Saturday, September 17, 2011

Planning for Russia

What’s to be done? From his prison in St. Petersburg, philosopher Nikolai Chernyshevsky asked his famous political question in the mid-nineteenth century. His interest was in reforming Russian radicalism and enlightening his backward country.

Mine is less weighty, but big for me, since I’m organizing a new group trip to Russia for this summer. White nights? Luckily the summer months will provide an abundance of them. But how do I translate modern Russia from its complex welter of history, art, and literature into a manageable language? Can centuries be compressed into eight or nine days? And will my group ever glimpse – if she still exists -- iconic Mother Russia?

I do what I’ve always done when I’m working things out in my head: I run. I plan to make a long loop down to the beach, up past the marshes of the coastal waterway, then back across town where the malls, fast food eateries, and car washes take me light years away from the Russia that my parents traveled to in the late 1960s, the formidable USSR.

They rode the Trans Siberian all the way from Irkutsk to what was then Leningrad. They dealt with the vagaries of Intourist (part national tourist bureau, part Kremlin-style watchdog), putting up with indoctrinated “Soviet” guides, bugged hotel rooms, and paper vouchers like Monopoly money because rubles were scarce.

“Go to the Caucasus,” my father tells me. The Black Sea he knew was a hot spot for Soviet factory workers on state-sponsored vacations. My mother still remembers the mountain crossing by train. The engine stopped unexpectedly one moonlit night to let an assembly of wolves pass while drunken soldiers on the train sang “Kalenka” and played their balalaikas – a scene straight out of Dr. Zhivago.

In Greek myth, the Caucasus were one of the pillars supporting the world, and it was here that Zeus bound and tortured Prometheus for eternity. Jason sailed the nearby Black Sea coast searching for the golden fleece; instead he found Medea. And the Caucasus happen to be one of the most culturally and linguistically diverse regions on earth. Done. I think I’ll take my travelers to Gobustan in Azerbaijan to see 10,000-year-old petrogplyhs. Then we'll go next door to tiny Armenia to see the beautiful Etchmiadzin Cathedral. We’ll see the Caspian and the Black Sea and cross back into Russia through Georgia, once a kingdom under the rule of Queen Tamar, a brilliant military strategist who repelled the Turks and made Georgia into a thirteenth-century Christian stronghold.

Then we’ll go ... A bell startles me, and a cyclist impatiently shoots around me, glaring like I'm some kind of annoying bug. All this thinking about Russia has slowed my pace to a crawl. But maybe that’s a good thing. I walk out to the end of an empty boat slip and look across the marshes, imagining the Peter and Paul Fortress in St. Petersburg where Chernyshevsky sat staring out his prison window at the Neva River below, thinking and then writing, “What’s to be done?”