My childhood was disturbingly defined by the mood of two songs: Sting’s Russians and Barry McGuire’s Eve of Destruction. (Thanks, local radio DJs for playing the former ad nauseam; thanks, Mom and Dad for playing the latter ad nauseam.) I couldn’t quite tell what frightened me more: the nebulous evil known as The Russians, or the not-so-nebulous phenomenon known as Ronald Reagan repeatedly admonishing me to fear The Russians. Then in 1989, Mr. Gorbachev tore down that wall in Berlin and Ronald Reagan ended his tenure in the White House. In 1991, the Soviet Union officially dissolved. And there was nothing left to be afraid of anymore, right?
Then why was I so terrified to find myself in the heart of Mother Russia – in Moscow – in late August of 1993?
Perhaps I was trembling from cold, rather than fear – it was, after all, 43 degrees Fahrenheit at the airport in August. No one had warned me to expect that, and I certainly wasn’t dressed for it.
Or perhaps I was still just a bit shaky from my first plane ride. Fourteen hours of airsickness will do that to you.
Or perhaps I was nervous about the fact that my traveling companions who ostensibly knew Russian actually knew so little Russian that I and my questionable German were suddenly in charge of communication for our entire group of five clueless American students.
But deep down, I think I knew that I was very much afraid of The Russians and their forbidding Evil Empire.
Years later, I found out that people on the “other” side of the Iron Curtain had referred to the West during those years of the Cold War as “The Bourgeois Empire.” I laughed so hard at the thought of being part of The Bourgeois Empire that I almost fell off my chair. In fact, I probably would have fallen off my chair had the nearby wall and table not stopped me.
But there was no laughter to warm up that frigid August afternoon in 1993 as my traveling companions and I stood on the colorless sidewalk out front of a colorless (and massive) airport in Moscow, waiting for our ride and wondering how badly we had gotten ripped off at the currency exchange counter. We didn’t yet know that getting ripped off, exchange-rate-wise, was the least of our currency-exchange worries: getting ripped off with counterfeit currency was all the rage in those tenuous years of transition from the old rouble to the new rouble. (At one point, I had three pink Lenin-head ten-rouble bills in my possession, all three of which I blew on Metra tokens. I try not to think about the worth of those bills to a collector today…)
There was even less-than-no laughter to warm up the grim dorm rooms in which we were deposited about two hours later by a driver named Sergei and a man named Alexei, who represented our host university. The dormitories at Moscow Pedagogical State University, inconveniently located really far away from the relative comfort of the city center (I believe we were on the end of the subway line in sector 2) must have been staggeringly beautiful when they were built shortly after WWII. Their glory had, to put it kindly, faded a bit. Their appeal was diminished even further by the University’s custom of waiting until October 1st to turn on the system that generated both heat and hot water. Even still, it was a relief to put down our luggage and claim a bed, a desk, a closet as “home.” I was so exhausted that night that I forgot to be frightened by the fact that I was sleeping in the cold iron grip of The Evil Empire.
The following days were a strange mix of terror and wonder.
Terror: Nothing – nothing at all – made sense.
The spoken language was a blur of meaningless sounds, and the written language wasn’t much better, although I could sound out – painfully and slowly – a handful of random, not generally helpful, words. I could also utter a handful of words with, strangely enough for a native English-speaking American, a German accent. Mercifully, the name of the Metra stop closest to our dorms contained the word “Yugo,” which I could almost recognize on the crackling loudspeaker in the subway car, if I listened carefully enough, and which I could consistently recognize in written form. Mercifully, I have an impeccable sense of direction and never needed to ask for directions, even on that horrifying afternoon when I became momentarily lost in a sea of perfectly identical grey concrete high-rise apartment buildings with a fat strip of pink painted down the center. Even if I’d known how to ask for directions, I’d never have been able to interpret the reply. To make matters worse, I didn’t even know my address. I could neither pronounce it nor write it, so why bother knowing it, right?
But it wasn’t just language and communication that refused to make sense. The urban vastness didn’t make sense: I’d grown up with one foot on the family farm and one foot in a town that had suddenly, according to my parents, become “too big” when the population hit 20,000. What was the population of Moscow in 1993? Nine million?
I’d never seen, let alone used, public transportation before. I’d never encountered a black-market economy before. In terms of the legitimate economy, I didn’t even know that there was such a thing as “hard” vs. “soft” currency, let alone had I ever before encountered an economy that was segregated along “hard” and “soft” lines. I’d never planned meals and done the weekly grocery shopping (I was 19; in the United States, I still lived with my parents.) Even if I’d done these things at home, I wouldn’t have been prepared for the lingering Soviet-Era practice of standing in line to see what’s available, indicating that you’d like to buy whatever happens to be available, getting a “receipt” for your purchase, taking the receipt with you and clutching it tightly as you stand in line at the cash register, paying the cashier for the purchase that you haven’t yet touched, getting another receipt, taking said receipt with you and clutching it tightly as you stand in line at the delivery counter, hoping that the delivery person won’t decide to go on break when your turn in line has come, picking up your purchase, and holding it close as you leave the store.
And who knew that a bookstore would be the best place to look for toilet paper, anyway?
But then there was the wonder – the glorious wonder – of it all:
The sunset setting fire to the golden onion-tops of the tiny pink church tucked away between concrete buildings across the street from my dorm.
The magnificence of the Kremlin and Red Square.
The seemingly bottomless generosity of university officials and random strangers who did what they could to make me less confused and frightened.
The seemingly boundless patience of random strangers who just wanted to share with me the beauties and the endearing cultural quirks of their beloved city, even though they had to do so in a truly bizarre mix of something that could maybe pass for German and something that could maybe pass for English.
The seemingly limitless kindness of the host family who plied me with delicious food and the comforts of their tidy, joyful, loving home.
The unexpected sweetness of the woman who lived behind the mysterious door in our dorm marked with the rather ominous word комендант. This was one of the few words that I could sound out, and I wished that I couldn’t: I wasn’t sure I wanted to live in a dorm that needed the oversight of a commandant. Yet this solid, sensible woman was there for me at 3 am, when all the world around me was asleep; the phone lines were refusing to let me make a call home; and the frigid coldness of a dorm with concrete walls and a concrete floor seemed even more desperate. Our комендант discovered me at the end of the hallway, unburdening my eyes of tears at an alarming rate. Flapping her arms in distress, like a windmill gone haywire, she gently – or as gently as her flapping arms would allow – uttered a statement that sounded like “never splash” in German, but which I interpreted to mean “don’t cry.” It was the first Russian I had managed to understand since my arrival, and I will never forget it: не плачь. She wrapped a blanket around my shoulders, bundled the resident rodent-control-officer into my arms, and made a series of grandmotherly cooing and clucking noises at me as she walked me down the hallway. Indeed, her sturdy, no-nonsense clothes, and her sturdy, no-nonsense – yet marvellously compassionate- approach to a wailing teenager planted in the middle of the night at the top of the stairs leading to the lobby with its bank of largely useless telephones reminded me more than a bit of my grandmother. Upon reaching the door bearing the ominous комендант label, she asked me if I would like to come in for a cup of tea. I declined the offer (it was, after all, 3 in the morning), so she walked me to my room and tucked me into bed with the cat.
And in that moment, The Evil Empire completely fell apart. All of the Cold War propaganda that had permeated my childhood revealed itself for what it was: nothing more than a sad geopolitical ploy to maintain power for the powerful by dividing the human family into suspicious and frightened camps of people who “aren’t like” “those people” “over there.”
I didn’t learn much Russian during my sojourn in Moscow, but I did learn how to use the subway; how to communicate without a shared language; how to navigate a strangely segregated economy; and how to plan and prepare meals in an environment of relative scarcity. Most important, I learned how to look for the shared humanity that lies sleeping beneath the geopolitical fear. Of course the Russians love their children, too, Sting. To believe anything else is nonsense. My kind комендант and my grandmother would no doubt agree.