Introduction to Russian Chronicles
Ten years ago, I was living in St. Petersburg, Russia, where I'd moved on a whim at age 27 in hopes of becoming a freelance writer. I had worked the previous four years at boring administrative jobs in Washington, D.C., but the time finally came when I'd suffered one paper cut too many. So I bought myself a one-way ticket to Russia, rented an apartment, and soon got a job editing copy at the small English-language newspaper, the St. Petersburg Press.
A few months later, in April of 1995, a printed email appeared on the bulletin board in the newsroom. "My name is Gary Matoso," it began. "I am an American photojournalist currently based in Paris..." Gary wrote that he was planning to take a trip across Russia that fall, from Vladivostok to St. Petersburg. He asked for advice on places to go, names of people he might stay with, information on the condition of the roads. Then, the magic words: "Lastly, and this is a biggie, I am looking for candidates to be my traveling partner... I estimate two and half months, three max. Anyhow, spread the word, I am sure there are enough crazy people out there. "
All I could think was, "He must pick me!" I hurriedly e-mailed Gary, telling him I was fluent in Russian (not quite, but I was getting there), an accomplished writer (false), and most importantly, unflappable (way false). Over several seemingly interminable weeks, Gary weeded through his candidates - but at last he chose me to join him on his journey. Between Sept. 1 and Nov. 25, 1995, he and I traveled across the width of Russia, using a newfangled digital camera and unreliable Russian phone lines to post stories and photos to the Russian Chronicles website.
We followed the path of the Trans-Siberian railroad, stopping in 11 cities and towns along the way. At each stop, we sought out a person or place to write about, starting with the couple that took care of the lighthouse at the very tip of southeastern Russia, in Vladivostok. Moving westward, we wrote about the dwindling Jewish community in Birobidzhan, the capital of the "Jewish Autonomous Region"; the scientists who study Lake Baikal; a young gay man in Novosibirsk; and Moscow's first rap star.
Our goal with these "Road Stories" was to capture in words and photos a portrait of ordinary life in mid-90s Russia.
Now, in 2005, I've come back to Russia to retrace our steps from the original trip - and to try to track down those same people from the "Road Stories." As these words are being posted online on Sept. 1, photographer David Hillegas and I are on our way to Vladivostok (Gary couldn't make it this time around - more about him later). Over the next two and a half months, David and I will go to the same 11 cities and we'll report back about how the subjects of the '95 stories are faring now.
Over the course of our journey, we'll ask three questions: How have the lives of the specific people I wrote about in 1995 changed? How has life in Russia changed generally? And finally, how has the Internet, and how we use it, changed? We know we can't answer these questions definitively, but hopefully we can offer some insights. As John Steinbeck wrote in A Russian Journal, his account of a trip there in 1948, "It is not the Russian story, but simply a Russian story."
Please join us each weekday for a new blog entry, and share your thoughts by posting comments on the blog's message board, or e-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By Lisa Dickey |
September 1, 2005; 8:00 AM ET
Next: St. Petersburg to Vladivostok
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