Mourning the Russia that liberated me

'RUSSIA WAS the first truly foreign place I ever visited. '

But as the adage goes, we see the world, not as it is, but as we are. So my most lasting impression of the country is, of course, of me in the summer of 2001. I felt the giddy freedom of traveling alone to this tremendously different land, and I grew emotionally in my circuitous journey there.

Now that Russia is falling into another dark age, as its citizens lose their freedoms under elected tsar Vladimir Putin, I find it incongruous that Russia stands for liberty in my personal history.

Ten years ago, I knew as little about Russia as I did about any other foreign country, save India. I felt vaguely uncertain about Russia's customs and history, with only a smattering of trivia to shape foggy stereotypes in my head: Communists drinking borscht spiked with vodka.

Then, my sophomore year of college, I decided I wanted an academic challenge. The Romance languages were too easy, I thought, tossing aside my high school French. Japanese and Chinese were too popular. What was a hard and unpopular language to learn?


The semester nearly overwhelmed me. I broke down crying in the last weeks of my first-year Russian class when a native speaker kept correcting my pronunciation of the word for "sisters" — I couldn't tell the difference between "syostri" and "syosthri." But my teacher and classmates reassured me, and I persevered. I'd set a challenge for myself, not knowing how much work it entailed, and somehow I made it through, stronger than before.

I kept taking Russian. Classmates discussed study abroad. Sure, I could go to India again, or an English-speaking country, but I desired something disorienting, something mindblowing.

I waffled. Like many college kids, I still didn't have the hang of making decisions on my own.

Meanwhile, a representative from a summer language-immersion program in Vermont tried to recruit my Russian class. I met him in a campus food court and listened uncomfortably as he tried to sell me on the great leap forward my language skills would take after only six weeks at Middlebury. Finally, I blurted, "Immersion scares the hell out of me. If I'm going to have the hell scared out of me, I want it to happen in Russia."

And so I decided one day, while crossing a footbridge over the creek that runs through Berkeley's campus, that I would go to Russia.

I set up my Russia trip as a foregone conclusion,

and suddenly everything

got easier.

I exercised the personal magic of a promise, making the audacious leap that anyone makes in setting a goal. No one can predict the future, yet choosing to shape it makes our desires more probable.

Once I'd made that promise, my anxieties cooled. I considered programs, applied, accepted and prepared for my trip.

My boyfriend didn't understand why I wanted to go. "Anything you can learn about yourself there, you can learn here," he said. I broke up with him.

St. Petersburg challenged me in ways I still don't fully understand. I grew more independent. I traveled alone and gained confidence in my language skills. Away from my family, my friends and my homeland, I found that I could rely on myself. I took on the rights and responsibilities of that freedom.

Now, Vladimir Putin, Russia's president, is methodically stripping away the rights that Yelstin-era Russians were just beginning to enjoy. He controls most television stations and uses the state's power to settle scores with political opponents. His vendettas and power grabs make Russia less attractive to foreign visitors, and the natives I met there take on more shackles.

I mourn that, because my passage to Russia freed me from the tyranny of my own worst self.

Sumana Harihareswara writes for Bay Area Living each week. You can write to her at