FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE: Standing on Common Ground
A mammoth sculpture in Magadan by Yuri Rudenko.
In 1947, after the Iron Curtain was placed between the East and West and the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the United States had begun, the American novelist John Steinbeck had an idea that struck his fellow citizens as crazy. He wanted to meet the Russian people and report on his discoveries with his usual grace, candor, and observational skills. Both countries granted him permission, and before long he and photographer Robert Capa set off for war-torn Russia to see whatever it is they could see.
One must remember that this was in the time of Stalin, so although the novelist/reporter witnessed plenty, there was a great deal he certainly did not see. Steinbeck was amused that while the camera of his traveling companion definitely raised the eyebrows of the censors, nobody could ever restrict the mind or thoughts of the observer. “In the papers (at home) every day,” Steinbeck noted, “there were thousands of words about Russia,” and yet, he continued, “there were some things that nobody wrote about Russia, and these were the things that interested us most of all.”
The documented experiences resulted in A Russian Journal, which I brought with me to this vast and complicated land some 60 years after it was written. In four weeks of traveling through Russia, I agree with Steinbeck wholeheartedly that, just as in America, the politics and the people are two different things.
Both Russians and Americans have a certain pride in our respective nations, and we both seem to believe a lot of rumors about each other that are not based in fact, fed to us by years of media that more often than not is filtered through opinion rather than reality. When I first landed in Russia, I was quick to notice the differences, which is common when visiting a foreign place. As time moved on, I began to notice more of the similarities. I tried not to judge something as wrong, but rather just different. If you truly consider what the Russian people went through under dictatorial tyrants such as Stalin, you can understand where their joy and perseverance through everyday difficulties comes from. Today, I find a hearty nation with lots of laughter and a passion for art, poetry, and rock and roll.
That said, some of the differences in bureaucracy did wear thin after standing in so many lines, for example, to sort out what was to happen with my guitar when getting on an airplane. After 18 flights total, 14 of them within Russia’s borders, I could write a whole guide book on the ins and outs of Russian air travel. The only consistency is that it is inconsistent, with certain regulations being applied from region to region. Security clearance and baggage claim was orderly and civil in some parts, and more like a stampede in others. It should be noted that standing in a line is a grand Russian tradition, but sometimes they simply will not stand in a line and just go right in front of you to take care of whatever business it is that they need to take care of. Eventually, you get the hang of this and begin to do the same.
The Cold War is long over and fortunately the remnants of mutual suspicion have mostly been replaced by inquisitive curiosity in the younger generations. In all of the English language clubs I visited as part of my work with the Forum for Cultural Engagement, the main questions were about how I first started to play music or what my family life was like growing up. Next, depending on the average age of the club, they would either ask me what I thought of Russian people or what I thought of Billie Eilish.
Welcome to the Wild East
The Wild East, as they call it, lives up to its reputation. I started in Yakutsk, which is a mining town with a heavy population of Indigenous people. Yakutia itself is a culture all its own, with the remnants of Native dress and Shamanic rituals present everywhere. I felt like I was in a completely new country, with perhaps more of an Asian flavor than the rest of Russia. However, a statue of Lenin still stands in the main square, as one does in every town I’ve been to. The locals presented me with a horsehair wand to ward off evil spirits, and I have placed it in my guitar case for the remainder of the journey.
Down the only road east a few thousand kilometers is the mining town of Magadan, mostly known for the many infamous forced labor camps once located there that figured heavily in Stalin’s Gulag system. Today, it remains a rarely visited and difficult-to-get-to destination, most certainly far off the beaten tourist path. The gold mines are still quite active, and bears have been known to wander the city streets, but there is also a university and quite a bustling population based around the fishing and mining economy.
In Magadan I also visited the Mask of Sorrow, a massive, famous sculpture by Ernst Neizvestny that commemorates all those who suffered and died in the labor camps. Poets, writers, artists, scientists — anyone who went against the party line. The original prisoners were brought to town after a long train ride across Russia to Vladivostok, followed by a long boat ride to Nagaevo Bay, where they would then be sent to various camps. I also visited the statue of Vladimir Vysotsky, the “Russian Bob Dylan,” who died very young and is beloved by his country. The airport in Magadan is named after him, and my experiences with getting my guitar on board at this airport shall possibly be detailed in another essay titled “War and Pieces of My Sanity.”
South of there is Khabarovsk, a beautiful town of 600,000 people settled by Cossacks and today populated by university students and an active arts and culture scene. The World War II memorial there rivaled the scope of any I’ve ever seen, with the names of all of the townspeople who perished engraved in tall stone walls and pillars with an eternal flame burning.
Vladivostok is often referred to as the San Francisco of Russia, with its hilly terrain and seemingly random city planning. The airport there is very modern and it has more of an international feel than other eastern cities. I really enjoyed this port town and look forward to returning someday to take up the offers I got of fishing and recording.
In Conclusion, Gratitude
As of this writing, I have been in Russia just under four weeks. Because of the amount of information and sights taken in plus lengthy and arduous traveling days, it feels a lot longer. But I do think I’ve been here long enough to get a reasonable feel for the complexity of the people. With over 16,000 miles traveled inside Russia itself, I am nearing the end of my journey here in Vladivostok, a mere 85 miles from the North Korean border. Here I will give two speeches to the local English language schools, do press interviews, and play a gig at a local club.
I have seen so much territory and had so many discussions about culture, art, film, and food. I have been asked all manner of questions and told numerous stories. I have done my best to keep notes and write down my thoughts and observations, which are of course swirling in these last days of the journey. It has truly been the trip of a lifetime, and I remain grateful for the opportunity to earn a living doing what I love to do best: travel and play music, this time with a diplomatic twist. Thanks to my many Russian hosts and American foreign service workers who helped make this journey possible.
There is no way to summarize an entire culture in such a short visit, but I do know now that I am definitely more of the “pick one cool place and chill” kind of traveler than the “must see everything everywhere” type. The Russians have been through a lot, and they are not prone to complaining about the kinds of things that might derail the mood of your average American. Any way you cut it, we have more in common than not.
In regard to the elephants in the room that are our presidents, a subject I have managed to dodge for this entire column, let’s just say that most Russians were polite enough to not bring that up. To the few journalists who did, I spoke only truths — that I was not on a political mission, but only here to sing my songs and the songs of my American folk heroes and simply entertain the Russian people. To you readers in America, Russia, and all over the world, I will say this: I wish all of you and your families peace of mind.
I will turn in this fourth and final installment of the From Russia with Love column to No Depression, get some much needed sleep, then fly all day back to Moscow and take a three-hour drive to Yaroslavl to play my last two shows at the American Festival happening there. Then it’s back to Nashville via New York. I’d like to say I am at last cured of my wanderlust, but we all know that’s not true. I’ll hang my hat in Tennessee for a spell until a new journey comes calling. I definitely look forward to returning to Russia again someday.
Singer-songwriter Tim Easton has been visiting and playing music in Russia for the last month with the Forum for Cultural Engagement, in conjunction with the US State Department. This is the last of four weekly dispatches for No Depression on the people he meets, the music he hears, and the things he learns along the way. You can read his earlier columns here.