Moscow It was March 1, I was in Russia and I had been following the news.
When you’re in a foreign country that’s careening toward war, you follow the news.
I was hoofing it through St. Petersburg that morning headed to the Peter and Paul Fortress, founded by Tsar Peter the Great in 1703 and today home to a number of museums and a glittering cathedral that houses the tombs of most of the Romanov dynasty.
The city felt different, off somehow, and I noticed immediately.
There was a large crowd moving through the far end of the public square in front of the Hermitage art museum. They were waving Russian flags.
I crossed a bridge over the Neva River, which bisects the Northern Russian city, and workers were hurriedly building a stage on the other side, wheeling speakers into position.
As I neared my destination two large military transports rumbled by, loaded down with fully uniformed troops who peered eagerly through slits in their truck’s armor.
The hair on my arms stood up and I made quick and large assumptions. I’ve only just added “Olympic reporter” to my resume. Faced with an angry pro-Russian mob rallying against Ukraine, could I add “war correspondent,” too?
Moments later, in front of a roaring, flag-waving crowd restrained only by those young men in uniform, a runner with the Olympic torch for the looming Paralympic Games came jogging by on his leg of the relay for that event.
In our eight-day post-Olympic tour of Russia a torch parade is as close as we’ve come to the action in Ukraine.
There have been protests on both sides in Moscow, but I haven’t seen them. Our trips to Red Square and the Kremlin have been more marked by merchants chasing us trying to sell fake fur hats pinned with plastic Soviet stars (I only bought two) and tourists snapping photos in front of the iconic St. Basil’s Cathedral (I took hundreds). Where endless lines of Soviet tanks paraded through the square in front of the likes of Joseph Stalin, young children were going around and around on an ice skating rink.
It was all just yards in front of the creepy-as-you’d-expect Lenin Mausoleum.
Being here as such news is unfolding has still been enlightening, however, especially the actions of the only English-speaking Russian news station I’ve found.
This station stood out from the first day I saw it for its gross exaggerations about life in the United States.
A story about an oil spill in Arkansas made it seem as if the whole country was swimming in crude. A montage of shots from various parades and protests in the United States, including one long and ironic scene featuring rainbow signs from a gay pride parade, were held up as evidence of the vast turmoil.
The best part is most of the anchors on the Russian station are American, at least in accent, harkening to Axis Sally and Tokyo Rose, though without the treason accusations.
Of course, hey have a decided different take on Ukraine than other English channels we get, like BBC and CNN.
The stories about the United States aren’t made up, exactly. Just exaggerated, as if the narrative was built around a few pieces of evidence and a stereotype.
It’s not a far cry from my assumption that morning in St. Petersburg — faced with excited crowds, Russian flags and a military presence — that I was about to witness a riot.
It made me consider that what I knew about Russia before touching down a month ago was also misinformed, albeit not as wildly. I was both right and wrong in my assumptions that Russians always looked miserable, their cities were huge and ugly and their drink of choice was vodka.
Russians take selfies, believe it or not, but I’ve yet to see one smile while doing so. They don’t all drink vodka, but the one who sat down with us at a table brought his own bottle to share. Moscow can be a cold city with outsized, out of place buildings but St. Petersburg is beautiful with warm inhabitants.
The crisis in the Ukraine can’t be explained away as a stereotype or misunderstanding. There’s surely some bit of this lost in translation, but I couldn’t begin to say what and where, and how it applies to any country’s actions.
We finally fly home today, finally, hopefully ahead of any real excitement but unexpectedly glad to have had a view of this ordeal from the other side.