From St. Petersburg to Moscow
Retracing a centuries-old route through a new Russia
June 18, 2001 -- A little more than 200 years ago, a Russian aristocrat with a social conscience drove along the road that runs from St. Petersburg to Moscow. Aleksandr Nikolaevich Radishchev took notes on what he saw -- harsh laws, capricious punishment, burdensome taxes, suffocating censorship -- and turned his reporting into an impassioned plea for reform.
Radishchev's Journey from St. Petersburg to Moscow has long been required classroom reading in Russia, and an inspiration for the nation's revolutionaries. Recently, NPR's Anne Garrels retraced Radishchev's journey, and discovered that the economic system for which he pled -- "effective yet humane" -- still eludes Russians today.
"Though now a paved highway, the road from St. Petersburg to Moscow still follows every twist and turn of Radishchev's route," Garrels says. "It's a good place to look at the state of Russia and its grasp for freedom and prosperity."
In a five-part series this week on All Things Considered, join Garrels as she recreates Radishchev's 400-mile journey -- not in a horse-drawn carriage, but in a rattletrap red Zhiguli (above).
Part One (June 18): The road out of St. Petersburg passes grand hotels, gray apartment towers, a busy McDonald's -- and then gives way to the green fields, birch groves and tiny towns of the Russian heartland. Here, residents work at small, insolvent factories, or survive by producing most of their own food. But in a sleepy town called Chudovo, there's a sign of prosperity and hope: a Cadbury chocolate factory, bringing investment dollars and new jobs.
Listen to part one | view photos
Part Two (June 19): "Kremlin intrigues may be the hot topic with the Moscow set," Garrels says, but in the countryside, "Russians are looking for something to believe in beyond politics." In Novgorod, American cash has helped raise a Baptist church. But though Soviet religious restrictions were lifted in the 1980s, both this new church and the traditional Russian Orthodox churches struggle to find their place in the changing society.
Listen to part two | view photos
Part Three (June 20): The midpoint of Garrels' journey is Valdai, a would-be tourist haven of 20,000. Here as throughout Russia, and now as in Radishchev's time, "alcoholism is Russia's curse," Garrels says. She visits a Valdai children's home full of kids abandoned or removed from their families because of the effects of drinking. But she also meets the Smirnov family whose ambitious daughter Liuba, 15, glimpses life beyond "boring old Valdai" by surfing the Internet.
Listen to part three | view photos
Part Four (June 21): In the faded town of Vyshny Volochok, Garrels witnesses the wedding of a young couple, Katya and Alexei. Guests wish them a long, happy life and lots of kids; but in reality, the average Russian's life expectancy has dropped in the past 15 years, and birth rates have fallen as couples conclude they can't afford many children. Nonetheless, young Russians are convinced they can effect change: At a law school in Tver, students talk about replacing corrupt and ineffectual bureaucracies with a legitimate, responsive system.
Listen to part four | view photos
Part Five (June 22): On the last leg of her journey, Garrels finds that "the challenge of dragging this country into the 21st century is most poignant in the villages and farms, ... each nothing more than a collection of weather-beaten wooden houses and crumbling barns." Without Soviet-era subsidies to prop up a collective farm in Maximtsevo, tractors rust in the muddy barnyard and fields lie unplanted. But down the road near Klin, a Russian entrepreneur nurtures a model farm that turns out quality products and pays workers a living wage.
Listen to part five | view photos