When I worked as a camp counselor, we asked our kids for their “highs and lows” every night. We wanted to know what the most challenging part of their day was, how they overcame it and what good resulted from it. It helped us gauge their progress and helped them see challenge as beneficial. As I considered the first three months of my Watson year, I decided this was the best format to write my report in.
August was, by far, the hardest month of my life. Between terrorist attacks and women being unwilling to talk to me, my Watson got off to a rough start. It’s also the time when the cities in Russia empty out and people head for their dachas. I wasn’t finding anyone to interview partially because most of the older people were in the countryside. In response, I learned how to be kind to myself. When I felt like having ice cream, I bought myself some. When I felt really lonely, I walked to the city center and gave directions to lost tourists. It wasn’t as important for me to be a super-traveler as it was for me to be happy. To help alleviate some of the loneliness I decided to stay with my host family rather than moving into my own apartment. I made sure to communicate with my family once a week and started going to Christian Science services. Through the church and my host family, I made some friends—people who have nothing to do with my Watson Project but are good company.
Other than loneliness, the biggest challenge has been the language barrier. The Russian that I used to read Pushkin and Tolstoy in college didn’t help me buy a loaf of bread or ask for directions. I needed to learn a new set of vocabulary to help me get around. I started taking language lessons from a friend of my host mother’s. We engineered our meetings so that I learned the vocabulary and phrases that I needed. When my parents came to visit and my language skills were indispensable, I knew I’d mastered the necessary “street Russian.”
For the first month, I didn’t conduct any interviews because I was going about my project the wrong way. I thought I could just walk into a church and talk with anyone there, but that wasn’t the case. People in churches weren’t friendly or welcoming. I thought I was building relationships by visiting the churches regularly, but as it turns out, they didn’t even notice. I found one answer to this problem about three weeks ago, when a woman I’d met took me to her church, which was located at the last stop on one of the metro lines—practically at the city limits. The problem was I’d been going into large cathedrals looking for people to talk to. In smaller communities people are warmer and more willing to answer questions. I found this to be especially true in Tver and Klin, another small city I visited. People are much more open in smaller communities, whether they are small churches or small cities.
The other answer to finding subjects was to be a bit more creative. I thought of places that I’d seen a lot of older people and went there. In every museum there are older women whose job it is scold people for getting too close to the art, but if you ask they’ll answer questions—a free tour and a chance to meet older people. In the St. Petersburg History Museum I met a woman who was more than willing to talk about her relationship with the Russian Orthodox Church once I explained what I was looking for.
I also made a new rule for myself: never turn down an invitation from a Russian person, within reason, of course. This rule has landed me at four women’s kitchen tables—two in St. Petersburg, one in Tver, and one in a tiny village called Nemki. These weren’t people I’d met in churches. They were people I met on the subway, in the theater, and through my landlord.
Whenever I have the chance, I talk to younger women in their forties and fifties as well. All of them experienced perestroika and so they all know what it was like to have religion suddenly become legal. I always ask why they chose to go to the Russian Orthodox Church when religion became legal—as with most things in Russia, for the first time, people had a choice. The answers I’ve gotten thus far include “I just felt something,” “I was already baptized,” and “Because I’m a Russian.” I wonder if a pattern will emerge or if someone will be able to give me a really good reason for their faith. It’s a question I plan to keep asking younger women as I continue my research.
Unfortunately, not every old woman in Russia is religious, which I found out very quickly. I’ve still found it interesting to talk with them because most of them are baptized and have some relationship to the church, even if it’s not positive. One such conversation, with a woman named Nina Petrovna, made me realize that Russian Orthodoxy has many different faces—it’s not as simple as separating the believers from the non-believers.
Another major challenge of my project was the shock value of the stories that people have told me and the dead atmosphere in some of the churches which are still ruined—especially in Tver. I decided to prepare myself. I visited all of St. Petersburg’s museums and monuments to the Blockade and the war, including the cemetery where all the victims are buried. Visiting all of these sites made it easier to hear people’s stories because I wasn’t as shocked. It also meant that I didn’t have to ask as many logistical questions: historical facts I could find out from a museum without bothering anyone.
In September, I gained access to the archive in the Museum of St. Petersburg history and found out a little about the state of the church in the time of the Blockade. Reading gave me some more insight into the atmosphere of St. Petersburg at the time of the Blockade. I learned that Stalin allowed nine churches to open in Leningrad during the Blockade to maintain feelings of normalcy and that the Church, in turn, donated money to the war effort. It was interesting to learn about that connection and that there was a period in Russian history when going to church was “patriotic.” I will continue to use archives wherever I can find them, especially in Moscow.
I’ve discovered another worthwhile dimension to my project that I hadn’t considered. While I was in Tver I had a unique opportunity to serve at a monastery in exchange for a tour and a meal. I found out several interesting pieces of information from my guide and the “matushka” (the head nun) about faith during the Soviet Union. Although they are hesitant to share their own stories, they are happy to tell me about the Church as a whole or about their own monastery. The matushka in Tver offered me contacts in Moscow, which I hope to use. It would be interesting to learn more about how nuns survived the repression—and they are women of the Russian Orthodox Church.
Lastly, and most importantly, in the last three months, I’ve grown up. I’m much more patient with myself, much more thoughtful, more careful with my words (which happens when you have a limited number to choose from) and less inclined to become frustrated at things I can’t control. I can’t pinpoint exactly when these things happened to me or when the change started, but when I look back at my journal entries from July, I can sense a difference.
In August, I remember flipping through my day-planner and thinking how long it was until I got to go home. Now, I look at it and wonder if I have enough time. Either way, I’m excited for what Russia and the next nine months have in store for me.
Quarterly Report #2