Chances are I’ll never return to Russia, the country formerly known as the Soviet Union where I spent twenty-eight days in June of 1989, a quarter of a century ago and counting. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was taking a last peek at an empire on the brink of collapse, and indeed I didn’t experience the police state I thought I’d encounter. My naive expectation was that the KGB would sweep down on jaywalkers and haul them off to some gulag in Irkutsk, but what I found instead were swarms of black-marketers openly operating virtually everywhere I wandered, exchanging money or swapping a Soviet flag for a pair of blue jeans or sunglasses.
During a long sunshiny night on the Gulf of Finland, just west of Leningrad, an East German tourist pulled a knife on me when I knocked on the door of his room where five men were bellowing patriotic songs at 3 AM. At first, the knife-wielder and his non-English speaking compatriots invited me in to share beer and sausage, but when they asked me where I was from, and I answered, one pulled out a knife. The others quickly quieted him and produced snapshots of their children to establish our brotherhood. I didn’t carry photos of my own boys who were five and four at the time and would have appreciably “aged” when I would see them next.
I was one of four chaperones in charge of twenty high school students and two college freshmen. It was a frenetic trip that took us from Leningrad to Moscow to Siberia then westward down through Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Soviet Georgia, then finally back to Moscow. However, it was Leningrad — now St. Petersburg — the setting of Crime and Punishment — that to me was the most surreal.
Criss-crossed with canals, Leningrad was a beautiful city of 18th century pastel-colored buildings (and, of course, so is St. Petersburg today). However, back then, its citizens were the most morose human beings I’ve ever encountered. To a man and woman (I don’t remember seeing any children), they shuffled along wearing expressions of total, abject despair. Even on the two-story escalators leading to and from the gorgeous subway stations, lovers who faced each other holding both hands wore the expressions of people about to be taken away to be shot.
In fact, the only time I saw anyone smile occurred on a city bus. I was by myself and had mastered the system. You bought a ticket, a thin sheet of paper, from a machine at the station and then punched it yourself on the bus, but you didn’t give it to the driver; you just held onto it in perpetuity. In other words, the buses operated on the honor system, which, given Russia’s economy’s reputation of being bribe-fueled, doesn’t make a lot of sense.
Anyway, I was seated next to a woman whose mien would make images of Mary at Golgotha seem upbeat in comparison. As we sat there in stony silence — no one conversed with each other — a thin man in a dark suit and skinny tie who reminded me of David Byrne boarded with a ticket in his hand. He was as jittery as Barney Fife confronting a criminal, as nervous as I’ve ever seen anyone in my life. He stood there a-tremble, turning this way and that, holding the ticket up, and was on the point of flailing when I got up and showed him how to deal with the ticket. He punched it, and as I turned around, every single person on the bus hit one sarcastic clap in unison, and on their collective faces a pained smile broke through the ice of their glacial unhappiness. It was as if they had forgotten how to smile, that they were using muscles unaccustomed to exercise – they were sardonic smiles but smiles nevertheless.
However, the further east you went, the less morose the people, the better the food. Compared to Leningrad, Siberia was downright carnivalesque.