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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Iron Doors for Iron Curtain -- A Good Trade

When my Western friends ask me the traditional question about what is now happening in Russia, I answer: Steel doors are being installed in entryways.


Everyone is afraid of thieves, and not without reason. My friends recently accompanied their children to the train station, and when they returned, they met a couple who was taking away their belongings. They did not recognize that it was their own television the couple was carrying off, and they politely advised the thieves to hold on to it more firmly, since it was dangerously tilting to one side.


Their warning was met with gratitude. My friends are very kind, open-hearted people, and love helping others or offering advice. Within exactly three minutes, they understood where the things had come from, but it was already too late. The thieves had disappeared without a trace.


This news was the last straw for me, and I decided -- I think later than all other Muscovites -- to immediately install a steel door in my own apartment.


I am not inclined to hold such a dim view of humanity, but I had the door installed, nonetheless. Since I have still not learned how to close it properly, it only serves as a forewarning to thieves for the time being. And this terrible door and its inability to lock securely has a special, almost metaphysical meaning for me. On the one hand, I would like to secure the borders of my home. On the other, I am afraid of doing so. Absolute, steel-like closure evokes terrifying and unpleasant feelings in me, although I don't suffer at all from claustrophobia.


Looking at this impenetrable steel door, I can't help thinking of the glass door of my friends in Washington with whom I stayed for a few days last autumn. This glass could be broken by one's fist. And Washington is not a city that is free of criminal elements. The door still remains transparent; there is no fence that separates the house from the street or from neighbors.


What is happening in Russia?


There is no longer an iron curtain. But a iron door has become a necessity. The world is now open. And your apartment is closed off, like a separate government that fears an invasion.


But perhaps this protection for one's own small territory is the price for freedom of movement. I can now at least lock it up like a safe and spend a few weeks in Vermont. Such is the paradoxical nature of Russian reality.


Having painstakingly locked our doors, we are now fixed on traveling. "To Travel," the title of a new novel by Valery Narbikov, is not only about love, for which the general boundaries between "you" and "I" do not exist, but about the loss of a fear of borders on the part of Russians. It is a serious work that requires close reading. But it addresses a situation -- to travel -- that is not only reserved for the elite.


Open any Russian newspaper today and you will see that Muscovites have a wide choice of travel -- from the most banal vacation spots to the most exotic. Every place is open -- from Jerusalem and Montreal to Sidney and Cairo. And judging from the advertisements, they won't cause you to go bankrupt!


The boundless passion for travel got hold of my compatriots decades before the iron curtain came down. We became acquainted with countries abroad through the popular television show, "Travelers' Club." Russians now work, economize and put their money aside in order to see with their own eyes that the West, and even the inscrutable East, are not fantasies but the most natural of places.


Having begun to travel on a regular basis in 1988 -- to conferences, symposiums and roundtables -- not once did I ever experience the pleasures of tourism. But every chance I had to travel, of course, I tried to visit all the museums I could. And what I felt most in these multi-lingual places was that every language was spoken except Russian.


The Russian newspapers today speak about the silly and repulsive behavior of New Russians in the West. And they are undoubtedly not mistaken in what they write. But Russian can now be heard spoken by normal people, who are with their families or among friends, in such places as San Marco in Venice or the Metropolitan Museum in New York.


Not long ago, I could pick out my compatriots a kilometer away -- by their behavior, clothes, complexion and even by their odor. Now, I have more than once mistakenly addressed my own people in English. They look like anyone else and are just as tired and sit on the steps of the palace of the Venetian doges as tired Americans or Swiss would. And the faces of such people and their children shine in the presence of the bell-towers of San Marco with the same impossible happiness as those of Japanese tourists, who have always seemed to me to sharply sense the world's wonders.


But there was something wrong in the way I went to Venice.


I arrived at a conference, and could not resist the temptation of going to the square in front of the grand canal. I was transformed from a human being into a sponge that soaks things up (Boris Pasternak's words).


This wasn't right, because there were couples around me. They were young, not so young, but these were couples, or groups of tourists or families with children, and I was alone. One should not go to this city alone, because it is necessary to constantly share one's admiration for it.


One of my daughter's friends recently traveled alone to Paris on the cheapest bus fare she could find, and three months later took her mother there, who had never traveled anywhere in her life.


And there is already nothing that can stop such occurrences. Close the world off again? No, it won't happen. Let us install steel doors for the time being to protect us from thieves. We have already gained what is most important: to travel. The door is open.


The word "tourism" in Soviet language was somehow unpleasant, but it has always been difficult to explain why. I now am beginning to understand why I never took advantage of Soviet tourism, which afforded such opportunities as climbing the Caucasus or kayaking in Karelia.


Apparently, I was not psychologically prepared to travel in the strictly defined geographical territory of the U.S.S.R., even if it encompassed everything from tundra to subtropical lands. I did not want to travel cooped up in a territory, however beautiful it was.


Now that the empire has ended, I am sorry that I never visited the republics, and it is unlikely that I will ever see the blue-gold dream of Bukhara.


But when we Russians now travel along the Volga and share our enthusiasm with our friends abroad, perhaps what we have most gained is our ability to travel.


By the way, I still intend to learn how to lock that cursed door of mine -- just in case.





Natalya Ivanova is deputy editor of Znamya. She contributed this essay to The Moscow Times.