in part, perhaps, from their need to find a larger meaning in their suffering.” Steven Lee
Meyers of the New York Times wrote in 2005 that “it would be wrong to stereotype, to say
that Russians are fatalistic or heartless. They are, however, not only resigned to tragedy but
inured to it in a way that to many raises alarms about the country's future. They are not
just helpless in the face of disaster; they could be called complicit, ever beckoning the next
one by their actions or lack of action.” His point was that if you believe tragedies will just
happen, you don't work as hard to prevent them.
After pulling into Yaroslavl on our first train trip, Sergei and I took a daylong excursion
to find a haunted village named Mologa. It's under water—Russia's own bizarre Atlantis.
For years, occasionally, when the water level of a sprawling reservoir dips low enough, the
dome of an Orthodox church peeks out of the water: a stunning reminder of an awful time.
In 1939, Stalin demanded more hydroelectric power as he prepared the country for World
War II. He ordered that the Volga River be dammed near the city of Rybinsk, creating a
massive reservoir. He was undeterred by the fact that dozens of communities—including
the village of Mologa—would be flooded and destroyed. Nikolai Novotelnov was a boy
at the time. He and his mother watched their home taken apart, log by log, by prisoners
and loaded onto a wooden raft to be shipped downriver. Novotelnov and his mother were
homeless for a year and alone because his father was in one of Stalin's gulags—having
been accused of telling a joke about the Kremlin in public. “They took him on September
10, 1936,” Novotelnov remembered. “He was sentenced to six years.” He died before he
had served his time.
Novotelnov, now in his late eighties, recounted all this, sitting proudly upright in the
living room of his home—the same one that was deconstructed to get out of the way of
Stalin's floodwaters six decades ago. The home was rebuilt in 1940 and has been situated
since in Rybinsk, not far from Yaroslavl. These days Novotelnov is angry. He's ashamed of
Russia. “This county is divided between rich and poor,” he said, “and money has become
the most important thing.” He also hates Vladimir Putin. To feel proud, he looks to the past:
“Nothing good has happened in Russia during Putin's time. I am his opponent because if
we look at our life before 1991, it was more quiet, more measured. Labor and people were
valued.” Novotelnov seems to say a great deal about Russia today. Here is a man who har-
bors so much anger at both Stalin and Putin. Yet he would never take his complaints to
the streets—that would be beneath him. It would feel to Novotelnov like an act of weak-
ness rather than one of survival. Grit and survival are the emotions he wants and likes to
feel, because they give all his sacrifice a purpose. He has nothing to hold on to but a vague
nostalgia for later Soviet times when—hard as things were—basic survival seemed more
assured than it does today.
I began to think about how some Americans see Russians as weak, because they don't
fight harder for democracy. In fact, Russians don't seem sold on democracy yet. Like