From Russia, With Love

Russia. The word conjured in my mind the frozen tundra of Siberia, a somewhat romantic trans-Siberian railway, a cold climate, brusque culture, vodka, and terror. I never had the desire to visit Russia, in fact just a few months ago I was looking at the scratch-off world map adorning our friend’s wall in Serbia and internally bemoaning the fact that if we ever had such a map, the huge mass of Russia would forever be covered by unscratched golden foil.

Though I have vague recollections of Russian history from school, my great ignorance on the county has been informed mostly by film (and to be frank, neither my academic nor my cinematic educations on the topic have been particularly positive). Most of the action movies of my youth featured Russians as the enemies. Hollywood has trained me from a young age to fear the grey-green uniforms, the fur caps, the hammer and the sickle.

StBasilsCathedralbwSo when in January our plans to spend our final three months in the Democratic Republic of Congo fell through, and we found ourselves embarking on an unexpected tour to the countries surrounding the Black Sea, it is with some irony that Russia would be on our upcoming itinerary. At first I thought little of it, other than now there would be some major scraping to do on our future scratch-off map.

Our month prior to entry into Russia was spent in Ukraine, which is currently (though unofficially) engaged in war with Russia. I knew little about Ukraine and less about the current war and so my education in that month was somewhat staggering. But what was more unexpected was a mounting anxiety fueled by the fear of others. Before we even arrived in Ukraine, we were counseled to try to obtain our Russian visas before coming to Kiev, as two US citizens applying for entry into Russia from Ukraine would surely raise flags. Our attempt to apply for visas in Bulgaria failed so we found ourselves waiting outside the Russian embassy in Kiev the day after we landed.

Our host had already made several veiled attempts to talk us out of it, but we were determined to at least try, assuming the worst that could happen would be a visa denial and a change in plans. I have had my fair share of embassy and visa experiences, so I was steeling myself for an infuriating and potentially intimidating affair…because if there is anything I know about Russia, it is a place of notorious Soviet bureaucracy and power plays. Would you be surprised if I told you that the process was smooth and enjoyable, replete with an entrance guard whose kind smile contrasted with his huge body swathed in military regalia, and a visa officer who informed us kindly “hey guys, you applied for a two week visa, but I can give you a three year visa for the same price if you’d like.” What?!

In the two intervening weeks before we could collect our passports, we met with many Ukrainians and heard their stories and experiences with the war. Many of them had descriptions like the Hollywood Russia I knew all too well. There were stories of people’s phones being tapped, of Facebook accounts being immediately blocked upon the refusal to turn over video footage from a recent attack, of people on wanted lists disappearing, of video texts documenting a friend’s torture and the warning “if you don’t comply you will be next.” Along with the stories came the ever-present dismay that Russia was the next stop on our itinerary. Next came all the stories about Russian media, how they blame the US and NATO for what is happening in Ukraine, how they document raids and claim they are made by US soldiers, how even relatives in Russia will no longer speak to them, accusing them of being “fascists who have bought the lies of the West.” People did not hesitate to paint us a vivid picture of Russia’s power, and the unmistakable fact that as US citizens coming from Ukraine, we would be watched closely.

StPetersburg

St. Petersburg’s stunning Hermitage and Winter Palace along the bank of the icy Neva River

So by the time we found ourselves back outside the Russian embassy, the security guard’s smile seemed somewhat sinister, and the three-year visa seemed a ploy to make us think they weren’t on to us. Deep inside I was hoping for a denial, in order to give us a good reason not to visit after all. Of course we were accepted, two shiny new visas plastered in our passports.

In absolutely honesty, I am a fearful person. I am afraid, I am anxious, I am a worrier. My mother has always known this about me, and has told me that it is a surprise to her that I am the one of her children who consistently puts herself in uncertain situations. When I am afraid, I get angry. I am miserable to live with because I am irritable and I take it out on those around me. To me, the only thing worse than knowing we were going to Russia was that we couldn’t go that day – that I still had two weeks to mull and imagine and worry myself into a frenzy. The worst part was, I felt trapped. The potential visa denial had been my lifeline, my way out, but now I had only my choices and I didn’t want to go, but I didn’t have a good reason not to (except the mounting fear within).

After a sleepless night of imagining being led away for questioning, being separated from Andrew, being locked in a cell by myself with no way to know what was happening to him, being questioned, tortured, watching Andrew tortured, watching Andrew die…the longer I lay in bed, the more sinister my imaginations grew. The thing about fear is that it feeds on a small kernel of suggestion and runs with it. Fear is irrational, unreasonable, but very real. I got up early that morning with a final attempt to get ourselves out of our impending doom. I emailed a group of friends and family telling them our plans and that I was scared. My hope was that we would have a resounding response of people telling us to listen to the fear and not go.

Of course, what we got was the opposite – a resounding response telling us that living “safe” is not the answer, that love, not fear needs to win, and that we would, in fact, love our time there.

So we went to Russia. Upon arrival in the Moscow airport, I was willing myself to be calm, to not look nervous or suspicious. I cursed the sign above the immigration counters that dictated only one person could approach the windows at a time. Andrew and I would be separated. Sure enough, Andrew was called to a window down the line to the right, a few minutes later, an open window to the left beckoned me. I slid my passport under the window and waited. As I answered questions about where we were going in Russia, the immigration officer to my right flipped a switch and an officer appeared by my side to lead the girl next to me away. My pulse quickened. I waited as the officer in front of me paged through my passport, a slight frown on her face. She then stood up and took my passport to the next booth. “Here we go,” I thought. I glanced down the line to catch Andrew’s eye but he was no longer there. I was on my own. My immigration officer returned, looked through my passport again, and without a word stamped it and slid it back to me. Relief.

iceskating&stBasils

Moscow. It is truly a magical place.

We spent an enjoyable two weeks in Moscow and St. Petersburg, visiting tourist sites, exploring the best of their cafes, and spending time with our Russian hosts.  Moscow charmed us with its wealth of history and stately architecture and our hosts welcomed us warmly with kind hospitality and easy friendship. We strolled its lovely streets, ate great food, visited parks that were beautiful even in winter, and even went ice skating. St Petersburg wooed us with its rivers and canals and its beauty and grandeur. We were immediately enveloped into our hosts’ family life – playing games, talking into the night, and bouncing their sweet baby on our knees. We are not very good at being tourists, but despite ourselves, Russia won our hearts. When I think of Russia now, I see beauty and friendship, rich history and fun memories.

But my fears began to mount again as we neared our departure date. Two days before we were to leave, a prominent opposition leader who was critical of the present government was assassinated. News sources from around the globe decried the event as further proof that the anticipated post-Cold-War alignment between Russia and the West was a shattered dream. Some suggested we are back in the era where those who oppose the regime pay for it with their lives. My sinister imaginations returned. I knew from past experience that in military states, sometimes leaving the country is more difficult than entering.

Andrew and I found ourselves at the front of the emigration line, waiting for an open window. Andrew went to the desk alone and I stood behind the red line waiting for him to finish. I waited a long time. The officer asked, “You’re flying to Kiev?” or so I surmised, when Andrew answered, “No, we are flying through Kiev to Tbilisi.” I kicked myself for not thinking about the flags it would raise for us to come from Kiev for two weeks then fly back there in the midst of all that is happening. Why didn’t we choose the flight routed through Moscow? A light flipped on outside the emigration desk and I saw a uniformed officer striding purposefully toward us. When he turned into Andrew’s stall, my heart flip-flopped. Fear – it doesn’t matter how many times I have felt it, each time it is a new beast. I mentally talked myself through the panic. “It is going to be OK. We might get led away for more questioning, but we have nothing to hide, we can just be honest. I thought about what I would say if things got bad: I refuse to be your enemy, a phrase I learned from my Palestinian friends, was the mantra I had already decided on. I refuse to be your enemy. I refuse to hate you. I would say it over and over again, no matter what happened. They could intimidate us, falsely accuse us, detain us or hurt us, but I would refuse to let them make me hate them (It is easy to be brave in your imagination).

I had coaxed my heart out of my throat and back into my chest when the officer left the immigration box and strode past Andrew, straight toward me. I glanced at his face and he held my eyes in a cold glare. I flinched and looked away before he reached me, but even as he turned I could see his stare on me until finally his head turned also and he continued on his way. All my courage melted away. He had intended intimidation and it had worked. I felt myself diminished, withered in my spot. My fear redoubled – my God if that was the kind of person we would face in questioning, we didn’t stand a chance. Nothing we could say would make a difference, he could accuse us of anything he liked and his power over us would make him right. Later, I would reflect on how so many people in this world feel that powerlessness daily – African Americans stopped by white cops, women falsely accused by men, poor laborers at the mercy of their employers. But in that moment I thought not of the powerless in this world, but of myself. Andrew was still waiting at the emigration desk and our fate was still in limbo. Slowly, my mantra bubbled to the surface, I refuse to be your enemy. I brought the officer’s cold blue stare to my mind’s eye and held it there, looking past the visage to the person within. I refuse to be your enemy, I told him. I refuse to hate you.

We went to Russia because the world (and apparently my heart) told us they are our enemies. We spent time with Russian families, enjoyed the warm hospitality of Russian homes and tables, marveled at the beauty of Russian cities. We have two weeks worth of memories and friendships that will stand between us and our temptation to hate, fear and demonize our fellow humanity in that land. But more than that, we have had a little practice choosing to love in the midst of fear. It is a small step, for we were not truly in danger, never actually threatened, but I am heartened with my small internal victory, for if I cannot triumph over the temptation to hate in my own imaginings, I will never succeed in the face of real peril.

May I continue to grow into the words of Martin Luther King Jr, and the actions of Jesus:

I would rather die than hate you. -MLK

 

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