A Russian Reverie

Winter in Russia comes suddenly. The humid heat of summer vanishes, the leaves drop to the streets exposing the skeletons of the trees, the sun rises late and departs in the early afternoon depriving the land of her solar rays. It didn’t really matter, the sun never felt warm anyways. Snow clouds park above the city and dump hateful flurries of snow and sheets of ice onto the life below. Despite Mother Nature’s angry tantrum, the residents of the city have no choice but to cover as much skin as possible in wool and fur and go about the necessities of sustaining their life.


Mid afternoon in December 2001, Samara, Russia. I’m standing in front of a statue of Lenin.


Under the awning of a bus stop, my muscles tight, my body hunched over with my hands in my gloves and my gloves in the pockets of my leather, fur lined coat, I stared up into the darkness as snowflakes rushed at me from the black sky. They did not drift or float, they fell like heavy drops of water. Some of the snowflakes passed through the glowing light of a single, dingy yellow light bulb that poked awkwardly out of a brick wall, like a pimple on a featureless face. Human life on the street beneath the harsh light of the bulb hurried along in silence as pedestrians scurried along stiffly, their knees and elbows stuck like frozen hinges, passing each other in silent contempt and indifference while carrying grocery bags or purses. Their silhouettes appeared blurry to me in the darkness and only took human shape as they passed under the yellow light before vanishing back into the darkness. The streets were quiet, like a cemetery, no one spoke.

An engine roared as a bus pulled near the curb. The bus looked blue or maybe gray, I couldn’t tell in the dark but I could tell it was rusty. Ice frosted the thin glass windows around the edges, giving the appearance of a cracked mirror. The number “2″ written on a piece of wood pressed against the windshield told me this was the bus that would take me home. A few passengers, mostly elderly women, stepped off the bus, gripping the handrail and not letting go until their rubber boots were planted firmly against the ground. The ice hidden beneath the snow could be sneaky and unforgiving and result in broken hips.

The mob that had endured the bitter cold lost patience and fought to get onto the crowded bus. I was in no hurry and waited at the back of the crowd as others fought to enter. I had lived in Russia long enough and I knew that I could squeeze, maneuver, press, crawl and push myself in if I had to, just like a Russian. Once inside the bus I felt the heater blast hot air against my face and my body began to relax, like a frozen piece of chicken thawing on the counter. On the radio I recognized the Russian music. The song had been popular in the summer and for a moment I felt warmth spread through my limbs as I thought back to sunny days, shish kabobs, and picnics in the forest.

“Young man, are you getting off here?” The woman over my shoulder asked. I shook my head left to right and she squeezed past me. I still had a ways to go. At the bus stops, more people would exit than board and finally a seat became free. I sat down in the darkness, cold on the outside, sweaty inside my coat and tired. I was tired of the darkness at noon, tired of apartments with no heating, tired of wet socks and the thin shoes I wore. I looked around the bus at the other people riding. They all had on leather coats like me, some of the women in fancier furs. Each face weary and tired and red from frost bite, but relieved to be almost home to warmth and comfort. Almost. At that moment, for the first time since I had moved to Russia, I realized just how far away from home I was. I didn’t know why, I hadn’t been home in over a year, almost two years actually, but the thought stung me, the way my ears stung when I didn’t wear a hat.
The windows rattled behind my head as if they were about to burst when the bus hit a small pothole.

Over the radio a song I knew, in my native language, began to play.

“Everybody’s doing a brand new dance now/come on baby do the locomotion.”

In the dark, I smiled to myself and thought, “I’m the only person on this bus who understands the words to this song.”

The thought had barely scampered across my mind before a heavy loneliness crushed down on me. I never felt so alone in my whole life. Never before and never since have I felt so alone and so far away from anything familiar as I did then, in the dead of winter, late at night, in a Russian bus, driving across the frozen tundra.

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    November 2, 2009

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  • Paul (Павел)
    June 16, 2010

    Hello, Seth. I beg your forgiveness for my terrible English, I’m from Russia, as well as becomes clear from your story, we have here – all terrible. Strange that you never told me anything like when I was in our country. Your story surprised me and showed me the truth about the place where I was born and still live. In your opinion, I’m living in hell (so I understand from your story), where there is nothing good, where people are constantly scorn friend – a friend and do nothing, that are freezing. And even the sun goes around these places side.
    In your story is inaccurate. I hasten to help you understand them.
    In the tundra, you’ve never been and have no idea what this magical place. Russian winter proved to be difficult for you, from what little you have lived in Russia, rather than by the fact that she was terribly cold. People we do not despise each – a friend, but do not know (no talking), by the fact that the bulk of their time they must spend at work, not entertainment. That makes them only the nobler and stronger. Besides, you’re unlucky, you’re in town (I’m talking about Ulyanovsk), which was built a little time ago and there were people who had little in common culturally and socially. If you did not understand all this, while you lived in Russia, then of course pointless to me to write to you about it. Furthermore, you showed yourself a duplicitous man with the moral side, and it is the worst. Not that bad, that you stayed with the impression of Russia and the people in it, but that’s bad that you lost yourself. I just realized that I lost a friend, whom he considered a knowing and a kind man, which bored. Now I know this loss occurred at all times.

  • happyCanadian
    June 30, 2010

    A vivid and accurate narrative. I particularly liked your sentence about the bus culture: “I had lived in Russia long enough and I knew that I could squeeze, maneuver, press, crawl and push myself in if I had to, just like a Russian.” That is so true anywhere in Russia.

  • Doug
    November 5, 2010

    You were never alone.

    Я знаю


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