I spent nearly 2 years in Tula, Russia, and Minsk, Belarus as a service missionary for my church. My time there was life-changing in a way that is impossible to describe in a short blog post, but I’ll attempt it later on in this post. So, don’t get bored; keep reading.
Before I delve deeper, let’s rewind to a few days ago when a friend asked me a politically germane and thoughtful question:
“Would you want to go to Russia again?”
At the time, I simply said, “I wouldn’t want to take my family right now, but I’ve been back a few times, and I do want to go again.”
I didn’t have much time to think about my response in the moment, but the question has impacted my thoughts profoundly for the past few days, especially in light of our current political climate.
So, here is why my answer is “yes.”
My friends live in Russia. Larisa lives there. Nadya lives there. Katya lives there. Yulia lives there. Tanya lives there.
These 5 beautiful Russian women were among a small group of friends who enthusiastically greeted me at the train station the first day I arrived in Tula.
Their kindness put me at ease.
They smiled, laughed, wrapped their arms around me, and presented me with their city’s unique, vastly popular, and traditional treat.
Funny sidenote: the treat (Tulskie Pryaniki) was so gorgeous, I thought it was a wall decoration for a good month until Larisa asked me why I hadn’t eaten the cookie they gave me. “I’m sorry, you mean to tell me this wall decoration is a cookie?”
These friends patiently helped teach me how to communicate in one of the most complex and enchanting languages in the world–the language of Pushkin, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and Gogol. Despite their pride in their own language, these women benevolently chose to disregard my vocabulary goofs (like the one time I said I wanted to go home and “take a huge sh*t” instead of “go to sleep”) declension mistakes (don’t even get me started), and didn’t laugh too hard when I ordered 4 kilograms of apples instead of 4 apples total. They talked my ear off every day until, finally, a few months later, I was able to actively participate in conversations.
I remember the first time I understood a joke told in Russian. It was a blonde joke.
“There is a blonde and a brunette stuck in the elevator. Both people begin to panic, so the brunette starts screaming ‘help, someone, help,” and the blonde just sits there. Finally, the brunette suggests they scream together for help. So, the blonde turns and looks at the brunette, and starts screaming “together, together!”
My first response was, of course, laughter. The second was bewilderment that my Russian friends told and laughed at the same jokes my friends and I laughed at in America.
We were the same.
Our countries are different. Our histories are different. Our languages are different. Our politics are different. Our systems of measurement are different. Our art is different. Our transportation systems are different. Our upbringings are different. Our religions are different. Even our ketchup is different.
But, we as people have so much more in common than not.
We laugh at the same jokes. The themes of the stories we tell highlight the same principles. We put our arms around each other the same way to calm a frightened person in a new environment. We make friends the same way. We love the same way.
So, my real answer is: Yes, I want to go back to Russia. I want to re-immerse myself in the language that I grew to adore and I pine for every day. I want to make (and eat) vareniki with Nadya and reminisce about the random trips we took to Moscow. I want to ride my bike along the Baltic Coast in Kaliningrad with Larisa. I want to learn about Tanya’s hard work and advocacy for animal rights. I want to snuggle Yulia’s babies and get annoyed at how much better they speak Russian than I do.
I want to land in Sheremetevo, take the train to Tsaritsino, and get in a route taxi until I reach the city where I learned that politicians don’t get to assign meaning to a whole complex country full of kind people; we get to. And, we must.