Saturday, March 5, 2022

SOLSC 2022 #5 - Russian remembrances


It is March 2022 and time for the
Every single day, for all thirty-one days of March,
writers will share stories.
Thank you, Two Writing Teachers, for creating this supportive community 
of teacher-writers!

The Russian invasion of Ukraine is beyond horrific; the news is so despairing. Why? Why? Why? 

What brings a 'leader' to destroy people and homelands in search of more...more what? 

What is this depravity about? 

In Summer 1981, I visited what was then "The Soviet Union," spending a week in Moscow and followed by a summer language institute in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg). I was a Russian and Politics double major in college. I loved Russian literature especially - Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Turgenev, Chekhov, Pushkin, and more. These past days, I am flooded with memories, snippets, wisps of moments of my visit to Russia, as I struggle to process the tragedy unfolding in Ukraine.

Let me share ten of these fleeting images -

солдат  (soldier)
We took a train from Finland to Moscow; as soon as we crossed the border into Russia, the train came to an immediate stop. Soldiers dressed in full military gear and carrying large guns surrounded the train, inspecting. They were instantaneously everywhere - I heard footsteps running/pounding on top of the train cars, others seen from my cabin window positioned alongside the train, a good number of soldiers came onto the train itself, and opened cabin doors, demanding to check our passports. I felt instantaneously so very alone and far from home. Terrifying.

отвертка  (screwdriver)
I learned this Russian word that summer but didn't retain it, hahaha - I had to look it up for this post. We were in Moscow, having arrived a day or two before; we were spending one week in a hotel here before our summer institute in Leningrad. A classmate and I were searching for a way to open up a battery case for a radio. (Many of us had brought short-wave radios with us.) We realized we needed a screwdriver (and he, unlike me, knew the word in Russian); we wandered down the hall of the hotel, knocked and simultaneously opened a door, which we thought was the custodian/support. (What was the word on this door? Why did we think we could/should do this?) What a sight we saw/discovered: there was a whole line of folks wearing headphones sitting at switchboards. One person rushed up to us, clearly displeased by our presence, speaking rapid-fire in Russian, demanding to know what we wanted; my friend stammered - "otbeptka?" and pointed to the broken radio he was holding. The man found a screwdriver, helped him open it/fix the problem, and we both hurried away, not looking at one another, processing the entire situation together but alone - realizing, in all likelihood, they were listening in on all the rooms in the hotel. 

Мaринa  (Maureen)
What is your name? I was stopped and asked this, on city streets, in both Moscow and Leningrad. He spoke in halting English, with a Russian accent. The exact same man, in both places. Moscow and Leningrad are more than 400 miles apart; to be stopped on the street by the same gentleman is to be made aware in very clear terms: I was being followed. I replied earnestly the first time and trepidatiously the second, "Maureen." To which he continued, both times, "ahhh - Marine? U.S. Marine?" You see, my father was an Admiral in the United States Navy when I visited the USSR in 1981... although I was simply a naive, innocent 21 year old college student, enamored with learning the language and seeing the sights, the Russians kept tabs on me during my visit. I have nightmares still about this gentleman on the city street and his question, realizing immediately and always - I was being watched, I was being tailed, I was being told - subtly? - to behave myself while visiting.

квартира  (apartment)
I was really curious about how ordinary Russians lived. One of my pals from the summer institute had visited Leningrad a time or two before, and he introduced several of us to a young Russian couple, who invited us to visit their apartment. We traveled a few stops on the metro and walked a block or two towards a 'sea' of high rise buildings, these nondescript concrete block buildings with no ornamentation or greenery - very cold and austere. We walked up a stairwell to the fifth floor, I think. I remember the apartment was small and dark, and home to an extended family - the couple/our new 'friends', a younger sibling (maybe 15 years old), and parents. The parents had a small bedroom; the couple and the sibling slept on simple beds/couches, really, in the living room. There was a tiny bathroom. The space reminded me of my college dorm room, with basically no privacy for anyone. Depressing. We had tea and biscuit crackers together, crowded around a small table in the kitchen - I remember them introducing us to the custom of swirling a spoonful of sweet jam into the hot tea. That was pretty much the extent of the adventure; it was exciting for me to see how 'ordinary Russians' lived. (In retrospect, this was the single most risky thing I did in Russia; we had all been advised by our tour leader to not befriend any Russians - in fact, to be suspicious of any overtures by supposed 'ordinary Russians'; we were there as tourists primarily, learning and practicing the language, visiting museums, etc. Yet, at the time, it felt so innocent - and, again, I was 21, an age of risk-taking. I dared to go. Thankfully, there were no negative repercussions.)

гриб  (mushroom)

This fleeting memory came to me as I chopped mushrooms for pizza last night...I remember this one day when my Russian teacher in Leningrad, a middle-aged thick-set woman who was typically very reserved and unsmiling, returned late to class after our lunch break. She was breathless with excitement, quickly explaining that she and another teacher had been in the woods behind the school, where they had found fresh ripe mushrooms - fabulous mushrooms, just ripe for picking, for eating. She was gushing with this news, full of exuberant accolades for these plump juicy treasures - and all of us burst into big smiles of supportive delight, we could not ignore her enthusiasm. I knew not how to pick a mushroom, I knew not that there were rare mushrooms, I knew not that mushrooms were some sort of gourmet delight. I only knew that class was late, mushrooms had been found, our teacher was giddy. Let's all be excited for her!

дефицит  (shortage)
I remember being surprised by the long lines for food throughout Moscow and Leningrad, that seemed to pop up out of nowhere. As a tourist, we were not subject to these shortages - we had a 'meal plan' included with our summer program. However, when I would go out on my daily walks, I saw people lined up outside a variety of small shops, hoping to purchase bread, fruit, meat. This was new for me - I had never experienced limits on food, that one might have to queue up to buy what they wanted. Worse yet, being in line did not mean that you were going to be able to purchase what you wanted - the food often ran out before those at the end of the line got close to the register, and the crowd would disperse. There were two exceptions to these shortages ...

мороженое  (ice cream) and  конфеты  (candy)

Delicious, creamy, inexpensive ice cream was available everywhere I walked. There were these adorable ice cream carts/vendors on street corners, selling the most decadent frozen delight. Chocolate and vanilla...melt in your mouth, savor, devour. Equally delightful were the penny candies - I remember so many stores and vendors selling candy, all individually wrapped in these varied, bright, colorful papers. I bought bags of these treats as souvenir gifts to share with family and friends when I returned home.

бабушки (grandmothers) I liked to go out for a walk in the surrounding neighborhood before class each day. Early morning on the city streets, I would see anonymous babushkas outside sweeping. Their heads covered in kerchiefs, wearing simple dowdy house dresses, knee socks, and old flat shoes, working with these simple straw brooms, they would sweep the steps and the walkways. Did someone ask this of them? Was this a job? 

Фото  (photo)
The photo was gone. My touring pals - all of us from U.S. colleges - were invited to visit the U.S. Embassy, for an evening meal and respite from all the 'rules' and 'confines' of day-to-day Russia; I remember someone taking a Polaroid photo of myself and my roommate with this adorable Marine; we were given the photo as a keepsake. We fell asleep with the photo on the bedside table between our two beds, and we woke up to it being no longer there. Seriously. There was only one understanding - someone had entered our room during the night, unbeknownst to both of us, and taken the photo. Again - a less then subtle warning - you are being watched.

солдат  (soldier)
We took a train from Leningrad back to Finland. All our luggage and souvenirs packed tightly into our cabins. Right before the border, the train came to a full stop and soldiers paraded on from all directions, it seemed. I remember I was wearing a skirt, which seemed innocuous until the soldier entered our cabin to inspect our belongings. We were lounging on the train cots, and he demanded we stand. I jumped up, which flipped up my skirt, in this breezy "Marilyn Monroe" way, displaying for the briefest of moments my underwear. Both of us reddened, our eyes meeting at this very moment. He nodded, and left. No inspection at all. Terrifying. Later, crossing into Finland, my cabin-mate, my friend from the summer institute shared - "Wow, that was great that the soldier didn't look into our things. I snuck something out of the country in my luggage, given to me by a friend I made in Russia." Say, WHAT?!!!!


  1. I am so glad gyou and I posted next to each other today because it is my habit to read the 2 posts prior and 1 after as my definite 3 posts to leave a comment. You adding the Russain word heading to your 10 short stories is a powerful craft move. Your details shared are so clear that I too feel the chills you must be feeling as you write. You took me for a moment to a country I have never been and a country so on my mind today. Thanks you for sharing. I tell my students, we read to understand. You helped me understand a little bit more today.

    1. Thank you for your comment, Sally. I learned so much that summer. There are so many freedoms that I took for granted before that trip.

  2. A stunning adventure, Maureen - I am in awe of your experiences and of your love for Russian language and literature. How your heart must be breaking these days, for so many reasons... decisions of leaders affect us all. As I watch the news in horror and mourning for Ukraine, I also cannot help thinking about Russian soldiers, especially young ones that I'm hearing stories about, wanting to go've brought to mind the book Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys, a novel based on her Lithuanian ancestors' experience in WWII and deportation to Siberia. We do well to remember our common humanity, in all the despair and depravity...literature does this for us...our stories do this.

    1. You are so right about remembering our common humanity, Fran. My trip seems so very long ago (and it was!) and yet so revealing about the kind temperaments of ordinary people. I am mourning for Ukraine, suffering such atrocities and pain.

  3. Maureen, this was sooooo fascinating! Wow. It starts and ends with soldier. That is telling. One of the interesting things is the shortage of bread, meat and fruit and then to see the decadent ice cream and candy available. Thanks for sharing this post, Мaринa.

    1. Thank you, Denise! Yes, unfortunately sugar seemed to be readily available. I keep thinking about the soldiers - how young they really are, how little control or say they have...oh, my, it's all just so overwhelming and sad and painful. Saying lots of prayers.

  4. Holy SH*T, Maureen! What an experience. Someone sneaking into the room and stealing the photo sends chills down my spine. Ice cream? Of all the things in abundance, this is not the one O expected to read about. BTW: I love the way you formatted this post w/ each word the center of a unique story.

    1. Thank you, Glenda! It was a chilling experience - and a marvelous, beautiful, loving experience, too; I have so many great memories...but, yes, there are aspects that haunt me more than 40 years later. This is a people that has been tamped down on/repressed always.