The Journey Continues, Part One

Although my first trip to the now-former Soviet Union had had a less than encouraging impression on me, I was still curious to investigate further what was going on in that foreign place and where I might fit in. 

Why I felt so called to be in Russia is cumbersome to put into words. But it started when I began my Russian studies in ’85 under the tutelage of Soviet expatriates who had had to flee the Soviet Union in order to save their lives. Each of my teachers had a unique perspective on their former life, and this was communicated to us directly in what they depicted of their struggles, but, more importantly, indirectly, in howthey conveyed their struggles — the depth of their understanding of the human condition, their subtle observations of others’ actions and motivations. In short, there was a gravitas to their bearing and thinking that was incredibly appealing to me, a young American woman who was looking for a fertile land of meaning in the desert of detachment and superficiality that characterized the United States. 

My second trip, in January ’92, arranged by the same travel agent as the first, landed me in Minsk, Belarus. The travel agent had organized a medical mission trip, and I was invited along to help translate for them. The week and a half that I spent in the hospital with the staff and patients was very rewarding, and I felt my presence made a real contribution. 

After that time, I was invited to stay on with some acquaintances that I had made on my first trip. Now, however, outside the protection of westernized amenities (e.g. hotel, bottled water, clean food), I was thrust into the real Russia — the Russia without running water — and it left me sick, literally. There was a point at which I didn’t even know if I would survive, as I was ravaged by food poisoning.

In the midst of this, my sentimental thoughts of Russia returned to me from years earlier. But now I had a few questions: Did I really want to participate in the suffering of these people? How far was I willing to go to discover how these people lived? Could I, an American woman, even contemplate forfeiting the common everyday conveniences? Unlikely. The Russia I had experienced through my teachers and through my reading was a Russia removed by the convenience of imagination. I now had to confront the real Russia — and myself.

Barbara Van Driel