Saturday, March 20, 2010
When I tell people I have started a blog on modern Russian history, they inevitably ask: “Are you Russian? “ When I say no, they ask: “Well, have you been to Russia?” The answer to both questions is no. I have no natural or biological connection to Russia or any of the countries that made up the Soviet Union. I don’t even speak a word of the language. It’s an arbitrary fixation which, to my mind, is the best kind of obsession. In fact, I am not always sure I actually desire to go to Russia. How could the actual location live up to the “Coast of Utopia,” to borrow a phrase from Tom Stoppard? And of course I’d be better off not going if the cost of a ticket alone is $2000 or so. When it comes to travel, Mexico fits my budget.
This is how I used to think before Russia came to me. That’s right, this author filled out a simple three-page form a couple of months ago (and did so last year as well) and I’ve just now been informed that I will likely be heading to Russia in May 2011. I’m stunned. More shockingly, a Russian visitor may be staying with my family as early as October 2010. This is not a drill: if all goes well, I may be schlepping a Russian faculty member or administrator around Chicago in the fairly near future.
And how strange to find myself on the way to Russia only a few months after electing to create a blog to track my deepening interest in Russian history? But odder than the fact that I may be headed for Russia (the program still has to find a match in this specific country before I can be more definite), is that I’m not headed to Moscow or St. Petersburg but rather to the heart of Russia and indeed the entire Eurasian landmass apparently, Yekaterinburg.
In the next several days I hope to post something about Yekaterinburg. When I applied, I knew nothing other than the fact that Yekaterinburg was in Siberia and that the czar and his family had been murdered there during the Revolution. It’s not a pleasant association. Since then, I’ve just briefly Googled the place, and it seems that Yekaterinburg is a large city, the third largest in Russia in fact. It’s odd to think that I selected this Siberian city over similar opportunities in Switzerland, Holland, Finland, and England, where the population at large will be much more likely to speak English. After all, who willingly puts himself on a place for 24 hours? And what is there to visit in Yekaterinburg outside of the city itself?
But when else would I ever in my life have the opportunity to visit the heart of Russia? I’m struck dumb with gratitude to my college for sponsoring the journey and looking forward to tracking everything in this blog. But never fear dear reader, if it turns out that they can’t find a match in Russia, I’ll seek out Russian history in one of the other sponsoring countries. In Switzerland, I’ll look for the homes and hotels of Lenin, Solzhenitsyn, Nabokov, and other Russian exiles. I read Conrad’s Under Western Eyes. If in Finland, I’ll journey across the gulf to visit St. Petersburg itself. In London, I’ll spend time in the London Museum, exactly where Marx used to sit, or seek out the place where the Russian social-democrats made mischief. In Holland, I’ll have to settle for looking back a couple of centuries to Peter the Great’s famous visit to learn about the shipbuilding trade.