My first view of Russia was grim. Looking down on the stark chessboard of frozen forests and fields, I was never so unenthusiastic about visiting a country in my life. On approach to Moscow’s international airport, Shermetyevo, looking down on lifeless factories and villages, I regretted my haste in agreeing to the trip. However, with the exception of Russia’s ghastly public toilets, these fears failed to materialize.
I spent almost two weeks in Russia, all of it in the provinces with the exception of one day in Moscow. My trip took me to Voronezh, a city several hundred kilometers south of Moscow, then to Belgorod, a several-hour automobile trip southwest of Voronezh, back to Moscow via night train for an all-day flight across Russia to Chita, a Siberian frontier city on the Chinese border, east of Lake Baikal and north of Outer Mongolia.
Few Americans get outside the St. Petersburg—Moscow corridor. On my trip I met no other Americans. I spent countless hours talking with Russian lawmakers, students, military officers, bureaucrats, businessmen, doctors, intellectuals, attorneys, and people on the street.
Mother Russia does not wear her prettiest face in March. The sky is leaden, there is wet snow or cold rain, the birch trees are naked, land begins to thaw, and the sodden black Russian soil turns into the ultimate in mud. If in the order of mud, there are different degrees of perfection, Russia would win the Oscar. No Russian can afford to be without boots. It has nothing to do with style.
The cities of central Russia look tired. Buildings look as if nobody has maintained them since the ribbon was cut. The cities, suburbs, and the countryside are littered with dead and dilapidated factories, cold winds blowing through paneless windows, the eroded monuments, the ugly socialist archeology of the five year plans. Equally ignored are the untended and crumbling memorials to communism, roadside obelisks, tilting off center, proclaim “Glory to Socialist Labor,” faded red signs exhorting the fulfillment of the decrees of some forgettable Communist Party Congress. So many potholes on the road to utopia.
I was standing in the Voronezh cathedral slackjawed at the blaze of icons crowding every square meter of wall space, when an old woman, a perfect babushka sent down from central casting, accosted me with “Why are you Americans sending missionaries over here? We’ve had a religion for a thousand years.” Indeed, American missionaries are swarming all over Russia to both the consternation and amusement of the Russians. I even met a young woman who was a mormonski. But the Russian religion of choice is, not surprisingly, the Russian Orthodox Church. Most Russians have had enough starkness in their lives that in the face of the rich harmonies and complexities of the Slavonic liturgy, Protestant services seem not only vapid, but strange. Furthermore, the Russians are very much “at home” with their liturgy. While attending a service in the Belgorod cathedral, I saw worshippers coming and going and wandering all over the place in contrast to the static solemnity of attendees at the Roman rite. Russians are turning to the Orthodox Church, but in a matter-of-fact way, not in a revivalist fervor. Many Russians, however, remain ignorant of and indifferent to religion. As in the West, for many, religion is of no interest.
The most serious and pressing domestic problem in Russia is housing. I met people who live with eight other family members in a three-bedroom apartment, people who waited fourteen years for more than a one-bedroom flat. Solitude is a premium, and delayed families par for the course. On the other hand, Russians don’t move even for economic advantages. The security of family and a very tight circle of trusted friends is the pearl of great price. I witnessed this inner sanctum of friends when I was invited to the tail end of my translator’s birthday party. The guests had been pretty well prepped with vodka and, hence, well disposed to good humor. Even then, observing the interplay between people who had been friends since childhood, their grasp of the least nuance of the other’s speech, the understanding and indulgence toward each other, the intimate familiarity and hilarity, I wondered if many Americans wouldn’t sacrifice mobility and money for this degree of friendship.
Russians asked me a number of times what I thought about them. The answer was the same at the beginning of the trip as at the end. I told them that an American humorist, Will Rogers, had once said that he never met a man he didn’t like. For me, I had to say that I never met a Russian I didn’t like.