Thursday, February 4, 2010

Testing Fate and Faith in Russia

As the elektrichka slowed to a snail's pace and eeked toward the Vladimir rail station after a 3.5 hour “local” train ride from Moscow, Lonely Planet's warnings of “commotion” and “busy, industrial town” seemed to completely outweigh the promises of “the grandeur of medieval Vladimir” displayed in “Russia's most formative architecture.” I was seriously beginning to question Vladimir's claim as a “jewel” of Moscow's Golden Ring—the historical group of principalities that once composed the heart of medieval Rus' centuries before any mention of Moscow was even made in the ancient Chronicles.

To my eyes, we were about to witness another sad story of Soviet, life-sucking destruction. A once valiant, majestic, faithful Russian town fallen victim to the poverty induced by communism. Our train crawled past shacks built into the hillside that rose above the train tracks. We could practically taste the devastation from inside the chilly train car.

A glimmer of hope came in the form of the gold-leafed onion domes of Vladimir's churches meekly poking their way over the crest of the hill. We emerged from the train into the frigid air (this would be a constant theme of our 4-day trip) and were slowly carried with the crowd through the station and out the other side. The taxi ride to the hotel did little to assuage my doubts. Sure, we caught our first glimpses of the monasteries and cathedrals on our left, and we drove around the famed Golden Gate of Vladimir (an Arc de Triumph-like structure dating back to 1164) which stands in the middle of Vladimir's main street, but the right-hand side of the road exhibited the aforementioned “commotion” and industrious nature of modern Vladimir. Our hotel fit in nicely with this latter bunch. A goliath structure seemingly straight out of the Soviet textbook on architectural aesthetics, the Hotel Zarya offered cheap rooms, and that was all we were really after.

Thankfully, the city and its people proved me wrong. Our first half-day of sightseeing, despite the nearly unbearable -30 cold, gave us a glimpse of the Vladimir of yore. A museum tour of the Golden Gate and a friendly Russian babushka manning the exhibits informed us of Vladimir's role in Ancient Rus' (and a great appreciation that we Americans had come from so far to learn about it). This was followed by a museum of Vladimir's more modern history (through tsarist times) set into the four floors of the city's old brick water tower, the top floor of which revealed to us a 360 degree view of Vladimir's true beauty. Vast expanses of white snow, birch trees, and farm plots brought back all the images of Ancient Rus' that I had from Russian class at W&M. This was the Russia I had set out to find.

Our early-evening stroll took us past Vladimir's Assumption Cathedral, one of Russian Orthodoxy's most revered sites for its original Andrey Rublev frescoes of the Last Judgment, as well as the original coffin of Alexander Nevsky, the hero of Russia who turned away German and Swedish invaders while preserving his principalities with appeasement strategies during the Mongol Yoke. It happened to be a Saturday evening—the time of the Orthodox service. What better time to step inside the Assumption?

We were hit immediately by an aromatic wall of incense as our eyes adjusted to the darkness of the entrance way. As we turned the corner of pillars, we were greeted by the majestic sight of gold-rimmed icons and frescoes covering the walls, and lighted candles that sprouted from golden holders. Our ears were met by the rhythmic, hypnotizing chords of the priest reciting the sermon, occasionally interrupted by spouts of song from the choir hidden in a raised balcony and the recitations of the faithful with whom we were sharing this experience. They stood in no particular order; some close to the front, some far in the back. We snaked our way around the church interior, taking in all the sights, smells, and sounds of this accidental discovery.

How does one follow this experience? Well, we were cold and tired, so we decided to follow it with a bottle of vodka and juice back at the hotel before setting out for a restaurant we had marked for dinner. Yeah, right. After resting our legs, warming our bodies by vodka, and watching some MTV Russia, no one felt the need to venture back out into the cold to find the restaurant; we decided to delay our departure to Suzdal the next day until the afternoon so that we could still make a stop at the restaurant for lunch. This would prove to be a very important decision.

In the meantime, we were hungry, and the hotel had a cafe, so down we went. Little did we know, we were walking into the dying throes of a wedding banquet full of drunk Russians. We sat at our table in the corner while being intermittently grabbed from our chairs and asked to dance and sing along with the boisterous crowd. We were confronted with a terribly catchy European song about Obama (that none of us Americans recognized), and we also suffered through the strained notes of drunk Russian karaoke singers. Conversations with this crowd ran the gamut: from disbelief that we were from America (or that we had someone named Liz in our group; because “Elizabeth” is a Russian name...) to offers to join a few of them in their dacha/banya getaway, which we couldn't help but feel was actually some kind of sexual advance... Anyways, the night ended on a good note, and we carried our exhausted bodies back up to bed for some much needed sleep.

The next day began with a breakfast experiment in a nearby cafe. Russians are not known for their breakfast foods. Каша (oatmeal) and каша (oatmeal) with a side of каша (oatmeal) is a pretty safe bet. Oh, and a cup of tea. But we found a place that offered omelets, so why not give it a try? Here's why: Russians don't do omelets. What we got instead were bowls of microwaved eggs with various toppings (I apoligize, Sammerz, if you are reading this...). But at least my omelet was cooked all the way through (sorry, Kristen).

Thankfully, however, it put something in our stomachs to protect us against the cold, so we then set out to explore the Assumption Cathedral in daylight, followed by a stop at the much smaller but more detailed Cathedral of St. Demetrius, both of which are designated UNESCO World Heritage Sites. This latter building's exterior was adorned with beautiful stone carvings dating back to the 12th century, and its interior still featured a few frescoes of the apostles also from this age. After stopping in a monastery and viewing the interior of another church, we decided to make the hike back to the restaurant we had skipped out on the night before.

It was on our way there that one of the most strange experiences of my life occurred. Walking down a small side-street off the main road toward the restaurant, I noticed a young woman heading in our direction. Her scarf was pulled up to the bridge of her nose and her hat pulled down to her brow (this is normal dress for such bitter weather). As she passed us, I had a strange feeling that I recognized her eyes. My own eyes followed her as she walked by, halted, and then asked in a disbelieving tone, “Liz?” She had recognized one of our travel companions, a fellow ETA working in Tolyatti. Liz and I studied together at W&M, and it was right then that I realized the identity of this mysterious passerby. I called out, “Suzanne?!?!” She turned toward me and we suddenly realized we had stumbled upon one of those bizarre meetings that you will remember for the rest of your life.

Suzanne also studies at W&M and is currently doing a year abroad in Vladimir. While I knew she was in Russia, I had no idea where (besides not in Moscow), and I NEVER thought I would run into her like this. I mean, Russia is kind of large. And not only did Suzanne, Liz, and I study together in school (and perform together in a wonderful version of Красная Шапочка), but Suzanne also knew Thaddeus from last summer's Middlebury Russian Program. We were like one big happy family (along with our other Fulbright friends Nicky, Kristen, and Emily).

It had just so happened that Suzanne had decided to leave early that day from the Jewish Center where she volunteers, and it just so happened that she was taking this little road home. And it had just so happened the evening before that we decided to postpone our departure to Suzdal so we could come to this one restaurant for lunch, which just so happened to be located on this same little side road. It just so happens, that it's quite a small world, after all. (Мир тесен!)

Suzanne joined us for a delicious, traditional Russian lunch with friendly service (a real shock coming from the Moscow restaurant scene). Upon hearing of our plans to move on to Suzdal for the next two days, she decided to tag along and introduce us to some young, local friends of hers that could show us the town. After lunch, we hopped onto a little bus and set off on the 45 minute trip to Suzdal, a picturesque village that has been billed as the “Mecca of Russia” and a place with “more churches than people”. I think these are both accurate descriptions.

The bus ride itself gave us a good enough idea of this. We rode through the pristine Russian countryside covered in pure white snow and spotted with birch groves, and even passed a kolkhoz on the way. We pulled into the fairy-tale village and were greeted by Ira, Suzanne's good friend in Suzdal. Ira proved to be the best host and guide we could have hoped for. Boisterous in the best of ways and a near-native English speaker, Ira was very keen on showing us her hometown. She accompanied us to the hostel where we were staying, located on the banks of a frozen river amid a row of traditional, Russian, wood houses with finely-carved, decorative trim straight out of old Russia.

At the hostel we befriended the man-in-charge, Vasiliy, a wonderfully friendly Ukrainian man who was eager for conversation as he ran the hostel completely by himself. He was patient with our Russian and we even exchanged phone numbers so we can chat when he gets lonely at his work. He graciously invited us to return whenever we wanted, promising us space in the still-unfinished hostel. There we also met two young French girls, Clementine and Melanie, who are studying abroad in a business program in Moscow, as well as two Scots who had embarked on their “romantic idea” of traveling the Trans-Siberian Railway in the middle of the Russian winter without knowing a word of Russian or being able to read Cyrillic. When we asked them how it was going so far, their immediate response was, “It's F**KING cold.” No, really?!??! All in good fun, though.

Ira in turn introduced us to Grisha, Olya, Olya (yes, two Olyas), and many other Russian friends with whom we shared our experience of Suzdal. We were taken on a tour of the old Suzdal kremlin, strolled through the open-air museum of wooden architecture, and popped into a few monasteries and convents during our two days there. While the history and the picturesque nature of this village—made even more majestic in the traditional Russian winter cold and layers of shining snow—are certainly what draws most visitors to Suzdal, perhaps our greatest impressions of this sleepy village came from the friendships we made with the locals. After going on these makeshift tours, we were invited to two dinners (read: a little evening meal with our bottles of vodka), two lunches (read: experiencing Suzdal's famed медовуха, an alcoholic mead-like drink made of honey in the kremlin restaurant which features a 300 year old menu), and even to one of the Olyas' houses for an evening of conversation, caviar, and a screening of a documentary she had made about a Russian biker festival.

Our final morning in Suzdal was spent in a local ceramics factory where we were taken on a tour and then given our own private master-class during which we hopelessly struggled to make something even mildly resembling a pot-like structure. This was the Suzdal that not every tourist is lucky enough to see. This was the experience we had all been yearning for; an experience that does not involve burying one's nose in a guide book and looking up every now and then for a street sign that probably doesn't exist to make sure one is going in the right direction. This was Russia. And the ceramics factory gives us an excellent excuse to go back—perhaps in the spring when the village will look entirely different without the snow—to pick up our finalized works of 'art.' And anyways, Vasiliy is waiting for us at the hostel...

We left Suzdal with heavy hearts, reluctantly saying goodbye to Ira, Grisha, the Olyas, and Vasiliy as we hopped into taxis that would take us to the bus station. The trip back to Vladimir was quiet as we all reflected on our recent whirlwind experience, but we were met by Suzanne at the Vladimir train station as she saw us off on our way back to Moscow. We also ran into the two Scots at the station as they prepared to board a train to Irkutsk, a 3-day, 4200-km (2610-mile) trip eastward. Wishing them luck on their journey, we hopped onto the train for our ride back to Moscow. We did our best to catch up on some rest, because we were about to enter another non-stop environment as all of the Russia-based Fulbrighters descended on Moscow for our 3-day mid-year seminar.

The seminar was also a wonderful time. It was great hearing about the experiences of other people stationed throughout the vast expanse that is Russia, learning about their respective research projects, and sharing some great laughs during meals (and even discovering that one of the ETAs got engaged over the winter holiday! Way to go, Travis!). The weekend inevitably came to an end, however, and now it's back to work.

But this trip could not have been better. It restored my faith that Russia can be an exciting, inviting, and spectacular place—a faith which had been severely tested and subsequently drained after the first four months of life in Moscow. This was a perfect jumping-off point for the remaining five months of my time, and I just hope I can squeeze in several more trips like this during that time. After all, there are a lot more things to see, and a lot more people to meet in this country, whether on purpose or by chance.

You can find more of my photos from our time in Vladimir here and Suzdal here!


  1. Lovely account of our trip! I'm definitely feeling a bit nostalgic now.:-) Btw, really glad you included something about the sexual advances of the wedding party in Vladimir. They didn't believe us, but they still wanted us to hang out with them for as long as possible...

  2. Brian - wonderful reading about your adventures. Glad things are good with you. Remember there is a warm OBX house waiting for you.
    Judie F-H