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Russia, Winter 1996

Our first trip to Russia in 1996

Sue and I sat on the bed’s thin mattress and just looked at each other.  We knew we had chosen an adventure, but we had clearly chosen something far beyond anything else we had experienced in our travels.  A single, bare bulb over our heads illuminated our tiny room with an orange light.  We had to memorize where the toilettes and showers were, each on different floors for women and men.  Out our sole window we could watch the snow fall through the darkness and the occasional customer stop at the vodka kiosk below.

It was the winter of 1996, and it was cold, wet, and dark in St. Petersburg, Russia.  The country was going through political and economic turmoil with the collapse of the Soviet Union, so we, of course, decided to go there.  Travel was now easier, though we needed an invitation from someone in the country before we could visit.  After some extensive research, we decided that paid hotel “invitations” would suffice.  They did and we got our visas.  The young woman at the front desk of the St. Petersburg highly rated hotel spoke English, and we got our room when we arrived.   

We went to Russia in 1996 because it was now possible.  St. Petersburg is at 61 degrees north latitude, about as far north as Anchorage, Alaska, and winters are cold and dark.  The sun began to glimmer through the falling snow shortly after 10:00 AM and it turned dark again at 4:00.  It was perpetually frigid and depressing.  We went there instead of someplace warm, sunny, stable, and affordable because it was interesting. 

Reminiscing, I was in the 6th grade during the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962.  Everyone was very worried about Russian bombers flying over the artic and obliterating Chicago and the rest of the U.S.  The brown box on the classroom wall behind the teacher would sometimes come alive with a message.  That message was often an announcement of an air raid drill, and we all had to file out of the classroom and into the hall where we would sit facing a wall with our hands covering our heads, our most vital organ.  It was the best we could do to protect ourselves from flying glass and other debris.

Four years later in 1966, I began riding my bicycle south through Lincoln Park, a seven-mile-long strip of trees, grass, and beaches along Lake Michigan.  Early one Sunday morning I set out before the summer sun brought out the beach goers, flowers, and morning joggers with a cool breeze off the lake.  Somewhere along the way, I looked toward the Lake and there were a half dozen Nike anti-aircraft missiles pointed skyward from their silos.  They were out for maintenance before most people were out for sunbathing, and the sight was jarring.  There they were in the middle of a large urban area ready for a war with Russia.

Russia had my attention from an early age and followed me to college.  My girlfriend there was a Russian language major and I began to learn a few phrases such as Я тебя люблю in Cyrillic,  pronounced Ya tyeBYA lyuBLYU, meaning I love you.  That, together with da and nyet, was all of the Russian I knew.  

St Petersburg was founded by Tsar Peter the Great in 1703.  Peter placed his city on the Neva River with access to the Atlantic  to make Russia a great sea power.  It was built on swampy land by serfs, many of whom died from their labors and are still in the foundations of the city.  In Russian literature, the place is haunted. 

We walked through a cold rain in the northern twilight past a sign, hand painted during the siege of the city during WWII telling people to walk on the other side of the street when there was artillery fire.  We explored the walls of Saint Peter and Paul Fortress and stood beside the battleship Potemkin whose crew mutinied in 1905 during a revolt against the Tsar.  The ship sailed to Odessa (now Ukraine) after the mutiny and the events there were made into a silent film, Battleship Potemkin, by Sergei Eisenstein in 1925.  The movie is famous for its depiction of the killings on the steps of Odessa.

We visited the Hermitage art museum, housed in part in the former Winter Palace, and watched as the local police stopped cars in the square in front of it to collect “fines” for imaginary offences.  You have probably noticed by now that quotation marks must be used often when writing about Russia at this time in its history.  In short, there was a not too subtle difference between the law and the way people had to act to survive.

We boarded an overnight train to Moscow and settled into our dark, closet size room.  An hour or so after departure, as the train sped south through the darkness, the conductor came by to turn down our beds.  He offered to provide linens and to make the beds for a small “honorarium” even though this service was included when we purchased our tickets.  No point in arguing.  Another employee came by offering tea from a samovar and small cakes…for a small fee.  We awoke in the Moscow suburbs.

All this reminded me of the Russian literature class I took in college that focused solely on current writings that had been published samizdat.  Samizdat is a Russian tradition of self-publishing in which an author makes five copies by hand of his or her work and gives them to five friends.  Each friend makes five copies and their friends five more.  Soon there are hundreds or thousands in circulation and the censors are avoided.

The professor had friends in this underground network and had recently been to Russia.  When he returned, he discovered that he had been wanted by the KGB, but they were unaware he was in the country until he wasn’t.  The reason, he said, was that taxi drivers were required to drive to KGB headquarters every time they picked up a foreigner and report where the fare was picked up and dropped off.  The KGB was inundated with this information and couldn’t process it fast enough to be meaningful.

We walked the streets of the city like we always do in a new place.  We wandered through parks and watched people, then strolled past the Kremlin for a few photos.  I thought we might get hassled there, but no one objected to the young tourists.  Sue, however, was getting cold, and we stopped at the GUM department store across the street for a hat and gloves.  She stood in a line at the hat and glove counter and pointed to the ones she wanted once she finally got to the front of the line.  Other people stood in line to buy shirts, shoes, and other necessities. 

I could watch the lines progress from above, looking down from an atrium with a view of much of the store.  Sue bought her hat and gloves, but they just didn’t keep her warm.  She also bought a towel since our hotel didn’t provide one.  We still have the towel.  I stopped to take a photo in the store on the way out, and I was waived off by a scowling clerk.  No Photo!

Back on the street we joined another line that snaked out of the door of a bakery, hoping to find some dinner.  All that was left were slices of bread with slabs of cheese between them.  Dinner would be sparse.

We were spending more time finding life’s basics than we were used to, including food.  We couldn’t read Russian and were often confused by the Cyrillic alphabet, but we began to recognize certain words such as restaurant, (pectopah).  We found a newly opened McDonalds and a Pizza Hut by walking cold, cold, dark streets, but I was determined to eat like a Russian.  Both places, by the way, were very busy.  Instead, we wandered into a Russian pectopah and dined with pensive looking locals.

I finally broke down and we found the American Bar and Grill which served burgers and beer, Budweiser, of course, and which was very much like a bar and grill in the States.  It was the same feeling that I always had on a long backpacking trip.  After a couple of weeks in the mountains eating freeze dried food and granola bars, I started to fantasize about burgers and pizza.  Finally, real food, but I could have done without the country music. 

On our last frigid night in Moscow, we walked past Gorky Park, a popular amusement park on the Moscow River.  We were alone on the pathways in the darkness.  At one of the entrances to the park, a man was encouraging a shackled bear to perform for no one, but the bear was not very enthusiastic.  From a distance, I turned and photographed the muti-colored lights that outlined the empty rides.  It was eerily beautiful draped in snow and knowing that the bear was being tormented in the distance beneath the lights, the scene seemed sad and surreal.

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