I’m back in Tallinn, after an early morning train. This time I was sharing my little cabin with a woman who was asleep and snoring slightly when I crept in, the Conductrice shhhhing me gently with her fingers. I listened to a podcast about the Romanovs, half asleep, until we got to the Russian border, when the attendant came and woke us up. My cabin mate sprang up, changed out of her pyjamas, put on some lipstick and spoke to me in English. She was a breeder and shower of St. Bernards, on her way to a dog show in Narva. Her five dogs were in a car with a handler. Her sister lives in Houston. She was a builder of apartments the rest of the time.
I was glad for the chance to chat with someone random before I left Russia. Now that I’m officially “on my way home” (I fly back to Canada tomorrow morning), I’ve been musing on what the whirlwind trip to Russia “meant.” Curiosity, mostly, and a chance to see the Famous Things of the World — but also, a bit, engaging with the nervousness I have around certain places. I alluded to this yesterday, and I was trying to articulate the source of it. There are places where I feel a certain kind of confidence, where I know “how to do it” — places that are easy to navigate for Canadians, like Western Europe and SE Asia. And now, because of familiarity, East Africa. Even when there is real potential “danger,” like in the DRC, I’m still confident about how to navigate them. But there are places that make me more anxious, and Russia is one of them.
Part of it is the uncertainty about how much of the prevailing public temperature about places is genuinely a concern or not — how likely IS It that my devices will be hacked and my identity stolen? That I’ll stumble across some mafia deal gone wrong and end up murdered in a Russian sauna? Not very. But part of it is not knowing what channel of recourse there is if something goes badly, and part of it is simply the risk of difficult interactions because of language.
But even with those things, there’s a huge gulf between genuine alarm and what really happens. I actually get lost a fair bit in cities with different alphabets, but so far, I’ve always found my way home, even that time in Mandalay when no one knew my hotel. (Somehow, magically, in the dark, I ended up on the back of someone’s motorcycle pulling up to my hotel). I used to get very very anxious in foreign cities when we couldn’t find cabs to get home late at night (ask my poor ex about the two spectacular meltdowns in San Francisco and London), but now, I just assume I’ll find my way. I couldn’t find my pickup from the train at midnight on Wednesday; I just made sure I got rubles from the ATM before I left the station (always have local cash before you leave the airport or station), and found a taxi. I was fine.
I think Russia represented something more than basic travel discomfort, though, something about, in a way, confronting the rise of “otherness” that has emerged in the world. I hinted at this with my jokes on FB about how the gilt-dipped baroque palaces of the Romanovs seemed to be the model for Trump’s decor and his view of the world. It was a joke, but it wasn’t — there really is something nested in the space of venal excess about a worldview where the acquisition of money and power are the end in and of themselves, where displays of that money and power stand in for virtue, where might reigns supreme and the suffering of so many as a result doesn’t matter. Where, in fact, those who suffer deserve to, because they haven’t demonstrated that they are as “deserving” — i.e capable of strong-arming others.
Like so many people I know, when I let myself think about it, I’m absolutely distraught about the current state of the world, the brutality, the misogyny, the homophobia, the privileging of wealth and might. Learning more about the history of Estonia — 800 years of other powers taking over its land — Sweden, the Danes, Prussians, Germans, Russians, Soviets, more Germans, more Russians — was like nodding along to a long-repeated story. This tiny country continually invaded, seized, for access to its ports and routes to Russia, with no regard for its people. In one of the museums of Estonian history I visited, there was a little video that had little figures of the population of Estonia going up and down as different powers converted them, slaughtered them, made them flee.
I think I partly wanted to visit Russia at this moment in history to confront a little bit all of my unease at the apparently intractable divide that is getting stronger and stronger in our world. It was a welcome coincidence that it was my (late) mentor’s birthday while I was in St. Petersburg; as Linda and I said in text, what would Barnett make of Trump, of the Putin/Trump alliance, of the complete breakdown of cosmopolitan communication, any space for bringing opposing viewpoints about what constitutes good in the world together. I wanted to reduce my personal “othering” of Russia.
I got the gift of the perfect person to help me do this in the guide I hired to take me to Pushkin and Peterhof yesterday. I splurged on a driver and personal guide for the summer palaces at the encouragement of my friend Pamela, thinking it would be really good to actually have someone to talk to about everything I was experiencing. I was lucky enough to end up with a guide (who I won’t name) who was perfect for me — she said how much she appreciated that I could walk, and fast like her, so we covered all of the fountains in the lower park of the Grand Palace, and we talked about how we both love to travel, and don’t get bored with our own company. And later in the day, she opened up about her unhappiness at the regime, and how much her son hates Putin, and how although he is a brilliant student, she is afraid he will be barred from university because he’s actively protesting.
If I lived in St Petersburg, she would become my friend, and we would march briskly through the streets together. She gave me a hug at the end of the tour. But she gave me a lot more than that — she gave me a face, a name, a story, a son, to recognize that the world that feels full of animosity is filled with people I care about.