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Russian Chronicles: Ten Years Later
Writer Revisits People, Places A Decade After First Journey

Lisa Dickey
Special to washingtonpost.com
Tuesday, September 27, 2005 11:00 AM

Writer Lisa Dickey, who traveled across Russia a decade ago for the original Russian Chronicles, was online Tuesday, Sept. 27, at 11 a.m. ET to discuss her current journey and her blog about the people and places she is revisiting.

Read the current Russian Chronicles blog, and the original .

The transcript follows.

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Lisa Dickey: Hi, everyone - David and I are in Ulan Ude, just back from the farm in Galtai. Looking forward to answering your questions!

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Baltimore, Md.: For some years now, I have wished to visit Russia. However, since I am wheelchair-mobile, my fear is that the historically and culturally interesting places which most tourists would like to visit would be completely inaccessible to me. Moreover, I am concerned that Russia does not even have the "vocabulary" to address access issues since resources are so limited. Could you please address if you can? Thank you.

Lisa Dickey: You are correct that in Russia, many places will be inaccessible to you. Unfortunately, Russia is not a country where very much attention has been paid to this situation. Even getting on the metro in Moscow and St. Petersburg would be very difficult, as there are stairs and escalators, but no elevators that I know of. And as far as I know, there's no real movement to change that. Wish I could offer a more optimistic outlook!

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Harrisburg, Pa.: What are the attitudes towards America that you found among Russians? Are there generational differences, perhaps among older Russians who grew up fearing Americans and younger Russians who have learned more about our culture?

Lisa Dickey: For the most part, we've been greeted with curiosity more than anything. I've been surprised that, ten years later, I feel MORE exotic as an American than I did in 1995. Honestly, in Birobidzhan and Chita, it felt like we each had three heads or something -- people just looked at us with very open curiosity, practically staring at us. I wouldn't have thought that Americans would be such a rarity these days, especially since there are so many Americans adopting Russian babies and children now. But that's the response we've gotten so far.

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Washington, D.C.: Siberians are proud people and sometimes feel neglected by Moscow. How do Siberians feel about Putin and Moscow now?

Lisa Dickey: We've gotten the whole gamut of responses when we've asked people about Putin. Many have told us that he's exactly what the country needs -- a strong leader who doesn't bend to anyone else's will. Others feel like he's too dictatorial. We've had some who've told us that, although his tendencies were dictatorial, that's exactly what Russia needs. Many seem to think that Russia could not survive with the kind of absolute freedom they believe Americans live under. 'We're different people from you,' they tell us.

The jury's still out on Putin, I think. He's been in power for five years, but it's of course difficult to tell what he's responsible for, in terms of the economic and social situation improving, and what would have happened anyway...

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Alexandria, Va.: I made the trip from Khabarovsk to Irkutsk(Siberia) by train in January 1984. I remember the musical sounding names of Birobidzhan, Skororodino (I mailed a Post Card to friend from here), Chita as the train stopped at the these stations. Several years later I went to Mongolia by train from Irkutsk. The train stopped at Ulan Ude for 5 hours, I believe to change wheels on the train. Khabarovsk is my favorite Russian city. In 1984, the border was closed with China. Is the border open and can you enter China today from Khabarovsk?

Lisa Dickey: We're told that it's very easy now for Russian citizens to travel to China. In Vladivostok, there were cheap tours -- Russians could go for 2 or 3 days to China, without a visa, and then the companies that arranged their travel would bring back the maximum amount of goods -- liquor, or whatever -- allotted for each person. That way, the travel agency could make money on the side, keeping the prices cheap for Russians.

The Russians' attitudes toward China have been most interesting this time around. Many fear the economic impact China is having -- they feel like Russia is now flooded with cheap Chinese goods, putting Russian factories and workers out of business. Many have told us they think China will soon take over the world. There's a real friction between the cultures, I think, though not open hostility that I've seen. Many have told us that the Chinese are the most "work-loving" people they've ever seen. And I think that scares them.

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Washington, D.C.: Lisa, I enjoy reading your travelogue and having been a Peace Corps volunteer in the former Soviet Union, and I can identify with virtually everything that you write about.

I have two questions: are you subjected to prices for foreigners for your train rides, museum visits, etc.? If so, how much more are they is it?

Question #2: You got some real cool I.T. sponsors to make this happen...how'd you do it?!

I really look forward to reading more. Great job. Maladets!

Lisa Dickey: Hi - thanks for your questions. There is still a dual pricing system here for some things -- museums, for example -- but train tickets are now one price for all. This is nice for foreigners, but not so nice for Russians, as instead of lowering foreign prices, they apparently raised prices for Russians.

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Severna Park, Md.: I would guess that most of the common people who live in Russia now don't give too much thought about what specific style of government that exists as long as its not forced upon them. What have you observed, if anything that would characterize how their new system that has developed (or just come to be) in the past decade, affects their everyday life. Do they seem happy? Or do they believe another change needs to be made?

Lisa Dickey: This is absolutely true. People are very skeptical, if not cynical, about the government, and many say they don't really care what kind of government they have as long as they can wake up in the morning and know what the price of bread is going to be. If there's one complaint that people still have now -- and had ten years ago -- it's that before the fall of the Soviet Union, life was at least predictable and "stable." People are still nostalgic for a time when there weren't wild fluctuations in the value of their money, there weren't big changes in government or the press, and they could go about their lives in a relatively calm fashion. Of course, it's always easy to cast a golden hue over the "good old days," whether they were really that good or not.

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San Francisco, Calif.: Hello Lisa! I have a question about the girl who married the Spaniard. Is meeting people through matchmaking agencies a common practice in Russia these days? Tell me more about how she got set up with this guy. Thanks!

Lisa Dickey: I don't have any specific data about marriage agencies, but anecdotally I think this is pretty common. There are lots of Russian women like Katya who are drawn by the idea of living abroad, and I think there are lots of non-Russian men enticed by the idea of a beautiful Russian bride. With the Internet now so widespread, even here, it's even easier to make arrangements for strangers to meet.

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Arlington, Va.: Thank you so much for doing the blog-it is a real inspiration to me since I'm thinking about doing a trans-Sib trip next year. My question is for someone who's spent a lot of time in Moscow, what destination(s) are the most unique or memorable on your route? I really need to see the giant Lenin head though.

Lisa Dickey: The giant Lenin head is a must-see! All the places we've been to are memorable for one reason or another -- it depends on what you're looking for. For natural beauty, Lake Baikal is very hard to beat. For something completely different, the "Jewish Autonomous Region" a few hundred miles from China is pretty cool. Buryatia is fascinating, with its Buddhist culture and history. That's the great thing about Russia -- it's not all birch trees and identical villages. There's so much to this place, and every city / town we've been in has been completely different from every other place.

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Washington, D.C.: Any comments from Russians on your last name, which is awesome when translated? (FYI, "dickey" in Russian means "wild") How apropos for such a trip. Shastilvovo puti!

Lisa Dickey: Yes, we were just joking about this earlier with our hosts in Ulan Ude, Oleg and Sveta. If you translate my first name, too, you get "Dikaya Lisa" -- or "wild fox." Yeah, baby.

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McLean, Va.: Hi Lisa, Elaine Monaghan here, just saw you pop up on the Web site, curious to know whether Russians are asking you about the hurricanes and what they think about the response to Katrina. Hope all is well!

Lisa Dickey: Hi, Elaine! Glad you wrote in! Yes, the Russians are really fascinated by the hurricane situation. There has been a LOT of coverage here, in magazines and newspapers and on TV. People are really intrigued by the idea that something so terrible could happen in America, which they see as a strong, stable country. Lots of people asking me "How could this happen?" And I have no answer to give them.

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Washington, D.C.: Did you know David the photographer before the trip?

Lisa Dickey: No, I didn't know David at all. When it became clear that Gary couldn't make the trip, I had to find a photographer quickly. I found his info on Mediabistro.com, and contacted him. Basically, I asked him to make a decision immediately -- like, that day -- as to whether he was willing to come on this three-month trip through Russia. He said he was, and I'll tell you, I'm lucky he did. He's taking great pictures, and has been a great traveling companion as well...

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Washington, D.C.: How hard has it been to get on the Internet?

Lisa Dickey: Compared to 10 years ago, it's been a breeze. There are Internet cafes in every city, and you can also buy Internet cards that let you dial up locally if you have a computer and access to a landline. We also have an account with Russia Online -- 50 hours of connectivity a month for $20.

In 1995, by comparison, we had an arrangement with Sprint to upload photos via their phone lines, but there was no such thing across the country as dial-up access, or Internet cafes. And there certainly wasn't DSL.

In fact, people didn't have any clue what we were talking about when we told them we were posting to a Web site. Some thought we were trying to trick them, by hiding who we were really writing for. Now, even those who don't have computers at least know what the Internet is -- even in tiny Buryat villages.

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Washington, D.C.: Hey Lisa, Melissa Andrews here... would you say the average Russian is better off now, or ten years ago when you last visited?

Lisa Dickey: Hi, Melissa! It definitely seems that the average Russian is better off now, though pensioners still have a very hard time of it. But judging from they way people dress, to the material goods they have at home, to the amount they're able to travel -- there's a real difference between now and then. There's a substantial middle class now, whereas before it was much smaller.

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Munich, Germany: By gosh! During the Cold War, while friends of mine were visiting the Balshoi Theatre, I always believed that Russia and the Soviet Block were off limits to me, an electronics engineer working with supercomputer technology.

Now that this isn't the case, I have an interest in visiting the incredibly vast nature that Russia has to offer, such as Lake Baikal.

On the other hand, I've heard stories of vast exploitation of forests and environmental destruction due to faulty oil pipelines, etc.

What has your experience been like? Has the vastness of the land overwhelmed any sites of undue environmental neglect?

Lisa Dickey: There is definitely environmental damage that's been done here, and that's being done even today. I haven't done any research, but anecdotally, we've seen plenty of factories spewing out clouds, mounds of garbage in remote areas, and the film of coal residue on buildings.

Even so, it's totally worth it to come here and see the natural beauty Russia has to offer. It will be interesting for us to get to Lake Baikal this weekend, and find out whether that has changed at all. It was one of the cleanest, most pristine places in Russia -- here's hoping that's still the case.

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Arlington, Va.: How did you get access to the expedition to Lake Baikal if it is primarily for scientists? What are they interested in studying there?

Lisa Dickey: We got access by contacting the same scientists we went on the expedition with in 1995. The Limnological Institute (Limnological means the study of fresh water) there has a number of scientists, who study all aspects of the lake. The first time around, our expedition was focused on mollusks in the lake. This time, we don't know yet what the focus is. But there are many species of fish and animals specific to Lake Baikal, as well as scientific study of the water itself and the lake bed.

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Washington, D.C.: Is there anything that's really been surprising? Or is there anything that absolutely hasn't changed at all?

Lisa Dickey: A few things have been really surprising. I didn't think I'd see so much change in Vladivostok and Khabarovsk. In just 10 years, those cities have changed a huge amount. I also didn't think we'd be such an oddity here! We've gotten stared at as much in Russian cities as we have in the tiny Buryat villages.

In Chita, one girl who heard us speaking English on Lenin Square came up to us and in a shaky voice asked where we were from. When we told her we were Americans, I thought she might faint. Her hands were shaking, and she started to sweat. And she didn't even see us on TV.

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Bethesda, Md.: Hi Lisa. Is there a consensus on Putin among Russians or are opinions very varied?

Lisa Dickey: Opinions are very varied, though I'd say most of the people we've spoken with think he's doing a good job. Most people have nothing good to say about Yeltsin, so in comparison they like what Putin is doing. If nothing else, people praise the fact that he doesn't drink, that he's physically fit, and that he projects an aura of strength. For a country that went from being a "superpower" to a much weakened state, that kind of projection of strength seems to be very important.

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Silver Spring, Md.: So, was Buyanto happy to see you? Or did he throw you out, right back to Ulan Ude?

Lisa Dickey: That, I cannot reveal ... until tomorrow! I can say, however, that I COULD NOT BELIEVE that the first thing his sister in law said was that we hadn't sent the photos. That was a bad moment!

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Washington, D.C.: Hi Lisa, Laurent Durix here. How are Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath viewed in Russia? It has been a -huge- scandal here.

Lisa Dickey: Hi, Laurent!

Russians are, for the most part, confused by it. Many have asked me how such a thing could have happened, and as I mentioned earlier, I have no answer for them. It's gotten a huge amount of coverage here, and people in every city have asked us about it. They also ask us frequently about Sept. 11th, and one told us a few days ago that a few Russian politicians had implied the whole thing was instigated by American secret forces -- that we blew the buildings up ourselves as a pretext for going into Iraq. I don't know whether any Russian politicians really said such a thing, but I can tell you I was surprised.

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Laurel, Md.: Hi Lisa,

I visited the former Soviet Union back in '89, but spent most of my time in Ukraine. However, I did spend a few days in Moscow. How do Russians in general feel about the other former Soviet states, particularly Ukraine?

Lisa Dickey: Hi, Laurel -

People haven't said too much about the former Soviet states, except for one guy who told us Russia ought to take them all back! It seems as though people feel like they've got enough to worry about within Russia itself without worrying about other states, most of which have little in common, culturally, with Russia.

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Lisa Dickey: Thanks for your questions, everybody - and don't forget to tell us where to go with our extra week during the second half of the trip! Please feel free to email us at russianchronicles@gmail.com. Thanks!

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