Instances of Discovery

Since August 2007 I have been a monthly columnist for the St. Cloud Times. My theme, taken from the mission statement of the Collegeville Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research, is “the renewal of human community.” The columns are republished here with permission of the St. Cloud Times.

Column #060. First published in the St. Cloud Times July 24, 2012

Russia has been in the news lately. Devastating floods in the south have taken nearly 200 lives. And there are the photos of Presidents Putin and Obama sitting together, each looking as if he would rather be somewhere else. While Russia is no longer a Cold War enemy, it does loom large in our imaginations.

My wife and I spent the latter half of June in that country, in Moscow and St. Petersburg and traveling by boat between them along rivers and across lakes. Two weeks does not an expert make, but I have some impressions of Russia that provide a lens through which to view the news that comes from that vast land.

I went with a picture in my head, etched almost indelibly by spy novels and movies. I expected everything to be dark, shadowed, danger lurking around every corner, people furtive, eyes downcast. I assumed the Kremlin would be grim, even scary.

The Kremlin (that’s simply Russian for “fortress” — many towns have one) is bright, a riot of color, dotted with churches. Sinister things could go on behind closed doors, but I will never again be able to imagine the Kremlin as the outward expression of Joseph Stalin’s warped, demonic mind.

And Red Square? My mental image was of parades of massed troops and deadly intercontinental ballistic missiles, presided over by glum bureaucrats atop the adjoining Kremlin wall. Imagine my surprise when I saw preparations well under way for a huge rock concert.

Beneath these surface impressions are the things we learned from and about the people we met. Our tour was divided into six groups, each with a thirty-something director. We got to know all of them some, and our own well. They are highly educated, articulate, fluent in English, and possess an irrepressible sense of humor. Most are university teachers who tour guide in the summer.

It was inspiring to see their enthusiasm for their country, their optimism (not blind, by any means — they are upfront about Russia’s problems), their sense of being in on a great new social and political adventure. Just coming of age when the Soviet Union collapsed, they saw up close and personal the chaos into which their parents were thrown as a strictly ordered world dissolved.

They aren’t as keen on Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin as we in the West think they should be, but we were astonished at the sharpness of their judgments about Vladimir Putin. They all said that a huge difference from the Soviet era is their ability to make disparaging remarks about their president without fear of being sent to Siberia.

To me, the most impressive sights were the World War II memorials, in nearly every city and town. The Soviet Union lost more than 23 million people in the Nazi onslaught — 17 times the number of American dead in all the wars we have fought, from the Revolution to Afghanistan and Iraq, including the Civil War. The 900-day siege of Leningrad (now, again, St. Petersburg) wiped out a third of that city’s population.

But what I will never forget is what happened at many of these memorials. Weddings were taking place everywhere (June there is like June here), and we saw wedding parties gathered at these memorials. We were told that it is traditional for newly married couples, their attendants, and their guests to go from the ceremony to the war memorial, in a gesture of thanks to those who gave their lives so that the couple could come to this hopeful and celebratory beginning of their life together.

From my earliest years until 1990, Winston Churchill’s famous characterization of Russia — “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma” — was how I thought about it. Russia is certainly not easy to understand even now. It has huge predicaments, including vast inequality and the influence of money in politics. But so do we. Two weeks in Russia persuaded me that it’s simply a nation among nations. I no longer associate it with the terrifying initials KGB. It’s the faces and voices and hopes of Jenia, Dasha, Evgeny, Svetlana, Natasha, Konstantin and Marina, the generation that will make the Russia of the 21st century.