Looking Back -- and Ahead
With our journey coming to an end, David and I spent our last weekend in Russia like tourists, wandering around St. Petersburg in search of souvenirs and gifts. It was a pleasant change from our normal weekend routine of being cooped up in a train car, heading for the next destination.
After I complained during last Thursday's live discussion that we hadn't seen a single decent snowfall since we've been here, the flakes started coming down that night -- and they didn't stop until Saturday evening. St. Petersburg is radiant under a coating of fresh snow. The trees look like giant snowflakes themselves, their branches stark white and glittering in the sunlight. Walking down Nevsky Prospect at twilight, I was reminded that as excited as I am to get home, I'll definitely miss Russia.
It's been a long, illuminating trip. I really didn't know what to expect when I arrived here in August; though I'd lived in St. Petersburg from 1994 until the end of 1996, I'd only been back to Russia twice in the nine years since, for a week each time. All I knew about what was going on in Russia was what I gleaned from the news. And the news, of course, is mostly focused on politics and catastrophic events, such as the Kursk submarine sinking and terrorist attacks.
For that reason, I wanted to keep this blog as apolitical as possible, and as focused on the ordinary lives of ordinary people as I could make it. I wanted to know how Russians were really living -- not just how their politicians and oligarchs were faring.
We were lucky enough to find almost all of the people I wrote about back in 1995 -- from the Vladivostok lighthouse keepers all the way to the five-generation St. Petersburg family. Almost without exception, everyone seemed to be living at least as well as they had been in 1995, if not better -- at least, materially speaking.
The scientists at Lake Baikal were enjoying increased funding for research, and traveling abroad more often. The Jewish community of Birobidzhan had a brand new synagogue and rabbi. Former sales manager Larisa Fedotova had started her own successful advertising company. Even Buryat farmer Buyanto Tsydypov, whose private farm had suffered a downturn since '95, was still making a living thanks to a contract to supply a nearby orphanage with mutton and wheat.
Overall, the 12 cities we visited also seemed to be materially improved. In most downtown areas, private companies were renovating historic buildings for stores and offices. Some cities, like Khabarovsk, had new streetlights and smooth new sidewalks. Even the villages along Lake Baikal had new hotels and tourist services.
Yet there was still an air of uncertainty among most Russians we met -- a feeling that another shoe is bound to drop at some point. Though the last five years have brought a measure of stability that Russia never achieved in the '90s, people seem to expect more hardship around the bend. Or at least, they feel the need to be prepared for it, whether they truly expect it or not. The Russian character has traditionally been marked by a certain fatalism, and I suspect that's not a habit that will disappear soon -- no matter how much more stability the coming years might bring.
Tomorrow (the last posting!): The best, worst and wackiest of the Russian Chronicles - Ten Years Later.
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