Journey to the East III. Russia with a pandemic behind my back

Journey to the East III.

Russia with a pandemic behind my back

It was February 2020, and it was supposed to be a large train circuit through winter Russia. From Moscow to the Urals and then south through the Caucasus to Georgia. Everything went perfectly except for one detail: the daily bombardment of news about pandemic spreading quickly through Europe. Some Russians had an explanation for it: “You drink too little vodka there!” There was no virus in Russia at that time, at least according to official statistics. Although I spent just two weeks there, I had countless impressions. I will summarize them in a few brief points.

What thrilled me in Russia?

Volga. This river reminded me more of Asian giant rivers than anything in Europe. Volga impressed me the most in Kazan and Nizhny Novgorod. The frozen parts of the river in Kazan were full of fishermen who used large drills to get their catches. In Novgorod, pieces of ice floated on the Volga surface and resembled an endless fleet of ships. There were wide promenades, where one could pleasantly warm the bones on frosty but sunny days. One could admire this mighty river, which sometimes resembled the sea rather than just the river.

People. Unlike many stories, people were incredibly helpful and kind, even in big cities. They usually didn’t know a word of English, but the effort to help counts as well. Also, if you are a Slavic, you can easily understand basic Russian. I moved around the cities without fear, even at night. As in many Muslim countries, I have lost many fears and prejudices in Russia. People are the same everywhere.

Socialist architecture. Imagine socialist buildings in Ostrava or Prague, magnify them about five times, add a red star, and you will get Moscow. But Russian cities aren’t just about this monumental socialist classicism. You can see there also the first experiments with mass housing or light and airy constructivist buildings. This is an architecture that may not be beautiful at first glance, but was pioneering at the time and is yet to be fully appreciated. Moreover, it hides ideas and stories that shaped the Central European space and identity.

Ural. Endless wild mountains as far as the eye can see, forests as big as entire European cities. The word “broad” takes on a whole new dimension here. The woods were full of white birches, firs, all covered with the deep snow. However, it was only a brief insight into this beauty. I spent only one night in Taganay National Park, then I got the news that Europe was closing its external borders.