The Russian countryside has startlingly few features. It lacks rises and texture; here, people forage in birch and aspen forests for mushrooms and berries, and cross-country ski on a bleak plain broken by the bump of the Urals and continuing to Siberia. Over the next half-hour the bus stopped at three places with no sign of a town, no buildings or roads. Just snow-covered fields. "This is the ancient granary of the Vladimir lands that accounted for their populousness and wealth," said my little guidebook. It talked about birch tree forests and fields of grain. All I could see was deep white. One person got off next to a snowy field, no buildings in sight, and I wondered where on earth he went.
At Suzdal, the bus station was a crumbling concrete block of a building surrounded by trees, a mile out of town. "How do I get to town?" I asked the driver. "Over there, dyevushka," he said, pointing a finger at the little yellow taxi van that the other passengers had climbed into. I got in and tried to look like I knew what I was doing as the other passengers handed me their rubles and kopeks to pay the driver.
Barely touched by Soviet or Western influences, with no immediately visible concrete apartment building or large supermarket, Suzdal was a glimpse at what Russian life once meant to people. In coming to Suzdal, my book said, visitors are "breathing the atmosphere of the genuine Russian past."
The genuine Russian past. To those who know how much of Russia's history was wiped out after the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, the implication in that line, for the period it was written in, was dangerous. I remember my father's sparse stories of life under Stalin, of persecution he suffered just for being ethnically Jewish, and later of the way his family in Leningrad was treated after he was exiled to the West, and I wonder—was it Gorbachev's leniency that had allowed these authors to get away with such a phrase? And if he had thawed the Eastern Bloc sooner, released my father from exile earlier, would I have been able to belong to this country, this people?
Onion domes in bright blue, black, and gold rose from the snow. The walls of monasteries, convents, and the kremlin etched out a border on the hill line above the frozen river. I squinted at the peek of a blue church dome freckled with gold stars. The sun crystallized everything in below-zero temperatures. And there was the silence. In Moscow I was so used to noise, the sound of traffic, of trains, the rattle of the metro, the heave and rush of twenty million people squeezing their way to work and herding their children to sheltered courtyards where poplar trees towered over the playgrounds. This was more like the small Montana town where I'd grown up, the crunch of snow underfoot, an occasional car, kids' laughter in the distance.
Places like Suzdal make a kopek or two from the busloads of summertime visitors touring the interiors of churches, with their frescoes, icons, and old fabrics. I'd long ago learned, though, that to absorb any kind of Russian life you've either got to spend time in people's apartments, their barely private spaces with cloth slippers and a table crowded near the sink where someone is flipping little blini pancakes and slicing cucumbers, or by soaking yourself outside in the cold that is such a fundamental part of the country's life.
Where I then lived in upstate New York, this kind of temperature, well below zero, would have had me and my neighbors sequestered indoors. But here, schoolchildren slid down icy snowbanks, women chatted, wrapped in their thick skirts, and vendors stamped their feet at tables of souvenirs, spending most of the day in the sharp, nose-freezing cold. I followed the main street first to the kremlin, which hung on top of a short incline. Its white stone walls barricaded a blue-domed church from view.
Colored izbas lined the streets. Periwinkle, turquoise, forest green, lavender—the one- and two-roomed houses leaned against one another, bright colors flashing against the snow. Stylized, carved wooden frames surrounded their windows: spring green, pink, brown. The curious, multi-paned windows had an extra tiny pane at the top that opened to release warmth from an overheated room in winter, where an old, beehive-shaped stove toasted the whole house and served as a bed for at least one person. I took pictures of the window frames, with their chunky curves, a near-Swiss lacy effect.
Near an outdoor craft market, I breathed on my fingers in sympathy with the vendors in their fur hats and wool boots selling matryoshka dolls and carved wooden boxes. It was already past three in the afternoon. Mindful of the disappearing daylight, I tramped through an alleyway for access to one of the few bridges crossing the river to the lower part of town. Half of Suzdal roosted on a short hill, with a wide break over a small ravine; the rest of the town spread out to the fields down below.
The Savior Monastery of St. Euthymius's red stone walls are nearly a mile long; its battlements hover over the embankment, looking no different from the fortress it once was. My little guidebook talked about the architecture of the place, and mentioned in passing that tsars once used its Prison Block to hold insurgents and freethinkers. Standing beside one wall, on frozen snow, I looked down over the rest of Suzdal. The white-walled Intercession Convent, founded in 1364, fronted the picture. It sat, as my Soviet book said, "as if it were on the palm of your hand."
This entire principality—Vladimir, Suzdal, and anything in between—was burned to the ground by the Mongol invasion eight hundred years ago. But this is where Russian life endures, the birthplace both of mir, the ancient village-based communal way of allocating land and resources that probably made communism a logical evolution, and of the terror of invasion that still holds the country aloof from the world. What Churchill called "a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma" is simply, when you scrape the details away, just like life everywhere: defined by tradition, faith, fear, geography, and the weather.
And yet. I felt, as so many have done over the centuries, an almost alien straining for truth there, a hunger for meaning, something beyond what my own culture, my own upbringing, has given me. An illusion, most likely, but one I succumbed to young and quickly and, it seems, for the rest of my life.
Behind the main monastery's wall, I slid down the frozen path of the riverbank to a narrow wooden bridge, and looked back up at the brick wall and the bare peek of black-domed churches. The wind swept across the plains and deposited crystals of snow on my hat and face. The pictures in my little book were all of summertime, with waving birch trees and a meandering river. I couldn't imagine this place in summer, with warmth and grass and running water. I couldn't see anything but cold and silence and brilliant sun. It was sinking quickly.
I crunched back up the hill over a main bridge, skirting the Museum of Wooden Architecture, easily seen from the outside. This museum held a few living samples of the highly stylized architectural form that had epitomized Suzdal for 250 years. "What inexhaustible creative imagination went into all these structures!" exclaimed my book. I read this line over, marveling at the toy-like town that had overjoyed my scholarly guides enough to elicit their only exclamation point. One chunky church dome looked like Moscow's St. Basil's Cathedral done in black and white. The air was sharp in the dimming daylight. It was time to go.
At five-twenty I went back to the street leading out of town and found a stone bench half-buried in the snow kitty-corner from where the taxi van had stopped a couple of hours before. I tapped my numb fingers against my coat, not at all sure that this was a bus stop of any kind. I gave myself twenty minutes. That's how long I'd wait before walking the mile to the bus station.
Several times I argued silently: why didn't I just ask someone if this was where the taxi van stopped? But I knew why. I wanted to feel, not just act, as if I'd been catching busses in the Russian countryside all my life. I needed to prove to myself that my fears were unfounded, that the #2 taxi van would come, and it would stop to pick me up, and I'd pay my five rubles, and I'd get dropped off at the bus station, and from there catch a bus to Vladimir. Simple. I mistrusted my need for certainty and refused to indulge my urge to ask. How could I ever expect this country to accept me as one of its own-one of its lost children whose father had left for exile in the West and whose immediate relatives were sundered by the impassable crevasse of language—if I had to know?
Ten minutes. My feet were still numb. While I stood, worrying about the Schrödinger possibilities of the taxi van's arrival, I peered all around me through eyelashes so cold they refrigerated my eyes when I blinked. A man with a creased face and a tall fur hat stared at me. I imagined asking him where to get the taxi van to the bus station. "Dyevushka," he'd say on hearing my American accent, "what are you doing here, alone?" I stayed mute.
The sun sank lower. Three women in shedding fur coats and wool boots chatted nearby. Schoolboys passed the bus stop and turned to walk along the river. It was near sunset. After fifteen minutes, the yellow van with a '2' in the window turned down my road. I stepped to the curb and flapped out a hand. The driver stopped. I got in, paid my five rubles, and caught the next bus to Vladimir. A collection of small stuffed animals hung, tied from their heads, across the ceiling of the bus. They bounced in time with the potholes and frost heaves.
As the bus entered an empty landscape, the blue dome of a church flashed above the trees. The sunlight, hitting the horizon clouds, spread over the white fields. My face was windburnt.
The next day I had to get back to steaming, screeching Moscow. I asked for the next train. Not until two. I walked up to the bus station with a plastic-wrapped cheese pastry in my pocket. The next bus was in half an hour. Was I in the right place? Was this the bus to Moscow? Was I certain? I waited next to the platform with gold-toothed people in wool boots. They chatted together about their cats and children and took no notice of me, dyevushka, still waiting to belong, alone in the cold.
Antonia Malchik has written essays and articles for Aeon, The Atlantic, Orion, High Country News, and a variety of other publications. She wrote for the Perceptive Travel blog for four years. Her first book, A Walking Life, about the past and future of walking's role in our humanity, is now available. She lives in northwest Montana.
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