Now I understand why Russian-Canadians are so happy to see lilac and birch trees in Canada. The lilac trees bloomed right before my arrival in Moscow. They lined the front of St Basil’s Cathedral with the same casual grace with which they greet Moscovites before housing projects and bookstores. The birch trees, along with my grandmother, were the first to welcome me to my “motherland”.
Growing up, I never doubted that there would always be a place for me in Russia, the mystical land I had never seen and tended to idealize. I wasn’t sure what to anticipate as I embarked on this exploration of both my family history and my identity as a Russian-Canadian. The Moscow I discovered was familiar yet foreign, resplendent yet disquieting.
Babushka & Dedushka. My grandmother, turned towards the television screen, and my grandfather reading “the yellow press,” as he jokingly called it. I often made them uncomfortable with my “Western” opinions.
I wore slippers indoors in stiflingly hot weather, got traditional songs stuck in my head, dressed fancy to the theatre, and slept below ten Russian Orthodox icons hung on the wall peering at me. In the grandiose marble subway stations I would observe people with a hopelessly critical eye, longing to ask them, “What is going on? Are you really united in this senselessness? Won’t you agree with me at all?”
I saw the careful lighting used to illuminate Stalin’s face in museums and Stalin magnets in the gift shop. On the street were Stalin impersonators, waiting for grateful Russians to take a selfie with their tyrannical Generalissimo. I saw the disturbing matter-of-factness with which portraits of Putin, Moscow’s mayor, Sergey Sobyanin, and Russian Minister of Defence, Sergey Shoygu, were put up for sale in bookstores.
“What’s the point?” I asked loudly in the store with a petulant look on my face.
“What do you mean? It’s patriotic!” a stylish young man exclaimed sarcastically before hurrying off.