MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK
In the spring of 1995 I was living in Russia, trying to launch a new career. I’d spent the early nineties in the liberal arts major’s first circle of Hell, suffering through dreary administrative jobs in Washington, D.C., while wondering how I got through college without learning a single marketable skill. I answered phones and filed paperwork until I was a paper cut away from insanity. Then, at age 27, I booked a one-way ticket to St. Petersburg, rented an apartment in the city center, and set about trying to turn myself into a writer.
Moving to Russia wasn’t as random as it sounds. I’d studied Russian in college, and had even lived at the U.S. embassy compound in Moscow for seven months from 1988 to 1989, working as a nanny for a U.S. diplomat’s family. Those were the “bad old days”: the Soviet Union was our mortal enemy, the KGB was listening to our conversations, and the embassy’s security people spent hours trying to scare us out of getting too cozy with Russians. It was overwhelming—as was Moscow itself, which was massive, gray, noisy, and dirty. So, five years later, when I decided to find my fortune in post-Soviet Russia, quaint old St. Petersburg seemed the logical choice.
I had everything planned out. Best-case scenario, I’d sell feature stories to newspapers and compile enough clips to continue a writing career back home. Worst-case scenario, nobody would buy my stories, but I’d have fun living the bohemian life in Russia for a while. With my rent just a hundred bucks a month for a two-bedroom apartment, and subsisting on a diet of potatoes, carrots, cabbage, and beer, I figured I had enough money to last a year.
Six months into my grand experiment, nobody would buy anything I wrote. I eagerly penned fluffy little pieces about music festivals and adventures on trolleybuses, but I was stuck in a chicken-and-egg conundrum: no one would publish my stories until my stories had been published elsewhere. Even the small, poorly written English-language newspaper, the St. Petersburg Press, wasn’t interested, though in response to my shameless hounding they finally offered me part-time work as a copy editor. I started going in to the newsroom a few hours a week, and that’s where, posted on a bulletin board in April 1995, I saw this printed-out e-mail:
My name is Gary Matoso. I am an American photojournalist currently based in Paris …
I have a project that I am in the early stages of planning … The basic idea is a trip across Russia by car, St. Petersburg to Vladivostok (maybe the other way around). I plan to take two to three months to complete the journey, stopping in big cities, small towns and villages. I want to shoot a very personal b&w photo essay, a sort of photo journal that documents the people, places and experiences that will make up the trip …
How can you help? First of all, ADVICE. Have any of you been out to the far reaches of Siberia? What can I expect as far as roads? (Are there any?) PLACES TO GO. Do you have any ideas on places that I should definitely see or someone I should meet along the way?… CONTACTS. This will be a real road trip. I am trying to put together a list of friendly faces, a place to crash for the night, or just someone who knows the area …
By this point, I was hyperventilating. What an adventure this guy was going to have! I was afraid to read further for fear he hadn’t written the words I was desperate to see. Fortunately, he had.
Lastly, and this is a biggie, I am looking for candidates to be my traveling partner …
Here is the scoop. I need someone who’s fluent in Russian. I speak some but not enough to attempt this trip on my own. I will cover all of the expenses for the trip and get you back to Petersburg. This offer is directed at but not limited to journalists …
It will be a long and hard trip, with no luxurious hotels or fine restaurants (well, maybe one or two restaurants) … Anyhow, spread the word, I am sure there are enough crazy people out there …
He must pick me. In all my months in Russia, I’d spent very little time outside Moscow or St. Petersburg. I was desperate to see more of the country, and this trip would be a great opportunity to write—and, let’s be honest, sell—stories from the road. Sure, it would be weird to travel with a total stranger; for all I knew, this Gary Matoso person was a kook, or worse, an overcaffeinated alpha male. I didn’t care. I was ready to pack my bags and hop the next train for Siberia. All I had to do was convince Gary that I was the perfect travel companion, using a passel of carefully picked white lies: I e-mailed him that I was fluent in Russian (not quite, though I was getting there); an accomplished writer (false); and, most important, unflappable (way false).
There were several candidates, but lo and behold, the photographer picked me. Forget boho St. Petersburg—I was going to the hinterlands and beyond.
Gary wanted to start with a remote lighthouse he’d heard about at the farthest southeastern tip of Russia, so we booked flights to Vladivostok for September 1, 1995. From there, we planned to meander back to St. Petersburg, stopping in 10 to 12 cities along the way. Our goal was to find an interesting cross-section of people to profile, then post photos and stories to a website as we traveled.
This last part sounded bold, futuristic, and quite possibly insane—at least until Gary arrived in St. Petersburg with an unusual piece of equipment. Standing in my kitchen, he pulled out a 35 mm Nikon camera with a hardware attachment roughly the size of a Buick, then snapped a photo of me. He ejected a little diskette, popped it into a slot in his Apple PowerBook laptop, and when my face magically appeared on the screen, I actually shrieked.
Not only had I never seen this technology, I’d never even heard of it. Digital cameras weren’t widely available in 1995, but Gary had scored an expensive prototype from Kodak—and this, he told me, was the real motivation behind the trip. He wanted to demonstrate how these newfangled digital cameras could be used to create documentary projects on the brand-new World Wide Web. If all went well, our website, which we dubbed “The Russian Chronicles” (having decided “A Trans-Cyberian Journey” was a little too cute) would be one of the first real-time Web travelogues.1
We set off the next day for Vladivostok with only the barest notion about how the next few months would unfold. I’d managed to scrape up contacts in a few cities, mostly Russian friends of friends intrigued at the idea of hosting actual Americans in their rarely visited towns. The rest of the time we’d be winging it, asking everyone we met whether they happened to know anyone in the next town over, as we made our way across the country on the Trans-Siberian Railway. (We’d quickly given up on Gary’s idea of driving once we learned there were few decent—meaning paved—highways in the Russian Far East.)
Over 12 weeks, more than 5,000 miles, several screaming fights, and approximately 6,000 vodka shots, Gary and I created a portrait, in words and photographs, of the lives of contemporary Russians. In the course of the trip, we had adventures beyond what we’d ever imagined.
We spent four days on a research ship on Lake Baikal, watching freshwater scientists collect species that exist only in that magnificent lake. We stood by in awe as a Buryat farmer slaughtered a sheep for us, slicing open the animal’s chest and plunging in his bare hand to pinch shut its aorta, then prepared a feast of mutton and vodka that went on until the sun rose. We attended services in the last remaining synagogue in Birobidzhan, the capital of Russia’s Jewish Autonomous Region, listening in confusion while a self-styled rabbi named Boris exhorted elderly women in headscarves to pray to Jesus Christ. And we watched with delight as two closeted gay men in Novosibirsk put on a spectacular drag show for us in their living room.
It was truly a once-in-a-lifetime trip. Which was why, in 2005, I decided I wanted to do it again.
Gary couldn’t join me this time because of work commitments, so I brought in another photographer, David Hillegas, to make the trip. Washingtonpost.com agreed to publish our updates as a daily blog, and a communications company called I-Linx sponsored us with a few thousand bucks and a satellite phone. I didn’t tell the Russians I’d met in 1995 that I was coming back, opting instead to surprise them. Miraculously, through a combination of decade-old hand-scribbled notes, Google, manic perseverance, and stupid luck, I found almost everybody we’d done stories about on that first trip. The only exceptions were an elderly pensioner in Chelyabinsk (who was likely no longer alive) and a truck driver. Everyone else, we were able to interview and photograph.
In 2005, people seemed better off, materially and financially, than they’d been ten years earlier. Most were enjoying fruits of middle-class life that were previously out of reach: trips to Turkey, cell phones, Visa cards, Italian leather shoes. Many seemed more at ease speaking to me than they had before. In 1995, just four years removed from the collapse of the Soviet Union, people in Russia had seemed to be in a state of existential shell shock. By 2005, they were settling comfortably into their new capitalist reality, members of a growing middle class in a country that had arguably never had one before.
Even before that trip ended, I knew I’d want to go again in 2015. But when the time drew near, I decided to do things a little differently: I wanted to go alone, rather than with a photographer, and write a book instead of blogging. Apart from that, I’d do the same trip, and see all the same people, as before. I was eager to find out how everybody’s lives had changed, now 20 years after that first visit.
Yet I was nervous too. Relations between the Russian and U.S. governments were more poisonous than they’d been in decades. We were furious at Russia for annexing Crimea, Russia was furious with us for the sanctions we subsequently levied, and everybody was pointing fingers after a Malaysian airliner was shot down over a disputed part of Ukraine. On March 8, 2015, the Washington Post’s Michael Birnbaum reported that “after a year in which furious rhetoric has been pumped across Russian airwaves, anger toward the United States is at its worst since opinion polls began tracking it. From ordinary street vendors all the way up to the Kremlin, a wave of anti-U.S. bile has swept the country, surpassing any time since the Stalin era, observers say.”
This was a crazy time for a lone American to set off on an extended ramble across the country. On the other hand, maybe it was the perfect time. In the midst of the PR flame war, I’d be able to see what was really happening on the ground in Russia. And I’d be doing it through face-to-face conversations with people I’d been dropping in on for 20 years.
* * *
Something about this particular contradiction—this presumed enmity between Russians and Americans, even as people connected easily on a human level—had always fascinated me. It was the reason I became obsessed with Russia in the first place, back when I was a patriotic young military brat.
In the summer of 1976, my mother announced that she was going to visit the Soviet Union. This was an unusual choice for an American during those Cold War years, and especially for the spouse of an active-duty U.S. military officer. But she was curious, so she booked a tour and went to explore Moscow, Leningrad, and Kiev for a couple of weeks while my dad, a U.S. Navy pilot who’d just got done fighting the Communists in Vietnam, took care of my brother and me at home.
I was nine years old and deeply confused. Weren’t the Russians our enemies? Why would my mom want to go visit the people my dad was fighting against? The whole time she was away, I was terrified; I truly feared I’d never see her again. But when she got back, she told us that she’d had a wonderful time and Russian people were lovely, and she showed us pictures of candy-drop-colored churches and gave us gifts, including a beautiful hand-carved wooden box that I treasured.
So, Russians were our enemies, but they were also really nice people? Now I was more confused than ever. From that moment on, I needed to see the place for myself, to understand how both these facts could possibly be true.
I wanted to learn Russian, with its weird letters and incomprehensible sounds, but to my disappointment neither my middle school nor my high school offered classes. So for many years, the closest I could come was to painstakingly copy the Russian translation of John 3:16 from the front pages of the Gideon Bible whenever we happened to be staying in a motel. I’d carefully trace out the Cyrillic letters, wondering what it would sound like to speak them aloud, then marveling that one day I would actually know.
At last, in college, I got my chance. I earned my bachelor’s degree in Russian Language and Literature, though even after four years of study, I still spoke it atrociously. My language skills improved during the seven months I spent at the U.S. embassy in Moscow, but it wasn’t until that first year in St. Petersburg, 1994–95, that I became fluent.
So, when I went on the 1995 trip with Gary, my Russian skills were very good. On the 2005 trip, they were pretty good. Now, as I prepared for my third trip, they were decidedly not good. I hadn’t set foot in the country for ten years, and apart from the occasional tipsy vodka toast, I hadn’t spoken a word of Russian. What I needed was a chance to practice everyday conversation with native speakers. Fortunately, the neighborhood where I was living—West Hollywood, California—happened to be chockablock with Russian immigrants.
I found my way to the small Russian Language Library on Santa Monica Boulevard, where I met Sofia, a white-haired, bespectacled émigré who agreed to chat while she minded the desk. We started simply, telling each other where we were from, where we lived, what kind of work we did. Good, I thought. This is easy. Then, she asked if I had a family. And I froze.
I remembered that in Russian, you can’t simply say “I’m married.” It’s a gendered construction, meaning you either say “I am wifed,” or “I am husbanded” (technically, “I am behind husband,” which deserves a dissertation of its own). So I looked Sofia in the eye and said, in Russian, “I am wifed.”
She smiled indulgently. “No, you are husbanded.” She figured I’d misspoken.
“Actually,” I said, “I am wifed.”
“Ohhh,” she said, then paused thoughtfully. “Well, these things happen. There are many such people in West Hollywood. It does not bother me. But I don’t think you should tell anyone in Russia.”
Her advice didn’t come as a surprise. Ever since Russia passed a law in 2013 outlawing the “propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations to minors,” a new wave of anti-gay sentiment, including episodes of violence, had reportedly swept the country. Even though the law didn’t criminalize homosexuality outright, it was written in a way that seemed to justify anti-gay backlash. After all, even simply telling someone you’re gay could be legally construed as “propagandizing,” if some random child happens to be within earshot.
Living in St. Petersburg in the mid-1990s, I’d never worried too much about anti-gay attitudes—but I didn’t exactly broadcast anything, either. I was single, so I didn’t have to lie when asked if I was married or had a family. On the 1995 trip, whenever people asked about boyfriends, I’d just smile coyly and change the subject. This works well when you’re 28. But returning in 2005, at age 38, I found it harder to shake off people’s queries, which started to take on a tone of grave concern. Really? I was almost 40 and still didn’t have a man? That was sad enough; I could only imagine the looks of horror and pity I’d get this time, at age 48, still having failed to get “behind husband.”
The problem could be avoided with a simple white lie, but it was one I couldn’t bring myself to utter. I once lost a job because I was gay, and throughout my adult life I’d endured countless conversations with homophobic colleagues, acquaintances, and relatives about whether I could or should “change.” When I finally did get married, in 2010, my own brother refused for religious reasons to come to the wedding. This was a battle I’d been fighting for a long time, and I was proud to have a stable, loving relationship with my wife, Randi. I hated the idea of denying her existence, or worse, making up a fake husband. But it now seemed, for safety’s sake, I might have to.
As I continued to plan, other worries popped up. For one, how safe would I be traveling alone? I’d never felt unsafe on those earlier trips, but of course I had been with Gary and David. In general, street crime didn’t seem like a big problem in Russia, though I’d actually had my suitcase stolen in St. Petersburg just two days before the 2005 trip launched. I’d been staying in a friend’s apartment, and while neither of us was home, a thief broke in through a window and lugged the entire bag back out with him, making off with my clothes, winter coat, boots, backup software, antibiotics, cash, and, most irritatingly, all of my underwear. I was devastated by the theft, oddly hurt that some Russian asshole would steal my stuff when I was here trying publicize the human side of his country. The saving grace was that I’d had my laptop and passport with me. Everything else, I’d had to replace on a manic, deeply resented shopping spree.
I’d have to be careful traveling alone, especially since the Russian economy was now in the toilet. On January 1, 2014, one U.S. dollar bought 33 rubles. On June 1, 2015, three months before my trip, a dollar bought 53 rubles. And on September 2, 2015, the day I arrived in Vladivostok, a dollar bought a breathtaking 67 rubles—meaning that U.S. dollars were now worth twice as much as they’d been less than two years earlier. How safe would a lone American woman, traveling across Russia during a wave of anti-American sentiment, carrying dollars (and a backpack full of expensive Apple products) in the midst of an economic meltdown, truly be?
And even if street crime didn’t turn out to be a problem, going alone raised other concerns. How would it feel to be alone on those long train trips? Who would look after my stuff when I needed to go use the loo? In cities, would I be safe taking taxis alone back to wherever I was staying after the inevitable vodka-fueled reunion dinners? My brain began whirling with questions I’d never had to consider before: Should I bring pepper spray? Are you allowed to pack it on international flights? If not, should I buy some there? Do they even sell pepper spray in Russia?
I started to make myself crazy, thinking of the horrifying possibilities. And then, in addition to questions of safety, I had another worry: the battle with Russian officialdom.
The Russian government had recently tightened its visa restrictions, making it unclear whether I could even get permission to travel to all these cities without official invitations to each. One friend told me about an eminent American journalist who’d been desperately trying to get a visa so she could research a book, only to be stonewalled without explanation for more than a year by the Russian embassy.2 A Google search instantly revealed that I was an openly gay American who’d written extensively about Russia—probably not the kind of person Putin’s government wanted wandering around the country right about now. Should I take down my website? Scrub my Facebook page? Delete my Twitter feed? Or was I being unnecessarily paranoid?
For the first two trips I’d traveled on three-month business visas, arranged for a small fee, with no questions asked, through a company in St. Petersburg. But this time I’d be making the arrangements at home in Los Angeles, and I didn’t even know where to start. So I turned, as one does these days, to Yelp. I found a visa services company in Burbank with a high rating and lots of good reviews, and upon the recommendation of a confident-sounding woman there named Stephanie, I applied for a multi-entry, three-year tourist visa. I submitted the paperwork in early July and crossed my fingers.
* * *
Meanwhile, I continued my preparation by going on a new shopping spree. I bought a multiport USB charger; a battery pack for recharging devices on long train trips; and a selfie stick, tripod, and trio of tiny clip-on lenses for my primary camera—my iPhone. All this equipment fit snugly into a backpack, with plenty of room left over for my laptop and iPad. Compared to the mountain of gear we’d taken on the first two trips, which included multiple cameras, a satellite phone, a BGAN satellite Internet communicator, and backups of every conceivable cord, cable, and software DVD, I’d be traveling light.
The technological differences among the three trips were nothing short of astounding. In 1995, Russian phone lines were notoriously poor, so Gary had made an arrangement with Sprint to connect directly, whenever possible, to the company’s telecom nodes located across the country. We also carried phone cords and adapters, so in the rare city where we could dial up through the Russian Internet service Glasnet, we could connect our laptops to phone jacks. Either way, holding a connection long enough to upload our photos and text was a nerve-racking proposition.
To make the uploads go more quickly, Gary compressed the photos to a ridiculously tiny size. The digital camera (a Kodak DCS 420) took photos that were about 1.5 MB each, but Gary shrank them to a minuscule 25 KB. Even that tiny, the photos still took hours to send: on one memorable occasion, it took us eight hours to upload just 400 KB worth of photos. It was as if we were driving down the “Information Superhighway” with a horse and buggy.
Given the poor Internet connections, it would have been impossible for Gary and me to update the website from the road. Fortunately, we had project partners in San Francisco, Tripp Mikich and Chuck Gathard, who worked with Gary to design and build the site and maintained it while we traveled. Every few days, we’d cross our fingers and attempt to send text and photos to Tripp and Chuck, and upon receipt—however long that took—they’d post our updates to the site.
In 1995, the World Wide Web was a new concept even in the United States; according to a Pew Research Center study, just 14 percent of Americans had ever used the Internet. In Russia, most people we spoke to outside of Moscow and St. Petersburg had never even heard of it. People would naturally ask who we were writing for, and I’d say, “Well, there’s this thing called the Internet…” My attempts to explain sounded like a cross between Confucian sayings and schoolkids’ brainteasers: “It’s not printed out, but you can read it anywhere.” Or, “Our partners in San Francisco put it on their computer, but it can be seen on anybody’s computer if they know how to find it.”
In Novosibirsk, I asked one woman whether she minded being identified by her real name. “It’s not going to be published in Russia, right?” she asked.
“In theory, it can be read by anyone in the world,” I told her. “They just have to plug their computer into a box called a ‘modem,’ then plug that box into a telephone line, then make the computer dial a specific number—”
“Stop, stop, stop,” she said, waving a hand in the air. “Russians will never figure that out. Write what you want.”
Against the odds, Gary and I were able to check our e-mail regularly on the 1995 trip, as long as we were in an apartment with a functioning telephone line (not always a given). But phone calls home were a different beast. Prepaid phone cards weren’t yet widespread, so every couple of weeks, we’d stop by the local Soviet-style Telephone and Telegraph office, where we’d stand in line, hand an employee a slip of paper with the phone number we wanted dialed, then race into one in a long row of phone booths when a flashing light signaled that the call had gone through.
By 2005, communications in Russia had leapt forward. David and I were spoiled for choice: we could go online at ubiquitous Internet cafés, or by using prepaid Internet usage cards, or through services such as Russia Online, which had local dial-up numbers in all but two of the cities we visited. DSL, cable Internet, and Wi-Fi had also begun popping up, though this was rare outside Moscow and St. Petersburg. Phone cards made it easy for us to call home, usually for pennies a minute, and of course we had our satellite phone for more remote areas, such as when we were floating out on Lake Baikal or strolling through a field of cows in a Buryat village. Uploading photos still took time, though, especially since we were now sending multimegabyte pictures instead of the compacted 25 KB photos from the first trip.
On the third trip, communicating would be ridiculously easy. I’d be able to post photos and videos instantly with my iPhone to any social media site I liked. I could call home for free via Skype, and text friends and family for free using WhatsApp or Viber. Yet I was still curious how much it would cost to make calls, send texts, and upload photos through a regular cell phone connection, so I called my carrier, T-Mobile.
To my surprise, the customer service rep told me that under my existing cell phone plan, I could text, FaceTime, and use unlimited Internet data throughout Russia—no Wi-Fi needed. The only service that would cost extra was making and receiving cell phone calls, which would be charged at ten cents a minute. I couldn’t believe my luck; how could all these international services be essentially free? Was there a catch? I asked the rep what their coverage was like in Russia, assuming that it must be pretty spotty to justify such a deal. “Hold on,” she said, “I’ll look at our map.”
“Ah,” she said after a moment. “Yeah, it’s not great. There are whole big parts of Russia with no coverage at all.”
Well, damn. “Can you tell me where, in general?” I asked. She gave me the URL so I could see the map for myself, and when I pulled up the image, I burst out laughing. Most of Russia wasn’t covered, all right—because most of Russia is covered in permafrost, and nobody lives there. There was, however, a band of coverage all along the populated, southerly route of the Trans-Siberian, exactly where I’d be traveling. “I think I’m good,” I told the woman. “Thanks.”
As long as I was poking around online, I decided to check out places to stay in Vladivostok. The first two times there, we’d stayed in private homes—in 1995 with an American friend of a friend, and in 2005 with a Russian journalist who plied us with vodka and charged us a couple hundred dollars for our weeklong stay. This time around I decided to just book a hotel, as I knew I’d be suffering from terrible jetlag and would sleep better if I had some privacy. Besides, the ruble was weak, and I was 48 years old now, so screw the foldout couch.
Before, arranging places to stay was one of the most time-consuming and stressful parts of the trip. Now, I actually giggled as I logged on to TripAdvisor to check out hotels. How about … the Vlad Motor Inn for $97 a night, or the Versailles Hotel, $119 a night, or maybe the more modest Hotel Teplo, $38 a night? I checked Google Maps to see where these hotels were located. And then I decided to mosey over to Airbnb, where I found a one-bedroom “sea & bridge view” for $42 a night, or a “cozy flat in the heart of Vladivostok” for $57 a night. I ended up booking a week at the Hotel Teplo, which didn’t even require prepayment, and the confirmation appeared almost instantly in my in-box.
At last, I felt pretty much set. I had my gear, my hotel reservation, and my one-way Aeroflot ticket to Vladivostok. Now I just needed my visa.
On August 5, I got it. For all my fretting, the Russian consulate never asked any questions at all, and in fact they processed the visa more quickly than expected. Maybe I’d been unnecessarily paranoid, and there wasn’t so much anti-American bias after all. For the first night in a while, I slept well, relieved that everything seemed to be going smoothly.
The next morning, I woke up to news of the Great Fromagicide.
The Russian government had publicly bulldozed or burned tons of imported food, primarily cheese, but also fruits, vegetables, and meat, that had been smuggled into the country in violation of its ban on Western agricultural products—a ban that was instituted a year earlier as a retaliatory slap to the countries that had imposed sanctions on Russia. Russian TV aired clips showing heavy machinery shoving mounds of Parmesan, Gouda, and other delicacies into dirty graves, while news anchors offered updates on such colorful developments as “an operation to liquidate dozens of tons of contraband pork,” and the fact that “Dutch flowers will be examined with a microscope at the border.”
It all felt rather silly, except that destroying tons of food during a severe economic downturn, especially in a country that had known too well the specter of hunger in its history, was serious business. By the end of the day, 200,000 people had signed an online petition asking the Russian government to stop the destruction. But as the Guardian reported, “Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said the president had signed the law, and that meant discussion was over on the topic for now.”
What the hell is going on in Russia? I thought. I couldn’t wait to get back and find out.
Copyright © 2017 by Lisa Dickey