Night Train To St. Petersburg
Well, I’m off. The night train to St. Petersburg is pulling out of Moscow’s Leningrad Station as I type this. That’s me getting settled into my cabin. I splurged and bought a bed in a solo cabin. I’ll be waking up just south of St. Petersburg. I would love to go to the restaurant car to order a martini and see if there are any spies about, but I’m too tired. Time to brush teeth, fold out bed, and drift off while the train rocks.
It’s going to be a while before I can figure out what I think of Russia. I am so glad I came here. This country is so deep and wounded and glorious. I think of the final lines from Evgeny Vodolazkin’s novel Laurus:
What kind of people are you? says the merchant Zygfryd. A person heals you, dedicates his whole life to you, and you torture him his whole life. And when he dies, you ties a rope to his feet, drag him, and tears stream down your faces.
You have already been in our land for a year and eight months, answers blacksmith Averky, but have not understood a thing about it.
And do you yourselves understand it? asks Zygfryd.
Do we? The blacksmith mulls that over and looks at Zygfryd. Of course we, too, do not understand.
I did not understand that ending both times I read the novel. I mean, I understood what the author was getting at, but it was poetic and mysterious. Now, after the past few days talking with Russians, I am starting to get it.
When I get to St. Petersburg, Vodolazkin himself will be waiting for me on the train platform. He and his wife live in St. Petersburg. When I was planning this trip, I told him that I would be in his city, and would love to take them to lunch. We have had a friendship by correspondence since I first wrote about Laurus a few years ago. We have hoped that we would one day have the opportunity to meet, either in Russia or America. And now, we would.
Stay in a hotel? he said. Not at all! You’re staying with us. And so, I will spend the next few days with the writer of one of my favorite novels, talking about writing, our shared Orthodox faith, and this great and fearsome country. What a blessing.
My Moscow guide and translator Matthew told me at Leningrad Station something that a fellow American living here said to him: That if you can help it, you don’t go to Russia just once; that you won’t be able to get it out of your head. I can see that. I couldn’t have seen that when I landed here, but after these last days in Moscow, spending time with these beautiful, tragic people, and visiting their sites both sacred and terrible, I know what he means.
Before I forget, let me tell you something I heard last night. I had dinner at the home of a Russian family and their two children, teenagers who have the most impeccable manners. The family made me feel right at home. They’re practicing Orthodox Christians. We talked about Soviet history, and at one point I said I found it hard to understand how anybody ever believed that Bolshevik garbage.
“You want me to tell you why people believed that garbage?” said Valentin, the husband. “I’ll tell you why people believed that garbage.”
Then he launched into a spellbinding discourse on Russian history, going back to the controversial reforms of Patriarch Nikon in the 17th century.
Valentin talked about how close Nikon was to the Tsar, and how ruthlessly the Church and State, which were united, persecuted the Old Believers (Russian Orthodox who resisted Nikon’s reforms). Then he spoke of the imposition of full serfdom in that same century, and the buying and selling of peasants as if they were slaves.
On he went to Peter the Great, telling about how Peter abolished the patriarchate and absorbed the Church fully into the State. And Valentin emphasized how much the aristocratic class under Peter despised ordinary Russians and the Russianness. The poverty and immiseration of the vast peasant class, and the Church’s complicity in their oppression, caused many of the poor to despise the Church. Their ignorance and deprivation made them susceptible to Bolshevik propaganda, he said. “They had the mentality that said that if you just kill all the bad people, goodness will triumph,” said Valentin.
My host’s point was clear: the ruling class for centuries ground the peasantry into the dirt, and the clergy, who ought to have defended the poor, sided with their oppressors. Valentin is no Bolshevik; he is, as I said, a believing Orthodox Christian. He wanted me to understand, though, that Bolshevism didn’t come from nowhere.
As he spoke, I thought about the line in that great book about Father Arseny, the legendary Orthodox priest of the gulags. The story has it that a bunch of prisoners were sitting around the gulag at night, cursing the Bolsheviks, and trying to figure out who was to blame for the accursed revolution. Everybody had a theory. Finally someone asked Father Arseny what he thought. As I recall the story, Father Arseny blamed the clergy for bringing the judgment of the revolution onto Russia.
The priest was making a very Orthodox spiritual point, not a strictly historical one. He was taking responsibility for the failures of his people, the clergy — and by implication, modeling for the prisoners their own duty to take responsibility for the roles their own people had played in this catastrophe.
I want to be very clear: Valentin was in no way justifying the Bolshevik revolution, especially in light of the mass murders the Communists committed, which we had been discussing earlier. However, I think he wanted to help me to understand that nothing is simple in Russia’s history. What kind of people are you? says the merchant Zygfryd…
I’m going to leave you with this 2015 interview I did with Evgeny Vodolazkin.