Culture Shock, Cigarettes & Surveillance: Dispatches from My Life in Russia

Guest Post by Nikki Navarre

If you happened to catch my “Behind the Scenes” article in the November issue of Romantic Times, you already know I’m a former diplomat with weapons of mass destruction expertise who was stationed in Russia for several intriguing years.  Although I worked for the U.S. Embassy, I lived in the open in a spacious city apartment in downtown Moscow.  There, my two Siberian cats, my modern art collection and I shared many strange and exotic adventures.

It’s par for the course, toast for the caviar, steam for the banya that any diplomat living in Moscow deals with surveillance as a routine part of daily life.  I grew accustomed to living my life—including my romantic life as a twenty-something singleton with a passion for clubs and parties—with an utter lack of privacy.  The robust corps of beefcake Marines who provided our Embassy security represented the safest and least complicated dating option, and in those days I availed myself freely.  But that sense of hostile eyes watching never let up.

I invoke that sense of hostile surveillance in The Russian Temptation, the new sexy spy romance in my Foreign Affairs series.  That oppressive ambience of covert observation was never more pervasive than when duty brought me—legitimately and openly, with the goal of fostering international scientific collaboration—to the secret cities, where Temptation takes place.  What in God’s name are the secret cities, you ask?  They’re an archipelago of Soviet-era cities that don’t exist on any map, where the Soviets once designed their nuclear weapons and other apocalyptic nasties.  The time-worn shadow of every cliché you’ve ever heard about the bad old days of the hammer and sickle still lingers in these remote locales, in this enigmatic land that the Western world with its myriad of twenty-first century challenges wants so desperately to forget.

Beyond adjusting to the uncomfortable realities of daily surveillance, I also had to deal with culture shock.  I’d studied Russian language and culture for many years, but never visited the country before I moved there.  At first, I was mildly shocked to observe men and women drinking openly on the streets, swigging cheerfully from bottles of foamy brown Russian beer in broad daylight.  Later, I assimilated well enough to do it myself, and even to buy into the folk remedy of a shot of high-octane vodka and a lemon slice as an all-purpose cure for any garden-variety ailment. 

My lungs adjusted to the thick, acrid haze of cigarette smoke that shrouded most Russian offices and restaurants.  To this day, I can’t write a Russian hero who doesn’t smoke.  If you’re a renegade Russian submarine captain like Victor Kostenko, you chain-smoke high-end Davidoffs without apology.  If you’re a refined but lethal ex-KGB agent like Nikolai Markov, you savor an expensive Gauloise with your morning espresso.  If you’re nightclub-hopping American me cruising through the high-end ethnic restaurants and lounges of contemporary Moscow, you smoke jasmine- and apple-flavored tobacco through a shisha—known elsewhere as a hookah or hubbly-bubbly—and enjoy the rush. 

Another little adjustment in my new life was taking my Russian language skills out of the classroom and away from the negotiating table into the streets of downtown Moscow.  I could speak with exquisite grammatical precision and a passable accent about nuclear weapons and arms control, but the slang of the old babushka at the grocery kiosk defeated me.  My American heroines face similar trials when their heroes fire a barrage of machine-gun Russian calibrated to intimidate them.  Of course, being heroines, they always rise to the challenge! 

It took me a while to assimilate Russian superstitions, but some of them have stuck with me.  Shaking hands across a threshold—a place rife with evil spirits in Russian myth—still bothers me, years after leaving the country for another exotic assignment.  Whenever I buy a bouquet of flowers, I remember a particularly powerful Russian superstition:  one only sends an even number of flowers when it’s a funeral.  The quintessential romantic gesture of a dozen red roses would be received in Russia with superstitious dismay, while eleven roses would be graciously welcomed as a kingly gift.  And who couldn’t appreciate the practical value of that worthy Russian tradition of sitting on your suitcase before you leave for a journey, to collect yourself and remember that crucial passport and visa you might have forgotten to pack?

A good rule of the road in any culture is never to overstay your welcome, so I’ll wrap this up.  I hope you’ve enjoyed this virtual visit to modern-day Moscow!  If you’re interested in hearing more about my adventures as a real-life diplomat in one of Europe’s most decadent, expensive and populous cities—a metropolis that has been called The Third Rome and The First Throne among other monikers over its thousand-year history—I’m hosting a Facebook gala on the same topic November 20 at Stop by and say privyet (hello), why don’t you? 

Until then, it’s dos vidaniya (farewell for now) from your foreign correspondent!     

Spy on Nikki Navarre at  


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