MIR Spotlight: Katya Boyarskaya

MIR Spotlight: Katya Boyarskaya

Katya Boyarskaya is Director of MIR’s St. Petersburg affiliate office, working with MIR in many starring roles for more than 20 years. You might say Katya was destined to take the stage, having been born into the dynasty of a prominent Russian theatrical family in St. Petersburg. But Katya’s stage is far beyond the interior of a theater: it’s the world stage of travel, beginning in Soviet times. Here Katya shares her struggles and successes in doing what she loves most.

Learning LanguagesHELEN: How did you learn English? 

KATYA: My grandmother – I’m named after her – excelled in school, the “icon” of our family. She graduated college in humanities before the Russian Revolution, studying languages like Latin, French, German, and English. Grandmother died before I was born, but I was told she often read aloud to her four sons and many grandchildren – fairy tales were favorites. Grandmother didn’t read in Russian, but translated those stories into English. So my family and relatives were exposed to English at an early age.

My parents were obsessed with foreign languages and sent me to a special foreign language school when I was young. That’s where I studied English, from second to 10th grade.

Katya Boyarskaya's close-knit family and relatives on an outing in the Russian countryside <br>Photo credit: Katya Boyarskaya

Katya Boyarskaya’s close-knit family and relatives on an outing in the Russian countryside
Photo credit: Katya Boyarskaya

Traveling in the USSRHELEN: I know it wasn’t easy to travel in Soviet times. What countries did you first travel to, and how did you manage to do that?

KATYA: Ha-ha! I LOVE to travel, but it wasn’t easy in Soviet Russia. My parents would tour the Soviet Union with their theatrical troupe and I often traveled with them. But I couldn’t even dream to go abroad – it was easier to go to the moon!

I first went abroad on a college student exchange program to Hungary, a socialist country. It was fun. Compared to Soviet Russia, Hungary was like a different world.

HELEN: After that, where did you dream of traveling?
KATYA: England. The spark came from studying English and English literature. In school we took “tours” of London with a paper city map and pencil. I knew how long The Mall was, how to walk from Trafalgar Square to Buckingham Palace – all on paper. But I wasn’t sure if these places actually existed.

Key to all travel 'in the old days': a prized Soviet passport <br>Photo credit: Katya Boyarskaya

Key to all travel “in the old days:” a prized Soviet passport
Photo credit: Katya Boyarskaya

HELEN: So did you actually visit England?
KATYA: I tried.

I graduated college as a drama theater critic and historian, and started working as a lecturer at Children’s Philharmonia. When I tried to apply for a trip through my trade union to my dream country, England, they said “sure!” But according to the rules – Soviet rules – I had to go to a socialist country first, and my student trip to Hungary didn’t count. So I asked to go Poland, another socialist country. They said OK, but you first have to work for us for two years.

Katya with her theatre friends and family; famous actor Michael Boyarsky is on the right Photo credit: Katya Boyarskaya

A glamorous Katya with her theater friends and family; her cousin, famous actor Michael Boyarsky, is on the right
Photo credit: Katya Boyarskaya

HELEN: When those two years were up, then you got to travel to England?

It was summer and I didn’t have seniority at work. I asked for winter, and they said no. So I waited until the next summer, but by then I was married. Since my husband was in the military, I had to get special permission to travel. There were so many delays and red tape that I didn’t get to go. When my husband and I divorced, I told my trade union “I’m free to travel!” They said no: a Soviet rule was that if you divorced a spouse who was in the military, you had to wait two years to travel.

I lost my temper!

Circa 1970s: Soviet Intourist guide Katya Boyarskaya at Peterhof, near St. Petersburg <br>Photo credit: Katya Boyarskaya

Circa 1970s: Soviet Intourist guide Katya Boyarskaya at Peterhof, near St. Petersburg
Photo credit: Katya Boyarskaya

Perestroika Changes EverythingThankfully, “perestroika” began under President Gorbachev in the 1980s, generating  decentralization and loosening of red tape. During my vacations I had guided for Intourist – the official Soviet travel agency – and one of my first clients invited me to England, so at last I went! It was all real, not just on paper: The Mall, Trafalgar Square, Baker Street, the houses of English writers. I simply walked the streets of Old London, and imagined Charles Dickens’ heroes there.

Katya Boyarskaya eventually visited England, walking the streets in person and not on paper <br>Photo credit: Katya Boyarskaya

Katya Boyarskaya eventually visited England, walking the streets in person and not on paper
Photo credit: Katya Boyarskaya

HELEN: How did that change you?

KATYA: I became a guide, and then a tour manager, and eventually MIR’s director of our St. Petersburg office.

But it wasn’t easy.

The first foreigner I met through my guide’s work was from the south, in the U.S. Although I had studied English for nine years, I couldn’t understand him at all! He couldn’t understand me, either! I blame that on growing up in the Soviet Union in the ‘70s and ‘80s, when there was almost no opportunity to learn conversational English from native speakers. All that has changed.

Front and center, Katya Boyarskaya takes the stage in sharing her travel expertise with visitors <br>Photo credit: Katya Boyarskaya

Front and center, Katya Boyarskaya takes the stage in sharing her travel expertise with visitors
Photo credit: Katya Boyarskaya

Favorite Places, Favorite ToursHELEN: Now that you’ve traveled so much, what’s your favorite MIR tour?

KATYA: MIR’s space program. It’s called Inside the Russian Space Program,  and I watched the launch of a Russian spaceship! I also really like the Trans-Siberian Railway where I get to cross all of Russia by train. I’ve led dozens of other MIR tours around the Golden Ring, the White Sea (the Solovetski Islands), Moscow, Mongolia, China, Lake Baikal, UkraineSochi, Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan – to name a few.

HELEN: Where else have you been?

KATYA: I’ve lost count of the number of tours I’ve led, but I do know I’ve traveled to France, Sweden, Greece, Egypt, Israel, Spain, Denmark, the Baltics, Turkey, Malta, Finland, Germany, Australia, Sri Lanka, Georgia, Ukraine, U.K., U.S., and Seattle. And yes, I finally did get to visit Poland. In the 1990s I spent ALL my money on traveling!

Life Lessons in TravelHELEN: Any travel lessons?

KATYA: After visiting all these places in the world, I can say for sure that there is nothing more beautiful than St Petersburg.

When I first started traveling, I couldn’t believe I was traveling abroad! I felt free, part of the world. Later, as I started to compare people, history, cultures, and traditions I started realizing we’re all the same, even in our differences.

We are the same. We are ONE WORLD. It may sound paradoxical, but I think to reach this philosophical point of view you have to travel, and see some of the world first.

Her family's theater background allowed her to travel; now Katya Boyarskaya has written a book about them Photo credit: Katya Boyarskaya

Her family’s theater background allowed Katya Boyarskaya to travel within the USSR; now she’s written a book about them
Photo credit: Katya Boyarskaya

Travel to Russia with MIRYou can travel to Katya’s beloved St. Petersburg as well as other MIR destinations in Russia, including Katya’s favorites like the Trans-Siberian Railway and the Golden Ring on Russia’s Imperial Capitals & Ancient Villages. You can also book a custom private journey.

(Top photo credit: Katya Boyarskaya – standing outside her MIR tour bus)

PUBLISHED: August 15, 2014

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