Tuesday, June 22, 2010

From Russia, with love

About 15 years ago, I had a dream that I was walking along the campus I attended as a graduate student, and a friend approached me, completely out of breath, saying he had an airline ticket to Moscow and it was mine if I wanted it, but I needed to leave right then and there -- no time to notify my boss, my students, my family, or friends. I fretted for a few minutes -- how could I leave town so recklessly? -- but in the end I grabbed the ticket and hightailed it out of Dodge. The plane landed in the heart of Red Square, with a pristine, technicolor view of St. Basil's Cathedral.

I was a teaching assistant at the time, every bit my anxious father's daughter, and hardly the impetuous type. Clearly this dream was less about Moscow than about opening myself to a new way of being: freer, more spontaneous, less worried about the world and my tight swaddling within it.

Still, I've been haunted by the image of Moscow itself ever since. Russia: a mythic, yet totally modern place. Larger than life. The stuff of both storybooks and international incidents. An enemy. A changeling. A mother. A stratosphere unto itself.

It never occured to me I'd actually get there, but lo and behold, two weeks ago today, I stepped off a United Airlines Airbus into the outskirts of Moscow. It'd be another few days before I made it to Red Square, the stuff of my fantasies this last decade and a half.

Can I tell you a secret? I was horribly unmoved. The grounds leading up to St. Basil's are clogged with tourists and souvenir stands. You can bargain for matreoshka dolls and Russian faux fur hats. Actors dressed like Lenin and Stalin wander the grounds, offering to pose next to you in a picture for a handful of rubles. The cathedral facade was recently restored, so it almost seemed artificial, like something you'd be more likely to find in Las Vegas. A facsimile or sound stage.

It would take me a few days longer to realize that Russia can't be contained within that image of St. Basil's twisting rooftops. It bleeds far beyond the standard iconography. And it's that very beyond that I fell in love with.

With your permission, I plan to do some retrospective blogging these next few posts, trying to capture the experience of my 12 days in Russia, which brought me to metro centers, rural hinterlands, and so much in between. Given the jetlag and my return to workaday life, the experience is already starting to fade. I'd like to harness it here, and also let it chip away a little, the way I wish they'd let St. Basil's chip away, so it seemed to contain some history, some marks of its lengthy tenure on the map.


Gin said...

Lovely! That image of you wanting to escape the swaddle is great. I hope you make time to grab as many memories as you can before they start to fade.

leslie said...

Permission granted, of course! I can't wait to read more.

angela crow said...

I love the idea of reading your thoughts/perspectives before they fade!

tracy said...

I've been dying to hear about this trip! YES, PLEASE, PLEASE more blogging and more details.