Introduction to Russian Chronicles

Ten years ago, I was living in St. Petersburg, Russia, where I'd moved on a whim at age 27 in hopes of becoming a freelance writer. I had worked the previous four years at boring administrative jobs in Washington, D.C., but the time finally came when I'd suffered one paper cut too many. So I bought myself a one-way ticket to Russia, rented an apartment, and soon got a job editing copy at the small English-language newspaper, the St. Petersburg Press.

David Hillegas and Lisa Dickey begin their journey across Russia.

A few months later, in April of 1995, a printed email appeared on the bulletin board in the newsroom. "My name is Gary Matoso," it began. "I am an American photojournalist currently based in Paris..." Gary wrote that he was planning to take a trip across Russia that fall, from Vladivostok to St. Petersburg. He asked for advice on places to go, names of people he might stay with, information on the condition of the roads. Then, the magic words: "Lastly, and this is a biggie, I am looking for candidates to be my traveling partner... I estimate two and half months, three max. Anyhow, spread the word, I am sure there are enough crazy people out there. "

All I could think was, "He must pick me!" I hurriedly e-mailed Gary, telling him I was fluent in Russian (not quite, but I was getting there), an accomplished writer (false), and most importantly, unflappable (way false). Over several seemingly interminable weeks, Gary weeded through his candidates - but at last he chose me to join him on his journey. Between Sept. 1 and Nov. 25, 1995, he and I traveled across the width of Russia, using a newfangled digital camera and unreliable Russian phone lines to post stories and photos to the Russian Chronicles website.

We followed the path of the Trans-Siberian railroad, stopping in 11 cities and towns along the way. At each stop, we sought out a person or place to write about, starting with the couple that took care of the lighthouse at the very tip of southeastern Russia, in Vladivostok. Moving westward, we wrote about the dwindling Jewish community in Birobidzhan, the capital of the "Jewish Autonomous Region"; the scientists who study Lake Baikal; a young gay man in Novosibirsk; and Moscow's first rap star.

Our goal with these "Road Stories" was to capture in words and photos a portrait of ordinary life in mid-90s Russia.

Now, in 2005, I've come back to Russia to retrace our steps from the original trip - and to try to track down those same people from the "Road Stories." As these words are being posted online on Sept. 1, photographer David Hillegas and I are on our way to Vladivostok (Gary couldn't make it this time around - more about him later). Over the next two and a half months, David and I will go to the same 11 cities and we'll report back about how the subjects of the '95 stories are faring now.

Over the course of our journey, we'll ask three questions: How have the lives of the specific people I wrote about in 1995 changed? How has life in Russia changed generally? And finally, how has the Internet, and how we use it, changed? We know we can't answer these questions definitively, but hopefully we can offer some insights. As John Steinbeck wrote in A Russian Journal, his account of a trip there in 1948, "It is not the Russian story, but simply a Russian story."

Please join us each weekday for a new blog entry, and share your thoughts by posting comments on the blog's message board, or e-mail us at

By Lisa Dickey |  September 1, 2005; 8:00 AM ET
Next: St. Petersburg to Vladivostok


Please email us to report offensive comments.

Welcome to the internet. We wish you well and hope you have a great trip.

Posted by: Harv | September 1, 2005 08:47 AM

We are so excited for you both..what a fabulous adventure! I can't wait to see Russia through your lense David and Lisa I'm looking forward to reading about your view of all that's changed in Russia since your last visit 10 years ago.

David's Mom

Posted by: Looney | September 1, 2005 08:19 PM

Lisa (and David)!

Good luck with the trip from The St. Petersburg Times. See you in November.

Matt Brown
Arts Editor

Posted by: Matt Brown | September 2, 2005 05:11 AM

Best wishes to our Russian Maco Polo. We'll keep reading and thinking.

Han Qi
B.A. candidate @ Washington and Lee

Posted by: Han Qi | September 3, 2005 11:18 AM

Best whishes on your trip. I am sure it will be interesting ! Looking forward to stories and pics.

I myself travelled from Netherlands to Vladivostok this summer, hitchhiking. Check out my website for pics and story.

Peter Reitsma

Posted by: Peter Reitsma | September 4, 2005 03:57 PM

What a fantastic trip! Good luck and may you find all the answers.


Posted by: Sujatha | September 5, 2005 09:22 AM

Good luck to you! Very interesting. Any advice for armchair travellers like me? (books on contemporary Russian society/economy)
Thank you!

Posted by: Giovanni Polastri from Stockholm | September 5, 2005 10:37 AM

It was good to meet you this past Friday in Vladivostok. I am very interested in reading and viewing the information you gather on the city and it's people. Since I am new to Vladivostok and I plan to work in some of the same cities you are visiting during the first few legs of your travels, I am very interested in comparing my observations with yours. Счастливые путешествия!

Posted by: Kyle Laird | September 6, 2005 02:10 AM

Congratulations on your journey. We're so excited for you and can't wait to read about all of your adventures!
Steph, Bryan, Anna and Molly

Posted by: Stephanie Smith-Waterman | September 6, 2005 07:08 AM

great stories! I am very fond of reading the chronicles. It gives a wonderful idea of how foreigners see Russia. It is of course different from those, seen by insiders and and natives, and will always remain this way no matter how many locals one talks to, but nonetheless, it's very enjoyable to see things through these lenses . Good luck with your trip.

Posted by: Tamara | September 6, 2005 10:00 AM

I took a group of 4 students and another teacher to Vladivostok in 1997 and found the city in sad shape. There were potholes on the roads and many of the cars had seriously cracked windshields and other damage. The trolleybuses broke down constantly and more than full. There was lots of food, much as you describe it now - a lot of Korean food and goods then. But the apartment houses were in terrible shape and the electricity went off every night and either the hot water or cold water would go off unexpectedly. I hope those things are better now.

Posted by: Nancy | September 6, 2005 10:49 AM

For Giovanni and others, books on Russian society and economy:
Tatyana Tolstaya, "Pushkin's Children: Writings on Russia and Russians": interesting collection of articles and essays.
Marquis de Custine, "Empire of the Czar: A Journey Through Eternal Russia": the classic Russian travel narrative.
Erik Berglof, et al., "The New Political Economy of Russia": short, readable summary of the current economic situation.
Fiona Hill and Clifford Gaddy, "The Siberian Curse: How Communist Planners Left Russia Out in the Cold": interesting and controversial, basically arguing that Russia can't afford to continue paying for people to live in the coldest areas.
And for the real specialist:
International Energy Agency, "Russian Electricity Reform" and European Conference of Ministers of Transport, "Regulatory Reform of Railways in Russia": two surprisingly readable discussions of the beginnings of reforms that will have huge impacts on the Russian economy.

Posted by: Russ | September 6, 2005 12:30 PM

Best of luck in your project guys! You have already made blogging history with the original Russian Chronicles, this follow-up is sure to be very exciting!


Posted by: Artem K. Khamzin | September 6, 2005 02:01 PM

Only in Russia... What a fabulous moment in Vladivostok! Reads like a novel, sounds like the truth.

Posted by: Elaine | September 6, 2005 10:43 PM

Good to read your Chronicles. I am teaching a course at Mount Holyoke College entitled From Communism to Capitalism which focuses on Russia. Your chronicles are a perfect way for my students to see how things have developed in Russia over the last decade. I have 14 students in the class, and they will, I am sure, be peppering you with questions
Good luck and keep safe,

stephen jones

Posted by: stephen jones | September 9, 2005 10:13 AM

Thank you for your report on Russia, especially Khabarovsk. We have adopted twice from Baby Home #1 Orphanage in Khabarovsk and will save your report for our children's life books. Our wish is that someday we can travel with them back to Khabarovsk to share the sights of their birth place. I'm sure your trip will be of interest to others that have travelled to Russia for the adoption process.

Posted by: Susan Richter | September 11, 2005 09:36 PM

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