Final Thoughts…

I know it’s late to be posting anything new, but I did some thinking while having to write my final essay about my experience in Russia, and I felt like I should share some of the things I learned. Here is an excerpt from my paper:

Henri Nouwen, the author of The Return of the Prodigal Son, found great spiritual significance in Rembrandt’s similarly-named painting. In The Return of the Prodigal Son, Nouwen spent years studying and contemplating the painting and finding himself in the painting in a number of ways. While I did have the opportunity to see Rembrandt’s painting and did not garner any great spiritual lesson from it myself, I was able to find spiritual significance somewhere else – in the history of the Russian Christian churches.

When we first arrived, I was aware of the oppression of the church during the Soviet era, but I viewed the oppression as something that had passed, and I didn’t really think about the tremendous effect that it had on the church today. Once we arrived in Russia, that all changed. What I found was a story of God’s unfailing faithfulness – his promise to never leave of forsake his people. In the few opportunities I had to speak with Russian Christians, particularly those of the older generation, I saw people of God who had endured tremendous hardship and had seen the desecration of their buildings and belittling of their faith. I saw strength, a deep strength, rooted in a heart subservient to God through all trials, a strength that I know I don’t possess, but one that I deeply admire.

When we had the opportunity to speak to Stefan, the Orthodox priest who gave us a tour of the seminary, he described to us how he had walked through the Kazan Cathedral during the 1970s when it had been converted into a museum of atheism, and my heart ached to hear that such a beautiful building dedicated to the Lord could be defiled in such a way. If the government wanted to build a museum of atheism, then they should be allowed to do so, but why build it in a church? Why spit in the faces of the faithful in such a way? I was nearly in tears when I saw the protestant church that had been converted into a public pool before being returned to the Church.

The scars of Soviet oppression are all over the Church in Russia, but somehow, the faith did not die. God was there, even when his churches were being torn down and misused, even when his people had to live cautiously for their possession of a bible, even when it seemed that God had abandoned the church, he was there. I saw it in the eyes of the old woman who came up to me after church to thank me for coming to her country. I saw it in the eyes of the Orthodox priest who told us about his life during the Soviet times. I saw it in the eyes of Dr. Negrov as he discussed the fall of the Soviet Union and the liberation of the Church. Christianity did not come back to Russia, it never left. We take so much for granted.

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Last Day…

“This is my last day here,” I thought as I awoke on Saturday morning. For a few days prior, I had been experiencing an internal conflict. I missed home; I wanted to see Jon and my family, but I didn’t want to leave. I felt as if I was being pulled in two directions, and I was determined to take advantage of the time I had. With nothing planned for the day except attending the St. Petersburg Christian University graduation ceremony at eleven, I rolled around in bed, not wanting to get up and face the fact that it was my last day in St. Petersburg. When I did finally get up, I pulled on my only dress, fixed my hair, and prepared to leave for the graduation ceremony.

We entered the large auditorium and were soon in the midst of speeches and hymn singing. Two speakers addressed the crowd, one in English with a translator into Russian, and the other strictly in Russian. Surprisingly, even thought I could barely understand a word, I enjoyed listening to the man who addressed the crowd in Russian because of his enthusiasm and liveliness. After what felt like an eternity later, the ceremony let out and we filed down into a small room for a “banquet” of finger foods.

Map of the St. Petersburg Metro

Since we were relatively familiar with the city and metro system, we split off into groups and each made our own way into the city. I knew that I had to see the Shedding of the Blood cathedral again if I saw nothing else in the city, so we made our way to the Nevsky Prospect station. By then, the subway ride was instinctual – two stops north on the red line, switch to the blue line at Teknologiski Institute, and continue on two more stations to Nevsky Prospect. If I happened to get lost, I would simply follow Lorrin Quinn, Metro Master.

Once we arrived, I walked up to the ticket window and timidly requested “Billet studient, pajalosta?” (Student ticket, please?). I handed over my student ID and was returned a free ticket into the building, where I spent another awed half an hour craning my neck at the ceilings. I laughed to myself as I watched a group of women inspecting and taking photos of the plain, black marble floor. All that artwork, and they took pictures of the floor – that’s like going to the Louvre to admire the bathrooms. From there, we wandered into the souvenir market and  spent the last of our Rubles on t-shirts and nesting dolls. By the time we were done, we had all spent nearly all of our money and then some. We watched other American tourists try to pay for goods with American dollars and speak very loudly to vendors so that they would understand and rolled our eyes. We were obviously much more culturally acclimated than they were, or at least we thought so.

We took advantage of every second we had that evening, and we wandered far into the city. We passed monuments and mosques and tried our hardest to get into the summer gardens, but eventually, time ran out and we had to meet with the group for dinner. We met on the platform of Plosched Vostania and left from there to the restaurant where we were dining that evening. Our group was so large that the restaurant had to reserve us an entire wing of the restaurant, and we filled every available inch of table space with food. My favorite was the borsch… mmm yummy borsch. How is it possible to take something as gross as beets and make them into something delicious?

Our group split up into smaller groups afterwards, some choosing to watch a soccer match and others choosing to go to a coffee shop instead. One thing was for certain: none of us were sleeping that night. The bus left at 3:00 AM, so going to bed would be pointless. One day bled into the next, and before we knew it, we were on the bus to go home.

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Moonwalking in the Peterhof

Friday morning dawned at about 4 AM, and we all proceeded to sleep for another six hours. Friday morning was a morning off, and we were all enjoying the rest and time for long showers. The weather outside was chilly; it was finally looking like what we expected the weather to be the whole time. During the morning, the rain drizzled lazily outside the windows and the temperatures sat steadily in the mid-fifties. The first time we met together for the day was for lunch at noon. After eating our lunch, we quickly chugged the boxes of grape juice provided and raced each other to the coffee/tea tables for the coveted wafer cookies. We were going to the Peterhof, and our bus was leaving soon after lunch to take us to the speedboats.

Futurama ship boat

Once we arrived at the docks, we played a few rounds of the hurry-up-and-wait game, as employees shuffled us from one place to another, each more certain than the last that we were in the wrong place to wait for our boat. Not terribly long after, our boat arrived. I had never seen this particular type of speed boat before, and it looked remarkably like one of the space ships from Futurama to me. The boat rocketed us across the bay as we sat in comfort in our heated cabins with wonderfully soft seats. I almost became too comfortable in the boat because once we got out, we were greeted by icy-cold buffets of wind coming off of the bay. Even in my heavy winter coat, I was quite cold.

Once we played another round of hurry-up-and-wait while trying to obtain our tickets, we marched our way into the compound. We were greeted by a series of spectacular fountains carved in intricate shapes and overlaid in gold. With a little wind, these fountains also served as an effective sprinkler system, showering both foliage and guests who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. After wandering the compound, we entered the Peterhof, the summer palace of the Peter the Great. Once inside, we were told to wear paper booties over our shoes so that we did not damage the elaborate wood floors. However, we soon realized that the paper booties were very slippery against the floor, making dance moves like the moonwalk and the shuffle infinitely more easy. As the tour guide walked on in front of our group, she would occasionally glance back and catch our entire group in an array of slide-walking dance moves. Some glided, others moved like roller-bladers across the floor, and still others attempted (and I say attempted purposefully) to imitate Michael Jackson’s iconic moves. We walked and stood, walked and stood, then walked and stood again through a series of of incredibly ornately decorated palace rooms and halls. I did enjoy the variety; some rooms were done in the Baroque style, others were done in a more classical style, and a few were designed with heavy Asian influences. My favorites by far were the Asian-style rooms. By the time we finished the tour, we were all ready to sit down for a while. A tour like that would never work in America, people would have to have a place to sit down after the first two rooms.

The rest of the afternoon was spent wandering around the Peterhof complex. When we finally boarded the bus to get back to the university, I was hit by the fact that I was experiencing my last few days in Russia, but my sadness was quickly chased away by the prospect of ordering pizza for dinner. Once the pizza arrived, a group of us gathered together in a small room next to the university laundry room where we were soon greeted by an older couple. The man asked us where we were from, and we responded that we were visiting from our university in Texas. “Oh, I went to college in Texas; I went to a little school called LeTourneau,” said the man. As it turns out, he was a LeTourneau alumnus from 1974. Things got even more interesting when Lorrin found out that he used to be a part of dorm 41, Lorrin’s current brother floor. Lorrin and I spent the evening sharing LeTourneau stories with him and his wife. Apparently, LeTourneau students have always been notorious pranksters. The world really is a small place.

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The Things You See in Dusty Libraries (Thursday, May 17)

Today was an exceptional day. Today, I got to do something that I will probably never get to do again. Today, I got to hold a book that was printed in 1636… That’s over 100 years before America became a country. I’m sorry, I know I’m subjecting everyone to my English nerd-fest, but it was an exciting moment. Stefan, the Orthodox priest that we met on Wednesday, met with us this morning outside of the monastery for a guided tour. We entered into a building filled with long staircases, beautiful artwork, and young men in long, black robes; it was like a scene straight out of Harry Potter, minus the broomsticks.

Once Stefan, with his long grey beard and dark robe, walked us through some of the seminary’s rooms and its small cathedral, he took us into his domain. Stefan is the chief librarian at the seminary, as well as a priest, so he knows all there is to know about the library. First, he took us past a few rows of books, pointing out a few popular theological periodicals. Then, he got to the back of the room where rows and rows of ancient-looking leather-bound books stood in neat attention on the shelves. “This is our bible collection,” he declared in Russian, with Dr. Roudkovski parroting his words back in English. “Here, we have a copy of the bible written in every language in which it has ever been translated. Give me a language,” he challenged, “and I will find you the bible written in that language.” True to his word, he found a bible in every language we asked of him and even some we didn’t.

Once he moved on from the bibles, he picked up a small, leather book of bible-related text written in Latin. He opened up the book, flipping nonchalantly from page to page, and showed us a few passages of the text. He handed us the book to look at and then announced that the book was printed in 1636. Astonished that we were allowed to touch such a book, we gingerly handled the binding and softly flipped through the pages. We  handled the book like a bottle of nitroglycerin,  but as soon as it was returned to the hands of Stefan, he unceremoniously plopped it back on the shelf.  He then led us into the back room, and we each looked on in amazement at the collection of ancient texts before us. Each was labeled with the name of the author, the title of the book, and the date of printing. 1642…1731…1678…1846… I asked through the translation of Dr. R how old the oldest book was, and Stefan announced that their oldest manuscripts were from the 15th century because the printing press wasn’t invented before that time. Amazing. I think we all left the seminary on cloud nine (at least I did); anything that happened for the rest of the day would be a let-down after that.

This church was converted into a public pool during the Soviet era and then converted back to a church.

We spent the afternoon on a bus touring Protestant churches in St. Petersburg, but as the morning had already set the bar high for the day, and I was also very tired, I slept or daydreamed through most of the tour. For four hours, we were driven around St. Petersburg behind a driver that was clearly part possessed man and part magician. I decided that I would be perfectly content to take the subway or walk from then on.

Once we returned, we spent an hour or two in class speaking with a kind young woman named Olga about her Orthodox faith. Her candid discussion of topics like icons, confession, and veneration of the saints brought illuminating insight and a personalized view of the everyday faith of an Orthodox believer. We thanked her immensely for speaking with us.

The day was nearly perfect, and it ended nearly perfectly. As the evening wound down, Alexei offered to take anyone who wished to go on a trip to watch the sunset over the bay. Fortunately, only a few of us wanted to go, so the trip was relatively peaceful, even though we weren’t able to make it to the bay. The green line of the metro was having issues, so we went another direction, sat next to a pond, and watched the ducks float as Lorrin and I hummed a duet of The Lion King’s “In the Jungle.” We have pretty much given up hope of blending in. So here I am at the end of a lovely day, and it is time for me to go to sleep (1:20 AM SPB time). Good night world, I’m looking forward to going to the Peterhof tomorrow.

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Museums, Monasteries, and McDonalds? (Wednesday, May 16)

Class started bright and early this morning, although myself and the other students were feeling anything but bright. The lack of sleep is finally starting to catch up with us as we sink into a routine and grow accustomed to the city. We listened to Dr. Negrov’s lecture with interest and attentiveness, although most of us were just sleepy enough that it took longer to process the information. As today was our last official class, we all thanked Dr. Negrov for his time and participation with our group. Most of us were a little sad that the class was over.

Soon, we met for lunch and headed to the Russian museum. As we walked up the stairs to begin our tour, most of the group headed off together in one direction, and Lorrin and I promptly headed in the other. Neither she nor I like to do anything in large groups, so against the flow we went. We took our time, admiring each piece of artwork that we passed. After the first few rooms, we ran into Dr. Roudkovski, who told us with a gleeful look in his eye that his favorite painting was in the next room: The Last Day of Pompeii. “It’s my favorite because all the people have such different facial expressions in the face of death,” he said with a disconcerting amount of excitement in his voice. We parted ways, and Lorrin and I continued our tour of the museum until our attention spans ran dry. Art is like coffee – a little is wonderful, but too much will make you crazy.

Lorrin and I ran into Dr. Roudkovski and the Mays on our way out of the Russian Museum,  and Dr. Roudkovski told us all about another cathedral that we should go and see, the St. Alexander Nevsky Monastery of the Holy Trinity. We soon set off for the monastery, and as we reached the gate, we realized that there was an 80 ruble fee to get in for those who weren’t Orthodox, but Dr. R managed to talk the priest on duty into letting us in for free because we were studying Orthodoxy. Once we were inside, we wandered the cavernous interior of the cathedral, eventually finding a shrine built around a 4x2x2 foot box. We soon found out that the box contained the remains of Alexander Nevsky, to which I remarked that he must have been a very short man. I was quickly corrected. Apparently, the box only contained remains that had been dug up from his previous burial site. Not long afterwards, Dr. R struck up a conversation with an Orthodox priest who happened to be in the church. Lorrin and I sat off a ways watching the interaction and trying to determine who was trying to convert whom to their faith. As it turned out, the Orthodox priest’s name was Stefan, and he had graciously offered to meet with our group the next morning and give us a private tour of the seminary. I was thrilled at the prospect.

Soon after, we all headed back towards the metro station, but Lorrin and I stayed in town for a while to wander around. We were not done sightseeing just yet. A short excursion to the bookstore turned into a trip down the street to the Cathedral of the Shedding of the Blood, which turned into a walk across the street to take photos over the river, which led to the discovery of a park, which took us within view of a gorgeous bridge that we just had to cross, which finally took us right in front of the elaborate blue dome of the city mosque. What was meant to be a short trip to the bookstore turned into a three hour trip that took us half way across the city and to a number of views of breathtaking scenery. We were reluctant to go home, but very proud of ourselves for successfully requesting directions to the metro from a Russian woman and deciphering her response. I was even more proud of myself when I ordered dinner at McDonalds for Lorrin and myself completely in Russian. It’s funny how little things become personal triumphs when traveling in a foreign country. I went to bed looking forward to the seminary tour scheduled for the next morning.

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In Russia, We’re all Brats

Yesterday morning, we all woke up groggily and trudged to class. After a day off, we were all tired for our 9AM class meeting. During the class, we learned about the Silver Age (19th century) of Russian Literature. During the time period, Russian biblical scholars and theologians began asking the hard spiritual questions that they had never had the opportunity to ask. Writers and philosophers like Alexey Khomiakov, Lev Tolstoy, and Fyodor Dostoyevsky pushed the boundaries of theological and philosophical discussion. The church responded, unfortunately, by the prohibition of intellectual dialogue. I found it sad that the church would work to push against the flowering of knowledge and education. Anyways, enough about class.

Main Dome of St. Isaac’s Cathedral

After lunch, we headed to St. Isaac’s cathedral. After having seen so many beautiful churches, I didn’t have very high expectations, but I was astonished once again by the beauty of the church. I wandered slowly around the church, straining my neck as I looked at the painted ceilings, the clop-clop of my boots on the marble floors following me around the room like the world’s most un-subtle stalker. After my attention span for the inside of the cathedral ran out, I climbed and climbed the over 200 steps to the top of the colonnade with my camera in hand. With my thighs burning from the climb, I drew in my breath as I looked out at the view overlooking the city. The wind from a hundred feet up was just chill enough to make it necessary to use my scarf, which whipped to and fro as I wandered around snapping pictures of the overlook of the city. From that vantage point, I could see the gleaming dome of the Kazan cathedral, the blue-tiled half-sphere of the city mosque, and the twisting, colorful onion domes of the Shedding of the Blood cathedral. Almost every city landmark was laid out somewhere before me in a maze of concrete buildings and busy thoroughfares.

I reluctantly left the top of the cathedral a while later and headed back to the university, where Alexei introduced us to our first Russian film: Brat (Russian for brother). The film took place in St. Petersburg, so it was lots of fun to name the places in the film where we had been in the past few days. The movie followed the story of two long-separated brothers, one a for-hire killer and the other a military brat (no pun intended), and their meeting in St. Petersburg. After the movie ended and we all went back to our rooms, the day ended with a game of cards and a well-deserved bottle of Pepsi. Tomorrow was in our sights, and we needed rest.

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Lazy Monday

After our weekend in Moscow, we were blessed with a much-needed free day, and most of us took the opportunity to sleep. The morning was blissful: no alarms, no wake-up calls, and no feet stomping around loudly on cold, linoleum floors, nothing but me, my bed, and my lazy disposition.

Lorrin Quinn: The Next 007?

After the novelty of a free schedule wore of, Lorrin and I decided that we should wander the neighborhood. We put on our nice clothes and stern, Russian facial expressions and attempted to blend in. It worked, as long as we kept our mouths shut. To avoid being discovered as the non-Russians we are, we both would point our fingers and nod in agreement to decide where to go next. All was going well until we entered a shoe shop and I picked up a pair of glitter-encrusted flats. Without missing a beat, I mouthed something to Lorrin about the shoes giving me “the glitter herpes” (Once glitter gets on you, it never comes off). She couldn’t keep a straight face any longer, and we both cracked up laughing, exposing ourselves as American. Later on in another shop, Lorrin was so convincing in her act that a group of Russian women struck up a conversation with her. In order to avoid the embarrassment of  having to explain that she had no idea what they were talking about, she motioned to her lips, indicating she was mute, and smiled politely as the women apologized. I’m thinking if the whole engineering thing doesn’t work out, she may have a future as a covert operative.

After leaving the shop, careful not to let the women who thought Lorrin was mute see us talking to each other, we went out for a night on the town. The rest of our blissful free time came and went quickly, with the evening spent drinking coffee and tea with friends in the back room at a local shop and talking the night away. We shared coffee, stories, and a joke or two, leaving everyone smiling and sleepy by the time we returned to our rooms. Thus ended our free Monday; we were sad to see it go.

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