Tuesday, November 14, 2006

The Notary

Few people in Ukraine or Russia hold a position of greater authority than the notary. Even a mafia boss might not believe an underling has performed a hit if he doesn't report back with the proper documentation.

When I was living in Kharkov, a professor at the university where I taught was trying to start a marriage agency with a lawyer he knew. He approached me when he learned I was an American, and asked if I would write a letter on his behalf to the owner of an American-owned agency. He was seeking a business relationship, maybe a little advice, and so I dashed off a letter, thinking that would be the end of it. But my Russian-speaking Ukrainian friend received it, he said, "Should we get it notarized, do you think?" This was a man out of a Kafka novel. Slight and thin, mousey face, chain smoker, a nervous laugh and bureaucratic voice. "No," I told him, I didn't think we needed to get it notarized. But he was quietly persistent, sure it would probably be best if a notary was present to see me sign beneath my printed name. "The guy we're writing is from Houston," I tried. "He's not going to know the difference."

But it was a losing proposition. A few nights later, I met my friend on the corner of Pushkinskaya and Bazhanova, piled into a cab with him, and was driven deep into the night to a part of town I didn't yet know. When we arrived, we stood outside in the cold, waiting for his partner to arrive. My friend smoked cigarettes, apologizing for the delay. Then his future partner, the lawyer, was pulling up in a chauffered Lada, and the three of us were moving inside.

The notary was not yet available. Either she wasn't here or she was in a back room. A secretary showed us to a waiting area. Plush leather furniture. Magazines on a glass coffee table. Flowers everywhere. A TV going. We waited. My Ukrainian friend held the documents in a plastic folder: one copy in Russian, another in English. "We'll need them both notarized," he said.

Then the notary appeared, a regal woman in her fifties with chamber of commerce hair and flecks of gold on her neck, wrists and lobes. She looked at our paperwork. Spoke with the two people I'd come with, looked at me not once. No, no, no, she said. This was the jist of it. No, no, no -- she couldn't possibly notarize this, as it was a personal letter. My friends argued. They stated their case. This letter was supposed to initiate a business relationship. It was very much not personal business which was being conducted on this page. But no, I was an individual, not a business, she and they and even I could very clearly see that, and so she could not give us her stamp. "Tell her I'm a professional writer," I said, liking the sound of that. "Would that help? Say the letter is part of my work." But no, it didn't matter. The lady stood. The court was cleared. We had to go.

My Ukrainian friend and the lawyer were crushed. They took me apologizing back to the cab, and it was only a week or two later, at the lawyer's office, that we met with a second notary to try again. This time, tea was served all around, and the notary was offered chocolates. Everyone wore black leather but me. The notary looked at the documents. He had required that the letter be in Ukrainian, not my friend's native Russian. "This is an official document," he had explained over the phone. But now in the office he pointed out mistakes in my friend's use of the Ukrainian language. He could not stamp the letter until this was fixed, and this, and this here. My friend worked hurriedly on the computer, trying to rectify the mistakes. I sat with the pen, waiting to give my signature. More tea was served. The lawyer begged my patience. The notary said he would be back. I was given more chocolate. And then fifteen, thirty minutes later, the new sheet was printed out and the notary was back and I was moving my pen across the page. The notary observed it all, then moved his ledger book before my face. He pointed his finger here, then here; my signature followed.


I was reminded of this the other morning, when my wife asked if she should get a letter of recommendation notarized. I said her boss' signature would be enough, but after sending the SMS message I felt a shudder of anxiety -- my god, she's right, that needs to be notarized. Evidence I've lived in Ukraine.

Then this evening, while browsing the Russian Women Discussion message board, I came across this, a list of things a poor man must do in order to have his divorce certificate recognized by the Uzbek government:

1. Have a local notary public notarize the document (divorce certificate).

2. Have the county clerk certify the notary's authority.

3. Have the Secretary of State of the appropriate state certify the county's authority.

4. Have the State Department's Certification Division certify the State's authority.

5. Have the Uzbek Embassy or U.S. Embassy in Tashkent certify the State Department's authority.

As the man cannot legally marry in Uzbekistan until he proves that he is free and unencumbered by any previous marriage, number six in this list could very well read, "Marry a woman from Tennessee. It'd be easier."

And number seven? "Couldn't hurt if she's a notary."

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Wednesday, November 01, 2006

The Political Coming Out of Sacramento's Slavic Community

Organizers of the annual Rainbow Festival were prepared for trouble.

The Q Crew, a local "queer/straight alliance," distributed cards telling people what to do if approached by hostile demonstrators. Sympathetic local church groups formed a protective buffer along the festival ground's cyclone fence. Mounted police were on patrol.

Jerry Sloan manned a table for Stand Up for Sacramento, a recently formed gay self-defense organization.

"So far, so good," he said. "No Russians."

Russians, as is so often the case in America, here means anyone from the Former Soviet Union, and in particular those Ukrainians in the Sacramento area who arrived ten or fifteen years ago but only recently have started to show an interest in local politics.

Numbering between 80,000 and 100,000, Sacramento's Slavic community isn't Jewish or Orthodox, but largely evangelical -- Baptist and Pentecostal. (The Pentecostal church was introduced into Ukraine in the 1920s by missionary and martyr Ivan Efimovich Vornaev.)

That the community chose to settle in Sacramento, making it the largest non-Jewish, non-Orthodox destination for Russian and Ukrainian immigrants, can be explained by the Cold War.

Before emigrating, many of the refugees learned about Sacramento from two sources: a short-wave fundamentalist religious radio program, "Word to Russia," that originated here, and a Russian-language newspaper, Our Days, that was printed in Sacramento and distributed to underground churches in the Soviet Union. A local Russian Baptist church persuaded several Sacramento evangelical churches to sponsor the refugees.


Michael Lokteff, 69, is a former high school teacher who was the voice of the "Word to Russia" broadcasts into the Soviet Union. A cheerful, white-haired lay Baptist who takes a glass of wine with his meals, Lokteff said that many of the immigrants were unprepared for culturally laissez-faire California.

In part, Lokteff blames his own broadcasts, which he said left the listeners with the impression that America, and particularly Sacramento, was a Christian bastion.

"They even thought my program was government-sponsored," Lokteff said. "They came here expecting a Christian commune, and all of a sudden the first thing they see is a gay parade."

An interesting article. Read it while you can.

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The Public Shaming of Harmon Lee

The longer I'm exposed to discussions of it, the more I see the subject handled by the media, the more I'm convinced "mail-order bride" is one of those phrases that instantly either sends a person into an ideological fit or reduces their intelligence by half.

Harmon Lee, a reporter with the Sacramento News & Review, may arrive here some lonely night when he googles himself for company. If so, he will see that's he is a part of the latter group, or one can only hope -- because that would suggest growth, wouldn't it? The realization that he done did it wrong?

Mr. Lee wrote an article on the "mail-order bride" industry. His editor probably said, "Write an article about mail-order brides," and so Mr. Lee spent an hour or two online, kept the ball game on mute, and wrote this in between bites of cold pizza. It is immmersion journalism, I guess, the writer pretending to call up a marriage agency to see how easy it is to find a wife.

After several rings, a tired-sounding woman with a Russian accent answers.

“I’d like to wed a Russian bride now!” I yell into the phone. “Can I get one delivered next week?”

“Uh, it’s a matter of the agreement with your bride if she wants to come here and live in North America.”

“Can I get more than one?” I whine.

“Yes, you can get many. The more you get, the more you order addresses.”

“But do I have to choose only one bride?” I clarify. “Can I marry many Russian brides?”

“I do not think that is possible,” the woman states flatly, popping my bubble.

“Then choose a bride for me!” I demand. “Now! Choose one now!”

“I don’t know your taste.”

“Red hair!” I blurt.


“Can you get me one with red hair? I WANT A BRIDE WITH RED HAIR!”

“Red hair? We have many girls--aaah, I think--with red hair.” She checks. “Not really red, but reddish.”

“Reddish hair ... OK, that works,” I whimper. “But if she doesn’t like me, do I get a refund? Or, if she doesn’t like doing housework, do I get my money back?”

“It’s a matter of the girl’s likes and dislikes.”

“But there’s no money back if she doesn’t like doing my housework?”


If I were an editor, I would have kept the first line. The rest -- I would have sat Harmon down and said, "Harmon, sit down. We know you're ignorant, but must the article be? Let's get at this with an intellectual fortitude that is not quite presidential, but at least greater than a high schooler dissecting a really good fart joke. What do you say? Can we do that?"

If you want to read more, go here.

I promise a more engaging read in the coming days. A play has been written on the subject of mail order brides, and from the excerpts I've read online, I can only say I wish I was in New York City so I could see a performance.

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