What shocks the traveling press corps-lost hotel reservations, uncovered manholes, unsafe tap water-is nothing new to those of us who have lived in Russia.
As my friend, the Athens-based writer Robin Whetstone, put it, “Russia is the opposite of a public service announcement.” It is a country where one is mocked, as I was, by a nurse for crying out in pain after coming out of anesthesia before the doctor was done resetting my broken leg. If you want sympathy from a Russian, you’ll have to do better than a mixed-up hotel room.
I ended up in Russia because I wanted to be a spy, but the Cold War ended before I finished my degree in Russian at Lewis & Clark College. So I did my last semester at a former women’s college called the Moscow State Pedagogical University and stayed on for another year or so in various odd jobs in journalism in 1992 and 1993, that is, the swingin’ Yeltsin era.
Because I spoke Russian, my editor and his buddy dragged me along on a train trip to Nizhny Novgorod, the city formerly known as Gorky. During the Soviet era, Gorky was closed to foreigners, making it a perfect place to exile dissident nuclear scientist Andrei Sakharov.
Nizhny Novgorod was very much an open city when our train pulled in late that winter night. Getting a cab was no problem, but finding a hotel room was. Finally, our driver found a floating hotel on the frigid Oka River. But there was just one small problem, our driver told us after he inquired about vacancies. They had rooms for us, he said, but first they had to get the bodies out of the lobby.
This we had to see. So we stepped ever so carefully off the icy sidewalk onto the icy, narrow, rickety wooden gangplank into the lobby where we saw two men, soaked to the bone, lying on the carpeted floor. One was dead. The other lay there in his freezing wet clothes thrashing about and moaning. You didn’t need to be a doctor to diagnose hypothermia. Then the paramedics showed up, which is when things got really weird.