To Russia with Love

by Bobby Davis ’82 | illustration by Wren McDonald

Illustration by Wren McDonald

WATCHING THE 22ND WINTER OLYMPICS IN SOCHI revived memories of my Rollins senior year trip to the then-Soviet Union in January 1982, when we visited Moscow, St. Petersburg, and Kiev, as well as Volgograd in Crimea and Tashkent in Central Asia.

New Russia wants to display itself to the world as a high-flying dynamo of nouveau riche capitalist flash, but the Cold War was still prickly in 1982, and the Russians saw themselves encircled by a hostile world. I had never traveled abroad before, and the Soviet Union was an intimidating destination, but I was fascinated by its history and culture.

Today, Russia is led by the sinister but undeniably charismatic President Vladimir Putin; then, the cadaverous, unibrowed Premier Leonid Brezhnev ruled in the Stalinist style, only months from death. The Soviet Union leaders saw tourism as a necessary evil to bring in foreign currency. Seeing soldiers in the airports and streets and hearing rumors of secret police keeping tabs on us (not that the KGB had any interest in a bunch of Rollins students) created a slight sense of paranoia. We had entered an enclosed world; the only news of home I received while there was of the Super Bowl score and a fatal plane crash into the Potomac River from Washington National Airport.

Russia’s amenities were a bit of a challenge then. Although our hotel rooms were generally warm and comfortable, they were drab and we always had to use common bathrooms. We were told not to drink the tap water, though it came out clear and I never got sick from it. When we ventured out in the early mornings, we’d see old women shoveling snow in the streets and off the rooftops. Almost everyone we met wanted to trade us for our jeans and other clothes, records, food, and money.

Customer service was nonexistent. Hotel concierges and flight attendants were invariably stone-faced. We carried our own bags everywhere. I remember walking what seemed an enormous distance along the tracks to catch our night train from Moscow to Kiev, my hands freezing because I had forgotten to don my gloves. On the train, we rode in cramped compartments of four bunk beds, and the bathrooms smelled overpoweringly of urine.

But despite the difficulties, I loved it. It was a perfect place at the perfect time in my life.

I loved the alien environment and being surrounded by a language I didn’t understand. I loved that it wasn’t easy—the food was strange, we dressed grungy and we had to worry about the elements. I was hungry to open up to and absorb this weird and wonderful world.

The late Professor of Russian Ed Danowitz, a former Marine colonel, oversaw our merry crew. A veteran of several trips to Russia, he organized our travels with precision. Whether by buses, trains, planes, or taxis, we always got where we needed to be. He hated everything communism stood for, but his love of Russian culture overshadowed it. He also had Sisyphean patience with our frequent complaints about the food and physical conditions.

In taking us to Volgograd and Tashkent, Danowitz enabled us to see places few Americans visited then. A 400-year-old city previously known as Stalingrad, Volgograd was the scene of the most titanic battle of World War II, with more than a million soldiers killed. Having literally been flattened in the war, Volgograd was essentially an ugly, 50-year-old industrial eyesore.

Yet Volgograd boasted perhaps the most powerful war memorial site we saw: a 300-foot-tall statue called The Motherland Calls. We followed a pathway between walls displaying bas-reliefs of military scenes, past a Pietà-like sculpture of a woman holding her dead son, all leading to a small circular building, the Hall of Military Glory. Inside, an eternal flame burned in a stone hand and an honor guard of soldiers stood at attention, while the solemn sounds of Schumann’s Daydream played on. Our group often made fun of the omnipresent propaganda billboards and signs, but all recognized the enormity of sacrifice. I loved seeing beautiful places in Russia—the State Hermitage Museum, St. Michael’s and St. Basil’s cathedrals, the Ukrainian National Opera House—but here I felt we had found the true spirit of 20th-century Russia: the enormous capacity for suffering and ferocious determination to overcome all obstacles that animated their people.

That trip helped cement my fascination with other cultures, and I nod appreciatively seeing all those fresh-faced Olympians frolicking in the hills outside Sochi, knowing they are having the time of their lives while struggling with quirky discomforts that will fuel stories for a lifetime.

Bobby Davis ’82 is a native of Amityville, New York, and lives in Winter Park. He is a freelance writer and editor who enjoys reading books on history and politics and mystery/crime fiction, watching and playing sports, traveling, and being a grandfather.