Russia in transition –3: a difficult progress

Early in 1993 my friend Nini Baird, the director of programming for B.C.’s Knowledge Network, asked me if I would like to take a group of Canadians to Russia as a fund-raiser for the public broadcasting agency. Show them around, share what I’d learned. Why not? I said. Fix it up and I’d be happy to do it. I also had my own ulterior motive for agreeing: I had returned from the 1992 trip with a suitcase filled with priceless photos, letters, programs, memorabilia—documentation of much of the modern history of Russian ballet—but I knew my research for the Vinogradov biography wasn’t complete. This would be a perfect opportunity to fill in some of the gaps.

The plan was to take the group to Moscow, show them the sights, then travel along the Volga and through the lakes and waterways to St. Petersburg. I thought we might get a dozen or so takers. In the event, we recruited 30, mostly from the Vancouver area, driven by a curiosity about the reality of life behind the headlines and an opportunity to see Russia with the cares removed.

You haven’t seen Russia until you’ve seen the Volga, says an old Russian proverb. There’s an old Russian proverb for everything, of course, and like most of them this one carries more than a smidgen of truth. More accurately, though, you might say you haven’t seen Russia until you’ve seen it from the water. The run from Moscow to St. Petersburg takes you along part of the Volga and through the canal and lake-way route that connects Moscow to the Baltic. Holidaying on the Volga is a venerable tradition in Russia. Chekhov took his Olga on the Volga for their honeymoon. Millions of ordinary Russians follow their route each summer. As it turned out, I was to take groups of Canadians on river trips in Russia for the next several summers.

The group’s arrival in Moscow on that first trip was not auspicious. We were herded through immigration and arrivals onto an uncomfortable Russian bus and hurried off through the Moscow rush-hour. A light rain made the roadways slick and the wastes of the north-western suburbs—apartment blocks, scrubby fields, hoardings, tumbled heaps of brick and rubble—were washed an unattractive grey. Our destination was the Moscow River Terminal, which sits beside the Moskva river in an untidy park off the Leningradskoeye Schaussee, a busy highway that runs down past Dynamo Stadium and the Belorussia rail station to the centre of Moscow. Modest nautical statuary beside the road indicated the turnoff.

The main building at the Moscow River Terminal was our travellers’ first close-up exposure to Stalinist Gothic architecture. Built in 1937, the year that the Moscow-Volga Canal was completed, it takes the form of a ship. Its 85-metre spire is topped by a ruby star that once adorned the Kremlin. Inside, light is filtered by high, stained-glass windows depicting various triumphs of the proletariat.

In a typically Soviet piece of lumbering metaphor, the building’s northern end is decorated with a statue of a polar bear while at its southern end a dolphin disports. With the canal’s opening, Peter’s dream of being able to sail from Moscow to St. Petersburg and beyond became a reality. Moscow now had fair-weather access to all five of Russia’s oceans. The polar bear and the dolphin represent the two extremes of climate to which Moscow was now directly connected by water.

The big passenger riverboats that sail the river route from Moscow north to St. Petersburg and south to Volgograd during the summer months all start and end their journeys at this terminal’s long quay. Sometimes so many ships clog the port that they have to tie up two or three deep and passengers heading for land must cross through their neighbours’ lobbies. Mistaken identity is by no means uncommon.

The ship on which we sailed, the Feodor Dostoyevsky, was one of dozens of virtually identical vessels that plied the Russian waterways in pursuit of the Western dollar. And if they hardly compared in size or splendour with the floating palaces of the Caribbean and the South Pacific they had their own intimate if spartan charm: comfortable numbers (no more than 350 passengers), always a bar, always a big restaurant, usually a library or music room. One even had a pool. The ships were about 400 feet long, 50 feet wide, with a draft of at most 10 feet. Such scant draft is necessary so these ships can navigate the shallow inland “lakes” that were created when the countryside was flooded to provide cheap hydro-electric power, but it makes them dangerously tipsy; waves more than six feet high can turn them on their side. They are tourist boats designed for calm weather. Sudden violent storms, such as those that occur near Valaam at the top end of Lake Ladoga, can force them aground.

The schedule called for three days of “cultural sight-seeing” in Moscow and I took my charges to all the usual sights, to the ballet, to the circus. But on two occasions—in one case by deliberate design, in another quite by accident—we were also given revealing exposure to a very different aspect of Russian culture, the state of medical care in the capital.

In the weeks before the group left Vancouver for the trip, I’d been polishing up my Russian in private classes with a Russian friend, Raissa Kolesnikov, the wife of a former Moscow vocal coach who had settled in Vancouver in the early 1980s. Shortly before our group left for Russia Raissa asked if I would do her a favour. She had some parcels of medical supplies that were urgently needed at a children’s organ-transplant hospital in Moscow. Would I mind delivering them?

At first I hesitated. Coups were in the air. No one quite knew where Russia was going. I foresaw all kinds of complications with Moscow customs (“You are carrying 300 hypodermic needles, rubber gloves, sutures, medical catheters and several hundred feet of intravenous tubing, and you say you are on a cultural tour?”).

Raissa brushed my diffidence aside. “I promise,” she said, “there will be no trouble.” There wasn’t. We were tourists. The customs people at Sheremetyevo airport couldn’t have cared less what was in the heavy, bungee-tied cardboard boxes we hauled off the creaking baggage belt. The people on the riverboat were happy to help us stow them until it was time to make the drop. And my 30 Canadian fellow-travellers, as it turned out, were more than willing to interrupt their holiday for a moment of international goodwill.

It happened in the middle of the afternoon on a fairly intense sightseeing day: Red Square, the Kremlin, the University. It was raining hard and we were beginning to think of heading for the ship. But I’d taken the precaution of loading the boxes of medical supplies onto the bus and I asked my tourists if they’d mind if we made a diversion to the hospital. No one, I stressed, need be involved. They were on holiday, after all. I just needed to make the delivery …

All but one of them, bless them, joined me on the short, drenching trek from the bus through the rubble-strewn grounds to the still-unfinished hospital buildings just off Leninsky Prospekt (and the only person who stayed on the bus stayed for good, humanitarian reasons: she had a cold, and didn’t want to pass it on).

Inside the hospital we found a horrifying scene. A former palliative care centre, it had become the country’s specialist hospital for pediatric kidney transplant operations, and seriously sick children from all over the Russian federation were sent here for treatment. But resources were so scarce that the kids often had to wait years for their operations. Many had already died. Several of those we met that day were not expected to last long. In the absence of support from the state, anxious parents or grandparents lived at the hospital with the children to ensure that they were properly clothed and fed.

The children we met that day were pale and thin and shy. Their skin had the unearthly translucence of the extremely ill. But they welcomed us with a moving enthusiasm and affection. We were heroes by association. Without Raissa’s support over the previous three years, the staff said, the hospital would have been in a far worse condition than it was. Many more children would probably have died. Her help even ensured that the remains of the children who died were treated with dignity and returned to impoverished far-off families who had no funds for funerals.

Moved and saddened, the members of our little party reached into their pockets and spontaneously put together a gift of $500 in hard currency to help ease the ongoing hardship. Subsequently, back home, a group of them held fund-raising activities that raised more dollars. Raissa put it all to good use, methodically sending more medical supplies, clothes and toys to the hospital. Within a year she had graduated from individual parcels to 40-foot containers and her circle of beneficiaries had expanded to include hospitals and children’s homes across Moscow.

By the end of the 1990s the total value of aid sent to Russia as a result of Raissa’s little Vancouver enterprise was approaching $4 million. She had to battle obstructive officials, crooked customs agents and the ever-present threat of theft. She was even accused of conspiring with the Mafia. She did it all to honour the spirit and memory of a martyred priest who baptized her into the Russian orthodox faith, Father Alexander Men, assassinated by an axe-murderer in 1990, and subsequently regarded as a saint by many Russian believers. To many of those we met at the hospital—the medical personnel, nurses, the parents and the children—Raissa was something of a saint as well.

The other episode that gave us an inside look at the Russian health-care system was a middle-of-the-night emergency involving one of our older female passengers. Her husband came knocking on my cabin door shortly after everyone had turned in for the night. His wife was bleeding badly from the bowel and needed immediate help.

Medical aid on the ship was, at best, rudimentary. Our first thought was to get her to a hospital. A good one. Our ship’s interpreter said she knew of one, and off we went in a taxi through the Moscow night. The hospital, we were repeatedly assured, was the best available: it was the place where the party nomenklaturi went for treatment, and we were very privileged to be able to seek treatment there.

This may well have been the case, but it was still a miserable place. Our patient was admitted, assigned to a bed in the centre of a large ward filled with sick women, and under the curious gaze of her ward-mates was poked and prodded by a battery of doctors. With no recourse to language she had no idea what was going on. It was a terrifying experience. She was essentially alone. The hospital rules would not allow any of us, even her husband, to be by her side. At last it transpired, through garbled conversations conducted via our interpreter, that none of the medical consultants seemed to know what to do.

As daylight approached, someone in the group suggested we take her to the Moscow American medical clinic, a private health care facility for U.S. diplomats, businessmen and ex-pats working in the city. We phoned to let them know we were on our way and hurried our patient to the clinic through the start of the morning rush. The duty staff were welcoming enough, but it was quickly clear that the facilities at the clinic were by no means adequate to deal with our patient’s problems. She needed good hospital care, and quickly.

By a remarkable turn of events the clinic had been hosting a lecture visit by a U.K. doctor who was familiar with the problem that was afflicting our patient. They gave him a call, he stopped by to check her out and said he would be happy to take her with him when he headed back to London that afternoon and see that she got the necessary care. We dashed back to the ship to allow the husband to scramble together the couple’s possessions and that afternoon they winged away with their saviour specialist to London.

Most of our travelling party didn’t even know the interruption had occurred. My scheduled task that morning had been to take the group on a tour of the wonderfully decorated stations on the Moscow subway and when I didn’t return to the ship in time for the tour departure Susan stepped in to fill the emergency. Despite the fact that she had never travelled on the Moscow Metro herself she completed the tour as planned and returned to the ship that afternoon proud that she hadn’t lose a single member of the group.

As to whether or not I had lost someone, I wasn’t so sure. It wasn’t until we reached St. Petersburg a week later that we were able to call London and find out what had transpired. The news was all good. The patient’s problems had been dealt with and the relieved couple was waiting to rejoin us when we made our scheduled stop-off in London on our way home to Vancouver. But everyone who had been part of the middle-of-the-night drama had been chastened by the reality of the state of health care in the new Russia.


Whichever direction the riverboats travel on the Volga—north toward the lakes and St. Petersburg or south to Volgograd—they must first traverse the canal that links Moscow to the inland waterways. It is a pleasant glide through uneventful countryside. People take tea on the deck in the sunshine or—maybe it is raining—listen to the pianist practising for his evening’s recital in the ship’s lounge. They are tourists. Attention is not drawn to their surroundings.

Perhaps this is not surprising. No fine markers stand beside the Moscow-Volga canal to memorialize those who dug out that earth, bucket-load by barrowful, to allow Stalin to realize Peter’s dream of a water route from Moscow to Russia’s seas. Unused to labour, these men (and women too) were made to work until they stumbled and fell into the holes they dug: men who knew the arcane sciences; men who knew the bone structures of birds; men who could compare the thoughts of philosophers; men whose hands had been trained for nothing more taxing than Liszt or Scriabin (but how taxing that was!); men who wrote pretentious articles for small-circulation newspapers and in the absence of anything more self-affirmative felt the more confident for it; men who blew pipe-smoke across cafe tables and talked disdainfully of the state (and were heard doing so); men who knew the delicacies of thoracic surgery; men who had slighted other men and were anonymously denounced as traitors to the great cause; men who believed in the great cause but were taken nonetheless, taken like all the others, in the dark of the night, that time when the heart and mind are at their least comprehending and resistant (some managing to grab a hat or a scarf, perhaps boots—it would depend on the decency of your captors—as they were hustled from their hallways), and carried away by train and truck and cattle-cart. These were the people who dug this canal, these were some of the inhabitants of Yosef Stalin’s gulag, not so much a place (though places existed and hellish holes they were) as a concept, a notion, a nightmare. A nightmare for a lost, fragmented people.

What the passengers do notice, though, as the ship makes its stately progress across the waters, is the different pace of life along the waterway from the pace of life in Moscow. A large proportion of the Russian populace still lives far from the cities and it was here in the villages that we were able to get a new perspective on everything we had been learning and observing about contemporary Russian life. Was this where I might find that elusive Russian soul I was looking for?

Village life along the Volga

In the tiny village of Novo-Okatovo, a cluster of 30 or 40 wooden homes that you won’t find on many maps, I was invited to visit the home of a family who wanted to know what I thought about perestroika and Boris Yeltsin. I mouthed the usual Western platitudes—“wonderful … brave … hope it works”—but my hosts brushed them aside. “Bring back Brezhnev,” they said. “Under him we at least had decent food and clothing.” They missed the benign hand of the faraway ruler. It reminded me of the line from Fiddler on the Roof: “May God bless and keep the tsar … far away from us.”

village woman 1001

By contrast with the cities, where fleece-the-tourist was already a popular folk sport, the villages were so far remarkably untouched by the heavy hand of organized tourism. The residents seemed genuinely pleased to welcome you. Walking round the village of Irma, for instance, a group of us were invited into a local home.

While the others crowded into the living room to listen to the lady of the house on her accordion, I wandered through the garden to an odd-looking structure at the side of the house. It was Sergei’s new sauna. He was just lighting the fire for the first time. “Come back in three hours,” he said. “Bring some friends. We’ll have an international sauna together.”

I took him at his word, and three hours later half a dozen of us turned up at the modest house. The sauna session–complete with birch-branches from the nearby trees–was followed by a feast around a bonfire: a couple of chickens we had smoked to a rich, reddish brown in a makeshift smoker, accompanied by Russian champagne, lashings of vodka and Sergei’s wife Natasha (a music teacher, as it turned out) on the accordion. When it was our turn to reciprocate with “Canadian songs” we offered Alouette, The Red River Valley and Clementine.

Sergei and Natasha were members of the fast-disappearing Russian middle class. This was their summer home. They lived in an industrial town about 40 miles away, where Sergei worked in a steel factory. Maybe it was the sauna, maybe it was the vodka, but that day was the start of a particular friendship between Sergei and myself. We stayed in touch by mail and two years later, when Susan and I passed that way again on another of the river cruises, he had the sauna hot and waiting for us and a bucket of vodka ready to ease the strain. At ten in the morning. Some things about Russia never change.

Other, more disturbing, things about Russia seemed never to change as well. Weaving through the dark rocks and serried evergreens of the Valaam archipelago, high on Lake Ladoga on the last leg before St.Petersburg, you’d round a cliff or a bend in the channel and come across churches set high on bluffs or deep in the trees, their gold onion domes gleaming in the northern sun.

They were the chapels of the Valaam monastery, an ancient centre of Russian orthodox teaching that had become run-down and decrepit. It  was home now not just to the monks but to many invalids, wounded war victims and troubled men, women and children who had been swept from the streets of Moscow and sent to the island. Our visitors were entranced by the choral singing of the monks but distressed by the conditions of both the monastery fabric and the people it accommodated. The effect was so disturbing to river-cruise passengers—not just ours, but those on several subsequent boats—that the Valaam stop was eventually removed from the cruise line’s itineraries.

Valaam patient and care-giver

By a curious coincidence, we later learned that the Valaam monks, threatened by the Russian economic crisis with starvation, had asked Raissa, the benefactor of the children’s hospital in Moscow, for food, medicines and medical supplies for their hospital, and she had begun to respond with a cash donation of $3,000. It was something, at least. Today, the Valaam monastery has its own web page, the monastery itself has been lovingly restored, you can make a pilgrimage there (for a fee) and there is no mention anywhere of sick or disturbed people.

Chiltren at Valaam

One thing that puzzled us as the tour progressed was the Russian attitude to doors.  Public access to theatres, shops and hotels was always restricted to a single, narrow half-doorway, however wide and numerous the entrances on the building’s frontage might be. The situation reached the peak of absurdity as we left St. Petersburg at the end of that trip. The entrance hall at Pulkovo airport was a shouting, shoving zoo—a thousand people trying to get through one small doorway to customs and immigration, everyone in a panic at the thought that they might miss their flight. It seemed like a classic case of need-to-control: the assertion of power by someone who has it over someone who hasn’t. But a friend of mine, a student of Russian history, suggested it was more significant than that. The historic response of Russia in a time of domestic strife has always been to close the country’s doors and sort out the problems in private, he said. What we were experiencing was the collective group response to the economic chaos that was developing in the wake of Gorbachev’s reforms.

If that was indeed what it was, the self-protectionism had come too late. A return to the old, closed repression was no longer an option. The legal and illegal West-to-East transfer of goods and ideas had become an unstoppable flood. The Russian doorway had been blown open so wide by perestroika and the freeing of the market economy that not even Russian military might could have forced it watertight again.

Complicating matters was the question of the Mafia, the Russian term for any form of organized crime. Always operating in the background, it had begun to flourish immediately the consumer goods market began to open up. By the time I returned to Russia with another group in 1994, to take a riverboat south down the Volga as far as Volgograd, surveys were saying that the Mafia had 90 per cent of the country’s GNP and most of its politicians in its grip.

And it was increasingly brazen about it. On Nevsky Prospekt in broad daylight we saw what we were told was a drug-related beating: a man was head-butted to the ground by a crew-cut thug flanked by two enforcers. His skull hit the sidewalk with a horrifying crunch. The random suddenness of the violence and the eyes-averted indifference of the passers-by made St. Petersburg suddenly feel like New York.

The Mafia’s fingers of influence were everywhere. Our friend Natasha, who travelled down the Volga with us, went to the market in St. Petersburg and saw that several of the women vendors had strawberries for sale. They were more expensive than she was prepared to pay so she asked one of the women to lower her price. The woman looked around her furtively. “We are not allowed to sell at a price lower than the one set by our Mafia suppliers,” she said. “But if you pay the official price I will give you money back.” So Natasha paid the asking price and found a bundle of returned roubles hidden under the strawberries.

On the other hand, Mafia protection could pay off. A relative of Natasha decided to advertise his car for sale for $3,000. The day his ad appeared he was visited by Mafia “guests” who demanded half the sale price or his wife and children would suffer. He wasn’t worried. He simply called in his own Mafia protectors, who fined the other group $3,000 and gave him half. Protection means protection.

More insidious, perhaps, was the effect of the Mafia on children, who saw the immense riches these bandits were amassing and wanted to emulate them. Looking like a Mafioso—leather jacket, wide pants, battered face—was becoming a teen fashion, particularly in the provinces. I saw a newspaper report of a poll of schoolgirls between the age of 12 and 15 in which one of their jobs of choice was hard-currency prostitution.

Russia had always had corruption, but never on such a scale, and never with such violence attached. So it was easy enough to think depressing thoughts. And then, seconds later, just as easy to have the Russian emotional rollercoaster turn your pessimism on its head. In the face of all the evidence, Moscow on that 1994 visit seemed like a city with a future. Of course, it had always by default been the country’s economic and political centre. But a city that had always struck me as grubby and depressed now seemed to have a new vitality, a new optimism.

Up on the broad, flat viewing platform that looks out over the city near Moscow University above the Lenin Hills, a young couple, just married, sat on the wall in the sunshine sipping champagne from paper cups. They were following tradition. Russian newlyweds usually visit a scenic spot or public memorial for their photos after the civil ceremony. She was 19, as pretty as a flower in her frothy white wedding dress. Friends were photographing them, sharing their pleasure. They walked across the broad sidewalk, pausing to wrap their arms tight around each other, and bought hot dogs from a nearby vendor. She had tomato sauce on hers, he had a dark mustard. They held the paper packages vertically as they ate, well away from her dress and his suit, both of which were probably rented for the day. It was their al fresco wedding feast. I wished them a happy future together. “I only plan to marry once,” she said. “Marriage is forever.” She laughed with an innocent delight.

“Marriage is forever”

This optimistic view of the future was not the image of Moscow that was appearing in the newspapers of the West. Yet the change was visible everywhere. There was a fizzy, fast-track feel to the city. Everywhere new construction and renovation was happening. Some streets, with their freshly coloured frontages, looked as if they belonged to pastel St. Petersburg. What was also noticeable was that the old sense of intimidation that the state had deliberately engendered seemed to have largely gone.

When a friend discovered she had lost her carry-on bag containing all her medication somewhere between the airplane and the arrivals lounge, the Moscow customs and immigration officer—usually so dour, so intimidating—waved me back through the processing area to check around the cramped offices. With the buttons of their mud-green uniforms undone, his colleagues helped me look, just guys taking a break from an ordinary job. In its unique position as a bridge between Eastern and Western cultures, visibly reinforced by all the Asian architectural details this process of restoration was revealing, could Moscow, I found myself idly wondering, be the new European city of the 21st century?

I was overreacting, of course. It was easy to be dazzled by the impression of change. The abundance of food and consumer goods in the shops and kiosks was a constant astonishment to anyone who remembered the barren shelves of even a year or two previously. But it was still the privileged, the grey marketeers and the people with second and third jobs who felt the benefit. Ordinary Russians, the ones who struggled to survive from day to day on a pittance that shrank in direct proportion to the galloping inflation rate, couldn’t afford the high-priced goods.

And even those who could afford them were finding it hard to make the adjustment to the new plenty. “It will take time for us to get used to having a choice of clothes,” said Natasha. Or, for that matter, to having an abundance of bananas. Not long before, they were rare, exotic fruit. People would line up for them for hours. Now they were available on every street corner. When they first became available Natasha bought three kilos and ate them all. “I wanted to eat the taste for bananas out of me,” she said. “So that I would never long for them again. Now I can’t touch them. I have become the poorer for that.”

Employment was still a major problem, particularly in centres like St. Petersburg, where disarmament and perestroika had put a huge dent in the military industries, the traditional backbone of the city’s economy. But the authorities hid the true effect of unemployment by giving people low-paying part-time jobs to keep the employment figures high. One man I talked to, a PhD research scientist, was paid the equivalent of what he would get on welfare. It counted as a job in the official statistics, but he said: “I could make more selling Snickers on the street.”

A welfare system of a kind did exist but proving validity was a time-consuming process. Pensions were linked to earnings, so people with jobs worked their sick leaves and vacations to keep their pensions as high as possible. And there was not much in the way of a safety net for the emotionally disturbed or mentally handicapped. Asylum care was the best they could expect. The new order was on its way, but it was proving to be a difficult birth.

More than a century previously, the political thinker Alexander Herzen, studying the social upheavals of the 1830s, said Russia would need seven generations of “non-whipped people”—that is, people without fear—to have any hope of reasserting itself as a nation. But all that followed Herzen were more decades of oppression, of one kind or another. And Natasha wondered whether Russia was meant to be perpetually punished. “Perhaps we have been chosen to show the way people shouldn’t organize their lives,” she said. “I fear that Russians will never learn from their history, so are always doomed to repeat it.”  But then, how did you learn from history when the nation’s past was in the process of a wholesale rewrite? Yaroslavl University had cancelled its history exams the previous year because no one was certain any more what the truth was. In the midst of the conflicting expectations and injustices brought about by perestroika, perhaps learning from history was altogether too much to expect.

And yet …

One of the cleanest, neatest streets I saw in Russia was the street on which Lenin used to live in Ulanovsk, his birthplace. The grass was cut (a rarity anywhere in Russia), the leaves were swept, the trees were trimmed. Lenin might have fallen from grace in Moscow but here he was still an object of reverence. The street and the comfortable, middle-class home in which he spent his teenage years were carefully preserved. In a small landing-room at the top of the front stairs were his desk, his books, his bookshelf, his bed. On the wall was his map of the world he was to change so radically. In the adjoining room his elder brother Alexander had given him his first glimpse of Marx’s Das Kapital. This was the crucible in which his thinking had simmered.

But the ironies were cruel. Just two doors down the immaculate street was a store selling Western computers. At the souvenir stand in the vast Lenin memorial building in the centre of town you could buy scale models of ’58 Chevys and U.S. Army personnel carriers. And the big Soviet military four-wheel drive factory on the outskirts of town was planning to switch within two years to the production of Mercedes-Benz vehicles under licence.

The official downgrading of Lenin’s stature and significance in the rest of the country had left an odd vacuum, one of belief. Conditioned for centuries to having their lives and lifestyles dictated to them, Russians were flailing for spiritual leader-figures. With State atheism no longer enforced, the Orthodox church was back in business in a big way. Everywhere churches were in the process of restoration. In Sergei’s village of Irma we watched workers rebuilding the church roof and preparing to hoist the bells out of the undergrowth in which they had languished, tarnishing, for so long. Evangelism and faith healing were experiencing an upsurge of interest. I was told of a man who could cure whatever ailed you if you put your hands on the TV set when he was speaking.

There was also a growing movement to restore a monarchy. The Romanov tsars, whose wilful mismanagement of the country had provoked the whole mess in the first place, were suddenly popular again, and a new show at the Hermitage hallowed the artefacts of Nicholas and Alexandra the way Hollywood sanctified the detritus of its greatest stars.

From time to time as you sailed down its length, the Volga swelled to as much as 50 kilometres in width and the country disappeared from sight entirely. It no longer resembled a river; sailing it was like sailing the open sea. These were the reservoirs that Stalin created to irrigate the farmlands and generate hydro-electric power.

Those flooded wastes we sailed over troubled my dreams. Seven hundred villages and seven thousand hectares of arable land lie beneath the Rybinsk Reservoir alone. Against the relentless faint thrum of the engines, the voices of the drowned villages beneath the ship wailed and sang. Ghostly hamlets lay beneath these black and placid waters. Grassy footpaths, where lovers once wandered and horses dragged, had melted into the mud, were gone. Churches and cottages, smithies and bakeries, had rotted in the water, the green and pink and purple house-paints flaking into the black ooze, the weathered gingerbread softening to a pulpy sponge. I imagined these villages stirred by the currents of the dark waters like seaweed. The fragments that remained—half a ruined building on a sandy spit, the tip of a church bell-tower poking above the choppy waters—only underlined the loss.

As the ship droned across the surface of these shallow seas, my dreams were filled with the sadness and bewilderment of the lost members of those drowned shtetls, forced to pack up their possessions and live out their displaced lives in concrete blocks on the forlorn outskirts of the cities that line the banks of the widened river: Rybinsk, Saratov, Samara.

Marina was our guide in Samara: brittle hair, dark blonde, tied back with a crimson ribbon from a strained, stretched face; grey eyes deep-sunk in the darkness of exhaustion; lipstick on her front teeth. The faux leather handle of her purse was cracked and torn from her habit of twisting it absently into a tight spiral as she spoke. Her parents were among the displaced. Forty years ago they had been driven on foot from their village, pushing their belongings on carts before them, yet still they refused to settle to the city life. It was an alien way of living. Though they knew their village home was gone for ever, they fretted for the old ways, for the cycle of the crops and the safety of the country seasons. They spent hours pacing the riverside walls of the city, staring at the slow-moving Volga. “There was much trouble: families fell apart from the pressure—not  ours, we were lucky. But many were not. People became drunkards, there were many suicides.”

And for what? Well, for progress, of a certain kind, she wouldn’t deny it. Between Ivankovo and Volgograd more than half a dozen reservoirs cover more than 11,000 square kilometres. The power generated by their dams provided much of Russia’s electricity—at that time, 25 trillion kilowatt-hours a year and growing—and their waters ensured a constant irrigation in regions of the country where once there was only eternal drought. But still …

Yuri Gagarin, the world’s first astronaut, was born and educated in Saratov, and his spacecraft returned to earth in the dusty flatlands just 30 kilometres away. Like several of the cities we stopped at (Gorky, for instance, where Sakharov was exiled, recently restored to its old name, Nizhni Novgorod), it had only been open to visitors, Russian or foreign, for a couple of years. It was the centre of the natural gas industry, and many of its major enterprises, formerly devoted to the production of tanks, aircraft and weaponry were being converted to peaceful uses—electrical goods, glass, videotapes, industrial oil.

On the surface it was as prosperous a town as any we had seen on the trip. The people looked well dressed and well fed—“Don’t bring anything, we have everything,” a U.S. visitor was told by a Saratov friend. The GAP store sold shirts at North American prices. But here, too, the discrepancies in Russian life were enough to make your head swim. Saratov was a town like any other in Russia, having the same troubles coming to terms with the new market economy. The crumbling old houses down the side streets wore poverty in the place of paint. Old men pawed through dumpsters. Gypsy children begged. When our local guide Louisa let slip that she couldn’t afford pantyhose, one of our group gave her a pair from her purse. Beyond the city centre stretched acres of leaky, component-built apartment blocks. Somewhere out there Louisa lived. She didn’t shop at the GAP.

Perhaps the closest we came to the mythic Russian idyll on this slow drift down the Volga was in the tiny settlement of Pleus, one of the loveliest and most serene spots on the river. Here was where the landscape painter Isaac Levitan did his best work (and his most strenuous romancing, mornings painting on the bluff, afternoons in bed with his latest mistress, evenings out with his palette and brushes again to catch the river sunsets).

His paintings catch the softness of the linden and birch leaves that lined our climb up the slippery cobbles to the top of the steep bluff. Curious children accompanied us, but they had none of the pushiness and grabbiness of the kids in the big cities. One of them gave his arm to a Canadian woman having trouble on the stones and wouldn’t accept a thank-you gift.

In a building at the top three women presented a program of musical romances—a soprano whose face registered the fine gradations of concern and loss that the songs described; a slim, prim pianist who gave a secret little smile as she took her bow; a violinist with a passion that transcended the limitations of her cheap instrument. They accepted money shyly at the end and gave us signed postcards of Pleus in return.

That evening four of us dropped into a local bar-cafe. It was a Sunday night. A single string of red and green Christmas lights was flickering above a glass-fronted bottle cabinet. A cassette machine was playing Russian bar music. Two burly men barely broke the rhythm of their earnest conversation to sell us a bottle of cheap champagne.

As we sipped, we were joined at the next zinc table by a young couple. They were dressed for an outing—he was wearing a tie, a big beige overcoat, his best pants and shoes, she was wearing a smart jacket. Here in this little bar in this pretty town, with not much else open and nothing much else to do, they were sharing the classic Russian celebration: a bottle of champagne and a big bar of chocolate.

We arrived in Volgograd in time for the city’s celebration of the 450th anniversary of its founding. The broad, grassy embankment beside the Volga was thronged with citizens in their most fashionable finery, a parade of smartness and elegance that could put many Western cities to shame. Couples strolled in the sunshine. Old men displayed chests of medals. Street photographers took Polaroids of scrubbed children against giant stuffed animals. Soft rock and pop bands and amateur dance troupes enlivened temporary stages under the trees. The covered marketplace was a hectic jamboree of food and drink. On street corners children offered puppies and kittens for sale.

It certainly didn’t look like the Russia of starvation and shortages and a dismal and depressed populace that we read about at home. It didn’t look like the country of grim endurance and near-to-breaking spiritual exhaustion that I remembered from a year previously. But looks, here as elsewhere, were deceiving. All the way down the river we had been passing heavy polluters—oil refineries, chemical factories, gas processing plants, a nuclear power plant. Just north of Volgograd was the site of 15 underground nuclear explosions that had been designed to create gas reservoirs. Not far south were six more. All but two had collapsed. The river, filled with heavy metal and toxic waste, was unswimmable, unfishable. The day was filled with sunshine, but there was a heavy haze the breeze could not disperse.

At an orphanage in a leafy suburb of the city we saw kids who had been born with horrendous deformities—missing arms, hare lips, flippers for legs, a little girl with paralysed legs who hated to be carried so scooted around on her hands and bottom. We were told the incidence of deformity in the region was increasing. Air pollution from the chemical factories was being blamed for the growth in the number of children with Down syndrome. Nuclear power pollution and heavy metals in the water supply were thought to be prime causes of bodily deformity. Maybe, one of the nurses suggested, it was also tied to fetal alcohol syndrome, passed down to the children by the teenage alcoholic mothers who were forced to give up their babies to state care. But no one knew for sure. And while many of the kids suffered from handicaps that could easily be fixed in North America, no corrective surgery was likely here. The orphanage staff encouraged us to think seriously about adopting, and I thought back to my Russian coach Raissa and her valiant attempts to do her bit for the kids at the Moscow hospital. So much help needed, so little available.

Our friend Natasha had been becoming more and more apprehensive as we headed down the Volga and when we reached Volgograd it became apparent why. Her grandfather was posted as missing in action during the Second World War battle on Mamaev Hill and she was the first member of her family to make the pilgrimage to the site.

The battle of Mamaev Hill was the turning-point in Hitler’s attempt to invade Russia. At the end 800,000 were dead and only 200 buildings in the city (Stalingrad, as it then was) remained standing. Reminders of the war were everywhere we turned: three trees in the central park that survived the bombardment, fragments of a house that was defended for 58 days during the siege, a bombed-out flour mill whose ruined shell had been left standing. Most spectacularly there was Mamaev Hill itself and the war memorial to end all war memorials, a statue of Mother Russia dominating the city the way the Statue of Liberty dominates New York or Christ the Redeemer dominates Rio.

Natasha was pale and quiet, clutching a bunch of chrysanthemums as she climbed the hundreds of steps, up past the statuary and the still, reflecting ponds, past the vast walls where hidden amplifiers were playing the songs the Russian soldiers sang as they marched to the front, past the pool of sorrow where a concrete mother cradled the shrouded head of her dead son, up to the broad, enclosed rotunda in which the flame of memory burned.

Goose-stepping soldiers guarded the massive, upraised hand that held the flame. Mosaic banners set high into the surrounding wall bore the names of the 72,000 men who died on this hill. Through a circular vent in the ceiling it was possible to see, high above, the upraised sword held by the statue of Mother Russia. And there inside, as people wept—Russians and visitors, it didn’t matter, the moment affected us all—we heard quiet, consoling music. Tchaikovsky, someone wondered? Rimsky-Korsakov? Shostakovich? One of the Russian masters, surely.

But no. Not Russian at all. Here, inside this memorial to so many killed at Hitler’s hand, the quiet, comforting music that was playing was German: Schumann’s Traumerei. Natasha caught her breath in surprise, then blinked and smiled. “This is as it should be,” she said. “We have no problem with the German people now. Our problems were with Hitler and the Fascists. The German people are only people, just like us.”

I was looking, all through the trip, for some sense of hope, some sense of future, for this wracked and wretched country, and sometimes I thought I had found it and sometimes I thought I never would. Just a day after the climb up Mamaev Hill I had yet another abrupt reality check.

It happened on the train from Volgograd to St. Petersburg: 37 hours, 48 stops, two shared hole-in-the-floor toilets between ten compartments. We boarded at midnight and woke to a sunny morning splashed with showers, the leaves turning, trees heavy with yellow apples, the faint scent through the window of stubble burning. From the train window it looked like the storybook Russian countryside: villages and small towns, geese in ponds and goats in vegetable gardens and boys running across open fields to school.

On the platforms when we stepped off to stretch our legs we met women with baskets of bruised apples (and faces to match) and soft, split plums. But the Russian woman from the next compartment who stood beside me at the window saw none of the romance. Those wooden village homes with their decorative gingerbread, how primitive, how inconvenient. That land, how ill-used. She pointed out the blight instead: queer-shaped bits of abandoned concrete, half-collapsed piles of bricks, rusting steel frames of unfinished and forgotten buildings, straggly heaps of grey rubble.

“This is what Russia is,” she said. “Without hope. We don’t even have our dreams any more. We are too far down. There is nothing.”

Was she right? Certainly, St. Petersburg still seemed to be testing the limits of extravagance as it adjusted to freedom. The adventurous traveller who had been everywhere and done everything could now for $500 spend a week in solitary confinement in bare cells where Soviet political prisoners once awaited execution (you got a Bible, a pencil and paper and your food was pushed through a hole in the door). One of the hottest musical groups was a right-wing psycho-billy group called the Meantraitors, whose latest LP featured a photo of the group posed so their arms resembled a Nazi swastika.

The city, I was told, was now the headquarters of the Russian mafia (there were ten murders and ten reported crimes against foreigners in the first week of that September alone) and, as I discovered, back-handing and corruption were still part of the way life was lived in the new Russia.

The Kirov Ballet was out of town, and the Maryinsky Theatre was closed for renovations, but I called Dmitri and he arranged for me to take along a couple of friends to look around. Workmen were laying a new wooden floor on the big, raked stage. I remembered how moved I’d been the first time I stood on those boards, and I asked if it would be possible for me to have a fragment of the old stage, just a chip, as a personal memento of all those famous feet that danced on it. The workmen looked at each other uncertainly. “It is a delicate matter,” one of them said. “There is none left.” The original flooring had all been spirited away to various private dachas.

Was there any hope? I thought I found it in Sasha’s comfortable family apartment just off Nevsky Prospekt.

Sasha had not created many paintings recently. He had been too busy with the newest addition to their family, their first-born, Pavel. The child was five months old, and Tanya, with her open smile and her shock of blond hair, glowed with motherhood. We sat in the kitchen, drinking tea and eating creamy cakes. The table talk covered everything, as Russian table talk always does. Eventually we came round to the question of where Russia might be headed.

Sasha had no time for extremists (this was a time when Zhirinovsky was rattling the nationalist sabres) and while he was clear-eyed about the ongoing economic and social chaos he had no time for pessimism either. His was the voice of moderation and principle, and he was convinced there were millions of Russians like him, going about their lives without fuss, refusing to become involved in politics, living lives as good as they could make them. Waiting for a future that Sasha and Tanya might not even see—a future to be forged by their son and by the millions of Russian children now being born.

“He is the generation that is going to lead this country into the next century,” said Sasha. “And if we teach him properly, if we fill him with good principles, if we show him how to be better than we were able to be, he will make things well.”

A year later, Sasha died in a fire in his studio.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.