Glimpses Of Russia

by Vladimir Orlov

He landed at Sheremetyevo-2, with that peculiar air of a Westerner who feels he is protected by Western democracy even in the most unpredictable of countries. Here none of the values he has lived by can be taken for granted. Nonetheless, he is not scared. He knows he is a Westerner, a European, an Englishman. He knows the Union Jack flutters over him even here, in a
country he has never been to before.

And the Russians waiting for their plane to take them to freedom feel the same about him. They feel he is one from that other world, from that very world they strive for sometimes all through their lives and often in vain. For them it is too hard to reach: it is not just getting there from here, not just safely settling there, it is something more. It is discarding their sense and state of dependence. It is discarding their inner world, the merits of which are almost vices there! It is trying their hardest to acquire that look of a person who has never been a serf.

Sheremetyevo-2 is a place which may be called "micro-Europe", as it looks more Western than Russian. Westerners landing here have an opportunity to preserve an illusion of still being at home for some extra time. Here there are no scenes typical of Russian life. On the contrary, everything smells of decency here.

Taxi-drivers meet foreigners just at the customs gates and charge 30-50 US dollars or more for taking guests of the capital to any of the Moscow hotels. Russian tourists with a dozen bags each come to the drivers and first inquire about the makes of their cars. When they are told there are no new Mercedes, but only used Ladas, they lose any further interest. The taxi-drivers go on trying to ferret out some "genuine foreigner", not a Russian-speaking one.

Our friend came to Russia to spend his two-week vacation with us. He wanted to know as much about this country as possible, but even though he stayed here for two weeks, a lot of things remained as hazy and mysterious for him as they had been before. Yet he did understand much. He understood British problems were nothing compared with what this country was and is experiencing.

The first revelation came when we went to Volgograd which is a thousand kilometres away from Moscow. We had to go there in our old car, as it was summer, a "rush season" and getting plane and train tickets was a great problem. The journey gave our guest an opportunity to experience that unbelievable vastness of the country, the only thing Russians are blessed with having in abundance.

"People in England won't comprehend this vastness", he would say.

"No, they won't", I thought.

Indeed, it was evident he didn't feel about Russia the way we Russians did?the air smelt of novelty and revelation for him, not just of misery and hopelessness. He seemed to be basking in this vastness of the country, which impressed him so much. In the meanwhile, I thought how good it was to have been born in the city where life still offered some prospects, though here in the Russian village there could be none.

Since 1917 village life has been semi-feudal, semi-communist: a unique system not understood in the West, characterized by repression and famine. The regime has proved to be even uglier in the villages than in the city. That's where the "lucky ones" have escaped to. There to be gobbled up by the smoke of huge factories; the "underdogs" like black slaves waiting for their
Lincoln who has never come.

But to the Western imagination the glimpses of scattered villages only make the scene more exotic. Even though our friend was a person who had studied history and had a good idea of the suffering inflicted by Communism. For he hadn't felt it; hadn't lived under it for a single hour, so never properly understood what it was like to live in a Russian village. As a city resident, I can hardly understand it myself. One must be born there, live one's whole life in the village.

He said the village looked like an English one fifty or sixty years before. Maybe he was right, but to my mind only with respect to its outward appearance, not its inner spirit where there was no reason for desire, no will for better life, for freedom. Under democracy the country is able to get out of the deepest recession; under totalitarianism the country is doomed to remain in it for ever.

Our friend was very fond of sightseeing and after we arrived in Volgograd we took him to various places of interest. I think the sight of the Mamay Hill Memorial imprinted itself on his memory: even a giant would be impressed by the huge size and grandeur. The Memorial was built to commemorate the Battle of Stalingrad during World War II. Its construction was once a national cause initiated directly from the Kremlin. Brezhnev himself came to
Volgograd to make an unforgettable opening speech, the last brick in its walls.

So our friend couldn't help admiring the magnificent Memorial. We climbed up the innumerable steps of the broad marble staircase to the more than a dozen metres high monument of a warrior standing in a kind of waterpool where in the years of my childhood numerous visitors used to throw their coins. But the further the overall chaos spreads, the less the number of visitors. The
memorial begins to strike the rarer visitors not so much with its grandeur, but rather with its creeping signs of inevitable decay and dilapidation. Grass blades sprout here and there, sticking through the concrete pavement as if they were small swords of some lurking underground enemy. We went on climbing higher and entered a kind of a corridor between two walls built to portray the fury of the battle as it was fifty years ago. Recorded sounds were coming from the walls and it seemed fierce fighting still went on there. Our friend stood in reverent awe. It is striking the first time. But when you hear it for a second and third time and when you haven't recently come from England, you begin to compare the ferocity of the battle with that of Russian queues. This unseemly comparison sticks in your mind, however hard you try to get it away and bring back thoughts of the sanctity of time and place. Maybe it's appropriate enough, as our way of life presupposes perverted thinking.

Then we moved on to the Combat Glory Hall where the Eternal Fire burns lighting the granite walls with names of soldiers who died in action. The walls and inscriptions covering them from top to bottom greatly impressed our friend. Thousands and thousands of men's names were inscribed on the wall for ever. The air itself seemed to be fluttering with memory. Motherland (several dozen metres high, the statue of a woman holding a drawn sword) crowns the whole Memorial. The statue stands on top of the hill. It symbolises our victory over Nazi Germany. But the Memorial was built when the cold war was at its peak and the statue was designed also as a monumental reminder to our enemies of what would befall them if they ever ventured to come here. When I explained this to my friend, he took it in good part, but began to cast more careful and wary looks at the prodigious dozen metre concrete sword overhead. His looks became even more cautious
when he saw the foundation of the statue had recently been repaired. (The Memorial had even had to be closed for some time.) But as this spot was the best one for taking photographs, we had to remain under the sword for a while.

The statue had originally been designed to inspire feelings of patriotism and pride in the hearts of our people. But one can't help thinking it is a symbol of our whole life:the sword threatening the people it is supposed to protect.

The sight of this fearful statue of war has always been moving for many foreigners, especially for those from the West. It has a strange effect on them. They fall into a kind of pensiveness which is definitely different from our Russian tourists' reaction. Foreigners are more deeply affected by the Memorial. Their gaze again and again returns to the sword, the sword of Communism.

In the Revolution churches were destroyed, faith was persecuted, priests imprisoned. But the regime came to see the place of the church among the institutions of Soviet power; and it was made a shadowy branch of the security system; a means of getting control of the souls of all the Russian believers. Now new religious sentiments are on the rise; churches are so crowded on Sundays that our guest had to visit them during the week. During his two week stay with us he needed to get to a hospital to have an
injection. I guess the hospital made the strongest impression on him, the more so in that it was a general hospital, not a model one for high-ranking officials.

He had spoken before of the relatively poor condition of some Italian hospitals where it was not unusual for doctors to come to their patients drunk or in blood-stained clothing. And although the doctor he saw here was wearing a sterile smock, was absolutely sober and a real professional, our friend obviously wished he was back in Italy.

To get his injection, he had to enter a dark corridor with dingy walls painted half in blue, half limed and stained by rain water. But he didn't see the walls, he saw bandaged people lying beside the wall, as there was no room for them in the wards. Some of them were moaning, some were staring at the opposite walls in vacant silence waiting for the nurse to come. One elderly woman was seated in a wheel chair. Suddenly something went wrong with it. It collapsed and the woman fell shrieking to the floor. A nurse ran
to her... Our friend just stood there aghast.

After that he could hardly appreciate the doctor's effort to find a
single-use syringe for him. The doctor and two of his nurses spent at least half an hour trying to find one reserved for "special cases". He didn't quite understand the reason why he hadn't been given an injection at once. He just "couldn't comprehend this vastness". After his experience at the hospital he said: "Communism is gone. But its remnants are everywhere." Since health care was proclaimed free and equally accessible to all back at the dawn of Soviet power, it has traditionally been one of the most poorly financed and hopelessly backward spheres of Russian life. There's no health insurance in this country and the health care system keeps going only on its own inertia. Nobody knows if and when it will finally disintegrate. Our visitor is back in Sheremetyevo-2. Something has invisibly changed in him. He is leaving Russia, a country foreigners refer to as terra incognita
and native residents as sovok meaning "scoop" or "dustpan".

Visiting foreigners who have a soft spot for Russia know there's no danger that they'll be swept into it for good.