From Russia, With Love

Russia rarely crosses the average American’s mind as a place for vacationing or visitation.  Categorized along with Azkaban as a place from which one flees, notorious for persecution, imprisonment, and punishment, the notion of spending a month in this feared land caused much skepticism and belittlement in the West—particularly amongst my loved ones.  In reflection, I see that I, too, held harsh views against the country.  Relegating my visit to the country to the drawer where one would find “Fear Factor,” “Survivor” and other like challenges, I saw the trip as merely a bragging right, one that ideally would come with a shirt with “I Survived Russia” etched across its chest.  After a month, my perception of the country as well as my purpose for the visit drastically changed: It grew from a mere adventure to a life-altering Mecca.  

When I informed my mother, a fervent Christian, about my trip, she immediately conjured up scary images of the cold-hearted, soul-less Russians, citing their atheistic designation during the Soviet Union.  “Those people are mean,” she stated, warning me to hide my Bible deeply within my luggage.  I laughed nervously and informed her of our scheduled visits to the monastery to prove the tide toward increased religious tolerance post- Soviet Union, stating that I had a long skirt and headscarf tucked away in my suitcase precisely for this reason.  She wasn’t convinced.  Despite all attempts to erase religion from Russia’s landscape during the Soviet Period, churches are and have always been Russia’s pride and joy.  These edifices stand as strong testaments to architectural mastery and are characterized by their elaborate, ornate, and intricate natures, and of course, by the crown of cupolas that line each of their rooftops.  Frankly, within my month in Russia, I saw over 12 different cathedrals, growing more and more disillusioned after each one.  Kazan Cathedral was the lone exception. 

Visiting the church voluntarily with a professor and fellow student, instead of with our lumbering class as part of a mandatory visit, was the key difference.  On a chilly, rainy Sunday, our entrance into the towering building marked our arrival into a whole new world.  Indistinguishable Russian echoed melodiously from the mouth of the choir boy perched atop his podium, nested in the center of the cathedral.  Believers, in a slow and steady dance, waltzed between the various icons, paying homage and offering kisses and prayers to each in worship. 

Russian Orthodoxy equates suffering with being close to God.  While this notion is present throughout Christianity, never before had I witnessed such a drastic and literal reading of that principle, illuminating the historic strength of the Russia and its people, and revealing how such a mentality became deeply engrained into the fabric of Russian culture.  Its blood-drenched history of multiple wars, scarcity, and bitter cold is explained and reinforced by this principle.  My visit to Leningrad Memorial and its sister, Victory Park, vividly cemented the connection in my mind.

Hidden within the nooks and crannies of St. Petersburg, one could easily overlook the brass statues of soldiers and horses subtly announcing the memorial’s location.  Despite its placement on a busy street—so busy in fact, all pedestrians must travel underground rather than crowded intersections, the site, encompassed by a dark cement ring beneath a somber gray flight of stairs, held the enchanting air of solace.   Classical music swelled around each of the memorial’s visitors while glowing torches warmly welcomed us into the sanctuary.  Resolute images of death, despair, and the perpetual will to survive were brazenly etched in the statues’ faces guarding the memorial’s center.  Surviving 900 days of being dead to the outside world-without food, electricity, water, is by no means a small feat.  The memorial brilliantly preserved both the despair and triumph of these estranged days—with images and articles that made one vulnerably connected to the people and their dark destiny.  After the emotional visit to the Memorial, we headed to Victory Park.  Here, the beautiful grass that glows in green brilliance was fertilized by the bodies of countless unnamed, for beneath it lay the tombs of 30% of Russian’s former population.  The visit was a turning point for me.  History no longer held its distant, intimidating stare: Instead it became vulnerably alive and with arms outstretched, it bore its wounds for me and everyone else to see.   From the visit to the Leningrad Memorial, I gained a newfound respect for Russian spirit of survival and their incredible propensity for pain—both of which is etched into the very fabric of Russian Orthodoxy.

In the Russian Orthodox Church, with the exception of the very ill and very elderly, everyone must stand for the duration of the service, which can easily reach three or four hours.  Even in tsarist times, the tsar was inclined to stand—though his ornate standing box cemented his dominance over the other attendees.  I remember feeling a distinct sense of restlessness and discomfort as the service at Kazan Cathedral neared its climax—a sense either ignored or numbed in those surrounding me.  Instead, they each proudly assumed the role of a ripple amidst the sea of bowing and crossing rolling throughout the cathedral.  Driven by inspiration alone, this act occurred not in formal unison or upon command, but sporadically.  It seems that the only criterion was that one must cross or bow several times throughout the service: The quantity and the quality of the cross was the prerogative of the worshipper.  Within this spectrum of worship, I remember staring intently—back and forth—between two pervading forms of crossing—one of military precision and the other of dramatic emphasis.  I prefer the latter.  I remember watching with intrigue a man in a red sweater donning a back-length ponytail that with theatrical exuberance performed each and every cross as though he were standing before God himself.  The experience at the cathedral inspired me.  As a mere fly on the wall at this spectacular site, I was offered a tiny glimpse into their world—and was allowed a peek into the depth of the Russian soul.

This notion of the importance of one’s soul is a common motif in Russian literature.  Over the course of my first two weeks in St. Petersburg, Tolstoy, Tolstaya, and Gogol stirred my heart with their riveting depictions of the dire necessity of its protection.  Tolstaya’s heart-wrenching account of Zenechka, the woman who so only longed to be the most beloved and haphazardly gave her soul away to those refusing  to recognize her worth, the woman who never summoned the strength to chase after her one chance at love requited, begged one to recognize the time-tethered nature of life–admonishing one to live every day as though it’s his or her last.  Tolstoy’s tragic tale of the Death of Illych warned against thrashing one’s soul in the pursuit of the superficial.  He taught that such a wretched choice will only reap regret.  Likewise, Gogol, through his humorous portrayal of Russia through the adventures of Chichikov, taught that the relentless chase of power and status will merely leave one bitter and empty-handed.   Through these tales of loss and remorse, I was forced to examine my approach to life.  Finding myself often engaging in activities solely for ulterior motives and often oppressing myself in hopes of wealth and success, these tales altered my perception of life—and its true meaning.  To this day, when making a decision or plans, my conscious admonishes me to live every day to the fullest and to not allow my soul to wither and die—to not become a dead soul.

Russia is not a destination marked by its beauty or grandeur.  I remember with ease my optometrist’s jest as he placed a box of contacts in my hand, stating smugly, “This should be enough.  Unless, of course, you get locked in a Russian prison.”   Sadly, this personification of Russia and its people as cold and dark, as a place from which one should flee, instead a place where one would dream of visiting, is widespread.  By visiting the country for myself, I was able to gather my own sense of its culture.  Over the course of the month, I was able shed these negative portrayals and displace my own.  For in Russia, I found and revived my soul. 


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