I had traveled to Russia to volunteer with local social workers and groups who needed help. During the week, my charge was to help those who could not help themselves — the children without parents, the elderly who had lost all those who cared for them, and the teenagers who struggled to determine who they were amongst a world they found to be largely unknown. On the weekends, I escaped to the cities, partly to understand the lives many Russians yearned to live, partly out of a selfish romanticism to see the world.
“Welcome to a warm and snowy Russia,” a flight attendant’s voice said over the speakers.
I let out a quiet laugh. Apparently, it was not a joke.
I pulled myself together and, as I trudged up the flight gate, I was brimming with anxiety and excitement about the two weeks to come.
I stepped up to the customs agent’s desk, handed her my passport and smiled. She stared back, without a word or a smile. Little did I know I would learn to love the Russian way of stoic expression. But for now, it confirmed my feeling of being a nuisance to a country that was still suspect of Americans as though the Cold War had never ended. Here in Moscow, the blonde with the bright pink suitcase and the Yankee accent was clearly on the wrong side of the conflict.
In hindsight, this was mostly misconception. But at the time, I was weary of being too foreign and too naïve. For the previous five months, I had read reports of Russian citizens protesting against the presidential vote, with newspapers comparing the movement to the Arab Spring. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin fired accusations that blamed the United States for encroaching on Russia’s power, threatening an already-strained alliance. At the United Nations, Russia and the United States were still far from a compromise over the killings unfolding in Syria. Nearly a week before I had arrived, two men were arrested on charges of plotting to assassinate Putin.
The day I arrived was Election Day in Russia, and if something were to go awry, I expected to be in the middle of the chaos. Luckily, I was wrong.
Yaroslavl, the town soon to be my temporary home, was about five hours north of Moscow. The drive was long and cold in the back of the grey, dirt-covered van. There was little evidence that that day was unlike any other in Moscow, with the exception of political billboards dedicated to bolstering support for Putin. After talking with Lena, the translator with Cross Cultural Solutions, the group I was working with, I suppose it really wasn’t different.
“What do you think of the vote?” I asked Lena.
“I don’t believe in it,” she said. “We’ve already had our next president chosen for us.”
As we drove out of the city, the snow-covered fields seemed to become almost infinite with the exception of an occasional line of birch trees sprinkled with frost.
“You can go to sleep if you’d like,” Lena told me.
I hated the idea. I had just arrived in a country in which I had never been, a country I had waited nearly a year to see. Yet, somehow, I gave in to my exhaustion. When I woke up, Yaroslavl was waiting.
Traveling to St. Petersburg
A few days later, I began to grow out of that jetlag, a virus made up of time changes and longing for home. Putin had won the presidential election despite the protests, and it was snowing again in Yaroslavl. It was just another day, but to me, it was all brand new.
I left for St. Petersburg early that week, thanks to a holiday weekend. The overnight train ride to the city was long, nearly 12 hours. The train pulled out of the station at nearly midnight, and a Russian midnight is unlike any other. The darkness is heavier, just like the snow that covers the ground, glistening here and there in the sparkle of moonlight. There was little to see, but much to take in.
After arriving the next morning in St. Petersburg, I found myself wandering through back streets and ice-covered paths, trying to find the revered Apple Hostel, a relatively small apartment space down a stone alleyway.
The next 24 hours were a blur.
I saw the Church of the Savior of Spilled Blood, built to honor an assassinated czar and resemble St. Basil’s in Moscow.
I learned that if I were to spend a single minute at each exhibit in the State Hermitage Museum, it would take me eight years to see.
I caught a bus to the famed Mariinsky Theater to see Madame Butterfly, an opera about an American in Japan, sung in Italian and translated into Russian. I did not understand a word, and I decided it best to fall asleep to the music. But chairs at Mariinksy were not meant for sleeping.
By 11:30 pm, I managed my way back to the general area of the hostel, playing Frogger with Russian drivers, whizzing by in every direction. The night lights were dim, and once I crossed the street, I was halfway there.
Despite all the warnings I had read in travel guides, I walked down a dark, St. Petersburg alleyway, on my own, with icicles dripping from above as the lonely hostel light shone about 200 yards in front of a frozen, unlocked iron gate. At the time, I had no other choice, and I would do it again.
But there were peaceful moments, too.
I spent an early afternoon in an empty Carl’s Jr., which in St. Petersburg resembles a nightclub more than a fast-food restaurant. After not eating for more than a day, that double bacon cheeseburger with fries was more delicious than any Russian pancake or apple tart I could have bought elsewhere.
I saw the near-empty luxury apartments with a waterfront view, the same ones that were rented for free during the Cold War.
I stood in the middle of Catharine Palace, surrounded by gold and amber and the history of a culture so European, yet so distinct in its passion for life and those who lived before them.
I have lived.
The faces of children
A tall, thin boy stood in the children’s mental hospital in Yaroslavl the day I volunteered there. The walls in the hallways were covered with small, blue tiles, and as the light shone in through one of the few windows, the boy turned his head and stared as visitors wandered. Clothed in jeans and a gray sweater, he could not have been older than 12. But this was his home. No one knew for how long.
“Everyone is going to seem normal when you get there,” one of the other volunteers, Rachel Sanders, had told me earlier that day. “But just remember, most of them have been heavily sedated.”
The boy walked back and forth in silence as Rachel and I were led into the room where younger children played with nurses in white jackets. This room was also covered in tile from waist-level, at least. In America, hospitals smell clean, sterile. Here in Yaroslavl, the children’s hospital smelled old.
The children did not seem to mind. They had never met me before, but three small boys ran and hugged me as Rachel and I pulled out games and crafts for them to play. Soon, music was playing through a small boom box, which seemed to soothe some of children who had more serious disabilities. They smiled and laughed and danced in the crowded room, hiding underneath tables or playing Candy Land together.
These children were innocent of the world and victims of genetics, pre-natal addiction or just mere fate. But they were happy, and that happiness seeped out into the hallways where it became contagious among the other children. It would have been easy not to notice the doctor who stepped in every 10 minutes, asking for a child and then returning a calmer, more steady child shortly after.
“Help me, help me,” the children said as we showed them how to make a toy out of a few pieces of paper and foam.
I only wish I could have.
‘How was Russia?’
When I came back to America, my friends and peers and professors asked, “Well, how was Russia? Tell me about your trip.”
It is hard to explain a different culture and a different people in a pithy, brief statement to a stranger. Even now, Russia feels like a dream. A vivid dream that lingered for a moment, as Steinbeck would have said. But then, the dream was gone, and only the memory remained.
Kristin Shaulis is a University of Alabama graduate student who is interning this summer at The Star through the partnership with the Ayers Family Institute of Community Journalism. Follow her at Twitter.com/KShaulis_Star.