Stephanie Briggs: To Russia with a Very Big Stick

Published: October 1, 2010

Stephanie Briggs is a disabled student with hydrocephalus and mild cerebral palsy. These conditions reduce her mobility and are a source of chronic pain. Despite this, she has completed a BA in Russian Studies and is now perusing a MA in Translation. She also travelled to and toured Russia in 2003.

SRAS: Despite your guide books discouraging people with disabilities from traveling to Russia, you’ve traveled to Russia to see Moscow, St. Petersburg, Yaroslavl, and Rostov. First, can you tell us about your disability?

Stephanie Briggs on Red Square

Stephanie Briggs: I have hydrocephalus. In people without this disorder, the body produces a certain amount of cerebrospinal fluid that coats and bathes the brain, cushioning it and helping to carry away infection. The CSF is also reabsorbed at more or less the same rate, so that there is a steady level of intracranial pressure.

In people with hydrocephalus, there is too much CSF, which means either that too much is being produced, or in my case, that it was not draining properly (known as obstructive hydrocephalus). A shunt is surgically inserted to drain the fluid into the abdominal cavity, where it gets reabsorbed by the body there.

The hydrocephalus arrested itself in 2006 and since then I have had severe intractable chronic daily headaches as a result of low intracranial pressure (which is the opposite of hydrocephalus, which causes increased intracranial pressure). The chronic pain (headaches) started in 2003, and hasn’t let up since. 2003 was also the year I graduated and went to Russia with my mother as a graduation present.

I also have moderate cerebral palsy, which affects muscle and skeletal developments and thus makes mobility difficult (I walk with a staff). I also have asthma.

SRAS: Did you find that travelling in Russia was at all difficult or uncomfortable by Russia’s lack of infrastructure for the disabled?

SB: There were some things that made it difficult, yes, but I learned very quickly to adapt. If I had spent my time worrying or obsessing over what the difficulties were, I think it would have spoiled my trip. I vividly remember once needing to use the lavatory when we were in Red Square. We happened to go inside of GUM, the very posh department store. After asking for directions from a security guard (who seemed to be thinking: “who on earth is this disabled woman carrying a bamboo stick out in public??”), and we found the lavatory. I was surprised to see simple holes in the polished, shiny marble floor, around which were stainless steel metal anti-slip foot guards. I encountered similar toilets in the basement of the Leningradskiy Vokzal. I’d never seen those sorts of toilets before! Normally, I have a difficult time standing upright, and more so with what had to be done in the case of these toilets. But I managed.

The escalators to get down to some of the metro stops were very steep and frightening for me, because they move so fast! I sort of had to run, jump and pray that I didn’t lose my balance and fall. Other metros were easier because there were just a few flights of regular stairs, and they all had banisters!

In terms of accessibility to buildings, we were quite lucky. The family in Moscow we stayed with lived in a building that had one of those old-fashioned lifts with the metal cage. In Yaroslavl, the inn where we stayed on recommendation of my friend and mentor Irina had no lift, and the bedrooms were on the second floor, so up I went. Nothing to worry about – it just took some getting used to. I figured a little physical hardship is a small price to pay to see Russia as up-close and personally as I did.

In Saint Petersburg, something funny occurred: We were given the address of a lady to stay with through Intourist, and we had requested that if a building did not have a lift, could they please place us on the lowest floor. No problem, they said. We will put you with a woman named Galina, who lives on “Floor I” of her building.

When we arrived, we found a sign outside of Galina’s apartment building indicating who lived on which floor.

It was arranged like this:


Intourist, presumably thinking that our host lived on Floor I, must have assumed that our host lived on the floor closest to the ground. Turns out that it was actually at the top of the building! We climbed 4 flights of stairs, twice a day, for 4 days. But other than that, it was great. At least we got our sleep at the end of each exhausting day!

It was a lot of culture shock, mainly, and I found I had more trouble adjusting back to Western amenities and culture when we left Russia!

Briggs belfry
Stephanie with her friend and mentor Irina at the top of a belltower in Yaroslavl.

SRAS: So what western amenities could possibly be difficult after all that?

SB: Difficult may not be the right word. Mildly shocking, perhaps. I readjusted to a life where being visibly disabled didn’t mean people looked at you as though you’d grown horns and fangs, and where automatic haggling over a taxi fare was simply not done. It seemed to me that in many ways, Russia, as a culture, is more relaxed than Canada or the United States. I was disturbed when I saw our neighbours mowing their lawns and killing their dandelions. In Russia, dandelions are not considered weeds, and I had come to love them. The gardens at the Catherine Palace outside Saint Petersburg were left to grow wild, and I much prefer that now to the “mowed look.” Unfortunately, laws in many Canadian cities have been established that lawns must be mowed regularly and kept looking “clean and trimmed.” Sigh.

SRAS: So did you encounter any sort of discrimination while abroad?

SB: Not at all! Most people (complete strangers) were very kind and helpful. I suppose that their helpfulness might have stemmed from my being able to speak the language fluently, but I got the impression that it was a highly unusual experience for them to see a disabled woman out in public, doing all of the sorts of things in Russia that non-disabled people do: going to the продукты (corner grocery store), going on the metro, climbing up a spiral staircase to get to the top of a bell tower in a cathedral in Yaroslavl (and then there was the trip down…), anything that a nondisabled tourist might do, I did most of it.

However, I still have not overcome my fear of heights. Sitting on that cathedral roof, so close to the golden stars on the cupolas you could almost touch them, was terrifying! I managed a scared smile for the camera. There were even times on the metro in Moscow, when the ticket attendant saw me using a stick to walk, she let us through the turnstiles for free, and refused to accept payment.

SRAS: How did you first become interested in Russia?

SB: I became interested in Russian and Russian culture as a result of my paternal grandparents, Louis and Dena Sures. Their families were from Odessa and Latvia, respectively. They were Jewish, and at the time their families lived in those places, Jews were not considered to be true Russians (or Latvians, Ukrainians, what have you). Yet they identified themselves as having a “Russian background” as well as a Jewish faith and culture.

As a child this combination seemed to me to be very mysterious and fascinating, and as I grew older, I yearned to learn more about Russia, the language and the culture. Grandma Dena told me the story of my Grandpa Lou. When he was only 6 years old, a pogrom of Cossacks came to their Ukrainian village, and my grandpa hid under the big wooden dining-room table that was covered by a large white cloth, as a Cossack on horseback actually rode into the house, breaking things and looting. If Grandpa Lou hadn’t been hidden so well, I’m sure he would have been killed. The rest of the family had gone to hide – I don’t know why – in the nearby cemetery, and the Cossacks killed his aunt – my great-great aunt – by chopping her head off! Shortly thereafter, what remained of the family, including my grandfather, emigrated to Canada. But my family has happy stories as well, so please don’t go away from this thinking it was all doom-and-gloom in Ukraine.

My mother was a fan of David Lean’s film of Doctor Zhivago. It being a very long film for a little girl to watch, I was exposed to it in small doses throughout some of my childhood, and I latched onto the soothing sound of the balalaika as being quintessentially Russian. I still love that sound today. A country that makes a wonderful instrument like that needs to be investigated!

SRAS: You say that you could speak Russian fluently before you went to Russia. What education had you had in Russian or about Russia before going?

SB: At some point in my teens, while browsing randomly through the local library where I lived for two years in Florida, I came across Robert K. Massie’s book The Romanovs: The Final Chapter, which details the murder of Nicholas II and his family, and how their remains came to be discovered and authenticated in 1991 (but does not contain the most recent findings of the two missing children, Alexei and one of the girls, or their symbolic reburial in the Fortress of Peter and Paul. I hope he will write a new chapter to bring it up to date.).

Massie’s personal writing style drew me in, so that I wanted to learn more about the last tsar. I then read Nicholas and Alexandra by the same author… and I was hooked! Massie seemed to completely understand why things happened as they did (Massie’s own son was diagnosed with hemophilia), with Rasputin controlling the government, because of Alexandra’s worry for her only son. In Nicholas and Alexandra, Massie suggested that if Alexei had not had hemophilia, the whole course of history might have been different. Such a little thing, a chronic illness… and it changed history.

I read everything I could get my hands on about Nicholas and his family, and about the Tsarevich’s hemophilia. Having been ill all my life, I felt I could relate to how Alexei must have felt, particularly as regards to the severe pain he experienced when he bled, and how he was never given painkillers. Poor kid! I wasn’t sure what to make of Rasputin, for it took many readings of Nicholas and Alexandra to get the whole story into my head. I poured over photographic albums of pictures taken of Nicholas’ family, and tried to put myself in their shoes. Sure, they were the Imperial Family of Russia!, just about as high up on the social ladder you could go…but under all that, they were just a normal family with incredibly strong ties to one another, trying to survive in a world that was too modern for them.

Learning about all these things got me interested in the language. In my senior year at high school, I was introduced to a translation of Crime and Punishment, in an AP English class. It was my first real exposure to Russian literature, and it made me decide to learn Russian when I entered university. I loved all the intricate names of the characters, and how each could be changed in infinite ways to express different feelings about the character.

SRAS: And now you are now pursuing a graduate degree in translation studies – how did you become interested in translation and how did you decide on translation as your career of choice?

Spasso-Preobrazhenskiy (Transfiguration of the Savior) Monastery
A picture of Spasso-Preobrazhenskiy (Transfiguration of the Savior) Monastery by Stephanie Briggs

SB: By accident, really! I had finished my Russian BA in 2003, a long time ago, and had not been able to find work in which I could use it in the Canadian province of Manitoba where I lived. I then decided to do a degree in psychology at the University of Manitoba, but only ended up doing a few courses rather than getting a full degree. It just wasn’t my passion, and I didn’t know at the time that there were options to take a graduate degree online. Since 1999, I had been writing to my friend and mentor Irina in Russian, and in the early days, translating her letters to English, and then replying in Russian.

I moved to Scotland in 2008 and married shortly thereafter. I signed up for classes with the Open University, thinking maybe I could take another psychology course with them, as they did not offer any Russian courses. One day, randomly surfing the net for my next course (I knew by now that I definitely did not want to do another psychology course!) my husband suggested that I look into getting certification in translation. A light went on in my brain, and together we went Internet surfing for a program that would suit me. It had to be available by distance education, offer Russian as one of the target languages, and to allow more than two years to complete a Master’s degree (we figured out that it will be easier on me, energy-wise, to have extra time, in case I become too ill to study for a short time). We found this at the University of Portsmouth, which allows for a flexible study schedule, with 5 years to complete the degree, including research, taught classes, and a dissertation. I am aiming for the February 2011 intake.

SRAS: What you would advise to other disabled students thinking of going to Russia?

SB: First off, don’t believe everything you read in the guide books. The authors mean well, I am sure, but really, unless you have been disabled yourself, or had a chronic illness that affects your energy levels, etc., I don’t think it’s entirely possible for a nondisabled person to truly understand what it’s like. An example comes to mind of kerbs, or stairs. Nondisabled people probably don’t even think about stepping up onto a kerb/stairs or off of one in their daily movements. It’s as natural as walking along smooth pavement. But to a mobility-disabled person, a kerb must not only be thought about when it is encountered, but steps (haha, groan) are taken to negotiate it, and so on if there are stairs involved. You think to yourself, “Can I afford the energy it will take to climb these stairs? Is there a lift for an alternative? If there isn’t, I’ll just have to do it, and it will affect how I feel for the rest of my day.” On the other hand, a nondisabled person probably won’t remember any kerb he’s stepped onto in the course of a day.

Secondly, talk to other disabled students who have been to Russia, or people who live there. Look online for blogs. Personal experience, while highly individualistic, can be invaluable. I wish I had known another disabled person who had been to Russia before me and could tell me about all the little things I learned by myself. It is difficult, but not impossible. I chalked it up as all part of the experience and expected culture shock.

Thirdly, don’t panic! Russia is an experience – even the stuff that seems bad at the time can be a positive experience. Just get through the obstacle, take rest breaks if you need them, and remember why you are there in the first place.

Share on Social Media

About the author

Josh Wilson

Josh Wilson is the Assistant Director for SRAS. He has been managing publications and informative websites covering geopolitics, history, business, economy, and politics in Eurasia since 2003. He is based in Moscow, Russia. For SRAS, he also assists in program development and leads the Home and Abroad Programs

Program attended: All Programs

View all posts by: Josh Wilson