We head out into the countryside. The family owns half of a dacha (country summer house) near a lakeside village, set in woodlands. It’s very beautiful.
We have a barbecue. Some of Alexei’s friends from Murmansk are there. Murmansk is Russia’s most northern port, where many of the nuclear submarines were based during the Cold War. The ocean regularly freezes over there, and during mid-winter there are only minutes of daylight each day.
It’s around 23-25 celsius where we are, comfortable room temperature; in Murmansk that day it’s a blazing 3 celsius, a typical midsummer day. Alexei’s friends are sweating profusely in the heat, and they keep a careful distance from the barbecue.
I notice that when Russians buy sunglasses, they leave the stickers stuck to the lenses saying things like “UV protection” and “scratch resistant”. I laugh and ask why they don’t peel off the labels. It turns out that leaving on the stickers is the fashionable thing to do, at least in St. Petersburg right now, as it shows that you have Western sunglasses. English words on a sticker are as good as a designer label.
There’s another minor misunderstanding when we talk about food shortages. I explain that England did have food shortages, back in the 1940s. I mention “ration book”, and they hear “Russian book” and get offended for a moment, thinking that it’s a slang term like “French letter” or “Dutch courage”. XQ explains.
We wander through the woods a little. At one point I hear some Russian voices and the sound of dogs barking, and suddenly the memory of every Cold War spy movie I’ve ever seen is telling me to run and hide. I start to realize the true extent to which I’ve been brainwashed in spite of my skepticism.