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December 06, 2016
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A trip to Russia: Part II

So, Verotchka, how was Russia?

“Exciting,” I have answered and also, as any 85-year-old traveler can understand, “exhausting.” Just last week, at the Delaware Valley Arts Alliance exhibit, glass of wine in hand, I surprised myself saying “maddening.”

“Russia was maddening!”

After all, it is frustrating for a big talker like myself to be unable to speak the language. And though the timbre of Russian was in my ears and heart in my father’s bass voice, I knew only a few words and had forgotten the Cyrillic alphabet I had learned as a child

Travel often twists ordinary thoughts into conundrums. This trip was a puzzler for me as each day added to my sense of being, myself, Russian. But what had that meant in my life?

Family accounts of the unmatchable tastes of wild raspberries and of mushrooms from the poplar woods, the patterns of Russian textiles, the Russian movies I saw as a child, the Matruschka dolls and painted wooden ware and the samovar that followed us from one apartment to another along with the magazine Soviet Russia Today, on its cover a beautiful girl with a crown of braids driving a tractor.

Was it mostly the images in children’s stories I had known: Babayaga, Snigouretchka, Vanya Vasyltchakov and the Crocodile? Russia has a magnificent tradition of illustration. I realized how it has influenced me as I toured an exhibit of children’s book originals with a well known Russian illustrator, Anastasia Archipova, at the Moscow Public Library.

And as Sheila Dugan realized (which is one of the pleasures of traveling with a responsive friend), photographing me on the bridge across the Neva river with its wide sweep of pearly water, I experienced an extraordinarily strong feeling that this was my land. Indeed I possessed it in that magical way that the tales of a beloved and impressive parent create a child’s world.

My father at 16, youngest in a large Jewish cosmopolitan family, had been hustled out of Novgorod and off to America by his elderly parents, who feared for his life. Passionate about the plight of workers and peasants, he had been arrested in the abortive revolution of 1905 by the Tzarist police.

In America, all through my childhood, our family continued a deep and active devotion to what had become, in 1917, the USSR. But tragically, my parents remained closed to all evidence that their dreams were daily and increasingly betrayed as the USSR morphed into a total and ruthless police state

That has been a great sorrow to me. And here were Sheila and I, mere tourists, trying to make sense out of 2012 Russia. We were aware from U.S. media of the foment of protest there right now, and it, too, is about how the move to a democratic society is being betrayed. But we saw none of it, nor met anyone we could talk to about it. The Russia we visited was mostly (except, of course, for the individuals we met) “guide book” Russia: beautiful and magnificent churches and buildings (now museums) of Imperial Russian times as well as wonderful collections of paintings. It was odd to stand before the single statues we saw of Lenin and of Marx, powerful figures of my youth, now compromised and dishonored ( and to realize how much history is about just such shifts.)

It was gratifying and jolly to be among the holiday crowds piling high their shopping carts for New Year’s celebrations. But it was saddening to realize that, as in our own country, have and have not had most definitely not been solved and was perhaps worsening, while civil liberties continue to be a constant struggle.

When Sheila had first asked if I wanted to join her Russian odyssey to see her grandson at Moscow University, I said “sure” with only a little hesitation. I felt we would be good traveling companions. So off I went to this land that would stir up so many questions as well as serve up many delicious versions of borscht, mushroom dishes and blini (though Beach Lake Bread makes a better version of pumpernickel than any we discovered).

I have always believed if a new experience is offered—take it. The best answer to “How was your trip?”—any trip—is “It was a great adventure.” Two individuals traveling together are, in a sense, having somewhat differing adventures. But Sheila and I completely agree those 10 days traveling in Russia were very special.