Off to Russia

I’d been a literary Russophile since the age of twelve, when I read The Brothers Karamazov. I became hooked on the drama, the beauty of the countryside, the mystery of the women and men, of great happiness followed always by such melancholy. I went on to the rest of Dostoevsky’s novels, then to Tolstoy, then to the poets Pushkin and Levertov. All Russian writers were romantic to me; “very happy at aperitif to very sad by digestif” was a line I read somewhere. I likened the Russian soul to that of the Irish—the persecution of the peasants over the centuries, the happy-sad imbibing.

I was invited to go to Russia in 1989 by my friend Rebecca, who was taking a group of first-year college students on an exchange; five kids dropped out, and my friend asked me to go because she had room and she knew my passion for Russia. For $2,000, we would fly from LA to Moscow and take the night train to St. Petersburg. We were to spend three weeks at a homestay, I with a friend of Rebecca’s Russian counterpart Vera, and the rest of the group with student families. I could be a chaperone on Rebecca’s educational excursions, or I could do whatever my host Tatiana, best friend of Vera’s, thought might interest me. I was on board before she finished explaining.

It was late July, and I looked forward to the White Nights, those idyllic summer evenings that literally lasted all night, just a brief hour or so of dusk and the sun was up and at it again. I could picture myself hanging around on a bridge over the Neva drinking vodka all night with summer-drunk Russians—White Nights, the legendary chance for freedom in the tightly controlled enemy of America just breaking away from being the USSR, the infamous Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.

The 12-hour plane ride across the top of the world seemed then to have lasted longer than 24 hours. So many new imprints on my brain made me remember it minutely. Because I smoked, I was assigned to the very back of the plane, where I soon discovered I was surrounded by Soviet forklift operators. They were returning from two weeks in Pittsburgh, learning forklift tricks. Short, sturdy and badly dressed in brand new American duds, these friendly middle-aged Russian men liked plaids, white socks and Florsheim-like plastic dress shoes. They were polite and jolly as they quaffed Jack Daniels and Johnny Walker held in their beefy hands as they puffed madly on Marlboros. They were impressed that I could speak some Russian and liked whiskey and cigarettes, so they brought out their Russian/English dictionaries while pouring their duty-free liquor for me and lighting my Marlboros. They gathered around me like I was their English teacher and they were eager to impress me. It was congenial and smoky and boozy back there in the tail of the plane. After an afternoon and half a night cruising at 30,000 feet, napping, eating, chatting, drinking, smoking, we strapped ourselves in, preparing to land on their native soil. I was beside myself with anticipation.

As I was straightening my dishabille to greet the customs agents, I discovered two cigarette holes in my paisley wrap-around skirt. Barely discernible, hidden among the paisleys, I never remembered to sew them up the entire time I was in Russia. Nor once home did I: the skirt became an artifact of the favorite trip of my life.

My seatmates and I were full of “dasvidanias” as we made our way across the White Nights twilight of the tarmac. With the good-byes fading in the warm breeze, they went one way and I and my friends another, with customs telling us where to be. It was midnight in Moscow, and we non-Russians were soon herded into a bus that would take us someplace—our group to the train to Leningrad/St. Petersburg, the others—Englishmen, Germans—to a hotel in central Moscow near the Kremlin, they said. I was disoriented from the long trip and from the dim nadir of the White Nights—no lights on in the terminal or in the bus.

We reached our customs area, where no one was friendly. There was no eye contact. No “Welcome to the Soviet Union.” They refused to stamp my passport, even though I kept pointing at it and mimicking stamping. They ignored me, and soon I was pushed along by the people behind me. The guards and customs people were stern in their disallowance of any dawdling, and although they never looked directly at the foreign guests, they watched at all times. It was spooky, as in spy spooky.

I did not care. I was in Russia, about to board a train for St. Petersburg. I would soon be in the fabled Paris of Russia. I knew it all—designed by Tsar Peter the Great nearly 300 years prior; the rulers’ houses with 500 rooms, endless birch tree parks. Barely a peek seen by Americans in 70 years.

I was in great spirits considering how little sleep I’d had in two days.

Along with large numbers of Soviet humanity, we jammed ourselves into the train, all cars the same, no berths. The tea trolley came through several times, but after the first cup and my first trip to the primitive and never-cleaned toilet, I didn’t drink again for 11 hours.

I spent most of my time standing alone on the platform between cars, watching the scenery flash by in the warming, whitening day. By 1:30 a.m., it was as bright as 10 a.m. I could not have slept had I tried, so I gazed at the flat of the countryside, wondering about Tartars and peasants, Jews living beyond the Pale, and the overwhelming wealth of the Russian aristocracy. Now and then I talked haltingly to the conductor who came out to smoke and drink tea. I managed to ask him if he would trade his glass coffee holder for cigarettes. He grinned from ear to ear when I held out an entire pack of Marlboros for him. He gave me one of his Russian cigarettes from his jacket pocket and two pewter glass holders from behind a fire hose. The Russians drink their tea out of glasses wrapped in a cloth napkin or set into a holder, often with a handle, like a cup itself. The cup holders he gave me looked to be antique pewter, delicately etched and carved. The Russian cigarette flared as he lit it for me. I took one drag, coughed at the harsh tobacco, and the cigarette went out. There was an empty space in the middle of their cigs, or there was in the one he gave me, and the trick to keeping it lit was beyond me. I watched the Russian elaborately savoring his American smoke and grinning as I struggled with his tobacco-less gift to me.

The entire trip so far had been like nothing I’d experienced, ever, anywhere. When we pulled into St. Petersburg, where the sign still read Leningrad, the station stuffed with people milling about with no apparent idea of what they were doing; none of it dismayed me. How would I find Tatiana? I didn’t worry about it. Figured it would just have to happen because I had no clue how to make it happen.

As it turned out, Tatiana spotted me the moment I appeared in the doorway of the train car and came to me, reaching up; she grabbed my hand, and I leapt. She told me later there was no mistaking Americans, and besides, I looked like I was described to her. She did not hug me, shake my hand or look me in the eye; she just said, in crisp Brit English, “I would be Tatiana you would be Kuh…Kuh…. We will be calling you Kalinka, nyet?

She was dark-haired, a bit sloe-eyed, lightly olive skinned, neither fat nor thin, exotically pretty, so Russian-looking, I thought, laughing at myself. What did I expect? Tatiana swooped me along, dragging me forward. I pointed out my luggage sitting outside the baggage compart, so she let go of me and grabbed both bags. I followed her to a tiny two-seater toy car with a teenage boy driver.

“This is Alex. He’ll take you to my apartment. I shall be meeting you there!” Tatiana banged her palm on the trunk of the car, and the silent boy put his foot on the accelerator and zoomed us away.

He was red-faced. Embarrassed, I decided, so I started saying words in English and Russian, words like malchik (boy), derevo (tree) and tserkov (church). As if I were his auntie, he relaxed and quit hunching over the steering wheel and driving like he was escaping from a bank heist. He pointed out statues and buildings as we sped along the Nevski Prospect, the main drag along the River Neva through the center of Saint Petersburg. I knew exactly where I was, but I felt cut loose from reality, from not having peed all night, from sleep deprivation, from too much Jack, and mostly, from the truth of it all: that I was being chauffeured along the romantic Neva Prospect, oh famous street in Russia, the only vehicle in sight except for a trolley idling by a bridge.

We reached Tatiana’s apartment on an empty tree-lined street alongside a canal, the Moika, I learned. Alex jumped out, grabbed my two big bags from the back and struggled up the marble steps to the very tall and very wide front door. He punched buttons and the door opened. Off he went. I trailed behind, lingering a little to enjoy the lovely setting.

Inside a spacious foyer—the width of the building and at least twenty feet deep, completely empty—no chairs, no tables with vases of flowers, no potted plants, just an expanse of shiny marble and wide, shallow marble stairs, each riser slightly indented from centuries of feet, wrought iron railings leading up to a landing with huge windows—I saw Alex making the turn to the next flight. I followed along, stopping at the window to peer down on a square of empty backyard with two-foot-high grass, like a crop of oats. I ran up to catch Alex and make him give me one of the bags; I feared the skinny kid would be crawling by the time we reached the fifth floor, Tatiana’s.

The door was open, she waited, almost smiling, nervous. She took Alex’s bag, spoke to him in her rapid Russian, he bowed to me and ran down the stairs. I would not see him until I left.

Tatiana pointed at the line of shoes on the floor, so I took mine off and followed her to a glass-doored room with a white wrought iron daybed covered in a dark blue quilt, a desk with school books lined up along the back, huge windows with two-foot-wide sills, open with the gauzy blue curtains wafting in the breeze. It was an inviting room, cozy and boyish.

“Follow me,” she said, so I de-pursed myself and did so. She was showing me to the bathroom, where the giant claw-footed tub was full to the brim. “Take your bath,” she demanded. “All those hours on the train, you are dirty. I will be in the kitchen. Do not hurry.”

She closed the door and there I was standing in the middle of a very large room for a bathroom with a tub, toilet, sink, cupboards, a slim eight-foot-tall window with lace curtains hanging straight down, weighted. A grayish towel lay across a chair by the tub. A black and gray-striped bathrobe hung on the back of the door.

I had to let water out of the tub so it wouldn’t overflow when I got in. It was tepid and fine, soothing, lapping slightly against the porcelain. I could have fallen asleep had my adrenaline not been demanding action. I couldn’t wait to get clean and get out and get on with my stay with Tatiana Fedorova in St. Petersburg. Russia, for heaven’s sake.

I entered the kitchen to see Tatiana looking out the window, smoking, a table covered end to end with plates of food. It was a feast, and I began salivating like a dog. I had forgotten I was starving. We said, “Hi,” kind of childlike, and I sat down in the empty chair, opened my napkin and accepted the cup of tea Tatiana had just drawn from the silver samovar at the end of the table in front of another giant window, wide sill, starched white filmy curtains wafting.

There was also a full-shot glass in front of me that I assumed was alcohol. After my first sip of strong black tea, Tatiana raised her shot glass to me, said something, nodded to me to pick up mine. We clinked glasses, she drank the whole thing, I sipped. It burned.

“Vodka,” she said with a smile and poured herself another shot.

I ate and ate—tomatoes, watermelon, sausage, cheeses, bread, fresh beets, cucumbers, green onions, raw green beans, a salad of tomatoes, eggs and carrots mixed with something like mayonnaise. Blinis with strawberries and heavy cream. I could not quit eating. And drinking black tea alongside vodka shots.

By the time I was done, we were friends, laughing about travel on the midnight Moscow rail line, about Russian cigarettes (the ones with an entire inch of empty space in the middle, no tobacco). We were drunk, full of food and intoxicated in another way with our easy exchange of lives, our immediate friendship.

By mid-afternoon, I was fading, and Tatiana led me by the hand to my bedroom, sat me on the bed, took off my shoes, laid me down, covered me with something and shut the door softly.

I slept through the night.

Furry fish and cliches

Over the days I lived with Tatiana, English professor for cadets at the submarine academy, the only English words I heard her mix up were “yesterday” and “tomorrow.” She must have learned them at the same time and never pegged them accurately, for many times, she’d say something like, “Now, yesterday, when we go to the Hermitage...” She had asked me to correct her every mistake, so usually I did. About these two words, I finally told her to remember the song this way, and I sang to her: “Yesterday, all my troubles seemed so far away. . . .”

I suddenly felt foolish for having brought up those lyrics. She lived in Russia; she knew tomorrow’s troubles. And tomorrow’s and tomorrow’s.

Tatiana particularly liked American colloquialisms. Because she had learned British English, these Americanisms had never been taught to her, so when I complimented her on her mother’s pickles that she served me and I talked about how my mom used to pickle my dad’s cucumbers, she was intrigued by “to pickle.” I explained, and she wrote it down in her journal. Then I told her that “to be pickled” meant to be drunk.

“How can that be?” She asked, confusion on her face. Pickles don’t make you drunk.”

“It’s a metaphor,” I told her, unable to explain why some expressions in American seem to have little to do with what they describe, but they offer up a picture—a drunk’s face screwed up like a wrinkled pickle. “Who knows?” I asked flippantly. She wrote that in her book also.

She then told me of a traditional Russian dish called “the fish with the fur coat.” She described it to me and then called her friend Larisa and told her to make it for our supper.

That night we had it, a big platter of the fish with the fur coat. It came out of a fish-shaped mold of mousse frosted in sour cream with watercress, thinly sliced cucumbers and dill on top. They explained how it looked to them like a fur coat on a fish, which it did. “We Russians are very metaphorical, too,” Tatiana said to me with her upward tilt of the chin that I translated as either pride or defiance. All Russians whom I met had a bit of touchiness about them; it had to do with their shame in the backwardness of their lives. Tatiana explained to me one late night as we talked on and on, comparing lives. What was I ashamed of in the States? she’d asked. I could think of nothing at the moment, feeling ignorant.

Tatiana wrote in her journal the expressions I used in general conversation, making me realize what a trite person I could be. “Just a fluke,” I said to her about my good fortune in traveling to Russia. She wrote in her journal “pure luck.” And to “miss the boat,” she deciphered as “falling in the water because the boat already left shore.” She laughed loudly at “good old boys,” and immediately called Larisa and then Katya to tell them, “America has many bureaucrats, too! Fat mishkas (bears), not too bright and very greedy.”

“Out of the blue,” I said about a black marketer in Palace Square who sold me a Russian practice sports shirt from a futbol team. She wrote the expression down as “out of the sky, like a miracle,” and then said to me, “Don’t buy from them. They are mafia.”

“Mafia?” I asked, puzzled. “In Russia?” I thought of the Mafia as a United States problem with an Italian connection.

“That’s what we call them,” she said. “We know they deal in stolen goods, and they always want dollars. This makes it harder for us if we try to buy from them. Besides, we think they are controlled by the government. The government blames all our deficits of goods on the mafia. To us, that means they control the mafia and use them as the excuse.”

“The scapegoat,” I said. And she wrote it down, nodding. I had heard her use “goat” for people in the government, for shopkeepers and for rude neighbors. Scapegoat made sense to her; she needed no explanation.

When a young student arrived at Tatiana’s to be tutored, I told her that she was a “moonlighter.”

“What can that mean?” she asked, frowning to figure it out.

When I explained that the expression came from people who work in the daytime and take another job at night to make ends meet, she nodded, scribbling quickly, and then wrote, “Make ends meet.” She was insatiable and told me she would be using these Americanisms to instruct her cadets in the “sub-language” of US English.

When Russian women did dishes, they rinsed and immediately placed them in a rack in the open cupboard above the sink. There was no bottom to the cupboard, and the dishes drip-dried into the sink. I told Tatiana it was ingenious, as it meant she had to handle the dish only once.

She asked how I dried dishes. “In the dishwasher,” I said. She laughed until she cried, and I had to wait until she finally sputtered out that she didn’t own a dishwasher; she was a dishwasher.

She wrote the whole exchange down in her ever-present notebook, wiped her eyes, and said, “ We ‘make fun’ of each other all the time. Katya tells me I am a pig because in front of an Amerikanski, I spill red wine on my kitchen curtains.” She held up the purple-edged end of the lace curtain beside us and grinned. “But I tell her my Amerikanski spills blackberry jam on the placemat and that we have that in common.” She flipped through the pages of her journal and found what she was looking for, pointing at “bad shape.”

I laughed with her. “Yes, we are both in bad shape. We are pigs, right?”

Tatiana was a reader, and she and I talked a great deal about American authors she had been allowed to read—all our classics: Hawthorne, Cooper, Poe, Emerson, Twain, London. The list stopped about there, she said. “We are not to read modern literature from the West.”

But she wanted to know about current authors. I gave her a list, maybe twenty, and told her I would send their books, along with The Story of English, a book I figured she would love, for it explained how English had spread over the world and taken on its own flavor wherever it stuck. She looked at me with her melancholy, dark eyes and said, “I would love it. But none of it will ever get to me.”

I looked away, for I knew it was true. Their postal system was as full of leaks as their condoms, and after 70 years of Communism, no one knew how to fix the workers’ cheating, the government’s never-realized five-year plans or their farmers using the technology of a past century.

The dinner that night at Larisa’s was an event. Tatiana and I walked several blocks, along paths through rubbled lots, past the famous Kirov ballet, several more blocks and into Larisa’s modern apartment building, unlike Tatiana’s Peter the Great-era mansion. Larissa and Tatiana’s assembled guests, male and female, were friendly, handshaking, hugging, offering champagne and bites of things from plates. A couple of them spoke English. The women dressed like models from Vogue because as soon as they got their hands on Western women’s magazines, they were copying the styles, sewing madly. I felt shabby in my paisley skirt and black blouse, black flats. They were haute couture in four-inch heels. full make-up. dramatic hairstyles. All beautiful. Flirty with their men and eagerly watching everything I did. Including choking on the vodka.

The first time I was toasted, I picked up my shot glass and sipped. Tatiana leaned over and whispered, “You drink all of it, all at once. They toast you, so you honor them!”

I obeyed, coughing at the end. Soon, I was as adept as they were, tossing it back like a pro. All toasts were to me and the USA, to freedom and democracy. It was heady, both the drink and the solemn wishes.

It was a vibrant evening, the food, the drink, the guitars and peasant songs, then the balalaika and the brandy and the sad songs. Tatiana and I were the last to leave after helping Larissa clean up. We drank the ends of champagne bottles as we washed, then headed down the stairs, tipsy, stumbling happily through the White Night the few blocks home.

The Hermitage, the train, the dacha

Tatiana went with me to the Hermitage, the 500-room home of the czars. It had morphed into the greatest museum of modern art east of the MOMA in New York City: hundreds of French Impressionists, an entire room of Rodin sculptures, and half a dozen versions of The Thinker. A room in which everything—windowsills, mantels, hearths, tabletops, lamps, vases—was malachite, a green mineral looking like deep-sea rock smoothed by waves. After a mere three rooms, we were museum weary, unable to take in the massive collections from the Western world. We deposited our paper slippers at the front door, where we were accosted by a guy wanting to sell me a Russian army greatcoat belt buckle. I bought it for my husband, despite Tatiana’s disapproval of my dealing with a black marketeer.

Out on the massive plaza, we bought Coca-Colas from a kiosk. It was served in glass glasses, and unbeknownst to me, when we were done with our pop, Tatiana stuck them in her purse and walked away, to give them to me later, a memento. I have them still, and they fit perfectly in the pewter coffee holders I traded for on the train. One sits by my coffee pot, the other holds pencils in my office. They are daily reminders of my life in Russia.

We walked slowly home along the Moika, idling across from her apartment by the dilapidated boat works that Peter the Great built to service his fleets. No longer used, derelict but beautiful in its Parisian-type architecture and grandeur.

My second weekend there, Tatiana and I hitchhiked to the train station to travel to Vyborg, where her parents took her son summers at their dacha (a small summer home where the owners get away from the city, plant vegetables, live a relaxed time during the White Nights).

We hitchhiked because we had no car—there were few cars, or trolleys or buses anywhere in St. Petersburg—and Tatiana wanted to instruct me on how to get a ride if I was alone in an area of no public transportation. It turned out to be like catching a cab in a U.S. city—wave at a car and hope it stops for you. She said she usually gave them rubles, but would I mind giving them Marlboros? I’d brought along a few cartons of cigarettes when I learned it was tender more valuable than rubles. She held out a red pack of the cigarettes to the first car that came along, and we were whisked away by the happily smoking man to the station.

It was a scramble of hopeful travelers burdened with packages and children—no one pushing or shoving but intent nonetheless on buying their tickets and hurrying to the trains. We finally got our tickets, which did not mean we had seats, then walked hurriedly along the train from engine to caboose. People hung out the windows, and there was no one inviting us up the steps to join the throng. Tatiana stomped along muttering. We had just passed the engine when she turned around so quickly, I ran into her.

“Cigarettes!” she shouted. “We’ll ride the engine!” She held out her hand. I gave her a pack of Marlboros, she clambered up the straight ladder to the engine, flashed the cigs in front of the engineer, saying, “Amerikanski! Marlboros!” And she beckoned me aboard.

We joined a family of two children and two parents sitting on the floor; they never took their eyes off us as they ate their sandwiches. A young man lounged at the window, his arm around a beautiful, thin young woman who looked at me with disdain as if she’d seen too many Americans for her own good, and looked away. Our other companions were the engineer and his stoker. No place to sit, so we leaned against the sooty black of the cab, eventually sliding down to sit on the filthy steel floor.

Suddenly jerked backward, we were on our way, chug-chugging out of St. Petersburg station toward Vyborg, which used to belong to Finland. We were backing up—all the way as it turned out, to an old town from the 13th century on the Finnish Sea. The scenery of the entire trip was fallow land, flat, black, barren. “What is this?” I asked Svetlana. We stood together at a window, silently smoking—everyone in the cab was now smoking because I’d passed out Marlboros to all but the kids, to whom I gave a package of Lifesavers.

“Right about here is a field I harvested when I was in school,” Tatiana said, pointing out to an empty field. “Each fall the students were loaded onto the train and let off in bunches of kids given bags to fill with potatoes. Each of us was given a pitchfork. It wasn’t really hard work, but it was long – daylight to dusk to daylight.”

“But there’s nothing planted here now?” I asked.

She glanced vaguely, flitted her hand in the air. “Who knows why they didn’t plant? We never are told things like that. Food items appear or don’t. We never know why.”

I was quiet thinking about the endless corn and soybean fields of my native Iowa. Fallow ground was not a part of any landscapes I knew. I felt a sadness, a kind of heaviness in my chest for Tatiana and her friends, for all Russians—under the Czars, the Bolsheviks, the Communists. Their centuries of subjugated fate seeming never to end. I didn’t want to pity, but I felt that ignoble sentiment rise in my heart.

It was only two hours by the time we began to slow down and enter the outskirts of Vyborg. Tatiana suddenly yelled. “There they are, Mama’ and Papa’! And my darling Victor!” She waved madly out the station side window of the cab, her parents looking into the windows of the cars behind us. They laughed in surprise when they finally spotted us at the very end of the train waving out of the engine.

Tatiana was so happy to see her son and her parents, she was smiling like I had not ever seen her. Anna, her mother, and Vasily, her father, bowed to me and then hugged me lightly. Victor, the not-yet-teenage boy, shook my hand formally and eased away to stand close to his mother, watching me.

We walked slowly along a cobblestoned street of the town, Victor ahead of us. Tatiana’s and my backpacks hanging each from a shoulder, he walked along the top of the stone wall in front of an old house. The trees were birches, the other people out and about were all babushkas—grandmothers. I saw no men anywhere. They must have been working.

At the small dacha—kitchen, living room, bedroom—I was shown into the bedroom. THE bedroom. I protested that all I wanted was a couch, but I got the bedroom anyway, the rest of them sleeping in the living room on couches and Victor on the floor. It was embarrassing, but they would not change their plan. Royalty of that trip was I.

Instructed on the use of the water in the bathroom, I was left there as they disappeared into the kitchen. When I ventured out, I saw the wooden table was laid with dazzling white China decorated in blue flowers, embroidered napkins and at least a dozen dishes of food: huge reddish-brown tomatoes sliced and unsliced, butter, marmalade or something that looked like it; sliced salami, sliced cheeses white and yellow, sliced brown bread, cucumbers and onions in sour cream, watercress, sliced beets, a pie pan of baked apricots with crumbles on top. My mouth watered. What a spread.

Victor had bitten into a big tomato, and juice was running down his chin when his grandmother said something and he put the tomato on his plate, blushing fiercely. I grinned at him, and he smiled back, guilt on his handsome face. The family chattered, Tatiana telling me what everyone was saying—about the tomatoes, the garden, the weather and me. It was jolly, actually jolly—laughter and yakking and little moments of quiet as we ate as if starved. Family lunch. Happy.

The three days in Vyborg were easy-going, fresh food and lots of it, walks in the town and the parks, strolling to the beer hut, men lined up to get their suds; then to the vodka hut, even more men lined up. We did not food shop because we had Vasily’s garden and Anna’s homemade bread and pastries. And we did not shop for stuff—there were no shops; or at least I saw none that were not connected with food—cheese store, meat store, bakery, fish store. All was simple. All things were relaxing; there seemed no hurry for anything. In the evenings we listened to an ancient Victrola-looking record player—Rimsky-Korsakov and Tchaikovsky. Stirring music. It made me feel Russian, so similar to the Irish they are—drink, talk, sing, play music, be happy, wind up sad.

Victor began seeking me out when Tatiana and her parents got into discussions of their own; he told me it was to practice his English, which was excellent, no doubt due to his mother, the English teacher. Victor, too, liked my Americanisms, especially when I said “Okey-Dokey” to him. He laughed and then used it for every “yes,” “hello” and “good-bye.” We took walks, he telling me about his school, the town of Vyborg, his maybe girlfriend, his love for his grandparents, his wanting to go to the USA someday.

I asked if I could harvest vegetables for dinner, set the table, do the dishes. Anna said “Nyet!” But I helped anyway, and it made her chuckle. I worked at talking to Anna and Vasily, mostly with Tatiana’s and Victor’s translations. And I became one of them, at least in my mind, even though there was always an element of my being the special person in the room.

I shall never forget it, becoming an addition to the Fedorova family in this new Russia trying to change from totalitarianism to democracy. It did not work out thus; the citizenry was impatient, the old guard scheming. The proletariat figured it would surely happen, a coup against the progressive Gorbachev.


And on Monday morning, Aug. 19, she came into my room to announce to me, “Gorbachev has been smashed!”

Smashed? “You mean he’s been in an airplane accident?”

“No, no, Kalinka! Hear me! He’s been smashed. There has been a military coup!” She pulled me into the kitchen to listen to the announcement on the radio. Dirge-like classical music played. “Goats!” she exclaimed. “They are goats. Why do they play this awful music?”

She turned the dial. It was all heavy classical.

“Tell me what’s going on,” I said.

“There’s been a military coup. They say that Gorbachev is ill and has resigned. It’s a lie. They always say someone is ill. They tell us now, though, that the communists have returned to power. They say, ‘The army and the KGB are with us.’ They say, ‘Pull yourselves together. Mistakes have been made in the past, but we will correct them.’ They are pigs. They are goats.”

The music stopped and an announcer came on. Tatiana interpreted: “All media have been shut down. It is forbidden to buy and sell alcohol. We will impose curfew. All transport is under control. "Blah, blah, blah..."

Tatiana left the room, and I heard her on the phone down the hall. Before the attempted coup, Tatiana and her friends talked openly of their loathing of the communists and the Bolsheviks and what ‘the party’ had done to their country. The 1917 “Great Revolution” was now spoken of as simply ‘the revolution.’ People were derisive about Lenin, whose statues were everywhere in Leningrad.

Leningraders had voted to return the name of their city to its original St. Petersburg, although Tatiana told me one day as we walked along a ravaged street, closed because it was potholed to the point of looking like a bomb site, “Even though we voted for the change of name, many of us are not willing to call this city St. Petersburg because scenes such as this shame us. I am walking with an Amerikanski on this street, and I am ashamed. How can we call our city St. Petersburg yet? I have seen photographs of when it was beautiful. It is no longer.”

Tatiana said that after Russian leader Gorbachev opened up their country to the West, working toward a democratic socialism, “We learned suddenly that we weren’t really the most fortunate citizens of the world—what the party had been telling us all along. We learned that we lived in poverty compared to Western Europe and America. We learned that we had been fooled.”

This revelation turned them against not only the Communist Party but themselves. Like anyone who has been duped, they felt foolish and stupid, and even accomplices in the charade. Their shame took an angry form, and Gorbachev’s inability to improve conditions as quickly as they thought he should turned them again him as well.

"He may be considered a great man outside of Russia,” Tatiana’s friend Larisa said to me, “but within Russia he is not liked. We are worse off now than we were two years ago. We will be worse off this winter. Before the new year there will be civil war or military coup.”

This was repeated time and again to me, and yet when it actually happened, shock set in.

Tatiana, after her outburst at the canned radio announcement from the military junta and the equally canned classical tunes, became matter of fact, calm, almost cheerful. Her jaw was tight, but obviously she knew how to carry on. As planned, she prepared to go to the country, to her parents’ dacha for her son’s 10th birthday. She set her bag by the front door, came into the kitchen and poured vodka into three small cut glass shot glasses.

“In Russia we have a custom,” she said. “When someone is going on a long journey, we toast with vodka and remain silent for three minutes, thinking of that person, of her safety, of her life far away from us, of her safe return.”

She touched my glass. We drank. We held silence. She told me I could drink the third glass whenever I wanted, and she was gone.

I’m not sure which of us we drank to.

My last day in Russia was tense, frightening to an extent. Would I wind up stuck in Russia because of the coup? I was to get to the airport to join my group from the States, but I’d heard from no one. Tatiana assured me that her little friend Alex would be there to take me to the terminal, but I was unsure about that as no automobiles were allowed on the streets.

Larissa showed up, as promised, with homemade vodka, samogon. We got out our English/Russian and Russian/English dictionaries, started drinking and carrying on a conversation. Soon, we were tipsy enough to be glib—we could understand each other enough to laugh.

And laugh we did. I suggested I might become a teacher of English if I was unable to flee. Or maybe a poet. She howled. She said she would help me, whatever I chose. She did not work but made clothes for people. Maybe I could help her? She said I could live with her and with Tatiana—I had been sleeping in Victor’s bedroom—they would share me. That made us both happy. We finished her bottle of vodka, which means water in Russian, she told me, and we certainly knew how to gulp it down like water. We found Tatiana’s bottle and started in on it, continuing our solving of my employment problem should it turn out that I was stranded in what might be the USSR again at any minute.

By the time we were dancing to classical music, all worries were gone. Stay in Russia? What fun.

Alex showed up and brought me back to earth petty quickly with his judging glance at the two of us silly-drunk women. His youthful disapproval made us laugh all the more as did our attempt at straitening up and acting like grown-ups. He picked up my one bag – I left the other full of stuff for Tatiana to give away or sell -- blue jeans, aspirin and other first aid items, new underwear, toothpaste, perfume, all my make-up. It would be a treasure trunk for the winter when things would get expensive.

Larissa and I hugged good-bye tearfully, I followed Alex down the five flights to the front door where his tiny auto chugged. He raced through empty streets, talking to me now, fearful of being picked up by the authorities for disobeying the new rules. We pulled up to the airline terminal where Rebecca stood tapping her foot.

“Where have you been?” She nearly screamed it. “If you had not showed up, we could not have left—we are all on the same visa! Get in here!”

With barely a good-bye to the young Alex, I disappeared into the waiting line for our flight to Helsinki. There were no problems once I got there; the authorities could not wait to get us out of Russia. No customs, to baggage inspection. We were almost tossed onto our plane.

Once in Finland, a short flight, I called my husband and gave him the list of Nevada parents to call; Rebecca called her husband to notify the California parents. We boarded our flight to LA, my husband’s quip in my mind. “Glad to hear you didn’t start WWIII, honey.”

And thus ended my three weeks in Russia in 1991.