Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Russian Affair, Part 2

I tagged along with a group of Washington & Jefferson College students and professors touring what once was the Soviet Union in January 1994. My first look at Russia came in the gray light of dawn, through the sooty window of a train rolling slowly through frosted brownfields. The car rocked, its silent cruising punctuated by the clack and screech of wheels on track. Gray, white and brown clouds spewed from smokestacks. My forehead pressed against the cold glass.
"Gloomy, yet dirty," one of the students sharing my view joked.

A little later, we entered the Metro station and descended deep into the earth on a long, quick escalator. At the bottom were three-foot-thick steel doors, meant to shelter a population huddled underground in the event of nuclear holocaust.
Those doors are symbols of the philosophical divide between East and West. In America, we stocked our own private fallout shelters; each house has its own water heater. In Russia, the fallout shelters are collective, and hot water is piped to your apartment from a central heating plant.

I did a good bit of exploring on my own that January, which nearly proved fatal. Intending to visit the Moscow bureau of the Associated Press, I called and asked for directions and took the Metro to the suggested stop. But walking from there, I realized I had to cross an eight-lane avenue. There were no crosswalks or traffic lights to be seen, and the traffic was heavy and fast. I waited for a break in the traffic for a few minutes, then made my move. I sprinted onto the pavement but realized halfway across that I had miscalculated the speed of oncoming cars. I was caught in the middle, with no median. This was at night, and I was wearing dark clothing. Vehicles, blinding me with their headlights, flashed by so close as to buffet me, their horns blaring.
At last, I dashed for the other side, then stood bent over, hands on knees, sweating, thighs aching and shaking from the rush of adrenaline.

Later, after my appointment at AP, I faced the same problem getting back to my hotel. There has to be a better way, I thought. This time, I entered the stream of pedestrians that flowed a few hundred yards past where I had crossed the furious avenue. I followed people down steps and into an underpass, well-lighted and lined with kiosks. Emerging on the other side of the avenue, I realized my earlier stupidity.

I often think about that moment of terror, and how easily I might have been killed. Every experience since then seems like a bonus.

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