I remember when, on November 18 of 1956, Kruschev declared, “We will bury you!”. (What he actually said was, "My vas pokhoronim,” which translates to “We shall be present at your funeral.)” Eleven at the time, I thought him a silly old man. In tenth grade, I saw a photo (October,1960) in The Philadelphia Inquirer of Khrushchev banging his shoe on the table at United Nations meeting. The gesture was amusing — and annoying because we were subjected to bomb drills on account of the Russian threat. We tromped to the school basement and squatted in silence while listening to sirens blaring. I blamed him for the interruptions, but we soon made a game of “duck and cover,” whispering and giggling. If we were lucky, we’d miss as much as 45 minutes of class.
I spent the next fifteen years in college, a bad marriage, and weathering a divorce as I raised two young boys and juggled to finish my doctorate. Khrushchev died in September of 1971 at 77 (my age now), but I barely noticed that Gorbachev became “President.” By the time he resigned in December of 1991, I was teaching at a university in Richmond, Virginia, happily remarried and mother of a third son. When Yeltsin became the leader, it seemed that the Soviet Union had been extinguished.
In 1999, when my Dean asked me if I would like to accept a Visiting Professorship to a Russian university for one month that October, I snapped at the chance. After all, travel between the USA and Russia had opened up. We were all friends now. Policies of perestroika and glasnost had introduced restructuring and invitations such as mine. Luda, who was visiting our university at the time, would be my mentor. She would guide me at the University of Nizhny Novgorod, where she taught. What could go wrong?
On the airplane, I tried tracking my flight and the path to Nizhny Novgorod, but the map tracker showed it not northwest of Moscow, but southwest. The flight attendant explained that air maps had disguised closed cities until recently; this map had not yet been updated. I calmed down, my fear of being lost in Russia quelled. The Sheremetyevo airport loomed huge and gloomy. We shuffled through underground passages toward passport control. When I finally got to the baggage area, Luda was waiting behind the ropes for me. I smiled for the first time since leaving Dulles Airport. In the taxi, she whispered to me to put five dollars on the front seat, but out of view of passers-by. The driver placed his hand over the bills and swept them into his pocket. I soon learned that American cash, although illegal, was the best way to pay.
I learned a lot in the month I stayed in Nizhny Novgorod, which had been named Gorky during the Communist era in honor of the Soviet writer.
· Locking my apartment door required several pushes and turns. Less swearing and more patience got the job done sooner, as well as reassuring myself that police wouldn’t push the door in before I had finished the intricate process of twists and turns. (I never saw anyone following me, but I learned to look around often, to take a route that many people followed instead of shortcuts where I might find myself alone.)
· On Luda’s advice, I didn’t smile because she told me that people would know I was American. I had never worried about my citizenship before, but I stopped smiling, walking fast, or even looking happy.
· I did not try to use the stairs to the second floor of the university when classes were dismissed, for fear of being trampled by students descending in hoards. I’d never seen such stampedes before. My students didn’t seem to have as much pent-up energy as here (maybe because they had control over more in their lives than these Russian students did.
· I selected my words carefully after I told a student her comment was “sharp.” I had meant a compliment, as in sharp as a tack, but she thought I was calling her rude.
· After being caught with no toilet paper in the faculty bathroom, I was told to always bring my own because any left in the stall would disappear.
· Government officials shouldn’t flaunt their higher position.
Luda took me to meet her husband at his workplace. He was the Director for Housing in the city. People sat crammed on the bench outside his office, waiting to beg a favor: perhaps an apartment of their own — so many lived with aging parents in one-bedroom flats. She had told me people loved him, perhaps for his kindness (he was kind and sympathetic). But he also seemed sad because he could not grant many requests.
Then she took me to a back street to a non-descript building and unlocked the outer door. Inside and up one floor, she opened another door into a luxurious apartment with a spacious living room, three bedrooms, a modern kitchen, two bathrooms, and a sparkling laundry room. Compared to the apartment they were living in at the time, this was a mansion. And had seemed very cushy compared to my tiny cubbyhole. But I wasn’t to tell anyone; people were to think they lived like everyone else.
· And when everyone shrugged at hearing Putin’s name, I learned not to ask why they would think of voting him to be their next leader. The answer was always, “What can we do?” Apathy, shrugs, and powerlessness were implicit in that phrase. What could they do, really? No one ever mentioned an alternative.
At the end of October, when my visit in Nihny Novorgod ended, Luda settled me on the train to St. Petersburg, my last stop in Russia before taking the train to Helsinki and flying home. I shared a sleeper room with three men, apparently a usual occurrence. I pretty much didn’t sleep, instead keeping company with the tea urn at the end of the train car.
In St. Petersburg, I joined a tour group for a two-day sprint to tourist hot spots. A member of our group asked if our guide had ever wished to see the USA.
“I have a family,” she responded curtly. The person didn’t get it, so tried again by suggesting the entire family go. “No. If I went, my family would be hostages until I returned.” I thought her brave to say that much.
After the tour group departed, I stayed one more night in the cavernous hotel across three bridges from downtown. Seeing where one of my favorite authors had penned his novels seemed worth another day. The tour guide dropped me near Dostoyevsky’s apartment- museum after she took the others to the train station.
“Just ask anyone when you leave how to get back to the hotel. Everyone speaks English.” When I finished my tour, I got disoriented. No one seemed to speak English until a passer-by approached to ask if I needed help. He guided me to the train station, walked me to the ticket kiosk, and helped me buy the ticket that would get me to my hotel. On the train, I showed my hotel brochure to a man who had beckoned me to sit by him. He peered at it and said, “Okay.” Was that reassurance? I decided it must be. I sat tight as we sped through dark tunnels. When we came into light on the island of Vasileyvsky Ostrov, he tapped me. I arrived safely. I have always wondered if the help these men gave me was coincidental. I am grateful, nevertheless.
The next day, October 29, 1999, I boarded the train that left St. Petersburg, Russia at 3:30 in the afternoon. I’d snagged a window seat for the 253-mile trip and relished watching as Russia receded and we sped closer to Finland. The day, as usual for that time of year and this location so far north of the equator, remained gloomy for the entire trip. I started the journey tense, on guard as I had been for the last four weeks. But when the Russian patrol debarked and a Finnish Border Guard asked for my passport, I smiled and relaxed. I’d held in so much tension without noticing its grip. The Bay of Finland, a gray mass, vanished from view as we moved inland.
On schedule, the train arrived at precisely six p.m. at the Helsinki Central Train Station. By the time I’d lugged my heavy suitcase up the escalator and out the front doors of the station, rain had begun pelting the street. And I didn’t know where I was. The Sokus Hotel was supposed to be right across from the station, but I didn’t see it. Near panic, I grabbed the sleeve of a passing trench coat. Its owner, surprised, stopped. Not bothering to answer, he pointed to a brightly lit and immense triangular building on the far corner. I hadn’t turned my head far enough. In that moment, I compared how those Russian men seemed so eager to help me when this Finnish man responded so curtly. When I “ohed” a small sigh of relief, he smiled, nodding at this silly American. I felt stupid but safe.
I lugged my suitcase into a rainy night. Like a bug, I followed the neon light of the Sokus Hotel. The clerk welcomed me in English. Drenched, I checked in and took an elevator to my tiny room, so cozy and secure. I didn’t unpack; I laid down just to rest awhile and awoke to pale sun about eight o’clock the next morning.
After breakfast I boarded a tour bus to tour this city in the one full day I had. We stopped first at the Sibelius monument, where I was awed by those 600 steel pipes. An organist played 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 my camera, with which I’d asked another tourist to take my picture. Next, the bus took me to Temppeliaukio where I admired this church built on solid rock and often nicknamed the Rock church. At Suomenlinna, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, I walked around the cluster of islands on which a maritime fortress was built. The sun didn’t spend much time escorting me but the clouds and smattering of showers provided comfort. No one was following me. People actually smiled.
Really, I had crammed too much into one day. I wished I could have changed my flight home. But I also wanted very badly to be back home with my husband and sons. I returned to the Sokus for my second and last night in this city. I had lived a perfect day, no matter the dreary weather. I hadn’t worried for one minute that I was walking too fast. Here no one seemed to care about what the police might do. When I smiled, people smiled back. And I was almost home.
Putin was elected President in 1999. I think of him now, invading Ukraine. Luda has died of cancer, her treatment much spottier than it would have been in the USA. I wonder about the student who did not appreciate being called “sharp.” She would be about forty-two now. What does she know about and think of the invasion of Ukraine?
I hope the St. Petersburg guide has lived a safe and pleasant life with her family. Most of all, I wonder if Putin is still the only choice?
Judy Richardson lives in Richmond, Virginia. She taught high school English and was a university professor. She has written numerous articles for academic journals and three textbooks. She loves to travel, has served as a Fulbright Scholar, and resided for brief times in three countries. In retirement, she has mentored refugees from Somalia, Ethiopia and Togo. Judy’s recent essays and stories have appeared in: Lowestoft Chronicle, Uncomfortable Revolution, Whitefish Review, The Penman Review, Persimmon Tree, Wingless Dreamer, Change Seven and at writerfairy.com, as well as in Stories Through the Ages: Baby Boomers Plus-2017, Nuance, Anthology of Ventura County Writers Club, 2018, and Ink (Hippocampus, 2022).