On my last day in Russia this summer I was on a city bus, returning from the Peterhof, the stunning world heritage site outside St. Petersburg where Peter the Great established a palatial stronghold on the Gulf of Finland, Catherine the Great took a break from empire building to design playful fountains, and Nazi soldiers dug in for almost three years during the siege of Leningrad (now St. Petersburg).
Our group was chatting in English with our Russian guide as we took in the city’s extensive suburbs when, at a stop, a local woman took a moment before she got off to tell us two things in clear if accented English: “Russia is the best country; St. Petersburg is the best city.”
I wouldn’t go quite that far but I agree that St. Petersburg is a beautiful, engaging city with a remarkable history, and Russia is a very, very interesting country.
When a Lexington acquaintance wrote about a cycling tour she’d taken from Moscow to St. Petersburg it seemed like a good way to see some of this country that has loomed large in the American psyche for most of my life. There were Boris and Natasha, the faux-Russian sinister cartoon spies of my early years, then President Ronald Reagan’s “evil empire” warning, and the collapse of the Soviet Union. Today, of course, the question of Russian interference in the 2016 election roils our political landscape.
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So, I was off to Russia for seven days of cycling about 250 miles through the countryside with the Russian Cycle Touring Club, plus a few days in Moscow with a Russian-speaking friend who used to live there and a couple of days in St. Petersburg.
I was a tourist, of course, and I don’t speak Russian. Still, the RCTC’s goal is “to see real Russian life, not just mass tourist spots,” and my friend had lived in Moscow for four years. We walked her old neighborhood, combed through a huge flea market (where you could buy cups with images of Russian President Vladimir Putin performing many heroic acts, sometimes with a blousy Donald Trump in tow) visited a supermarket, navigated the subway and bus systems. We made the three-hour trek to Yasana Polyana, Leo Tolstoy’s country home.
For the most part, Moscow and St. Petersburg were a lot like any large western city. On the subway everyone’s huddled over smart phones (although young people looked up often enough to offer their seats to older people on crowded cars), restaurants and bars are crowded with people eating, drinking and talking. The architecture was distinctive, the language different but the cities felt very familiar.
The countryside was another matter. It was familiar and different.
Like rural in Arkansas where I grew up and the Kentucky countryside I’ve come to know, people liked to decorate their surroundings. Painted tires served as mini-flower beds, discarded metal parts became yard art figures. The traditional wooden houses we saw displayed a remarkable variety of decorative detail.
Many of the regional cities we visited were beautiful and inviting. I was particularly taken by Veliky Novgorod, once one of Europe’s largest cities and where Russia was founded over 1,100 years ago. There we visited the oldest church in continuous use in Russia, St. Sophia’s, as the archbishop celebrated the Feast of the Ascension.
We stayed at a beautiful resort where we enjoyed a traditional sauna and walked down a few steps to cool off in the waters of Lake Seliger, a protected nature preserve. Motorists were very considerate and I always felt safe, both on and off the bicycle.
But if asphalt, I’ve been told, is the currency of rural politics, something’s seriously wrong with the politics of rural Russia. I’ve never seen such bad roads — pavement sometimes so cratered and patched that you often couldn’t look up for fear of hitting a pothole or rut.
Equally perplexing was the thousands of acres we cycled by that had clearly once been farmed or grazed but now appear abandoned. Moscow and St. Petersburg are, respectively, the second and fourth largest cities by population in Europe, and it was hard to figure why that land wouldn’t be used to produce food for the millions who live so close by.
Another sign of abandonment was the hundreds, if not thousands, of crumbling buildings we saw, in both the regional cities we visited and the countryside we rode through. It was common to see a home or business in excellent repair and another — once equally fine — that was collapsing next door.
Those were some of the outward signs that perplexed me about how Russia works but even more intriguing was trying to figure out what people might be thinking.
It’s hard to impress on someone who hasn’t been there how many churches there are in Russia. They are big and they are everywhere. I wondered what people thought during the decades of atheism as state policy, when practicing religion was illegal, as every day they walked by these huge, ornate monuments to a banned faith?
In one city our guide, probably about 70, told us that as a young girl she was warned by teachers to stay away from the churches, not to risk slipping in to the forbidden space. And I wonder what people think now that all that has changed. Putin is close to the Russian Orthodox Church and makes a show of his piety.
And what do people think of us and our president? The same guide told us a joke. In it God summoned presidents, among them Putin and U.S. President Donald Trump, telling them the world would end in two weeks, “please inform your people so they can be prepared.” Putin told his people but wasn’t afraid because of his faith, “I know there is God.” But Trump, she said, had a different take. “Oh! God acknowledged me as the president, he summoned me, and I will remain the president until the end of the world.”
That was about as political as anyone was willing to get. Usually people just shrugged and said Americans are obsessed with politics, with moral crusades.
Trump has been able to accomplish very little, one young, well-educated and well-traveled young Russian told me, so why complain? The people who support him have their president and those who don’t have someone who “is just talk and gets nothing done.” The very funny, well-researched recent film “The Death of Stalin” was dismissed by one young man as a “fantasy.” It’s banned in Russia so I don’t know if he’d seen it or got his information elsewhere.
Where people get their information is an interesting question, there as here. For example, our Russian guide mentioned to a Canadian member of our cycling group one night that many people believe Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is the illegitimate son of Fidel Castro rather than the son of the late Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau. It was news to everyone else in the group but he quickly pulled up on his phone images of Castro and the younger Trudeau, who has been very critical of Putin, purporting to show a similarity. Wow, where did that come from?
In a similar category was a remark another Russian made to me about Trump. She asserted that he was trying to make America great but Congress has tied his hands. Kind of a strange thing to say when one party controls the presidency and — at the time — both houses of Congress, right? But someone must be saying it.
Most Russians, apparently, get their news from television and most television is controlled by the central government. The government controls two of the three primary stations and the third is owned by state-controlled energy giant Gazprom. A kiosk in the St. Petersburg airport operated by RT, an English-language satellite news station that is state-funded, had a continuous scroll of messages, including: “Missed a plane, lost an election? Blame it on us!” and, “The longer you watch, the more upset Hillary Clinton becomes.” It’s worth noting that as I write this RT has up a list of the “Top 10 Russophobes of 2018,” a list that includes, of course, Clinton and … you guessed it, Justin Trudeau.