A Dirt Road

The idea of a dirt road for most of us here in America is one filled with folky images of peaceful strolls among pleasant country scenes. On a still Sunday morning, August 4, 1991, this image of the dirt road dramatically shifted for me. No longer would it represent an idyllic country setting—daffodils blooming on the side of the road, golden stalks swaying in the breeze—but rather an image of desolation and despair.

Approximately twenty miles outside of Moscow, there stood a little village of seven thousand. The group with which I was traveling had arranged a visit there in order to worship with the believers at the local church. Having arrived early, I took the opportunity to take a small walk. Still within sight of the church, I crossed paths with a slender, middle-aged man in workers’ clothes. I made a small gesture of greeting and, surprisingly, he responded by stopping dead in his tracks. Normally, Soviets wouldn’t bother to even look in your direction, yet this man seemed somewhat anxious to show me something. Remember, I was an American who spoke Russian, and that certainly caught his attention. For sure.

Oleg was an engineer who commuted to Moscow by bus for work. In fact, that was where he was headed before we crossed paths. But now he seemed determined to “educate” me on the conditions of village life. He was a sullen man with a harshness to his approach, a bitterness in his speech, and an evident disdain for the Soviet regime. This would be no usual sightseeing tour. 

As we walked quickly toward the center of the village, he dared to rant about the people in his town, their struggle, their opinions on President Gorbachev, and the general conditions in which they lived. Such outspokenness was normally very risky, but no doubt because I was an American and we were on a dusty road (no KGB listening) Oleg took a chance to vent his anger.

After walking for several minutes, we came upon the local grocery store, which, unbeknownst to me, was where Oleg had intended to take me from the outset. He swung open the rickety door and ushered me into the small building. Immediately, the utter desolation of the place hit me full force: not a single food item on any shelf. Empty. I was dumbstruck. I actually did not know what to say to Oleg. But Oleg wasn’t finished. He walked me over to the counter and pointed to the few remaining bottles of vodka that constituted the entire supply of the store. Every good citizen received one bottle of vodka a month. Present your chit and get fifth.

“You go back to America and you tell them what you see,” Oleg bitterly spat. “You tell them what communism’s brought us.”

There were no platitudes that I could offer this man, and I left the store in silence. With a heavy heart I made my way back to the small church via the dirt road, thinking all the while about the contrast between hope and despair, bounty and poverty. How dismal the road looked now!

My time at the church with the believers (underground Christians) was another glimpse into the heroic nature of the people. Such devotion, such joy, in the midst of such desolation. That remnant of hope they held onto was a true life lesson for this naïve American woman.

Barbara Van Driel