What I learned about Russia from Pavel and Manya — part 3

Arnfinn Sørensen
16 min readOct 19, 2022

A fragile father and daughter relationship breaks up — like so much else in their home country.

Manya at the viewing platform, Vøringsfossen waterfall, August 2018.

Names and some details have been altered to preserve anonymity. All photos by author, except otherwise specified.

What if Pavel and Manya could visit me in Norway? The thought struck me after I met them in Russia and saw the Altai Mountains in Siberia.

I wrote to Pavel with an invitation. They found an opportunity in August 2018, after Manya had finished her summer job at a veterinary clinic.

Now, it was my turn to help Pavel and Manya apply for a Norwegian tourist visa. It was an instructing experience.

I had the rare opportunity to see my liberal, western Norway with the eyes of a foreigner. Specifically, a Russian foreigner.

Goodbye to the casual, informal Norwegian way of solving problems. I entered the realm of Norwegian bureaucracy and suspiciousness.

It was my turn to produce a formal invitation, complete with a detailed itinerary. I had to guarantee financially for board, lodging and return home. Including up to three companions, if they did not return voluntarily. All signed and stamped by the local police.

Also, I had to document my own income, and Pavel had to document that he had enough money for the trip. Which he did not have. So I had to transfer one thousand dollars to his account. And to Manya's account.

But everything worked out. Pavel and Manya got their passports stamped and they were on their way.

On a rainy early August afternoon, I was waiting in the arrivals hall at Oslo Airport Gardermoen, looking for them. There they were. I stood up to greet them, shook Pavel's hand and reached out to give Manya a welcome hug.

But she drew back abruptly, as if she was afraid. It was an embarrassing moment. I felt hurt but did not want to show it. I smoothed it over, talking them friendly towards the Airport Express train.

(Photo: Airport Express Train press photo, edited by author)

As the train whizzed through yellowed fields of freshly harvested corn in the drizzle, I learned that both of them had spent the night on hard benches at Moscow's Sheremetyevo airport, and neither had eaten for the past twenty-four hours.

They were starving and tired. I didn't understand it. Why hadn't they checked in to a hotel? Bought some food? After all, I had also sent them money for personal expenses.

It did not occur to me that the money was too valuable to be squandered on luxuries along the way. They were probably saved for a much more rainy day back in Russia.

As soon as we arrived at the Oslo Central Station, I had to give them some emergency aid. I bought a large baguette for Manya. Pavel didn't want anything. Why?

I had given some thought to our accomodation in Oslo. Would it be an idea, I wrote to Pavel in advance, for Manya to stay at a youth hostel? There she could meet other young people and maybe go with them on her own, instead of having to stick with us two oldies. Pavel had agreed.

So I drove her to Haraldsheim youth hostel on the outskirts of Oslo. She got a nice single room. I left her with some money, food, a travel card and a prepaid cellphone to contact us. She looked a little lost when I said goodbye, though.

Back at the city center I had arranged for Pavel and me to stay in a small suite in a hotel next to the Royal Castle. I wanted this to be a super stay. But Pavel also looked strangely lost.

The Royal Castle in Oslo. The flag means that the King is at home. Photo taken earlier.

We had separate bedrooms and a large shared living room and bath. But Pavel did not want to use the spacious bath. He insisted on washing himself in the sink of the small toilet. He even made a point of how awkward it had been to wash his feet in a cramped position.

What was happening? It felt like aggression through demonstrative modesty.

Manya came over to our hotel the next morning, after breakfast. Apparently, she had not socialized with the other guests at the youth hostel. And worse — she was on edge with Pavel.

Pavel told me what had happened. He — the professional interpreter — had corrected her English on one occasion. Then she started to cry. How serious was their conflict?

The weather had improved, and we went to see the traditional tourist sights of Oslo.

We walked the few meters to The King's Castle, where I photographed Pavel with one of the guards. Then on to the City Hall with its gigantic naturalistic murals in an almost Soviet style. The subway took us to the Munch Museum and then back to the National Gallery with a special exhibition of Norwegian neo-romantic paintings.

We saw the fortress overlooking the harbor and took a ferry out to the Kon-Tiki Museum, which exhibited the balsa raft that Thor Heyerdahl and his crew sailed from Peru to Polynesia.

Akershus fortress with a view towards Oslo fjord. Photo taken earlier.

Did they enjoy it? I don't know. They showed little excitement. Pavel and Manya hardly spoke to each other. Was this a really deep father-daughter conflict?

Or was it the normal Russian way? Or maybe they were still exhausted from the journey? If so, how could Pavel regain his strength if he didn't eat? I was perplexed.

In an effort to improve the mood, I took them to Kaffistova, a place for hearty traditional meals, but Pavel only wanted cake and tea. Did his demonstrative modesty prevail or did he despise Norwegian food? If so, what kind of food could really trigger his appetite?

What to do next? The only attraction Pavel had requested beforehand to see was a weird one. I had told him about the remains of a WW2 German plane wreck in a wooden hill north of Oslo. This really interested him.

So the next day, we were off on a local train to see the site. I looked forward to sharing the joy of trekking with them.

That joy seemed to be long gone. Manya was quick on her feet, but still silent. Pavel was breathing like a steam engine and had to take frequent breaks during our moderately steep ascent towards the “nazi plane”, as he called it.

Finally we reached a mossy depression under tall spruce trees. The twisted aluminum glowed palely in streaks of sunlight on the forest floor.

Faces blurred to preserve anonymity.

There was a somber solemnity over the site where a Dornier DO-17 light bomber had lost its way in bad weather and crashed into the Hansakollen hills, killing the two pilots and the navigator. The three “nazis”.

Why did he want to see this place, more than other tourist attractions? Was it the deep trauma of millions of Soviet lives lost to the “nazis” during the Second World War that still ravaged the Russian soul? Did the sight of the crumbling parts of a “nazi” engine and wing give him some sort of comfort?

We had to run a few meters to reach the train back to Oslo. We made it, but Pavel was exhausted and indignant at having to run. He was a few years younger than me, but had the fitness of an old man. Or was he still exhausted from hunger, from lack of the food he wanted?

After our stay in Oslo, we went in my small car to my correspondingly small house in the town of Kongsberg. Enroute, Pavel finally revealed his culinary passion.

I had to fill up with gas. Next to the gas station there was an American style diner. He became very eager, and wanted us all over there. He ordered a basket of french fries. Just french fries.

We drove on, and he happily munched them. I had finally found his favourite food.

My modest house in Kongsberg was all by itself on a hillside, surrounded by fields with grazing sheep and paths through the pine-clad hills and mountains. It was the epitome of rural Norway.

I accommodated Manya in the guest room with a bunk bed and Pavel in my bedroom. There were no more beds, so I slept outside on the patio. It was still warm late summer.

Manya discovered my guitar. She sat down with it on the patio, and frail notes mingled with distant sheep-bells. At last, a streak of happiness beamed into the late summer evening.

I had big plans for the next day. The weather forecast promised clear skies over Southern Norway. I wanted to take them on a ride in a small Cessna plane to see the mountains and fjords of Western Norway.

I revealed my plan at the breakfast table the next morning. It did not garner enthusiasm, but neither protests. So we drove in silence to the airfield.

We took off from Kjeller airport and climbed out over the woods surrounding Oslo — with the “nazi” wreck in the hills not far below. The propeller bit through clear air and pulled us over the Norefjell mountains and beautiful Numedal valley.

Manya was in the rear seat. Pavel was to my right. I glanced briefly at him. His head tilted forward. He was sleeping.

We descended into the Dagali mountain valley. I thought we might need a bathroom break there. And maybe a smoke break.

Pavel was an avid smoker, as I remembered from my Siberian visit two years hence. But now, he had switched to e-cigarettes.

Long final, Dagali airport. Photo taken earlier.

His first concern after landing was to smoke. I went to the outdoor toilet. Then, we were ready for our next leg.

But the plane was not. The starter wouldn't engage. Were we stuck? Cold sweat dripped from the inside of my skull at the imagined prospect of an expensive taxi ride to the nearest train station and a late, late return to my house with two gloomy Russians.

But surprisingly, no gloom. Rather, there was hilarity. Father and daughter laughed together for the first time during their two-week stay.

My pride was hurt. I felt like an idiot. But at the same time it got me thinking. What was so funny?

Pavel gave me a hint. Russians are used to breakdowns at every level, from politics down to stubborn machinery. For the first time in Norway, their basic life experience of everything falling apart had been confirmed even here — in this disgustingly perfect, rich country.

Their impeccable host had been pulled down from his pedestal. They laughed with gallows humor. For a fleeting moment they were united in schadenfreude. It hurt me, but I could understand them.

Good for me, the problem was solved after a phone call to an experienced fellow pilot and a some hand cranking of the propeller. Sprockets aligned under the cowling, and the engine coughed into action. We could taxi from the tarmac, take off and head west.

We flew over the Hardangervidda high plain and saw the majestic ridge of Hallingskarvet, mother of all Norwegian mountains, where the late philosopher Arne Næss had his remote cabin Tvergastein.

What kind of advice would he have given me about the frustrations with Pavel and Manya? I imagine he would have recommended humble sensitivity, curiosity and openness.

Then, the Hardangervidda plain cracked up in front of us. Chasms plunged to green seawater one thousand meters below. We were approaching the fjordlands.

We turned north and flew over the Nærøy fjord. Waterfalls threw themselves from the cliffs rising on both sides of our fragile little plane. I wanted to give them this experience — something that few tourists get to see.

Sognefjorden. Photo taken on actual flight, August 2018

Nærøyfjorden opens up into Sognefjorden, the king of Norwegian fjords. I called up Sogndal airport on the radio, and was given “runway free”. The runway is located on a mountain shelf that dives into the fjord past the northern end.

We landed safely and got out. There was no comment on what we had seen, but Pavel needed a smoke. He had to exit the airside area for that, so I arranged for the local crew to lock him out and in again past security.

The trip home was uneventful. Pavel slept. Manya took some selfies. Maybe she had a great experience even though she was quiet?

Their lack of enthusiasm didn't turn me off. Actually, it had the opposite effect. It fueled up my desperate hosting efforts.

We drove in my car back west towards Bergen, past the mountains we had seen from the plane. Our first overnight stay was in a hotel near the Vøringsfossen waterfall.

Vøringsfossen. Picture taken on actual trip, 2018

As Pavel stood on the viewing platform jutting out into the gorge and listened to the roar of the water masses — all he said was: Why did you come to Russia when you have something like this here?

I began to realize that he wasn’t really that interested in Norway. What triggered him was anything that pointed towards Russia or compared to Russia.

He compared Vøringsfossen to the waterfall we had seen in the Altai mountains two years earlier. When he saw some signs in Norwegian, they were of interest if they reminded him of Russian signs or some other allusion. Whatever turned him on, it alluded to his home country.

We drove on to the Hardangerfjord, where mountains plunged into the calm sea. Manya had her moments of solitude. She said nothing, but I could sense that she was at peace — for a little while.

Manya in Eidfjord at the end of Hardangerfjorden, Vestland

We drove on to Bergen, the tourist magnet in western Norway — “the town between seven mountains”. I thought they might need some alone time, equipped them with bus and tram cards and gave them suggestions for places of interest.

They returned with little more than a dramatic story about a downpour from which they had to seek refuge under the roof of an art gallery they did not visit.

I took them to the Aquarium. I took them on a cable car ride up to mount Ulriken. No comments, except when Pavel saw the decoration on the cable cars — drawings of two happy boy faces from an old ad for soda made in Bergen, a loved tradition.

“They look like skulls”, he said in his soft, meticulously perfect English.

Cable car “Perle”, named after one of the two boys in an old dear advertisement for locally produced soda. The picture was taken on the trip itself. Today, the cable cars have been replaced with newer and larger ones, but after a public outcry over the prospect of drab plain gray exteriors, the operators had to revive Perle and Bruse, the soda boys.

But Bergen also gave Pavel and Manya a laugh together — the second and last on their trip to Norway. It happened when we drove past some new blocks of flats close to the seafront. I told them they were student flats.

I had learned enough of their attitudes to understand their laughter. Once again they were united in bitter gallows humor, rooted in the misery of their homeland. I realized that these basic student flats resembled the uptown apartments that I had seen in Novosibirsk two years earlier.

After Bergen, we drove back in heavy rain past the fjords and over the mountains. Something in me gave up. I decided that the few remaining days of their stay would have to be spent in my small cottage.

I started to drink beer in front of the TV to survive the evenings. Manya stayed in the bunk bed with Russian music in her earbuds. But Pavel wanted to show me a video on YouTube posted by Alexei Navalny, the Russian opposition leader.

It showed how Vladimir Putin and the rest of the political elite in Russia live in luxury, financed by corruption.

A party scene from one of the great mansions is burned into the retina of my memory. The disco blares out and young, attractive ladies wiggle their bodies. Prime minister Dmitry Medvedev is dancing with them. He is rugging back and forth like a bear among female sheep.

Apart from my fascination for the total lack of musicality in his movements, this parody of a dance gave me two thoughts.

First, it was a high-level version of my own low-level experiences in Siberia two years earlier. Then, I was the bear cub, surrounded by three ladies courting me for my Western money — and maybe a possibility to flee from Russian misery.

Second, it reminded me again that Russia and USA are similar in some ways, despite their obvious differences.

Who rugged around like mighty bears in the US at the time, equally oblivious to their lack of social musicality? Harvey Weinstein and his ilk. Who lived in tasteless, perversely luxurious mansions like Putin's, financed by questionable means? Donald Trump and his ilk.

But Pavel was no fan of Navalny either. If he came to power, he would be no better than Putin, he said.

There was no hope in Pavel's descriptions of Russian politics. The opposition lived mainly in Moscow, and Moscow was not Russia, Pavel said.

His hometown Novosibirsk was in political apathy. People there had neither the energy nor the attitude to protest.

Bus, Novosibirsk 2016. Persons in photo have no connection with those described

Pavel used his mother as an example. She had the old Soviet mindset impregnated into her spine. Everything that came from the authorities had to be accepted unconditionally. Her censorship was internalized.

But from time to time the frustration built up. The pressure from self-repression had to erupt into hysterical fits. Then she pulled herself together again and the cycle repeated.

But Pavel was calm. He was even calm when the news reached him during one of his last days in Norway: The economy of Russia could not support so many pensioners. Pavel's retirement age had been pushed further into the future by a new Putin decree.

I could tell it hit him hard. I could sense his exhaustion, his lack of energy. Now he was forced to work as an English teacher for even more years.

The last day of their stay arrived. We drove back to Oslo and a last stroll in the main street before they had to board the Airport Express train.

Pavel wanted to shop for souvenirs. Not for himself, but for his fellow language teachers.

We went into one of those shops with grotesquely tasteless Norwegian “trolls”, made in China. They had some more tasteful souvenirs too, like hand-knitted mittens and jackets, but Pavel could not afford them. And this time he would not let me pay for him.

Finally, he approached the store clerk with some meticulously selected compromises between price and tastelessness.

After they were paid and gift wrapped, Pavel told me his colleagues would fight for them like animals. I could sense that he despised the people he would be forced to eat lunch with for even more years.

Finally it was time to depart for the railway station and the airport train. One of Pavel's last remarks was something like: “Now you will finally be free from us”.

I tried to smooth it over and we said goodbye. They walked down the street to the station and disappeared into the crowd.

A heavy burden was lifted from my shoulders. It was hard to admit, but Pavel's cynical remark was to the point. But the relief I felt also cast a shadow of sadness. All my efforts at giving my Russian benefactor and his daughter a dream holiday in Norway ended with this.

A few days later, I spent a weekend in a mountain cabin with some old school friends. When I told them about my days with Pavel and Manya, they said in unison: “Arnfinn, you have been exploited”.

I am not so sure. True enough, their visit cost me about five thousand dollars, all expenses paid. All those money and efforts seemed wasted.

But — exploited? No — or maybe yes, but so what? What would I have done, if I was in Pavel's shoes? If I was teetering on the edge of financial ruin? He didn't need the visit to Norway. He needed the money. Desperately.

A few weeks later, I received an email from Pavel. He told me — in his usual matter of fact, formal way — that Manya had decided to cut all contact with her family and start a new life — in China.

I did not know what to answer. How could I answer? What was left between us?

The small, slender man had been reduced to a pale ghost of the energetic benefactor who had rescued me as a radio reporter 17 years earlier. Now I was about to let him down. We had been friends, but mother Russia had taken him back into her cold embrace.

Opera building, Novosibirsk. Photo taken on my first visit in 2001

I actually got a sign of life from Manya in China. She had her old email address, and some new friends had taught her to use VPN to bypass the Great Firewall of China.

She survived — ironically enough — by taking on the profession of her despised father. She was an English teacher in a small town.

How could she? Her English was rudimentary. But — as she wrote — when you look European, the Chinese automatically think you have mastered the English language.

I answered her that if she needed help, she should not hesitate to contact me.

That was the last I heard from her, and from her father. Pavel and Manya could not teach me anything more about Russia. But I think I have learned more than I can bear.

In my next and final post in this series, I will sum up what I have learned about Russia from personal experience. I will paint my own rough picture of how the current conflict between Russia and the West could brand us all.

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Arnfinn Sørensen

Retired science journalist from Norway. Meme switchboard operator.