had been the head of the medical department of a local university, but lost his job after he objected to a Putin policy that replaced a free prescription drug benefit for seniors with a cash stipend. Kostya left college and got a job working for an offset-printing company to support the family. "I saw down by the beach a few years ago, the students like to have flash mobs there, and [at] this one they were wearing terrorist masks, and doing [mimes Nazi salute]."
We'd been driven from Novosibirsk to Tomsk by a cherubic punk - who Maria swears looked like Richard Greico - in a Flipper shirt named Andrei (anonymity is basically superfluous on a tour where every promoter we met was a Dima or Misha or Andrei). He'd been born and raised, until the age of ten, in Kazakhstan; spent some time in Boston working for the hardcore label Bridge 9 on a work/travel visa, after quitting a construction job with some Poles in Dorchester. We pulled over at a rest stop with a dozen shirtless army guys milling around in the sun; I was about to make a snarky comment about the massive array of terrifying knives for sale until it occurred to me that any given truck stop in Oklahoma would have all that and more. (Though maybe it wouldn't have the fifty vultures, circling something I couldn't quite see, behind the building.) A sign read "2800km to Chita."
"Chita," says Andrei. "I've got some stories from there. It's like a giant bad neighborhood. Everyone's trying to leave." He put on a Patti Smith tape as we passed an Armenian shashlik (kebab) house, in fronot of which stood a statue of an eagle crushing a snake, and two live bears - Misha and Masha - in an iron cage.
"Rock And Roll Nigger" came on the tape, and I started singing along under my breath. "You like this song?" Andrei asked.
"Yeah, it's a classic," I said.
"Is it…controversial in America?"
I explained that people understand the premise, that it's about feeling like an outsider and a defiant outcast. He nodded and kept driving.
Tomsk, Krasnoyarsk, Irkutsk, and some of the other Siberian cities have a distinctive local architecture of 19th-century rough wood houses, like aristocratic log cabins with ornate carved trim painted in fading cerulean, purples and reds. They're fading and sinking into the uncertain ground and facing an uncertain future: "The ones that aren't protected [by the government], they get burned down by developers," said Kostya. "If someone is living there, first they will burn the porch, as a…" - he and Andrei briefly debated the translation - "as a hint."
Kostya himself lives on the outskirts of town in one of the ubiquitous grey concrete housing projects, around an overgrown courtyard with a rusting playground. Driving to his place for dinner (borscht, potatoes with mushrooms, tomato and onion salad; a cold tea of mint, whole cranberries, melissa, lemon, & sugar), Kostya asked if we'd met an American named Dave a few days prior in Ufa. I said we had, and he said they'd been friends - until a "cultural misunderstanding." He and Andrei exchanged a meaningful look and said he'd explain later.
As we brought our bags in, he pointed out graffiti announcing "Kill The Jews." "I saw the guy who wrote it. It was weird. Usually you expect that to be a young kid, but he was 40, 50 years old!"
As we stood outside a supermarket after the show, waiting for their crew of friends to buy beer before they went and smoked weed on the beach of the reservoir, they explained the "cultural misunderstanding" that severed their friendship with the American, Dave: Andrei's band, on Kostya's label, is called Niggers (which explains the stickers I'd seen on Kostya's mom's refrigerator.) Don't you agree, they ask, that punk rock is about provocation, and nothing provocative should be off the table?
I said, well, first off, you're going to have trouble convincing most Americans with that one, hypocrisy or no. My wife added a story of friends from New York who decided to call their band, for some reason, Ching Chong Song. After stubbornly sticking to it through protests and boycotts, eventually changed it after an incident in which the people they were staying with had been, unbeknownst to both parties, boycotting their show. They'd clung to their contrarian anti-PC stance for too long, and it ended up as a pointless expense of energy and conflict for conflict's sake.
Andrei said that didn't matter, that his band wasn't for the mass public anyway. He said it expressed how they felt, as Russians, as Russian punks, as outcasts, embattled at home and stereotyped overseas - they called their record "Ugly Russians." Like the Patti Smith song - she used it, why couldn't he? He pointed out that punk bands reference Hitler and the Nazis casually all the time. Are both he and Smith, as scholar Julie Roberts puts it [http://www.aen.org.nz/journal/1/2/roberts.html] in reference to Borat's "cultural stereotypes, bigotry and inter-cultural misunderstandings", examples of "the long European tradition of using art as a vehicle for the exploration of complex, uncomfortable and troubling issues has been utilized by the dispossessed, the disenfranchised, the marginalized and the reviled to speak out and assert their own position" - or just kids (so to speak) pushing a button that just sounds a sour note?
I said that making fun of a discredited and thus defanged dictator, and ideology, was different from adopting a problematic identity as oppressed outsiders - problematic not least coming from a historically imperialistic country. Kostya and Andrei seemed disappointed that I didn't agree that Dave was being unreasonable, and there the matter rested (though Andrei remained in a bit of a sulk for the remainder of the evening).
We ran into this kind of "cultural misunderstanding" pretty frequently: in Rostov-On-Don, we met a guy from "the most popular band in Rostov," whose hit is called "Kill The Niggers." When we looked shocked, we were assured that is was some kind of joke. Some things just don't translate, and they don't translate with even more aggressively when they're available cross-culturally all the time, to people with vastly different contexts with which to interpret them. The Mongolian neo-Nazis figured they could pick and choose what to respect about Hitler - and hey, he borrowed the swastika from Tibetan Buddhism, the historical religion of Mongolia.
It's so easy to airlift an ideology, complete with a fraught vocabulary wholesale off the internet that it's equally easy to miss the context. The analogy is going to be inexact if you don't share the precise historical prejudices at play. And, I suppose, even if you do: I can't say precisely why something that feels OK for Patti Smith in 1978 would be off the table for a Russian in 2012. It's hard for us to grasp how many Chinese still feel about the Japanese, or Mongolians about the Chinese. (For that matter, many Chinese consider the Mongolian national hero, Chinggis Khan, a genocidal mass-murderer.) It's a scattershot shooting gallery of offense: look at the tense, ongoing battle over the use of the word "gypsy," which many Roma consider an ethnic slur but which most Americans and British use freely. I heard an Asian-American in Beijing brag about "jew[ing] down" a cellphone salesman. It's enough to make a guy say, "fuck it," and buy everyone a Redskins jersey.
Franz Nicolay's new album Do the Struggle is out now, and he's writing a book about his experiences touring in Eastern Europe, Russia, and the Far East. www.franznicolay.com
Photos by Franz Nicolay and Maria Sonevytsky