Saturday, January 9, 2010

Side Trip to Russia

The blissful days of Crimea's south coast surf and turf passed when I arrived in the ancient town of Khersoness - now in ruins, but ruins dating from the 3rd century BC up to the middle ages. Cool. Spectacular, even on the first of the year when the museum buildings are closed. Nonetheless, I enjoyed the extensive ruins, a thriving town when the fabled Amazon women roamed the land and Greek fishermen clung to the coast avoiding them. Hoo-ahh. Sadly, the few posted descriptions are only in Russian and Ukrainian. Searching hard, I found a small summary guide in Russian and German and one set of turn-of-the-last-century photographs with captions in French. Yet this UNESCO cultural site is full of profound history. My guiding pal, St. Andrew, walked these alleys. The cathedral built on the spot where King Vladimir was baptized in 988 has been recently restored and is an historic place as well as religious - nice stamp, too.

I asked about pilgrim lodgings and it was arranged by a candle-lady and a man working there, no priest being around at the time. I was to meet a man, Leonid, at 7pm at a nearby address, giving me the whole day to wander around at my leisure. Nice.

Sevastopol, the modern city built beside the ancient ruins, is not only very modern, but very Russian. The fleet fills the unattractive harbor, the flag flies over many official buildings. It's a city that doesn't interest me much. At 7, I went to find Leonid. For the first time on the whole pilgrimage, I faced hostility. Leonid demanded to see my 'American passport'. No one else had ever asked for it, and here his tone was downright hostile. Bad vibe. I showed him my well-stamped credenziale as proof of my pilgrim status and kept my passport hidden in my backpack. He wasn't happy but backed off the issue. He aggressively demanded 20 US dollars. That really chapped my hide. Had he said 160 hgrivna, I might have consented, although it would have been a precedent on the pilgrimage: everyone has considered me a guest in their home, church, or monastery and never asked for money - on the contrary, many priests have given me money for tea and expenses along the road... even when I discretely left 100 hgrivna at the home of the poorest host, she caught up to me by bicycle 20 minutes later hotly and tearfully scolding me for the presumption of my action and flung the money back at me... no, Leonid was shaking me down because I'm American. I balked. He left briefly and returned with the very uncomfortable man from the cathedral.

Leonid, a slight man around 60, well-dressed and smelling nice, again demanded 20 US dollars, bellowing in monotone English: 'This is Russia; tourists must pay!' I sized him up. No threat to me. I could take him. The other man, bigger, heavy leather coat, flinched at the conflict, fidgeting with his tight wedding band. Hen-pecked and well-fed. Bah. No threat either. I can be a hen. I bellowed right back, in Ukrainian: 'This is Ukraine and I'm a pilgrim. No dollars.' (It can't be Russia; I haven't got a visa for it to be Russia.) To the big man, I held up the St Andrew medallion I wear and asked to be taken to the monastery where a pilgrim would be welcomed. He cowered, said something to Leonid in Russian, and crossed himself three times in rapid succession. Leonid backed down and calmly told me in English that he would 'dissolve the problem' and left. Hrrumph. They picked the wrong pilgrim to try to hustle. He returned a little while later with a big plate of food and some tea, very polite, and left assuring me that everything was fine and that I should mention the situation to no one. (Triumph, yeah, but I barred the locked door with one walking stick and slept with the other.) This may be Ukraine and not Russia, but many inhabitants would like to argue the point.


Timecheck said...


Anonymous said...

It is amazing that that was your only incident of actual hostility! (so far and hope you do not experience anymore as such) I have heard from American-Ukrainians going to live in Ukraine (vacation home or living there part-time), that the times they have a changed. Solicitation for money has not only increased but also asked for in a demanding way. Even though I was cautioned, I don't remember something like this when I visited Ukraine some 18 years ago with a tour group. Possibly because I was sheltered by the tour group. This doesn't look good for Ukraine as a whole I am sad to say. Especially for its future as it fights to continue being a democratic country.

Vera - Erie

Anonymous said...

I'm pleased you shouted down this character. I wish more people would resist exploiters as you did. Of course, most of those we meet are very nice, or at least neutral.