My Moscow friend, fellow dissertator, and all around potty-mouth, Brigid has started a blog, Laughter in the Dark, all about her research travels. Her first post about her train ride from St. Petersburg to Smolensk is a must read. Here is an excerpt:
Over the next five hours, I would learn that the old man was 85 years old, a WWII veteran who had fought in the battle of Stalingrad, a man who still pined for Lenin (though not for Stalin), a devout atheist, and a living repository of Soviet history. None of us ever learned his name; the other men just referred to him as “grandfather.” Volodia, from Nizhnii Novgorod, was quiet in the face of his conversational competitors, and proved (for now) the least uppity in our bunch. He was traveling to Smolensk to meet a colleague and loved to watch birds from his country home on the Volga. That – and practice his English in a random chance encounter with an American. The third, Alexsei, was a true character who regaled us all with stories of his times in Israel, New York, Germany, and of course, Russia. For five and a half hours, Aleksei and “grandfather” argued tax reform, food preservatives, the holocaust, America, and the Bible (“Who wrote it?” grandfather asked. “I was twenty-five years old before I ever saw an icon, and I can’t say that I’ve ever read a line of the Bible. I don’t understand it. In our house, we had a portrait of Lenin.”) I was dragged into conversation on a number of accounts, and at one point, “grandfather” declared that he was converting to vegetarianism on account of the testimony of my “pretty face.” I was also dragged into drinking cognac and into answering on behalf of my country for what they referred to as all the “revolutions” that George Bush is trying to buy with American money in former Soviet space. In the usual turn of events, none of my comrades could begin to understand how my husband would “allow” me to travel in Russia (or anywhere, presumably) alone. In the usual turn of events, my dissertation topic provoked shock, awe, confusion, and serious doubts (although Volodia was thoroughly supportive of it). In an unusual turn of events, I returned from the restroom at one point only to hear from Aleksei that in my absence they had decided I was a spy. Grandfather quickly informed me: “I don’t think you’re a spy, and told these two just that, so don’t look at me.” Aleksei had an extra sprinkle of mischief in his eyes, and Volodia was looking sheepish and extra shy. I laughed and joked along, “yes, yes, of course I am a spy.” Volodia shifted uncomfortably in his seat.