16 September 2021

Sitting in the Russian section: a guest post

We knew something big had happened. She sat down during our student tea, looked at us to be sure she had our attention, and then said in a serious tone, “No one has died….”

We’d been teaching English outside of Moscow, Russia for a few years by then, without benefit of long-term work visas, hopping in and out of the country every three months when our visas ended. It was nice at first to hop into Latvia or Ukraine or whatever handy European country to renew our visas, but then we tired of all the times we had to miss birthday parties, anniversaries, special celebrations because our visas had run out.

Every Friday that we weren’t out of the country hunting visas, we held a tea for students. We taught words like “muffin” or “cookie” by the things I brought for them. Our students didn’t realize that they served as a testing ground for me. I’d consider what flavors Russians would probably like of what I knew to cook, and brought them to the teas. The students, traditional college age, had more adventurous tastes than our teaching colleagues, so I’d try out various recipes and bring the results along to the weekly teas. Lemon muffins, reduced sugar to bring out the tartness, were a hit, and so were chocolate cherry cookies. Girl scout cookies, thin mints to be precise, were not. Johan and I faced the terrible prospect of eating all three packages of thin mints I had brought in my carry-on from Oregon, until I discovered one Friend who loved them. She giggled happily as I handed over one full box.

On the day of that student tea we were within sight of a yearly renewable work visa instead of those three-month visas. The paperwork was vast and the bureaucracy arbitrary, with no appeal but bribery, and even that was uncertain. But we all had chugged our way through the process, and just maybe….

We knew by then that the director never swept students away from us, whether in class or in hallway conversations, unless it was absolutely necessary. So the evidence that something had gone very wrong was before she said, “no one has died.” I knew something was up because she dismissed the students. The tea was over.

We stared as she explained that one of her employees had filed the wrong paperwork for our temp visas, and the college faced a $20,000 fine. The immigration official who gave her that news had an offer -- if we could be out of the country by midnight that night, and that we arrived back in with a new, fresh clean entry on our passport -- and the correct paperwork --  by 9:00 am Monday morning at her office, she would process the paperwork without the fine, on the basis of the new entry stamp.

It was 4:00 pm Friday afternoon. She wanted us to go to the airport and take whatever flight would get us out of Moscow by midnight. But I was leary of last-minute plane delays. I had also noticed that Russian immigration officials on trains seemed in better moods than the ones having to do entire shifts inside the cubes/kiosks in airports. Because of the snafu, our paperwork even for exiting Russia would not be perfect. Curiously, Russian immigration officials often wouldn’t let foreigners even leave without perfect paperwork. If not deemed perfect, your paper and your person has to stick around Russia for a few days until you can present again, without flaw. So I suggested a train to Kyiv, Ukraine, instead.

The director agreed, put our passports on the table, spread out the paperwork and said, “don’t lose this piece of paper. It will show them that...” well, I don’t remember what it would have shown them. I can’t stand to think of it now.

A train out of Moscow to Kyiv that evening would cross the Ukrainian border by 11:00 pm or so. We could still catch it. Johan took a cab to the Elektrostal train station to get tickets for us; I subbed for him in his classroom. He bought us a ticket overnight to Kyiv that Friday night, and overnight back to Moscow on Saturday night. It would be a weekend of trains, ending up back where we started.

On the commuter train into Moscow, we discovered we had lost that piece of paper. It had probably been left in the Elektrostal train station ticket booth. Terror surrounded us. We had one job that evening -- to get out of Russia -- and would we be able to do it? It didn’t seem likely.

We lost valuable time in the train station in Moscow trying to find the missing document, calling the director to see if she had a copy, calling the Elektrostal ticket office to see if they would fax it to Moscow. Finally we had to give up. We lost a few extra minutes finding the train, and by the time we found it the final call was sounding. I could barely breathe from running with a suitcase, but we had to run to find our car. A kind conductor yelled, “Come in here. You’ll miss it if you don’t!” We threw ourselves and our suitcases in, and the train began to roll.

But we were still in Russia. Friends of ours had still been stranded at rural outposts, left at the last station in Russia because their documents weren’t in order. And we didn't have that piece of paper. We decided to play it cool. The immigration officer came in just before the border. He reminded me of the Nazi boyfriend in The Sound of Music who turned out to be a snitch. I tried hard to act unconcerned, like it was a routine thing for us, just another trip to Kyiv. He took our passports, looked carefully at each page, one by one, asked a question, and without moving a muscle on his face, stamped the exit stamp in our passports. One more station stop, and then the Russian forests would yield to Ukrainian wheatfields.

At Kyiv Station
It took a long time for me to relax enough to sleep. I was groggy when the train pulled in to Kyiv.

Then we had nothing to do until the train took us back to Moscow that night. Breakfast is my favorite meal to eat out, so we celebrated achieving our exit from Russia by having breakfast in a restaurant near the station. Its decor intermingled old Soviet-style posters and propaganda with Madison Avenue poster ads from the 1950’s. Each booth had its own wallpaper from the Soviet Union or the US in 1950. Soviet leadership and Madison Ave had curiously similar styles at the time -- The New Soviet Man and the ideal 1950’s American housewife looked like a perfect match.

And after breakfast, then what? What to do in Kyiv with no planning and not much sleep? We went to the parking lot where city tour buses gathered. We chose one randomly and paid for a three-hour tour.

I learned Spanish in Spain in high school; Russian never came so well to me, having put off learning until my mid-fifties. Tracking a lecture or tour guide required intense concentration, if it was possible at all, and that day, with no sleep, a warm bus and a down coat, I didn’t have any concentration left to spend. So I wasn’t paying the tour guide any mind as she prattled on, I thought. We were on a serpentine road going up a steep hill.

“Hey, listen to that!” Johan elbowed my side to get me out of my reverie. “She’s using new-age words to reach non-believers about prayer!” Then he began interpreting, “There’s a spot at the convent --  people come for it as a zone of healing with cosmic forces. When you’re there, be sure to feel it for yourself. And think about the people you care about, and what you wish for them.” She probably described where it was, but my Russian failed me and Johan didn’t interpret. I mulled over her words reaching out to new agers about prayer, but that was all. The bus stopped at the convent and she told us in no uncertain terms to be back at the bus in 45 minutes.

We walked around the convent, mostly outside. There was a wide walkway up a short slope, with large concrete landings instead of steps. A little chapel that looked more like a greenhouse, some shrubs and greenery. Then I felt it -- a sensation I can only describe as more real than real -- not in this world, but in the next; a sense of looking into that world, but more like feeling into that world. As if all my senses were attuned, sharp, and showing me a look into the next world. But it wasn’t sight; it was sensation. A sense of contentment beyond contentment, a sense of real beyond real. I stopped short.

“Where did she say that spot was?” I asked Johan.

He looked around, considered for a moment, and said, “right here.” I sat down. I never wanted to leave. Ever again.

St. Helen's grave is in the green chapel. Kyiv, Ukraine. Source.
The little greenhouse looking chapel held a plaque. It said that in the 1830’s, a nun would sit there and a line would form and she would pray for healing, and people were indeed healed. She would sit in that exact spot where I had sensed it. Later, this little chapel was built around her grave.

I had felt that sensation of real beyond real only once before, when a good friend of mine faced a crisis; her son was about to lose custody of his children to an ex-wife who had been neglectful and physically abusive of her grandchildren. A few close friends were with us, and we prayed like we never had prayed before. I felt something opening; I felt the forces of evil and the forces of good, and I felt something change. I stayed in that feeling for 24 hours or so -- the sense of the spiritual world being more real than real. I knew my boss would have experienced that, too, given her fervent prayers each week in our office.

I described the sensation and she said yes, she knew exactly what I was talking about. She told me of a specific time, too. “If we focused on this, Judy, the truth is that we could heal the dead.” In the years that we worked together we had prayers regularly. These weren’t the “guide the hands of the surgeons” sort of prayer, or “give the doctors wisdom” prayers. They were out and out prayers for healing, intercession of the Holy Spirit and Jesus kind of healing.

I was stunned at how many people we prayed for who had remarkable recoveries. They went to the doctors, took medication prescribed, etc etc -- and yet often the results were far better than I had ever expected. It wasn’t that no one died, or became chronically ill, but that I heard news of healing well beyond medical expectations, on a regular basis.

And yet she thought we were not being intense enough about our prayers.

During my years in Russia, I realized that generally, we in the West are trained to believe that good people are rational, analytical people. Good, reliable people only know what they should know, and that knowledge comes from a place or practice that they know and can name. If we have knowledge that is good and useful, then we know how we came by that information. Even with dis-information being rampant, we know where disinformation comes from, or is alleged to come from.

Mystery makes us uncomfortable. Mystery, unexplainable, is an ant at a picnic -- snuffed out or about to be, undesirable. Mystery, unexplained, is failure.

I agree with the scientific approach. I am fully vaccinated against covid-19, and against every other disease on the CDC plan for my age group. I am not anti-science! I believe that covid-19 is NOT a hoax, I believe that ivermectin is good only to treat parasites, etc, etc. I just don’t believe that science is the only important way of understanding the universe.

It’s as if we are in the audience in a play. It’s a long, long play, and we discuss it with each other and with each passing year, we understand more of it. However, some of us hear bumps and noises or smell things that contradict what we perceive is happening on the stage, but we assume those noises aren’t not important because, well, what we don’t understand doesn’t really exist. Or that in the decades to come, science will be able to explain all that is important. If anyone in our little discussion groups in the audience focuses on those bumps and noises and smells then we say that these people are nutcases. We can’t even prove they are hearing those things! So they must not exist. Oh, if you want to believe they are real noises, go ahead, it won’t do any harm, pat-pat-pat on the head but don’t expect those noises to explain anything about the play or have any substantial impact on life.

We in this audience, especially those sitting in the west side of the theatre, want to think of ourselves as rational and analytical. We are confident that the only way to understand more about this play is to test and observe, to collect data and analyze it. If it's not testable and observable, then it’s not happening, or at least is not very important to the play.

And I’m here to whisper to my audience members, “you forget that you are seeing this play with your limited human mind. We have to test and observe with our limited human minds. Maybe there is a whole different way of knowing that is not limited by a human mind. Maybe we should just sit with the great unknowables and admit we can not now, and probably never will be able to, explain them. And let us enjoy the mystery, enter into it, let it inform our beings, our lives.”

After a few years of adjusting, and getting to know Russians, I found myself sitting in the Russian section of that audience. Russia and its section is somewhere between East and West, not fully either but fully itself.

Russians tend to be comfortable with the unknown and the unknowable. For them, all the bumps and smells and noises we can sorta see and feel but can’t possibly understand are an integral part of the play. Science is also considered an excellent way of understanding the play. I once gave what I thought was a difficult question on an exam after showing our class a movie on Einstein: “Explain time in the context of the theory of relativity.” Every single student explained it concisely and accurately, in English, a non-native language. I learned that while foreign language instruction in Russian public schools is below even the level in the United States, which sets a remarkably low bar, science instruction in Russian schools has historically been excellent. Remember Sputnik, and how in the early years of the space race, the Soviet Union pulled way out ahead of the US?

But, the western reader protests, I believe in God! I can’t prove God exists, but I believe! The problem is that many of us believe with our Western, only-what-can-be-measured-is-real minds. We miss so much! For example, consider the feeding of the 5,000, in which Jesus has compassion on the crowds that have followed him out into a desolate land. He takes a boy’s lunch of five small loaves and two small fish, blesses it, and it feeds the whole crowd -- of 5,000 men and an uncounted number of women and children.

I’ve often heard argued in progressive circles that Jesus was only encouraging the crowd to share their own lunches. Think about -- in a society in which community is paramount, and hospitality is considered a sacred responsibility, is getting a large crowd to share their lunch really anything to write home about? Much less write in all four gospels? If the crowds had been Americans, with our emphasis on individual rights and lives, then yes, it would have taken a miracle to get us to share. But not a communal society in an arid land.

We westerners like to brush aside the miracle. Instead, let’s descend into the miracle, into the mystery. God is mystery, and what God does is mystery. On this side of heaven, we as humans will never fully grasp God and God’s mystery, but we are given glimpses. Let's admit that what our human minds can not measure, analyze or even confirm can still exist, and be a major part of life and the universe.

Matthew 9:35 says, “Jesus went through all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and healing every disease and sickness.” Jesus went through Galilea, teaching, preaching and healing. One third of what he did was healing. Are we to deny the reality of a third of what Jesus did?

-- Judy Maurer

Judy and I taught English, American studies, and mass media in Elektrostal, Russia, for nine years. Judy is a member of Camas Friends Church (Camas, Washington, USA) and Moscow Friends Meeting (Moscow, Russia), and a recorded minister in Sierra-Cascades Yearly Meeting of Friends.

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Phil McLain said...

Judy, what a blessing to read your wonderful insights on what is "real." I have greatly missed access to your writings (or haven't you been writing much?) Phil

AntonZ said...

Dear Judie! Thank you so much for the inspiring story I need so much at present. God protect you, Johan and your dear sons!