Russia has been in the news a lot these days thanks to the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi and now the turmoil in the Ukraine. The coverage has triggered memories of my trip to Russia a decade ago.
I went there for about three weeks in May/June 2004 to visit the preacher our congregation supported in Nizhny Novgorod and to meet the brethren there. We also spent a few days site-seeing in Moscow. It was one of the most enlightening experiences of life.
I initially laughed like every other spoiled American at the gripes from journalists as they arrived in Russia last month to cover the Olympics. But an article about the #SochiProblems later reminded me that, sadly, they were reporting realities that Russians face every day.
Here are two telling excerpts from the blog PolicyMic:
- “Most Russians don’t drink water from the sink due to fear of illness, and the ones who can’t afford bottled water just boil it and hope they don’t get sick. Only around half of Russians had access to drinking water that met reasonable health standards in 2002.”
- “Russian corporations ended up denying their 70,000 workers wages, sanitary accommodations and, in many cases, basic human rights” while building Olympic facilities.
The article prompted me to revisit my Mission To Russia blog, where I made observations like these about life in Russia:
- Many people grow their own food here. The landscape is dotted with small farms that exist because people might not have food otherwise. The sisters in Pavlovo talked yesterday about how they garden and can vegetables. Jeff noted that it had been a good week for farming, but Valentina reminded him that they farm regardless of the weather. They have no choice.
- In Russia, the hot water is turned off by region at least two weeks at a time during the summer while officials do repair work to pipes, and Masha said the two-week process usually takes longer. … Russians also can expect to have their flow of hot water halted regularly at certain times in the morning (that’s what happened today), so you have to hope you plan your showers right.
The amount of dust and dirt on the streets here astounds me. … The same goes for trash collection and pickup. Rubbish floats around the streets of Nizhny, and trash cans in public areas can be quite uncommon. If the wind kicks up, as it did regularly today, you may be eating dust and fighting off floating debris.
- Most of the apartment buildings resemble public housing in America. We would probably consider them slums and refuse to live in them because we’ve become too comfortable — nay, spoiled. I couldn’t tell you when any of the buildings was last painted. The bricks in the walls and concrete on the stoops, stairs and interior walls have big chunks missing from them, and I don’t expect they’ll ever be repaired.
Some apartment buildings, including Tom and Masha’s, lack elevators. I’m getting quite a workout just trekking up five floors every time I return to the building. And those that have elevators have tiny, tiny elevators — and some have absolutely no lighting. We crammed four people, plus luggage, into one dark elevator in Moscow. When they move, they creak and make all kinds of noises that leave you expecting to plunge downward any minute.
- Our hotel looks like a high-class joint … until you actually get to the room. We’re on the 27th floor, only one floor from the top. The room has narrow and short twin beds and just mattresses with no box springs. The bathroom wreaks of raw sewage. We can’t decide whether to keep the door open and hope it airs out or keep it closed to spare us suffocation in our sleep.
- It looks like the people on the cafe typed the Russian terms for their meals into an Internet translator and copied the automatic English translations word for word. One of my favorites read something like “language with a garnish.” We’re thinking that meant cow tongue because people asked us earlier this week if we had ever eaten cow tongue.
Although my trip to Russia made me more aware of how “the other half” lives in less fortunate pockets of the world, I still acted very much like an American while there, especially when playing tourist. I ordered whatever food I wanted, regardless of the price, and I bought dozens of souvenirs to bring home to family and friends.
My luggage was briefly lost on the return trip, so for a day, I wasn’t sure anyone would get to appreciate the souvenirs. But once it arrived and I laid it all out on the table, I realized how very conspicuous my consumption must have looked to our hosts.
I’m thankful that God made my trip to Russia possible and opened my eyes to how blessed we truly are in America. And I’m glad the recent news coverage of Russia reminded me of that journey because I had begun to take those blessings for granted once again.