Friday, October 18, 2013

Chapter One: The Soviet Union

It was just too bad I had left my heart behind the Iron Curtain. Or perhaps it was not so bad at all, it just meant that things would be very different from now on.

That was in the summer of 1981 after I returned to the States and realized I had left a vital part of myself behind. I intuitively sensed that I would never be the same again, and if I never returned it may tear me apart. However the reality of returning seemed so remote, so unlikely, so impossible. But I am running ahead. Let me go back to February 1981 when I first set foot on Russian soil.

The cold marble sterility of Moscow’s Sheremyetevo airport was rather startling. It formed a sort of vacuum, a no-man’s land between where I had come from and where I was going. The smooth shiny gray expanse of the near-empty interior was reminiscent of an ice rink, I felt like running headlong across its pristine expanses, twirling pirouettes around the starkly immobile pillars, sliding and gliding along its polished floors. But I felt the foreboding stare of unseen eyes, stern and hostile, unrelenting and accusing, from somewhere I could not be certain and it sent a tremor of uncertainty that was not entirely unpleasant down my spine.

And then it was over, once beyond the sliding glass doors, huddled into a rather ancient dimly lit bus along with all the other students, and off into the dark wintry streets of the Soviet capital, that sinister scene faded and I saw a very different world. Despite the late hour and the copious February snow, the streets were alive with people in dark coats and hats scurrying along from store to store in the hope of filling their shopping bags with whatever might be available that day. The place was a-boil, like a massive anthill, each dark dot moving purposefully toward a destination unbeknown to anyone but itself.

And a wild feeling of unfathomable joy and anticipation filled me. Here I was in a land of bans and prohibitions, a land of mystery locked behind the mythical Iron Curtain, a land with a notoriously bad reputation, where chains clanked, prison doors clanged, lack-luster eyes in gray drawn faces gazed forever downward, or so was the idea, but all I felt was an immense sense of liberation and exultation, the wild exhilaration of just having climbed on a roller coaster and feeling like I was in for a breath-taking and gut-churning ride.

Dormitory on Volgina Street in the south of Moscow

The dormitory I was to live in was in the south of Moscow, but the institute itself, The Pushkin Russian Language Institute, was in the center of the city, not far from the American Embassy. This meant a forty-five-minute trip every morning on the metro to get to class. And if I wanted to have breakfast at the Intourist Hotel first, where they served a smorgasbord every day for four rubles (an absolute steal), I had to be up and out of the dormitory by seven o’clock. And the smorgasbord was a darn sight better than eating the rather insipid and unappetizing fare offered at the dormitory cafeteria. Also, when I first arrived in Moscow, I was always worried I might not get enough to eat. I was seized by the unfamiliarity of being in a new and strange place where nothing was routine and the same as what I was used to at home. So just to be on the safe side, it was best to fill up in the morning and then if nothing else came along during the day, at least I wouldn’t starve. Of course that all backfired and by the time I left four months later, I had gained so much weight that I could only fit into one pair of cord dungarees that had been ample and baggy when I first arrived. But enough said about that.

For the moment I was thrilled to walk into the Intourist Hotel on many a morning before class, just breeze on in there as though I were the bee's knees. Ordinary Russians from the street couldn’t do that, they would be stopped at the door and asked for identification. But I in my grandmother's otter fur coat, with my frizzy hairdo and cheesy grin was a foreigner for sure, so no one asked me for identification, but waved me graciously on. How elating it was! So on I would breeze into the dining room where the buffet table just groaned with all kinds of Russian delicacies and where I would proceed to fill up for the day. After all, four rubles was only a couple of dollars at the official exchange rate and only a dollar at the black market rate. What a bargain!

Sign on the door of the Pushkin Language Institute in the center of Moscow

Classes themselves were a bit of a bore and I did not give them much time or attention. I certainly did not rush back to the dormitory afterwards to get on with homework like most of the rest of my group did. Learning Russian grammar while poring over textbooks was not the reason I had decided to try out for this program. And it certainly was not the reason I had come to Russia. I wanted to learn Russian from real Russians, explore the city and have fun, not spend the whole time sitting around in the dorm. Luckily my roommate was of the same mind. So after class, instead of going back home, we would set off exploring.

One of the first places we found was the Café Sever on Gorky Street, the main drag in the center of Moscow. It was an ice-cream and champagne café. That’s right, all they served was ice-cream and champagne. Oh, you might be able to get a bar of chocolate as well, sometimes, or some mineral water. But the big attraction for me was the champagne. Just imagine the luxury of sitting around in the middle of the day drinking champagne, just for the hell of it! And the other thing about most Russian cafes and restaurants was that although they brought you a menu, and usually a rather elaborate one with pages and pages of all kinds of different fare, nothing you might want to order was actually available. So it was best just to shut the menu and ask, “What do you have today?” Usually there was one flavor of ice-cream available and one type of champagne, either semi-dry or semi-sweet. I preferred the semi-dry, but would never complain, semi-sweet would do just as well.

If we did not go to the Café Sever, another favorite place was the Ukraine Hotel on the Moscow River. It had a café on each floor. They were never all open at the same time, so you had to ride up and down in the elevator until you found the floor where the café was open at the time you wanted. That was a trip in itself, riding up and down in the lift and roaming the thick-carpeted silent halls and corridors, looking for an open café. There you could get good cups of strong coffee and order some open-faced sandwich or a pastry. It was in one of these cafes on some floor of the Ukraine Hotel that I met my first Russians…..

I was sitting with Margie, my roommate, drinking coffee and minding my own business, when two Russians strolled up and asked if they could join us. Well, since it was my aim to meet real Russians and converse with them in real Russian, of course I would not act all prim and proper and tell them to go away. The spokesman, Igor, although a somewhat sleazy-looking character, not very tall, rather skinny, with shaggy dark hair and a mustache, had something sultry and attractive about him. The other, Boris, turned out to be a Pole who was visiting the capital. He was really funny and also had some trouble speaking Russian, which made him immediately adorable and appealing, and he had one phrase he was fond of repeating that kept everyone laughing. Of course, I could not have known it at the time, but Igor was a black-marketeer out looking for a way to hoodwink unsuspecting foreigners into changing dollars into rubles unofficially at a supposedly better exchange rate than the official one. He also speculated in deficit goods. But such concepts were way beyond my innocent naivety at that time and I blithely went along with whatever these new friends offered.

After sitting for long enough in the café, Igor and Boris suggested we go some place for dinner. I was all for it. This was the beginning, the opening up of a whole new world for me, I always felt so elevated whenever I was wined and dined. In the weeks that followed, I saw many of Moscow’s restaurants and always felt the same excitement. There was never any rush. We would book a table for the whole evening and there was always a live band and dancing. The most important part always seemed to be the appetizers, which of course were accompanied by vodka (for the men) and champagne or wine (for the ladies). But since I was a foreigner, drinking vodka with the men was seen as something amusing and entertaining, rather than something to be scorned. So I would end up having both, vodka and champagne, and loving the sense of emancipation that came with the alcohol. My natural shyness would disappear, the alcohol would loosen my tongue and rid me of my awkwardness about speaking Russian and my desire to only open my mouth if I knew I could get the sentence out without making a mistake. I would transform into a young woman of abandon and allure, I felt as though the world were at my fingertips, I was unabashed and courageous. I was no longer the goody two-shoes who always did my homework and got good grades, who always obeyed my parents and tried to please, who was afraid to say boo to a goose or cross-talk anyone. Here in this new and strange land, away from my family and everyone who knew me, I was a queen. I was free to be someone else, free to let loose the passions I felt in my soul, free to laugh, dance, get drunk, talk to strangers, allow unknown and beguiling men to escort me around restaurants.

So restaurants became an enchanting and enticing part of my student days in Moscow. And I particularly liked the drinking and all the ceremony that went with it. I loved how the light played provocatively on the gold band painted around the rim of the vodka glass. These glasses with their gold bands were to become a talisman for me. en there was caviar and soft rolls with creamy butter. A delicious mushroom concoction in a small silver crucible topped with melted cheese. Different salads with sauerkraut, potatoes and vegetables dressed in sauce. I loved how when clinking glasses before drinking I was told to look into the eyes of the person I was clinking with. Eyes would lock in a sort of secret pact and the vodka would go down in a fiery lick, at first searing my throat, but then filling my belly with a warm and incredible feeling of pure joy.

The appetizer course and drinking vodka, accompanied by various toasts, would go on for a couple of hours, interspersed by trips to the dance floor. By the time the second course, or main dish of the evening, was served, everyone was usually three sheets to the wind. No one was hungry any more, although perhaps people ate. But I could never be sure any more. I would be floating somewhere in a different world.

And it was an incomprehensible world for a foreigner, particularly a naïve and inexperienced one like me. There were taboos, certain rules to be followed, certain codes of conduct to be observed when interacting with Russians, since we were being watched by the KGB!

But that did not stop me, I still paradoxically felt that sense of liberation and freedom, as though some inner door in my soul had opened and I was free to fly to the heights I always dreamed of.

Vladimir 1981 - Shrovetide (Pancake Week) celebration (Maslenitsa)

What was so alluring about the place? I just felt something awesome there right down to the marrow of my bones, in every fiber of my being. About a month into the semester, all the groups of foreign students studying at the institute went on a bus trip to Vladimir and Sudzal, two beautiful towns rich in history and culture on what is known in Russia as the Golden Ring. On the bus, I sat next to the leader of the Middlebury group. He was a Brit like myself who had lived for a long time in the States. So I felt a bond with him, both of us being ex-pats. And he had no objections to sitting next to me and answering my questions. He had led groups to the Soviet Union on numerous other occasions and perhaps could give me some insights. The main question that burned inside me was this. Did he know of any Westerners who voluntarily came to live in the Soviet Union? And not just come to live for a while because of their job or some other work, but who voluntarily chose to spend the rest of their lives there, who fell in love with the place and wanted to stay there forever. Yes, he had heard of such cases, he answered. “But most of those people seem to disappear into the woodwork,” said he. The image of a wooden house out in the country immediately arose in my mind. I could see the beams, the solid roof, the porch, the trees around it, the smoke curling from the chimney. Yes, that image satisfied me, it filled me with a wild yearning, almost sadness, a deep feeling of nostalgia. Would I ever be able to fulfill that dream? So even then, even before what happened indeed happened, I was thinking about how I wanted to come and live in Russia forever.

Igor added to my cherished thoughts when he told me about Lake Baikal with its water that was so clear you could always see the bottom. An image of sparkling pure water came to mind, rippling in the sun, and through it could be seen colorful rocks and shells and a sandy bed that gleamed in the amazingly clean water. Yes, one day I would look down through the glistening water into the depths of that magical lake.

Lake Baikal

* * *

One evening in mid-March, after I had been in Moscow for six weeks, I was to meet Igor in the vestibule of the Pushkin metro station. I arrived on time, he was waiting for me, as were a couple of other friends. They stood and chatted for a while, but no one seemed in a rush to move on, what were they waiting for? A lively fellow with a curly blond afro, lisp, and short fur coat made of artificial leopard skin kept them entertained. Alyosha, as he was called, was particularly interested in me and told me they were waiting for another friend of his. About ten or fifteen minutes later, he appeared, I first saw him as he materialized, head, shoulders, followed by slender jean-clad hips and legs, up the escalator. He had the most striking blue eyes I had ever seen. I was mesmerized. I felt instantly drawn to him, and a spark of recognition seemed to register between us. But he was also so alien and reticent. There was a reluctance about him, as though he wished he were somewhere else. So this was the foreigner he had been dragged out of his sick bed to meet. (He told me years later that the last thing he had wanted to do that evening was go out to a restaurant with someone he hardly knew and did not particularly like, Igor that was—they only had a nodding, very superfluous acquaintance—and some foreigner. He had a fever and was up to his eyes in work, he would have much rather stayed at home. But Alyosha had been so insistent, he had finally succumbed to his pestering.)

After the introductions (his name was Ivan) and in a swoon from my love-at-first-sight experience, our small group set off in search of the evening’s adventures. I remembered huddling into the back seat of a taxi, I sat in the middle, squeezed between Igor and Ivan. I could not have cared less at that moment if Igor dropped off the edge of the planet, I could not think about him any more, I no longer cared. The first stop was a beriozka shop near the Rossiya Hotel. Beriozkas were the state-run shops that only foreigners with hard currency had access to and where items were sold, particularly in the supermarket department, that ordinary Russians may have never seen their entire lives. Of course, Russians with hard currency could shop there if they took the risk. But it was hard to camouflage the fact they were Russian and being in possession of hard currency could get you a turn in prison, so it was a great risk indeed for a Russian to venture into a beriozka shop. One of the attractions was the abundance of fresh fruit, pineapples being particularly popular. Most of my other student friends would buy pineapples from the beriozkas whenever they went visiting their Russian friends. But the reason I was going to the beriozka was for booze, Amaretto (the nectar of love, as Ivan later told me), and Camel cigarettes. Alyosha also asked me to buy him cigarettes, he wanted More, he was fascinated by their length, slimness, and color. Nothing at all like any of the cigarettes available to the ordinary Russian. He just doted on me because I would buy him those cigarettes. That evening I was happy to please, and once more that thrill of excitement hummed through my veins as I felt the delicious unfamiliarity of all that was going on around me. Later I would feel ashamed that I had the privilege of buying things that ordinary Russians had never seen in a month of Sundays never mind have the money to purchase. What made me so privileged? Just because I had had the luck to be born in the south of England and then lived for years in the United States, just because I was from the West and did not live under communism? Once, when I left one of the beriozkas, then called Sadko, laden down with plastic bags bearing the Sadko emblem, which stuck out like a sore thumb, I was so overcome by the injustice of it all that I swore I would never go back there and buy anything else ever again. Especially when I saw Russians coming out of the local supermarket just a few doors down the street with their string shopping bags holding a few rather dismal-looking packages wrapped in gray paper. I went in just to have a look. Yes, there was some cheese and butter, tins of sardines, and bottles of mineral water, but not much else. I had just come out of a place almost right next door, but with blank windows and no sign on the door, ordinary Russians were none the wiser, they did not know what lay behind those white painted windows, where the shelves were groaning with almost every delicacy under the sun. It was just so unfair.

By the end of the evening, I knew I had to see Ivan again. We ended up going to someone’s apartment, he wanted me to spend the night, it all seemed like a dream, as though I was in a fog and had no clue what was going on. It was as though I were looking at everyone from the inside of a fish bowl, everyone was talking, mouthing words, laughing, drinking, but I could not hear or understand a thing. I just nodded and smiled, let them do with me what they wanted, drive me here, drive me there. I did not stay the night, Igor insisted on taking me home, but instead I ended up in a taxi with Ivan and Alyosha, traipsing off to the other end of Moscow where they lived. I had no idea at that time that my dormitory was right across the road from the apartment they had visited after the restaurant. This was Irida’s place, she was an older woman and obviously used to having all kinds of guests drop by at any time of the night or day. But that night I did not know I could have been back in my dorm room in ten minutes. I hadn’t the foggiest idea where I was, I just let myself be led. So I traveled home in a taxi with Ivan and then the taxi driver brought me back to the dorm. But the next morning I discovered that my wallet was missing, I had left it in the taxi along with one of my gloves, which had dropped to the floor when Ivan removed it to kiss my hand in parting.

I had Alyosha’s phone number. I called the next day, and yes, I had left my wallet and he wanted to return it, rather Ivan did. So a date was set up to meet again.

I was so sensitive and impressionable. I often likened myself to a chameleon that changed its colors to suit the situation and the environment. I could quickly change from one passion to another. What was vitally important and drove my entire being onward one day seemed insipid and insignificant the next when some new and more enticing or challenging thoughts filled my mind.

 There was so much contradiction and turmoil in my soul aroused by this wild and unfathomable country. I was filled with an unutterable recklessness, ready to do things I never dreamed of or thought I was capable of before. What a paradox, in a place where my guard should have been up, where there were so many shady places, so much I did not understand, so many invisible barriers, I felt like throwing all caution to the wind and just gallivanting on, heedless of everything. And although I felt even then somewhere deep in my soul that this was my home, that this was where I wanted to be for the rest of my life, the likelihood of it ever coming to pass was so remote it did not even bear thinking about. So again the recklessness and dare-devil intrepidity gushed to the surface, if I was only there for four months and would never be back again, I had to go to the hilt, squeeze every last drop of adventure and excitement out of this experience while I was in it, for I would never have the chance again. And I just could not get over the feeling of empowerment I felt. Never before had I felt such confidence in myself. The language was a barrier, there was no doubt about that, I felt inhibited and wished I could talk like most of the other students around me with their better schooling and more intensive language courses. My Russian courses had not prepared me for such in-depth and impressive command of the language. I felt so unsure of myself, especially when around the other students and during classes at the institute. I would cower in the back row hoping no one would ever call on me to answer questions. But once out on my own with my new Russian acquaintances, I felt wings of power unfold again. My clumsy Russian was not a hindrance, rather Russians found me quite charming, and after a few shots of vodka, I didn’t care any more and would rattle on as much as I wanted. Often about taboo subjects like the Soviet troops in Afghanistan. What I actually said I could never recall the next day, but after that particular conversation about Afghanistan, Ivan gave me a book that laid out the Russian version of the whole situation. I never really understood it all until years later, so brainwashed was I by the West’s version. Now though, I felt empowered, empowered to talk about things I had no inkling of understanding about when my tongue was loosened by vodka. And my Russian friends only found my attempts to wax political amusing. “Kak ty govorish!” they would say with a twinkle in their eyes. But I could talk. There was no doubt it was within my capacity and so I soared on the crest of a mighty wave.

Most of the serious talk went on while they were drinking. I would accept everything that was offered – champagne, wine from the light Georgian and Moldavian varieties to the heavy port, beer, and of course vodka. My heart soared when I sat at the table surrounded by my friends and kept pace with the men, being clapped on the back and encouraged, told that I was “nash chelovek,” that is, “one of us.” Not a foreigner with different morals, customs, and traditions, but with a Russian soul, just like them. I felt an immense sense of belonging.

I loved to walk the city streets in the snow and sit in the parks at dusk reflecting and soaking up the wonder of it all. One such evening in March, when the snow was still thick on the ground, and the sun was sinking toward the horizon, I walked in Gorky Park and sat for a while on one of benches. The dusky pink sun as it set that evening mirrored my heart, that mystery, that deep hushed silence, the pink quiet, I was completely content just sitting and watching, drinking in the calm and feeling a quiet joy in just being alive. What had happened since I came here was hard to explain. Very subtly, but very definitely, things had changed, I had changed, my outlook on life had changed. Life had become more complex, yet clearer and simpler. I felt I was beginning to grasp, experience, and understand feelings and ideas that were before just vague dreams, distant and unrealized. Life seemed to take on purpose and focus. I felt as though my destiny was beginning to take shape before my eyes, that I was becoming aware of who I really was and what I wanted out of life. A strong feeling of myself arose within me, I felt that no matter what happened, where I went, what I did, I was myself, true to my own purpose, aware of what was dear to me, what made me tick, what made my heart beat, what was important to me, what made me aware. All the superfluous things in life were falling away and I was looking into a crystal clear pool where I could see my reflection in all its reality. I was a worthwhile being.

Looking back now, almost thirty years down the road, I am amazed at the insight of my young 23-year-old self. I am in a similar place now, but I have not stood still, to get to where I am today I first had to lose myself in the suffocating clutches of alcohol and take a discomfiting and often searing trip to the dark side of my soul, before I was truly able to regain myself, my worth, and my power. (And is this not precisely part of the journey to reclaim Knowledge that is set forth in Steps to Knowledge: The Book of Inner Knowing.)

Sitting there on the park bench in 1981, I could not have known all this, I could not have known about the journey I was about to embark on, could not have known how these four months were to awaken all the putrid, horrific, unthinkable deep and dark sides of me along with the bright, love-filled, beaming sides. I could not have known that I would take a journey to hell and back before finally finding that calm shore with its clear water for which I so yearned. My insight back then was incredible though.

I wrote in my diary at that time: “Nothing will come without tears and pain, yet it will all be worthwhile, and I will look into the water that is so clear you can see the bottom and hear the solitary birds cry over the dusky pink marshes at sunset and feel the peace, contentment, and breath of life as it fills and elevates me. I will have my life of feelings, emotions, impressions, inexplicable joy and devastating pain. I will feel the warm dusk envelop me, see the last rose fade and the twinkling lights of the evening appear, see the reflections, the beads of life, the sweet breath, hear the sigh of peace and fulfillment and cry these tears.”

But there was such a contrast. I could also see the other side. Despite the calm and content in my soul, on the outside the world, the harsh reality of Soviet life, often bore unpleasantly down on me. I saw a demeaning and denigrating way of life, I saw how the individual was downtrodden, humiliated, and despised, what little worth human values had in the face of the cold gray unfeeling mechanical Soviet machinery. Yet I also understood that it was only a façade. That it was artificial and therefore destructible, it could never really crush or beat down the true hope and love that could be nurtured in the heart if people so desired. There was nothing “out there” that could defeat what was “in here” if what was “in here” came from a courageous and willing heart (guided by Knowledge). So the outward rigors and deprivations of Soviet life did not faze me, I saw them as surmountable hurdles, not vast stone walls or iron hurdles that could not be brought down. The Iron Curtain was only an illusion after all. A figment of the imagination built to create the semblance of estrangement and alienation, separating men from men, women from women, women and men from each other. In actual fact it did not exist, it did not exist inside, it did not stop me from pursuing my dream of carving out a life for myself here, “behind” it.

A few days before I was due to leave, I and Ivan went to a dog show and then walked in the woods, I was in awe of their beauty. I loved the birch tree groves, the way the slender, silver trunks stretched skyward, so exquisitely pale and alluring. Later I thought of a silver birch grove as my temple, it was the place I felt most in contact with my inner spirit, with the Source of all that connected me to the rest of the universe, this was where I could practice Stillness.

The woods were warm and moist, the birch trees so tender and lovely as we walked in the lush green. I felt as though I could have wandered there forever, sleeping in the long cool grass, admiring the pretty wild flowers, the pale birch tree bark, and the abundant foliage, smelling the scent of the woods and feasting on nature.

I spent the evening with Ivan, Irida and Alek. Ivan and I walked arm in arm in the scented evening air, everything so green and beautiful. I wrote in my diary later: “It had just rained, the sun was setting, the sky aglow, the rain clouds dispersing in the soft, pink hazy light. Occasionally I caught a glimpse of burning orange through the trees, the tops of the old, heavy stone, beautiful buildings were picked out in detail by the sinking sun. In the park the air was fresh and washed clean by the rain, full of the scent of apple blossom, lilac, damp grass, and earth; the scent hanging in the still evening air, full of the promise of warm summer languid days still to come, still more refreshing rain storms and beautiful, peaceful, long Moscow evenings such as these.”

There had been no vodka the last time I saw him, which was probably just as well. The tears he searched my eyes for were not there. They may have been brimming somewhere far enough below the surface, but there was nothing to trigger them and make them flow. I kept them well hidden and realized the futility of indulging in harrowing farewells. He told me he didn’t want me to leave, that he would miss me. But both of us knew the impossibility of our being together, that I was to go back to my other world from where I was unlikely to ever return. Of all the places in the world to leave, this was the one to which I had the least likelihood of ever returning. He told me he loved me as a friend. I promised to return, I promised to write, but would I be able to come back? Did we have a future? This was something I, neither of us, could know.

On the plane back to the States, I reflected on what had been. It had been lovely while it lasted, but now it was time to get back on with real life. I was emerging from a dream. It was as though I had been in a fantastical world conjured up by my imagination and now I was waking up. That world was dissipating like a fog, the wisps slowly turning into nothing as they evaporated in the morning sun. It had all been an illusion, but I needed time to recover. I needed time to regain my breath after my rollicking roller coaster ride, a ride that had turned the world as I previously knew it upside down. I was leaving my heart behind the Iron Curtain and things were never going to be the same again.

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