Red and white were the colors flying over this year's St Patrick's Day parade in Moscow. At the beginning and end of the event, huge bunches of red and white balloons were released. It was puzzling at first -- why red, the color of the hated Empire? What happened to green?
But at the end all was explained. As the last batch of balloons flew up, a gigantic Coca-Cola truck chugged past the Novy Arbat grandstands. Red and white, the colors of Coke. Coke sponsored the whole deal -- Coca-Cola, the drink that sustained the Irish through centuries of persecution. Muscovites were carrying flags of every sort-both tricolours, the Irish and Russian, as well as the skull and crossbones -- but it was the cursive Coca-Cola logo, white on red, that dominated.
Everybody seemed to be in favor of the Irish, but nobody seemed to have much of a sense of who they were. I could spot the actual Paddies in the crowd easily (just look for the telltale pink skin and furtive, sidelong glance), but the Muscovites were focussed on products and corporate sponsors, not ethnicity. The only connection most people made was the legendary Irish boozing. When Rosie O'Chechens' employees marched by wearing Guinness sandwich boards, the Russian guy next to me moaned "Gyeeeee-nessss!" longingly.
But he was no drunk. He was only teasing his wife. The crowd was mostly young wholesome Russian couples, often with a child or two. It was the new Moscow, the hardworking town of young families. There isn't much to do yet for this emergent market. Moscow is still pitched toward the nocturnal market, the strip clubs and booze-dens where the grownups party. The parade offered a chance to bring the kids out for an afternoon of G-rated fun. These were the same people we'd seen at the opening of the Mega-Mall: excited about being middle class, eager to find innocuous entertainment.
That was the only reason I could see that so many thousands of Russians were out in the cold, windy afternoon on Novy Arbat, cheering the dilute nationalism of a slaughtered, defeated people. There they stood, clogging the sidewalks of the very block where the esteemed governor of a wealthy Pacific province had been murdered a few months ago. That murder came out of the nocturnal Moscow, the wild place of the nineties; the parade was the new, cleaned-up version.
In this Moscow, corporate logos are the emblems of allegiance. So there was a huge contingent of DHL workers -- dear oul' DHL, founded by a Donegal boy, pride o'the Oirish race through famine and flame! -- and another big group of happy clerks from Moscow Duty Free.
There was no Irish music till near the end of the parade, when some twangers drove by on flatbed trucks. No pipes. I did miss the pipes. There's something about that vainglorious drone that makes you want to charge, armed only with a pitchfork, at a regiment of Redcoats. It never fails to inspire in me the old desire to die for a country I'd never seen, just as it did when I was a kid watching the last St. Patrick's Day Parades in San Francisco, dwindling year by year as the Irish melted into the white American muddle.
The only nationalism visible on Novy Arbat was Russian, not Irish. Every Russian military brass band extant was there, tramping along blasting out grim march tunes. They were made up of natural silent-movie comics. A fat trombonist corporal waddled at the double to catch up to his leaner comrades; a hick from the sticks, holding a pair of cymbals, beamed delightedly at the crowd, center of attention for the first time in his life.
There was a whole unit of marching peasants: boys in Tolstoy shirts, and girls in the painted headdresses and red skirts worn by waitresses at Yolki Palki. The crowd liked the peasant kids, but what really got them excited was a contingent of marching girls with gigantic Russian flags.
I can only guess, but it seemed to me that this parade was a rare chance to share public celebration of Russian nationalism not tainted by Tsarist or Bolshevik iconography. After all, St. Patrick never sparked a pogrom or sent anyone to Kolyma. In the St. Paddy's day context, the Russian tricolour seemed fresher, almost innocent -- white, red and blue strips standing for nothing in particular except "us."