Hi diary. It’s a beautiful day, lots of sunlight, but life is not easy when you have a toilet outside, get up in the morning and realize that the weather is -9 Celsius. Every morning and every evening I have to heat the house. I have an old stove that eats a lot of wood. There was a huge stack of wood here 12 days ago, when we – me and my beloved one – arrived from Berlin, and now it’s almost gone. I never count days, but now I have to, because we are in quarantine: all those who come back to Russia from abroad have to lock themselves for 14 days. Breaking this rule entails a felony. In two days, our quarantine will be finished; after then, we can move around.
We are in my countryside house in Lebedevka, a dacha village some 15 kilometres from Vyborg, Leningrad region, an old small town right by the Finland border. My permanent place of residency is in St. Petersburg, two hours by train, but we cannot go there, because of the risk of infecting my mom, 73 years old (we share an apartment). It so happened that we rushed to Lebedevka from Europe directly, omitting big cities like Moscow and St. Petersburg.
These countryside holidays were not a part of the plan. Let me explain how we got here. I had the privilege of getting a 6-month sabbatical, starting this January. I was so burned out by the end of the last year, you cannot imagine: I literally became sick after all kinds of social activities. Therefore, I decided to self-isolate even before the pandemic started, and dedicate myself to something between thinking and rest. I came to A., who lives in Berlin, and planned to stay with him until mid-April. Of course, not without a break: I did accept some very kind lecture invitations – from Maska in Ljubljana, Tanzquartier in Vienna, Nieuew Instituut in Roterrdam, and the PAF residency in St. Erme, from where my tickets back to Russia via Paris were already booked at the end of January.
From this list, I only visited Ljubljana in the end of February, and came back from there with a bit of a fever, which I wrote off as a seasonal flu, although it continued with an unpleasant dry cough: I kept barking for three weeks after the fever was over. Upon my arrival from Ljubljana on the 1st of March, the situation in Europe started to escalate drastically. I was staying in our Berlin apartment, without really going out. At some point, the event in Vienna got cancelled. I am not sure about the dates, but, I guess, this happened already when the panic shopping started in Western Europe. We could not stop asking ourselves why people were buying tons of toilet paper. This was so weird. A. was gettin groceries at REWE and witnessed the process of its disappearance: the shelves were depleted day by day. At some point, they simply closed the border between Germany and Austria: as was explained by German authorities, this was because the neighbors started to do grocery tours to German stores.
One by one, all countries began to close their borders. A. had a business trip to the US in mid-April, but Trump decided to close the borders the day before his departure, and the flight was cancelled. All direct flights from Europe to St. Petersburg were cancelled too, including mine from Paris. I started to get worried: I could have stayed in Berlin, but my Schengen visa expires on the 15th of April. What would I do if they will closed the Russian border and stopped all the connections? It was hard to believe that such things are possible. I wrote to Berlin Ausländerbehörde (migration office), and got a reply that they were closed until the end of April, and making an appointment was not possible. So, there was a serious risk of being stuck in Germany and being deported when the visa expired.
Luckily, A.’s company shifted to the work-from-home regimen. On his way home from the grocery store on the 15th of March, he reported that even at our REWE at Ostbahnhof, all toilet paper was sold out. This triggered us to think about going to Russia together. There were still Air Baltic flights to St. Petersburg via Riga, Belavia via Minsk, and Aeroflot flights via Moscow airport Sheremetyevo. Sheremetyevo became a hell: as was reported by some friends, upon arrival, that travellers had to fill out tons of paperwork, pass through multiple medical cordons, and were treated really badly. We wanted to escape this latter option, but, suddenly, on that very day, Air Baltic connections stopped, and the next day Belavia, as well as all other connections to Russia except Moscow Sheremetyevo.
Well, not all. There was the last option: an Allegro train running between Helsinki and St. Petersburg. It was announced, however, that the border between Russia and Finland would be closed too, and the last train departed on the 18th of March. It was the 17th. We booked an early morning EasyJet flight from Berlin to Helsinki in order to catch this last train. It was A.'s first time in Helsinki. We took a walk along the seafront and around the city centre. It was cold, grey, windy, beautiful, and almost empty. We bought some cheese and nice Finnish bred in the supermarket, and took Allegro. Our final destination, however, was not St. Petersburg, but Vyborg, the first train stop in Russia, from where it is only 25 minutes by taxi to Lebedevka.
I had seen Allegro trains many times at the station when I was travelling between Lebedevka and St. Petersburg, but never took one. To try it once was one of my dreams. I could not imagine that this would amidst such an emergency. Our train was almost empty, with only Russian passengers on board: on the 18th of March, citizens of Finland, who usually escape to Vyborg for weekends and holidays, could only travel back to Finland, whereas Russians travelled back to Russia. That was so sad. I hope this train will start running again soon. We will take it, for sure, to go to Helsinki and buy that bread again – it was amazing.
There were some logistical problems that I had to solve on the way. For example, I did not have the house key. They were in St. Petersburg, at my mom’s place, but going there was a bad idea. Luckily, a neighbur from the same village had a copy of my key and could deliver it. But my biggest worry was about the well. Usually it gets frozen in winter, and the thick ice layer stays there until May. We do have a stock of wood to heat the house, but if the well were frozen, we wouldn’t have any water, and would have to go somewhere else. Again, luckily, due to the abnormal weather conditions – an extremely warm winter – the well was not frozen, and we could start managing our everyday life here in the woods.