Ekaterina Hansen holds undergraduate degrees in Russian Studies and International Business from Stetson University. She received an MBA degree from Stetson University in 2010. Since graduation she has been living in northern Norway and serving for the City of Tromsø as a coordinator of Russian books, media and Russo-Norwegian relations at the city library. She plans to continue to focus on Russian foreign relations in her public administration career.
This paper was published as part of Vestnik: The Journal of Russian and Asian Studies.
Once Upon a Time in Eastern Europe:
Memoirs of a Soviet Child
by Ekaterina Hansen
To the reader: These vignettes are a collection of personal essays of my childhood experiences growing up in the former Soviet Union and my later impressions based on travels to Ukraine and to Russia as a college student. Please be aware that since most of my childhood was spent in the Ukrainian SSR while it was part of the Soviet Union, and although Russia and Ukraine are now two separate countries, I often speak of them as one due to their similarities. Many of the trends and customs that I describe about Ukraine also apply to Russia and vice versa. Any comments seen as controversial are my own personal views and do not reflect the opinions of any people or organizations mentioned in these narratives. I only hope to provide a deeper understanding of the nuances of Russian culture and how they have changed in the last two decades. As a Russian Studies academic and a fluent speaker of the language, I have a great passion for Slavic culture, and with these essays I hope to share not only my personal experiences, but also historical facts, as they intertwine through my memories. I hope that you, the reader, will find the humor in some of the unusual traditions and the nostalgia for times past.
I. The Soviet Union
In 1990, I was a six-year old girl living in the Ukrainian SSR, in a country called the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. I resided in a three-room квартира (flat) with my mother and my бабушка (grandmother). As a child, I was ignorant of the severity of the financial and social hardships of my country. We watched Mikhail Gorbachev give speeches on television, and I heard the words перестройка (perestroika) and гласность (glasnost) repeatedly, but those were grown-up words and I didn’t really understand them.
I didn’t know then that perestroika was a social and economic revolution that had been building up in the Soviet Union for decades, but saw effective changes only in the mid-1980s. When Gorbachev became the General Secretary of the Communist Party, he introduced liberal reforms that enabled the country to move forward toward democracy and away from conservative socialism. One of his reforms was called glasnost, or openness, a policy that made government documents and political information available to the public. Another reform was based on the principle of perestroika, or reconstruction; it was meant to motivate government institutions to reconstruct themselves to be less hierarchal and more democratic. These principles of democratization and hope for a market economy slowly dismantled the old ideas of communism. Little did I know then that this strange time of restructuring and reforms would forever change not only the future of my country, but my own life as well.
As a little girl, I lived in the область (province) of Voroshilovgrad, a region also referred to as "Donbas" (an abbreviation for Donets Basin). The basin was famed throughout the Soviet Union for its rich deposits of coal, discovered by a geologist named Lutugin. I lived in a city named Lutugino in honor of him. As was typical of cities in the USSR named after Soviet citizens, there was a large stone monument to the city's namesake in the center of the city, which is still there. This eastern part of Ukraine always had a unique mix of Russians and Ukrainians, with their two languages being used interchangeably in schools, at work, and in private life. I grew up understanding both languages, but for my first two years of schooling, I studied only Russian. I began studying the Ukrainian language in third grade as a second, foreign language – all children had to learn first and foremost to speak, read, and write in Russian, the official language of the USSR.
My grandmother was in her mid-fifties then and was officially a пенсионерка (retired woman), yet she still continued to work at the local bank. For many retired people in the Soviet Union, the pension was not enough to live on, and they continued working even past retirement. When my grandmother was home, she taught me the craft of Russian food-making in our tiny Soviet kitchen with a gas stove. She showed me how to make little Russian dumplings that floated and boiled in the water: we made пельмени (with meat or vegetables) and вареники (with cheese or fruit). She used to help me bathe in our large, rusty tub after heating up the water with our half-functioning колонка (Soviet gas-powered water heater) and washed my hair with just a drop of birch-tree shampoo; she was constantly conserving every household item. She taught me how to knit socks and embroider handkerchiefs, how to pick the best wild mushrooms, how to do arithmetic with an abacus, and how to make homemade jams and сушки (dried fruit). She taught me these things that became not only skills to me, but deeply treasured memories and pieces of that enigmatic “Russian soul.”
My mother worked as a commercial artist in the city’s only factory, the Lutugino Research and Production Roll Company, and spent her work days stenciling in a frigid warehouse studio. With no computer graphic design programs and printers, my mother designed her own stencil patterns and used them to make print materials for the factory by hand: holiday posters, slogans (often with socialist messages), time tables, large announcements, and staff newsletters.
The factory’s main product was industrial rolls used in rolling mills (to roll flour, paper or metal), and its profits were the main source of revenue and employment for the city’s residents. The factory was a success then due to its direct transactions with the Soviet government. However, after privatization and perestroika, the factory came under private ownership and had problems functioning in the competitive free-market economy. Although we had always thought of our city as simply a city, one of hundreds like it built by the Soviets, it soon became known by the more specific and undesirable term моногород, or single-industry town; its survival was dependent on only one factory. These became common across the post-Soviet space. While the factory was a source of pride for the town while it served a stable command economy, such dependence became highly risky under capitalism because a decrease in demand for a single product could affect the livelihood of an entire community. The factory in Lutugino began to have layoffs, and some residents started to move to larger cities with stronger, more diverse industries. Politicians and economists have recently proposed modernizing, diversifying and/or restructuring factories in order to make them functional and profitable in the new economic environment. But the problem became known and solutions began to be proposed only after hard times had hit.
Back then, in 1990, my mother sat in a lonely job that she was overqualified for. She spent years at the художественное училище (vocational art institute) to receive a diploma in Fine Arts and was now reduced to doing menial stenciling work, yet it still paid more than what a fine artist usually earned in the Soviet Union. I knew even then that as a single mother, she had to work to support us.
My parents were divorced and I could sense disapproval from the adults in more traditional families. However, divorce was not uncommon in the USSR. Couples divorced for reasons such as drunkenness and infidelity, or even due to housing problems and lack of privacy. State-issued flats could be obtained only after years of waiting on a list (as was the case with other major purchases, such as cars and television sets), and this forced many couples to cohabitate with their parents. This made living conditions difficult, especially since Soviet flats were only a fraction of the size of the standard American homes that I wouldgrow accustomed to as an adult. In fact, divorce rates in the Soviet Union averaged a relatively high 3.4 divorces per 1,000 people throughout the 1980s, second only to the United States, which had a rate of 4.8 divorces per 1,000. However, due to the legal difficulties and the expense of obtaining a divorce in the Soviet Union, many couples opted for “unofficial” divorce or separation, making the official divorce rates somewhat misleading.
The USSR preached brotherhood and equality, yet our family situation was frowned upon. My mother and my grandmother were both divorced and unmarried women, single mothers, from non-Russian backgrounds (my grandmother was half Chuvash, my mother was part Kazakh), and had limited incomes. Although I never experienced direct discrimination, my mother told me stories from her childhood and adulthood about enduring snide remarks and racist comments from ethnic Russians about her Kazakh background. The sense of equality in the USSR was very strong in its official political propaganda, but in practice, Soviet citizens often took part in discrimination or were victims of it. For me at that time, the sense of belonging to a minority group created a strong determination to excel in everything, turning me into a typical overachiever, especially at school.
II. The Vacation
It was the summer of 1990, the summer before I started first grade. I was walking on a dirt road in the countryside of Ukraine. It was dusk and I was trailing behind my mother, carrying a heavy suitcase. My legs were aching and I wanted to cry. My mother was clutching her purse and walking at a quick, angry pace. We were walking somewhere on the outskirts of Yuzhnoukrainsk, a young city housing one of the major nuclear power plants of Ukraine, north of Odessa. We had just spent a month visiting my father, who moved there after my parents’ divorce and now worked as an electrician at the nuclear plant. My mother wanted us to have a little vacation.
Before we arrived in Yuzhnoukrainsk, we were on a train for about twenty hours, during which time we were robbed while we slept. My ten rubles, hidden inside a match box, were gone, as were some things out of my mother’s purse. When we arrived at the train station, it was very early morning and still dark; we were not met by my father, because my mother wanted our arrival to be a surprise. We got on a bus, managed to find his building in the city, and with the help of the дежурная (a woman who served as both a janitor and security guard) we went up to his flat. We spent almost an hour beating on his door and yelling out his name before my father sleepily opened his door to find us standing there, his unexpected guests.
The whole month we spent mostly walking around outside, shopping and sight-seeing. The city of Yuzhnoukrainsk was alive with bustle: there were large stores and dozens of different cafés, bazaars, museums, theaters and various ongoing music festivals. When we were at my dad’s flat, I sat perched on the window sill and ate entire bags of семечки (sunflower seeds), spitting the shells out into the alley below. I watched my father tinkering with his electronic projects. He lived a bohemian sort of life: he had an almost-empty flat that was inside a worker’s dormitory building and spent his free days lounging in his room and smoking, or strolling around the city at a slow, relaxed pace, stopping at random cafés to order the darkest coffee and the sweetest dessert. He also had what seemed to me an endless number of somewhat eccentric friends and acquaintances. He took me to visit some of them. He had one male friend who had an earring (which I had never seen before on a man) and a baby alligator which lived inside a glass case in his flat. We went swimming in the local river and then went to the edge of the city and wandered through fields of wild poppies. To me, the entire month had seemed idyllic and refreshingly new, but then later, as my mother and I were walking aimlessly on that dirt road, the vacation suddenly seemed not so great after all.
We didn’t know where we were going; my mother decided to yank us off the train headed back home to Lutugino. She was angry, but not because of the drunken men who harassed her; not because of the conductors who offered her no help; not because of our poverty which didn’t allow us to buy a ticket in the more private first or even the second class cabins; not because of my father, who still thought my mother should love him; not because of any of those details. Those things didn’t anger her anymore, because such disappointments had become constants in her life. She was angry then for much bigger reasons. I carried our suitcase and I didn’t cry.
As I was dragging behind my mother, I recalled the stories my grandmother had told me about her own life, and I felt the pains of all the mothers that came before me. They had all shed tears over the injustices in their lives. I thought of my great-grandmother and felt her anger and pain when her husband’s entire family of farmers was packed into train wagons and shipped off to Siberia during Stalin’s revenge on the кулаки (wealthy peasants). I felt her loneliness as she raised two daughters by herself, poor, unprotected, with her Chuvash roots and her permanent accent that she could never fully hide. I thought of my grandmother, who kept a straight, friendly face while speaking in fluent German to the handsome Nazi soldiers who invaded her village. I thought of her helplessness when her husband kicked her shins with his policeman's steel-toed boots, in his drunken stupor. I thought of her humiliation when she met his second wife, and her desperation in plotting her escape with her three children from the male-dominated Muslim culture of Kazakhstan. I thought of her sacrifice and her courage. I saw my mother. I felt her repulsion at the perestroika-life, which offered no hope. Every day we struggled to survive on my mother’s small income and my grandmother’s tiny pension. Sometimes we ate potatoes for weeks on end and nothing else. I was always sick, always in hospitals for stomachaches, infections, or the flu. We had barely any heat, barely any furniture or clothes, barely any life at all. So how could I blame my mother for being so angry that night? So angry that she was in a trance; she didn’t even realize that I was there, this little girl, carrying all our luggage and keeping back tears of fear.
We eventually hitched a ride with a strange man in a small car with a large St. Bernard in the back seat. He drove us back to Yuzhnoukrainsk, where we were dropped off at my father’s building and had to spend the night in the quarters of the дежурная because my father, once again, was not expecting our return and could not hear our desperate midnight knocks at the door.
III. The Education
September 1st was always the first day of school and, therefore, the most important day in a Soviet child’s life. That day, I would begin the first grade and meet my new teacher. I had my standard brown uniform, which all Soviet children had to wear, consisting of a long-sleeved shirt, skirt and a smock. School uniforms in the Soviet Union were mandatory, and I could have been penalized for not following the rules. On special occasions, like the first day of school, the standard black smock was replaced with one made of white lace and the brown uniform was accented with a white lace collar, cuffs, white stockings and hair ribbons. With my backpack ready and a large bouquet of flowers in hand to present to my teacher, I started marching towards the school with my grandmother. There was a formal ceremony in the courtyard, we were lined up by grade, and then the first-year students were separated into their respective classes. I met our teacher, Viktoriya Vladimirovna, who was young and had a soft, kind demeanor. As she was a recent graduate of the pedagogical school, our class was her first set of students, and so this school year was a new journey both for her and for us.
The school was a three-story building which had been converted into a military hospital during World War II and for this reason had all sorts of secret stairwells and unseen rooms inside. The school’s windows were tall and bright, outlined with white lace curtains, through which views of the city and its parks full of tall poplar trees could be seen. Its dark red paint and tall white columns and white window frames all served to enhance the school’s regal look. Inside, the classrooms were decorated with rows and rows of beautiful, lacquered desks and shiny linoleum floors, large black chalkboards and bouquets of fresh flowers on each teacher's desk.
My favorite classroom was always the chemistry room, with its heavy wooden cases, stuffed with hard-bound books and sets of empty glass flasks and test tubes. Portraits of the famous Russian scientists Lomonosov and Mendeleev hung on the wall, along with the periodic table (which Mendeleev invented), printed on paper that had faded to yellow. The school seemed to have a majestic elegance to it that no one saw but me, and this made me love it even more. Our school had the title of School #1 (versus the only other school in the city, School #2) and this standardization continued to the name of our class; we were Grade 1, Class D. There were a total of five classes in first grade this year, each having its own letter. In Class D, there were 31 students grouped together based on the professions of their parents. It was believed that such groupings would help children learn better, yet it also seems likely that it was a tactic by the government to sort children into their respective social classes as young as possible, separating the workers, intellectuals, and government elites, and to promote an unspoken caste system and, thus, social stability within the Soviet Union. Our class, however, was made up of all the miscellaneous professions that could not be grouped into one exclusive category. Our parents were artists and candy factory workers and nurses. Ironically, it was our class of “misfits” that had the highest marks in our grade over the next four years, showing that diversity could foster excellence.
I used to sit at a wooden desk in the front row of our classroom, which was designed to seat two students. Next to me sat a blonde boy named Sasha. Another ritual of the Soviet school system was to pair the children into boy and girl couples, who had to sit next to each other from first grade through eleventh grade. This practice officially sought to develop camaraderie and minimize distraction (it was thought that girls being seated next to girls would cause too many giggles, while boys next to boys would cause roughhousing and misbehavior). There were eleven grades in the Soviet Union, but no fourth grade. The fourth-grade curriculum was deemed too similar to the curriculum of the fifth through seventh grades and was therefore deleted. A нулевой класс (grade zero), essentially another year of kindergarten, was then added in for six-year-olds. While this odd restructuring was somewhat controversial, the system is still used today in Ukraine and Russia.
I was seated in front because I had tested highly in reading and mathematics. Thus, the Soviet schools were able to ignore the less gifted children in the back of the classroom and focus on the children with high academic potential in the front. Yet this created even less motivation for the slower students to keep up, and when they fell behind, they were punished: by being slapped on the hands with rulers; by being made to stand in the corners on their knees, facing the wall; by being asked to leave the classroom altogether. Any divergence from the accepted conventions of student behavior was mocked, punished and corrected. A girl sitting near me, at another desk, wrote with her left hand. The teacher noticed this and forced her to write every lesson with her right hand. It took her much longer to finish, and she was scored low because her penmanship suffered, which was also part of the grade. I was learning that to be different was bad and that all attempts to fit in and excel should be made.
Despite these archaic traditions and rules, I enjoyed being at school and savored every moment of learning. I watched Viktoriya Vladimirovna writing words and phrases on the chalkboard. They were about our Motherland, our "Uncle Lenin" and our glorious, patriotic school. I can still to this day smell the dry aroma of that chalk. There was a map on the wall, but it only showed the Soviet Union and its neighboring republics. I looked forward to physical fitness, where we lined up in rows like soldiers and completed our daily calisthenics.
These exercises, along with other strange rituals, were a regular part of a Soviet child’s life. In детский сад (kindergarten), we children used to stand in a circle, wearing only our underwear and goggles, in front of a quartz lamp for several minutes per day during the winter months. This was considered essential for avoiding Vitamin D deficiency due to lack of sun in the winter. Ukraine was located in the southern part of the Soviet Union, with plenty of sunlight in the winter – yet breaking this ritual would mean breaking the standardization of the system. So each child in the Soviet Union, from Leningrad to Vladivostok, no matter what, had to stand in front of those quartz lamps, had to wear the school uniforms, had to recite poems about Lenin and write with their right hand. Even at such a young age, I began to realize that I lived in a country filled with contradictions, where people were encouraged to excel in school and work, while at the same time they were expected to conform and be equal with everyone else.
IV. The Little Red Star
I remember standing in the main hallway of our school, lined up behind my classmates. It was the fall of 1991, and I had started second grade. We were all wearing our uniforms, and today all the girls were wearing the token white smocks and white ribbons. That day was a special day for us: we would be awarded tiny red star pins with Lenin’s image on them. We would recite our mission and promise to be “Всегда готов!” (“Always ready!”), then we would officially become Октябрёнки (Octobers), the first level of the Young Pioneer Organization of the Soviet Union. It was the first step towards becoming a Communist Party member. (Although membership was not officially mandatory, it was an unstated rule that each child had to belong to the Pioneer Organization.)
Yet continuing with that tradition of the Lenin pins was soon proved futile. Later that same year, we watched the political coup on television and Boris Yeltsin at the Kremlin wall. We watched 70 years of socialist power dissolve, and, along with the rest of the world, were shocked that in seven days a self-proclaimed global power and economic giant was crushed.
On the day I received my pin, I felt pride. Perhaps it was my naïveté and constant praise-seeking, but I felt good about belonging to something greater than myself. Since religion was officially banned in the Soviet Union, I grew up not having a sense of belonging to a spiritual organization. The Communist Party was supposed to provide that spiritual purpose for the Soviet people. I knew that the Party held great power in our country; I could see proof of it everywhere. Our school was decorated with portraits of Lenin, with red flags, with sickle and hammer emblems brazened onto the iron fences surrounding the school grounds. Our town square, like most small Soviet cities, housed a large marble statue of Lenin, where I had cut my forehead while playing on the steps at the age of four. I still have a scar from that cut. I call it my Lenin scar.
Besides the obvious iconography of socialism, it was also promoted through national holidays. The calendar year always began with celebrating Новый Год (New Year), followed by Soviet Army Day on February 23rd and International Women’s Day on March 8th, celebrating our army and the mothers of the USSR. Then there was May 1st which commemorated international labor movements with International Worker’s Day. On this day, everyone cleaned the streets and retouched the paint on benches and buildings in their neighborhoods and places of work. On May 9th, Soviet Victory Day emphasized our victory in WWII. Two more holidays in the fall, USSR Constitution Day (October 7th) and Great October Social Revolution Day (November 7th), reminded us of the socialist movement and the importance of our government.
In the fall, the school used to organize Pioneer Youth excursions in which the entire school marched to the city’s ставок (small water basin), where we held picnics and games and socialism was promoted. The students brought packed lunches from home. In true Soviet fashion, my grandmother used to pack for me boiled potatoes, boiled eggs, a fresh cucumber, crusty black bread, and a matchbox with salt. Many patriotic songs, poems and our Pioneer Code—which listed the first rule as a vow of loyalty to the Homeland, the Party, and Communism—were recited. I adored these picnics, but didn’t care much for the socialist propaganda. I just enjoyed being out-of-doors, and it is these memories of nature that I now cherish the most.
I can still smell the burning leaves from the warm campfire and the sweet aroma of the huge bouquets of lilacs that we made in Ukraine.
V. The Neighborhood
Behind the five-story white stone building where I used to live, which held about one hundred identical flats and tiny Soviet families, there was a park that we called скверик (little park). That park was just one of millions that were popping up all over the Soviet Union. Developed during the Brezhnev era to bolster the concrete block housing projects, those parks and playgrounds became even more popular in the early 1980s due to a small baby boom in the Soviet Union. This boom was caused by government-issued financial incentives for parents to have more children in order to increase the country’s population. As a result, I grew up with dozens of children my age.
Every weekend, children with their parents gathered on the детская площадка (children’s playground), or what we also called наш двор (our yard). The one in my neighborhood included a water fountain that looked more like a swimming pool, with weeping willows planted around the edges. There were two sandboxes, with large-grained sand, which were refilled weekly by a large industrial truck. There was an outdoor theater, with a large white board for the screen and a projector table in the middle hoisted up on a cement column. Every week, a projectionist show film-strips of cartoons to the children.
There was a cartoon called Домовёнок Кузя (Kuzya the Little House Spirit), about a домовой (house spirit) from ancient Russian mythology who lives with a modern Soviet family in their modern Soviet apartment. As these mythical spirits were prominent in Russian folklore, well-known to Russians, and because of Kuzya’s approachable demeanor, this cartoon was a favorite of many Soviet children. Kuzya is only a baby house spirit, so the mischievous messes he leaves behind are innocent and forgivable. He serves as a secret companion to a little girl named Natasha, who lives in a regular Soviet flat with her family.
Another cartoon, Карлсон (Karlsson), was a Swedish story about a mischievous, chunky man who lives on the roof of a regular apartment building in Stockholm and is a playmate of a little boy named Lillebror (which means "little brother" in Swedish). Karlsson can also fly by touching a button on his stomach, making the fan on his hat turn into a rotor.
It surprises me now that a foreign cartoon about an authority-shirking man received such popularity in the Soviet Union, but it wasn’t uncommon to promote international literature and media in the country. However, heavy government censorship was also applied, as most books and children’s films were first reviewed for the appropriateness of content and then translated into the Russian language, often with the character’s names and places changed to more Russian-sounding versions and any offensive parts removed or reworked before circulation. For example, in Волшебник Изумрудного города (The Wizard of Emerald City), a Russian re-telling of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum, Dorothy’s name was changed to Ellie and her dog became Totoshka. Our little скверик was designed with themes from this story, and statues of all the characters along with wooden children’s slides and story boards were placed in different sections of the park.
After perestroika, this park, along with other children’s playgrounds, became neglected because the local government no longer had funds to support these public projects. The sandboxes gradually emptied, the fountain dried up, and much of the playground equipment, fences, rails, and benches were stolen. All that remains in these parks now are some of the cement statues. The good witch Villina and the Tin Woodsman are still standing; Ellie and Totoshka, made out of wood and more easily appropriated for other uses, are long gone. And gone with them are also the warm, peaceful nights of playing in the yard as colorful cartoons scrolled in the amphitheater and children’s squealing laughter pierced the air, as they ran around the fountain and built fairy-tale castles in the sand.
VI. The Goodbye
I was ten years old when I arrived in Moscow for the first time. Tired and cold, I was being pulled by my mother along the platform of the Paveletskaya Train Station on a windy day in May. We came to Moscow to pick up our visas and plane tickets and fly away to a land called America. I had never even seen it on a map, and so my only impressions of America were based on dubbed California soap operas that I used to see on television. My mother was going there to reunite with her new American husband, making her part of the mail-order bride stereotype of East European women marrying Western men.
After the fall of the Soviet Union, life in Ukraine had become incredibly difficult. When Ukraine was declared an independent democratic state in 1991 and elected Leonid Kravchuk as the first president, the transition at first seemed smooth and barely noticeable. Schools still taught nearly the same curriculum, and the only difference seemed to be the removal of school uniforms. Yet, slowly, the negative economic and social effects of this newly declared independence started to show. Recession hit the country hard, and Ukraine lost 60 percent of its GDP from 1991 to 1999 with five-digit inflation rates. What this meant in a more practical sense was that people’s entire savings and retirement accounts were almost instantly reduced to nothing. Food and consumer goods became scarce, and long lines formed at stores for the most basic items such as bread, milk and toilet paper. The currency became so devalued that it took a stack of 10,000 rubles to buy one candy bar. Many workplaces could not pay wages for their employees, giving them IOU notes instead. This led to many strikes, increased crime, and encouraged corruption. This in turn caused many to lose all hope for the future as more people became depressed, even suicidal, and alcoholism increased like never before. The younger generations also faced a bleak future—with the government no longer subsidizing higher education and a lack of job opportunities, many young people started спиваться (to fall to drink). Alcoholism, crime, and corruption are all still major problems in both Ukraine and Russia, crippling the countries’ economies and the people’s morale.
In the midst of this chaos, my mother had found a dating/job agency somewhere in Lugansk, formerly Voroshilovgrad, and signed up to be included in their catalogue. She received a list of foreign men who were interested in writing to her. She wrote many letters to her top picks until only two remained. To the man who would become my step-father she wrote for two years, spending hours bent over the Russian-English dictionary, meticulously translating his every letter and composing responses. We received random packages from him during that period; in his packets were things I had never seen before, such as instant ramen noodles, bottles of ketchup and stereogram calendars. He finally came to visit us in Ukraine in November 1993 and married my mother at our local courthouse. Now that the borders were open and my mother was married to an American, it was time to leave the country. I finished out the fifth grade school year, letting neither my teachers nor my classmates know of our plan to move away. My mother wanted to keep it a complete secret, in case someone plotted to rob us during our trip. I remember her intense paranoia at that time; she kept her wedding ring set hidden inside the hollow part of our curtain rod in the living room instead of wearing it on her finger. Such precautions became necessary from that point on in post-Soviet Ukraine. Before our departure, I also collected the addresses and telephone numbers of all my classmates and neighborhood friends under the pretense that I was making an address book for myself. They had no idea that I was saying goodbye to them and that I would use the information to send them “Greetings from Florida!” postcards and clippings from Teen Bop magazines over the next few years.
So when my mother and I arrived in Moscow, it was our last stop before our final departure. As we sped across the platform, I looked up and got a quick glimpse of "МОСКВА" monolithically printed on a sign positioned on the roof of the ticket building. It seemed to be intimidating its arrivals. We continued walking and a man around my mother’s age came up to us, smiling with a bouquet of flowers. His name was Viktor Doroshenko and he was my mother’s old art school classmate. He had agreed to let us stay with him while my mother finalized our documents at the US embassy. As is the Russian custom, he kissed my mother on the cheek, gave me a quick hug and took our bags. He led us out of the train station. We went through underground tunnels beneath the busy streets of Moscow, passing dozens of kiosks filled with all sorts of безделушки (items of low value)—small, cheap children’s toys, hair accessories, fresh flowers, kitchenware. I was overwhelmed with the sight of all the stores and people; I was used to small cities and empty streets. Viktor took us to his apartment in the eastern residential blocks of Moscow, where he lived with his wife and twin newborn daughters in a one-room flat. From there, on the 15th floor, I peeked out of his kitchen window to view the metropolis below: the cars, the numerous playgrounds, and crowds of people. We spent two weeks in Moscow, sleeping on a pullout couch in the kitchen, while my mother dragged me to the embassy almost daily in hopes of getting our visa approved and glued in our passports. I did not understand why the process took so long. My mother didn’t tell me much, because she was again in some sort of trance.
We spent some of the days sight-seeing. We walked around Red Square and went on rides at Gorky Park, and we even stopped by a McDonald’s, where I quite literally got my first taste of the West. I knew that Moscow was my final farewell both to my childhood in Ukraine and to being surrounded by the Russian culture and language that I was brought up with. This made the city seem gloomy and bleak to me; its gray and monotone buildings reflected the sadness and fear that I felt. For my mother, this farewell had been a long-sought escape. She whispered two words as our plane took off at Sheremetyevo Airport: “Прощай, Москва” (“Farewell, Moscow”). She explained to me later that this word—Москва—entailed for her everything painful that she had experienced in her life during the Soviet Union. It was all grouped into one tragic memory in her mind. I remember watching the city disappear behind the clouds as my life was disappearing into the mysterious abyss of the Western world. My mother then became my only link to the home we were leaving behind.
VII. New Year’s Eve
I was nineteen years old on the last night of 2002. I was standing next to that large marble statue of Lenin located in the middle of my childhood city, Lutugino. I had been away for nearly ten years and as I watched the crowd gathering in the square for the night’s New Year’s Eve concert, I was filled only with happiness. I did not realize how much I missed everything about that city until I was there again, among the familiar faces of my relatives and friends, among the language and the familiar food, customs and way of life. My mother and I decided to travel back together; she had become a US citizen in 2000 and since I was then a minor, I was naturalized automatically. We were no longer citizens of Ukraine and now had to wait for our US passports to be issued and then for the travel visas to be approved before we could enter Ukraine. Once we received all the paperwork, we were finally able to book our flight to spend a month in Ukraine for the winter holidays.
Upon our arrival in Lutugino, I was startled by the relative smallness of the buildings and hallways, partly because I myself had grown taller and partly because I had become used to the relatively large, spacious rooms and buildings of Florida. The streets in Lutugino had become unkempt, paint on buildings and inside hallways was faded and chipped, rails on staircases were rusty and bent, benches were collapsed or missing. These defects had already started to show during perestroika and only grew worse over the years of my absence. I also noticed bars on windows of first-floor flats and that many had installed a second entrance door as a precaution against robberies. I spent some days walking around the city and taking photographs of some of the city’s landmarks, like the WWII tank memorial and the obelisk for the fallen soldiers. I went to visit my school and found my former teachers, who loved hearing about my life in America. I was very happy to find some of my childhood friends; some I found by going to their old addresses, where most of them still lived with their parents, and some I found at their jobs. My father came on a train and we spent many days strolling around the city and through the bazaars, arm in arm, just like we did that summer in Yuzhnoukrainsk, and then we would visit his mother, who would always try to overfeed us with her Russian soups and breads.
On that New Year’s Eve, I found myself standing outside on the town square in the midst of a light snowfall. New Year celebrations are still very important in Ukraine and are usually rowdy but fun. This holiday is usually celebrated at home, with one long table set for relatives, friends and neighbors and topped with all sorts of dishes, hearty salads and of course, the traditional bottle of vodka. Children receive presents from Father Frost, the Russian version of Santa Claus, and adults also exchange gifts.
That night, the city officials of Lutugino had planned an outdoor show complete with a folk music performance, speeches by local dignitaries and a fireworks show. The entire event took place on a stage in front of Lutugino’s Дом Культуры (House of Culture), a Soviet-created institution with reading and chess rooms, gymnastics/dance studios, and large auditoriums. My mother and I watched and videotaped the entire show. Then the newly-elected mayor made a grand speech and invited the audience to a van that served one free shot of vodka to each person.
As the crowd turned and raced toward the van, my mother found an old friend, Rosa, and I scanned the faces in the crowd for former classmates and friends. It was difficult to imagine what the faces of those ten-year-olds might look like so many years later, but I kept searching anyway. And then out of the corner of my eye I saw a face I recognized in an instant. It was Sasha, the boy I sat next to for four years of school. Although I was excited by my discovery, I was reluctant to approach him. My mom’s friend Rosa, after realizing the significance of the tall blond I seemed to be avoiding, pulled me towards him and his circle of friends. She boldly tapped him on the shoulder and asked him if his name was Sasha and if he recognized me. He stared down at me with a confused, slightly drunken expression. I removed my winter hat. Suddenly, a wave of recognition hit him and a half-smile appeared on his face. I was pleased that he remembered me.
We stood in the middle of the square, talking and smiling. I discovered that he was working as a горный мастер (coal miner), which surprised me, considering that he had once been at the top of his class. We talked until the crowd thinned, my mother and her friend went home, and his friends also gradually disappeared. We were left alone in the wintry street. I still could not believe that the little boy from my school days had grown into this tall, serious man. He led me up a hill towards the apartment blocks of Victory Square and into the enclosure of his friend’s flat. We went inside, where his circle of friends, a mix of girls and guys my age, was continuing the New Year’s Eve celebration with half-empty bottles of alcohol. Being only nineteen then, I declined offers of vodka and champagne from Sasha’s friends and they glared at me with quizzical looks, not comprehending how I could refuse and I likewise could not comprehend why my refusal offended them.
We sat on brightly colored couches, with carpets decorating the walls, ate salads from the table, and watched the annual Песня Года (Song of the Year) program on television. Everyone was talking and laughing. I took out a small photo album that I carried with me and showed photos of my life in America: my senior year of high school, filled with dance team performances, pep rallies, homecoming parades, school dances, trips to the beach, and graduation. In these photos were girls dressed in colorful sundresses, with big smiles, standing against the background of Florida palm trees and sandy beaches. I became conscious of the looks I was receiving from my audience and was a bit embarrassed that I had unintentionally come across as bragging about my American life. I grew quieter and looked down at Sasha’s hands, his fingers stained and rough from the coal of the mine that entrapped him every day. His eyelids were singed from the powder of this rock, yet his soft blue eyes were smiling kindly from what I could only guess to be happiness at my unexpected appearance on that night. Everyone kept talking through the night, and I kept listening, until the light of dawn began to creep in through the windows.
The following day I went to Lugansk with Sasha and his friends, a city which was now filled with Western stores and products. We took a маршрутка (shuttle bus) to get there, which cost about five Ukrainian хрывня (hryvnia), equal to about one dollar, and Sasha insisted on paying for me. His male chauvinism partially offended me, because I was used to paying for myself and also perhaps because I secretly wanted to flaunt my money. My refusal to accept his payment offended him, too.
On some nights we went to local bars; some were in the basements of residential buildings, and one was inside an abandoned movie theater. These bars had random names, like Зелёный Попугай (The Green Parrot) or Три Девятки (The Three Nines), and inside there were small tables covered in smoky, dim light. I met some girls from my neighborhood: some of them were at universities in Lugansk, others were working in retail or as waitresses with no career in mind, and some had already become wives and mothers. While I sat in these underground bars with them, I wondered what my life would have been like if I had never moved away. Would it have been like theirs? Most of these girls were now smoking and parading in four-inch stiletto-heeled boots and bright fur coats. There was something intimidating in their lifestyles, as they seemed to have matured much earlier than me, but also something tragic because they didn’t have the opportunities that I often now take for granted.
My mother and I were at the Kiev airport in mid-January. We were flying back to the US. We walked through the security check and were rushed aside because of a can of mace spray that I forgot to remove from my purse. The airport manager hovered over us as his eyes shone brightly in expectation of a bribe. My mother was calm and well-spoken—she was used to the audacity of these types of officials. We ended up giving him a twenty-dollar bill. The bureaucrat took the money, shrugged his shoulders in disappointment, and told us that he would toast us over a bottle of vodka. I didn’t know whether to be angry at such blatant corruption or to pity this man whose low pay degraded him to harassing foreigners for money. After buying a few матрёшки (wooden dolls) and lacquered jewelry boxes at the airport, we got on a plane and headed back to Florida.
This was the end of my journey to Ukraine. The trip changed all my previous perceptions about Ukraine, and the experience of being there again affected me in an unexpected way. I had expected everything to still be the way it was under socialism, heavily structured and government-controlled. I had not anticipated seeing Western stores in my home city or Western clothing worn by my childhood friends, or seeing them in their adult lives. I suddenly wanted to learn more about this new post-Soviet existence and to experience more of it.
VIII. Studies in Moscow
I was walking into a sixteen-story Soviet-built dormitory building in the center of Moscow which housed students from various business schools in the city. It was a warm afternoon in August 2004, and I had just arrived from Sheremetyevo Airport, along with my over-packed luggage. After my winter visit to Ukraine and its strong impression on me, I had decided to participate in the study abroad program at my university and to spend a semester living and studying in Moscow. I was met at the airport by a young guide from the exchange program, who helped me get to the dorms via shuttle bus and taxi. As we were driving through the city, I caught glimpses of street banners congratulating Moscow on the 857th anniversary of its official founding. The streets were packed almost shoulder-to-shoulder with pedestrians. This was a different Moscow than the one I remembered—this Moscow was sunny, bright, and colorful. We arrived at the dorms and my guide helped me to cram three large suitcases into a typical Soviet лифт (elevator), which we took to the third floor. We rang the bell and waited for the double doors to be opened by the woman guarding the floor, the дежурная.
I left my luggage in my room, and after obtaining some information from the guide about where to exchange money and where to buy a metro pass, I headed outside alone towards the closest shopping center, located near the Paveletskaya metro station, near the train station of the same name where I had first arrived in Moscow as a child. I was in awe of the city’s elegance and grandeur. I realized that in the years that had passed since I was last in Moscow, it had grown into the strong economic center of the Russian Federation. Currently, in 2011, with 10.5 million residents, it is no surprise that Moscow is one of Europe’s largest city economies. It comprises 24% of the total Russian GDP. In 2004, it was named the most expensive city in the world and held that title for most of the years following. Moscow had re-invented itself as a cultural, business and fashion center and now housed major international retail stores, hotels, and restaurants and hundreds of exclusive nightclubs, bars, and spas. Many of the consumer products and services which were non-existent during the Soviet Union or limited only to top officials were now available to the public. Seeing this drastic change in 2004 both surprised and pleased me.
Later that day, I met the rest of the foreign exchange students from my floor and we went out on the town in the evening. We ate at the McDonald’s across from the Dobryninskaya metro station near the dorms, then moved to a small bar next door and spent the rest of the night chatting, sharing stories about our student lives, and drinking at a long table, covered with glasses of Pepsi, mugs of Heineken beer and bottles of Smirnoff Ice. It was ironic to me that my first night in Moscow was spent with non-Russian students, speaking English and enjoying Western food and drinks, where even the vodka was a Swedish import. Yet that night I also realized that the city was amazingly international and that my stay in Moscow would be even more spectacular than I imagined. As I fell asleep that night in my little dorm room, listening to the sounds of the city from the half-opened window, I smiled and looked forward to rediscovering the city, and with it my understanding of this new Russia.
IX. Retail Moscow
I walked out of a metro station and didn’t know exactly what part of Moscow I was in, but I did know that there was a bookstore nearby that I wanted to find. After having been in the city for a few weeks, I was now spending my days like the rest of the foreign exchange students, browsing Russian bazaars, sitting in Cafemax Internet cafés drinking bitter cappuccinos, watching Western films and sitcoms with tolerable dubbing and Russian MTV on the dorm television set with foil paper on the antennae. We ate meals of bread and cheese. I was getting used to seeing the heavy Western influence on Russian culture not only in the TV programs, but also in the music, the fashion and the food. At night, we escaped into the city’s night life. We dressed up in high heels and black wool coats, crammed 500 rubles in our pockets, and set off into the city in taxis. We went to clubs like Infiniti, Club First near Red Square, Boarhouse, and Propaganda. We paid cover charges, checked our coats at the door, watched the go-go dancers, took dozens of pictures, and paid $10 for Red Bull and vodka. On nights like that, surrounded by Western Europeans and other Americans, it was hard for me to remember that I was actually in Russia.
I found the bookstore that I was looking for on the corner of a busy street. The store was a two-story building, and inside it resembled the more Western models of retailing. There were dozens of tables filled with useless knick-knacks that sold for 100 rubles apiece which crowded the passageways of the store. 100 rubles was worth about four dollars in 2004, but was the standard price for useless junk in Moscow. I went to the children’s books first, as I always do. I browsed through colorful pages of Buratino (a Russified version of Pinocchio) and Ivan Duratchok (about the adventures of simple but moral Ivan and his two less virtuous brothers). I have made it a habit to buy at least one hard-cover illustrated children’s book in every city that I visit. I still have that love for reading and literature instilled in me from my days in the Soviet schools. So I bought a couple of books then and made my way out of the store.
While that experience was tame, shopping in Moscow could often be intimidating, especially in the crowded outdoor bazaars. There, gypsies and Central Asian merchants manipulated the shoppers by harassing them into purchasing items, inflating the price, and exaggerating the quality of the goods. Once they determined you were a foreigner, from your language and clothing, they pulled you into their clothing tents and tried to intimidate you into buying their products. This happened to me while looking for a pair of jeans. Before I knew it, I was in a dressing room, consisting of a curtain hanging across a corner, and jeans of all sorts of colors and brands were produced for me. When I said I didn’t want to buy any of them, it was even harder to leave the tent, as the seller stood right between me and the exit. My French roommate, who was with me, finally pulled me out of there, with some pushing and shoving and without saying a word. After that experience, I only went to these bazaars with large groups of friends and did not linger inside the tents.
I remember going to the Izmailovksy Souvenir Market, which was Russian fairy-tale themed. The decorative woodwork was incredible in itself, but the objects for sale also added to the delightful charm of the market. I had never seen anything like it – there were tables filled with brand new, shiny lacquered матрёшка sets, selling for anywhere from $20 to $1,000. There were stands with jewelry boxes and decorated eggs, large hand-carved chess sets and amber jewelry. There were stands filled with Russian fur hats and muffs and fur coats of all sorts and colors. There were artists lined up in one row, some drawing caricatures, others selling landscape and still life paintings. Then there were rows of Soviet memorabilia—authentic Soviet Army uniforms and medals, Communist propaganda posters and Lenin pins, even old Soviet appliances. These items had now become a novelty for Western tourists.
I also went to Okhotny Ryad, which had offered three stories of underground shopping since 1997, right next to Red Square. This more "democratically priced" mall supplemented the more glamorous ГУМ (Главный Универсальный Магазин, or "Main Department Store") that ran parallel to the Kremlin wall, held four stories of high-end Western stores and had traditionally been the main shopping center of Moscow.
The interesting thing about Moscow was that despite being so expensive, there were ways to live economically by choosing where and on what to spend your money. As students with limited budgets and no jobs, we eventually learned the tricks to getting cheap products and services anywhere we possibly could. We learned that taking “gypsy cabs” was often cheaper than the official taxis, and that Stolichnaya vodka and Sovetsoye Shampanskoye at the corner shop were much cheaper than equivalents at the Western groceries. We discovered Gorbushka, an electronics store filled with cheap pirated DVDs, and many small рынки (markets) that sold cheap counterfeit items. We knew where the cheapest Internet cafés were, which bars had four-for-one drinks, how to get into clubs without paying the cover, and how to haggle taxi drivers and market merchants for still lower prices. While officially very expensive, in practice Moscow could be quite affordable, although often this entailed not entirely legal means of procurement.
X. The Train
I had decided to go visit my family and friends in Ukraine towards the end of September. I spent a month waiting for my student visa to be converted from a single-entry visa (the standard issue for foreign students) to a multiple-entry visa so that I could leave and re-enter Russia without immigration problems. After finally receiving the visa, I flew towards the train station to buy my round-trip ticket. I was stopped by a police officer standing at the entrance to the station and was asked to show my documents. This was not uncommon; many students in our dorms had been stopped during these random checks. Not having your paperwork on you would be a reason for the police to threaten to take you to the police station and, in order to avoid that situation, one would be forced to give them a bribe. I was already becoming somewhat jaded to this corruption, as just last week, our taxi was pulled over while we were returning to the dorms from a night on the town and the police blatantly demanded a bribe because one of us was missing paperwork. My document check at the train station ended with some jest about Americans, and I walked away. I bought my ticket for the next day and went back to the dorms to pack.
It was September 19th and I realized that I was standing on the same train station platform where, ten years earlier, I had dragged behind my mother as a scared, confused little girl. I saw that same word “MOSKVA” on the roof sign, but it was now lit up with a bright white color against the solid black sky. It now reminded me of the casino signs of Vegas, of nightlife and of freedom. I got on the train and found my coupé (a closed cabin with four bunks). I put my things away in accordance with the advice given to me by all the Russian people I knew. I had all my large bills stuffed into my socks, my suitcase was underneath my sleeping bunk, and my purse remained under my pillow so that I would sleep on top of it during the trip. Again, these precautions were exhausting, but necessary. I sat and waited for the other three passengers to arrive. They turned out to be a young Russian woman my age and two Chechen middle-aged men. When the train took off, the two men disappeared to another cabin, where the rest of their friends were celebrating. The girl, I found out, was named Lena and was travelling home to Krasnyi Luch, a city a bit further south than Lutugino. I told her about my studies in Moscow and about my childhood in Ukraine and my trip there two years ago, and she seemed touched by the nostalgic elements of my story. Hours later, the Chechen men returned, reeking of alcohol. They offered us печенье (dessert cookies) and slices of колбаса (bologna sausage), we denied their offers, and they got offended and started moving closer to us. Then, the train suddenly stopped and voices filled the corridor. The female conductor opened the door, immediately saw the awkward situation, reprimanded the men for their harassing behavior, and told us all to get our documents ready for border patrol.
Two border patrol officers were standing in the narrow doorway of the train compartment and reviewing our documents. Someone made a comment about my American passport, and the young male officer asked me if I liked living in the States and jokingly asked if I would marry him and take him with me to America. I was pleased that he had a sense of humor.
The Chechen men protested against questions from the officers about the reason for their stay in Moscow. They were told to pack their things and to leave the train immediately. One of the men became angry, shouting profanities at the officers and calling them racists. The whole scene started and ended in less than five minutes, as more male officers got on the train and dragged their whole group off. The Beslan school massacre had just occurred that month in North Ossetia, where hundreds of Russian children with their teachers and parents were held hostage by Chechen terrorists inside a school for three days, leading to 331 casualties. The reports of the massacre were constantly being scrolled on television along with reports of random bombings. People were in fear of metro terrorist attacks and bombings on buses and in apartment buildings. Most of the attacks were by Chechen rebels who were fighting against the policies of the Russian government, an ethnic struggle that had existed for centuries between the two groups.
The whole experience reminded me of the state of the American people after September 11th: the same paranoia, similar political arguments and the same search for a scapegoat. I looked out of the dusty window of the train and saw the Chechen men walking along the platform, escorted by the Russian police and border patrol officers. I imagined that they were probably being taken to be interrogated and then eventually released after paying a sufficient bribe. Yet their removal was still a relief to me, because their harassing behavior could have gotten much worse. I looked over at Lena and saw her smiling to herself.
The next afternoon, I stepped off the train and I was in Lugansk. I saw the arched roof of the train station. The air was warm and smelled of fresh grass and dry dirt. I felt at peace – I was home.
XI. The Dacha
A middle-aged, overweight taxi driver was sitting behind the wheel of an old Москвич (a brand of car from the Soviet Union), driving me into the outskirts of Lutugino. I was hiding my JanSport backpack, not talking much, trying to hide my identity. I hadn’t seen the city in warm months in many years, so I smiled as I saw green trees and tall grass, wild flowers on the side of the road, and long, decorative concrete fences. The driver asked me which street to take towards my house. I had told him that I lived in Lutugino and studied in Moscow and that I was coming home for a few days. Since it was growing dusk and I did not know the names of the streets, I hesitated and told him that I was not sure where to turn. He looked at me funny and I was sure he realized then that I was not a local. He didn’t say anything and kept driving until we got to the five-story disheveled building which housed my grandmother’s flat, my former residence. I paid and tipped the driver. He asked for extra for driving me right to the door, so I paid him extra. I took my one suitcase out of the trunk and dragged it up the thirteen steps to the main door. I was relieved that this long, stressful trip from Moscow was over. I sighed with relief and felt tears in my eyes. I knocked on the door and smiled as I saw an old woman, as small as a child, open the door and release the familiar smells of a warm Russian kitchen. I grabbed my бабушка and cried into her shoulder.
Hours later, I heard a knock and after hearing a deep voice through the door, I opened it to find Sasha standing there. We went for a walk around the city. After weeks of living in Moscow, there was a certain peacefulness and quietness in that small city. We passed two-story peach colored buildings built before the Great War, still standing, still surviving, like the people of that little city. We walked to the lower park, what used to be the Парк Культуры (Culture Park) under the Soviet Union. The former outdoor дискотека (dance area), where in Soviet times young adults spent warm nights dancing, was still there, but the stage had fallen apart. Groups of young teenagers were sitting on benches there, smoking and drinking cheap beer out of tall cans.
We walked towards a little bar, which used to be an ice cream parlor; we ordered local beer in glass mugs and sat down at one of the outdoor plastic tables. We talked about what had happened in our lives over the past two years. I told him about my university courses and my studies in Moscow. I told him about my surprise 21st birthday party, which I had just celebrated in Moscow. I told him about how we danced at one of Moscow's elite clubs and how I had my first taste of alcohol. About how my French roommate left early because of a foot ache and I accompanied her, how we took a “private taxi” back to the dorms, how the driver attempted to lure us home with him and we had to leave the car immediately. How she hobbled and leaned on me, how a man walking a dog tried to help us and then stole her wallet out of her half-opened purse. How in just one night, my birthday night, I saw the best and worst of Moscow. He listened and laughed.
He told me about his work at the coal mine, how he got pneumonia from the cold dampness of the underground and spent a month in the hospital. How the management was holding back pay for the miners, and then how he was promoted to supervisor but with little pay increase and too much politics, so he went back to his position of physical labor. When I asked him about a strange, dark mark on the bridge of his nose, which looked like smeared eyeliner, he became self-conscious and then told me about a tunnel collapse at the mine, where a metal pipe had struck him in the face as the roof was collapsing and he nearly died. He spent another month in the hospital after the accident. He told me that he liked his job because of the friendships with his co-workers, and that he liked the city and had no intention of leaving it.
He invited me to go to his friend’s family дача (summer house) the next day. His friend Igor brought a girl, Yulia, and I talked to her in the backseat of the car as we drove out of the city in Igor's red Volga. The site of all the dachas looked even more beautiful than I had remembered. We pulled up to a green metal fence, opened the latches and drove the car into the driveway next to a small, brick house. There was a large garden with fruit trees and tomato plants. There was a porch covered in grapevines with large bunches of wild, almost black grapes. Many Ukrainian families owned such dachas, which were usually built in clusters on the outskirts of cities near bodies of water and forests. People went there for long weekends and often lived there for weeks during the summer. We started the barbeque, and Yulia and I went inside to prepare the table. We drank wine, the guys gulped down shots of vodka, and we ate grilled chicken, joking, laughing and talking all night long.
The next day I took my little suitcase, said goodbye to my grandmother and took the overnight train back to Moscow.
XII. The Return
I finished out the semester in Moscow and returned to United States right before the Christmas holidays. I was profoundly impressed by Russia and Ukraine. I could no longer think of the two countries as socialist or backwards, because I had seen entrepreneurial cities buzzing with culture and business and life. I couldn’t idolize them either, because I had seen first-hand the crime and corruption and poverty. I had come to my own understanding of these places.
After my studies in Moscow, I returned once more to Ukraine, in the early spring of 2008. I flew through Kiev and, stopping there for one day, set out to sightsee with my former Moscow dorm-mate, Milan. In the four years since our studies, he had graduated from a university in Paris and was now a production manager overseeing the Ukrainian branch of a European grocery chain. I was happy for his success and laughed at his many anecdotes about doing business in Ukraine. He took me around the shops and cafés on Khreshchatik, the main shopping street in Kiev. We visited some of the churches and took a ride on the metro before he dropped me off at the Borispol airport in his chauffeured, private car.
I flew to Lugansk on a small plane, whose engines and propellers made so much noise that I felt I was on a WWII bomber. I was met by my father at the airport, whose friend gave us a ride to Lutugino in his car. During my two-week visit, I saw friends, most of whom had small toddlers or newborns. I bought a prepaid cell phone, my first cell phone in Ukraine or Russia. That’s when I realized the strong influence of social networking and mobile technology in Ukraine. Like many third-world countries, Ukraine’s infrastructure was weak and phone lines in many areas were either damaged or non-existent. With the advent of mobile phones and wireless Internet, Ukrainian citizens no longer waited for landlines, but simply jumped to using mobile phones and WiFi. It was no longer people’s mailing addresses being written down, but instead e-mail addresses, mobile phone numbers, ICQ and Skype names. It was much easier to make plans, I simply sent my friends text messages and we would decide where to go instantly.
Since that last trip, I have stayed in touch with my family and friends not only through e-mail and Skype, but also through the dozens of social networking sites now popular in Russia and Ukraine, such as Вконтакте ("InContact") and Одноклассники (Classmates). I share digital photos and videos and send instant messages to close friends who are far away, a convenience which was lacking in the 1990s when I first moved to the US. Now, with streaming video on news sites, streaming audio from internet radio, and file-sharing services, I have been able to stay up-to-date with current Russian and Ukrainian news, popular music, new films and television programs. In this way, I feel connected to a culture that I had limited access to in previous years.
Staying connected also includes being aware of the problems facing Russia and Ukraine today. Although they share some problems, such as rampant corruption, terrorist attacks and weak infrastructures, their economic and political issues differ. Russia’s main economic problems involve its dependence on commodity exports. Russia’s federal government still heavily influences the private sector, and property rights lack adequate protection. Russia’s workforce is also decreasing, while its political system remains controversial and some policies are seen as un-democratic. As Russia is moving forward, its economic conditions are gradually improving as the government plans to invest great sums to improve its outdated infrastructure. One of Ukraine's problems is that it depends on Russia for nearly all its energy resources. However, Ukraine’s economy, although smaller than Russia’s, is growing and its information technology market looks especially bright.
Both countries, as they move into the future, face difficult challenges. Yet it should not be forgotten that these countries, in less than a century, survived the imperial rule of monarchy, the socialist rule of the USSR, and a raucous conversion to more capitalist, Western forms of government. Such drastic shifts have made the people strong and resilient, marking their future with hope and promise. In my own future, I know that I will continue to return to both countries to pay tribute to these two places that will always be one in my mind—one home, one родина.