Friday, July 12, 2013

Russia - my biennial homecoming.

I have a hard time writing about Russia. To me, Russia eludes words, and simply resides inside my brain as a clump of emotions, that - once I try to verbalize, sounds unfinished and contrived. One of the most dismal countries of the European continent - in terms of standards of living, human rights record and political climate - also happens to be the dearest place to my heart, my cocoon, my place of peace and respite, home to family and friends. Russia is like banya for my spirit. If any of you have ever experienced a banya, it is not in itself an altogether pleasant experience, yet it leaves you cleansed and rejuvenated. Russia has that effect on me. Sometimes I almost dread going - knowing that I will butt against outrageous arguments, superstitions and ignorance that have long since disappeared from the society I live in (at least its mainstream).  But at the end of the visit, I dread leaving. Dread it with a deep, molecular ache that I have tearfully tried to dodge and felt just as strongly since I started coming and going, at the age of 13. No matter how long I stay away, no matter the changes that take place in my life, the part of me that is Russian is always there, pulling me back.

This year's visit - too short as always - consisted of 2 days in Moscow and 3 days in Chaplygin, my hometown. As a sidenote, since I only had my crappy old pocket camera with me (it being Flo's turn to take the DSLR to France), the only way to provide half-decent shots was to have some fun with them in Photoshop.  Hope you don't snub me for "cheating" - these are not Instagrammed.

 My friends and I spent the majority of the day in Gorkiy Park - a former amusement park that was recently repurposed into a multi-use park for the people with cafes, performance stages, ponds, games, etc. There's even a "beach", though it opens to the Moscow river, which means you can't touch the water under fear of death.

the "beach" at Gorkiy Park. Good for: sunning and people watching. Not good for: swimming.
Old timey sodapop stand.
popcorn car.

 We rented a little water bike and spent a nice hour pedaling around the pond like giddy 10 year olds.

two-toned swan.
 The day was hot-hot-hot. In the evening, once the air cooled a bit, we walked around the city taking in some street exhibitions and stopping for dinner at an Italian Cafe.

My Jolly Rancher friends.
Sculpture garden
Me, starting to succumb to jetlag with my lovely Oksana by my side trying to keep me awake by ordering tasty cocktails.
The cafes in Moscow are buzzing! It's nice to see that regular people finally have expendable income and are enjoying these lingering summer evenings. At the end of the night, just as it started to get dark (around 11:30pm) - we walked through to the Red Square - I had to check in in one of the most iconic, and one of my favorite, places on Earth.

Moscow-City skyscrapers glowing behind the Kremlin.
A lightning strike lights up the night over the Moscow River.
good friends = good times :)

 The next day Oksana, Alyonka and I went to Winzavod. A former wine bottling plant - a whole complex of buildings - was repurposed a few years ago into a contemporary art center. From the outside, the complex still keeps the feel of its industrial past - red brick, huge exhaust vents, loading docks - but inside, the guts have been painstakingly transformed into a vessel for art - galleries, stores, performance venues, you name it. It's a whole little art city onto itself and a great way to spend a day.

The collections showcase work from current practicing artists from all over Russia. What I liked is that the center seems to focus not just on fine art, not purely on aesthetic and technical prowess, as was customary in Russian classical art for a long time. Rather, the art at Winzavod provides commentary and artists' points of view, giving a glimpse into the mind of young Russians, and often showing a less-than-pretty side of itself. There are photo essays, installations, sculpture...

...even entire rooms that are set up to function as a single, immersive art piece. One exhibit we especially liked was an architectural showcase of finalists in an "urban renewal" competition, where architecture students were asked to re-imagine dilapidated or abandoned parts of their cities into rejuvenated neighborhoods. There were tons of great ideas to peruse.

the urban renewal exhibition is worth lingering over.
walking around Winzavod

At cafe Hitrye Lyudi - Cunning People, in Winzavod. Really neat spot, and good food!
The center took us almost an entire day to see, and even then we didn't get through everything. But by 5pm it was time to head home and get ready, for the 3 of us were getting on a train that evening. You see, me and my two favorite Moscovites all hail from a tiny little wrinkle in the woods called Chaplygin, where we spent our summers our entire lives, and where all 3 of our babushkas still live, staying up nights, waiting for our rare visits.

The 6 hour train ride with the girls was such a treat! I got to yak with my friends whom I don't see nearly enough, drink warm wine and pop sunflower seeds by the handful, enjoy the golden light of Russia's endless summer twilight pouring in through the window, and know that the whole time I am inching closer and closer to my most precious place in the universe. Can't beat that.


Chaplygin is my land of eternal summer. Since I was old enough to form memories, this little town in the middle of nowhere - its slow, idyllic river, roosters squawking in the distance, and the warm smell of cattle - has been my Eden. And it remains my Eden now that I'm old and gray. Not much ever happens when I go there. Really, only 3 things happen in Chaplygin:

1. I see friends and family...

My bestie, Oksana, visiting from Moscow
A childhood friend - also named Oksana - sunning on the riverbank.
getting ready for a mini-reunion on the same spot we used to hang out nightly as pre-teens. This spot is soaked with memories of secrets, first crushes, games, and childhood heartbreak.

Me and tha boys.

Vova, our beloved the class clown.

With my aunt and 2 adorable nephews.
the 2 adorable nephews by themselves.
my aunt, cousin, and her husband. It's embarrassing to admit, but I hadn't seen my cousin in 9 years.
my friend Mishka and his kiddo.
2. I eat Grandma's home cooking and gorge myself with produce plucked from the patch.

Grandma's blinchiki (crepes) are to die for.

cherries in grandma's yard.

3. I go for long, reflective walks around the town. Sometimes alone, sometimes with my sister, who is the only other Chaplygin expat capable of understanding and sharing the withdrawals and longing that this place arouses me. Whether it's walking along the dirt roads slinking through the crop fields that swallow this region, or through quiet paved streets of the miniscule town center with its onion church domes and rows of 18th century facades - nothing in Chaplygin ever changes. Maybe that's one of the things that draws me to it so much - my entire childhood is preserved here, inside this town frozen in time, like a keepsake placed into a snowglobe, a chance for nostalgic time travel, and the landpost by which I take measure of own evolution.

It's not much to look at. A lot of bad things can be said about it, same as the rest of suburban and rural Russia where stagnation, corruption, and lack of opportunity are draining the life out the population. But to go into that would be opening up too big of a can of worms, and I don't want to right now. For me, this little town will forever hold a huge significance, and keep me coming back again and again. Grandma's tomatoes alone are worth the flight.


No comments:

Post a Comment