If you remember from the first part of this article, I said there was one skill that seemed to translate well for future employment of the Russian wrestlers who didn’t make it to the Olympics. That skill was their ability to rough people up fairly easily. Wrestling in Russia was training for their lives, whether they made it or not.
By http://www.rm-team.ru via Wikimedia Commons
You see 1998 in Russia was like the Wild West. The Russian Mafia was on the rise, and they needed plenty of young muscle to help them take control of the country. They had plenty of money to give out, and these guys didn’t have many other employment opportunities on the horizon, so it was a perfect match.
We saw this first hand several times when we would go out with the wrestlers to local bars and clubs in the towns we visited. I remember one club where an overly enthusiastic wrestler decided to show off for us.
He said, “Watch this!” and then went over to a policeman who was on duty and smacked him upside the head. The policeman didn’t do anything, and he then continued to poke him, mess with his uniform, and abuse him overall to the shock and horror of those of us new to this sort of thing. When he came back he laughed and said, “We own them…they know they don’t want to mess with us!”
We just shook our heads and went back to consuming the turpentine-like vodka and beer that tasted like someone had put a cigarette out in it. Oh yeah, and listening to the never ending stream of the same techno beat put into the background of every single song (both in Russian and English) that was played…No, this didn’t get old at all over the two weeks we were there!
During our time there, we wrestled in several locations that were new experiences for all of us. There was, of course, the typical gymnasium in several locations.
But in one town we competed up on stage in a theater. This was quite interesting until one of the Russians split his head open on the floor lights at the front of the stage. Needless to say, my teammate did not wish to continue wrestling him (because they couldn’t stop the bleeding, and he was literally covered in blood). This did not go well with the wrestler (who wanted to continue to wrestle…damn they were tough!) or the crowd. But the referee had to accept it and name my teammate the victor, as this is a standard rule in wrestling.
“Estadio Uralmsh Ural CSKA” by Фальшивомонетчик – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons –
Another town we competed in actually rolled out the wrestling mat onto a soccer pitch in an outdoor stadium. We completed in front of several thousand fans, all cheering their team on to beat the Americans, which they were doing quite thoroughly until one of my teammates caught his opponent in a “spladel” and quickly pinned him.
You could have heard a pin drop in the stadium, as the shock swept through the crowd. I am far from the most patriotic person in the world, but at that moment I wanted to start up the USA, USA, USA chant to give back the verbal abuse we had been receiving from the crowd up to that point. Of course I didn’t, and their team promptly went back to beating us fairly regularly, which made everything better.
One of the things I learned from the trip was that the nationalistic fervor that often accompanies international sporting events really does tend to stop once the competition is over. While there was plenty of anti-American cheering going on when one of us was wrestling (and I can’t say that there wasn’t any anti-Russian cheering coming from our group), as soon as the matches were finished we were all friends sharing a laugh and a horrible tasting alcoholic beverages.
People took us into their homes and showed us the things they were most proud of. We were able to trade little trinkets we had brought with us with local children, who in return gave us all of the former Soviet trinkets their parents had accumulated over the years and no longer had any need for.
By Rasul1991 (Own work) via Wikimedia Commons
I remember one bar we visited fairly close to the end of our trip that had a bottle of Jose Cuervo Gold Tequila on the shelf. This being a bar in Siberia, I don’t think the bottle had ever been opened. It definitely had a fine layer of dust coating it. But it wasn’t vodka, and we wanted something, anything, different. So as quick as you could say jackrabbit, we had purchased the bottle from the bemused bartender (at a hefty price I’m sure) and took it to our table where we had met several locals who we wished to get to know better.
Truthfully I only like tequila in margaritas, but at that moment, shots of tequila being washed down with orange soda was the best thing I could have asked for. I’m sure it was quite a cultural experience for our new friends as well. If that isn’t true internationalism, I am not sure what is…a group of Americans befriending a group of Russians in a bar in Siberia over a bottle of Mexican origin alcohol!
After spending almost two weeks traveling around Siberia, it was time for us to make our way back to Moscow and then home. We were spending one night in Moscow though, and the college roommate of one of my teammates just happened to be the son of the Prime Minister of Chechnya, and they had a home in Moscow.
This is how I got to have dinner in the home of the Prime Minister of Chechnya, which is definitely high on my list of bragging rights. It is also how I and the rest of the Midwestern group were able to see both the tourist sights in Moscow, as well as the seedy side of the city.
After a day of wandering around Red Square and not seeing the mummified Lenin (who was closed for repairs, starting off my tour of mummified former Communist leaders that I have not gone to see while visiting or living in the city where they lay…my list also includes Mao in Beijing and Ho Chi Minh in Hanoi) we decided to finish our trip by being taken around by the roommate and some of his family and friends.
“Erloeserkathedrale” by Ikar.us (talk) – Own work. Licensed under CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons –
One thing we quickly realized is that Russians and Chechnyans don’t like each other. To us, they looked the same and sounded the same, and we couldn’t tell the difference if you put the two groups side by side. But there were multiple occasions during our two days in Moscow where we almost got into fights as Russians would walk past us and say something to the Chechyans we were with, which always led to a verbal and sometimes physical response from our tour guides.
Another thing we quickly realized was that the corruption we saw in Siberia regarding the police and other things was greatly multiplied in Moscow. If you drove a car that was not Russian made, the traffic police would pull you over for some imaginary offense and then expect a bribe to not arrest.
In the one night we were driving around the city going from place to place (in a large Mercedes SUV), we were pulled over at least 5 or 6 times, and our guides gave untold amounts of cash each time to bribe the cops. I remember during one stop the police officer looked inside of the car and asked where everyone was from. When our guides explained that they were Chechnyan and we were American, the officer laughed and said “Chechnyans and Americans…this is going to be a good bribe!”
Well, our guides took us to the new ultra rich bars and clubs that were starting to pop up around Moscow at that time. I remember that one of them was called “Club Hollywood” and Chuck Norris was supposedly a part owner!
Each club required an entrance fee (which was paid for by our hosts in wads of cash) and I’m sure the drinks we ordered weren’t cheap either (our hosts paid for them as well). I remember one of our hosts turning to us as we walked into Club Hollywood and saying, “Ok, I just want you to be aware that every woman in here is a prostitute” and then leading us in. That was new!
By Lavanda Green (Own work) via Wikimedia Commons
But they later took us on another excursion to further show how widespread prostitution was in the city. We drove down a dark alley somewhere, when all of a sudden we saw a line of women standing shoulder to shoulder. There was a guy (pimp?) talking to several “customers” who were perusing the wares. It was absolutely shocking to see. I don’t know how many women there were, but I would say at least 20 or 30 of them just standing there on display, with men looking them over and picking the one (or ones) that interested them.
As I said, Russia was like the Wild West, and I was definitely ready to come back home.
The next morning we waited outside of our hotel for our friends to pick us up and take us to the airport. As the time got closer and closer to our flight’s time of departure, we grew increasingly worried. Finally, a car pulled up with my teammate’s roommate and we hopped in. It seems that after a night full of paying off police bribes and paying for our entrance fees and drinks, our guides had run out of money. Unfortunately for them, they were pulled over one last time on their way home.
Without any money to pay the policeman, they were all arrested and put in jail for the night. Of course no one allowed them to phone anyone, so when his father (the Prime Minister) realized they hadn’t come home early the next morning, he called around to all of the local police stations until he found them. He knew what must have happened to them.
For a trip full of new experiences and surprises, this was the perfect ending. Thankfully we were able to catch our flights and eventually made it back to the US.
“Moscow, St. Basil’s As Seen From The West2” by Alexander Evstyugov-Babaev – Own work. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons
Unfortunately, during one of my trading sessions with the local kids in Siberia, my camera and my favorite Adidas jacket were stolen. So I don’t have any photo proof of any of my trip (this being before digital cameras were really popular, which would have made getting copies of my teammates’ pictures much easier). So the only photos I have are the ones in my mind. (My experience wrestling in Russia was also training for my life – I just didn’t know it at the time.)
I’ve also lost the trinkets I traded for, but I do have somewhere one of the posters that was hung up around one of the towns we wrestled in that has all of our names, in Russian, and the guys we were going to compete against. It isn’t quite on the level with an Ali vs. Foreman poster, but it’s still pretty cool to me.
But the memories and the experiences I had can never be taken away from me. This was my first international trip without my family, and the excitement of it left me wanting more. I can definitely point to this adventure as one of the key points in my personal timeline that helped make me who I am today.