For the more than 20 years she has lived in the U.S., Yulia Suslova has made a point to try to go home every year or so to visit her mother and older sister and stay in touch with friends in her hometown, not far from the Finnish border.
Lately, it has been difficult.
“There used to be direct flights from Dulles Airport to Moscow or St. Petersburg but since Russia started a what they call ‘a special military operation’ in Ukraine that all stopped,” she said. Direct flights and those through western Europe were halted by the sanctions against Russia. A trip in December was disrupted by passport issues, but she finally got home to Petrozavodsk, a lakeshore city in northwest Russia, by flying to Finland and finding a driver to cross the border and take her there – a much longer trip than in the past.
“Snow, wind and slush when I arrived at the end of March, and then the sun, blue sky and smiling faces for the rest of my short visit,” she said after returning to her home on Laurens Street and her teaching job in southwest Baltimore mid-April. Petrozavodsk is a state capital, a city of some 300,000 and the home of Petrozavodsk State University, where Yulia developed a passion for American history and culture that would eventually land her in Baltimore.
No one talks about Putin or “the special military operation” except in private, she said. “You never know who might hear you.” They do talk about how “prices have risen dramatically, presumably in part because of western sanctions. And they lament the new reality in which European products are for the most part no longer available, although some are – probably smuggled in, somehow.” Mostly she met apathy, people just going on with their lives.
“Everyone is out and about, but they cannot travel to many places – not to most of Europe or the West,” she said.
The name of the city is a combination of words Peter (for Peter the Great) and zavod (meaning a plant). Archeological discoveries in the urban area indicate the presence of a settlement as far back as 7,000 years ago. This part of northwestern Russia has had strong ties with Finland and was Soviet led after the formation of the Soviet Union, which collapsed in 1991 when Yulia was in her mid-teens.
While home this time, she read a book about the city and region during and after the first world war, written a century ago by an Irish adventurer who fought against the Bolsheviks. “He was sort of a Lawrence of Arabia sort of guy, regarded as something of a local hero in our state of Karelia in 1918-19.” She also came across and read letters that her mother’s brother had written while serving in the Red Army in 1944-45. He died in the battles to liberate Poland from the Nazis. She began delving into her family’s history, interviewing her 83-year-old mother, Galina.
Yulia learned English in an elite public high school and focused on colonial American history and English at the university, where she earned a master’s degree. In the worker state, everyone worked – her mother at a pharmacy and her late father in a plant. During a happier period of U.S.–Russian relations she was able to participate in a student exchange program, traveling to Danbury, CT to attend Western Connecticut State University.
When an opportunity to become a counselor at a Minnesota language summer camp developed, she took it. Later, she met a headhunter looking for language instructors for Baltimore City Public Schools. She was hired in 2002 to teach English as a second language to elementary and intermediate school students. Along the way she lived in Mt. Vernon and became a U.S. citizen, though she carries two passports.
Apart from work these days, her passions are history and old things – vintage clothing and antiques. She sleeps in a vintage bed in the old home she bought a decade ago. She leads the Vintagistas of Baltimore movement that has a Facebook page and occasional dress-up social events. During the pandemic she formed an informal Bolton Hill Girls Squad group to revive social life in the neighborhood stalled by COVID. She is active in BHCA.
“I really appreciate Baltimore, and I feel very much at home in Bolton Hill,” she said. “ I’ve always been a city girl.”