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A Wartime Visit to Russia

Russia commands the news headlines these days. Yet again, they invade Ukraine, as they did when they seized Crimea in 2014. Because of the unrest at that time, We were apprehensive about making a genealogical visit to Russia that spring.

Knowing that the country had mobilized, we wondered whether it would be safe for Americans to visit Vyborg, a city northwest of St. Petersburg on the Gulf of Finland. I wanted to see the place my Finnish ancestors had lived in the early 20th century when Vyborg was part of Russia’s Duchy of Finland. At the time, the city was called by its Finnish name, Viipuri. Today, only ethnic Russians live there. The Finns left after being compelled to transfer ownership to Russia after WWII.

My great-grandfather’s Finnish family lived in the Vyborg area and worked at various occupations, including undertakers and carpenters. My great-grandparents Ada Alina Lampinen and Alexander Mattila were married in Viipuri in 1904. They emigrated to the United States in 1905.

As I eyed the news reports in 2014, my genealogical curiosity to see the place won out. Ukraine seemed far away, so we decided to make the stop in Vyborg during a longer trip through Finland. We learned we did not even need a visa to enter Russia provided we gave advance notice, arrived by water, and stayed in Russia no longer than three days.

Finland leases from Russia the Saimaa Canal (which the Finns had built in 1845) connecting their city Lappeenranta with Vyborg. They conduct regular boat trips between the cities.

We booked our passage and exchanged some American dollars for Russian rubles.

On the embarkation day, we left most of our belongings, particularly our electronic devices, behind in Finland. We packed a backpack with only what we needed overnight and hopped on the canal boat.

These 5-hour canal boat rides to and from Vyborg were some of the most delightful excursions we have ever taken. The scenery was beautiful, and the Finns were fun-loving travel companions.

An accordion player provided entertainment, and everyone sang along. Finnish is a phonetic language, and with a song sheet it was easy to chime in.

When we arrived in Vyborg, we lined up to present our passports. Everyone ahead of us was casually waived through. When my husband/tech advisor handed his American passport to the border control agent, her head snapped up, and she gave him a long look. Then she stamped it and sent him on his way. I was next, and I, too, stepped into Russia.

Vyborg seemed like a step back in time. The vibe of the city seemed unchanged from the days when Finland owned it in the 1940’s.

Our hotel, purportedly the nicest one in town, was a throwback to another era. We received one room key on a large fob. The tiny elevator could accommodate only one person at a time, so we took the stairs to our room. There we found bedding neatly stacked on the twin beds. Guests were expected to make their own.

When we presented ourselves for dinner at the hotel dining room, no one came to seat us. Our tour director noticed our plight and explained that the staff was frightened to serve us. He soothed them, and they agreed we could eat there.

Rather than seating us in the common dining room, they opened an opulent special room just for us and proceeded to serve us a magnificent multi-course meal. We wondered if they thought this is how Americans are accustomed to eating. When we paid our bill, the total came to the equivalent of $35.00.

They next day, we were free to roam the city provided we did not leave the city limits. Vyborg is a walkable city, beautifully laid out long ago by the Finns, so we stayed on foot. We looked for the neighborhood where my great-grandparents had lived. Nearby, we found the revolutionary Vladimir Lenin’s house marked with a commemorative plaque.

A highlight of our walking tour was Vyborg Castle. This medieval fortress was built by the Swedes in 1293. We bought tickets to go inside and climbed the rickety stairs to the top. We could barely see the harbor through the dirty windows.

Back on the ground, my husband/tech advisor was sorely in need of a rest room. We had no idea how to read the Cyrillic directional signs. He could not seem to get the staff to understand his request. Finally, he resorted to the potty dance that all parents recognize. Broad smiles broke out as they understood what he needed. They graciously showed us the way to a primitive bathroom.

Late that afternoon, as we awaited the arrival of the canal boat for our return trip, we stopped in our hotel bar for a shot of superb Russian vodka. Then we boarded the boat without incident.

During this trip into Russia, we had interactions with only a few people. Although they seemed reserved and suspicious of us, they helped us when they understood what we needed. No one bothered us during our walk around the city. They were happy to sell us merchandise at the market and tickets at the castle. With an intervention from a trilingual Finn, we had a fine evening meal at the hotel.

We felt like we had a glimpse of the real Russian population during this trip. They were conducting their businesses and going about their everyday lives, just as we do. We imagine we were watched while we were there, but it was not obvious if we were.

These people did not seem like warmongers. It is heartbreaking today to see these same people feeling compelled to invade their neighbors.

The Crimean takeover back in 2014 was non-violent. We felt we could take the risk to enter Russia for a brief visit. We would not make the same decision in 2022.

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