The trip met my need for a challenge ,new experiences and personal growth. What I had not expected was the spiritual experiences.
All I can say is until you get there you can have no concept of the size . It is possible to travel for days and the landscape not to change at all even when that landscape is man made. The parts I visited are neither beautiful nor spectacular with one exception the rivers . We followed a river for 6 hours on the train from Murmansk which must have been 500 m across and which no one could tell me its name. While the Volga is just huge like the Mississippi .
Had I not learned the language I would have not made it past Murmansk.I coped OK with the hygiene factors( food,travel, accommodation) but I failed every time I tried to hold a conversation and it showed me just how good you need to be to converse.This did not mean I did not get a lot from people but there is nothing like a natter and 6 weeks without one is a long time.
I am not alone in having a greater expectations of my ability than reality. Lenin who was a gifted linguist and learned German from an early age ran into the same problems the first time he was abroad as he reported to his mother.. "I asked a train guard a question,he answered and I did not understand him.He repeats the answer more loudly ,I still don't understand him and so he gets angry and goes away.In spite of this disgraceful fiasco,I am not discouraged and continue distorting the German language with zeal," I can relate to Vladimir Illiych completely.
Physically I had expected them to be short and stocky while mostly they are tall slim and often blond just like their Nordic neighbours. I think J Conrad was right " don't forget what is Divine in the Russian soul is Resignation" This no doubt comes from 1000 years of suppression . They are certainly stoic,generous ,inquisitive ,aggressive, and darkly they are insular to the point of xenophobia . However I was glad I spent so much time with ordinary Russians who are just trying to survive and have decent lives just like the rest of us and in the most part tried to make me welcome.
I think Russians are to a large part defined by their Orthodox Faith ,similarly I think it is no accident that Stalin spent time training to be a Priest. It speaks to that importance that faith after only 20 years since the collapse of Communism public worship is such a part of the landscape .The Orthodox Litany is very moving ,I certainly felt the presence of God in the ritual.
I have very mixed feelings about Russia but in the end I can not see how the Country works . It is as if the people and the Government and the bureaucracy are not connected but go on despite each other.That is so alien to me that it made me very unhappy. I hope for the sake of the lovely people I met that I am wrong about the lack of sustainability at the core of their state .
For those contemplating visiting ,do go , but if you do not speak Russian stick to an organised trip . Love John