On a visit to Russia in 2012, we had a sense that the country was passing through the third and perhaps most important turning point in its thousand-year history. We were on a river cruise, beginning in Saint Petersburg and traveling in an inverted V up to the Northern Lakes and down to Moscow. It was a halcyon time, celebrating memories of the Cold War now dead and buried. How could we have known that unrest in the Middle East would spread to the Ukraine and East-West tensions would rise again?
On our river cruise, there was a group of young women (maybe late twenties, early thirties) who were charged with guiding us on this journey of hopeful reconciliation. In a continual refrain, they reminded us that we were of the generation that thought of Russia as the Evil Empire on the far side of the globe, and now we were cruising down the rivers together enjoying conversations about Russian history and politics. These women seemed to feel no restraints in confiding their opinions about modern Russian leaders from Stalin to Putin. Standing before a statue of Lenin in a riverside town, one of them said, “Today he is a laughing stock.”
From the Caravan Journals: On the River Volga, north of Moscow, we stopped at a town called Uglich, which boasted a beautiful little place of worship called Church on the Spilled Blood of Saint Dimitri. It was dedicated to a ten-year-old boy who was killed in the Time of Troubles (1585-1613) between the two Russian dynasties, the Rurik and the Romanov. He was murdered as a preventative against his following in the line of succession from Ivan the Terrible.
Sitting in the marketplace of Uglich, I was briefly joined by a high school history teacher from California who explained to me that the key to understanding Russia of the 16th century was in its isolation from Europe. He said that Russia, deeply consumed with its internal politics, had missed the Renaissance. The rebirth for Russia, he said, would come with the rise to power of Peter the Great (r. 1682-1725) and his passion for European culture. In Saint Petersburg, I had purchased a small figure of Peter to put next to my keyboard as a reminder of the importance of his influence.
Russia is one of the countries covered in this part of MovieJourneys whose history will be treated in its entirety. It has a discernible arc from ancient to modern times and is best viewed as a whole tapestry. The movie, Russian Ark (2002), emphasizing the legacy of Peter the Great, will be significant here.