"Why are you going to Russia in November?"
I was having a bit of a mid-life crisis so I decided to run away. I didn't know if I wanted to continue being a lawyer. And if I wasn't going to be a lawyer, what was I going to do? These questions were dominating my every waking moment. And they had paralyzed me. Lawyering, for me, had become an ever-deepening abyss of sorrow. I practice immigration law in Arizona, and had seen family after family torn apart by deportation. I'd heard shockingly vivid personal stories of torture and brutality; I witnessed fear and desperation, hopelessness and grief. But the worst part was that I was beginning to feel hopeless. Even when I scored major victories, like saving a survivor of sex trafficking from deportation, all I could see was the sea of despair before me.
I was burnt out.
My hope was that a roam around the motherland would be just what the doctor ordered.
Russia wasn't a random choice, no matter how odd it might seem for this sort of voluntary escape. It's no Tahiti, for example. But going to Russia is always comforting to me. It is that perfect mix of the familiar and unfamiliar. This all started in 1990, back in high school. Some unclear set of circumstances led one of my teachers to take a group of students to the Soviet Union and I got to go. I found the country to be delightfully weird (I say this now: my postcard home from that trip describes Russia as "creepy."). Afterwards, it sort of took over my life. Graduate school merely exacerbated the problem since that's when I started to take groups of students over there myself. After I got my PhD, I basically said to myself, "OK! Enough is enough!" and became a lawyer. But there's no denying that Russia still holds major sway over my traveling life.
The nominal excuse for this trip was a conference at the Russian Academy of Sciences called, "Migration Bridges in Eurasia." I was presenting a paper on the US-Mexico border, which, in case you don't know, is not in Eurasia. But the idea was to describe an immigration-policy-gone-wrong and tell a cautionary tale. Russian policies towards the influx of migrants from Eurasia are just now taking shape; after all, many of these Eurasian countries used to be part of the Soviet Union, i.e., the same country as Russia.
After arriving in Moscow, I got up early and put on my best professional costume: suit, jewelry, pumps, the works. I walked out into the cool air feeling excited and mildly triumphant. I was then crushed within an inch of my life in the metro at rush hour. Nevertheless, I emerged, rumpled but undefeated, at the Russian Academy of Sciences building, where I was immediately dwarfed by its imposing magnificence. As soon as you walk in the courtyard, you feel it. THIS IS WHERE SERIOUS PEOPLE DO SCIENCE. I felt very, very small and very, very nervous. This was my first time presenting a paper in Russian.
I didn't know anyone at the conference except the organizer, a demographer I met over the Internet. He was very kind and introduced me as "our American colleague." The conference opened with a grand ceremony as we stood for the Russian national anthem. Representatives from 26 countries were at the conference, including the ambassadors to Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. As I listened to the presentations, the problems of Eurasian migration all sounded so achingly familiar: people on the move fleeing poverty, hunger and instability. I was reminded, once again, that migration is a global issue. As Americans, we have a tendency to view our struggles with immigration as unique. America is the greatest country in the world, we believe, so of course the entire world wants to come here. But Tajiks and Kyrgyz are moving to Russia, Sudanese and Syrians are moving to Italy, Iranians and Sri Lankans are moving to Australia. What's happening in our backyard is part of a worldwide—and unstoppable—phenomenon. Uzbek construction workers in Moscow have an awful lot in common with my house-painting Mexican clients.
These thoughts swam around in my head while I hurried to the train station. The "work" portion of my trip completed, now I was headed for a train journey along the Volga River to deal with this mid-life crisis thing. I dawdled too long drinking beer so I had to run with all my bags to the train car. This meant that I was thoroughly sweaty. In fact, I was drenched with sweat nearly the entire time I was in Russia. It was November, but everywhere I went it was so warm inside. And when I was outside and moving around my coat made me sweat. I lost my scarf and I missed it so much because it had become my sweat rag. I sweated more in Russia in the winter than I do in Tucson in the summer, no lie.
I tumbled into the train and there was a stout man in a striped tank top with a giant, unrecognizable arm tattoo sitting on my bed. It looked like a sailor's top and later I find out that the man was, in fact, in the Navy. The other two occupants were a middle-aged woman and her daughter, who was maybe 10 years old. The man moved out into the hallway while I jostled everyone with my enormous coat and heavy suitcase. The man came in and sat down next to me on my bed.
I've always been grateful to get the lower berths on trains. But they are a double-edged sword. If you have the upper bunk, you're constantly climbing up and down the little ladder to get up there and once you're up you don't really have room to sit up straight. But when you have the lower bunk the person from the upper bunk is kind of always hanging out on your bed. Whenever the upper-bunk person needs to use the table they really have no choice. So, if you're the upper-bunk person your best strategy is to just constantly eat or drink something. And that's what this man did.
First, it was some kind of sauce-heavy chicken and watching him eat it was a little gross. I moved out into the hall to get away from it but, like a car wreck, I couldn't help but stare at him in the reflection in the window. He carefully pulled back the skin on each piece, picked off the meat with his fingers, gnawed the bone, and then ate the skin. He had one tiny napkin and this he used to wipe his hands and also, somehow, wipe down the tablecloth. I don't know how he did it but he managed to completely avoid staining my white sheet.
I went back into the compartment and it turns out they've all been talking about me. The girl noticed I was reading a book in English and they all began to speculate. I fessed up and told them I was an American. Outing myself is another double-edged sword: it saves people from thinking I'm an oaf when I breach some cultural norm, but it also draws attention to me and makes me talk about myself and my relationship to Russia. This makes me uncomfortable because everyone asks me the same question: Why Russia? And then I launch into some long, barely-understandable self-analysis about obsessions and curiosity and perestroika. Looking at their confused and bored faces, I wonder, "When will I learn to just say I love Tolstoy like everyone else?" (For the record I can't stand Tolstoy.)
The woman and her daughter were on their way home from a sanatorium in Zheleznovodsk where they have been on vacation for three weeks. Zheleznovodsk is famous for its healing mud and the woman joked that after three weeks of treatments they are now undoing all of it by eating junk food on the train.
The man was on a four-day journey from Rostov to Chayanda to work on the new gas line known as the "Power of Siberia." It's one of Putin's signature projects. The work sounds terrible, though, because each month the man has to travel four days by train to the worksite. He's not a young man, either—probably in his late 50s. At least he gets to fly home afterwards... and then return three weeks later.
As part of his ongoing strategy to sit on the lower bunk the man pulled out some fruit and shared it with all of us. It's kind of like an apple but it's also kind of like a pear. It's a little dry, but really sweet. He called it "aiva." Later I looked it up and realize it's a quince.
Then, my seatmates get into a heated discussion about fat. They're talking about salo, which is salted pork fatback. They both heartily agree that eating salo is incredibly good for you. But they disagree on rendered salo. You can use salo for frying potatoes, said the man, but never mushrooms. Not so, said the woman, who insisted that there is a special dual-action property of mushrooms plus salo. The man wasn't having any of it. From there the discussion morphs into alcohol, the woman claiming that berries will keep you from getting drunk on champagne. She said she once drank three bottles of champagne and had no hangover because of the frozen strawberries she put in the bottom of each glass. The man disagreed on this point as well, but then realized that he wasn't going to win any points with anybody in our compartment if he got into a detailed discussion of exactly how much he can drink.
Listening to their conversation I thought about how much I love listening to people tell their stories. It's one of the things that has brought me back to Russia time and again and also one of the reasons why I practice immigration law. It allows me this unique window into people's lives and a way to help them create new, and hopefully happier, stories.
The next morning I woke up to something called inyei—frost that barely clings to the trees. The delicate glitter was so fragile, so fleeting, that it made time stop. This quiet calm lasted into the afternoon, which is a miracle. Calm isn't usually in my repertoire of psychological states. Then, as I sat drinking tea it came to me: I am an immigration lawyer, but that doesn't mean that I have to confine my work to the US-Mexico border. Why don't I open a branch of my law office in Russia? There are plenty of people in Russia who want to immigrate to the U.S. I can serve them and spend more time in this country that, for better or worse, has a firm grip on me.
So that's what I'm doing right now—trying to get my Russian office off the ground. It's brought me back to life, this unusual project of mine. At work, English, Russian and Spanish all mix together in a constant brain-teaser that keeps me on my toes.
The forces at work here are bigger than me and my clients, bigger than the Border Patrol, and even bigger than Joe Arpaio's nose. People move. It's what we do.
(Editor's Note: Rachel Wilson continues to practice law in both Tucson and Moscow. You can read about her ongoing adventures at http://eleventimezones.com)