De-salinization refers to the removal of salt from saltwater. De-Stalinization refers to the removal — in the mid-1950s — of nearly everything Stalin from the Russian landscape (and, for that matter, from the collective Russian psyche as well). But one thing they haven’t removed from the landscape is Stalin’s Moscow Canal, and we are the beneficiaries.
Without the canal, Moscow would be as landlocked as would be my hometown of Portland, Oregon. Without man-made access, both Portland and Moscow could never serve as ports, in spite of their locations on major rivers. Portland benefits from over a hundred miles of dredging on the Columbia River; Moscow benefits from Stalin’s canal.
To today’s Russian mind, Stalin was a despot — 22,000 gulag prisoners died digging the canal — but he was also a visionary. The Moscow Canal not only provides 60% of Moscow’s potable water today, it also connects Moscow with the Volga River. The Volga leads to St. Petersburg, and St. Petersburg leads to the oceans of the world.
The Volga has taken us to rural Russia, and here we’ve found a delightful contrast to the excesses of Moscow. In the past couple of days, we have shared a meal in a tiny private home; we have sipped homemade vodka with a toothless moonshiner; we have visited a remote village where matryoshkas (Russian nesting dolls) are painted; we have laughed with children in a town without a paved street; we have been serenaded by a string quartet of teenagers who have never seen an iPad.
The ship docks in St Petersburg tonight. We’ll have five days there, and I’m sure it will be spectacular. But I’ll never forget the generosity and grace of the people of the Russian countryside, the people who live where the Volga is the blood of life and politics is nothing but an unwelcome stranger.