RUSSIA NO LONGER A STRANGE LAND

I sat on a concrete wall by the riverbank, drinking a Diet Coke I had purchased from a nearby vendor. Behind me was a boat launch for tourists. Disco music played over the loudspeakers. Women in halter tops and tight white pants paraded by me, holding hands with boyfriends whose matted haircuts looked like the rock singer Beck.

It was a hot afternoon, in a busy city with zooming traffic, and if someone had taken a snapshot, you might have thought I was sipping my soda in Chicago or Miami.

Not Russia.

But it was Russia, St. Petersburg, to be exact. This was a few weeks ago, although time is a funny thing in what used to be called the Soviet Union. For example, here I was, across the street from the Hermitage Museum, which once was the winter palace of Catherine the Great, whose love of art in the 1700s led to one of the largest collections in the world – a collection that now is so overwhelming it is being shared with a new museum in Amsterdam, which, in case you haven’t noticed, isn’t in Russia.

Such is life in this strangely transitional country. Communism has collapsed. Some sort of grab bag society has emerged. You see statues of former czars, and a few blocks away, you see pirated DVDs of “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.” I’m not kidding. I saw one in a record shop. It cost 120 rubles, or about $4. Had Johnny Depp’s picture on the cover.

Once, American movies were forbidden.

Now they’re selling bootlegs.

Culture shock

And that’s hardly the biggest change. The last time I was in Russia, during the ’80s, people were afraid to talk. Their eyes shot left and right. Everything – and everyone – was suspicious. Once, on a bus ride, a translator nodded to a man reading a newspaper, then whispered in my ear, “KGB.”

In those days, they went through your bags at the airport. Any western literature might be confiscated. Same for western music.

Now, here I was, passing book-

shops that sold the Russian language versions of John Grisham books, and browsing through a record shop that sold the Black Eyed Peas.

On my last Russian trip, if you ate out, you ate in an officially sanctioned place, which might – might – have had a sign out front with the word “Restaurant” in block letters.

This time we ate in a vegetarian spot called The Idiot, which celebrated Dostoyevsky.

The menus were in English.

New attitudes

Do you remember when going to Russia would have been like going to the moon? Do you remember, not so long ago, when we thought all Russians wanted us dead?

I find myself thinking about that more and more these days. I think about how Israel, in a few weeks, is planning to pull out of the Gaza Strip, perhaps beginning the blueprint of a new country on its borders. I think about how Iraq, under a dictator’s thumb a few years ago, is now writing its own constitution.

I think about how quickly the world changes. And how angry and vigilant we get about “us” and “them,” yet how relatively quickly “us” and “them” can transform, how quickly enemies once as foreign as space creatures – remember “Commies” or “pinkos” or “Russkies”? – can be watching Adam Sandler in “The Longest Yard” in a theater on Nevsky Street.

I think about sitting on that riverbank in St. Petersburg, which used to be called Leningrad, after the father of the Russian Revolution. His name is gone now. So are a lot of other things. The truth is, the world is an ever-changing place, and whatever hateful beliefs we might have about this country or that, you never know when you might find yourself sipping a diet soda across from one of their palaces.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760).

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