If I take one thing from the Winter Olympics currently taking place in Sochi, Russia, it won’t be images of glittering ice skaters, the sound of skittering luge sleds or amazement at snowboard acrobatics. Nor will it be a cautious globally focused optimism despite the snickering over a perceived lack in amenities or concern about a very real lack in human rights.
The one thing I will take from this spectacle will be a rekindling of memories, from a time that still remains, in part, razor sharp in my mind even as the details continue to recede into the past, crumbling at the edges.
It was May 1989 when I traveled to Russia. Except back then, we didn’t think of it as Russia, we thought of it as the Soviet Union, which it still was. I was accompanying a group of actors and artists from the Minneapolis Children’s Theatre Company, traveling to Moscow as one of the first cultural exchanges made possible by Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s glasnost policies. I was a hanger-on, with no real purpose. My husband was part of CTC’s troupe; I was allowed to come along simply because I could. I was young, back then, and anything was possible.
We had been cautioned before leaving that things would be very different from what we were used to back in the States. We had been warned to follow instructions, to not challenge rules, to temper our expectations, to be courteous, to be cautious, to be open but respectful of authority. Even with all this foreshadowing, I was completely unprepared for Soviet Russia.
Most everyone knows the famous opening line of Charles Dickens’ novel, A Tale of Two Cities: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…” How few of us, though, can say that we have truly experienced the grist of this sentence. My time in Moscow was exactly that – a time of debilitating, soul crushing depression, and amazing, exhilarating, life changing joy.
We had no idea just how much the world was in flux when we stepped off that plane at the Moscow airport; we simply were shocked to see guards on the tarmac cradling AK-47s. The soldiers looked to be no older than we were; they did not make eye contact, but instead seemed to be listening to some internal commandment that kept them aloof yet alert, fingers alongside the trigger of their weapons held in front of their bodies. The threat of those rifles was latent, but obvious. We certainly were a long, long way from Kansas.
Keep in mind this was long before 9/11, when airline travel was a lark, part of the frivolous joy of the journey. There were few security checks (making the customs clearances a heart pounding experience), no need to remove shoes or belts, no bans on liquids or toenail clippers – heck, you could still smoke in the last few rows of the plane. This was also long before smart phones or even cell phones and way before personal computers were common, let alone laptops. There were no iPods or iPads, or any real handheld electronics; even Walkman’s were something of a luxury. But then, in 1989, being “plugged in” had yet to arrive.
It was disappointing to learn upon arrival that Red Square would be closed to us, most probably for the duration of our stay. Congress was in session, we were told, so Red Square, where the meetings were taking place, was cordoned off completely. That meant no St. Basil’s Cathedral, no Lenin’s Tomb, no Kremlin. Our hotel, the Rossiya (a behemoth, and only one of two hotels in Moscow allowed to house Westerners), was adjacent to Red Square, so we could see the brilliantly colored cupolas, and the squat building that housed the mausoleum, and the red brick of the square itself, every day, but we were never allowed to set foot there.
Still, we took a bit of excitement from knowing that the delegates to that sitting Congress were also staying at the Rossiya, even though their part of the hotel was also off limits (once I took a wrong turn and ended up at a hallway designated for official Soviet business only; I was convinced my room was beyond the guards, but the AK-47s politely but decidedly pointed at my chest quickly dissuaded me of that notion). Little did we know that the meetings taking place during our time in Moscow would lead directly to the dissolution of the Soviet Union less than 2 years later.
We didn’t realize so much. We didn’t know that the Congress meeting during our stay was the first session of the new Congress of People’s Deputies, who had been elected in a general election where there had been close to 90% voter turnout – with amazingly over 300 seats being filled by non-endorsed candidates. We didn’t know that the proceedings taking place just steps away were being broadcast on state media, and for the first time ever in the Soviet Union, were being carried live and uncensored. The Soviet people could actually watch their previously iron clad government officials questioned and even criticized by reformers who took advantage of Gorbachev’s perestroika.
What we did learn that first day was that our counterparts at Moscow Children’s Musical Theater, and the citizens throughout Moscow felt literally drunk with freedom. Only a few days before our arrival, the law that had made it illegal for citizens to congregate in groups of four or more in public had been repealed. This meant that for the first time in memory, friends could go out for lunch together, or go to the park across the street on a smoke break, and not be afraid of being detained. (Think of it! You and three friends in a mall, a park, a restaurant, being against the law – a law that was enforced, not just arbitrarily.) They said they could smell freedom in the air. They were absolutely buoyant, alive, flushed with possibility. Their optimism was infectious.
They still couldn’t be out on the streets after dark. A Westerner still could not be invited into the home of a citizen, nor be in the company of a citizen after 10:00 pm. But then, Westerners were scarce, tourists were a novelty. There wasn’t anything to do after dark, anyway. There were no bars, no restaurants, no cafes, no coffee shops. There were no stores of any kind, other than the huge GUM state department store that closed before the dinner hour arrived. No bookstores, no convenience stores, no grocery stores or corner shops to pick up a magazine or a bottle of soda. Being home after dark was not a huge inconvenience for a controlled population, but to our capitalistic sensibilities, it was a stunted existence, and we chafed at it. But we did dimly realize just how deeply the new, seemingly small liberties affected our hosts, and we celebrated with them with a shared sense of camaraderie that felt genuine, even if some of them still held back, still were guarded, as if expecting the rug to be pulled out from under them yet again.
But what was clear, and evident, and universal amongst all the Soviets, was an overwhelming sense of national pride. Not a pride of their political process, nor pride in communism or socialism, not pride in the U.S.S.R or the industrial machine. Pride in Russia. In Mother Russia. Time after time, we were told that Russia was not her politics, that she had existed long before the Communists came and before the monarchs who ruled before that, and she would exist long after they all were gone. That she would wait out political strife, war, boundaries, hardship; that she and her people would simply endure, and be, proudly, Russians. To them, to be Russian meant to be a people who had lived on this land for thousands of years. Hearty people, people who knew how to take care of themselves, people who walked where they needed to go, who made what they needed to make. Generous people, who would – literally – give you the shirt off their back, even if it was the only shirt they owned. People who could sing and dance, people who could make due on little because inside, they carried so much.
I once was party to a conversation between the lighting technicians in the Moscow theater, and my husband, who was CTC’s lighting designer, and a few other Americans. The work day had ended, and this small group of technicians had retreated into the bowels of the building, to the electrical shop, where, surrounded by idle beam projectors, ellipsoidal spotlights, cables and connectors, they passed around bottles of vodka, and carved slices off a slab of raw bacon with a huge hunting knife (“Peeg! Is good! You have, yes, yes!”). Sergei, the head electrician (and a lighting artist in his own right) pulled out a guitar, and in a deep, booming voice, full of power and passion, he started singing freedom songs, songs made popular by an underground political activist. This made some of the Muscovites uncomfortable. “You can be jailed if they hear you!” But Sergei shrugged them off. “These are our songs,” he said, with conviction. “We are Russians. We will sing and they cannot stop us.”
The Americans in the group were dumbfounded at the idea of being put in jail simply for singing a song that the government deemed undesirable. We all had heard such a thing, yes, but now we were actually in the presence of people who lived in such a world. It was no longer an abstract idea, it was their reality. And yet, they sang.
We cautiously took turns talking about what it meant to be free. The Americans prodded very carefully, not wanting to unwittingly stir up discord but compelled to understand what to us was so unthinkable. Then the question was asked, “Have you ever thought of leaving?”
I will remember the next few moments for the rest of my life. “I do not wish to leave,” Sergei said, with as much conviction as he had used in bashing the authorities a few moments earlier, “this is my home.”
“But in America, you would not have to worry about what you say, what you sing. You could do anything, have anything!”
Sergei shook his head and let out a grunt, followed quickly by a smug smile offset by the twinkle in his blue eyes. “You Americans!” he exclaimed. “You are so rich, you think you have everything! And you are rich, you have so many things.” He spread his hands out in front of himself, as if offering up a banquet feast. “Yet you are so empty, here,” he said, tapping his chest. “You have so many things, yet you have no soul.”
That stunned us into silence. He smiled again, and protested that we must not misunderstand him, that we were indeed good people. “But your country, you have only been around for, what, a few hundred years? You are young, full of yourselves. You equate things with worth. But we know what true worth is. True worth is tradition. Not things, not politics, not governments. This land. Mother Russia. She is what makes us rich. We are the richest people in the world, even though we have nothing. We have Russia. She is enough.”
Sergei’s words stay with me, still. I don’t know if I agree with him, but I look out over all the things I have nearby, those things that I would feel lost without. I remember his words germinating an idea in me that Americans think in distance, in open spaces, in manifest destiny, while other cultures think in depth, in history, in layer upon layer of existence built on top of what came before. I know that at times I do feel empty. I have many things, yes, and I have an abiding love of my country, and a fierce and consuming love for my family. But indeed, at the core of my existence, I do not have a Mother Russia.
I watch the Olympics now, and my memories of Russia wash over me. I find myself somewhat detached from the events themselves; I couldn’t care less about medal counts or personal rivalries, judging controversies or records breaking. Perhaps it’s because of the slight taint that seems to surround these Games, or the ever constant branding and merchandising and commercialism, or perhaps due to the posturing that looms large over the more idyllic principals that are what the Olympics are supposed to embody.
Or perhaps it’s because I can’t watch these games without thinking of my experience in Russia; a very different Russia, yes, but one that impacted me greatly, in many ways, both personal and profound. I have only scratched the surface of that impact here; it was a time when I cried myself to sleep at night after days of agonizing beauty, when I felt so isolated that I knew utter, unmitigated despair; when a can of Pringles potato crisps tried and failed to keep me sane, and where gods were realized and human tragedy was projected over the crackling static of a HAM radio in the back of a rock band’s tour bus. Where I met David Gilmour’s mother (yes, that David Gilmour, he was there, too). And where I learned to never, ever, ever travel without a book ever again.
Seeing the Russian flag flying at the Olympic Games rather than the ever present Soviet hammer and sickle of my days in Moscow, I am reminded that I, indeed, had gotten a glimpse of that which endures. A tiny glimpse of Mother Russia and of her proud children. And I am by far a richer person for it.