19 April 2012

Sapsan shorts

Our first experience of the
Sapsan high-speed train (photo
credit vzapase.ru).
Where the Oka River meets the
Volga River--view from the
Nizhni Novgorod kremlin.
The pedestrian section of
Bolshaya Pokrovskaya.
Bolshaya Pokrovskaya; we
bought a cat from this vendor.
Andrei Sakharov and Elena
Bonner lived in this building
during their exile years.
Inside the entrance area for
their apartment (now a museum).
The Sakharov/Bonner living
room; the phone was added
at the very end of their exile,
so that Gorbachev could call.
Bedroom. Institutional furniture:
the apartment was originally
part of a guest facility for the
nearby research center.
We just came back from a quick trip to Nizhni Novgorod--my first time in this city. Lots of impressions--here are just a few.

I appreciated the Sapsan high-speed train, which cuts the normal train travel time between Moscow and Nizhni Novgorod almost in half. But, still, when we got off the Sapsan and transferred to a local train for our trip back to Elektrostal, I was surprised by my reaction. On the Sapsan, most of the passengers seemed to be alone; their interactions with others were often through their mobile phones. On the elektrichka, on the other hand, lots of passengers were engaged in animated conversations with people right next to them.

Of course, back on our local train, we also witnessed the usual evade-the-conductor procedures used by those passengers who were riding free. No such drama on the Sapsan.

It is easy to make negative comparisons between our boxy, militantly utilitarian local trains and the sleek equipment used in some other countries. But the suburban trains here are frequent, reasonably priced, and very reliable. On the gorgeous Sapsan, I felt like a guest--a tourist, really--but on the green elektrichka, I felt so very much at home.

During our time in Nizhni Novgorod, we stayed in the Shcherbinki neighborhood, just a couple of bus stops from the exile home of Andrei Sakharov, Nobel Peace Prize winner (1975) and his wife Elena Bonner. Andrei was sent to Nizhni Novgorod (then called Gorky) in 1980, as a consequence of his public protests against the invasion of Afghanistan. At first his wife was not included in the forced exile, but in 1984 she too was prohibited from leaving the city. In December 1986, the exile orders were lifted and they were permitted to return to Moscow.

Today, before leaving Nizhni Novgorod, our local contact Harley Wagler (scholar of Russian literature and instructor at the state university) took us to see the fascinating little museum that had been set up there shortly after Sakharov's death. I'm very grateful that he did; it was a very moving experience.

The museum actually occupies two apartments--the rooms occupied by Andrei and Elena, and the adjoining apartment. The Sakharov apartment was not actually private quarters; they had the use of two rooms and a kitchen in what was part of a small hotel for visitors to the research facility whose workers occupied the remainder of the building. In between the Sakharov bedroom and the kitchen was an office used by the hotel administrator, from which she could signal to the authorities when the exiled husband and wife were absent, so that their quarters could be searched.

Our museum guide added valuable commentary to the texts and captions of the museum exhibits. Among many other details, she described the daily hardships and indignities this couple endured--noting that they were not young and both had heart problems. The hardest thing of all, she said, was the cost to their morale of their complete isolation from the human rights community. There was no local human rights community; visits were impossible; practically all supportive letters were withheld (only abusive mail was allowed through); they had no telephone until the very end of their exile; and their radio reception at home was subject to jamming. This jamming also reduced the quality of TV reception for the whole building, which didn't improve their popularity among their neighbors.

After listing these hardships, our guide pointed out that their fame still gave them safeguards not available to the average Soviet dissident, whose incarceration in a camp or psychiatric hospital might never be known to the outside world. In the case of Andrei and Elena, the KGB could not simply get rid of them;  there would have been too much of a scandal. Of course, if these hardships resulted in a heart attack, that would have been very convenient.

The Sakharov apartment had an oppressive feel to it--the guide mentioned that visitors often have that sensation, and we shared it. In my own life, I've never felt anything like the kind of social isolation that Andrei and Elena were subjected to for nearly seven years. But the time in my life when I felt most isolated did occur in Russia. It was in the year 1975, when I took some of the money I inherited from my mother's parents and traveled alone to the Soviet Union. I had just spent two months at Voice of Calvary in Mendenhall, Mississippi, where I'd been part of an intense interracial community experience, living together with volunteers from all over the USA and teaching young children during the day in a Christian version of Head Start.

The 1975 Johan
The 1975 Moscow
From that amazing cauldron of ideas and emotions, I went directly to Europe. I checked in with my grandparents in Oslo, but after that I was on my own. A ship to Newcastle, a train to Edinburgh, another train to London, and then I was off to the Soviet Union. I was a puzzle to the staff of the motel I found myself in, on the western edge of Moscow; they had almost no experience with a Western tourist traveling alone. Almost all such tourists came in groups. I knew nobody; I felt as if I was on the other side of the moon. Phone calls were prohibitively expensive and of course there was no Internet. After twelve days of overwhelming aloneness in Moscow, I took the train to Leningrad for another couple of days of isolation before getting on a plane for Stockholm and then Oslo.

It was not that I kept to myself while in Russia. I had lots of conversations, including some unforgettable exchanges with people at the Orthodox seminary and a church at Novodevichy convent. But I couldn't cancel out the ache of being so far away from anyone who knew me. If I found it hard to take two weeks of that, it's hard to imagine what nearly seven years must be like.

One of the most interesting sights of our visit to Nizhni Novgorod looked so unpromising when we walked into the advertised address. It was a very nondescript office building with miscellaneous signs scattered about the shabby lobby advertising travel agencies and other businesses and organizations (including the local Soldiers' Mothers organization, promoting their current "I don't pay bribes" campaign). As we stood looking at the metal door to the stairs, we must have looked a bit uncertain, because we were asked somewhat sharply, "What do you want?" We knew we wanted the fourth floor, so up we climbed past all those other businesses, and on the fourth floor, passing through a plain metal door, we found ourselves in a world of wonder. Hundreds, probably thousands of extraordinary handmade items--spoons, locks, knives, bowls, jewelry, toys, costumes, trunks, window frames, an amazing outpouring of folk creativity, including a great representation from Old Believers' communities in the Nizhni Novgorod area. Over here--giant wooden architectural details; over here, delicate metal filigree. Looms and other tools to create extraordinary weavings. Biographical exhibits telling about the teachers, schools and workshops through which these crafts were preserved for our times. All well-organized and carefully labeled.

It's a rule in Russia: don't be deterred by inauspicious entryways! The official web site gives only a small idea of the exhibits; here's a private gallery. Be sure to visit!

The World Conference of Friends has started. Follow the Conference on this Web page. Our Moscow Meeting is looking forward to hearing from our two Friends in attendance.

Melanie Fox at Friends Committee on National Legislation advises us to keep an eye on Arizona v U.S.

"Healthy short-term missions? Do it like Jesus."

"Mommy wars and the More-With-Less Cookbook." (The only cookbook I owned when I got married, and to tell the truth I only used a couple of the recipes in it, but I used them a lot! However, that's a bit beside the point of the article....)

Thanks to Judy Goldberger for the link to this: "The White Savior Industrial Complex." "If we are going to interfere in the lives of others, a little due diligence is a minimum requirement."

Don't have the time to get a PhD in Russian literature? Here's all you need to know, sort of.

Wondering why there's no 2012 Pulitzer for fiction? Apparently you're not alone. Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Justice doesn't like what was happening to e-book prices.

If I were in Tokyo on April 25, this is where I'd be.

B.B. King gets playful with Susan Tedeschi and Derek Trucks.

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