What is Russia?

The Sochi Olympics have me thinking about the summers when I took students to Russia on an exchange program. The kids–in their twenties now–are thinking about those days, too. I know because they’ve been reconnecting on Facebook and emailing me. We are all acquainted with the unfinished public buildings, the difficulties of getting around, the stray dogs, and the other objects of humor so glibly reported on in the press. We know very well the dark side of Russian history. But more deeply than any of that, we know that what we took away from our experiences ten years ago would last all our lives. See what that was:

“What is Russia? Provide a brief definition.”

It sounded like an exam question. Alina, one of the Russian students, asked it at the end of our three-week exchange with students at the Pskov Humanitarian Lyceum. No one took it for a quiz at all; nevertheless, the American students reflected before they replied.  What came to my mind as I waited for their responses was Churchill’s remark: “A riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.”

But the students weren’t hampered by such long-ago images as they articulated their impressions. Anna and Hillary responded first and simultaneously.

“History,” they said.

Indeed, we had experienced the history of Russia throughout P1000702our visit. The Pskov town fortress dates back to the 11th century; that year, in fact, Pskov was celebrating its 1100th birthday. Pskov was its own principality until 1510 when it surrendered its ancient veche, or assembly, and came under the control of Moscow. We visited Pechory, a monastery on the Estonian border where Ivan the Terrible decapitated the Father Superior, Cornelius, whom he supposed to be a traitor, and watched his head roll down the cobblestone walk. The Empress Elizabeth abandoned her carriage on a visit to Pechory—it’s still on display along that same steep walk. And in the caves of Pechory, Orthodox monks hid from the Nazis during the Great Patriotic War. We hiked at Izborsk, a nearby fortress that dates back to 1232. Here we waded in a stream whose waters, according to local legend, promise health or wealth or beauty, your choice to wish for.

“Is it only me, or is Russia beautiful?” Kate wrote in our group journal in praise of Izborsk.

We spent an afternoon at Peterhof, the summer palace of Peter the Great. We strolled—and stopped to stare incredulously at Peter’s four magnificent water cascades, each more elaborate than the next, and at the palaces of Marly, Monplaisir, Hermitage, and the Grand Palace itself. We watched children play on the trick stones that Peter designed for children. Little ones, sometimes holding their parents’ hands, ran back and forth in the fountains, pretending to avoid the spots that triggered hidden sprays, hoping to be doused, shrieking excitedly when they were. Some of the students posed in the fountains—under umbrellas. We dipped our hands in the Gulf of Finland and heard from our guide about Peter’s war on the Swedes that culminated in victory in 1709. We could see St. Petersburg, the city Peter built to be his new capital, in the distance across the water.

Later, we toured St. Petersburg itself and had a look at the Russia I, II, III Posters 014famous statue of Peter the Great, the Bronze Horseman. The custom in Russia is for brides and grooms to lay flowers at the bases of historical monuments. While we were there, two couples laid flowers at Peter’s feet. We saw the incredible Church of the Stained Blood, built by Tsar AlexanderIII to honor his father, AlexanderII, who had been assassinated in that very place in 1881.  We walked around St.Isaac’s Cathedral, where the city’s treasures were hidden from the Nazis—we could see the attackers’ bullet holes in the monolithic columns. We were glad to learn the Nazis had never penetrated the building.

Of course we stopped at the WinterPalace, now the famous HermitageMuseum. The grandeur and size of the Hermitage amazed us. Our guide said that it would take eight hours a day for eight years to see everything. We had two hours. At the Hermitage, we split into pairs, each couple making a beeline for the period or style of art that they found most appealing. Some visited the Impressionists; others took in the Flemish painting. Two pairs went to the Egyptian exhibit. Nikita, one of the Russian students, translated the exhibit signs for us when our skills in deciphering Cyrillic failed. We saw clay vessels, fragments of cloth, an actual mummy, and a sarcophagus opened to display the case within the case.

“Look!” exclaimed Ashley. “It’s just like a matryoshka doll, only vertical!”

Nikita smiled.

“Russia is ornate,” said Allie. “Even the railings have detail.”

She was referring to the railings our tour guide had pointed out along one of the bridges in St. Petersburg, but the imperial architecture, the interiors of the monasteries, the carvings in walls along the city streets, the gates between buildings, even the doors to business establishments are ornate. When we saw the Armory collection in Moscow, we understood “ornate” even better. Robes, wedding dresses, vessels of all kinds, chargers for serving food, plates, chalices, crosses and Bible covers, even the Tsars’ carriages have been preserved through the centuries.

“Preservation,” Ashley added. “It’s not just one person or small group; everyone values the past and is keeping it alive.”

In Pushkin Hills, we saw the ongoing excavation of a church that had burned to the ground after the Soviets took power, and we observed the restoration of a monastery, now a convent for Orthodox nuns, at Elizarovo. In fact, the students had helped with both projects. Under the direction of a well-known archeologist, they’d removed the first layer of turf in a small area at the church site. At Elizarovo, they’d painted window frames, hoed in the monastery’s garden, and washed some of the double-hung cloirestory windows that were caked with whitewash and dust from rebuilding efforts. St.Basil’s in Moscow was partially covered with scaffolding, as were churches in Pskov. In St. Petersburg, spruced up in celebration of its 300th anniversary, we saw, through a window into a less public side of the Hermitage, a stash of renovation materials and a faded green wall that had yet to be repainted to match the façade.

“Russia is culture.” Melissa turned in her seat to explain her impression. “It’s the national dress and the folk songs and dances.”

On the first full day in Russia the students had been invited to School #26, a magnet school for the arts, to attend a performance by a folk music ensemble, a group of select high school students. The students played traditional instruments— wooden spoons, the balalaika, the tambourine—and invited our young men to join the Russian girls who were singing on stage in traditional costumes. Back at the Pskov Humanitarian Lyceum, the music and dance teachers taught the Americans some Russian folk songs and dances. Later still, the Americans and their Russian friends learned more folklore at the regional museum where they attended a Russian tea party, the table dominated by an enormous samovar, and participated in songs and dances that were led by a member of a local folk music troupe who was dressed in a colorful sarafan.

“Children,” was my answer. I’d noticed, of course, that most adults in Russian towns wore dark colors—a defense against dust and the expense of dry cleaning—but in contrast, all of a sudden I’d see a child who looked like a bright yellow chick or a big blue gumdrop holding onto her mother or grandmother’s hand. And the hats! All the small children wore wonderful hats—blue velour with yellow stripes, pink or beige straw hats with decorative satin rose petals, denim hats with daisies embroidered on the brims—and I longed for a telephoto lens to snap their pictures unaware.

Then Clinton offered this definition: “It’s hospitality,” he said. “Anything I needed or wanted was provided for me.” When we first arrived in Pskov, spilling giddily off the train and into the arms of the Russian families whom we’d so eagerly looked forward to seeing, some of the parents apologized because their apartment buildings were currently without hot water. Our students took the announcement of cold showers in stride, but their Russian mothers heated water for them daily, and two of the parents, who worked at a local hotel, made arrangements for the “unfortunate” ones to shower there occasionally!

The mothers opened their cupboards and refrigerators to the American students, cooking special Russia dinners for them and searching out foods that would suit American palates. “Eat, eat,” they constantly urged, and while we could never satisfy their need to fill us full, we ate heartily and learned to love certain foods especially. Everyone loved blini, served with sour cream, jam, honey, or just plain butter.  Some students liked the borscht and most liked a Georgian specialty, cheburek, which the students ate regularly at a café on Oktvabrskii Street. Russian pizza and the incredibly beautiful pastries were “hits,” and everyone loved the chocolate, too. Almost everyone developed a fondness for tea and the rituals surrounding it, and it wasn’t unusual to find an American student ordering tea at lunch or in mid-afternoon. The most popular food item of all, however, was the incomparable Russian ice cream. Again and again we visited the booth by the bus stop where a “scoop ice cream” vendor presented an ever-changing selection of flavors.

The Russian families—the parents and the students—extended themselves in every way, in many cases giving up bedrooms so the American students could have a room of their own. The families helped us with telephone calls, with the Internet café, with changing money. They bought bus passes for us in advance of our visit and showed us how to ride like Russians (jump on quickly, show the pass later) lest we be left curbside, waiting in a non-existent line to board. They took us shopping in town and over and over again to “the market.”

Russia? “It’s my second home,” pronounced Karen, and she wasn’t thinking just of the hospitality that had been extended to all of us by our families or of occasions like a trip we’d taken to Sacha’s family’s dacha. As had happened for the Russian students in the United States, all of the Russian parents brought the American students “into the family,” and soon the adjective Russian disappeared when our students referred to them.

Karen meant, too, what we all had come to understand: that the relationships we’d formed and the friends we had made defined our Russian experience more significantly than anything material, anything historical, or anything cultural ever could. During our three weeks, there had been official welcomes from the school principal, from teachers who had prepared special lessons for us, from the Chairman of the city Duma and from the Vice-Mayor of Pskov. There had been formal interactions with the professors and students at the Pskov Pedagogical Institute. All of them were important, but none made as indelible an impression as did the commonplace, often spontaneous, social activities that transpired between the brothers and sisters, between the Americans and their host families.

Allie and Anna cooked a spaghetti dinner together for their host families, and Karen and Melissa made spiced chicken for theirs. Yulia and Karen, whose birthdays are at the end of May, had a birthday party and invited the others. Irina’s mother, who works at a hospital, took Jolene along one day—an impromptu “Take Your Daughter to Work Day.” A large group, accompanied by the teachers and Sasha’s father, went to a disco one night. The students danced together and found no differences in style that they couldn’t absorb. Even the music, half in English and half in Russian, bridged the potential divide.

Our Farewell Party at Alina’s family dacha lasted from late afternoon until the teenagers’ curfew at 11:00. The back yard was a sea of purple lupine, gathered from an adjacent field and stashed in buckets everywhere. Plastic chairs and café tables with umbrellas, rented from town by the parents, were sprinkled about the yard. Volleyball, croquet, and even a karaoke machine provided entertainment, and the fare was the ever-popular shashlik.

When the games were over and the meal was done, when we’d finished with gifts and speeches, lead teacher “Mrs. Irina” introduced the culminating activity. She distributed a handful of colored embroidery thread to each student and teacher and invited the recipients to separate the strands and tie the strings around the wrists of the people to whom they’d like to say a specific “thank-you.” Of course, the tears started as each student and all of the teachers approached each other and the parents to privately convey their thanks.

In the end, each person’s wrist was encircled with a wide, colorful band made of the individual strands. “What is Russia?” Alina’s unintentional quiz question had helped us focus our thoughts about our visit to Russia. Ashley remarked at the end of the discussion that Russia is like the Hermitage. “You could never see it all,” she said.

We agreed with her, but still, we realized we would come home from our three-week visit with fresh, joyful, and positive impressions of the country. There is no mystery, puzzle, or enigma in this. Our idea of Russia, outlined by the history and culture we were shown, has been colored brightly and deeply by the friendships and love that our exchange created. And, like the thick bands upon our wrists, woven of single strands of gratitude, so the idea we have of Russia is all of these impressions together, impressions for which we are grateful still to our many Russian friends.

2 thoughts on “What is Russia?

  1. This is a really great post, highlighting all the different ways that we experience Russia on our travels! I am glad to find someone else who has shared such deep and positive connection with the place, the people (and oh the food!). It sounds like your students had really worthwhile trips, and learned a lot. I think this is so important in the world we live in, full of stereotypes, geo-politics and, often, fear. A great read, thank you!


    1. I am glad you enjoyed it, Lisa. Those exchanges were some of the best experiences I had as a teacher, and my students and I have made life-long friends with our Russian counterparts. Enjoy your time in Russia. I am looking forward to your posts!


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