It is difficult to write about traveling Russia. Simply, it is a very intense country. In all I have learned in history books and by cultural influences, from novels and the news and from second-hand accounts, I know a thing or two and my wild imagination takes any knowledge that I have and pushes it much further. Most can relate to this, an idea of a place that builds over time and becomes a traveling destiny.
It all began when I was a five year-old girl. A musical child, I was tasked with picking out classical music for my family to listen to at dinner. I always chose Tchaikovsky because I liked to announce his name loudly and because I liked the art on the sleeve of the LP. That memory danced back into my head like sugar plumbs decades later as I sat beneath the chandeliers of Moscow’s Bolshoi Theater.
My second lesson came during the 1992 Olympics that were held in Barcelona. The Soviet Union had just fallen, and the Olympic gymnasts had just performed for the last time together as one ‘unified team.’ I was obsessed with their stories, told in small segues by Bob Costas and enhanced by brooding string music. These girls, just a little older than me, had sacrificed their entire childhoods to train at the Soviet National Gym, earning money for their families and glory for themselves — trading gold medals for square footage to house their large families. Following that, I learned a lot about Soviet sport, quickly realizing that learning these stories would be the closest that I would ever get to joining them on the Olympic stage. A little too old and slightly too large, it just wasn’t in the cards for me.
In high school, our concert choir director brought to us Bògòroditse Devo, a song in seven part harmony. I didn’t know what the song meant as I learned it, or even as we sang it on stage, but I knew in an instant that Russian had to be one of the most difficult languages for native English speakers to learn.
Not long after that, my older brother turned me on to Dostoevsky. “You have to be smart and well-read, little sister.” I read many of Dostoevsky’s books; then Tolstoy, Gogol and Pushkin and others.
As I became a young adult, more entranced by history and literature, I got into stories of WWII. I learned about torture at the Kremlin and the KGB. Then, spy shows such as The Americans sprouted up—stories inspired by the Cold War. And during that season of TV, Russia reared herself again as new scandalous tales emerged in the news from the Bolshoi—an acid attack within the company on the artistic director, retaliation for his casting of the principle parts.
Sometime during all of that I became a traveler. Russia would no longer be a fantasy, but a place I would plan to go to. When I finally arrived last spring, I had already had a deep relationship with Russia. I had nothing to say, nothing to write—I just wandered around for a few days with my lips scraping the snowy sidewalk as I lapped up the dirty grey sky. My imagination had materialized all around me and far more intensely than I could ever imagine.
I experienced it and marinated in the memory of it for a while, and now, six months later, I am finally writing about it. Like all great countries, there are museums, statues, parks, people, cafés, cathedrals, theatre, the arts and more than enough to do. Overarching is the everlasting history; the reign of the czars and of the philandering Catherine the Great; of Pushkin the poet of St. Petersburg; Alexander the Great; Ivan the Terrible, Stalin and so forth. There really is no end of tales surrounding the people who directed the monumental history of Russia.
The parks sit just as they were written in my old books: cold and monochromatic and still as night, decorated with sparse trees reaching up to the sky. The embankments, the rivers, were frozen completely, creating a mirror for billowing smoke stacks and a shortcut walking path for people to cross. People walked through the streets holding hands or drinking vodka in paper bags—men and women—fur lining their hoods and boots. The Babushkas stood short and the statuesque women stood tall and the men all looked quite similar to one another in some way. They sputtered sentences that I couldn’t understand or pronounce no matter how hard I tried. And everywhere I turned I found a decorated person, building, shop, church or street, left in some way or another with markings of the Celestial Empire—my next self-imposed reading assignment.
They say that Russia is a different country in every season; I saw it in the spring of my first Russia, and I had barely scratched the surface.