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From Russia with Love: The Kindness of Strangers
It was Moscow, October, 1971, at the height of the Cold War.
The Russian language class in my high school in Denmark, where I grew up, was taking a school trip to Moscow and Leningrad. They had a few empty spots open, so my English teacher, who was also the school’s Russian teacher, invited kids from my class to join. My parents, feeling it could be a good experience, agreed to pay for the trip, and a few weeks later, we were off to Russia.
For a high school student growing up in Denmark, the Cold War was a distant back drop to teenage life. It was little other than a phrase we occassionally heard on TV, and Communist Russia was a strange entity shrouded in mystery. So obviously, having a chance to take a peek behind the iron curtain was a fascinating prospect for a teenager.
We’d been in Moscow for a couple of days, eating borscht soup and boiled cabbage in gold-gilded restaurants, and doing the usual sight seeing. And then, one evening after the trips of the day, for some reason I decided it was time to go for a walk and check out Moscow on my own. To this day, I don’t remember what spurred that decision, but I was used to roaming around in the streets of the old town of Copenhagen finding new interesting spots to explore on my own, so likely I envisioned a similar excursion.
From that, I had come to trust my sense of direction. So, I figured, I’d just start in one direction, mentally keep track of where I was coming from, and then eventually walk back again in the general direction of the hotel until I returned.
So, I started walking into the cold Moscow winter in my oversized bear fur coat purchased in a second hand store. After 10-15 minutes, I realized I was in a somewhat boring residential area and would need to find a way to move faster if I wanted to find things to see. So, I stopped at a bus stop, and jumped on the next bus that stopped.
The bus was half full of people. We drove for 10-15 minutes, and slowly the bus got more and more empty. And then, after another 10 minutes, the bus was empty, except for the driver and me. The other strange thing, I noticed, was that the bus was driving full speed past bus stops with people looking after it, confused it seemed, that the bus simply sped by instead of stopping.
I began to get an uneasy feeling. This was strange. Why were there no other people in the bus? Why didn’t the driver stop at the stops anymore? And why was he driving faster than a bus would normally seem to drive?
I went up to the driver and tapped his shoulder. I’d like to get off, I signaled, assuming he didn’t speak English. The driver looked at me. Looked forward. Then looked at me again.
And then, finally, he slowed the bus down and stopped at the next bus stop.
By then I’d been on the bus for some 25 minutes, driving an average of 35 miles an hour. The bus had taken so many turns and gone so fast, that I had no real sense of which direction the hotel was at, except for, somewhere behind me, wherever that was.
So I started walking towards the general direction of where I thought the hotel might be.
I’d been walking for about ten minutes and was slowly becoming aware of the fact that the area I was walking through looked not even vaguely similar to the downtown parts of Moscow that we’d been visiting on our trips.
“Can I help you?” It was a man’s voice speaking in English with a strong Russian accent behind me. “Where are you going?”
I showed him a card with the name of the hotel I was staying.
“Oh,” he said in his broken English. “That’s very far away.” He paused for a moment, then said, “Would you like me to show you the way?”
“Sure,” I said, “that would be very nice of you.” In the back of my mind I was wondering if he’d really take me to the hotel, but I really had no other options. And, he seemed sincere and honest enough.
Thus started a long treck through the buroughs of Moscow. Our journey back involved a walk to the subway, a subway ride, another walk with numerous twists and turn. No words were spoken; my knowledge of the Russian lanugage extended to da, niet and spaziba, and his English was not much better.
Along the way, we passed lines and lines of never smiling people waiting to buy bread, milk, or whatever happened to possibly be available at the store in question. As we were walking into the subway station a fine dusting of snow began to fall. Little Russians barbuskas with their signature scarves desperately waved ice cream sticks towards us like magical wands from small vending booths, as if somehow, the advent of snow made our desire for ice cream equally as strong as their desire to sell them.
And then, finally, after what must have been a 35-40 min. trip, we stood in front of the hotel. “So, we are now here,” my guide said. “Yes,” I said. “Thank you so much. This was so kind of you.”
“You are welcome,” he said. And then, mysteriously: “Would you like to come see the place where I live?”
It was an innocent gesture, but still, an overture that any teenage girl has learned to turn down. Besides, I'd had plenty of adventure for one day.
“No thank you,” I said. “But this was so sweet of you, I so appreciate you helping me.”
Maybe I offered to pay him, maybe I didn’t, I do not remember. But after that, he quickly said goodbye, turned, and disappeared where he had come from, back into the cold Moscow air.
This was my first meeting with the other part of Russia. The part you didn’t see on the usual tourist stops, that real part of everyday people dealing in whichever everyday way they could with a harsh reality dealt them from a non-functional system in which getting basic needs met was a daily struggle.
It was not my last, however. The second came on the streets of Leningrad, and this time, through no fault of my own. While our group was walking around in one of the more touristy areas, two young girls pulled me aside and asked if I had any blue jeans.
“We vould like to buy,” they said in a heavily accented, halting English. Puzzled, I mentally made a scan of the clothes I had brought. Why would they want blue jeans? Then I remembered the long lines in front of one shoe store rumored to have a shipment of shoes coming in. Ah, yes, that explained it.
I guess I do have a couple, I responded.
“Oh, good, vonderful. Perhaps ve kan meet you this afternoon here. You bring, yes?”
“Sure, why not,” I said. “But you don’t have to buy them, I’m happy to give them to you.”
“No, no, absolutely not, ve by from you. But perhaps, by any chance, vould you have some other clothes you could bring?”
And so, as it would be, in the afternoon I met them with a bag full of the clothing I didn’t mind parting with, most of it colorful brightly patterned blouses gathered from rummaging around used clothing stores in Copenhagen.
They seemed thrilled to see me, and even more thrilled when they opened the bag and saw what I had brought.
“Oh, tank you, tank you, this is very kind of you,” they gushed. “Now, we want to give you a big present in return.”
“No, no,” I said, “not necessary. You can just have this.”
“No, we must,” they said. “We give you nice memory from Russia. You come with us.”
I followed them through a couple of streets until we stood in front of what looked like a music store. Eagerly, they waved me in.
Inside were stacks and stacks of black vinyl LPs, covered uniformly in a thin brown cardboard sleeve with Russian Cyrillic print on them. The girls began to talk eagerly to the man behind the counter, who began to pull out LP after LP.
It didn’t mean anything to me, because there was no indication what the records were about, and the girls didn’t speak enough English to tell me what they were getting. Russian folk music, I presumed. Songs in Russian? Whatever it was, I wasn’t expecting much.
At the end, I walked out of there with a bag full of 12-15 of the brown cardboard LPs under my arm. We joyfully parted; the girls disappeared into the streets of Leningrad and I walked the few blocks back to our hotel.
Thus began and ended my one sojourn as a supplier to the Russian black market. Because looking back, with the generosity and eagerness with which my two new Russian friends repaid me, I now realize that there was more at play here than two teenage girls trying to keep up with Western fashion. In Communist Russia, as we now know, some 80% of the economy took place at the black market. And more than likely, I had just supplied my two friends with a few items that could be turned into valuable currency and used to cover far more important basic needs.
The LPs sat in the bag on the floor of my room for a couple of weeks before I came around to opening it. I took one LP randomly and loaded it onto my player, expecting to hear some Russian male voice singing a folksy love ballad.
Instead, the hauntingly beautiful notes of a Chopin nocturne filled the room.
Chopin, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff, Schumann, Mahler—the collection of LPs I had brought home from my trip was a who’s who of some of the most beautiful music from the romantic period. It was music for the soul for an often heart heavy, love conflicted Danish teenager with plenty of youthful angst to spare. And it was music I would have never found on my own.
I listened to those records every night. And, as I drifted off to sleep to the sound of Chopin’s nocturnes, I learned that sadness and beauty can exist altogether and that it is all, somehow, okay, and out there, across the ages was a kindred spirit who had known the same deep, sad, but beautiful emotions as I.
This was the kindness of strangers I brought with me back from Russia, and which—by introducing me more deeply to classical music than I had been before—shaped my life in numerous ways to come. It was one of the reasons I took music as a minor in my B.A., which in turn gave me skills that opened the door to essential, life-shaping activities I would not have been able to otherwise do. But that is another story for another time.
In Jyotish, the Indian system of astrology, Kindness of Strangers, appears as an area of planetary influence similar to marriage, children, health, and wealth. According to this system, there are many kinds of wealth. Kindness of Strangers is one of them. It is one avenue—other than money, conveyances, luxuries—through which the Universe can bestow its blessings and wealth upon you.
In the Buddhist tradition, the lovingkindness meditation is a spiritual practice teaching us to radiate love and kindness from our heart, one individual at a time. If we can hold love in our heart for one person, we can gradually expand that feeling to encompass people we don't know - and eventually perhaps those we find it hardest to love and even those we would call enemies. In today's difficult political climate, it is a potent reminder of the power we each have to make a difference through what we hold in our hearts.
So, the next time you meet a stranger, - particularly someone that you might usually ignore because he/she looks different, is from a different race, wears different clothes, is too insignificant, or whatever - take a moment. Take a moment to see the being in that person and connect, really truly connect with him or her. Whether it's a smile, a kind remark - it doesn't matter - just anything that is a reminder that we are, fundamentally, all similar beings, who share the same essence and, whether we remember it or not, travel through life on the same path of love.
Eva Norlyk Smith, Ph.D., E-RYT 200, RYT 500, is a long-time yoga teacher and co-founder of YogaUOnline.com. She has a background in health psychology and is trained as a yoga therapist in the Integrative Yoga Therapy program with Joseph La Page.