Sunday, October 12, 2014

Russia 2014 - times, they are a'changin'

By now it's an all-too familiar routine. Descending over a sea of green, the verdant countryside around Moscow, stumpy cottages sharing borders with luxury dacha communities, factory smokestacks, giant white housing blocks, flashing ribbons or rivers, and the city in the distance, at a sharp angle as the plane makes its final turn. My pure joy unmarred even by jostling lines at customs, a groggy train ride into the city, greedily ogling every little detail - both new and familiar, feeling that old yarnball of emotions and memories unwinding deep in the solar plexus as it does with every homecoming. Happiness, nostalgia, anxiety, splintered allegiances - all churn together under a veil of jetlag, beeswax smoke, chanted prayer ringing under goldleaf domes, and glinting facets of crystal filled with moonshine.

Picking out Oksana's smile in the crowd at Paveletsky train station, falling into step in a flurry of conversation as if it's been hours and not many, many months. A pit stop at her apartment - cozy in its seemingly unalterable permanence - to rest my weary, jet-lagged bones, before making our way back to the train for the overnight ride to...


where everything begins and ends, for me.
Yes, it's an all-too familiar routine, a beaten path that I, the most fickle of travelers, nevertheless set out to walk year after year.

And yet, this year, everything is different. A low electric hum, like that of a high voltage power line, runs through everything. Easy laughter turns to pointed questions that I, as one of "them", should have a satisfactory answer to. Subjects are either politely avoided or wildly speculated on. My dollars takes me 20% further than same time last year. We joke, but not really, about the absence of Parmesan and imported fruit. The anti-American sentiment runs deep, and is no longer confined to the usual bemused and curious suspicion; it simmers visibly; it is dark, resentful, and very inflamed. It ranges from kooky and bombastic outbursts, to quiet and intelligently articulated arguments that frankly I have no answers to, making it an even more confusing position for me to occupy. A child of the East, a product of the West, standing on a tightrope over a rift between the two, embodying the inability to reconcile, like oil and water, their cultural differences.

But what is there to do? Governments keep playing their games, another region is thrown into unrest, fingers are pointed all around, and all around blame is denied. The strong still eat the weak, superpowers still protect their national interest at the expense of developing nations, the right people make another billion or two, and the rest of us are left shouting ourselves hoarse with stupid slogans, dutifully swallowing whatever garbage official story is being fed to us by our garbage official channels. It's the same on both sides of the Atlantic, and it's enough to make one quite pessimistic, if I must confess. I am deeply saddened by the current state of affairs between Russia and the West. But I'm not going to let it prevent me from going home and getting my fix.

sculpture of a Japanese apple blossom tree with a Russian orthodox church in the background
some local flavor. It's not leaning, it's sizing you up.

Inside the new Chaplygin tourist center. The city created it as part of a campaign to draw domestic tourism. The place is part history museum, part cultural exhibition, with a little bit of zoo mixed in. Even though I go to Chaplygin  every year, it never occurred to ME as a tourist destination, but they're really going for it. There are brochures and everything! 
recreation of an old home of traditional construction
an onsite foundry makes excellent replicas of ancient weapons and armor. That helmet weighed like, 40 pounds.
these are very skillfully done, with iron and leather
pheasant - a local game bird

There's even a whole pen of ostrich chicks. Because they're indigenous to Chaplygin? Just kidding, there's absolutely no reason for them to be there other than novelty. And they peck like crazy!

My friend Katya and I, in the hut of Baba Yaga, a character from Russian folklore. 

Inside the center's lovely banquet hall complete with traditional stove
an evening stroll with friends. We live worlds apart, but we've walked these streets together for decades.

dinner with friends at Chaplygin's only "restaurant", the Plaza.
I got extremely lucky with the weather. For the very end of September, it was unusually warm, and I even got to pick a late crop of raspberries and strawberries! It was like a taste of summer, delightful and unexpected!

enthusiastically plowing through the raspberry bushes

We managed to rustle up some bikes from neighbors and go for a ride in the countryside. It was such a perfect day for it, under the enormous cloudless sky, with a fresh breeze smelling of hay and tilled earth, and brilliant colors of foliage.

Stopped at a well to get a drink. It was on private property, but the owner came out and gave us cups. He's an old man that lives alone and welcomed the company. 
He also had the world's most adorable puppy.

And some cows. Om nom nom.

when we got back, Oksana's grandma treated us to an amazing spread of delicacies. Those mushrooms never stood a chance.
Oksana's grandma grows a mean cucumber!
In the evening we packed a liquid picnic, and drove to a site just outside of town that's currently under renovation. It's a former monastery, a large complex of over a dozen buildings that's been abandoned for a long time, but is slowly being restored, to eventually become a historic park. Some parts look quite nice, like this spring below, but many parts are still just creepy, empty husks. It was completely deserted, and I'm not entirely sure we were supposed to be there, but we checked it out anyway. I had no idea this place even existed in my own back yard...

a graveyard of old farming equipment
At night, it got cold. Steaming breath cold. Witch's titty in a brass bra cold. But, hey, we're Russian, right? Nothing a few extra coats and some Georgian wine couldn't fix.

wearing 54 jackets between the three of us.
good, frosty fun
One new goal I set for this year's visit was to visit my cousin, Irina, who lives in Lipetsk, about an hour away from Chaplygin. We were very close growing up; she, being 3 years older, was always a bit of a role model and older sister figure for me. But in adulthood, we drifted apart and lost contact almost completely. Aside from a 2 hour visit last year, I hadn't seen her in TEN years! I had met her oldest daughter - my niece - once when she was an infant. The kid is 12 now, going on 25. So, the situation clearly needed fixing.

I even got to play tourist in the Lipetsk area for a bit. Irina's husband, Igor', took me around to some of the local attractions. The area has a high concentration of "holy" sites - monasteries, convents, springs and other stops that serve as pilgrimage destinations for people from all over Russia and beyond. Some of these places were swarmed with tour buses, and the lines to fill containers with "magic water" from the springs were obscene.

Zadonsk women's monastery
Here I am hiding the vessel of sin and temptation that is my female body, with these conveniently provided shapeless rags. Aaaah, religion. 
Sure is pretty though, and smells nice.
Zadonsk men's monastery

Though unquestionably interesting to visit and possessing great historical value, I personally find it profoundly sad that so much money is being dumped into these massive, lavish, tax exempt businesses in a country where basic services and infrastructure are so lacking. I know, you could say the same of just about every country outside of Scandinavia and Western Europe, but in truly "developing" nations it seems even more offensive. Though the locals would wholeheartedly disagree. There's a good reason this branch is called "orthodox"; concern over immortal soul or whatever has taken full precedence over earthly life. The attitude towards the latter can be adequately summed up with a shrug.

A pretty shot of Nizhniy Park in Lipetsk
moonshine at my cousin's house - it was so very good!
 Irina and my nephew Yaroslav
Irina, Igor', and their youngest, Yelisey.
The oldest, Sophia, a real character, and future supermodel.
me and three obnoxiously beautiful children.
On my last day, in Moscow, I continued my family kaleidoscope tour with a date with another cousin, Maria, whom I also have not seen in over 2 years.  We decided to mix it up with a visit to Sixty, a super-posh restau on the 60th floor of a tower in the financial heart in Moscow. It was, let's say, a very pricey excursion.

with my cousin Maria at Sixty. Amazing views, stylish decor, and wine that starts at $40USD per glass. 
joined by these lovelies (also the first time I saw the elusive Alyonka on this trip!) 

because none of us wanted to pay for food at Sixty, we ended up in a casual neighborhood cafe on Old Arbat street, a kind of  cheesy but cozy Soviet nostalgia piece with typical Soviet-era food on the cheap. A cup of hot mulled wine was just what the doctor ordered. 

Oksana and her beau, Sergei. We all had tea sets and soup pots like this growing up. And we had read all those newspapers :)
me and a bowl of DELICIOUS pelmeni with pike, and my third Glühwein.
finishing off the night at Alyonka's, and meeting her awesome sphynx cat, Marusya.
I made it a point this year to visit as many of my friends and family as I could, even if only for an hour or two, to share a meal and exchange opinions, to purposefully make new memories with those who are dear and important to me, those whom I see far too rarely. Even in the wake of all the turmoil and changes that have engulfed this region in the past year, despite the discord and misunderstandings inflicted by global forces, I want to make sure that my personal connections stay strong, that the people and places that tie me to a central part of my identity remain a constant part of my life.

Because none of these changes can even remotely compare to another, much bigger change that has colored this visit to Russia into a completely different palette from any of the previous ones. This year, for the first time in my life, I did not go home to Grandma. She passed away in the winter, and I was not even able to get there in time for her funeral.

It's strange how life blindsides us sometimes. I've often thought about the last time I hugged her goodbye in July 2013, promising to see her next year. How I watched her make the sign of the cross through a cloud of dust and exhaust as the car pulled away and she shrunk in the distance. How even the thought that this could be the last time I see her never once entered my head. It's not that she wasn't old, she was in her mid-eighties. It's just that she has always been such a constant, truly a physical incarnation of the place that embodies me, binds me to a distant but vivid time that I carry with me, everywhere and always. I never fully internalized the idea that one day she simply wouldn't be here. It feels less like the loss of a family member, and more like a partial amputation of my identity.

Chaplygin without grandma felt like being a guest in my own home. On the surface everything remained unchanged, but I couldn't shake a feeling of disassociation, like watching reality through a TV screen. For the first time in 33 years, I didn't have a home base in my home town. I stayed with friends, and they were beyond gracious and welcoming. But part of me just couldn't believe it, when I walked past that little yellow house with its happy yellow siding, that I will no longer be going in.

Everything changes, whether we are ready or not.
We can only hope that future changes are for the better.

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