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How’s Bayou?: Putin on the Risk

One of the best/worst things about New Orleanians is that we tend not to get overly excited about cataclysmic world events. We perplexedly shrug our shoulders, exhale, then return to the dilemma of how best to get roast beef po-boy gravy out of that 100% linen shirt with the crawfish emblem on the pocket. We remain an island of our own invention.

When we do get overwrought about foreign affairs, it’s often in an Alice-in-Wonderland, topsy-turvy manner. Some Uptown mansions currently sport the Israeli flag, though “Bibi” Netanyahu might not be welcome at their owners’ upper-echelon Carnival events.

Then there’s the story of the United Fruit Company in the first half of the 20th-century, when more than half the land in several Latin American countries was owned by UF and competitor Standard Fruit, with fierce battles for land control directed from offices in New Orleans. There’s a good argument to be made that the destabilization of these countries has landed on our doorstep today, in the form of young immigrants fleeing situations in Latin America that the resulting governments are too weak to control.

Photo credit: Matthew Pritchett, MBE

Photo credit: Matthew Pritchett, MBE

But with Vladimir Putin rattling Tsarist sabers this summer, New Orleanians may finally have gotten it right. As NolaVie co-founder Sharon Litwin has chronicled in these pages, New Orleans photographer Frank Relle’s exhibition of more than 1,000 images of life in New Orleans at the Moscow House of Photography Museum and local theater artist Natasha Ramer’s Moscow Nights organization’s participation in Russia’s Chekhov International Theatre Festival have updated glasnost and stoked an appreciation of the city among Russian millennials.

Decades ago, when I was considering a trip to the former Soviet Union — something I thought I’d kept close to my chest — the phone rang.

“This is Olga Smoak,” a deep-voiced, mysterious woman announced. “You do not know me, but I know of you; and I have heard you are going to Moscow.”

I couldn’t resist the lure of being drawn into a remainder-shelf spy novel: “Perhaps,” I replied, trying to sound nonchalant, as if I’d just stirred, not shaken, my martini.

“I know you are going, and I have a v-e-r-y important mission for you. I am, you must know, ballet.”

I wasn’t sure what she meant by that, but I suspected that either the Bolshoi or the Maryinski Theater might loom large in my future.

“I must get a letter to two of the principal dancers at the Bolshoi. It is essential. I will be indebted to you, and so will they. It is urgent.”

“Can’t you just mail it?” I innocently asked, dropping the James Bond attitude and beginning to feel like a drug mule for hire. Contraband for the contradance — with me being plié-d off to the Gulag, I thought.

“No, it would be intercepted . . . and people might suffer. You must do this.”

I started thinking of all the things that might prevent me from making the trip.

“My mother’s been quite ill,” I blurted into the receiver.

“She will die?”

“No, not really.”

“Well, then, you can go. Do it for me. It is urgent. It won’t take you long.”

I didn’t go. And the Soviet Union collapsed. Could that be my fault? If I’d delivered the letter, might it somehow have changed Gorbachev’s attitude toward the West?

Mother recovered quickly, I remember, and attended a Reagan fundraiser. Gorbachev and the missus might have gone backstage at the Bolshoi to seek information regarding the two dancers. What she saw might have made Raisa dress even more provocatively on their trip to Washington, infuriating Nancy Reagan.

Nancy might have consulted an astrologer. The challenge from the president might have become, “Mr. Gorbachev, that dress makes your wife look fat!”

The Berlin Wall might still be standing, and we wouldn’t have fragments of it in a shadow box in our living room. Vladimir Putin might still be a KBG apparatchik. Ukraine might just be a place that invented a chicken dish that’s impossible to eat without spurting melted butter all over your Perlis tie with the street names.

It’s just possible that my refusal to carry that letter saved the world — and kept our little island inviolate.


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