Today when I think of my experience in the former Soviet Union I have to blink, to close my eyes, because I lived for a summer inside a place that no longer exists. The KGB took my camera before I left in July of 1991 – one month before the Coup. The USSR would not stamp my passport. None of my friends I made there would reply to my many letters. No one remembers my name. It is as thought the I, along with the Soviet Union, ever occupied that now very different part of the world.
I cannot say that this truth hurts me in anyway. Growing up an American kid in Southern California, I did not have fond thoughts for the Soviet regime. Being half Jewish also did not endear the framers o the Iron Curtain. I had been taught that It was dark, black – a place where lonely people lived who were not allowed to celebrate Christmas or pray out loud. The could not read whatever newspapers they wanted, or speak as they wished. To me, Soviets, were a people who had to remain silent about their dissatisfaction, suffer exile like Solzhenitsyn, or face death in a Gulag. They had no voice. I went there with this thought in mind.
I spoke loudly while on the streets of Moscow. I made mention of my Semitic heritage. I complained when my overloaded copy of Gulag Archipelago was confiscated two days after my arrival in, then, Europe’s largest city. I did not fear that I would look too American, that the Soviets would not like me. I just acted as all 17 year old Westerners might – like it didn’t really matter how I acted at all. There, in the midst of the nation that threatened to annihilate mine about once every decade since its spreading since WWII, I felt strangely free to be myself, to be uninhibited. I was brave, by my imature standards, anyway.
I remember being the most eager of the group of students I traveled with, to speak Russian. I had studied it diligently back home in Ventura County. I had forfeited the common place English and Spanish words I heard every day for their Cyrillic counterparts. I begged books about the country off my Sociology teacher, and memorized what I could of Chekhov, Pushkin. I was hooked. Russian culture was an addiction that I did not understand or try to curtail. After all, teenagers pride themselves in their individuality. They are separatists from the social norms they have been taught all their growing up years. “Living Russian” completely enlisted me in this category of young people. Different. Special. Not like the rest of you. No other California 17 year old I knew was preparing themselves for a summer in the USSR.
Even tainted by my American version of things, I went out of my way in the Soviet Union to live correctly for a summer within Russian culture. I learned the difference between Ukrainians and Latvians and why Russians call their spring evenings “White Nights”. I remember sitting against my hotel window in Moscow, the Izmailovo, and looking out at the city at 1am. No darkness. People slept in the daylight of night. Strange place this Russia.
I eagerly embraced my host friends. I followed them everywhere. Luda, a professor from Odessa, Ukraine fell victim to my onslaught of never ending questions. “What do you teach here?” “What is Odessa like?” “Did you swim in the Black Sea when you were a child?” “What do you think of Gorbachev?”
Often, I was told that my questions were “inconvenient”, improper. “Stop talking so much,” Luda told me more than once. “You are like KGB, always asking questions. I feel criminal with you.” But still, solemn-faced, she answered and was kind enough to educate me. To give me something of who she was.
But my friends’ warning were for me to be quiet. To be careful, but I didn’t stop. I was an American abroad. I didn’t take cues well, even obvious ones.
Before long, within a week or so only, my Americanized Russian quickly became a nearly accent-less version. I could communicate quite well with the nationals I met and befriended. I learned there to drink strong tea when coffee is not available, and I reasoned that eating so much soup with floating beats was not all that bad. Food is food, after all, and, unlike the Russians, I did not have to stand in line for hours to get at any of it.
There was really only one aspect of my new Russian world that unnerved me. Russians would approach me, out of the woodwork, from behind bushes and walls, “You are Russian?” they would ask me in their language. “Nyet,” I would say, shaking my head. “Nope. My grandparents came from Hungary.”
“No, you are Russian,” strangers would insist to me. Luda insisted this more than once. “You are one of us,” she said, and it was not because of my language skills, for my Russian never satisfied her. It was never quite right for her liking, no matter how correct.
The KGB began to follow me. They followed us all, really, but I took special care to wave to them when I noticed the same man in a long gray coat on a hot Novosibirsk afternoon trailing closely behind me. Maybe it was the Solzhenitsyn, I reasoned. Maybe it is my big mouth. Perhaps it was all the pictures I took of MIGs at the Sverdlovsk air force base? No matter, I continued to be me, speak out and ask questions of my new friends.
But the Soviet Union was much bigger than I, and not yet dissolved. Russia is ancient, like an old mother who speaks quietly, but means what she says. She did not appreciate my American thoughts.
My room was ransacked. Any and all books I brought – most especially my Russian language books – were confiscated. My Bible naturally disappeared. My camera was eventually taken. Even most of my American group members decided that I had caused a little too much trouble for them. I remember sitting alone on a step in Hotel Novosibirsk praying silently, “Send me a friend, God, because this is getting really old.”
Within a moment, a pair of black shiny shoes stood before me. “I am Moses,” said the voice and I remember looking up and laughing. I pictured the Red Sea parting, Sunday school stories springing to life. It compelled me to speak the only Hebrew I knew, “Shalom, Moshe!” I said. He returned the greeting, and seemingly unimpressed with me, accepted my name and walked away. He had been sent over to meet me by a team member who knew I was half Jewish and assumed that his name would be impressive to me. It was. He was the only Moses I have ever met, aside from an elderly African American man at a retirement home once, and I am fairly certain that , in this case, “Moses” was just his nickname.
I remember getting on the bus after that moment, watching this Moses. What Soviet mother would be so brave as to give her child such a profoundly and loudly Jewish name? “That’s a brave woman, “I said to the friend sitting next to me. Knowing then, and now, that anti-semitism in the former USSR was and is quite alive and brutal, I just could imagine giving my child a bull’s eye like she had. I liked her, without knowing her. In Hebrew, the name means, “Drawn Out”. In my mind, I imagined that this Moses’ mother wanted him to be drawn out one day too. Perhaps, out of the Soviet Union entirely.
When I asked him if he was Jewish, he said yes, but others told me he was not. Emphatically, that he was not. He, however, understood me when I used the Yiddish or Hebrew, and never the Russian, version of his name. He, like Luda, answered all my stupid, obvious, and redundant questions. And unlike so many of the other Soviets I met, he always wore a smile on his face. He completely surprised me with his happiness. He reminded me of my father – a little darker than the others, a lot happier, and easily amused by my silliness. When I said goodbye to him I belted out, “Next year in Jerusalem!” He shook his head like I was clearly an idiot. “No, I am going to California.” That made sense to me. Who wouldn’t want to live where I lived? Even other Americans envied my beachy location, but I never figured that Moses would actually end up there. I, unline his mother, did not assume him drawn out towards anywhere else. For me, the Soviets were Soviets and that is the only place where I was capable of picturing them.
By the time I had left that “place of no return”, as some of my team members had begun to call it, I was becoming fully aware that I was leaving a portion of myself with the Russian people – who seemed so eager to convince me that I was “one of them”. Just as I boarded the plane to leave, my KGB man (or the man in the ridiculously warm winter coat in summer) tapped me on the shoulder and demanded my camera. With a smile he had never offered me before, he held out his hand for the eight rolls of film that came with it. He took with him, all but one of my pictures of Moses and Luda and the others who taught me how to live inside another culture. Less than a month later, the Moscow I had left erupted in a coup. I remember praying, worrying over the fate of my friends – none of whom, thankfully – lived in Moscow. But I was proud of the tank climbing Yeltsin and the screaming crowds that urged him on. “Just do it!” The Nike ad seemed an appropriate encouragement for their new found voice.
I left the former USSR determined to become a writer in the university I was heading for the next fall. I tried to write to several of my friends, but none returned my mail. Two letters came back opened and torn. I doubted it made it past the first Latvian or Ukrainian post office it hit. Throughout the years, I have wondered where everyone went. Where might the Americans I loved and traveled with turn up? Were they married like me? What did they do for a living? Where were the former Soviets were now? Were they even alive? Were they all still married? Were they rich or poor? Safe or scared? No matter what I considered, it never occurred to me that any would appear in America. That any of them might have been “drawn out”. I don’t know why not either. I have known many Russians in America since that summer. Many.
For more than a decade, I have freelanced non-fiction articles for various magazines. My first article was about my trip to the former USSR. My second novel is very loosely inspired by it. My work today was prompted by that experience in that country on the verge of great change. Today, when I see Russia on the news it looks bigger and better than before. There seems hope for its future. It still does not read or feel like a friend of America, but well, old feelings die hard. But, still I meet Russians on the street where I live, and they still stop me and say that very strange line, “You are Russian? Yes, you are one of us.”
Two months ago, I discovered that my grandparents actually came from a small village in Ukraine. Hungary belonged to other ancestors. Mine were of Slavic decent. Strange. The Russians were completely right. There was a reason for my ability to speak their language and become as obsessed with they are with their music and their literature. And last year, when a writing critique group I had joined asked for a sample of my work to review, I sent them a travel piece I wrote years before about Russia. It was called Moshe. The group loved it, especially the Lithuanian member of the group. “I read Russia just in the lanuage pattern you use,” he said. I have that note still taped to my writing desk. That’s a huge literary compliment.
My fellow writers’ responses made me eager to do a little Google search just out of curiosity. Sure enough, Jerusalem is lacking one more Moses. He took the sunny way out.
So, even though the big, Red place I knew – no longer exists, I can see its children in another light. Now, an American light. I have no proof of my venture there, except when I spy some electronic pictures of the friends (who probably no longer even remember me), living happily, and much warmer, where it no longer matters how loudl one speaks, what one might saw, or if I choose to write about it. Seventeen years later, my friends are living free and still smiling, and the Soviet Union is still history. History is a nice way to think of it.