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Lenin's Russia: A Place You Have to Want to Go

New Book Shows Author's Love and Dismay of the Kremlin



Excerpt: Finding Comrade Right

You have to really want to go to Russia. The briefest of visits involve a lot of paperwork, and if you want to hang around for any length of time, they make you take a leprosy test. 

Reussians pride themselves on their legendary hospitality, but whenever I stagger off the ten-hour flight from New York, I never seem to see the smiling, flaxen-haired Slavic beauty in national dress offering me the traditional symbol of welcome: a round loaf of bread topped with a small container of salt. Instead, a thirteen-year-old passport-control guy with pitted ace ad a dull green uniform scrutinizes me unsmilingly from behind a smeared bulletproof window just long enough to make me feel like I actually might have leprosy.


I pilot my rickety cart, stacked high with luggage, through a phalanx of the world's most aggressively unpleasant taxi drivers. Once outside the terminal there are the titantic statues of Russian military types who, "with conquering limb astride," guard the gateway to every major Russian city. Some are dressed as medieval warriors, others in high helmets of nineteenth century hussars, but most, like the ones who guard the road to downtown Moscow, are clearly those who defended Russia from the Nazis.

Huge and menacing, they loom up, their arms firmly extended, palms held out in warning. You do not need to speak a word of Russian to interpret their message: "Halt and go no further!" they say, and I never freel that this is madly welcoming. 
Lenin.
If you ask me (and no one ever, ever does), the Russians should rethink the statuary. When you are all about turning Moscow into a global financial hub or transforming Sochi, a sleepy, subtropical backwater, into the venue for the 2014 Winter Olympics, the menacing Red Army dudes on steroids just send the wrong message.

None of this mattered to me in the beginning, because I really wanted to go to Russia. I had wanted to go since I was thirteen and stood on tiptoes to slide Nicholas and Alexandria, by Robert Massie, down off the school library shelves. That thick black tome became, as the best books do, a portal to another world. I didn't read Nicholas and Alexandrai--I inhaled it. I devoured it.

In fact, I think eventually I stole it from the library. I couldn't help myself. I spent hours poring over the sepia photos of the last tsar and his attractive, tragically doomed family, and I became determined to go to Russia. Who wouldn't want to go to the vast, distant, secret, snowbound country of Firebirds and onion domes, where beautiful, sepia-skinned grand duchesses had names like Tatiana and Anastasia?

At this point in stories like these, there is always a kindly librarian to point the way, so I'll include one here: she pointed me further down the rabbit hole, aJenniver EremeevaJenniver Eremeevand I discovered lusty Catherine the Great and lunatic Peter the Great. I met Prince Andrei Bolkonsky, Anna Karenina and Vronsky and Yuri Zhivago and his muse, Lara; and of course I wanted to go to Russia even more.

I wanted to drink tea out of a glass from a hissing samovar, I wanted to stay up all night for the Easter vigil, I wanted to ride in a troika and take a brocade-upholstered train through a blizzard, the obligatory handsome army officer at my side. I wrapped my head in woolen scarves like Julie Christie and Diane Keaton and imagined myself triumphing over adversity in the midst of war and revolution, though to be honest, my interest in Russian history ran out of gas at the logical stopping point of 1917.

Though later the grittier, grimmer, gray Soviet stuff came to itnerest me in an academic way, it never drew me in on a visceral level the way the imperial Russia did. Nicholas and Alexandria left me with the unshakable conviciton that Lenin and his cronies were the villains of the piece, and long after I was old enough to know better I nurtured a naive but heartfelt vision that one day, the sepia-colored Russian people would rise up, throw off the Soviet yoke, outlaw Marxism-Leninism, and bring back the sepia-colored tsar. 

Russia would live happily ever after. By happy coinsidence, in the autumn of 1985, when I walked into my freshmen-year Russian language class, the Russians seemed to be on the verge of doing just that.   

Russians say of their native tongue that it is bogatiy, or "rich." By this they mean that Russian words and phrases can have multiple meanings and convey such universal truth that translation is often impossible. In my college years I associated "rich" with the considerable financial aid available from the US government if you were willing to take a crack at learning Russian-- another happy coincidence.

I spent tortured hours with flash cards and learned to use different parts of my mouth, forcing my tongue and teeeth to pair unlikely cononants that have no truck with one another in Romance languages. Z and h tell the names of heros: Zhukov and Xhdanov. K and v together herald two incredibly imporant Russian words: kvaritra (apartment) and kvitansiya (receipt), and the lack of either can lead to epic Russian stalemate.

T and s form one letter, crucial if, like me, one is interested in the last tsar, or the "Tsentralniy Komityet," of the Communist Party. See what I mean? I spent months figuring out the difference between two remarkably similar letters--sch and sh--through endless repetititions of a popular Russian tongue twister. Translated, it ominously warns that the Russian diet is relentlessly monotonous; it reads: "cabbage soup and porridge are our staple foods."

I learned that this is no mere folklore when I too ka ten day student trip to Leningrad, Pskov, Tver, and Moscow, during which time we consumed a great deal of both cabbage soup and buckwheat porridgee and not a lot else. The USSR in February 1987 was gritty, grim, and gray, but the good news wat that it looked like Team Lenin was losing the struggle for global Communisim.

Withing six minutes of checking in a the shabby Hotel October on the wrong end of Nevsky Prospekt, my fellow travelers and I were deluged with offers from chambermaids to buy our blue jeans, cigarettes, sneakers, and in one case, our actual suitcases. Coud we blame them? There was nothing in stores, and Gorbachev's career-destroying "dry law" was in effect. Everyone looked postively miserable. This did nothing to dull my passion for Russia, however, as is evident in one particular photograph from that trip. 

Buy from Amazon.

dan-peltier





 
Dan Peltier is a freelance writer from Billerica, MA who first traveled internationally at the age of 17 to Australia and New Zealand and hasn't stopped traveling since. He studied abroad in Rome, Italy during his junior year of college and fell in love with the Eternal City along the way. Follow him on Twitter @djpeltier and visit his blog http://danpeltier.wordpress.com to read more of his work.







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