Lost and Found in Russia
Taking a new step, uttering a new word, is what people fear most.—Dostoyevsky
Lost in the Air
I was fifteen in 1960 when Khruschev banged his shoe on a table at the United Nations. The USSR was our enemy in 1960. We practiced duck and cover drills in high school hallways, using the opportunity to socialize—what did we care about bombs? No way I ever wanted to visit Russia.
In the 1990s, Gorbachev’s policies of perestroika and glasnost introduced restructuring and openness to travel between the USA and Russia. We were all friends now, for one glorious decade.
I befriended a professor from a Russian university on exchange at my university. When Luda invited me to lecture in her country for a month, I accepted. In October of 1999, I boarded a plane to Moscow, waving goodbye to my husband and three sons. On the airplane, I tried tracking my flight and the path to Nizhny Novgorod, my final destination, but the map tracker showed my city not northwest of Moscow, but southwest. I was lost and had not even landed.
“Ah, it is because of spies,” the flight attendant shrugged. Air maps disguised closed cities, such as Nizhny Novgorod had been until recently. I was not lost, but suddenly a bit chilly.
The Sheremetyevo airport loomed huge and dingy. Jetlagged, I stumbled along in the line to passport control. We stopped, started, and jostled. A young woman in front of me turned and whispered, “Where are you from?”
I told her Richmond, Virginia. “And you?”
“I’m from Lansing, Michigan. Don’t tell anyone.” Before I could ask why that should be a secret, she went on. “My husband and I have $10,000 in cash on us. Because we’re going to adopt a baby.”
“Oh! That’s a lot. Be careful.” I did not want to be part of this secret.
“We’re allowed that much, but I’m so nervous about Customs.”
Her husband turned around. “Shh, Carol. Be quiet.”
I followed them until the line divided at four booths. When I reached baggage claim, they had vanished—I hoped on their way to the orphanage and not to jail. I struggled with my two suitcases and searched for Luda, who was waiting behind the ropes for me.
She whisked me into the backseat of a taxi. “Do you have some U.S. dollars?”
“Yes.” I tugged at my fanny pack.
“It is not allowed, but it the best way to pay. Put five dollars on the front seat, but out of view of passersby.”
The driver placed his hand over the bills and swept them into his pocket. We began our whirlwind five-hour tour of Moscow. I pinched myself to stay awake after so many hours in the air. In our compartment on the train that evening, I was startled to find four beds, two occupied by men. I didn’t undress. I fell asleep quickly to the noises of the lurching train.
I stayed near Gorky Square, a neighborhood of shops over which Gorky’s statue presided. During the Communist era, the city had been renamed in honor of the Soviet writer; the statue and square still honored him. My apartment building was down the street, off the third alley, and through a battered steel door set into a mustard-yellow cement building. I climbed five sets of 20 steps each—no lift. An all-purpose living-dining-sleeping room led to a balcony that sagged so badly I would not step onto it. The view of tin roofs and dusty streets was not worth a fall.
During my first week, Luda protected me to the point of irritation. She introduced herself to my three neighbors and instructed them to “look after me.” I never saw them again. Luda showed up at my door daily by nine. She walked me back each afternoon and insisted that I practice locking and unlocking my metal door until she was satisfied with my skills. I needed to jiggle the large key just so, turn counter and then clockwise to a certain degree before I heard the click. Some evenings, Luda waited for as much as twenty minutes before I was successful. And then, I did this set of motions backward in the mornings, from inside the door. For that first week, I didn’t want to go out after she left, fearful I would not get in again and spend the night on the landing. I listened until I heard the last of her steps echoing away and the outer door of the building clanging shut before I settled in for the evening.
Lost in Darkness
Because the apartment was two miles from the university building, we walked or took the trolley. During the commute, Luda would chide, “Don’t smile. Don’t walk so fast. People will know you’re American.”
“Is that bad?” I asked.
“We don’t draw attention to ourselves.”
One evening, deep darkness met us as we entered my building. The light sockets held no bulbs.
“People take them,” Luda explained. “Like the toilet paper.”
I was prepared, though. I fished a small torch from my purse to guide us up the stairs.
Another evening, Luda took me to meet her dear friend, a retired professor who lived far out of the city. We rode a train and a bus, then walked many blocks to arrive at her apartment. The woman let us in after Luda spoke a code word and fastened three locks. Her home was dark, only one lamp on in her living room. She sat across from me, the chairs so close our knees touched, and held my hands. Her voice was low; I strained to hear her. She talked of persecution, of her American friend who had lived in the USSR and helped the government for years, but ended in Siberia.
All was not well in this new Russia. Yeltsin’s market economy had bankrupted citizens who, like Luda, now stuffed cash in mattresses. Putin hovered in the wings. “He is our only choice,” my colleagues opined.
Finding My Way
Luda decided, after 10 days, that I was capable of finding my own way. Released, I walked from the university back to Gorky Square alone. I hurried past a building set back from the road—KGB? Those windows no longer had eyes, I had been assured, but I felt watched as I shivered by. To calm my nerves, I stopped and gazed at the convergence of the Olka and the Volga. I window-shopped on Prokavska Street. Then I turned onto my side street and down a familiar-looking alley. But this was not my alley. I backtracked three times before I found my way.
I had mastered steel doors; I could light the pilot hidden in a cabinet over the stove and boil enough water daily for drinking and cooking. I knew how to navigate the market of vendors selling slabs of raw, uncovered meat or freshly wilting vegetables. I could find my way home.
Lost Riding with Strangers
In my third week, I went on a wild and crazy ride.
“You are going to visit the business college,” Luda informed me, opening the door to a black car in front of the university.
By now I expected sudden changes in my schedule, so I slid in and over to make room for Luda, who closed the door and waved me off. Dismayed, I watched her disappear from view as the driver pulled away. Yes, I had been annoyed by her protectiveness, but suddenly she had deserted me. I was on my own; I didn’t know where I was going and this adventure might not go well.
I said “hello”/ “Zdravstvuj” to the driver, his passenger in front, and the stout man beside me. No response. The car was steamy—Russians keep everything inside too hot. I was sweaty and nervous. Why hadn’t Luda come with me? Who were these guys? Could they be Russian agents? Had I committed some suspicious act or made some unfortunate remark? All things considered, I did not want to be in this car. The driver slowed down so I edged nearer to the door. But when he stopped—in the middle of the road—the door opened from outside and a fourth man climbed in. No choice now but to squeeze myself into the middle. We swayed as the car careened in and out of traffic, tires screeching, cars swerving. Someone smelled rank, probably me. For twenty minutes, I gripped my briefcase and thought about my family and the good life I had had.
My head banged against the front seat when the driver screeched to an abrupt stop. The man who had joined us jumped out, held his hand to me and said, “Here, lady.” I tested my feet to see if I could stand without collapsing. He escorted me into the college.
Eleanor Rooseveltadvised, “Do one thing every day that scares you.” I did, but not on purpose.
Lost in St. Petersburg, Russia
Lectures ended, I joined a group of tourists at the soviet-style Hotel Pribaltiyskaya on the Baltic Sea in St. Petersburg. My window, grimy with dirt, let in very little light and not much of a view. I tried spit, and then soap, but the patch I made in the opaqueness didn’t help much.
Guards checked my passport and room key before I could catch an elevator. I wrote notes on the back of the hotel card so I could find my way to my floor and onto the right hall. No room service or coffee supplies were available so I boiled water for instant coffee using my immersion heater. The lights in my room blew; in fact, the entire hall went dark. Then the knock came on my door. The repair was quick; my embarrassment was longer lasting. The hall housekeeper motioned me to her tiny closet, showed me a pot of hot water, and gestured that I come to her next time.
We visited the usual grand places: the bridges, the Church of the Spilt Blood, Peterhof Museum Reserve, St. Isaac’s Cathedral, Catherine’s Palace, and the Winter Palace. I had my picture taken with The Bronze Horseman and at the McDonald’s. In The Hermitage, we walked through rooms and rooms of art.
On the last the morning of the tour, the rest of my group departed, but the guide kindly drove me into the city and dropped me at Dostoyevsky’s apartment- museum.
“You will be fine here. Everyone speaks English. Take the green line back to the hotel.”
Of course, no one at the museum spoke English. I wandered through the home where Dostoyevsky had penned his novels. When I hit the street two hours later, I was lost. I asked a passerby for Nevsky Prospekt. He did not speak English but beckoned for me to follow. We walked past the Grand Hotel. I saw the blue “M.” At the ticket kiosk, I showed my hotel brochure to the clerk, who did not speak English. He nodded, sold me a ticket, and pointed toward a platform. On the train, I asked the man beside me for help. He peered at my map and said, “Okay.” Was that reassurance? I decided it must be. I sat tight as we sped through the dark tunnel. When we came into light on the island of Vasileyvsky Ostrov, he tapped me.
“Da. Do svidanija!”/”Yes. Goodbye!”
“Spasibo!” I thanked him and exited at Vasileostovskaya (no, I can’t pronounce it). The place did not look familiar, but I trudged along Stredny Prospekt until I saw Nalichnaya Boulevard, which was on my tiny hotel map. I was near! Turning left on Nakhimova, I caught a glimpse of the Baltic Sea and rushed towards the hotel. The Primorskya station would have been much closer. But I had found my way.
Found in Helsinki, Finland
The next day, the train streamlined me to Helsinki. When the Russian patrol debarked and a Finnish Border Guard asked for my passport, I smiled. My body relaxed from a tension I had been carrying for four weeks. In Helsinki, the train emptied quickly. I lugged my suitcase into a rainy night. Like a bug, I followed the neon light to the Sokus Hotel. The clerk welcomed me in English. On my one full day in Helsinki, I visited the Sibelius monument, awed by those 600 steel pipes. I listened to Finlandia, which I knew as By Still, My Soul. In fact, this melody’s title has changed often, at first to avoid Russian censorship in the early 1900s. I stood in front of Eila Hiltunen’s Passio Musicae, smiling into a camera. I was almost home.