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The International Writers Magazine - Our Tenth Year: Travel Stories: Russia 1991

Being Russian For Two Weeks
David Russell in St Petersburg

It was September, 1991. Our oldest daughter, Mara, was in Moscow working for CARE and we were headed there for a visit, but first we had made arrangements to live with a Russian family in St. Petersburg for two weeks. That came about through a Travel organization fostering "better understanding among people".

We bought in, because it seemed interesting, the price was right and the agency had a positive track record. So, departing LAX aboard Lufthansa Flight 451 my wife and I headed for St. Pete with a change of planes in Frankfurt. The long flight was handled with German efficiency, but even with superb German cooking and drink plus many naps, we still arrived in a zombie state.

Waiting with our fellow zombies for our luggage, we all milled and stewed, until an hour after landing, the baggage finally arrived. Then, we met our Russian Hosts.
"Um", "huh", somehow the game had changed from our stateside arrangements and agreements. Our to-be hosts, with whom we had exchanged E-mails were an English speaking husband and wife living in the city center. Urban, polished travelers, they’d visited the States many times. Suddenly, they were missing. At least that was the storyline we were fed. With our original hosts unreachable, through quick work the agents had found a different "substitute" family for us.

That family, at least 30 years our seniors, spoke practically no English. She none. He almost none and their tiny flat, far out in the countryside, was no where near the advertised St. Petersburg.

Also, rather than a bedroom, our bed was a small pull out. And we’d all share one tiny bathroom with no tub.That was a long way from what we had been promised, as if the arrangements we had made were for one world and suddenly we were in another – quite alien. We were not yet Russian.

Not wanting to insult our "hosts", but knowing they couldn’t understand our conversation, I phoned the "local manager". Without raising my voice, after a twenty-minute back and forth, I convinced him we could not stay there. We had no means of communicating with our hosts, had no idea where we were located, they had no car nor could they explain how to use local transport. Finally ceding, he agreed to move us next morning.

Exhausted, we indicated the bedroom and squeezed in, going to sleep in our travel clothes, certainly not ready for an unexpected all night battle with mosquitoes coming through a broken window.

Around noon, instead of our travel manager appearing, the host’s son arrived; a University Assistant Professor of Computer Services who spoke fluent English.

Though his job seemed to be to convince us to stay, when we explained our position, his heart wasn’t in the effort. So, we talked computers, a bit of politics, ending with a raised Vodka toast to better future understanding between our peoples. Finally, the son called the local manager and agreed we couldn’t stay with his parents, though they would sorely miss the $200.00 they would have received for having us in their home.

As best he could, he explained to his parents the problems our stay would cause. The father was quite vocal in opposition. The mother said little. Finally, the son prevailed and all was quiet as momma brought from the kitchen stove a Chicken she had been roasting. With a Borscht opener, Chicken, Rice and Vegetables shared – our praise for her cooking seemed to have helped settle things. Shaking hands with poppa, slipping him a $50.00 bill and hugging momma, we again met the lady agent who would now deliver us to our new host family.

What a difference! Natasha and Serge were the kind of hosts we’d envisioned. About our age, with two teen boys. Natasha was an Assistant Professor of English at St. Pete U. Serge a Radio Astrology specialist at a College Level Institute. More important they lived within walking distance of the sites you came to St. Petersburg to see.

The first day, Natasha led us on a walk across the Neva River Bridge, past the Hermitage, alongside the canals, then to the Nevski Prospekt shopping area with its hundreds of one-person "businesses", many sellers peddling only a book or two.

Natasha told us at the University she earned 2100 rubles per month. About $10.00 U.S. Dollar. $120.00 a year for an Assistant College Professor. Quite sobering. Of course the $100.00 a week the family would receive for hosting us would allow them to enjoy some of their favorite foods from better times, which now they considered a luxury. For us, all everyday purchases. Obviously, we still had a lot to learn about being Russian.

Dinner for them was a feast, Chicken Soup with Rice, the Chicken itself served with canned Spaghetti, a fresh vegetable salad, Pumpernickel Bread, Butter and Tea. We ate with great relish; Claryce and I from our exhausting walk, they for the pleasure of the filling meal. After dinner, we phoned Mara in Moscow with our new phone number and confirmed our Moscow arrival. I noted Serge watching the clock, so cut the call short and put two 500 ruble notes on the table. No one said anything but I believe they voiced a silent sigh of relief.

Next day, for pre-dinner drinks, I bought a bottle of Stolichnaya for 219 rubles, $1.10, which we sipped while watching the news in English. Since our hosts had to get their kids off to school quite early, bedtime was also early.

Claryce and I slept in their living room. She on a full sofa and I, an arm chair with a leg bench. Quite comfortable. It had been a satisfying, though tiring day, walking the heart of the city, seeing the Palace Square, the Czar’s Winter residence, Pushkin’s Home (now a museum) and again the Hermitage which we would visit in two days.

Next day our walk took us to the Island Vasilevsky at the Delta of the Neva River, where Alexander The Great thought to do away with streets and avenues, replacing them with canals. Not a smart idea because Alex met with total local resistance, from citizens refusing to pay taxes for the project and a general merchant’s "Nyet", also a flat refusal by the Army because it would give the Navy a leg up. Today, it remains ordinary pedestrian and motor traffic walks and driveways.

Continuing, we past the Peter-Paul Fortress, constructed to serve as a protective guard at the entrance to the Baltic. Though it didn’t really protect anything, it was an effective way to collect shipping taxes. Doesn’t sound like much of a walk, but it took us hours and we covered many miles, so at the end of the day, sitting with feet up and a vodka in hand, was mighty comforting. As was another early good night.

Next day, a school holiday, we got to sleep until 8:30, when strong kitchen odors woke us. Serge was preparing his "famed" omelet breakfast liberally sprinkled with Onions, Curry and Curry Powder. Bread fresh from the downstairs bakery was on the stove being toasted, ready to receive tablespoons of home-made jam. All washed down with mugs of hot tea.

Alex, their 11 year old English-speaking son, joined us as we took a train to an outlying station where their family car was garaged pretty much continuously; it hadn’t been used since last year. Natasha not with us, had gone to the University Dental school, because rumor was, free dental work was to be eliminated.

Our car use was made possible by the travel people provided cans of petrol, so we could avoid the hours long waits at the few operating petrol stations and also to cover it’s "excessive" cost. (All spelled out and included in our cost up front.) For Serge, to fill his tank would cost equal to half the family’s monthly spending income.

Now on wheels, our destination was Pushkon Gardens or more precisely Pushkon Township, the Czar’s village; home to the Imperial Family from the days of Peter. The first sight was the extraordinary garden created by or for Catherine the Great.

The Palace front hall, credited to Catherine was a beholding edifice, with an eye-popping, gold-inlaid entranceway. The Palace itself with over 1,000 rooms, had much Foreign influence, especially Chinese, Turkish and English, plus furniture and furnishings from former Czarist territories. In the garden were erected replicas of Italian and Greek Temples, all situated on a man-made lake.

Our hour there was too short to take in the full spectacle, but it was what we had allowed because we were also to visit the oversized home Catherine had built for her son Paul; a hunting and carousing lodge in the nearby town of Pavlovsk. Charles Cameron, a Scottish architect had been brought over by Catherine to design and construct it. But, no sooner had the spoiled, know-no-bounds Paul moved in, then, to show up mama, he hired the Italian, Vincenzo Branna, to add a few "little" romantic geegaws such as a Golden Yellow dome supported by 64 white columns.

The building atop a bluff, overlooked a small fast running river, but did not overlook an entrance fee no local could afford, about $1.50 US.

The surrounding park, with Statues of the Czars and their families featured thousands of flower beds surrounding a tightly winding path said to equal the distance from St. Petersburg to Moscow, approximately 400 miles. No, we didn’t walk the full path.

What we did do was find a cool spot near a water fountain and picnic on Cheese and Ground Veal sandwiches. Our beverage was the cool fountain water.

While we still had the car, we headed to the Winter Palace to meet our travel person and collect Aeroflot tickets for the upcoming Moscow flight. And since we were close, peeked into the windows of the closed Summer Palace, where Peter had lived with Wife 1 and Wife 2; wife 2 being Catherine, who added the title, "The Great", after she "allegeably" helped do in Peter, who obviously was not so great.

Back at the flat we had our first "hello" with 15 year old son, Sasha. In Sasha, we saw what we had seen in our own growing teen-agers, the beginning of separation from family and an attitude reflecting rebellion. Sasha and his buddies, facing life in what projected to be a have-not society, were cutting school and already "working" the street in the early stages of the coming drug age.

After he slammed out, Natasha rolled her eyes and with tears confessed that with limited resources, they felt they had to concentrate their efforts on Alex who still had a chance. His "A" school efforts and aspirations of higher educational goals gave them hope, while Sasha was fast burning his bridges and momma and poppa were shortening his safety net, knowing it was only a matter of time before he left to wherever the road would take him. Too bad. Too sad. But, life in that Russia had delivered them to where they were and being intelligent people they opted to over-compensate their efforts and resources to "save" Alex. Yet, even at 11, Alex too young to leave home, cast a semi-envious eye to the freedoms his brother had managed for himself.

Friday was a late morning again. Natasha rushed out for another dental appointment. Alex was off to play with a friend while we sat with Serge, asking questions about his radio work. For the past 20 years, his theoretical study and research had been interrelated with those of other scientists worldwide. He had been published in his specialty, some of it based on practical experience in Cuba where he was stationed when the Russians were there. Now, with all that service and study behind him, Serge worried whether or not his funding would be continued. He, like Natasha, both trained and educated people, had no idea if a year hence they’d still be employed.

Alex came home and immediately switched on television; it was time for his program. Cartoons? Not. It was an English language program designed to offer expertise in vocabulary, grammar and conversation. His note book opened, his pencil making quick notes, Alex industriously addressed the information as if it were a classroom challenge. Serge said the program was superior to any school class Alex had. He and his friends were so was into it, they practiced conversational English with each other.

After lunch, we took the tram to our stop, a 10 minute walk from the Hermitage, where we were met by Vera, an in-tourist, English speaking guide, who had traveled broadly in the U.S. Vera would lead Claryce, I and another U. S. couple on a fact-filled 3-hour tour which allowed extra time on the 3rd floor for the French Impressionist collection. Half of the extensive Russian holdings were at the Hermitage, the other half at the Pushkin in Moscow, which we intended to see.

In content, viewing the collection was exciting, except that much of the art seemed hung haphazardly and with many paintings the lighting was misdirected or bulbs were missing. We were glad we’d taken Natasha’s advise to bring flashlights. With the paintings mounted three high, minus our flashes we’d have missed much of the top tier including a few major Rembrandts. Hopefully, today, using modern techniques, the hangings and lighting have improved. And, unlike when we were there, they are limiting flash photography. At the Moscow Pushkin, all was much more professional.

Vera, in her 60’s, spiced her lecture with experiences from her 20 In-Tourist years, at the museum and guiding private tours. Speaking freely, now that In-Tourist had all but ceased operations and spies no longer lurked about, she said when she first started touring, she slyly collected autographs of many famous people. She once got a signature from Margaret Thatcher and her host, President Gorbachav. urged to sign by Thatcher. But her favorite autograph was from Frank Sinatra who wrote "To Vera, thanks for showing me the true soul of Russia". That framed note still sits on her dresser. At 60, Vera was still a fan of Old Blue Eyes.

At the end of our tour, she turned serious, worrying what would happen in her country if conditions didn’t improve. That the increased costs on everyday items put in place by the Yeltsin Government, would soon topple it, because people were ready to revolt. However, what might follow could be worse. Sighing, she said "Russia only understands a strong man with spies and the military control. You only hope you are on the right side.".

Vera, in part cast blame on American TV Shows and American Movies for portraying a too idealized life style, that young Russians wanted. And wanted now. Russia did get its strong man in Putin. Yet, life for common people seems to have changed little, if at all. But, enough about Politics. Yet, Vera’s words remained with Claryce and I so we were much more circumspect with what we said about life in the U.S.

Breakfast on our last full day in St. Petersburg, was Fried Bologna, Yellow Cheese, Toast, Marmalade, a soft-boiled Egg, Tea or Coffee. A veritable feast to begin that final day.

Serge collected his car and we were off to see what we had not, with our first stop being the Saturday Service at the Leningrad Chant Synagogue, arriving in time for final morning prayers, a play between the Cantor and a beautifully voiced boy’s choir.

As we admired the architectural beauty, we were stopped time and again by people asking where we were from. One man said he was from West Los Angeles who was touring Russia before going to Israel. Many asked for money. On Sabbath. In an Orthodox Synagogue. How hard times were, was described by one man, saying, "we live very badly".

Wishing we were able to help more, but knowing giving to one meant giving to all, we made a donation at the office as we left.

Next stop was St. Isaac, the truly magnificent Cathedral; almost a museum, with mosaic tiles over painted backgrounds depicting scenes from the Old Testament (no halos) to the New (All had halos).

Throughout was Bas Relief on Gilt, delicious carvings and a set of exceptional 10 x 20’ bronze doors; sculpted like Rodin’s "Gates Of Hell". These, however, were Hell balanced with scenes of Heaven. From the floor, the main dome rose 100 feet, with tiers at secondary levels. Columns embellished with Lapis and Malachite met the height of the dome. And under our feet an unbelievable tile and stone floor, all showing why construction took 40 years. During the siege of Leningrad, St. Isaac was spared serious damage by both Axis and Allies so it had required minimal restoration.

Another stop was to see statues, a typical tourist stop, minus tourists. Just gypsies holding babies and begging, a copy of downtown Mexico City, Istanbul, Rome, Athens, you name it.

We escaped to the artist’s market, just moved officially from its original Nevsky Prospekt home to a controlled, gated area, where entrepreneurial youngsters hawked their wares in multiple languages; their stalls crowded with versions of Modern Art, Gorbachev and Yeltson stack doll sets, cold boiled eggs, used books, boxes of photographs, T-Shirts including Hard Rock Café and blushing Russian phrases; anything that might generate a few precious rubles. We settled for stack dolls.

The last stop was the hard currency shop. Serge couldn’t enter but we could, buying with dollars items cheaper than he could in a Russian Ruble Market. So, we sat in the car filling out a to-buy list. When he attempted to hand us money, we told him our intent was to buy a hundred U. S. dollars worth of food for the house. He stopped for a minute, mumbling a surprised thank you, then hurriedly added one more item to the list, Godiva Chocolates. When asked why, he said that years back when attending a convention in the states, Natasha fell in love with Godiva Chocolate. Since he wasn’t permitted in dollar stores without a U.S. Passport, the only place he could find them occasionally was at tourist hotels. But now, he couldn’t afford the purchase. For him, a simple box of Godiva Chocolates was far beyond his reach.

Without further word, Claryce and I went in, showed passports and began to load a shopping cart with basics including Sugar, Salt, Bread, then, giant-sized Kellogg’s Corned Flakes, Canned Peaches, Spices, Dairy Products, Fresh Cut Meats and Chicken, Canned Smoked fish, 4 bottles of White Chardonnay, some good Russian Brandy and Vodka, a large container of Ice Cream, tins of Coffee and Tea and with the cart piling high, a half dozen boxes of assorted Godiva Chocolates. After bagging and paying, a clerk helped us out and we loaded the car trunk, assuring Serge that we had the Chocolate. Though offered, the clerk accepted no gratuity and in English said, "thank you for coming to our store.".

That night dinner was a real treat. Filet Steaks, a fresh Salad, and Corn-On-The Cob, preceded by a Vodka toast (or two) and finished with scoops of Ice Cream. Alex got seconds. After all was cleared, Serge opened one Godiva Chocolates box.

Both he and Natasha were in tears as they looked at and fondled the gold wrappers. We didn’t think they’d ever eat them till Serge assured Natasha he had another box put away.

If I ever saw a more beautiful look than that on Natasha’s face as she nibbled a bit of the chocolate, I couldn’t remember when. And the love in Serge’s face was so obvious as he watched his wife’s pleasure, so Claryce and I said short good nights, using the excuse of last minute packing and left them in their moment.

Next morning, Serge wanted to prepare a large farewell breakfast, but we insisted on just coffeet, since the travel agent would soon gather us for our Moscow flight.

The last moments complete with hugs and kisses and promises to stay in touch were done quickly, each knowing we would never see each other again; there was just too much difference between our lives and theirs. We could drop into (and out of) their difficult, terribly limiting world on the whim of a spur-of-the-moment lark. After a few months, their letters stopped and so did ours.

© David Russell August 2009

Being Russian – Part II – MOSCOW
Visiting Moscow, where we lived with our oldest daughter, who was then working for CARE.
David Russell

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