Friday, May 4, 2012

Getting ready for Russia

How does one “get ready for Russia”? A country so vast, so extreme; a culture so different from ours, so mysterious; a history so tortured. Going as a tourist—the identity my passport assigns me—seems casually inappropriate. Russia demands to be taken seriously, even if the visit is only for 11 days.
Let me backtrack. The Board of Global Outreach of Northwest Yearly Meeting has invited Hal and me to go to Russia to visit Johan and Judy Maurer. They are not only “Friends Serving Abroad” (the board’s new term), they are our good friends. We look forward to spending time with them and getting to know their fascinating context. Russia.
I’ve been fascinated by Russia ever since I discovered Tolstoy’s War and Peace in high school. It’s probably my all-time favorite novel, one I still come back to every few years. To Tolstoy I’ve added Dostoyevsky, Pasternak, Solzhenitsyn and others. With all their differences, similar threads—usually in the darker colors—run through their works, weaving a tapestry that portrays a vast panorama, as well as an array of the details of human life, suffering, joys and dreams.
My vision of Russia may be overly romantic, so I’m trying to get ready by reading some books recommended by Johan.
A Long Walk to Church: A Contemporary History of Russian Orthodoxy (Nathaniel Davis) focuses on the years following World War II, detailing the persecution and survival of the church. Adding to that perspective, last night Hal and I watched the Russian film, “Repentance,” that also portrays the persecution of the church (among other dark themes). The ending scene is classic. An old woman walking through a town stops and asks another woman if the road she’s on leads to a church. On learning that it doesn’t, she scowls and replies, “What good is a road if it doesn’t lead to a church?” The old woman then turns and continues walking down the road alone. The film ends.
How Russia Really Works: The Informal Practices that Shaped Post-Soviet Politics and Business (Alena V. Ledeneva) has given me the sense that my many years living in Latin America provide part of my preparation for Russia. The author argues that “informal practices constitute generic responses to structural pressures in all societies,” and then goes on to flesh this out in contemporary Russia. When I read that the trust in personalized networks weakens “forms of generalized trust and trust in impersonal institutions, necessary for effective workings of politics, business, and civil society,” I see more similarities. One of my favorite lines is the author’s translation of a popular Russian saying: “the rigidity of our laws is compensated for by their nonobservance.”
Finally, Echoes of a Native Land: Two Centuries of a Russian Village (Serge Schmemann) chronicles how the traumatic upheavals in Russia’s history have affected one village and the individual lives of her people. That’s a lot of reading, and I admit that I skimmed many of the details, trying to get a feel for the writers’ main points.
I’m also re-reading two old favorites. It’s been so long since I read Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov that, while the characters are familiar, much of the plot seems new. I’m also in the middle of one of my favorite books in Christian spirituality, Henri Nouwen’s The Return of the Prodigal Son. I’m re-reading this book because our trip plans include a day in The Hermitage museum in St. Petersburg where Rembrandt’s painting rests. Because of Nouwen’s reflections, this painting has already impacted me greatly. I’m hoping to be able to spend time with the Real Thing. While not Russian, it seems fitting that Rembrandt’s works, and this one in particular, find a home in this land. I sense similarities in depth and spiritual texture.
Or is my romantic imagination running amok again?
No, I don’t think it’s possible to get ready for Russia. I’m doing what I can. And I’m open for surprise.

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