This is a different kind of post for me. I debated with myself whether or not to post it. In the end, I decided I would. My heart is breaking with overwhelming sadness for the people of Ukraine, but I also have compassion for the ordinary Russian people who are also going to suffer because of Putin's Senseless War. There is only pain and anguish for all those involved. Everyone loses! I am greatly inspired by the dedication, valor, and resolve of the Ukrainians, but I am also encouraged by the Russians who are marching...at significant personal risk... in the streets of Moscow, St. Petersburg, and cities across their country. To be clear....this post is about the ordinary Russians I met two decades ago...not Putin's Government and as always just thoughts that are swirling around in my head.
“ If you don’t know the guy on the other side of the world, love him anyway because he’s just like you. He has the same dreams, the same hopes and fears. It’s one world, pal. We’re all neighbors.”—Frank Sinatra
In the summer of 2002…twenty years ago…Dave and I took a two-week river cruise from Moscow to St.Petersburg. Growing up in rural Michigan, this was an unusual step for us. We were Cold War kids who grew up with the Russian threat an ever-present part of our lives. We hid under our desks during air-raid drills…as if that would have protected us. We watched Khruschev on the evening news banging his shoe and vowing to ‘bury us’, and we held our breath during the Cuban missile conflict. But…after the fall of communism, the dismantling of the Berlin Wall, and the break-up of the Soviet Union, traveling to what Ronald Reagan once described as ‘The Evil Empire’ seemed both improbable and yet…very possible. So…why not? We bought our tickets, packed our bags, and left on a very long flight toward the east.
Stepping off the plane in Moscow, we were immediately struck by the size and condition of the airport. In the intervening years since our visit, the airport has been enlarged and expanded, but twenty years ago, it was about the size of the airport in Burlington, VT. Also, surprisingly, there was no orderly plan for how passengers would be processed through immigration. Instead, it was an exercise in ‘survival of the fittest’ with lots of jockeying for position. Raised with midwest politeness, we couldn’t return push for push or shove for shove, so we were the last two people from our group to eventually exit into the waiting area to meet our guides.
Our ship, the Tolstoy, had once been the pride of the Communist Party reserved for high-ranking members of the Politburo. The decore and amenities were classic 1970s. Luxurious, it was not…but it was comfortable enough and would be our home for the next two weeks. Our hosts were paid to take care of us, of course, but soon we became aware of the many times the crew went above and beyond to make us feel welcome and comfortable…always with a smile.
On our second night, we were taken to the Russian circus. “Don’t worry. We will have a bus to take you back to the ship at intermission if you don’t wish to stay.” Dave, who was always just a big kid, absolutely loved the circus. So we stayed until the end. Yes, the circus was amazing, but I was much more interested in watching the faces and reactions of the children who were sitting behind us. Wonder, delight, and oohs and ahhs needed no translation. It was such a joyous experience.
As we traveled, it was interesting to speak with Russians about the changes taking place. Of course, lacking Russian language skills, we could only talk to educated people who spoke English. The older Russians who had good jobs and status due to their skills with English missed the security of employment under communism. Now they had to find work in the private sector, as guides for visiting Americans, for example. On the other hand, the younger Russians welcomed the changes and were hopeful for a future under their new leader, Vladimir Putin.
Leaving Moscow, we traveled north toward St. Petersburg via the Volga River stopping at towns and villages along the way. At each port, we were met by friendly people who were proud, enthusiastic, and excited to share their country with us. After living for so many years under communism, they were happy to be reclaiming churches and religious sites and couldn’t wait to show us. There was scaffolding and signs of progress everywhere as well as the unavoidable and ubiquitous signs of decay, neglect, and poverty. One of the Russians Dave met told him that the Russians knew that we were afraid of them during the Cold War but that they were never afraid of us. “What do we have that you would want? Nothing. We have nothing.”
In preparation for our trip, I dabbled with the Russian language using a primitive program on my computer. In the end, although I never actually learned the language, I learned how to say five simples phrases…good morning, good evening, please, thank you, and I’m sorry. All of these phrases came in handy, but I could recognize other random nouns, even though I couldn’t really employ them, which turned out to be very serendipitous.
Walking down the road into the village of Goritsy, we passed rustic kiosks set up in front of several houses. Most offered linen socks, dried fish, and flowers. As I lingered at a stand that also displayed small carvings and little wooden toys, the Russian owner began to speak to me…in Russian. As she spoke, gesturing toward her house and husband, I recognized one of the random words…doma…house.
One of the reasons Dave and I were such good traveling companions was that while we were pretty timid individually, together, we were brave enough to take risks and even break the rules if necessary. So, when the woman’s husband beckoned me, I followed him into the house. Dave followed along as well, all the while muttering, “We shouldn’t be doing this. We shouldn’t be doing this.”
I don’t know why I was singled out to be invited in. I’m not even totally sure why I followed, but I’m so glad that I did. The first things we noticed as we entered the house were the intricate carvings…all swirls and ripples…that adorned the door frame. Communicating with gestures and charades, our host showed us into his workshop, where he had created a primitive jig-saw by connecting a metal wire to electricity. With the wire glowing red hot, he cut through thin boards to fashion his decorations and some of the small toys we had seen at the kiosk. Next, he led us farther inside his home, inviting us to look around and take pictures if we chose. The house was primarily one big room with a thick wall a few feet shy of the ceiling dividing it into areas. Colorful images cut from newspapers, magazines, and calendars adorned the walls throughout. The kitchen was dwarfed by a vast stone oven behind which the children slept…probably the warmest place in the house. He was obviously proud of his humble home, especially his color television resting on a brightly colored tablecloth. As we were leaving the house and ending this incredible encounter, we noticed several items hanging on the wall, like those at the booth. Indicating that we’d like to buy the double-headed eagle…a symbol of Russia…our friend said the only words we all understood…”Dollars? Rubles?” He removed the artwork from his wall, wrapped it in a newspaper, accepted our dollars, and posed for a photo. We never learned his name, but we felt very blessed by our encounter. We simply referred to him as our Russian Friend.
“If you doubt that we are all one, tell me, what language is laughter, what color is love?”minnavanna
A dozen years before we went to Russia, Billy Joel…another Cold War kid, visited what was then The Soviet Union. In many ways, his experience mirrored ours prompting him to write the very moving song Leningrad.
Today the memory of our Russian adventure leaves me filled with a strange emotional soup of conflicting feelings. When I think about our time in Russia, I think about the people we met. Do they know what’s happening across the border? Are they marching in the streets, or are their sons driving tanks?
Dave and I often spoke of this trip as one of our favorites. Traveling and meeting people lowers the veil, and we see one another as the siblings that we are. We can’t help but notice how much alike we are…how much we share. In another place and time, we might have been good friends. Instead of what might have been, we are all locked in a horror story with only losers.
“War may sometimes be a necessary evil. But no matter how necessary, it is always an evil, never a good. We will not learn how to live together in peace by killing each other’s children.”Jimmy Carter