“There are two types of people who visit us: Tourists, and travellers. A tourist visits another country and looks for what makes him feel at home. A traveller comes, accepts what is different, and adapts. Travellers are always welcome guests to Russia.” – Liliana, Intourist guide
We were riding through the streets of Moscow in the early spring of 1994, some years after the “fall” of the Iron Curtain, my husband, myself and 18 other visitors to that most beautiful of countries. Our group was made up of Aussies, Yanks and Brits, and we were a jolly lot. Our guide, Liliana, stood at the front of the bus, neatly turned out in her ancient mink coat, her blonde hair coiled into a rich gold knot at her nape. Like so many Russian women, she was startlingly beautiful and of indeterminate age. If I had to guess, I would say she was possibly approaching 50, and just on the cusp of the facial collapse that age, smoking and repression would likely have on her.
As we passed through the streets, we peered out the gray, mud-spattered windows of our bus and saw the faces of Muscovites queuing for trams, queuing for bread, selling items of clothing from their own closets to buy food. Their eyes were fixed on our white bus with unconcealed malice. We were hated absolutely for touring their country in one of its darkest hours. Though, historically speaking, there have been many, many dark moments, the financial collapse of the early 1990s surely ranks right up there. Not quite Bolshevik Revolution-worthy, but still of painful note to those who remember it.
We were not here to gloat, but to admire.
I did not need to ask why we were hated. Liliana answered before any of us dared ask. “It is funny,” she said. “Ronald Reagan made all these promises. ‘Get rid of Communism,’ he said. ‘We will help you!’ he said. You know what he gave to Russia?” She levelled us each in turn, daring us to speak. Then she smiled and indicated a large restaurant just off Red Square. “Ronald Reagan gave us McDonalds. He gave us Coca-Cola.” She looked out the window at the thin, early-season crowd of Western tourists milling around St. Basil’s, heavily armed with Canon and Pentax, wearing Nikes. “He gave us more ways to make his country rich.”
My husband and I exchanged a glance. She was not judging us personally. Liliana was actually a really lovely person, patient with my fledgling Russian, and we had enjoyed many conversations away from the tour group. I liked and admired her tremendously. Still, I felt ashamed to be what I was in that moment. A Westerner. Spawn of Democratic Capitalism. A “Have” in the land of “Have Nots.”
It did not matter that, as one of Jehovah’s Witnesses, I am completely and utterly neutral in all things political. As an American, I was tarred with the same brush of collective responsibility for precipitating the financial collapse of this noble and beautiful country. (The fact that the Communists had been artificially bolstering the Ruble against the Dollar had its part to play as well, to be sure!) But while everyone was cheering when the Wall came down, we were all filled with such hope.
Political freedom. Religious freedom. Moral freedom. Commercial freedom?
“Freedom! Ha!” Liliana was now guiding us along an open market near the university. “Freedom to do what? To go where? What is freedom with no money? I tell you this,” she said, pulling on her cigarette and blowing in the direction of the market vendors, indicating her disgust. Her mouth twisted in a wry smile. “Who is going to protect us from all this freedom, eh? These markets… don’t waste your money.” (It was too late.) She crushed the cigarette under her worn leather boot. “The only government in this country now is the mafia. You think they pay taxes on those mink hats? Pah.”
I guiltily stowed my mink hat under my arm, praying I didn’t crush it. It had cost me $50. In 1994, that was more than most Russians could expect to earn in 6 months. To me, it was dinner for 2 with drinks. It’s all relative, sure. But still…
Liliana taught some valuable lessons on that trip, not least of which was to take a good, long look at oneself from another perspective. Every pancake, as they say, has 2 sides. Taking the broader picture, I try to apply this to many aspects of life. We cannot please everyone all of the time, but it doesn’t hurt to try and understand how we are being perceived by others, does it?
Was all of Russia breathtakingly beautiful? No. I HATED the dancing bear – or rather, the beggar that was forcing it to dance – directly opposite the Winter Palace. Using a fettered wild animal for entertainment is repulsive to me on every level. Being swarmed by pickpockets in St. Petersburg is an experience I could live without. Fortunately, my husband caught the little thief redhanded and their boss called the gang off.
Street children begging for money but refusing Rubles (which were worthless) in favor of “Dollarov,” who were likely to get beat (or worse) if they returned to their boss empty handed… that was truly upsetting.
“Where are your parents,” I asked.
“Where do you sleep?”
She shrugged. “On the street.” The street was cold and damp. It smelled of cabbage.
The drunk puking on his park bench outside Catherine Palace in Pushkin is an experience I would like to have missed. “He is sick because he makes his own vodka,” said Liliana. “I am not sure he even uses potatoes…these drunks – they make it from whatever they can find…”
In the past 20 years, times have changed for Russia, obviously. The cycle of stability/instability continues virtually unabated, and with recent events in Ukraine and Crimea, naturally we share a global concern for that state of affairs. Sadly, storm clouds never seem far from the Russian horizon.
But there is so much more to this land and to this people than the evening news can possibly tell you. I am sure the same is true of your own country. This Russophile would like to go back one day. I surely hope that will be a possibility!
до свидания мои друзья,
p.s. – Please bear in mind that this perspective on Russia is 20 years old! Also, since most of my photos are in VHS format, believe me, you will get prettier pictures of beautiful Russia off the internet.
feature photo: Shutterstock
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