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A Soviet Fourth of July?

My 1987 sketch of St Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow.

by Michael Krigline, published July 1990. wp.krigline.com ⇔
We hold these truths to be self-evident ⇔ 
Preface: the Trans-Siberian railway carried me from Beijing to Moscow in July 1987. You can read about the journey (and see more photos) on my “half-the-world” page. The following article about my adventure was published in Christian Single Magazine, July 1990.

 

What did you do on the Fourth of July this summer: go to a picnic, ballgame, fireworks display? How about a train ride … in the Soviet Union? They DO have a fourth of July there, you know, though it is not quite celebrated like it is over here! Nonetheless, celebrating Independence Day so far from home taught me a thing or two about some of the truths our forefathers “held to be self-evident.”

This was my hotel, on a hill overlooking Lake Baikal.

Last summer (1987), I awoke on the Fourth in a simple hotel room overlooking Lake Baikal in Siberia. No, I didn’t have to shovel the snow away from my door! It was actually quite pleasant, though a sweater was still required. I had left Beijing, China, on July 1, bound for Moscow on the Trans-Siberian Express. Halfway there I stopped to see the lake — it seemed like a nice way to spend the holiday.

The day started with an a cappella solo of “The Star Spangled Banner.” For once, I could be sure that I was the first to sing it, for the Fourth of July wouldn’t hit America for another six hours!

Just as I finished the song, Eric ventured out into the dawn’s early light on the adjacent balcony. Eric was a new friend from the train and the only other American I would share the day with. One of the great things about the Trans-Siberian was the way it made strangers from all over the world into friends for a week. Japanese, English, New Zealand “Kiwis”, Chinese, Danes, Swedes… they were all represented, as well as our Russian hosts. Our coach was like a miniature United Nations sharing two bathrooms and an endless pot of Russian tea! Though it isn’t listed in the Declaration of Independence, friendship is indeed among the “unalienable rights” with which we are endowed by our Creator. How different life would be without friends!

I wish I could find the slide I sent to the magazine, but at least I have a printed image of me beside the Trans-Siberian Express.

After breakfast we found that the hotel clerk could speak English, so I decided that it was time for my first Russian lesson. If you follow in my footsteps, then be forewarned that “hello” is not the place to start in Russian — I just couldn’t say it right! The clerk said it first, I tried to repeat, and she burst into laughter! I’d laugh, Eric was laughing … I tried again and the clerk attempted fruitlessly to hold in her amusement. Eventually we worked on some other phrases which I had more success with, but half the fun was in making a friend and giving some joy to a clerk who probably didn’t even know about our “right” to “the pursuit of happiness”!

Lake Baikal loomed bigger than life below us, beckoning irresistibly for us to experience her first hand. Baikal is one fifth the size of our Great Lakes, yet holds more water than all of them put together! Of the 500 plants and 1,200 species of animals in the area, two-thirds are found nowhere else. Needless to say, we didn’t see it all! Intourist (the only travel agency for foreigners in the USSR) offered a one-hour hydro-foil ride, and we decided to take up the offer.

Looking down at Lake Baikal, probably from my hotel. I was in a boat like this on July 4, 1987.

The hike down to the lake was peaceful and pleasant. The vast, calm sea before us seemed to swallow every sound. We walked by the typical weathered-wood houses, complete with decorative trim, each of which showed the tell-tale signs of the severe winters Siberia is famous for. Locals were out walking, pushing baby carriages, playing with the kids, returning from market … just as they would be in any other part of the world.

An onion-domed church steeple rose to the left from a small village to remind me of my location, and to testify of the same “Creator” written of back in July of 1776. Passing a broken fence, I was reminded that it was not He who had built the walls which stand between myself and these people who look so much like me.

The Siberian people struck me as a stern lot. Perhaps this is just a result of the harsh climate they must endure. There was plenty of variety — tall, short, thin, fat, blond, brunette, red head — though their facial features were similar enough to etch a “Slovak look” into my memory. I can’t say I saw many smiles, but the ones I did see seemed to truly come from deep inside. Perhaps they just didn’t know what to make of us, any more than we knew what to make of them.

Two young boys knew what to make of us — or at least what to make out of us! As I stopped walking to take a picture, a 10 year-old boy biked up and asked, in clear English, what time it was. I responded, and he followed with a barrage of Russian I couldn’t make heads or tails of! A friend of his rode up, and they seemed to want my ball-point pen. (I wouldn’t have much of a journal to get this from if I had complied with his request!) Undaunted, one pointed to my watch. No thanks, I’ll hang on to that for a while, too! They continued pointing, and I kept shaking my head, until they decided to go and look for other prey (namely Eric, who had walked on ahead!). I couldn’t help but think of a vendor at a parade a few “Fourths” ago: “Get your souvenir pens; Uncle Sam watches; Hurry, hurry! … ”

Our boat tickets were written in Russian, so we hadn’t a clue where to go. In a moment of boldness I “asked” two women for directions. Actually, I didn’t say a word; I just pointed to the tickets. They argued with each other for a moment and then one pointed, so off we went. We did this about four times along the way, and thankfully they always pointed in the same direction! My constitutional right to “free speech” didn’t help much at this point, but the experience helped me to see how much we take our ability to communicate for granted.

The boat was a sleek, modern, hydro-foil, which was to take about 100 foreigners on a one-hour spin around part of the lake. All went well for about 20 minutes, but then the engine stopped. I didn’t see anything particularly “scenic” at the spot, and soon we received word of “technical difficulties.” An hour ticked by, as did 2:30 PM, when our car was supposed to leave. Surprisingly, the guests were pretty good-natured about it: joking about swimming to shore, climbing on top of the boat, and taking pictures to commemorate the event. I wish folks back home in a holiday traffic jam were as patient! After two hours the engine roared again, eliciting a round of applause as we headed for the waiting ground transportation.

In Irkutsk I was told that this couple came to Lenin’s statue on their wedding day, sort of a way to seek “good luck” for their marriage. It goes to show that even in a place where praying and superstition are forbidden, people look for help outside the natural realm!

Though over 300 tributaries flow into the Lake, only one flows out, and our car followed the course of the wide Angara for an hour and a half back to the city of Irkutsk. Again, the road could have been anywhere in the world, except for the familiar, red, Intourist busses which passed us every 10-15 minutes. We also saw a number of newlyweds, streamers flying in accordance with international tradition, obviously on their way to a Fourth of July honeymoon on the Lake.

During part of the ride Eric and I played Backgammon, much to the delight of our driver who kept turning around to see what was going on. I’m glad there were so few cars on the road! At one point, with a big smile on his face and a laugh in his voice, he rattled something off in Russian. I don’t know what he was on about, but he did seem pleased! I guess he, too, felt the strain of our inability to communicate with words. No government could take away our “liberty” to share a laugh that peaceful afternoon, and though the moment is gone his smile will live on in my memory.

Back in Irkutsk I had time for a stroll before dinner. The buildings looked “historic”, but the people could easily have been American. A flashing neon “hammer and sickle,” alternating with peace doves, reminded me again of my location. The hot-spot seemed to be a street corner where ice cream was being served. Even though it was a holiday (and thus I deserved the treat), I couldn’t muster enough courage to “ask” for a taste. But I made up for my sheepishness with a nice steak dinner at the hotel, complete with folk singing and dancing — it sure sounded like they knew it was a holiday!

This dark fuzzy photo inside the train (showing my fuzzy beard) is the only color image I can find of myself from that trip. I guess “selfies” were not common back then.

Back at the train station, in the shadow of the ever-present red Intourist bus, I was reunited with “friends” who had spent the night in Irkutsk. We swapped stories until it was time to re-board the train. I was rather disappointed to find that we “foreigners” were all in car #10. I had hoped to get a chance to meet some Soviets on the train — to lose some games or chess and learn a little more about the language and people. But fate (or more accurately, Intourist) would not have it so. Still, there was plenty to learn from my international companions over the next four days to Moscow. This time I was the only American.

The conductor was a frail-looking older woman, but I saw in her expression a heart of gold. She spoke no English, but as the song says, love is the same in any language. She quickly became everybody’s mom, making sure our rooms were comfortable and clean, and keeping us supplied with free, hot, Russian tea, served upon request in a glass with a nifty silver holder.

Intourist buses await their assigned tourists in Moscow.

As the clickity-clack of the passing miles ticked away the remainder of my holiday, I thought back over the day. From the humbling Russian lesson to the warm, refreshing cup of tea in my hand, it had been a day to remember. Time and again I had seen the artificial nature of national boundaries (and national holidays for that matter), but it had been fun to “be American” in this place which so many of my countrymen seem to regard as enemy territory.

At one last stop before the sun set on my Soviet Fourth of July, I wandered over to a Kiosk to see what was for sale. A little Russian girl, probably only three or four and apparently being hotly pursued by her big brother, ran into my leg, hugged it for a second while continuing to squeal with delight at her brother’s attention, and then awkwardly ran on. She never even looked up at me. Obviously she didn’t know who I was, much less did she care about my political orientation or the name stamped on the front of my passport.

Perhaps this is part of what Jesus was getting at when he said that we have to be like children to enter His Kingdom — a Kingdom to be made up of people from EVERY people, nation, tribe and tongue; a Kingdom which will speak the language of eternal love. And although Thomas Jefferson never traveled across the Trans-Siberian, experiences such as these may well have been in the back of his mind when he wrote, some 10.5 score “Fourths” ago: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”

 


©1990 Michael Krigline. For contact info, visit About Us. To make a contribution, see our Website Standards and Use Policy page (under “About Us”).

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