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Other Places: Letters home from four of Penn's far-flung alumni

Russian Lessons, By Lisa C. Hayden

By Lisa C. Hayden
Illustration by Liz Pyle

MyMoscow mornings start late. Even at the winter solstice when it's coldest and darkest I don't get out of bed until the sun comes up, around nine. If I'm awakened while it's dark, I listen for trams: if I hear them rumbling down the tracks past the house where the journalist Listyev was murdered and on to the Old Believer church outside my window, I know without looking at my clock that it's after six. If I hear silence, I know I have a few more hours to doze under blankets before I hit the snooze button into daylight, wash my hair, drink strong coffee as I get dressed, then head underground into the Metro for my ride to work and another lesson about what makes Russia Russia.
   I moved to Moscow in 1992 because I hoped to "get it" about Russia. I wasn't sure what it was I wanted to "get," but studying the country for nearly seven years at Penn made me want to understand the dark, aggressive side of Russia's history. I wanted to see how Russians differed from Americans. And I wanted to compare the Russia I had read about in my favorite novels -- War and Peace and Dr. Zhivago -- with the Russia I read about in The New York Times.
   
Living in Moscow from August 1992 through June 1998 gave me more empirical evidence than I expected to receive. I made Russian friends and used my Russian skills daily, which enabled me to determine that "cultural differences" are not a myth. Vodka, for example: Russians rarely use it to make cocktails; they drink it straight to cure colds and anything else that might ail them. And it was widely used to clean car windows one winter when vodka was cheaper than windshield-wiper fluid. I also found that many Russians take pride in the inexplicability of their country: No book or article could begin to explain the Russian situation, they would say. It was Russia's very darkness and aggression, though, that taught me the most, both about the place I lived and my own life.
   Mother Russia gave me Lesson #1 on Life on a dusky-gray December morning in 1992. I was awakened by a knock on my dormitory-room door. At the time, I was the resident director of a Moscow-based language program. As I opened my door, I heard a student's faint voice pronounce, "This man says I can't go to class." His thin index finger pointed at a police captain wearing a steel-blue fur hat and quilted coat.
   No one told me for hours what had caused the disturbance that took me from my bed, but the student with the faint voice and thin fingers lived in the same suite as two dead Chinese students. My job description did not include interpret police interrogations, transfer documents to morgue, escort students on fingerprinting excursions at police precinct, and serve meat and kasha lunches to detectives. But that's how I worked for the days after this double homicide happened to occur where I lived and worked. The crime was palpable: I saw the corpses lying in their beds, under blankets and bedspreads, shattered skulls resting on soft, bloodied feather pillows.
   It turned out that the victims had also been clothing traders, and obviously had failed to pay their dues to the local krysha ("roof") for protection. Though reason told me that whoever had killed them would not think I could identify him, emotion and fear reminded me that the students' ashes rested in plastic urns in the room next to mine. I could see the urns through the keyhole. And I could feel cold air flowing against my eyeball when I pressed my forehead to the door. For days, I slept with a chef's knife on my nightstand.
   The investigation did have its lighter moments. I was fingerprinted, too, and learned how to patat' pal'chiki ("roll fingers"), which is what Moscow police call pressing fingertips in a blob of ink and then onto a piece of custom-folded paper with just enough divisions for 10 fingers. And I was invited to take tea with the precinct's detectives. I did, and when tea turned to vodka, some of Moscow's finest investigators of crimes against foreigners asked me if I'd ever smoked marijuana. I told them that even our president has smoked it, but that most of us admitted to having inhaled. When I asked why one office in the precinct had a portrait of Nicholas II, another of Dzerzhinsky (founder of the secret police under Lenin that became the KGB), they ameliorated the paradox by giving me the portrait of Nicholas. I would have preferred the irony of a Dzerzhinksy portrait -- particularly after the officers reminded me that he was famous for founding orphanages -- but it is the last czar's portrait that hangs in my parents' house in Maine.
   Many people -- strangers on airplanes, friends and relatives in the U.S., my parents -- ask what drew me to Russia. My interest developed in childhood. The 1972 Olympics and presidential elections inspired me to learn about political parties and ideologies. At the age of nine I could afford to be a liberal Democrat in favor of expanded social programs: I paid no taxes and loved McGovern. When my father -- a loyal Republican -- said that McGovern might as well be a communist, I knew I needed to learn more about the USSR, a place described as communist in our encyclopedia. My father told me that, though the Soviet government might be bad, people were good everywhere. At the time, I knew and understood nothing about Lenin, Stalin, or gulags.
   Penn filled that void with knowledge a decade later. I took a Russian history course taught by Dr. Alexander Riasanovsky, professor (now emeritus) of Slavic languages, then began to study Russian language as a sophomore because there weren't enough students to fill a section of Swedish. I remember clearly the snowy Friday afternoon when I declared my Russian/Soviet studies major. I had dropped calculus and my dreams of lab work in biochemistry, and my decisions elated me. I went to Murphy's Tavern to celebrate, and I remember that Spruce Street was covered with two feet of snow when I went home.
   My first trip to Russia was in 1983, on a summer language program in Leningrad. Visiting the USSR during the Andropov regime didn't supply an idyllic summer away from Penn. Certainly, I didn't know that Soviet and American weapons were on alert, pointed at each other. But I sensed the stultification of the place: Soviets were forbidden to drive foreigners in their cars. Hotel rooms were often bugged, so my friends and I took walks in the park when we wanted to discuss matters of more substance than homework assignments or which of two skirts to wear to the theater. A Russian acquaintance dragged me to the ladies room at the Palace of Youth, saying I had to use it because it was clean. It was. Further, the toilet-paper holders contained neatly-trimmed squares of Pravda. Knowing the street value of Pravda, it was fitting that Le Monde was my source of information on the world outside the USSR. Its articles on the debates within the French Communist Party convinced me that the Soviet censors must have abandoned their study of French after the Revolution in 1917. When I returned home to the United States on July 4, I was sure I would never return to the USSR.
   Political events that included Gorbachev, perestroika, and glasnost changed my mind. After receiving my MA in Russian literature from Penn, I moved to Portland, Maine, where I became involved in Portland's sister-city relationship with Arkhangel'sk. I helped found its high-school exchange program and traveled annually to the Russian North; after my first experiences in the USSR, I was gratified to have a chance to encourage exchange. I enjoyed using my Russian language skills with new friends, talking openly about books that had been forbidden in Russia for decades, and seeing firsthand changes in a country I had studied for so many years. By the end of 1991 I had decided to leave my job in a supermarket chain's corporate-communications department to move to Russia. When I found a job in Moscow, friends and co-workers here said they admired my courage -- then asked why I would subject myself to a year in the former Soviet Union.
   I moved in August 1992 and lived in Moscow until June 1998; I held four jobs and several consulting contracts. The work was always stimulating and I made friends I will keep for life. I also lived through several constitutional crises and one bombing of the Russian White House. I came to know that if my hot water was shut off for three weeks of summer "prophylactic" pipe work, I could take a hot bath by heating 16 pots of water. I saw 10 corpses, including the two Chinese students murdered in my dormitory. I've come close to being on the other side, too: Two Russian mafiosi held me and a friend captive for a night in a Cuban restaurant. It is plausible that these two Chechen war veterans stopped to make a hit on a lavish-spending biznesman whose portfolio included diamonds and car repair. My American friend and I were freed by two policemen with automatic weapons. It may be that our American passports were more protection for the businessman than his bodyguard's small pistol.
   No Moscow day was easy. I was pushed and shoved daily in the dank, wet-wool-smelling Metro; my telephone went out of service regularly; and I had to stop at several stores a week to purchase adequate groceries. To keep my body free of radiation, I carefully avoided Belarusian milk products -- the fattiest, therefore the tastiest, in Moscow. The trials of everyday life pushed me to a level of passive aggression that matched that of those who pushed me, refused to fix my telephone, and yelled at me because I lacked correct change. I began to "get it" about Russia. I had always criticized my Russian friends for taking a pessimistic view of their lives and their country, but I was starting to understand their feelings of powerlessness and hopelessness, both in the political and social spheres. This lack of hope can overshadow the beauty of art and music and friendship. I wondered what Dostoevsky was thinking when he wrote that beauty would save the world.
   By the time I saw my last corpse -- a man who had been thrown out a car door and dragged down a snowy street a few blocks from the Kremlin -- I realized that seeing death had taught me to see the value of my life. The corpses had felt like a burden I would carry forever, but they became a gift. "Russia is a good teacher," a friend in Maine told me. I began to understand the lessons. Russia is tough love for both Russians and expats. It is the friend you want back in your life, the one who disses you daily. Russia will disrespect, dysfunction, dispassion, and dissatisfy you. And dishonor you. Mother Russia is a strange and perverse parent, staying up all night with you, feverishly throwing at you the raw materials of life, no commentary allowed. Sometimes, she hopes you will survive. If you do, you may learn the meaning of true friendship, and how to find strength when you thought you were at the bottom.
   Many of my friends in Moscow think I'll be back. "Nostalgia," they say. "You'll miss it and won't be able to stay away. You'll be back in a year, just wait." I left Russia at the end of June 1998, just before the ruble crashed. At home in Maine, I began to read The New York Times again, this time remembering the places it describes and imagining my friends' lives. I am grateful that I left before the worst of the crisis, even more grateful I had the freedom to do so. I am also thankful for my new life as a former expat, to be once again an American living in the United States. I spent the summer reading at the beach, the fall on a long road trip through Alaska, California, and the Southwest. I know how fortunate I am to have the opportunity to wind my way through the country I was born in and to which I had longed to return. I will spend much of the Maine winter writing stories about my experiences in Russia.
   Do I miss Russia? I miss my Russian friends, many of whom will not often visit the U.S. I miss the Moscow Conservatory's world-class concerts. I miss speaking Russian and applying what I learned at Penn. But there is no nostalgia. Nostalgia, for me, implies a past that wasn't parted with properly. Mother Russia and I have parted, though her lessons -- each one learned the hard way -- will stay with me for the rest of my life. I never thought that I would say that I found my self in Russia, but I think I did. Seeing death and violence so frequently forced me to come to terms with my fragile, mortal world by living every day as though it is my last. For that I shall forever be grateful to Russia.

Lisa C. Hayden, C'85, G'89, 110735.212@compuserve.com returned to Portland, Maine from Moscow in June 1998.



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