Machine Guns in the Afternoon

Travel Stories: Stephanie Carrie went to Russia to walk the streets that Gogol walked. She didn't plan on practicing her language skills at gunpoint.

08.17.09 | 11:37 AM ET

Photo of Kupchino, Russia by Stephanie Carrie

The bus took its final lurch towards my stop, quieting to an idling rumble at a corner of Balkanskaya Square. I squeezed myself through the foggy-windowed doors, exhaling the beer- and sweat-drenched air, and started down the dirt path home. It was the end of the second week of my summer-abroad program in Russia.

Before I left the States, I was slated to stay with Olga Semyonova and her grand piano at the center of St. Petersburg, just off the Neva River. Her home was 20 minutes from the university and seemed a safe and culturally rich location for a young woman with mediocre language skills on her first trip abroad. But her roof fell in and I ended up in Kupchino, an hour and a half bus ride from the city center, with the only host mom left: Svetlana Stepanovna.

Svetlana lived in a high rise, a dirty grey tower with cracked, spidery windows weaving cobwebs of clotheslines out onto tilting balconies. The foyer of my new home smelled like urine, still water and cement. Since its erection in the 1960s, this Communist monument to “equality through ugliness” had been self-destructing, unhindered by rehab or renovation. Svetlana, however, had grown strong and saucy with the years. She was a 62-year-old former sociology professor who loved ballet and trashy French novels. Through impromptu games of multi-lingual charades and evenings watching “Sex and the City” dubbed into Russian, we became fast friends.

That particular afternoon, I decided to skip my ritual after-school walk down Nevsky Prospect, to return home early. Everything seemed routine as I walked the familiar path, but when I unlocked the two security doors of our sixth floor apartment, I realized something was different: Svetlana wasn’t home. With extra lectures and cultural excursions, I usually wasn’t home before 8 p.m. I’d never realized it, but Svetlana’s presence was a constant in the apartment. The silence felt eerie. I calmed myself with the notion that Svetlana was a social pensioner whose life did not revolve around being home to make me kasha and chicken kutleti. I locked both doors and settled down with my homework.

I had barely begun curling the Cyrillic cursive of my name when the phone rang. I wasn’t sure what to do. I had never been alone with the phone. Svetlana didn’t have an answering machine, and I figured it could be my mother or boyfriend calling, so I answered it.

Allo?” I said.

Svetlana doma? Is Svetlana home?” a gruff voice asked.

Nyet. Can I say who called?”

Ne nada.” The caller hung up.

Although I was proud of my newly discovered Russian secretarial abilities, a drop of apprehension made its way down my spine. Someone now knew that I, a young foreigner, was alone in the apartment. The stories I’d heard about Kupchino’s gang problems resurfaced in my mind. I could only imagine the tricks Russian criminals had for looting apartments and kidnapping foreigners. Something must have prompted the tenants to barricade their apartments with double security doors.

I buried my head in a Pushkin poem and tried to shake off the nervous energy pooling in my stomach. The phone rang again.


Svetlana, doma?” asked a different voice, more abrasive and searching than the first.

Nyet, can I ...”

Ne nada.” Click.

My mind now leapt into the realm of imagination usually inhabited by writers of B-horror films and National Enquirer articles. I conjured a pair of criminals who were either superiorly dense, or just liked to be thorough when staking out a hit. Perhaps a gang of delinquents had gotten hold of the university’s list of students. Foreigners have cash, iPods, digital cameras and, most importantly, American passports. Who wouldn’t want to rob them? The convicts were now making house calls with Kalashnikovs.

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Stephanie Carrie received her BA in Russian and Slavic Studies from NYU. She is now an actress and writer living in Los Angeles, and uses her degree to talk to Russian grannies on the bus. She is originally from New Zealand.

11 Comments for Machine Guns in the Afternoon

Lynda Malerstein 08.17.09 | 5:11 PM ET

This is a wonderful story, well told. You are as excellent a writer as you are an actress. Much success is on the way.
Lynda Malerstein
Feel the Freedom of Letting Go.

Sabina 08.17.09 | 8:38 PM ET

Well told!  You drew out the suspense masterfully, I think.  I enjoyed every word.  It’s a good thing Svetlana didn’t tell you about the alarm!

Annie Gray 08.18.09 | 3:17 PM ET

You must be a good story writer because you kept my attention.  I have chronic fatigue and am usually too tire to finish a story.  lol Well told.  I was a bit confused when you described yourself as an ‘American’ student and you’re a Kiwi, but then I realized that you came as “an American student.”  Russian is such a hard language to learn.  So good on ya.

Mikeachim 08.18.09 | 6:16 PM ET

Terrific. Stephanie. You yarn mightily.

It’s an odd thing to realize that as a foreigner you can attract suspicion, even just as an unfamiliar accent on the phone. (I felt a little of this in some quiet areas of Riga in Latvia).

Also - the Russian police sound a damn sight more efficient than the ones here in the UK. ;)

Jim Mamer 08.18.09 | 8:31 PM ET

Great story. I look forward to additional chapters…

Russell T 08.18.09 | 10:37 PM ET

Being Stephanie’s uncle, I’ve heard the story in person. Great translation to the pixeled page.  I look forward to seeing some of her stories from France, Vietnam and Ghana published too. Magnificent e-mails written on the run in an internet cafe that only need to be polished to be presented here. Not only is she a very good writer, but a keen observer and a traveler that truly connects with the people in the countries she visits.

Congratulations to the Kiwi Kydd.

AndreyM 08.19.09 | 3:49 AM ET

This place you are talking about looks like on my place of living. I live in Ukraine and such houses very popular in my counrty!

Gloria Lindsay 08.22.09 | 2:17 AM ET

Excellent story, Stephanie.

I wavered from suspense and fear to absolute laughter.  You are a very good writer.  Keep it up. I look forwarded to more chapters. 

Brilliant descriptions too.

(Gloria Lindsay)

Emily  08.22.09 | 5:42 AM ET

Stephanie, You are a good story writer.

Verity 08.29.09 | 7:59 AM ET

Wonderful story! You had me alternatively worried for you safety and giggling over the raspberries. You are a great writer :)

Anastasia - Bali 08.29.09 | 11:03 PM ET

Hey Stephanie,

That was a really great article. Gave me the thrills and got me very interested to read the whole article from your first paragraph :)

You can write your own book you know that? :)

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