I was wandering thru the Kremlin using my all access press pass when I turned a corner, slipped on the soapy floor, and lodged my knee solidly into a bucket filled with warm soapy water. This is how I met Irina; a cleaning woman. This, of course, is not her real name.
A smile began to form on her lips but she quickly suppressed it. She looked me over. I was not in uniform. She did not recognize my plain clothes. Startled by her sense of humor she asked me who I am. I told her I am a reporter. Then and only then did she laugh at my plight.
She helped free me from her bucket and helped to dry my pant leg. In her eyes, she had this glint, this sparkle you see only rarely amongst people. I asked her how long she had been washing floors. Today, since four this morning. For life, since I was sixteen. I am sixty-eight.
I was sitting on a bench made from Italian marble. I wanted to ask her opinion of current events. I did not want to bias her remarks by framing the question with a western conclusion. I asked her, “What is your opinion of Putin’s reaction to western provocations?”
She was already kneeling as she dried my pant leg. She turned and leaned her back against the wall. She would not sit on the bench. “Putin gave us knee pads,” she said. She showed me her padded knees. “When the communist leaders were all dying from their elderly health issues we scrubbed the floors on bare knees. Some woman had callouses so thick they were taller when they were kneeling,” she noted. With surprise I asked, “What about Boris Yeltsin?”
“He was too busy freeing everyone. You are free he would say, ‘Free for all. All are free,’ but we didn’t know the meaning of the word. We had never been free. He gave us pieces of paper. They were shares in the formerly State owned properties. We didn’t know what they were. Nobody explained anything to us. We knew we could get rubles for this paper so we exchanged them. It wasn’t until later that we learned we were responsible for the making of our billionaires. Prices went so high the rubles meant little to us in the end,’ she said.
Putin gave you knee pads, I said. “He rode a white horse without a shirt! He was also fly fishing, and bare-chested! He became our new Russia. Strong, viral, and handsome,” she spoke with wistfulness. I stated my conclusion, “You think highly of Putin.”
She looked at me and her face turned to sadness. She stated her feeling, “I am dismayed.” I waited for her to continue. The way she looked at me tested my professional distance. She said, “In this Kremlin they are used to me and speak openly. They repeatedly state provocation after provocation with a frenzy that frightened me. I thought Putin was made of hardened steel. It is the whining and complaining that I hear from my sister’s children Sasha four and Ivan six. His people are made out of a frightened soup. Putin hired this weakness,” she lamented to me.
I state another conclusion, “This is why you are dismayed with Putin.”
“I was in the room where they watch all the western news feeds. On the screen was a young girl wearing a pink quilted hooded jacket. I think it was pink as I want to block it from my memory but cannot. She is lying face down in the street, lifeless, and unclaimed. She must have loved wearing that jacket. To be seen in it. Putin did that to her. He took away her life.”
I lost my professionalism and we hugged for many minutes. When we finished I felt a little better. She said, “I liked Putin very much. I wish he had stayed with knee pads and fly fishing. His weaknesses make him too easily prone towards violence. He will only be remembered for taking away a simple joy from a child. Now you know why I am dismayed by Putin.”