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Faces of an Old Empire

Russia. Everyone in the train held his breath as two tall and acerbic Russian officers entered the coach to get our passports. Outside stood two equally imposing Russian guards armed with rifles, each followed by mean-looking police dogs. We were on the border separating Finland and Russia for the last leg of our tour. Travel guides back home informed us that the trip to the former Soviet Republic could prove to be perilous. The group before us lost their belongings to looters posing as guards. This was common in a poor country trying to outgrow its communist roots. What drove us to continue the journey was the promise of an opulent past embodied by majestic cathedrals and palaces that abound in the old empire.

I was not disappointed, for in Russia I saw grandness and splendor unlike anything I had seen in Europe. Cathedrals with colorful facades and golden domes proudly dominated the smog-laced skyline. Paintings, sculptures, and relics by the most prominent artists in the world adorned Russian museums. Impressive palaces carefully preserved through the years bested the grandest in all Europe.

In St. Petersburg, formerly Leningrad, I frolicked in palace grounds decked with life-sized statues in gold, peeked into grand ballrooms done in intricate golden floral patterns, and wandered in sitting rooms with wall-to-wall paintings of beautiful Russian women also framed in gold. It was as if gold was the most abundant resource of the country.

Surrounded by such magnificence, I couldn’t help but weave fairy tale dreams about the luxurious lives of the former czars who once occupied these palaces. Yet once I stepped outside, I was greeted by reality, and it was no fairy tale.

In the streets, I saw poverty and misery etched in the ashen faces of the people I met: a forlorn young gypsy girl begging for food as she clutched his sleepy baby brother outside a five-star hotel; a despondent old lady trying to peddle Russian dolls to uninterested tourists; a pallid young man staring blankly at the passing cars as the bus he was on slowly inched its way in the Moscow rush-hour traffic. I had never seen this kind of hopelessness. And it stared back at me everywhere I looked. It seemed like the people in this country never learned how to smile.

Looking at them, I could only feel deep disgust for the inefficiency of the former system and the avarice that possessed those ghosts in the golden houses who once ruled their land. (1996)


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