Living a Life of Adventure
Masha Nordbye first came to Moscow on a high school exchange in the 1970s. She later studied at Moscow State University and in the 1980s traveled throughout the country helping to produce more than 15 documentaries, including two for National Geographic: Voices of Leningrad and the Emmy Award-winning Inside the Russian Circus. She later spent time working in ABC’s Moscow bureau, before going on to become an independent producer. To date, Masha has traveled to more than 100 countries and worked on over 100 documentary projects. Her remarkable adventures have included rafting across the Altai region of Siberia, sailing across the Bering Strait from Alaska to Kamchatka, trekking through Mongolia’s Gobi Desert on Bactrian camels, and being one of the first women in history to stand atop the North Pole. She has written and photographed five books on Russia, including the 650-page Moscow, St. Petersburg & the Golden Ring.
How did you first become interested in Russia?
My grandparents on my mother’s side had originally immigrated to America from a western border region around Russia. As a child, I always heard them chortling away in some sort of Slavic dialect. I guess my senses were long influenced by those roots.
When did you first come to visit Russia? What was it like?
I first visited Russia in the mid-1970s. It was on a high school trip to Moscow and St. Petersburg. My first day in the capital, I took a photograph of a garbage truck because its shovel kept missing the hole at the top of the truck, causing most of the garbage to spill right back out onto the street. Suddenly, the garbage men jumped out of the truck and escorted me to a nearby police station. After several hours, the guards took my film and released me. But, the garbage men had been waiting outside. They thanked me for cooperating and invited me home. So, I rode in the garbage truck to their apartment. There, I experienced my first Russian party with music, singing and vodka-as a teenager this was an incredible adventure! I knew I had to come back.
What was it like living and studying in the USSR?
I went to Middlebury College in Vermont, which had a fabulous Russian department. In the late 1970s, our small university group had the distinction of being the first Westerners to study in Moscow since the onset of the Cold War. Housed in an old dormitory complex in the northern part of town, food was hard to find. And, we were supposedly not allowed to mingle with the natives. For exercise, I remember sneaking in laps with the Red Army in the ’Moskva’ outdoor swimming pool where the Cathedral of Christ the Savior now stands. After living here for more than six months, I understood the immense difficulties of living under the Soviet regime.
What is your favorite part of Russia?
In 1989, I produced a National Geographic special in Leningrad, and I just fell in love with the city. The very surreal day the Soviet Union dissolved, in December 1991, I was in St. Petersburg working on a documentary about the history of Russian psychics. After traveling through more than 100 countries, I still consider St. Petersburg to be one of the most beautiful cities in the world!
You are something of an expert on the Russian circus, and you "fly" on the trapeze yourself. How did you get interested in the circus?
In 1987, I had helped produce another National Geographic Special on the Russian circus. After we completed filming in circus arenas from Moscow to Ashkabad, I began researching the long and fascinating history of the circus in Russia. I got to "swing" with the Flying Cranes (a Russian trapeze act) while we were filming and loved the trapeze and the feel of flying. I thought one could only find a trapeze in the circus; but, one day, while back in Los Angeles, I discovered a former circus trapeze star who actually holds classes on a rig in his own backyard. When home, I try to fly several times a week.
You recently completed the third edition of your travel book on "Moscow, St. Petersburg & The Golden Ring." What about writing do you find most rewarding?
I love adventure and exploring – and researching subjects and traveling around Russia often garners experiences right out of a Le Carre detective novel. For example, during the Soviet period, I used to secretly travel around on trains to destinations for which I did not really have an official visa. Once I was about to take a night train from St. Petersburg to Moscow. The circus strongman had driven me to the station in a blizzard. Suddenly, some guy opens our brown Chaika door and announces that he is an officer in the foreign investigative division of the KGB, and then commands us to shuttle him to a party. After we arrive, he invites us up for a drink without taking nyet for an answer (already drunk, he jokingly takes out his gun and points it at us). So, there I am entering an apartment and standing in front of myriad KGB officers and being introduced as Maria Leonardovna from Tallinn with a dog act in the circus! I could have whispered sweet dialectics into their ears and probably extracted every state secret; but, instead, I had to use my fake Estonian I.D. to take the train to Moscow and interview a clown!
What is your favorite thing to do in Moscow?
I’m always coming into Moscow after a long trip elsewhere in Russia. So, my favorite thing is to immediately go to a Russian banya. I just love sitting in the communal sauna with a novel collection of babushki whacking away with their birch branches! Tak khorosho!