My cabin companions–Kirill and Maria–spoke minimal English. Both were from Saratov and had come to Moscow for business. They had many questions for me–where was I from; what the United States was like; what I was doing taking a train, by myself, without knowing anything beyond basic Russian, 450 miles into the countryside.
“I’m going to Norka, where my great-grandfather was born,” I told them.
“Norka?” Kirill asked. “Where is Norka?”
I told him it was a village near Saratov. The people I had contacted at the American Historical Society before leaving had given me information and advice about traveling to the Volga River Valley, but they forgot to tell me an important detail–the village was no longer called Norka.
My companions spoke amongst themselves for a moment before Kirill called his brother in Saratov and asked him to look up Norka on the internet. I then discovered that the name was changed to Nekrasovo following the Bolshevik revolution in 1917, named after the poet Nikolay Nekrasov who was famous for championing peasant life. When the lights went off in the train, I crawled up to my bunk and slept to the sound of the wheels clicking over the tracks.
We arrived in Saratov in the late morning. The city is on bank of the Volga and was once the home of the Volga Germans. In the late 18th century, the German empress Catherine the Great took the throne of Russia and published manifestos inviting Europeans to immigrate to Russia to farm, all the while maintaining their culture. Many of them came to Saratov (and to Engels, which is across the river) and the city flourished, growing to its present population of more than 800,000.
I checked in to the Hotel Slovakia on the bank of the Volga. Failing to register my visa since getting on the train in Irkutsk, I was forced to pay a penalty and then fill out a form at the Saratov police station apologizing for my lack of respect for Russian law. Upon completing that unnerving experience, I ate a dinner of salmon, potatoes and Sibersky Korona beer at a restaurant as the sun went down over the river. It was summer and the young people were drinking and dancing on the party barges out on the water.
In the morning, I woke and took a van from the Saratov station 40 miles to Krasnoarmeysk. The van drove us through green wheat fields and pasture land. It was almost noon when I reached the bus station and there was only one bus to Nekrasovo that day at 3 p.m, but it returned to Krasnoarmeysk immediately after it dropped off. I knew there would be no other buses out of Nekrasovo–the map I consulted in the bus station showed the road from Krasnoarmeysk was the only road going into or out of Nekrasovo.
Then I saw a man standing in the lot outside of the bus station calling out “Saratov, Saratov.” I approached him and told him, using Traveler’s Charades and limited Russian, that I would pay him to drive me to Nekrasovo, stop for an hour so I could look around, and then on to Saratov. We negotiated the fee by scratching numbers into the dirt with our fingers, found a suitable price, and then I got into his old Lada 110 sedan and we were off.
The driver, who went by Sasha, spoke to me in Russian, which I understood almost none of, nearly the entire trip. I was able to communicate to him that my great-grandfather, Conrad Schaneman Sr., was a German born near Nekrasovo. He confirmed his understanding by telling me his family was also from Germany and that he came to Russia from Azerbaijan.
What I couldn’t tell him was all the details of my great-grandfather’s struggle to leave Russia for a better life. How he left the Volga River Valley once for the United States in 1910 and after two homesick years went back to Russia. Finding Russia changed from when he left, and German men being drafted into the military, he left again for Winnipeg, Canada. After getting married in Stoughton, Saskatchewan, he and his wife moved to Milwaukee, Wisconsin before moving to the Platte Valley of Nebraska to work in the sugar beet industry and having 13 kids. Instead, I held on to the handle of the door as we dodged car-sized holes in the road.
We passed one car and a man on a horse pulling a cart of lumber in those 20 miles. The road took us through a small settlement that maintained and operated a bread factory. Then a little farther we came upon the village of Nekrasovo. Sasha drove us into the center and I got out.
The population estimates available on-line put the village and the surrounding seven kilometers at 795 people but that seems quite generous. As I walked around for 45 minutes on that eerie, silent Sunday afternoon, I saw ten people: one boy on a bicycle that whispered something as he drove past; two men cutting down a tree in a yard that stopped working when they saw me; two men playing cards under a makeshift lean-to that halted their playing to watch me walk past; and four people sitting in front of a storefront. The town was overgrown and ghostly–as many abandoned buildings as buildings that looked as though people lived in them. It was green–weeds, grass, and trees grew everywhere–yet it felt as though the life had left the place many years ago.
It didn’t take me long to walk the perimeter of the village–past the abandoned school, past the pond, past the tractor repair shop. And as I walked back to the car, my curiosity satisfied, one of the four in the front of the shop began to run at me, yelling.
From a distance, I could see that the person coming toward me was a young man, and as he drew nearer I saw he was carrying a small, black and white dog in his arms. He dropped the dog as he approached, holding out his hand and talking in a loud voice.
“Ya iz Ruskie?” he asked me.
“Nyet,” I said. “Ya iz Amerikan.”
He introduced himself as Vitali. He smelled of chemicals and of not having bathed recently. Spittle had dried in corners of his mouth. He appeared to be in his early-20s and spoke to me in Russian as I walked back to the car. When we made it back to Sasha and the Lada, Vitali found a horse tied to a stake near a house, grabbed it around the neck and asked me to take his picture. Sasha explained to him that I was only there to visit the town of my ancestors.
He didn’t tell him that the point of the trip out there was to see what my life would or could have been like had my great-grandfather never made that second trip to the other side of the world. We got in the car and drove back to Saratov, Sasha telling jokes the whole way.
Bart Schaneman is an American writer. He writes about his travels and about Nebraska. Read more of his writing at http://bartschaneman.wordpress.com and http://rainfollowstheplow.wordpress.com.