Our first night in St. Petersburg, Russia, led us to Dumskaya, a lively collection of bars and nightclubs that are stuffed into a decaying facade about a mile from the Winter Palace. The Russians had just sent soldiers into the Crimean region of Ukraine. The West was just awakening to this unfortunately timed power grab by Russian President Vladimir Putin, only days after his Sochi Winter Olympics had ended to international applause, and there was no doubt how it would be received back home.
My friend Sam and I, to be honest, were unaware of what was happening in Crimea. We had traveled from Moscow by train that day and were in a traveler’s haze. We walked down Dumskaya and were drawn to a small karaoke bar. When we approached the bouncer at the door, he asked us where we were from, and we naturally assumed our night would be starting elsewhere.
“The U.S.,” I offered hesitantly.
The young man smiled.
“Come in!” he urged us.
We shouldn’t have been surprised. During our four days in Moscow, we had been treated warmly by the Russians we encountered, especially those in the 35-and-under crowd. But even after seeing the true heart of this complicated country that spans nine time zones, we hadn’t quite been convinced by the openness that wafts freely in the cities, within blocks of Red Square or the Winter Palace.
Later, Sam and I would sing our way well into the morning at another karaoke spot called “Poison,” which was packed with locals singing only American and British hits. At one point, a Syria-born student put his arm around us, said “our countries do not like each other” and then asked if we would perform a Bob Marley song with him. It was just that kind of night. Sam and I opted for a performance of Blink 182’s “All the Small Things,” which had the entire joint crowding around us and singing along.
Until that moment when we unleashed our distinctly American air guitars, a few locals had been skeptical that we were actually from the United States (apparently Russian men have been known to try to trick women into thinking that they are from America).
After our performance, we had their attention. I told them that I was a journalist who had covered the Sochi Games for a newspaper in Pittsburgh. These were college students in St. Petersburg who considered themselves modern-day revolutionary thinkers, smoking their cigarettes in a side room away from the chaos. They did not like their president, they did not appreciate the $51 billion he spent for a two-week public relations show in Sochi, and they were unafraid to say it.
When the night came to an end — well, our night, anyway — one of the students pulled me toward him with an uncomfortable urgency.
“Tell the truth about our country,” he said.
I spent five weeks in Russia, starting with a trip to Magnitogorsk to write about Evgeni Malkin. Most Russians will never set foot in Magnitogorsk — it would be like an American just randomly deciding to visit Gary, Ind., or Flint, Mich. — so I feel as if I have gathered a unique perspective.
Most of the people of Magnitogorsk had never met an American. They were fascinated, some asking to see my passport to make sure it was true. I’ve never felt like an attraction. What pressure!
I felt as though I had to give people a positive impression of Americans. And, no matter where I was, I sensed that the Russian people were doing the same. We met in the middle, and what resulted was the most interesting and fun travel experience of my life.
The Russia I know is Vladimir Malkin, Evgeni’s father, bringing me in for a hug before we’d even shared a word and saying “We’re so glad you’re here.”
It is Anton and Kirill introducing me to Armenian and Georgian food in Magnitogorsk and calling me a friend.
It is talking with Ida in Moscow about voting in Russia, how pointless it feels because the opposition will never win but how she goes out and does it anyway, out of duty.
It is Margarita in St. Petersburg deciding after meeting us one night to give us a walking tour of her city the next day.
The Russia I know is not brainwashed. The young people of the Russian cities do not fear their government. Politics are discussed freely in a never-ending swell of smoke.
In America, we frown on public talk of politics with people we don’t know — because who wants to risk having to listen to the other side? — but thankfully we have disallowed smoking.
The divide in Russia is between these 20- and 30-somethings and the older generations who lived through the harsh Soviet times, are more fearful of authority and have seen their lives improve over the last two decades. Change in Russia will have to come from the young, and it would be a shame if another revolution is needed.
That, of course, was the threat to Vladimir Putin when the Ukrainian opposition and malcontented young people took over in Kiev. It sent a dangerous message: If a corrupt government can be overthrown in a next-door neighbor, why not in Moscow?
Mr. Putin’s high-risk intervention in Crimea is meant to squash such thoughts.
But the Russian government’s actions of today should not be confused for the Russian future that resides in the minds of the young.
The Russia I know is welcoming, intelligent, mostly bilingual and certainly willing to work with Americans to make a better world.
J. Brady McCollough is a staff writer (firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1158, Twitter: @BradyMcCollough).