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Boomer Bytes #28: Russia – The Evil Empire

Editor’s Note: Below is another column in Steve Canipe’s series called Boomer Bytes. The column, as the title suggests, will focus on a variety of topics that may be of interest to baby boomers, those born between 1946 and 1964. But Canipe also hopes to start a conversation with younger generations, too. Check out an introduction and Canipe’s (first self-titled) column here.

  • See second column – Are We Really Old? – here.
  • See third column – Cars and More Cars – here.
  • See fourth column – Getting Educated – here.
  • See fifth column – Home Alone? – here.
  • See sixth column – Death – here.
  • See seventh column – They’re Playing Our Song – here.
  • See eighth column – Driving: Knowing When To Quit – here.
  • See ninth column – Hobbies: What’s Your Favorite – here.
  • See 10th column – ‘The Last of Life, for which the First was Made’ – here.
  • See 11th column – Volunteeering – here.
  • See 12th column – Duck and Cover – here.
  • See 13th column –  Providing for the Future – here.
  • See 14th column – Here We Go Wandering… – here.
  • See 15th column – State of Schools – here.
  • See 16th column – Our War – here.
  • See 17th column – Behind the Curtain – here.
  • See 18th column: Our Mind
  • See 19th column: Change
  • See 20th column: Memorials
  • See 21th: When is Old? 
  • See 22nd: Roles
  • See 23rd: Becoming a Dad
  • See 24th: Where Are My Roots? 
  • 25th: Is it our fault? 
  • 26th: Getting There From Here 
  • 27th: Oriental Competitor

Russia – The Evil Empire

By Steve Canipe

July 24, 2014. In column two of the travel group of four columns, we go to Russia..  This trip was a bit different as it was not taken primarily as a vacation but as a work/missionary project.  When we lived in Flagstaff, AZ, we were members of a church that was one of 23 that banded together to do mission projects.


The group is now called FaithWorks but had originally been called Flagstaff Area Christians in Mission (FACIM).  It was led by a pastor who just happened to also be a general contractor. Having this duality by the trip leader made the experience productive and rewarding.


As might be expected in a religious undertaking, there was lots of seeking for the right path to take in order to be of the most use.  Working with an international group that coordinated such trips our little group in Flagstaff became immersed in the prospect.  We found out that we were going to be going to an orphanage in Moscow to actually work.  The total number in the group was a dozen…each having varying degrees of technical expertise.


The flights from Phoenix to Denver to Frankfort to St. Petersburg were uneventful.  Our leader had decided that we could also do some cultural things while in the expansive country.  Starting in St. Petersburg we began learning about the people and the earlier czars.  We experienced a riverboat trip that gave us an overview of the city.  We learned of the deprivations that happened during the siege in World War II in the war museum. We had an opportunity to visit the Hermitage, which was part of the czar’s Winter Palace.  It was founded in the mid-1700s and houses vast collections of beautiful art works from paintings to jewelry.


After having visits to the plush Summer Palace and considering the differences between the peasants and the czars, it was pretty obvious why the Bolsheviks were able to mobilize the people to revolt.  The disparity between those with and those without was astounding. It caused me to think at the time and even more so today as I reflect on it – the disparity of workers and business rulers – the differences from the average wages to the CEO are now staggering. Business Week reported in 2013 “Bloomberg’s average ratio for Standard & Poor’s 500 companies is 204; the average of the top 100 companies … is 495.” This is not as great as the disparity in pre-Communist Russia but is approaching it.


After enjoying St. Petersburg for a couple of days, we boarded the midnight train to Moscow.  We were not doing the tourist trek but were on the train for everyone.  We were certainly looked at strangely because like most Americans we had way too much luggage.  In addition since we were going to be working we had suitcases with tools as well!  Fitting into a small overnight cabin on the train was difficult for 4 adults and all of our luggage – personal and work.


Upon arrival in Moscow at the train station, we gathered our belongings and boarded a bus to our destination in southeast Moscow – Orphanage #105. Driving across the city it was pretty much like any large city, more apartments were apparent than businesses.  The local vendors had very small shops.


Arriving in the tree-lined neighborhood where our worksite was different that what I had expected.  It looked like a pretty normal urban street with apartments, small shops, and of course the orphanage #105.  After a brief exploration of the facility, which had been built under Stalin, we proceeded to unpack and settle in. For the next 10 days or so we worked replacing flooring, window coverings, doors, and painting the walls.


We found out that the orphanage was not the traditional orphanage but was mostly for social orphans (those whose parents were still alive but were drug users, in prison, or otherwise deemed not fit).  The orphans were also classified as “mental” meaning they were developmentally behind.  Further study indicated that in many, maybe all cases, since the children had been living on the streets they did not go to school and therefore did not meet the educational guidelines to be able to read by 7 years of age – hence the “mental” tag was applied. Observation by several educators on the trip was that these children had only missed the early learning window and were definitely not “mental.” But here they were fighting parental neglect and/or abuse along with the tag of being retarded. Many of us, had we been younger would have gladly adopted them and brought them home.  My favorite was a little kid named Nikita!!


In addition to the work being done in the orphanage to rehab a wing for holding about 50 more girls, the group found time to interact with the children, teaching them some good old American baseball and being taken to the cleaners when they tried to teach us soccer!  We also took them to the Moscow Circus.


Our work hours were modified so that we began working early around 6 AM so that we were finished shortly after lunch at 1 PM or so. This gave us time to do some cultural exploration in Moscow.  We were about a 20 minute walk to the subway station and used it to good advantage.  If you have traveled in most European countries and tried to use public transportation, you know that you can attempt a pronunciation of the words you see and while the locals might have no idea what you were saying – you knew!


In Moscow, since they use the Cyrillic alphabet, most words were not pronounceable.  How do you pronounce backwards “R” or  ”N” letters?  Letters that look like the letter “pi” or our numeral “3” were also not known.  We were told by our local guide how many stops to take and then get off.  The trains were really speedy and the doors would definitely close on you, so getting all of us onto one train car was difficult – so knowing “third stop” or “sixth stop” was helpful.


The art work in the subway stations was beautiful. The stations had been designed during the cold war when they thought that the Americans were going to drop nuclear bombs on them…they were to be bomb shelters and were deep underground.  Not too many years earlier taking photos in the stations was forbidden since spy photos could have been used to help defeat the purpose of the bomb shelters.


Visits to Red Square, the Kremlin, St. Basil’s, Russian Orthodox Monastery, a huge flea market, and the World War II memorial rounded out our cultural experiences. Each of them was unique in its own way.  One of the most moving was the WW II museum.  It was done in grand style – it was huge.  Inside there were dioramas and unlike in many museums where they are scale models – not here – real tanks, planes, buildings were used – the dioramas were massive.


Two of the most moving exhibits, to me, were the walk in the Hall of Remembrance and Sorrow and going to the Victory Park Holocaust Monument.  In the hall as you walk down the corridor to a lit statue there are crystals hanging from nearly invisible lines.  They are back lit and represent tears from the six million Russians killed in World War II.  The Holocaust Monument starts with depictions of men, women, and children – as you proceed through the statue, the figures begin to lean and lose form.  Upon turning a corner, the figures are lying on the ground and are without features at all and the end is only a pile of shoes. Each exhibit is a very poignant reminder of the pain of that war. The museum itself is good but would be better if the signs were also in English or if there was an auditory guide that could help in understanding the displays.


This was certainly a different type of trip – tying in the mission of rehab of a wing of an orphanage along with the culture of a country that is still remembering the World War II.  The visits outside were welcomed after painting walls in the redone girls section the pastel pink that looked like the stomach antacid!!  The girls loved the color, I am told!!


I mentioned earlier that I was going to do several travel columns on exciting places I’ve been.  Russia was certainly an exciting place to visit especially as I was there on a missionary project…feeling both useful and learning at the same time. The two other trips in this column series (India and Africa) are different from China and Russia. If you cannot go in person to these places, I hope that vicariously you can enjoy what my wife and I have seen and at least consider what I saw and how I reacted.


I hope that you will share your former or current travels with readers, either through posting at the end of the column or on Facebook or by writing to me at boomerbytes@yahoo.com.  I do want to hear from you. Not just the glorious things you have seen but your feelings about the people you’ve met.


Next week join me on an exploration to India, including New Delhi, Taj Mahal, cremations on the ghats, Bengal tigers, and many more places.  Get ready for the next two columns.  For a preliminary view of some photographs from India, visit the website linked here.