I stepped carefully through the dark pathway, scrutinizing the distant glow of the approaching streetlamp. Moving into the radius of light, I finally felt safer. I looked at my surroundings. A dirt road ran in front of me into the village, flickering orange under the row of dim orbs now proceeding into the distance. Houses lined each side: tiny, decrepit houses, with corrugated-iron fences and wild yards with gnarled shrubs growing up past the windows. Most were dark; occasionally, a glowing white curtain concealed light, shadows and voices. This place was thrilling for its utter humble, natural, decrepitness.
In a continuous state of awe, I continued through the narrow lane. To my right, a small park appeared, enclosed by a chain-link fence. Despite the late hour, small children, their feet running through the tall grass, laughed and swung on the rusty swings; one’s father pushed them occasionally as he paced and spoke brisk Russian through his phone. A young couple walked hand-in-hand down a distant road, their backs illuminated in the streetlight.
Reaching the outskirts of the village, I approached a hill. The towers of an ancient, crumbling orthodox monastery loomed above me. Right as I happened to glance, I noticed a light flicker on over one of their doorways: Life! Heart pounding, I began to climb. The lights of the village waned behind me as I approached the summit.
I entered the compound (the gate, luckily, was left ajar) and approached the main building, a large, (once) majestic, and clearly abandoned chapel. A cupola rose into the sky and the building’s paint was nearly gone. A strange sound emanated from within: most nearly that of bullets ricocheting off of metal walls. “Bats,” I concluded to myself, slightly unsettled and lacking a better explanation. I moved towards the smaller building with the light. Dazed by wonder and curiosity, I pushed the door open.
I saw what appeared to be a brightly lit, empty room. Peeling plaster lined the walls; a pile of wood planks lay in one corner. I pushed my head in further, and recognized a haggard, bearded man with a friendly, smiling face (perhaps a groundskeeper). He returned my nod readily. I stepped into the room and instantly heard it: the beautiful music of female voices! “In this old monastery, and at night?” I wondered to myself in disbelief. “I hear it,” I managed to express in Russian as I gestured towards the sound. “It sounds beautiful.” “Go ahead, enter and listen,” he responded, motioning forward. I walked through the first room and into the next.
Taking a seat on a bench in the back, I examined my surroundings. In this monastery – exterior of crumbling plaster, in the pitch black of the night – a candle was lit on the altar, and a man and a woman in robes stood in the front of the room with their backs turned. How utterly lonesome! The woman was performing a service in the distinctive Eastern Orthodox style. Chanting, her voice rose to a crisp plateau, as a string of Russian words ushered forth, only to drop sharply and then rise once again to the precisely same point. The pattern continued indefinitely as her sweet, resonating voice filled the air, simultaneously mesmerizing and mysterious.
I quietly closed the door behind me, and returned to the groundskeeper. “Interesting place,” I said, gesturing around me, and lacking something better to say. He easily picked up the conversation. “Built in 1190,” he responded, and continued to describe the building, the city, and life as a whole. I responded occasionally, describing my studies, my family, and my Russian heritage. After 20 minutes, I held out my hand and he shook it warmly. I walked out into the cold night with a smile on my face. Welcome to Suzdal. Welcome to the Real Russia.
Large Russian cities – like Moscow or Saint Petersburg – “generate their own heat”, so to speak; amid the traffic and commotion of the city, the distinct Russian identity is lost to some extent. In Suzdal, picturesque in the lonely countryside, the culture runs thick. During one two-hour adventure in Suzdal, I obtained a stronger cultural experience (and built more language skills) than I might have throughout a week in Moscow. Such experiences – the thrilling adventures, the keen awareness of the vast unknown – form the essence of travel. Mathematics is great. Travel, in its purest form, however, offers a thrill as comparably valuable as it is wildly different. I plan now to seek both as much as possible.
A more extended journey in Russia – which, anticipating alternatives to a failed attempt at graduate school admission, I’ve considered – would have to take place somewhere like Suzdal. The famous “Trans-Siberian Railway” runs right through Suzdal, across eastern Russia, and even into parts of China. A friend’s former teacher spent a year working on the railway and travelling its breadth. I must admit that I’ve imagined the same. Thus, I could fluently learn Russian; thus, I could “not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived” (1).
The next morning, I sat on a ridge overlooking the town of Suzdal. From my hand hung a small bottle of locally produced “mead”, a mix of honey, wine, and spices; a pleasant crisp breeze blew past my face. Below me, I recognized the village of the previous night: incredibly small, simple, and unimposing, now, under the revealing sun. I recalled the evening’s intensity and trepidation with mild amusement. I took a sip of mead.
Beyond the village, the river rolled slowly past. Only a small layer of fog lay between the green-brown of the plain and the bright, light-blue of the sky. “Perhaps graduate school will materialize,” I thought; “perhaps I’ll never return to rural Russia.” The scene lasted only a moment. “Good Lord, only a moment of bliss?” wrote Dostoevsky. “Isn’t such a moment sufficient for the whole of a man’s life?” (2)
- Walden, full text
- Dostoevsky’s “White Nights” in the superb (and inexplicably difficult-to-find) Magarshack translation