During our Trans-Mongolian adventure, we visited four Russian cities: Irkutsk, Yekaterinburg, Moscow and Saint Petersburg. In each one, G Adventures had arranged for a walking tour with a local guide: Luba in Irkutsk, Valentina in Yekaterinburg, Irena in Moscow, and Mike in Saint Petersburg.
Each guide was university educated. The three women are retired professors. Mike, who is younger, has had a career as a guide. They remember life under the Soviet regime.
Today, guides like these are free to talk about those times and all of them did. In fact they were quite candid.
Irkutsk and Yekaterinburg are in Siberia where dissidents were exiled. Luba is the granddaughter of exiled intellectuals. She, her husband and her parents all worked as university professors. Unlike most of her peers, she was able to live outside Russia for four years because the Soviet government would take contracts abroad for their professors. Russia would receive foreign currency for the contract and pay their professors in rubles, thereby increasing their foreign currency reserves.
Valentina’s family came to Siberia as exiles, too. She spoke of her grandmother who refused to remove a religious icon from her home although they were forbidden by the state. The family pleaded with her but she stood her ground. They feared that it would be discovered and she would be imprisoned. Finally, she agreed to move it to a more discrete location in the house but she never took it down.
Velentina talked about people’s fears. It could be as simple as a neighbour taking a dislike to you and writing an anonymous letter that would get you sent to jail. She said most people kept their heads down and went about their business. She described fear is “genetic” among Russians. I asked her if she thought the 20-somethings of today didn’t carry that fear. She said they do because it’s been unconsciously transmitted from generation to generation in gestures and attitudes. She agreed that it’s not as strong in those born after 1990 but she believes that it will take generations to fade completely.
Mike is younger and his story is different. His university education in Saint Petersburg was meant to prepare him for a specific career in foreign affaires under the Soviet regime. After the fall of the Soviet Union, his pre-determined career path disappeared and his specialization has left him with limited options.
It was fascinating to talk to each of these guides and to learn about their life experiences. I appreciated their openness and candor.