Russians who couldn’t speak English showed me constant acts of kindness. In Samara, where my Airbnb hostess was away, her mother mutely presented me with a specially made jar of her apricot jam. Sadly, I couldn’t take it on the flight.
The town I will remember best is Kaliningrad — German Königsberg until 1945. The cathedral where Immanuel Kant is buried lies in a pleasantly landscaped park. Wandering the lanes and lawns, I suddenly realized: I’m walking on top of what used to be downtown Königsberg. In the park, and in various local museums, you can admire lovingly presented black and white photo’s showing the electric trams that ran through this spot in the 1880s, the swinging cafes of the day, the German kids playing on the streets. Kaliningrad was once a place of Soviet triumph: the central square, which in the last years of Königsberg was Adolf Hitler Platz, has been renamed Ploschad Pobedy (“Victory Square”. But lately Kaliningrad has also become a place of sad remembrance. This was once a great, rich, beautiful, connected European city, a kind of Hamburg or Amsterdam. Many locals now mourn that lost place.
Meeting these provincial Russians yearning for the outside world, I kept being reminded of “Three Sisters.” In Anton Chekhov’s play, the sisters in their garrison town forgotten by time long for Moscow. One of them laments, “In this town to know three languages is an unnecessary luxury. It’s not even a luxury, but a sort of unnecessary addition, like a sixth finger.”
Or again: “I don’t think there can really be a town so dull and stupid as to have no place for a clever, cultured person. Let us suppose even that among the hundred thousand inhabitants of this backward and uneducated town, there are only three persons like yourself. It stands to reason that you won’t be able to conquer that dark mob around you; ….their life will suck you up in itself, but still, you won’t disappear having influenced nobody; later on, others like you will come, perhaps six of them, then twelve, and so on, until at last your sort will be in the majority.”
That is now happening. Clever cultured provincial Russians are still thwarted, and they may never again get to see Mexicans dancing on their local streets. But at least now they are like the three sisters with internet.
Simon Kuper is a Financial Times columnist. The views expressed in opinion pieces do not necessarily reflect the position of The Moscow Times.