Crossing

Our editor-in-chief, Russell Valentino, is writing a series of posts from a trip across Eurasia via ferry, plane, and Trans-Siberian Railway.

The first time I went to Russia, it was 1987, Gorbachev was barely into his third year as General Secretary of the Communist Party of the USSR, perestroika and glasnost were sexy new words, and my exchange-student compatriots and I had to be prepared in a three-day orientation held in Helsinki, Finland before crossing the border. There were lots of rules. Do not sit on tables, do not skip class, do not spend nights outside the accommodations provided, do not make phone calls from the lobbies of hotels or dormitories, do not sell or trade your belongings with Soviets, do not smoke hash or marijuana, do not see a doctor on your own, do not take part in political demonstrations of any kind, do not leave the group during excursions, do not venture beyond a forty-kilometer limit outside the city, do not change money on the black market, at least not with strangers on the street, and, if you do and worst comes to worst, do not forget the following phrase: “Ya imeiu pravo pozvonit’ v amerikanskoe posol’stvo”—I have the right to call the American embassy. I think they told us to write it down, memorize it, and then swallow the paper.

Our orienteers related horror stories of student arrests, nights spent in the drunk tank, inconvenient, often painful hospital stays, interrogations, and life-altering, albeit infrequent, deportations. They were of course attempting to curtail the behavior of their rambunctious charges by reflecting, perhaps in part unconsciously, the society in which those charges would soon be immersed. They wanted neither complete disappearances nor public spectacles, but rather well-behaved, courteous cultural ambassadors, polite Americans, if you will. Better known, in some circles at least, as Canadians.

What this meant in practice was that, in contrast to the many variations on studying abroad in, say, England, France, Italy, or elsewhere in Western Europe, American experiences of the USSR tended to be as alike as two Socialist Realist placards. Pretty much everyone studied the same subjects with the same textbooks and the same teachers in the same classrooms term after term, year after year. We all saw the same sights with the same guides and their same, theoretically incognito, KGB escorts. We all stayed in the same two tightly controlled dormitories with the same floor monitors, the same clingy Soviet roommates, the same indifferent cafeteria attendants, the same kasha, and the same student informants, whom everyone learned to recognize in the first week and avoid thereafter. It was a remarkably stable system. Even friends were passed on from group to group, both among the two dozen or so North American colleges and universities that routinely sent their students abroad and among the tight-knit culture of the intelligentsia, what was left of it, in Moscow and Leningrad.

That was then, before perestroika had become a mere metaphor in the speeches of American university administrators advocating for their own kinds of reform. How soon we forget. I pointed out to one such administrator that, actually, perestroika was a failure that not only hadn’t worked very well, it had destroyed the very institution it was intended to reform, a whole country. “Right,” he had answered after a brief look of fear crossed his face and was quickly replaced by his usual practiced confidence, “and the world is a better place for it.” I wish we could all be so casual about applying the lessons of history. I think he’s a university president somewhere now.

This time, before crossing the Russian border, I’m reading Ian Frazer’s Travels in Siberia and Bryn Thomas’ Trans-Siberian Handbook in hotel rooms in Sapporo and Wakkanai, making train, ferry, plane, and hotel reservations by email and online, calling travel agencies (!) in Vladivostok and Ulan Ude (priezhaite! they all tell me—come!), and trying to imagine in which situations I might really need flip flops, a battery charger for a camera whose battery lasts for weeks, a map of the Urals, or extra cotton swabs. Some things don’t seem to have changed much. The need for a visa, for instance, and an “invitation” from someone in the country in order to get it (here is a picture of my visa—this is to show what it looks like and also in case my passport is lost or stolen, please store a copy on your hard drive); the requirement of a personal interview upon entry, along with surrendering one’s passport for an ill-defined length of time; or the horror stories, of which everyone who writes about traveling there seems to have at least one. Most recent in my mind is a charming little bit Frazer recounts about some U.S. Coast Guard guys “not even drunk,” on the way back to their ship in port in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk in the early morning, getting beaten up and robbed by a group of Russian sailors. That’s bad, but it’s not high intrigue. It’s just crime, though maybe an especially Russian form of it.

When Frazer answers someone’s question about what kind of literature he writes by saying the true kind, it reminds me that I didn’t read nonfiction to find out things before traveling to Russia that first time, as I am now. I suppose that says something about me then, my head in the clouds and all, and the practicality that becomes difficult to avoid when you get older. But I think it also says something about the place we all thought we were visiting, the imaginary space, the construct in our minds. Predrag Matvejevic several times notes in his Eastern Epistolary the literary filter through which he and his generation saw all things Russian. I don’t know to what extent that filter exists anymore, or is colored in quite the same shades. Then it was rather a Tolstoevsky base with shades of Akhmatova and Turgenev, Gogol and Mandelshtam, Pushkin in his more gothic moments, a tinge of Zhivago (as much from David Lean as from Pasternak) and big splotches of undigested Solzhenitsyn (sorry, this is getting a little gross). You could put Chagall and Kandinsky, Mussorgsky, Stravinsky, or Shostakovich over that and the whole would be no less harmonious. But Hedrick Smith? Russia was a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. Reading to find things out was never going to explain it to you. You needed to commune, soul ready, head securely in the clouds. Put on some Tchaikovsky. Be ready to weep.

I’m sure I must be mis-representing us though, making it seem as though we were all a bunch of Philip Careys (not the actor, the character) heading off to learn that shadows have colors in them, too, only instead of Paris, we were simply trekking farther east, generally as naïve and ill-prepared as Maugham's doubtful hero. That’s not the case. Nor, now that I think more about it, is it true that we weren’t reading nonfiction in preparation for our trip. It just wasn’t travel literature. It was Marx and Lenin, and Herzen and Berdiaev, along with Richard Pipes (at one end of a spectrum) and Albert Szymanski (at another), the historian Nicolas Riazanovsky, the economist Marie Lavigne, and many others. And then there was the Russian, years and years of it in preparation, with phonetics and syntax, reading, composition, and “intonational constructions” (1, 2, 3, and 4—“kakie rozy!”—what roses!—was a 4, if I remember correctly).

Some of us had attended multiple schools; some, I believe, had additional training that they didn’t talk about. I had my suspicions about one particularly affable fellow, Peter, I think his name was, somewhat tall and athletic but always somehow underdressed and wearing a goofy grin that, as far as I was concerned, was the perfect disguise for a spook, of the Graham Greene variety, I mean. I got a postcard one day from him some years after our return home, a picture of the earth from outer space with what appeared to be a Russian message written on it. But I couldn’t understand the words, not a single one. I stood in the middle of the post office, sounding each set of characters out carefully until I realized with a start that it was English, only written in Cyrillic. It said (transliterated Library of Congress style): uish iyu uer khir! Had a spook’s sense of humor, too.

As I’ve been writing this, on the train headed north, I’ve begun to spot more Russians, well, one or two, but signs with Cyrillic characters, quite a few. English in the middle, which strikes me as symbolic, historical, but it’s perhaps just practical. Anyway, I know I’m getting close. Tomorrow I cross the border, which I’ll write about in my next post. A hearty thank you to Professor Tonai Yuzuru and his lovely staff at the Slavic Center Library of Hokkaido University, for providing me with a place to work during my short stay. (Had to catch up on my Tolstoevsky.) And to the public library of Wakkanai, the northern-most city in Japan, but certainly one of the warmest hearted. I could see Russia from there.