Why I Went to Russia

I grew up in what I have come to learn might have been the last “Cold War” community in America.  My elementary school had fire drills.  We had tornado drills.  We even had nuclear bomb drills.  Seriously.  I can remember being in my classroom and crawling under my desk to prepare for the pending nuclear fallout.  We read Weekly Readers each Friday, full of stories about how the Russians wanted to destroy America, and had long conversations lead by our teachers that reinforced these ideas.  We were even told that out of all the strategic targets in the continental United States, my tiny little city in the Southeast was #3 on the Russian most wanted list.  I didn’t question the logic behind it, or where such a statistic came from.  It, and the U.S.S.R. simply terrified me.  I didn’t grow up in the 1950s, but rather the 1980s.

By the time I was well into middle school, words like “perestroika” and “glastnost” were being used regularly, and I somehow sensed that something was afoot in world affairs.  It was also about this time that I began to actually learn something about Russian history and what exactly Communism was.  As with most things, as I learned about it, the fear began to disappear, and instead it was replaced by intrigue.  I was surprised to learn that Russia hadn’t always been a communist nation, and that Communism, in theory, was a great thing, but one that could never actually work.  Then, in the eighth grade, I learned the most amazing thing my young brain had ever had to comprehend.  Lenin was still around.  Yes, Vladimir Illyanavich Lenin, the founder of the communist party in Russia, the man who largely gave rise to the entire Cold War, the man who had made my  neck ache from hunching down under my tiny elementary school desk, had been embalmed (a.k.a. stuffed) and put on display in Moscow.

I knew I had to go.

How exactly a twelve year old would get himself to the other side of the globe, and inside a communist country was a mystery to me.  My parents, who at that time had never left the U.S. were no help, and the money in my Mickey Mouse bank wasn’t going to get me there.  This was going to take some time, and when I figured it out, I knew I was going to have to act quickly.  I remembered seeing a young girl on the news in the mid 1980s who had written to the Russian government about her fears of nuclear war and they invited her to come to Russia.  I considered writing a letter, as well, but by this point the Germans were reuniting, and the Communist economies all over Eastern Europe were falling apart.  I figured that picking up a plane ticket for a kid from Alabama who wanted to see a stuffed dead guy, wouldn’t be high on anybody’s priority list.

Things began to turn around during my sophomore year.  That was when I learned of a program that Alabama took part in called“People To People.”  The program was started in the 1950s by President Eisenhower as an exchange program between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R.  During the summers young people from each country would travel between the two countries for roughly a month, traveling through the countries and visiting with local families to see “how the other half” lived.  A girl from my school was selected to be a part of the program, and I knew that the next year I was going to do whatever was necessary to go.

My junior year, I found out how to apply, and did so.  Then I went in for an interview, and eventually I was selected.  That was followed by a series of meetings and a week long orientation to prepare for traveling in a country that was very different from the U.S.

We landed in Russia in June, and it was admittedly, a culture shock.  The people looked different, and the way they dressed, was downright odd judging  from an American perspective.  It was as though every decade of the twentieth century was represented on the same street – often all on one person.  I have a photo of a woman with large black sunglasses, a pink t-shirt that says “Radical!” while wearing gold leopard print pants and a kerchief tied around her head. The visits to people’s homes were even more bizarre.  However, I didn’t lose sight of what my goal was – Lenin.

Eventually our group made it’s way to Moscow, and then into Red Square.  We were allowed to wander around for a couple of hours, and while some went to see St. Basil’s Cathedral, or other to the GUM Department Store, I marched right to the low, flat, red and black marble building that contained Lenin.  It’s a strange processional, entering the mausoleum.  No bags are allowed, and no smiles, no sudden movements, no stopping, and no moving your hands from your sides.  I waited in a long  line that moved quickly and constantly.  At the doors two guards with machine guns looking particularly dower, peered from under their hats as we walked by.  Then came the steps.  As soon as we walked in we turned to the left and began winding downwards.  Ten steps down to a landing, a turn to the right, and another ten steps.  I have no idea how deep under Red Square we actually went.  I was too busy being intimidated by the two guards with machine guns on each landing that seemed to look more and more dangerous (and more and more eager for us to break one of the rules so he could actually  use the machine guns) as we burrowed downward.

We climbed down the last set of steps and entered a black marbled room, lit only with soft pink tinted light.  Guards stood in each corner, again guns in hand, and ready to go.  In the center, though, was the man of the hour.  The man I had come to see.  Lenin was in glass coffin, surrounded by hundreds of flowers of every variety.  The room smelled sickeningly sweet.  It was so overwhelming that my first thought was that they were trying to cover up the smell of something else.  Body odor of the visitors?  Perhaps death itself?  In the orientation prior to our departure, I learned that after Stalin had died, he was buried in a joint coffin with Lenin, but that after he fell out of favor due to killing oh, roughly 50 million Russians, he was pulled out and buried behind Lenin’s mausoleum.  Months after his removal though, the tomb was closed temporarily and no reason was ever given.  Some say Lenin’s coffin wasn’t sealed properly and he started to deteriorate, while other conspiracy minded folks argue that it isn’t even Lenin at all in the tomb anymore.  Either way, I couldn’t take my eyes off of the body laying out before me, harshly lit with a pink light shining down onto his face.  The color of his skin was distorted, but it looked human, and it looked, to me, that it was Lenin, and that I was looking down at the man who possibly did more to shape an entire century than any other person. I literally felt myself go weak in the knees.

As the reality of that began to take hold, I couldn’t stop moving as the line had moved forward, and quickly, I was climbing up the steps on the right side of the building, past more guards, away from the pink lights, and dissipating smell of flowers.  When I reemerged from underground, I walked around Red Square and ventured through St. Basils and the GUM like everyone else, but I knew that I had achieved my purpose.  I had come to Russia and I had meet Lenin.

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3 Comments on “Why I Went to Russia”

  1. November 13, 2012 at 8:54 am #

    Great story. I admire your persistance, myself I am too lazy to brave such long lines. I did get to see Uncle Ho in Hanoi, but the line was much shorter.

    • November 16, 2012 at 3:31 am #

      Thanks! I tried Mao, but he was closed the day I was there. I like your blog too!

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