“Don’t try to understand—just feel it”
Why an ex-pat like me wants to stay in Russia, part I
Illustration by Julia Nozdracheva
That was what one of my favorite 19th century Russian poets, Fyodor Tyutchev said about living in his home country. He was a visionary man. Not a lot has changed.
I have traveled back and forth to Russia from as early as 1993/4, having first visited the then USSR in 1978. I touched the north, the south, the west and the far east of this huge country. More than six years ago I felt like settling here, right in the glittering megalopolis of Moscow. Today I have no intention of leaving. The people with whom I survive, work and enjoy life with are Russians. I have learned to feel, not just to know, what I’m talking about.
Why do I love to live here? Let me first take you on a little tour. When I pass over Moscow’s Stone Bridge with an open view on the carefully illuminated Kremlin, I’m stunned each and every time. I do feel the concentration of power over this, the biggest national territory of the world—and some pride to be around here.
When I walk through St. Petersburg, which has a city centre that is like one huge museum, and when I visit, one after another, the ancient gems around the Golden Ring in the western part of Russia, I breathe and feel all this history, this culture. There’s much more than oil and gas about this place called Russia.
When I cruised the mighty Volga river for a week I felt that western Europe’s biggest river, the Rhine, is no more than a little trickle. That feeling of the scale of things struck me again when I stood for the first time on the shores of Lake Baikal. This is the biggest, deepest freshwater lake on earth, with more than seventy unique fish species. If you have ever tasted a freshly-caught “omul”, hotsmoked, you’ll leave a trout to get cold. I was truly grabbed by the grandeur of a largely untouched nature. If this place were in America or in western Europe the tourist industry would have taken over long ago—with recreation centres, hotel resorts, amusement parks and all the rest of it. Nature would have been already spoiled, destroyed, managed to the highest possible profitability, and most probably finished off.
I still have to visit all the other tempting places in this vast country where the sun never sets, like the Altai mountain area or the impressive volcanic landscape of Kamchatka (even if more than 10 flying hours away from the capital).
I still have to discover more of Siberia, a place with more than its fair share of seclusion, superstition, simplicity and slowness. Where not only a large part of Russia’s natural resource wealth is hidden, but where one might also discover just a little bit of the mysterious secret of the Russian soul— if anyone could ever discover what the Russian soul is all about. As Andrey Konchalovsky, one of Russia’s world-famous theatre and film directors, once lamented: “I wish we Russians had a green skin, like the Chinese have a yellow ones—then foreigners would recognize earlier that we’re different.” He didn’t elaborate how and why. And he couldn’t, of course. I’ll keep trying anyway. Trying to feel it.
Why do I feel what I feel for Moscow/ Russia? Let me share a little story as an example. It was the middle of the last winter. You remember—that really was a winter: tons of snow, lots of ice. Nice.
I love real seasons. Well, provided it’s not around 2am, 20 degrees below, after a hard-working day and an even harder client dinner which had cost me an arm and a leg. In short, my mood was way down like the temperature outside, that night. On top, of that, I realised that I didn’t have enough petrol in my car to get me back home. I didn’t even have enough to get to the next filling station. No problem. Here we go. 24/7—Moscow is always open.
I left my coat, scarf, cap, gloves in the car, and jumped out. There was a gas station just a few hundred yards away. I heard a sharp warning tone back from my car. At exactly that second I almost froze to death. I exactly knew what this nasty ‘beep’ wanted to tell me. My fabulous vehicle, fitted with a highly sophisticated anti-theft security system (why on earth do I need this? Who the hell gives a damn any more when parked cars start to scream and blink with all available light sources?), had locked itself within 10 seconds, to protect my valuables—but apparently not me. Of course I forgot to take the electronic key for my car, as well as my home keys, my mobile, my identity papers, my cigarettes. I stood helpless, hopeless, homeless, totally naked, as it were, in the dark, in the cold. In addition, much to my regret, my Russian was more than rusty. What to do next?
Desperately I ducked my head into the typical tiny wall opening of a filing station cashier, trying to address the clerk with my nightmare. A friendly kind of “babushka” face jumped into my eyes, and her smiling mouth spilled out a flood of confusing Russian words. She gesticulated me into her rundown but warm shed. She offered me a hot tea and a fag. Then she handed her mobile over to me. On the other end was a younger lady’s voice, speaking perfect English. Her daughter back home. Her mother had already called a car help service.
In half an hour they turned up. The professional opening ceremony of my car by some grim-looking experts did cost me the other arm and the other leg. But this included a lesson in how to get into any seriously locked car within seconds. Easy. End of story? “Nyet!” The next nightmare occurred on the spot. I was short of 3,000 roubles to pay their bill. “Kashmar,” terrible. But I knew my new girlfriend, Natasha, would save me again. She just opened her cashbox. She didn’t ask for any kind of guarantee that I’d ever come back. But, of course, fifteen minutes later I was back with her money back, and a big box of chocolates. Since that night, this is the only station I take gas from in Moscow. People like her make this sometimes hostile “big city” environment a better place to live. This woman Natasha gives this city a human, friendly face. I love her and Moscow — most of the time.
to be continued in the December issue.