Issue 236, Spring 2021
Vnukovo is the smallest, most intimate of Moscow’s airports, and when your flight arrives—especially if it arrives on Saturday at eleven at night—you don’t expect to see much of a crowd. Stamps in the passport, baggage claim—quick and easy.
“Where are you coming from?”
“What’s in the bag?”
Nothing special: books, cheese. No food embargo rules violated—entry granted. But then, at the exit, you’re in for a surprise: a phalanx of men. This is the sort of throng that might greet a plane from Tbilisi, but these people don’t look Georgian. And no solicitations either—no “taxi, cheap taxi, taxi into town, very cheap.” It’s eerily quiet. You begin to squeeze your way through the crowd, and there’s no end in sight. The men don’t step aside, but neither do they block you deliberately; they just stand there. It’s as if these muscular, beardless, middle-aged guys in dark jackets and coats simply don’t see you. If the wheels of your suitcase happen to roll over their feet, they won’t snap at you, won’t even say a word. You feel you could pinch or poke them and they still wouldn’t move. They’re like an incomprehensible force out of some bad dream: Who are they? Where are they going? On some kind of pilgrimage? The hajj? You’ll get to the bottom of this: Where’s security? Police?
Once you fight your way to the glass door, you find that it’s locked—and beyond it, on the street, there’s another crowd. But this one is more diverse, made up of both men and women. A policeman is stationed by the door. He’s holding a vessel of some kind. Of course: an oil lamp. Well, it took you a while. It’s Holy Saturday. The crowds are waiting for the Holy Fire to land.
“Special aircraft. From Tel Aviv.”
“Rak zeh haser lanu”—that’s all we need. The only Hebrew you know.
After an hour or two, the “special aircraft” will land, the television cameras will capture the clergy and the authorities lighting the beardless men’s oil lamps, and these lamps will travel all over Moscow, the suburbs, and the neighboring districts. Once the men leave, everyone else will be allowed to pass through the glass door. The story’s been all over the papers, TV: people have flocked to Vnukovo from far and wide—“We’ve been coming for six years” and “We have faith in our people, in our country.”
Stay calm. No reason to panic. The policeman gestures with his hand. “The third exit’s operational.”
You have to push your way through again, suitcase in tow. Welcome back from Lithuania.