The Journey Continues, Part Two

After a nearly two-year hiatus in my travels to the former Soviet Union, I was able to spend a few weeks in the spring and a couple months in the fall of 1994, both in the safety and comfort of a U.S. embassy staffer’s apartment. These were visits of tremendous emotional turmoil and they ultimately confirmed the doubts I had had previously: I could not live and work in this country. As much as I had affection for these people, I had to admit to myself that their then-present desperate struggles were too much for me to cope with. Period.

Fast forward twenty-two years.... 

On the eve of my sixtieth birthday, I determined that I would start traveling internationally, particularly to places where I might be able to utilize the Russian language. Based on the recommendation of a travel consultant, I decided on the Russian North Caucasus for my first adventure: North Ossetia, Ingushetia, Chechnya, and Dagestan. 

Through the travel agency Untamed Borders I was able to secure a ten-day trip in the fall of 2016. Because this was my first experience in the region, I opted to go alone (not in a group), utilizing the services of a full-time, private guide. Costly, but no matter. It was worth it. My guide, Abdullah, a native to the region, was the consummate professional, maintaining an exact (yet not rigid) schedule. Every day, every moment, was a delight. Indeed, the trip exceeded my expectations mainly because I was able to have significant interactions with the different peoples of the region.

What I slowly realized: the palpable difference between a “Soviet” (even though there is no longer a Soviet Union) and a “Russian” (even though the people in this region are still tied to their individual cultures). It’s difficult to explain this difference, but at its essence is the difference between a person who sees your acquaintanceship as a means to an end, versus a person who is simply grateful for your presence. Not to sound jaded, but based on my experiences in the ‘90s, I arrived expecting to meet “Soviets” and, so, found myself subtly (almost unconsciously) testing the authenticity of those I met. What a remarkable and refreshing difference! Could it be that I had discovered a region with which I resonated?

That remained to be seen. 

Barbara Van Driel