Boris Fishman

< Back to Other Writing

Diplomatic Immunity: Not Lost in Translation

The effects of globalization notwithstanding, cheek-kissing protocol remains something of a mystery, resolved with regional pique depending on whom you meet and where you go: the Americans do it once, the Europeans twice, and the Brazilians as many times as you’ll let them.

The other day at the Pierre Hotel, Mikhail Gorbachev, the man who ended the Cold War, was in an elevator administering an impromptu lesson in how newly cosmopolitan Russia deals with the question. All but one of the seven men in the elevator were Russian: Pavel Palazhchenko, his translator and adviser; a bodyguard; and several aides. Even the elevator operator was a Soviet emigre, and he told Gorbachev that he remembered him from a previous visit to the Pierre.

"How’s life?" Gorbachev asked, in Russian.

"Nothing changes." He shrugged.

A cell phone trilled, and everyone reached for his pocket. Gorbachev looked quizzically at his tiny Motorola. It was silent.

"See, if they made one with ‘Suliko,’ then I’d know it was mine," he said, referring to the Georgian folk song. ("I saw a rose in the forest / From which dew ran like tears / In my sorrow, I cried, Suliko!")

The only woman in the elevator was also a non-Russian: Miranda, a graduate student at Harvard, who helps plan Gorbachev’s appearances in the States. The Pierre’s elevators are extravagantly appointed but not exactly spacious, and Gorbachev was pressed next to her in a corner. He was wearing a crisp white shirt and a red tie. She had a wired communication device in her ear.

"You are so wonderful!" Gorbachev said to her in Russian as the elevator made its way down from the sixteenth floor. "What would we do without you!" Palazhchenko dutifully translated. Then Gorbachev took her by the shoulders, leaned in, and pecked her on both cheeks.

Miranda blushed and began to pull away.

"No, no, in Russia, we do it three times," Gorbachev said. Palazhchenko did his part.

"For you, Mr. Gorbachev, four, five-as many as you want," Miranda said.

By this time, the elevator had arrived on the second floor, where Gorbachev was going to meet with supporters. His entourage filed out. Gorbachev remained in the elevator, where he obligingly leaned in for No. 4. The elevator operator kept his finger on the button marked "Door open."

Eventually, Gorbachev strode out. "This makeup they put on!" he exclaimed.
"My lips almost got stuck to her cheek."

Published
October 27, 2003