Gas Attacks? Poison? Unlikely in Modern Russia

Last summer, two American tourists spent their train ride from Moscow to St. Petersburg declining all food offered to them.

It wasn’t that they weren’t hungry; they feared being poisoned.

The Cold War may have ended more than 20 years ago, but its memory lives on among many Americans, coloring how they view Russia in the 21st Century. This lingering fear, bolstered by the 5,000 miles separating the two former superpowers, distorts Americans’ ability to see Russia and Russians as they really are today.

Never mind, for example, that Russia’s homicide rate, once the highest in the world, has plummeted 50 percent since 2003. Or that its stores are once again filled with food and brand-name clothing from around the world. Many Americans still see Russia as a dangerous, impoverished place teetering on the brink of collapse.

The train-riding couple who feared to eat was also told to put a wet towel under their train compartment door in case of poisonous gas. In addition, the wife had her wedding ring cut off so that no Russian would sever her hand to steal her ring.

Natasha Emelianova, a native of St. Petersburg, who worked with the husband and wife, has been a tour guide for the past nine years. She said she gets a similar reaction from many of her clients: overly cautious, based on out-of-date information.

These stories are funny, but what they represent isn’t: the fear gripping a generation of Americans who lived during the time of the Soviet Union.

“It seems a little sketchy, but it’s really not,” said Polina Malamud, a junior at Stony Brook University.

Malamud has been studying at St. Petersburg State University for the past three weeks and making the most out of both daytime and nighttime in the city.

She said she remembers one particular time when she was out late at a dance and had to wait for the bridges to go back down in order to get to her dorm room. She was walking with a guy from the dance who also had to get across the bridge.

“He flagged a cab for me,” she said. “It was like five in the morning, so I was half asleep, and I was perfectly safe.”

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But this is not to say that precautions should not be taken while walking in the city, explained Siobhan Cassidy, another Stony Brook University junior studying abroad at St. Petersburg State University.

“You’re on edge and making sure no one is following you, but you’re like that, or should be like that, anywhere you go,” said Cassidy.

Emelianova explained that it is only when someone sees Russia for herself that she can start to understand what kind of place it is and what safety precautions should be taken.

She said it’s simple: “The more you travel to Russia, the more you know.”