This is a country where, for years, people were taught that if they had a mundane prob-
lem—the electricity or water service went out—they could call the local Soviet authorities
and the problem might be promptly fixed. But if they saw something unjust or awful, the
wisest choice could be to simply ignore it or move past it. People were not taught to raise
questions—because doing so could be dangerous, and really there was nowhere to turn
for answers anyway. A foundation of Communist ideology and Soviet power was keep-
ing people convinced that they had to accept their fate as it was—and that, in the end, this
would be better for everyone. But this philosophy remains in the DNA, passed from one
generation to the next, including to a younger one that so far shows little sign of extinguish-
In Kaliningrad, in all but the rare case, it was reflected in years of knowing something
terrible happened on that beach but not wanting to ask questions. For Aunt Nina, it was
innocently passing on questions about Soviet gulags—even though she worked at a pris-
on colony. At the Yaroslavl train station, it's accepting a bizarre and annoying security
check, not asking any questions. This plays out in Russian life in ways large and small.
What little tension there ever was between me and Sergei would come from me pushing
to ask more questions than he felt comfortable with. Often he would call to set up an in-
terview—perhaps with an official. I wanted to meet the official in a place with rich sound.
(Yes, the stereotype is true. We in public radio do yearn for the sounds of street musicians,
chirping birds, or church bells to spice up a scene.) The official's assistant may tell Sergei
that his or her boss can meet in the office. Sergei would say okay and break the news to me.
I would then say to Sergei, Do we have to accept this? Did you ask why? Did you tell them
that I want—need—good sound for my piece, so could this person take ten minutes of the
day to meet outside? Sergei says in those cases he knew he could have pushed harder—he
just became convinced that the person likely felt too self-important and would not cave to
any amount of persuasion. Truth be told, Sergei is more aggressive than most Russians. He
prided himself on not doing what many Russians do—immediately declare a job impos-
sible ( nevozmozhno! ). Still, he stops far short of where American journalists might stop—I
don't blame him at all. It's just a different ethos. We come from different cultures.
Aunt Nina has brought out tea and dessert—delicious little chocolates. And Pavel is
pouring the next shot of vodka. He passes a plate of pickles to me, and I grab one. He raises
his glass, and dedicates the toast to me: “To our visitor from America.”
“Spasibo,” I say. We all hold up our glasses and down the shot. The rest of the evening
After a few more shots here, Zhenia, who does not drink, agrees to take us on a drive.
We end up at one of Sergei's cousins' homes. Everyone is friendly, offering plates of saus-
age . . . and cheese . . . fruit . . . and more vodka. Sergei is talking about the interview
we have tomorrow (well, now it's later today). We are meeting a man named Alexei who,