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Friday, November 30, 2012

Higher School of Economics

I had a leisurely morning yesterday, catching up on blogging, then met the very charming Yelena again, then Masha from the Embassy, and off we went to the Higher School of Economics (HSE). Our embassy driver was fearless. After two days of snow, then rain, it was all slush and ice. The HSE was in the older part of Moscow, which meant very narrow streets, and lots of little hills. But our driver went careening through, often inches away from the parked cars, but always under perfect control.

Then we walked up five flights of stairs to meet with about 15 students of various ages. There was one librarian, a number of journalism students, and a few writers. My key topic was again ebooks. The second time through with Yelena the interpreter was fun. We worked very smoothly together, and did a better job communicating humor. I very frank about what wasn't working in the US right now (Big 5 market moves, and why that was driving us to consider new sources of content). I also talked about how libraries might even become publishers not just of books, but of newspapers.

Next I talked about censorship issues. This time, I was careful to include internet filtering, mandated by the federal government when we take grant money, and various state restrictions. I talked about how we do that (buy filtering software, limit it to graphic depictions of sex only, etc.). It was a lively crowd. They wanted to know my views about limiting materials that were "extremist." I replied that many of these categories of "dangerous" were very open to interpretation. The problem, as always, is who decides? If the state, if a religion, even if the wise and noble librarian, there is the possibility of abuse. In the United States of America, the role of the library is to serve individual exploration, to sample the many contradictory streams of our culture.

An example: few libraries collected the works of the African American writers in the period before the push for civil rights. Yet this work, coming not from the mainstream but from the fringe, was very powerful and ultimately very positive. To tie this back to the ebook discussion, we can expect a huge influx of fringe materials.

Finally, there is something very affirming about doing these talks. Librarians in the US believe that knowledge is better than ignorance. That exposure is better than suppression. It's messy, it can be awkward. But ultimately, the willingness to confront the new, the odd, and even the threatening is an act of intellectual and moral courage. And it makes us better prepared for the future.

At the end, I again thanked my interpreter, who was clearly having as good a time as I was. I also thanked the US Embassy, and HSE.

I returned to my hotel, where I was interviewed about these topics again for Voice of America. The reporter reminded me very much of a colleague back in the states. There is a persistence of physical and emotional characteristics across the human family, whatever the nation of origin.

Later, I walked through the Red Square to find a restaurant. On the way back, I had an odd thing happen. As I was hopping over puddles and the snow, the man ahead of me dropped a plastic pocket with some visible currency. I called out, "Sir!"

A man walking up behind me then also called out. The man who dropped the money turned around, stepped back, and picked up the money. He started to thank us. Abruptly, a third man approached from the opposite direction, flashed a badge, then asked for and examined ID and wallets from the other two, then, hearing my English, a passport from me. He asked if I am police. I said, No. He asked how many packets of money had been dropped. I said, "One." He very professional patted me down, then asked for the things in my pockets. One by one, carefully and poised to grab them back, I handed him cell phone (immediately returned), my pocket notebook (returned), then my wallet.

Is there anything about this that feels like a scam? Could these three guys be working together? I was on total alert.

Everything came back intact, despite his quick rifling through my money. The guy with the badge said "I'm just doing my job," and the other two did feel genuinely on edge. The man who dropped the money apologized profusely to me. I disengaged as quickly as possible, then went direct to the hotel (maybe 3 minutes, tops). Then I felt my left pocket afterward: no hotel key. I went direct to the desk, disabled the old key and got a new one. Then I went straight to my hotel room, where I saw that I'd left my card on the table. Bottom line: after four double checks, I didn't lose a thing.

It seems highly unlikely that an officer was both available and alert. On the other hand, this is just outside the Red Square and a luxury hotel, and there might well be undercover cops around. If not, maybe there was something about the setup that made them think I didn't have enough money worth stealing (I didn't by policy), and might be something other than what I appeared.

At any rate, it's the kind of thing that leaves you feeling a little paranoid. I stayed in my hotel for the rest of the night.

Today is my last day. I'm off to a panel discussion at a non-fiction book fair. Then I hope to grab a souvenir or two, pack up, and get ready for my return. A fascinating place, Moscow.


Bonnie McCune said...

Jamie, hope you get this. My husband and I had something very similar happen to us in Paris years ago. It turned out it was a pick-pocketing scam. So some of the people involved may have had that intention but were stopped because of the person that interviewed you. In our case, the man in front of me on the escalator dropped his credit card. I pushed it out of the way and bent to pick it up. My husband started to help but fortunately felt the man behind him fumbling in his pocket and grabbed him. You were wise to check for missing items.

Jamie said...

I told the embassy staff about this and they told me that the scam usually works like this: one person drops the obvious money (see through plastic pocket). When the innocent (me) picks it up, the first man first thanks the innocent. Then a second man (the witness) comes up. The first man then discovers that some of his money is missing. The second man says, yes, the innocent may have taken it. A shake down follows. But all this was interrupted by what probably WAS a policeman, recognizing that a tourist was about to get fleeced. So he stepped in and broke it up. In the winter, with my long coat, I would have been very hard to pickpocket.

Jamie said...

Sheila Kerber found this link:

Honestly, people are so tricksy.