Russia Keeps Calling

-“A SEATTLE WOMAN KEEPS RETURNING TO, AND REDISCOVERING, THE COUNTRY”–

–By Helen Holter  ©1994, ©2011  (first published in Seattle Times May 8, 1994)
[My note, autumn 2011: This 1994 story was 1 of 3 time-sensitive travel features I wrote, focusing more on changes rather than a reflective or deep political analysis. What I like are the details–prices, places–almost none of which exist today, 17 years later. Pure vintage.]

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One of my favorite places, the Kremlin. (Moscow, Russia 1994)

I’m at one of my favorite places, the Kremlin. (Moscow, Russia 1994)

MOSCOW, 1994 – I keep returning to Russia because my heart tells me to. I’ve visited here 10 times since 1980 – as a student, journalist, and traveler. I’ve come to know and love this place as communist, as near-capitalist, and most recently as an undecided mess between the two.

GROWING UP IN MONTANA, my friends and I chanted slogans such as “heathen commies!” and “better dead than Red!” as we scanned the skies with 10-year-old eyes, seeking out pretend Russian missiles before scrambling into our make-believe bomb shelters.

Later, in college, I annoyed my parents by taking a Russian-language class; my father furious when I announced I was majoring in Russian and area studies. To my surprise, its linguistic puzzles and political/economic complexities captivated me and disciplined my brain. In 1980, I was among the first Americans allowed to live with Russian students in a Leningrad/St. Petersburg dormitory. I lived as they did, standing in the same go-slow lines for items like oranges and toilet paper. I got to know Russian professors, writers and artists and learned to admire them for their mental and physical stamina to survive under a system that made their lives so difficult.

I learned patience as I saw Russians of all walks of life deal with an inefficient economic system. I learned respect for political and religious dissidents whose convictions were far deeper than mine. And I learned that I would never have their grit and stamina.

Call to prayer ends at mosque in Bukhara, Uzbekistan. (Nov 1990)

Call to prayer ends at mosque in Bukhara, Uzbekistan. (Nov 1990)

 A career in television news took me to Uzbekistan, Chernobyl and Moscow in 1990. I interviewed people from high-ranking officials (including Uzbekistan’s President Karimov) to lowly villagers, all caught up, as was I, by the great changes in their nation. With each subsequent visit to Russia, I grew more hopeful that the communist command system would be replaced by capitalism and democracy. 

 But it didn’t happen.

By late 1992, I was so disgusted with the corruption and crime and maze of derailed reforms that I vowed not to return until things straightened out.

A DIFFERENT RUSSIA.  But as the next months passed, something kept calling. How could I turn my back on people from whom I had learned so much? A chance to return to Russia last spring came on short notice – no time to plan. Perhaps deciding quickly was better. I wasn’t quite sure how I would react to what’s changed: in Russia, in Russians, in me. A year earlier, there was no such thing as spur-of-the-moment travel to Russia. Today, travelers can get a visa on a day’s notice at Seattle’s new Russian Consulate. And Russia won’t wait. It’s every cliche you’ve heard: history in the making, a living laboratory of change, and so on.

Working for ABC News in Moscow, Russia (1993-94)

Working for ABC News in Moscow, Russia: a TV career highlight with the world’s best journalists. Downright fun folks, too. (1990s)

 

 Though it had been just a few months since my previous visit, Russia showed me yet another different face, this time, a consumer-friendlier face. At Moscow’s Sheremeytevo Airport, I breezed through customs. My American friends, long-time residents of Moscow, had hired a private car and driver from their favorite Russian “car co-op” to pick me up – $40 for three people round-trip to downtown Moscow.

“We try to do business with Russian mom-and-pop outfits, like the new car co-op,” one friend said. “That way, we get to know them, and it’s our small way of helping turn this economy around.” I liked that.

CAFE LIFE.  My friends laughed at my long-time Russian survival habits. My suitcase was bulging with food, from peanut butter and Cheez Wiz  to coffee.

“You won’t go hungry this time!” they insisted as they drove straight from the airport to Rostik’s Chicken, a fast-food cafe in the renovated GUM department store next to Red Square. The food was tasty: two pieces of fried chicken, cole slaw, a roll and two Pepsis cost: $3. Rostik’s is a popular hangout for young Russians and Westerners: plain tables and straight-backed chairs crowd together, with American top-40 music competing over the mishmash din of English and Russian conversation. Outside, the tiny Copacabana Cafe served espresso for $1.

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