Saturday, March 13, 2010

The Russian Soldier

Dearest Readers,

As I've mentioned a number of times before, I have a subscription to the New Yorker magazine (thanks, Dad) and though the speed at which it arrives in my mailbox and the volume of its contents can be overwhelming I have come to thoroughly enjoy the inspiration it provides.

At the moment I'm reading a wonderful piece by Ian Frazier about his travels through Siberian Russia. His writing is simple and yet elegant and his style is rich with sensitivity and sensuality. I've kind of fallen in love with him because of it.

Reading the article has brought back memories of my own trip to Russia in the earliest part of 1991. In fact, I and my fellow McGill students rang in the New Year in Tallinn, Estonia, having arrived by train the day before all the way from the blackened streets of dreary and fascinating Moscow.

I was 19 years old and studying Russian because I had a 40 year-old boyfriend who was doing entrepreneurial business in Russia at the time. I loved learning the language and though I can only speak a few scant phrases today and remember little of what I was taught I can still pronounce the alphabet and read Russian words off a page.

After our New Year's celebration we took train from Tallinn to Leningrad (the collapse of the Soviet Union took place later that year so the country we visited was still hanging on to Communism, albeit by the skin of their teeth -- only a few months later would the city become St. Petersburg once more) and I recall the dirty, mud-caked windows, which made seeing out impossible, and the sense that none of us knew where we were or where we were going.

Upon arrival in Leningrad, I checked my pockets to make sure I had everything before getting off the train. Something was missing. I had stuffed a wad of tightly rolled American dollars into a film canister for safe-keeping. It was gone.

I searched madly throughout the train's car, crawling on the floor to look for it. After 15 minutes our chaperone told me to let it go. I was keeping everyone waiting.

I refused.

It had to be here, I reasoned. I boarded the train with it. It could not have disappeared.

Soon a handful of Russian soldiers entered the car. They had no English to understand me but they saw my panic and they saw my determination. They hovered around nervously.

On hands and knees, searching one more time beneath my seat, I heard a faint sound, like the sound of a small, plastic item hitting the floor and rolling down the aisle toward me.

"Found it!" someone cried (in Russian, of course). I stood up. One of the soldiers held out the canister. Was this what I'd been looking for? Relief flooded through my entire body. I thanked him profusely. Where had he found it? Just there, on the ground. I was so grateful that I gave him some of that money as a reward.

As the Chaperone hurried me away, we looked back at the soldiers standing in the light of the doorway. The black train was invisible in the black night. "You're lucky you got it back," she said.

What did she mean?

"Don't you realize? One of them had your little treasure. He pretended to find it only because you were refusing to give up. He must have been scared we would call in the higher authorities."

As I was reading Mr. Frazier's article this story, and its mystery, came back to me, detail by detail, nearly two decades later. How did the soldier get the canister of money in the first place? Did he decide to drop it by virtue of his own merit or was he ordered to do so by the others?

There was probably US$200 in that container. How lucky was I to get it back?

The memory of this incident has inspired me. I am struck by the vastness of my life experience, the scope of over 14,000 days on this planet, and the myriad stories embedded within this time frame.

How vast and rich with images are our lives. Just like Siberia.

Inspiring Message of the Day: How many days have I been on the planet? How many stories are contained in this number? Today I will allow the stories of my past to enrich my present experience.

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