Final destination? A mystery to Russians

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As the midnight train rolled gently from under the covered platforms of Moscow's Leningradsky Station, heading for St. Petersburg, I looked back and smiled. Tomorrow my friend Victor would see his grandmother, who helped build the Moscow subway system when the Soviet Union was young. She worked sometimes in bare feet, in water to her knees, with great hope for Russia's future.

Victor waved and smiled back. He understood the irony. He, too, was trying to build something, a life for his family in a newly non-communist Russia, but he and his generation were not finding as much success. Since the Soviet Union fell apart, to his grandmother's great sadness, he had lived more in fear than in hope - fear for his job with a Western company that was losing money in Russia and fear for the future of his 3-year-old son in a country that went overnight from a superpower to a basket case, and was trying to struggle back. He wondered whether the oppressive parts of the Soviet Union would return.

I had business in St. Petersburg, the post-Soviet (and pre-Soviet) name for Leningrad. Officially, Lenin is now just a name in history, although his body remains on display under the Kremlin. But many Russians still prefer the Soviet name for the city.

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To some it evokes heroic times, when Leningrad was the frozen scene of to-the-death resistance to Nazi invaders. Others are just used to the name and, in a time when Russia is searching for a new identity, are happy to hold onto something familiar.

The midnight train to St. Petersburg felt as familiar and comforting as a grandmother's kiss. I sat on my compartment's narrow bed, drinking a glass of delicious hot tea. A picture lay face down on my lap. As we picked up speed, a little vase of plastic yellow flowers and a bottle of Saint Springs water jiggled slightly on the fold-up table under the window.

A short old man with a black mustache and bright eyes stopped outside my door. He was the conductor for this "wagon," and his eyes said he was happy to serve you, just ask. He was evidently from the "near abroad" (perhaps Uzbekistan), and he was the one who made the tea for me and others in the wagon.

He said it was "his" wagon, and he made sure that everyone had towels, pillows, extra blankets, breakfast (bread, yogurt, and cheese in a plastic container) and directions to the bathroom. He shut the little white curtains on the hallway windows. It would be a cozy night in this floating capsule of Russian hospitality.

I lifted my picture and propped it against the wall at the foot of my bed. It was a black-and-white photograph that Victor had bought for me at Ismailovo, the famous open-air market in Moscow.

Called simply "Moskva 96," it was taken from a snow-covered hill on the outskirts of the city and showed one of the Stalin-era "wedding cake" buildings, an imposing structure rising in grandeur and grandiosity above apartment buildings and churches. The day is misty and cold. You can make out some of the details of the buildings in the middle background, but the Stalinist building itself is seen only in outline. It appears to be fading into the mist. Or is it looming? It's the post-Soviet era in a snapshot on my bed.

In focus is a family on the hill. The grandmother sits silently on an idle sled, watching her two grandchildren at play. The mother is looking into the distance, her back to the city. She seems unsure of something, distrustful of the world around her, not quite certain her children will see a better world. And yet, with her hands at her sides, she seems also peaceful. Is she looking to the past or the future?

The conductor reached in and placed another glass of tea on my little window table. I thought of my friend Katya, an intelligent and beautiful woman who left Russia for a better life in the West, but who loved her country so much she was willing to defend Stalin because he gave her country pride at one of its bleakest moments.

I thought of Sergei, my driver when I visited Moscow, who brought me fresh black bread, made by his wife, every few days. He had spent his career as a Soviet tank officer, but now, to help pay his bills, he roamed Moscow in his beat-up car, listening to the sad songs of his youth on the radio and remembering those times as better than now.

I thought of Lena, whom I would see with her husband in St. Petersburg. She is an accomplished violinist with a famous orchestra and passionate about her music, but has to play for 250 rubles a week - about $9 - because the government has no funds to subsidize the orchestra, and Russian concertgoers have little money to pay for tickets.

In many cases it's true: Russians were better off under communism. They may have had the everyday stress of a system that didn't work, but at least they had stability.

The Russians I know are intelligent and educated, warm, loyal, generous. Natasha, from whom I occasionally rented an apartment in Moscow, insisted periodically on charging me less than we agreed simply because the odd days I had stayed in the past resulted in my paying a few dollars more. Whether or not it's the right way to do business (it is, of course, but that isn't why she does it; what does she know about business?), it's the right way to live. Being generous has never gone out of date in Russia.

At 7 a.m. sharp the train rolled into St. Petersburg, giving me a few hours to shower and change before my appointment. I was to meet the director of a commission to restore St. Petersburg to its former glory.

I knew he would ask me if I could help get Western money to fund the city's reconstruction. My answer would have to be "maybe."

It would depend, I would say, on which direction Russia was headed.

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