Friday, March 2, 2012
Isolation on the Road
As our bus left St. Petersburg for Vytegra, I quickly fell asleep. Having woken up early that morning, the gray sky and ramshackle buildings on the outskirts were enough to put me to sleep well before we made it outside the city limits. We were already in the countryside by the time I woke up. Glancing down at my watch, I realized that I had not been asleep for very long—apparently, the transition between urban St. Petersburg and rural provincial Russia is abrupt and seemingly worlds apart. Soon we stopped by a rest area for a bite to eat. Inside was a café, which, admittedly, was much nicer than I expected it to be. (I later found out not only that this rest stop was new, but that it was the only such oasis on the entire route from St. Petersburg to Vytegra.) After buying an apple and some orange juice, I stepped outside. The young lady at the register was pleasant (it was obvious to me that it was obvious to her that my fellow travelers and I were foreigners) and I found myself wondering where she was from, how she ended up working at this roadside rest stop, and what her future held.
A couple hours later, I found myself wondering the same thing about our young, fashionable waitresses at a small restaurant just outside the Alexander Svirsky Monastery. Apart from the monastery and the handful of dilapidated houses and shops surrounding it, there was nothing—just birch trees and snow. Where did these waitresses come from, and why were they still there? How frequently did they encounter outsiders—particularly Americans? Where did they buy their stylish clothes? How often could they escape to the European playground that is St. Petersburg? These questions, which in hindsight seem like demeaning trifles, genuinely crossed my mind. The isolation of their small community seemed unbearable, and I wondered whether I would be able to survive in such a place. All roads leading in and out were in extremely poor condition—it was, quite literally, a challenge just to depart.
For all the infrastructural shortcomings and intolerable isolation of the surrounding area, the Alexander Svirsky Monastery was breathtaking. In the midst of a seemingly hopeless village stood this beautiful complex of a centuries-old symbol of Russian religion. The white walls of the monastery appeared to blend seamlessly with the snow on the ground. Whereas the isolation of the nearby restaurant had given me an impression of misery just minutes earlier, the isolation of the monastery was beautiful, peaceful, and entirely fitting. How can the isolation of one place mean two different things? Here we see another contradiction of the Russian provinces—the simultaneous beauty and misery inherent in its natural expanses.
The story of the monastery itself is fascinating. Having been converted into a psychiatric hospital during the Soviet era and only recently restored to serve its original religious purpose, the monastery’s transformation is symbolic of Russia’s tumultuous history. As was the case for other religious institutions, the Soviet experience brought with it a top-down imposition of cultural censorship and submission before the party apparatus: monks were executed, religious icons were boxed up, and mentally ill patients soon moved in. It was hard to imagine that this place was once anything but a fully functioning monastery. As we have learned, religion is a central tenet of Russian provincial life; the Alexander Svirsky Monastery is exemplary of the post-Soviet religious revival. But even so, the monastery remains isolated and, for all its holiness, houses a relatively small number of monks. Like so much else in the provinces, the monastery is at once a stunning symbol of the traditional Russian heartland and a reminder of its turbulent past.