Maybe it was a Russian attempt at humor, which I have such a difficult time identifying. Or a subtle snub at America. But for whatever reason, our program directors decided the Fourth of July was just the day to visit Sviyazhsk Island, about an hour outside of Kazan on the Volga River.
In terms of islands, Sviyazhsk falls somewhere between Alcatraz and Javier Bardem’s Hashima Island hangout in Skyfall. Historically rich, forgotten by time. Ivan the Terrible built a fortress on Sviyazhsk in 1550 and subsequently attacked the Kazan empire. For nearly 400 years, an orthodox monastery operated in the walls of the fortress until 1918, when Leon Trotsky went to Sviyazhsk to defeat the White Army on Vladimir Lenin’s orders. Bolshevism and Communism ultimately prevailed, and the seven churches on the island were converted to prisons for the clergy and political prisoners. In 1924, Stalin established a Gulag camp in the Holy Dormition Monastery. The camp operated until 1952, when a psycho-neurological hospital opened in its place. The Gulag inhabitants were purged and today, unmarked graves commemorate the murdered monks and political dissidents.
My professor, Natalya, visited the psycho-neurological hospital as a student. Clearly agitated when talking about it in our class, decades later, she said it was the most horrible place she’d ever been, the stuff of nightmares. The hospital has since closed, the churches have been restored, and the island declared a monument of Russian history and culture. Natalya compared Sviyazhsk to a mirror, reflecting Russia’s history as an entity at once separate from and intimately linked to Russia. When I visited, Sviyazhsk felt more like a sleepy coastal village than witness to medieval and Soviet atrocities. Fresh paint, the scent of honey and chicken shashlik on the fire, kittens wandering through the tall Ukrainian flowers. The regeneration of Sviyazhsk reminded me of why Russia captured my heart in the first place.
For the past two years, I’ve dreaded the inevitable question: “why Russia?” This isn’t an easy country to love. I chose to study the language on a whim the summer after graduating from high school with no expectations of returning or continuing with Russian. Life is harder here (Russian male life expectancy is just 64!), politics are messy, and real coffee is impossible to come by. And yet, when I stop looking for the country I want and instead take Russia for what it is, the good and the bad, I can’t help but love it. On Sunday, I went to the central market with my friend Hannah and her host mom. We wove through throngs of people and stalls of produce, heaps of tomatoes and bursting forest berries, old scarfs creating a canopy overhead. Inside, a row of babushki stood behind their tvorog and smetana. Eager to share her fresh batch of dairy products, a babushka beckoned me forward and plopped a spoonful of tvorog into my palm. I must have looked bewildered, because she chuckled as I tasted it and explained my inexperience with tvorog in broken Russian. Here was a woman who had likely experienced World War II and life under the Soviet Union, smiling with me. Laughing.
So why do I love Russia? The Russians I’ve encountered possess the most incredible capacity for hope and regeneration. Sviyazhsk was rebuilt from rubble. Kazan, formerly the youth crime capital of Russia, is now considered one of the safest cities in the country. A babushka born and raised under Stalin can laugh with the American student over fresh cottage cheese. And ultimately, nothing beats a home-cooked Russian meal.
For the curious, above you’ll find syrniki (sweet fried cheese pancakes), Tatar honey, fresh sour cream, and berries from the market. Shout out to Mama Katya for the hospitality and the syrniki cooking lesson!