Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Back in the U.S.S.A….

Dear Murderous Ones,

I just returned from Russia last night. It was an amazing experience, and I have a lot I'd like to say about it, but not right now, because I returned with my usual souvenir (a cold) and have to sleep and work and mundane things like that. But a couple of things really stuck in my mind.

The first is what one Russian woman said to me. She asked, "Are Americans afraid to come to Russia? Maybe they think we have bears in the street?"

(this Russian bear only wanted to feed us)

I had no good answer for her, other than, America, like Russia, is a very big country, and it's not wise to make too many generalizations about a place that is so large and diverse. 

But I had to ask myself why, for all the times that I've traveled to China (and I've actually lost count), how it was that I had never made it to Russia before. I've always been fascinated with the other side of the story. I'm old enough to remember the days of the Cold War, of being a very little kid and doing duck and cover drills under our kindergarten desks.

(okay, this was before my time, but we were still doing this stuff in the mid/late Sixties!)

Going to China in 1979 was like going through the looking glass to an entirely different reality, where all of the things we were taught in the US were bizarre fairy tales that had little bearing on what the average Chinese person believed or had experienced. I'm not saying that we were taught total falsehoods or that the system in China was something desirable, but I will say that there were many distortions in our version of history, and more to the point, that our version of history was something that was unrecognizable to most Chinese. This was a valuable lesson to me. There are better systems and worse systems, but there is always more than one side to a story. Everyone experiences their own reality, their own history, and we are fools if we don't recognize and understand this.

Russia has wrestled with its Soviet past in a way that China as a state has not (though I think that many Chinese have a far more nuanced and sophisticated perspective than the state's version of history would dare to acknowledge). Old idols have been toppled--literally--there is a garden of Soviet statuary that I really wanted to visit but lacked the time on this trip--but are still a part of the landscape, an integral part of Russian history that can't be denied and must somehow be reckoned with and put into perspective. We had a guide, Violetta, a woman in her sixties who was an inexhaustible fount of knowledge when it came to Russian history, in every era. She talked about all of it, the good and the bad, the tragic and the beautiful. There was no apparent defensiveness or prejudice in the way she talked about things. There was a simple stating of facts, and drama, and glory.

Going to Russia, having a glimpse of the land of our Cold War enemies, I cannot wait to go back. It is reading the other side of the story, and that, to me, is the only way the story can ever be complete.

Lisa…every other Wednesday….


  1. Lisa, thank you so much for taking us on this trip, especially this philosophical part of it. We get to hear about (and in NYC sometimes see) the thugs and the cheesy gold-bedecked thug wanna-bees, but how could a country be a homogenous collections of blockheads have produced that music and that literature?

  2. This piece is introspective and informative, intelligent and heartfelt. Thank you, Lisa, for the short Russian tour. I'll be reading all your upcoming educational and entertaining posts and viewing all your excellent photos of Russia.

  3. Welcome back, Lisa! I loved the photos to go along with your refreshing take on Russia; and the film clip was an eerie reminder of times that, as tense as they were, seem innocent compared to what we've come to know is out there.

  4. Thanks all -- I took a TON of photos and hope to be writing more about the experience.

  5. Can't wait to see more photos and hear about more of your experiences.

    On those air raid drills, I remember them well in second grade and going out into the school hallways and under the desks. However, a skeptic at the age of 7, I'd tell the other kids, "Well, this won't save us from radiation if the bomb drops!"

    What a period of time!