My second trip to Russia was through Canada. We flew on the Soviet airline Aeroflot, a night and day difference from our commercial airlines. Cautious, I felt this would be a good thing, Russia from the perspective of the people. That hope didn’t last long. Beyond the clear evidence of what materially was not available to purchase in their home country, each citizen had bags and bags of stuff they purchased in Canada.
It is clearly evident that I am an American on a Soviet Airline. I feel like I’m on a 1950’s grey hound bus. All around me I hear incomprehensible Russian, full of enthusiasm to share the spoils of their trip with their loved ones at home. People have bags and boxes stacked on their laps and under their seats, unwilling to let go of the proximity needed to put them in the upper bins. Their “stuff” includes electronics, Reeboks, and blue jeans. I forget sometimes how accessible material things are to me (even if I can’t afford them). The air in the plane smells Soviet-a mixture of perspiration, musty air and an ointment like smell. It makes me feel like a prima dona because I’m more concerned about brushing my teeth and taking a shower. I helped a woman squeezed into the seat next to mine who looked at me suddenly panicked and I knew she was going to vomit. I grabbed the barf bag in the pocket of my seat and put it in front of her face just in time. I felt so bad for her because I know how awful it is to get sick in a crowded place (like I did last time I was in Russia). It is so easy to love when one who is so vulnerably helpless is forced to lower their guard and let someone help. I didn’t need to speak the language, only sit and be present with my hand on her back and give her a Kleenex when she needed it. She smiled and tried to communicate for the rest of the trip.
I have always loved Leningrad, now St Petersburg. The Summer palaces, the Hermitage museum and churches are exquisite. Plagued by citizens trying to swap, poach, buy drugs was unsettling. I did not feel safe as a young woman there and wore my glasses most of the time, like it would make a difference (remember that I was young and a bit naive) I had such high hopes for a newer, fresher Russia. I expected a sense of moving with the times, but what I began to understand is that this was a country that wanted the benefits of a western society, but either didn’t want to do the work, or was ill equipped to handle the transition. And they worked so hard to create a smoke screen to make it appear that they would still be equal to or superior to America. It wasn’t a very good one though.
We’re in Leningrad-and it is the white nights. At 2:30 in the morning it looked like the afternoon. I met Leonard Bernstein in a shop. I was completely star struck. It was phenomenal, and he was surrounded by people here too.We went to tour the Hermitage Museum, such amazing beauty and art A young man came up to me and wanted to trade, which isn’t unusual, but then he wanted to know if I smoked or did coke and stared exclusively at my chest. I said “no” forcefully. It felt good, but I was mad that the only people who speak to me here-want something-money exchange or other stuff.
There were people we met with who really wanted to make a difference, but I never got a sense that they had much power or backing to really do anything about it. We met with a few peace summits, as they were called but there were always less than a dozen people present. You could hardly call them a summit. I give these people credit, though, they were working hard to make a better life for the people.
I had a wonderful conversation with a man named Demetrius at our peace committee meeting. It was refreshing to talk to someone young who is educated and open. He gave me his address and said they would invite me to visit again. Maybe, someday. I also went to the ballet it was wonderful, of course-I’ve been lucky enough to see the Bolshoi Ballet in the States. We went to the tea room afterwards, simple and relaxing. No one to bother us. One thing I’ve noticed this tour, is that there are no visits to war memorials, last time we were inundated. The talk of war is almost minimal except for a breed of hatred for Stalin.
Landed in Kiev on another greyhound type plane. It is much more relaxed than last time. I stayed in the same hotel, and this time had no less than three marriage proposals. Must not be a good place to plan a future. The peace meeting here, too, was just like last time-all party line.
My time in Crimea was wonderful and awful. I had never been, which I now see for what it was, sexually assaulted before. I am thankful that I was surrounded by people and members of my group to support me, and empowered by my own willingness to punch his lights out. The picture it painted for me was that I thought there was a license to treat women in a way that was unacceptable in Russia, and I unfairly blamed them for a long time. When I returned home and the growing awareness of sexual violence that continued to permeate my own culture, and more personal experiences on a much smaller and subtle level, I had to come to grips when the fact that it wasn’t exclusive to a reforming communist country. Yet, I’m glad that I only wrote about the wonderful and kind people I met there in my journal. When I saw the news that Crimea was annexed by Russia, I knew why. It is the crown jewel of the Black Sea, of the Ukraine, and like Russia seems to always do…it takes what it wants.
We are in Yalta, the vacation paradise of Russia. The hotel is magnificent, the beach crowded with people, families unconcerned about body image, just happy to be on the beach, work first, though. We went to a pioneer village, a youth camp and we only met one official, which was quite disappointing.One distinction beyond the same universal educational curriculum for the last 10 years, rock music is no longer suppressed, and some pictorial art.
Back relaxing in the pool, a very attractive man swam up and tried to sell me lacquer boxes. I splashed him off and then felt bad. I saw him that night in the disco and danced with him and nearly punched his lights out when he started to mall me. Whatever decorum was present last time is not present this time. It is very disturbing.
Back in Moscow at the Hotel Rus (*which is now an office building…original built in 1894) and there were cockroaches. Someone stole a pair of my shoes from my room. I am ready to go home.The city tour was OK, it is dirty now.
That was all I wrote about Moscow the second time, except for one funny ditty I wrote in my journal “Hotel Rus, 6000 rooms with 6000 unused bidets”. We did have gala dinner to conclude our trip and I remember it as lovely, but full of other tourists. I couldn’t wait to go home. The only memory of my return trip was that I had to convince so many on the plane when we stopped over in Ireland not to spend all their money in the duty free shop there. It was hard to convince them that Canada would have everything they needed. Going through customs took forever, one of our party got in trouble for trying to smuggle in caviar. I missed my connecting flight and stayed in Montreal at a new friends family home. My sadness returning home would have been oppressive, but I was ready to start my new teaching job. I didn’t journal for months, so I can hardly recall what my feelings were. I did pack up all my Russia books and materials and put them into storage…which speaks volumes.
Both trips to Russia were an instrumental gift in my life. How it presented and continues to present itself in my life may seem blurred at times. I do know that my devotion to truth and cutting through political subterfuge is a result of those journeys, and is the number one reason I am so pained by what is happening in the world right now. I have paid a price for it, but one that I accept readily. Jesus says the truth will set you free…I walk in that belief and understanding every day.