Russia as the Velveteen Rabbit

by Kenneth Rayman on May 26, 2019

Every year my Facebook memory from May 17, 2017 comes up, I'm reminded of Russia becoming reality and more than a documentary and textbook. This morning, I randomly thought of my favorite childhood story, "The Velveteen Rabbit." For those not familiar with the story, it follows a plush toy rabbit forming a relationship with a boy after being a Christmas gift. The rabbit faces questions from the other toys that he can't be a better toy because he lacks technology and special features. This leads the rabbit to question his worth and what being real means until he’s advised by an older toy who shows wear and tear that toys can become "real" only with love, which takes time. Russia is the Velveteen Rabbit of my story, with me as the imaginative child who loves the rabbit dearly. 
Russia was a story of real-life fairy tales and, while politics were a backdrop, culture was its theme with tv and movies, and even video games. Movies, like Rocky IV, showed me a new language, alphabet, and it’s differing cultural values. The US, like the other toys in the children’s story, would be portrayed as a bully with Apollo Creed dancing around gloating at the silent Russian who just tried to make sense of the unnecessary opulence or overindulgence. Television shows would focus on the Russian ethos through it’s “tragedy;” first of the Romanov execution, then the sheer size of the country, itself. Coupling the American view of its own autocratic beginning with Russian autocracy, it was shown as flawed as the British government system, with over taxation and an uncaring elite. The only positive was the overall accomplishment that pushed the country forward. Peter the Great was shown as the patriarch of the Russia we know today militarily yet personally did as he pleased with little regard to the populous; while Catherine the Great was shown as the loving matriarch who pushed the country intellectually forward yet was personally consumed with extramarital lust. Their bureaucratic squabbles were mentioned as passing comments but what mattered was the story the lens America viewed its own colonial period through. The story’s lure only intensified as concepts became clearer through education, but the bigger picture always seemed just outside the news’ grasp. Any holes were thus filled by what I learned of Rasputin’s influence on the country (Romanov family), the country’s reaction to Rasputin’s death, the “newly” discovered remains of the family, and to an extent the eccentricities of the rulers.

The moment I started to cross the border from Finland to Russia, the anticipation mounted. As my first ever border crossing, I didn’t know what to expect and was weirded out by the boarding of the Finnish border officers to check passports and search the car. When the train continued passed the border with the Russian officers staying on until stopping in Vyborg, I thought we were in a security area that you weren't allowed to film or take pictures in, yet it was only because of the high-speed line between Helsinki-St. Petersburg-Moscow. When traveling later across the Estonian/Russian border the train stopped on each side of the border for 45 minutes to an hour for passport control. Realizing my thought was irrational, I took a short video of the countryside passing my window as "my first official glimpse of Russia" and barely looked away for the next hour. Arriving in St. Petersburg, I didn't see a person holding a sign with my name, like I was told I would see near the platform. I became a little worried with only an elementary knowledge of Russian to read signs and ask questions and thought I needed to go inside the unusually small station next to the open gate to the street. I saw a shadow tracking me in the window that, when visible in the doorway, wore a Russian police uniform. He simply pointed to the exit where everyone else was heading and I quickly signaled my apology realizing I almost walked in the security office. Through the gate, I found a woman holding a sign with my last name and greeted her properly, "Zdravstvujte! Ya Kennet Rai'man" then admitted I knew very little Russian. As I struggled with my heavy suitcase, the driver went to grab it so I said, "Spasibo, no moi chemodan tjazhely," but he laughed and signaled he was okay to lift it.

We drove around while my guide, Galina, told me facts about the city, pointing out random local points of interest, and historical tidbits.  She and the driver began giggling to themselves at my excitement overwhelming me. Without realizing, I was trying to take pictures in every direction she pointed, which caused them to giggle and say, "oh, he was taking a photo" or "oh, not a good photo." This jogged my memory of a tour guide I knew in Seattle who said many guests, he doesn't think, ever see the tour because “the camera is surgically attached to their face.” I put the camera away after, unless we were at a dead stop or we passed something I had always wanted to see, like the Winter Palace. We stopped at a few places like the Field of Mars where I was told about the park history with the February Revolution of 1917 where several heroes of the civilian led uprising are buried near an eternal flame, along with the St. Nicholas cathedral and Peter's log cabin that founded the city.

The next day, I was taken to the Peter and Paul Fortress where the Romanov rulers are buried. When we entered the fortress, the anticipation began again about to "see" the family I'd spent my life researching having the chance to talk about that fascination with no judgement. Making our way through the mausoleum I wanted to pinch myself seeing Peter’s bronze bust and the nameplate reading, “Екатерина II” while I endeared myself to Galina with my knowledge of the family. Walking back to the mausoleum after seeing Vladimir Kirillovich, the last official claimant to the Romanov throne who died in 1992, I was shocked to find out that two of the children are not interred with the family due to circumstances regarding their separate burial in the Ekaterinburg forest and the Church's official refusal to recognize the genetic confirmation of their remains. My eyes began to water and get warm as we stood observing their sarcophagus talking about the tragic brutality of their execution, feeling a connection start to blossom between Galina and I, as we both fondly remember a movie depicting the family.
Walking through Peterhof, Peter's Summer Palace, I heard of the destruction brought by World War 2 with everything around me being a complete reconstruction. Again, sadness came over me as I saw photos from the end of the war of a crumbled facade and torn up fountains in the gardens. At the Baltic coastline where Peter's Mon Plaisir Palace stood reality jarred me again. Periodically thinking of work back home I got occasionally distracted but as I stood at the water's edge, always a peaceful place for me, I realized I stood at the edge of one country looking out at another in Finland, when I hadn't even seen the Mexican border though I lived 30 minutes away at one point.

Walking across Vasilievsky Island, where I stayed, I thought of how I’d been taught to fear where I was. The belief of where I was as unsafe because of my nationality or my political origin never crossed my mind, in fact I had a sense of mental clarity beyond any other except when I first visited Seattle. In fact, the only thing I feared was crossing the street too slowly as pedestrians in Russia don’t always have the right of way. The feeling of peace both external and internal was indescribable and as I walked around the Hermitage museum, after crossing the island, feeling the history around me I half expected to see Peter walk past me; at one point I strangely felt as if he were walking by my side.

Each of these moments Russia became real and a tangible love that, built up for 20+ years, finally could be expressed with someone who felt the same. Being able to share that love helped convey the reality beyond the divisions taught, with my blog’s founding. I feel like Russia was my own Velveteen rabbit, with its history and culture calling out saying, “We’re not defined by one idea or one man. We want to be known for more,” while the fancy arrogant toy, like the given narrative, derided its outward backwards appearance and claimed superiority over it. My child’s love HAD made it real and, like the rabbit, Russia returned the love in kind.