Sleepwalking in Russia

Sleepwalking in Russia

When I was nine years old, a dream led me to wander downstairs. I awoke, a sleep-crumpled bird in the nest corners of the staircase. It was still dark, and the house grew strange. I dragged my feet back into cool bed-sheets and decided not to ask what invisible threads tugged me from my room, nor the reason why in the dark, every edge of the house seems like a reasonable place to lay one’s head.


In Russia, I wake up to a damp sky that seems to suffocate the sun. Since moving to Moscow in October, nearly every morning is the same. The space that hangs above Stalin-era towers and apartment blocks is a dusting rag, pushing ice and coughing clouds over the dark Moskva river. The thin yellow leaves of autumn did not even dry out before the first snow scattered them into muddy puddles. I have not seen a blue sky in weeks. As American expatriates in this vast country my family is told leaving the house is the only way to survive Russian winter. From October to April, we will wear the same beanies, scarves, and boots. Our hands will memorize the stitches in our pockets, we will consume more tea than we thought possible. I try not to think about what a place like San Diego must look like today. I have been given today in Moscow, offered to me with cold hands, but ready to be molded into something permanent.

I am not sure what would happen if I did not leave my house for a week. I have enough Cold War-style rations to sustain me and books to read. One glance out the window from my pillow in the morning hardly ever tempts me to leave. To leave the house feels like sleepwalking. With every step through the slush, I could suddenly wake and remember where I am. I could panic because I don’t speak Russian, wipe the melting snowflakes off my cheeks and trudge home. Then I see the mothers with their children circling the playground. Their legs are held tight within the thick lining of snow pants; they move below strings of fairy lights that dangle over coffee shops. Somehow they seem awake.


At three o’clock on a Saturday, I burrow my face in a scarf and speed alone toward the metro station. Snowflakes rush through the swaying glass doors. At once I am in the warm cavern of the underground.


I am tip-toeing through a linguistic Sudoku puzzle. I slowly whisper the name of the station to myself: barr-i- kad- na- ya. The letters bounce off my tongue and stir warmth.

Crowds of people in black coats push towards the platform and silently shuffle onto the metro. To be fully in Баррикадная, I avoid eye-contact, pursing my thin lips into a stiff pout and lower my eyelids. I craft this expression to prevent anyone from suspecting that the freckled girl with the L.L. Bean beanie can’t speak a lick of Russian, that her blood is Anglo-Saxon, that she is a Protestant American. The metro hurtles through the dim vessels of the underground. With every jolt, I wonder what invisible threads tugged me from my bedroom, and why in the dark, every edge of the city seems like a reasonable place to walk.


The sky sunk from grey to black as I wandered aimlessly down streets, my eyes retracing strange lettering on store fronts, my ears decoding sounds of sirens and hushed voices. At five o’clock, bells rang from a yellow church tower. Silver chimes shook and bounced against the wind and rows of gleaming gold crosses that rose from snow-dusted domes. And suddenly, I had no choice but to walk toward them.

Like birds in the early hours of morning, the bells sang over the wind and telephone lines. Their clangs cut through the frigid air. I found myself skipping up the staircase in an unfamiliar church, clumsily tossing my scarf over my head before entering the nave that led into a vast, golden room swelling with incense and flickering candles. Icons hung along the walls among a painted garden of swirling vines and flowers. Above was a starry sky ablaze with the wings of cherubim. Worshipers stomped ice off their boots at the entrance and crossed themselves before entering. As silent as the metro riders, they knelt below the icons and crosses. I bought a candle and lit it beneath a gold crucifix, though I did not know exactly what to pray for.

A golden wall, an iconostasis, separated the worshipers from the sanctuary of the church. The central door of the iconostasis stood open, and a priest circled below an icon as he flung incense. The fragrance followed him down the steps toward us as the worshipers stood neatly, crossing themselves and bowing. I was a little late, observing the swift movements of a lady beside me. The nuns’ voices, clear and bright, rose towards the ceiling. I only understood “alleluia.”

Awake, and shout for joy! Arise, shine! The Messiah will shine on you!

Just as my feet began to cramp from standing, the lights went out. I glanced around at the bowed scarfed women beside me. I could only make out the whites of a painted saint’s eyes before I woke up to the strangeness that was the standing among strangers and crossing myself in the wrong direction, all the while fervently searching the mystery behind the faces, language and golden doors. Still I was standing, and I was awake. Light slowly flooded back through the nave as I caught hold of a sung alleluia. I crept out the door into the muddy street and walked home slowly through the snow.