“Russia is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.” - Winston Churchill
Churchill was wrong. Russia is none of those things.
Rather it is a collection of souls, hidden (as the death of the infamous villain of Russian folklore) in the eye of a needle, shelled safely within an egg, stowed in the warm belly of a duck, which slumbers inside a hare's heart, its legs cocked and ready to sprint, and locked safely in an iron chest buried beneath an ancient oak, as if it were the very seed of life itself.
Russia’s expansive landmass and the varieties of her people - their colors and cultures and sufferings and joys - are a reflection of the world: its vastness. Its beauty. Its magnificence. Within her borders we find such a broad sampling of the human condition that we are at once reminded of the differences of each life, and the common struggle to bear it.
Whether gazing down the line of dusty shoes on a Moscow subway car, or upon the faces - dustier yet - to which they belong, one experiences in Russia a sense of humanity, in all its haggard splendor. Their stock-still faces - deeply trenched by lines of having lived, having struggled, having loved, having lost - seem capable of enduring anything.
It is here, in the tumult of the train, that I find the meaning of what Russia is: the endurance of life.
It can be felt, too, along a country road lined with birch trees like matchsticks stuck in the mud and old babushkas in rags selling watermelons, or in the face of a cashier in a lonely country store, half-hidden behind a curtain of dried fish like torn leather shoes strung along the wall. Or in the many groups of old men staring across the city from the stoops of their soviet apartment buildings, gray and nameless, yet immense and awe-inspiring, columns supporting clouds, facades abandoned to equity.
It is a place in which so many people sway back and forth across that delicate line of living and surviving.
Russia is my family, my second home. My wife, a lovely Svetlana, brought me into her family and I was instantly absorbed, loved without question, without expectation but to love them back.
Yet in the early days of my first visit to Moscow, I felt that Russians lived without smiles. Their faces seemed etched in stone, as if armor worn to protect themselves against the bitterness of life. I now know how shallow my first impressions were.
Because these hard, statuesque faces, perched on calloused feet that have walked so many bitter miles, harbor an unbelievable smile, matched in expanse by only the breadth of their motherland. Though it may be reserved for their closest of friends and family, or hidden away until they reach the comfort and safety of their dachas, it exists. Yet even when their lips are drawn taut and straight across their faces’ tired skin, the warmth of their affection and generosity still sweetens the air.
I have experienced Russia like I have experienced life; it is woven around me as if a shawl of the softest wool. I can feel its breath, but never understand it, never know from what it was made, or why it exists. It grows before me, a firework erupting in the night sky. As soon as I see its shape, it is swallowed by darkness; only a vague shadow remains etched in my eye until another explodes and brightly takes its place.
Americans look upon Russians as Russians look upon us, seeing our strife mirrored in a slightly different tone of skin, expressed in an unfamiliar tongue. Like a dog barking at its own reflection, we treat it as stranger, our teeth too often bared.
That is why Americans will always see Russia as an enigma. It is not the people nor the culture which we find inexplicable, but the struggle itself. For to understand Russia would require that we understand ourselves: why our skin exists to be touched, our lips to be kissed, our bodies to be held…why the aromas of the world are at once sweet and rotten.
If we ever unravel the riddle of Russia, we will surely find that we are stitched to the very same quilt - strung in the very same tapestry - as the Russians, as all the world. But until then, we will continue to string our own tapestries and weave our own quilts, thinking, as the world narrowly does, that ours is more perfect than theirs.
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