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Now, here I am, 14 years later, on a high-speed train hurtling west out of Moscow toward Novgorod, a knot of exhaustion, excitement and nervousness.
It is the end of January. The Olympic torch is yet to arrive in Sochi; civil unrest in Ukraine rumbles on without a hint that it could devolve into the most serious standoff between East and West since the Cold War. The Russia I see around me is more confident, more vital, more — dare I say it? — “Western” than I am used to. Perhaps because of that, its social problems — the infringement of human rights and freedom of speech, the chasm between rich and poor — seem more acute.
But I can think of none of this now. I’m fixated on purely selfish concerns. What if 37-year-old me doesn’t live up to 23-year-old me? What if we don’t get along as well as we once did? It feels like a sin of omission not to have told Nadya and Sasha I was Jewish for all those years. Back then, Judaism played a peripheral role in my life. I am no more observant today than I was then.
So why do I have this urge to tell them now, after all these years, that I am a Jew?
My cell phone rings. It’s Nadya, speaking in Russian: “Paul, we’ll be at the station to meet you, me and Dyed. Okay?” I can hear the excitement and the concern in Nadya’s voice. I have to change trains in a small town called Chudovo at around 11 p.m., and she is worried I might not be able to find the correct platform.
“Look for the signs to the lastochka [high speed train],” she says. “Or ask someone. Okay, my dear.”
I rush to end the call, because my voice is beginning to crack.
When I first arrived in Novgorod, in 1995, the idealism that had greeted the dissolution of the Soviet Union four years earlier was a distant memory. Families were still recovering from the so-called economic “shock therapy” of the early 1990s that had wiped out meager savings and had triggered hyperinflation and long lines for bread. Corruption, crime and alcoholism were rampant. Just two years earlier, President Boris Yeltsin had turned Russian tanks on his own parliament building. Hundreds of poorly armed young conscripts were dying in the First Chechen War.
I traveled to Russia with Gap Activity Projects (now called Lattitude Global Volunteering), a British not-for-profit organization that places young people on work placements overseas.
Initially I had wanted to go to South America, but all the spots were taken. Next I applied to Indonesia, but I failed the interview. (My request to live with a non-Muslim family so that I could smoke, drink and spend time with girls did not go down well at the interview.) In my resubmitted application, I listed, in rough order of preference, India, Pakistan, Nepal, Israel, Turkey and Russia.
I was selected for Russia. I told the project coordinator that I was thrilled.
I arrived in Novgorod late one January night, in a minibus with four British boys and one girl. One by one, we were delivered to different apartment buildings. When my turn came, at House 25 Block 3, I was led up five flights of stairs in a stairwell that smelled of cold earth and stale cigarette smoke. The door to apartment 38 was covered in dark faux leather and metal studs. Inside I met Nadya and Sasha; their 19-year-old son, Denis, and their 15-year-old daughter, Tanya.