I honestly don’t remember whether this happened in the year 2008 or 2009, such is my biased memory, but it is one of the events that shaped my views of the Russian people early on in my stay there. I remember it was in winter and for some reason I had traveled to Moscow. I cannot really remember whether I had some embassy issues to sort out or was visiting my friends. Moscow is about 8 hours by a normal train from Saint Petersburg where I was a student. A Speed train would take about 3 hours to get there.
Let’s get back to my angels but that would first require me to tell you about the reason that prompted the angels’intervention.
I was seated quietly at Leningradsky train station waiting for my train to Saint Petersburg which was scheduled for around 2.30am. Russian railway transport is very precise with time. A train would actually arrive at its destination on time, and its doors would open at the exact time written on the ticket, be it 4.57pm or 3.33am. The station was abuzz with people and you would easily be mistaken to think it was midday and not midnight. All kind of travellers were all over the waiting area, most of them trying to find a comfy spot to catch some rest, using their bags as pillows.
I was alone and probably the only black person in the station at that time. I felt as confident and safe as anyone would feel in such a public space. What is the worst that can happen to an African student in a Moscow train station at midnight in the middle of winter?
I was alone because my friend who escorted me had to catch the metro (underground train) back to his hostel before it closed at around midnight.
My seat was on the last row and behind it was a walkway which was on a lower level than the waiting area. A person on the walkway could touch someone seated on the last row if they jumped or were tall enough. I was comfortably solving Sudoku puzzles and minding my own business when I felt someone touch the back of my head. I turned around and could not see anyone.
I went back to my Sudoku and it happened again almost immediately. I turned and again I could not see who was there, I knew someone had ducked behind on the walkway. As I turned to my front someone was standing there looking directly down on me. Soon there was a group of about 5 boys around me. They were somehow big bodied but they looked young, probably under 20. They looked drunk and up to no good. They disrupted my space, asking me what I was doing in Russia and many other questions to which they didn’t really care for answers. I remained silent and this got them irritated and one of them started pushing me.
In my mind I did not feel threatened mainly because I was in a public space and if things got worse surely someone will come to my rescue. I was partially wrong. All the noise coming from my corner was attracting attention but everyone was just looking, including a policeman who was just about 20 meters away. It was as if they did not want to miss the climax of this very entertaining spectacle.
The boys kept at it, taking my book and another one my bag and that’s when I realised I was more alone than I thought. But then my angels stepped in, spoiling the plot for the curious onlookers. Two Russian ladies who were seated not far from me came up to us and told the boys off. They told the boys to stop harassing me and give back my book and bag and they obeyed. You must be wondering, just like that. Yes, just like that. Of course they spoke tough and threatened to report the boys to authority but that was really it.
In Russia (and this is something I came to find out after witnessing more instances) women can tell off a man who is misbehaving in public but a fellow man cannot. It happened during our first year in Russia in a town called Tver where we were studying the Russian language. We were in a bus coming back from church and some drunken Russian guy started abusing us and even tried to fight us. Two ladies from Finland who spoke good Russian told the guy off (we went on to become very good friends with the Finnish ladies).
Whenever a man would tell off a fellow man it would mostly lead to a fight. Major manhood issues in that country arise from the effects of the Second World War, communism and a cocktail of other reasons but that’s a topic for another day.
Back to Moscow, as the boys grudgingly left while they hurled abuses my way, the ladies took me to another waiting room which was more secure and strictly for train ticket holders but they made sure they reminded the policeman on the way that he had failed his duty of enforcing peace.
I sat between them and the next one and half hours was a sweet time of getting to know each other. They asked all about Africa and Kenya and my experience as a student there and I got to know they were from Rostov (the Rostov north of Russia, not to be confused with Rostov-on-don which is in the south near the black sea). Their departure time was almost eighteen hours later at 7pm. They were going back home from Kiev.
2am soon came and my train was announced to have docked on the platform. My wagon was on the far end and my new friends insisted they take me. As we walked, I realized that I did not know their names and somehow we had not introduced each other. I told them my name and they did the same but one of them was quick to exclaim that I would probably forget their names. I proudly declared that I would never forget their names but they were right, to this day I struggle digging my memory to try and convince myself that one of them was either Natasha, Natalya or Tamara but I honestly can’t remember.
And that is how they became nameless. Two ladies from the cold north made me realise that angels are always nearer than we think. My life in Russia went on to be punctuated by many instances in which I had an option of choosing to focus on the drunken rowdy boys or the sweet nameless angels. I hope to share more of these stories because I know that the rowdy boys’ kind of a story is being told exceptionally well especially by Hollywood and western media.
To my nameless angels, I am always thankful to you for opening my eyes to see more in the Russian people than cold smiles, vodka and ready to fight attitude. But for me to see that I had to immerse myself into a culture that is light years different from mine, rid myself of misconceptions and stereotypes and see people for who they really are. The outcome is not your everyday Russian vibe, as you will discover in my ‘just another Russian story’ segment.
Image source: http://www.novelrussia.ru/blog/1238.html