To Russia, with trepidation: Tales from the Wild East

Much ado has been made by visiting journalists from around the world about the conditions in Sochi. Despite $51 billion spent on the Olympic Games so far,  journalists have reported an array of bewildering sights: from stray dogs at every corner to open manhole covers to bizarre (and unsanitary) bathrooms. (Not to mention the political fallout of Russia’s recent actions.) Many have, in 21st-century style, live-tweeted their woes, expressing varying degrees of humor, shock and concern.

But for me, the images and laments feel mostly, well … familiar.

I’ve spent 14 months in the former Soviet Union, visiting Russia, Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova under various auspices (a State Department language program, a summer working for the Avi Chai Foundation in Russia, a summer at the Odessa Jewish Museum and a 10-month Fulbright grant in Kyiv that took me all over the region). By this point, horror stories of stray dogs, aberrant toilets and municipal nightmarishness are second nature, just part of the often surreal yet glorious nature of travel in what I like to call “The Wild East.” I don’t want to seem like an ignorant American, lumping all Eastern European countries in with Russia (and implying that Russia is a monolith, despite its myriad ethnolinguistic groups). Nonetheless, despite the vast cultural, social and linguistic differences between post-Soviet countries, there are some disconcerting commonalities where empire has left its mark.

And that mostly means that it’s hard to get around without getting your hands (and/or ankles) dirty.

So in honor of the Sochi Olympics, I am sharing some of my best, worst FSU bathroom-and-stray animal stories.

TOILETS:

Aboveground sewage pipes in Balti, Moldova. (Talia Lavin)

Aboveground sewage pipes in Balti, Moldova. (Talia Lavin)

 

In a popular restaurant chain in Kyiv, an adorably mistranslated sign in the bathroom encouraged visitors to “flush your hygiene down the toilet.”

Most public places in the FSU, especially train stations, have squat toilets. Given that roughly 3/4 of the year I was there was winter, this involved a lot of torturous squatting in huge winter boots, hoping not to drag my coat in the squalid stall-muck. I’ve also used holes in the ground and reeking outhouses in rural Russia, as well as cement pits and so on.

ANIMALS:

Two stray dogs the author became acquainted with in rural Ukraine, 2012. (Talia Lavin)

Two stray dogs the author became acquainted with in rural Ukraine, 2012. (Talia Lavin)

In the former Soviet Union, stray dogs are everywhere.

I remember them literally tailing me home in the central Russian city of Kazan when I was there for two months in the summer of 2010.  Big packs of them padded confidently through the hot streets, past tiny trashcans that always (always) seemed to be on fire.

I remember taking a minibus through Ukraine last year, stopping in some godforsaken tiny town on a day trip to a castle, and seeing a three-legged dog hopping miserably through knee-high snow. When we arrived at the castle, a forlorn stray followed us up to the castle gate.

A snarling pack of wild dogs once cornered me next to an abandoned electric plant in the same park that housed Babi Yar. I ran away screaming. This was a five minutes’ walk from my apartment.

I also vividly recall dining in a restaurant in which live chickens gamboled in a chicken coop in the center of the floor, in Southwestern Ukraine.

In a stiflingly hot cruise down the Volga in a boat built circa 1970, I looked behind me at the broad, endless, glimmering river—only to notice that a good bit of the glimmer was made up of the corpses of dead fish bobbing in our wake.

While registering for long-term residence in Ukraine, I had to spend an inordinate amount of time in a local government office.  The lights flickered, and there was always a line of 15-40 people waiting to address the pinch-faced women that sat behind tiny windows. One day, waiting with my fat folder of documents, I looked down and saw a stray dog waiting calmly behind two babushkas, as if for a residence application of his own.

About 20 minutes later he padded out. No one said a word.

 

Russia is a place where a fun field trip will be to the house where an exiled poet killed herself. Or to Stalin’s nuclear-war bunker.

And yet… I miss it terribly. There is something almost mystical about life in the former Soviet Union, disasters and all. Something romantic about ancient kremlins in still-more-ancient cities; about steppeland; about hot summers and colder winters, about watching your neighbors drag their potatoes (and children) home on sleds come January. There is a kind of humor where you have to laugh if you don’t want to cry. There is an instant camaraderie among fellow Americans who have trodden these strange paths. There is the sound of the Volga when you lie staring out your porthole all night and the feel of the Don on your naked shoulders.  There is the way the land, in city and country, is pitted and marked and re-marked by millennia of history.

So yes… Russia has its problems. But if I got a ticket, and a half-reasonable excuse, I would be on a plane tomorrow.

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