A Visit to Russia

TODAY I MET A WOMAN MY AGE IN RUSSIA WHO ATE ONLY SUGAR CUBES AND POTATOES WHEN SHE WAS PREGNANT WITH TWINS. That’s all the food they had.  Her husband had a job in a factory, but he didn’t get paid any money for several years so they got paid in sugar cubes.  When I asked her how she survived that, she said she didn’t know and she doesn’t want to remember because it was “very difficult” and that she was hungry “all the time” for several years.  I couldn’t help but look at this lovely woman sitting across from me drinking tea in her kitchen, surrounded by art projects her daughters made as they were growing up, and think that could have been me, if not for a twist of fate.

MY ANCESTORS ARE FROM RUSSIA. When my grandfather was a young boy, he somehow escaped the Pogroms and got on a boat to America. I have additional relatives that came to America from Russia (present-day Belarus and Poland).  As a child, I would hear whispers about far away cities such as Grodno and Brezin, but no one in my family seemed to want to talk about the past.  For many years, I proudly displayed the large brass Samovar my grandfather brought with him – the only thing he was allowed to carry on the ship to America- in the dining room of my home in Minnesota. It was something that connected me to my past and made me think that I came from a people who were strong and brave to cross an ocean to a land they didn’t know.

TODAY, BECAUSE OF ANOTHER TWIST OF FATE, I AM IN RUSSIA. Last year, I moved to Bulgaria with my husband to teach journalism and documentary filmmaking at the American University in Bulgaria.  AUBG is the most prestigious university in the Balkan region with students from 44 countries who come to Blagoevgrad to get an American-style liberal arts education in English. (For those of you from Minnesota, AUBG is like the Macalester of the Balkans.)  A few weeks ago, I was thrilled when I was notified that I was selected to help recruit high school students from Russia to our fascinating school. This is what brings me back to the land of my ancestors. Before I left, several people warned me to “be careful” and “don’t get in any trouble.” Even though the Communist Party of the Soviet Union was officially abolished in 1991, everyone has heard lately about how the Pussy Riot band members are on trial for speaking out against Russian President Vladimir Putin. My family and friends wanted to make sure I didn’t say or do anything wrong. Few Americans have ever been to Russia, so all we have is our pre-conceived notions of what this country is really like.

TO MY SURPRISE, RUSSIA SEEMS A LOT LIKE AMERICA IN MANY WAYS.  This might sound strange to people who study politics and war, but I study and observe human nature and human behavior. What I am seeing is people who look and act like Americans in many ways.

1. RUSSIANS SHOP A LOT.  There are big shopping malls and American chain stores such as Adidas, Starbucks and Benetton in every major city. Large pedestrian-only streets are packed with shoppers carrying several bags, many of them from those stores. Many young women in extremely high heels are dressed like models from New York and there are children in Nikes and t-shirts with English slogans.  Men in jeans and sweaters are indistinguishable from any American city. Everyone has a cell phone. I’ve also seen many young people with iPads and iPhones in schools where there are few, if any, computers for students.

2. RUSSIANS EAT ALOT.  McDonalds in Saratov, a port city on the Volga River about 500 miles south of Moscow,  was packed. Traditional bakeries filled with delicious sweets are jammed with families taking a break from shopping. I ate my first “Rum Baba,” which is an incredibly delicious raisin bread soaked in rum (but you can’t taste the rum) from one of the best bakeries I’ve ever visited. Tourists (if there were any in Saratov) would go crazy over this spot. Grocery stores in all cities I have visited are full of products from all over the world.  One market had prepared food for take away, just like Whole Foods. The “cafeteria ladies” in the school canteens where we are recruiting proudly display the healthy food they make including borscht, kasha and stuffed cabbage rolls (all food from my childhood). In one school, I had the best cheese blini (my grandmother called them “blintzes”) I have ever eaten along with “compote,” a fabulous boiled juice drink made with fresh fruit. And Russians are obsessed with tea! Even the kids in school drink tea from a young age.  The overnight train I was on from Moscow to Saratov was in poor condition, but the teacups were beautiful.

3. RUSSIANS TALK A LOT, except on the tram, in subways and in train stations where everyone is stone-faced and extremely quiet.  My traveling partner,  AUBG recruiter Svetlana Bondar, calls that look  “the wall.” But get Russians in the lobby of a theater after a play, and you will hear them chatting and debating what they just saw. Every city I visited had multiple theaters that are full every night of the week.  While in Yekaterinburg, I had the pleasure of seeing a performance of “The Seagull” by Anton Chekhov as well as an engaging performance of  “ Squaring the Circle “ by a famous Russian playwright Valentin Kataev, courtesy an AUBG parent.  Even though it was in Russian,  I understood both performances and I especially enjoyed the Kataev play because it was a funny story about two married couples sharing the same apartment. Best of all,  one of the lead actors was the father of an AUBG student, which made the evening very special.  Both shows were packed with people of all ages.  No one on cell phones, no one tweeting, no one sleeping. The entire audience was riveted.  It made me wish that American young people were equally engaged in the arts instead of their video games and sports teams. This love for theater also explains why so many of our AUBG students wouldn’t miss the end-of-the semester school plays, even when they are performed at midnight during finals week.

4. RUSSIAN TV PROGRAMS LOOK LIKE OURS. Last night I saw a Russian version of “American Idol,” several old war movies, a boxing match, an Oprah-like makeover show of hefty women, various news programs, talk shows, cartoons and even the “Disney Channel” on Sunday morning.  If I turned off the sound, I wouldn’t know where I was.

Now, here is where we are not alike:

1. THE FREE SPEECH ISSUE:  This is a big one. Since I have been here, the Pussy Riot case has been in the news and one of the Pussy Riot members was freed but the rest are still in prison.  Not one single Russian person I have met has talked about this issue with me in public.  In private, some Russians have explained to me that you can speak out about anything here except for few sacred things: Putin and religion. Yesterday I saw this on CNN:

“The government has introduced numerous new restrictions to freedom of expression in recent months. As this decision demonstrates, Russia’s judiciary is unlikely to offer much protection to those who fall foul of them.”

In private, I have heard concerns about the direction this country is heading under President Putin, whose recent election stirred protests and accusations of fraudulent voting.  Anti-Putin protesters were arrested and jailed along with Pussy Riot band members.  One thing for sure: no one here wants to go back to the way things were in the days of the Gulag or sugar cubes for a salary.

2. THE LACK OF DIVERSITY:  There are few, if any, people of color or obvious ethnicity in the cities where I visited (except for Moscow).  This is strange, especially coming from the melting pot of the United States. In Russia, I am one of the few “foreigners.” When I speak English in cities such as Saratov and Yekaterinburg, everyone wants to know where I am from and why I am here.  Sveta has advised me to not speak so much in public because “you never know what people will want from you.”   The cafeteria lady at one of the schools told me how nice it was to “see a foreigner.”   She kept smiling at me and wanted to make sure that I liked her food.  I was asked to sign a guest book in another school cafeteria.  Because the U.S. is country that is filled with so many people of every kind of ethnicity and religion one can imagine, it is strange to be somewhere where I am considered unique.

3. SUSPICIOUS BEHAVIOR Don’t talk to strangers. That’s the advice I got from many people when I told them I was coming here.  When I am alone (which is rare), I am careful to keep to myself and not look anyone in the eye. One of my favorite activities when I travel is to go to grocery stores, something I can do alone and feel like a local.  One can tell a lot about any culture by seeing the food they eat, the products they sell and buy. So yesterday I went for a walk in a nearby park in Saratov and then stopped in the neighborhood market. I spent about an hour wandering around looking at products, smelling things (dried fish!) and deciding what to buy.  Then I noticed that I was being followed.  After smelling some Russian shampoos, I turned around to see a woman in a security guard uniform staring at me.  Fortunately, she didn’t speak to me but just shot me a glowering look.  Again, about ten minutes later, the same thing happened with a different guard in the liquor aisle as I was checking out two aisles of beer and vodka. Mind you, I didn’t even have a purse and I wasn’t carrying any bags, so I could not have been shoplifting and I couldn’t understand why I was being watched. Quickly, I decided to check out at the cashier and bought a few things and rushed back to my hotel.  When I told my traveling partner Sveta this story, she said that shopping that way was not normal.  Most Russians just go into the store and buy what they need and leave.  The guards might have thought I was casing the place, possibly planning something in the future.  This was a strange experience for me, but a good reminder that there is general distrust of strangers or anything that even appears different, such as leisurely strolling around a grocery store.

4. CORRUPTION IS NORMAL There’s not much to say about this except that it is a normal part of daily life here (also in Bulgaria). Imagine my surprise to find out that grades can be bought. Even college degrees have a price tag!  Everyone knows. It’s normal.

SO… what have I learned on this trip?  Well, it’s not over yet, but from what I have seen so far I can say that I am proud to have Russian blood. How can I say this after my ancestors were forced to flee this country?  Because I think that knowing that you are connected to a country that goes back to, oh, the year 862, helps one understand that human beings are actually more predictable than we think.  There will always be war. There will always be rulers and followers. There will always be rich and poor.  There will always be times of freedom, repression and corruption. There will always be discrimination of somebody or something.  And because of that cycle of life, there will always be people who develop courage. Some are heroes that you can read about in history books who are immortalized for their grand feats. Others are quiet heroes, like the Russian mother who learned to deal with her hunger while eating only sugar cubes.  It made her a stronger person, knowing she could survive that.  She gave that to her daughters.  It’s a gift they don’t know they have.

I realize now that my grandfather’s journey to America gave me an inner strength that I never understood until today.I think that’s why I kept the Samovar he carried with him in my dining room for so many years.  His courage is his gift to me.  Now that I’ve been to Russia, at least I understand where this comes from.

                                                   My Russian Ancestors 

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