by Robin Matthewman
The following remarkably sensitive and perceptive account illustrates well the well-known fact that life in the Foreign Service is not always a bowl of cherries, to put it mildly. The author, now a fifteen-year veteran of service, clearly paid her dues on her first assignment abroad.
This, and other memoirs to follow in these pages, were provided through the courtesy of the Department of State’s Diplomatic Readiness Taskforce.—Ed.
My husband, Jack, likes to tease me about the Russian oil painting poised over the living room mantel, my favorite souvenir. In it, a farmer walks in front of a horse-drawn wagon piled high with hay. The vibrant red-gold foliage of the birch trees signifies it is autumn and the shadows on the snow hint the day is drawing to a close. My husband says it makes no sense to bring hay out of the woods. I argue, fiercely, that the farmer led the wagon through the woods from somewhere else and now is headed home. But Jack chuckles. He is convinced the farmer is lost and the painter confused. He has his doubts about me, too.
When I set off in 1997 with my two small sons—Robbie, almost three, and Scotty, almost one—to work in the U.S. Embassy in Moscow as an economic officer specializing in trade, most everyone who knew me or knew of me thought it a mistake. Russia was not an easy place to live under the best of circumstances, and I was going to do it by myself. My diplomatic career required that I go abroad after six years in the United States but my husband’s private sector job pulled him to stay. The domestic situation made even strangers in bus stops try to talk me out of going. In the end, Russia proved to be both a cherished sojourn and a personal struggle, with my husband’s absence always lingering as a shadow just beyond my sight.
I lived in Russia during its awkward stage, arriving when the country was only six years old. This was after the most wrenching of changes caused by the fall of the Soviet Union, but long before the nation’s future could become clear. Governments were rising and falling like a child’s sand castles. Primitively formed, quickly pounded out of existence, the remains left to be eroded by the tides. Most Russians—already robbed of their savings by inflation, their sense of security by the chaotic introduction of robber capitalism, and their optimism for the future by the clawed wrangling of the politicians for power—yearned for normality.
My husband, struck on his first visit by Moscow’s crumbling concrete block buildings, the rusted metal bars sticking out of concrete steps, and the cracked, puddle sidewalks, proclaimed it an ugly city. It also bothered him that Muscovites didn’t make eye contact when they walked by.
“I told you Moscow was a little like Mexico City and the people like New Yorkers,” I gently reminded him.
“But these people built a nuclear arsenal and sent men into space!” he replied.
Jack hadn’t read about Russia. He didn’t ponder the personal cost of seventy years of first terror, then stagnation, nor the miracle of survival and trauma of living through the transition. He just saw the physical evidence that Communism and perestroika had failed. I strained to find enchantment in the bustle. Although now choked with traffic, marred by Soviet era eyesores, and shed of many trees, Moscow’s boulevards are still attractive. I could clearly visualize the horse-drawn carriages and sleighs that once passed through the graceful arches of the pre-Revolutionary buildings. The cobblestone streets of the oldest part of town, named for the bakers, butchers, and weavers who once made them their home, now offer map stores, German toys, antiques on consignment, and outdoor peddlers of all kinds. The oldest grocery in the city, with its high arched ceilings and lovely crystal chandeliers, survived decades of state ownership to remind us of the rich merchants’ wives a century before whose elegant long skirts rustled as they sampled the tastings of caviar.
Our new home was in a row of garden apartments on the self-contained Embassy compound. We arrived at the beginning of August. The warm summer nights were marked by barbecues, soccer games, and bands of children playing tag in the tiny, incongruous patch of Americana in the midst of the ancient Russian capital. Across the street was the Russian White House, former abode of the legislature, the Duma. It was on this tall white building that Yeltsin fired in 1993 with tanks and guns. The apartments were separated from the road by a swath of grass and a red brick wall four or five feet high. A few months before I arrived, a confused Russian veteran scaled the wall, spent the night, and was found in the morning showering in the residence of the deputy chief of mission. Outside the Embassy property, but not far away, a 300-year-old church tower rang out the time in beautiful tones, warning of a different kind of security problem. People dubbed the building Our Lady of Surveillance, certain it served other purposes. But I was fond of the sound of the bells.
At work, we decided I would handle foreign trade policy. I tried to telephone my predecessor’s key contact in the trade ministry to arrange a courtesy call. Without wasting words, Alexander asked “Why?”
“Well to get to know each other,” I suggested.
“Call me back when you have something to talk about,” he answered before hanging up.
I sat for a few months staring at the silent receiver.
Gradually, issues did arise. Alexander and I talked weekly, sometimes several times a day. We arranged negotiating sessions in Moscow and Geneva and alerted each other to upcoming difficult issues. One month, I spent long hours organizing the week-long visit of a delegation that would be doing five sets of meetings in five different parts of the city. Transportation, note takers, interpreters, meals, and receptions all required organizing. The Russians in different ministries fought over who would attend; the interpreting equipment failed; the contract drivers got lost; one visitor sprained her leg and needed crutches; and my older son wet his bed each night that week, a four year-old’s response to temporary parental abandonment. Finally, the last day arrived. Alexander took a long look and said in his deep, gravelly voice, “Robin—you look tired.” I was touched he noticed.
I hired a nanny to watch the boys during the day, a gentle slip of a Filipino who, like many others from Asia and Africa, went to university on a Russian scholarship and made her way to Moscow when the Soviet Union imploded. Evenings and weekends, I was on my own. In our new surroundings, the boys grew clingy and temperamental. Scotty, still a baby, developed night terrors, crying, and shaking uncontrollably in the evening hours. Robbie stormed and fumed. Adults would generally ask him if he was making friends and he always gave the same answer:
“I have one friend. Her name is Tatiana. She lives near the house with the green roof on it.”
He meant our house in Virginia. He missed the backyard and his babysitter, and her seven-year-old granddaughter.
People who met me that first month—in the video rental shop, at the small grocery, perhaps in line at a picnic with my hands full of juice cups, small toys, shoes, children pulling and whining—saw a bedraggled, overwhelmed woman. I tried not to complain, except to my husband by phone, on those occasions when anger at the situation would rise to the surface, like the bubbles from a swimmer coming up for air.
The glorious weather was short-lived. Quickly that first year developed into a cold one. Winter set in on September 1 and defended its turf until it exhausted itself in a late April blizzard. It is no wonder that winter in Russian fairy tales is portrayed as a stern old man with a long white beard; he showers the good with treasures and fur-lined robes and he punishes the vain and selfish.
My boys did not like the cold. I grew to dread it as well, for it could cost me thirty minutes to tug all the little snow pants and jackets, heavy socks and boots, gloves, hats, and scarves onto their twisting bodies and squirmy hands and feet. My boys would weep frozen tears from the whipping wind until I relented and let them escape inside.
Perhaps they were just too small. A year later, a sledding expedition at nearby Patriarch’s Pond kept them delighted for hours. I didn’t tell the boys this lovely little park was the scene of the first sighting of the devil in Bulgakov’s novel The Master and Margarita. Children of this age are scared of demons.
“You’re scandalizing the Russian ladies,” my friend remarked on that outing when I slid down the hill with two-year old Scotty on my lap.
I glanced at the other mothers, standing tall and statuesque in their furs. “What did I do?”
“You sat on the ice. The doctors always tell them it will cause infertility to sit on something cold.” I was delighted. I began to collect Russian superstitions.
Only when the children slept could I enjoy the snowfall, standing on my front stoop in the hushed cold. On those nights when the snow crystallized like shimmering magic dust, I would put out the trash and guiltily walk down the path a few yards, luxuriating in the warm mink coat my mother had saved for me through her twenty-year exile in Southern California. I’d linger just a moment longingly, and then hurry back to the sleeping boys.
The confines of the apartment crushed at me, but in those first months it was exhausting to get out with the children in tow. They grabbed at my arms, fled from dogs, and cried if addressed by strangers. I kept breaking the wheels off strollers, American design evidently not being up to the rugged shape of Moscow sidewalks. Just crossing a large street could be a monumental effort, carrying the stroller and children down and then up the steps leading to the pedestrian underpasses.
Finally, my car arrived and we were able to branch out past our weekend trips to the nearby zoo. Now, we bundled up for the carousel rides and ice-skating at Gorky Park, puppet shows and circuses large and small. Most of all, we frequented Moscow’s musty natural history museums, full of dioramas with large stuffed animals looking ready to pounce and dinosaur skeletons and apothecary jars with embryos to hurry past.
Moscow driving can be daunting. No one heeds the lane indicators and each outing is like a bumper car adventure. Streets rarely have the same name as indicated on the map, a minor but typical form of rejection of Stalin. Once I got used to it, though, it became almost fun.
It was around this same time that the phone rang one night. I was offered a position in Washington that could reunite the family, if I was willing to curtail my tour. In the end, it didn’t work out, but the episode spotlighted for me how fleeting all opportunities can be. It was time to get out at night, to see folk dance and opera and ballet, to travel to the old cities in Russia’s Northwest, to entertain and to meet more Russians.
There was quite a lot to see. I visited Moscow’s most glamorous bathhouse (the venerable institution known as the banya) where sagging naked Turkish women savagely massaged the backs of beautiful but sharp-tongued mafia molls. They wore thong underwear and drank vodka for lunch.
One snowy weekend, I rented the Embassy’s dacha, a rambling old house surrounded by massive cedars with their boughs heavy with snow. We arranged a three-horse (troika) sled ride for the boys.
With warmer weather in the spring, we wandered more of the outdoor sights. I loved that every path we tread in Moscow echoed the footsteps of Russia’s brutal and quixotic history. The czars had intrigued and brawled behind the Kremlin walls, until Peter the Great uprooted his court of faithless boyars to the new capital of St. Petersburg. Peter’s own sister was locked up for the rest of her days behind the walls of peaceful Novodivechiy convent. I sometimes successfully lured my sons to Tsaritzino, where the ruins of Catherine the Great’s never finished palace are romantically overgrown by tangled trees and vines. It was much as I imagined Sleeping Beauty’s palace at the end of the bewitched 100 years. In Sokolniky, a park in which couples used to dance obliviously to brass band music, I could easily imagine the young Vladimir Lenin delivering fiery revolutionary speeches and handing out pamphlets.
Many other young families I knew filled their free time in Moscow with cub scouts and soccer, birthday parties and McDonalds, much as they would at home. I didn’t know what to say when questioned about my efforts to have the children see something of Russia.
“They are so young, they won’t remember a thing,” people would caution. I smiled and let them think me an eccentric.
With stumbling grammar and syntax, I submitted my experiences during my weekly Russian language classes. My tutor, Marina Andreevna, was the elegant daughter of a former Communist official who had fallen from grace. She did not teach me very much Russian. At first, I would come to each session, ready to discuss economic or political developments of relevance to my work, evoking plaintive sighs from Marina. I then switched to regaling her with cute stories about the children. I asked advice about the management of stubborn husbands, booking a hotel room, and finding scarce commodities.
On the day she brought me a small volume of her own poems, I succumbed and we began to explore literature. By then, I knew that Russians generally detested Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy’s novels were remembered as burdens from their grade school days. So, our final months were spent happily ensconced debating whether Pushkin’s beautiful wife was really to blame for the duel that cost the famous poet’s life and marveling at how Pasternak bore the humiliation heaped on him by the communist regime.
Russians cling to the little they have and poetry is their life spring. A scholar of Russian literature once told me that Russians hate when Westerners claim to know Pushkin. They worry that if foreigners understood this special part of them, it would leave Russia bereft. I felt a stab of poignancy considering this—a whole nation reduced to meaningless if an outsider were able to decipher its cultural code. I wasn’t being fair though. It is hard to be so proud and so toppled. To live in a country where the astronauts get stranded in space for 113 extra days because there is no money to bring them down. Where young soldiers are sent to Chechnya to be kidnapped or starved, and react in rage with unspeakable acts. The Russia that I lived in, with oil pipelines bursting, steel mills rusting, biological weapons in danger of leaking in decrepit warehouses, and submarines sinking with no escape craft ready was a land with very few happy endings.
But I was growing fond of the place because of its will to survive, its very inconveniences and quirks. Maybe it took a sense of the absurd. In Moscow, it is best to call the restaurant before you go, to be sure the tax police have not closed it down. You can’t make left turns on many Moscow streets, but you need to know about the wild unmarked spots where up to forty autos will make U-turns simultaneously during a break in oncoming traffic. On the banks of the Moscow River lies a fallen statue graveyard, the place for all sculptures of Lenin and Stalin and other disgraced heroes of the Soviet regime. The hot water is turned off all over the city for a month to clean the pipes. I had an American friend who, ordered to bed rest for a problematic pregnancy, faced a climb of eleven flights of stairs each time she needed to leave, for the ancient elevator in the building was entering its final throes.
My co-workers and I lived in constant low-wattage culture shock in our every day dealings with Russians and we dubbed the strange little interactions “Moscow moments.”
One day, a few of us stopped at a state-run department store to look at Russian china patterns. As we entered, a matron told us there was an electrical emergency and the store was closed. Although the lights were turned off, the salesladies all stood behind the counters quietly in the dark. No one knew when the lights would come back on. No one would show us the china. No one seemed to think the situation strange.
My friend George, an American consultant, was in the country a month when he and his wife returned from dinner to discover five large men changing the locks on the door of his apartment, located in one of the seven luxurious Gothic structures resembling enormous stone castles or perhaps the building in the movie Ghostbusters. A man named Boris stepped out, belligerently proclaimed himself the new owner by waving a piece of paper in George’s face. The men entered the apartment, arguing for hours and terrifying the American couple with threats of arrest. They left around midnight and Boris returned the next morning. In the light of day, the true story came out. Boris was the landlady’s son-in-law. Stretched for cash, she had traded apartments with him but had not informed George, who now moved to a hotel for a time.
Like George’s landlady, most Russians struggled to survive in ways we foreigners couldn’t understand. Irina was a surgeon who worked as a nanny on the Embassy’s compound because the salary was four times higher. I often wondered how the unsmiling Irina felt, taking care of the children, walking the dog and cleaning foreigners’ homes. She was fired abruptly when her employers discovered she was working the graveyard shift at the hospital then coming in sleepless to take care of the children.
And then there was Olga, a Kazakh architect acquaintance from my grad school days a few years before. She had married her Russian boyfriend and moved to Moscow the year I arrived. Her knowledge of English easily handed her a job on a U.S. Aid project. But she wanted to be an architect. She decided to quit her job only a week before the couple discovered the real estate company they were using to buy an apartment had in effect stolen their money.
During the summer, visitors came. My in-laws braved a stormy trip to St. Petersburg with nary an umbrella or warm sweater. My mother came on a determined, but unsuccessful search for real borscht, just the way her Jewish immigrant mother used to make it—a cold beet soup tangy from buttermilk or sour salt, served with sour cream. But, Russians make their borscht with meat, no tang; and worst of all, they always serve their borscht hot.
My father read through the English language paper The Moscow Times and asked: “Tell me about these GKO bonds. The interest rates are fantastic. Will the government really be able to pay the money back? Are they safe?”
“That’s the big question,” I answered. “So far, so good.”
One week later, the Russian Federation became the first government since the Ottoman Empire one hundred years earlier to default on its national bonds. The nation tottered, people scrambled to change their rubles into dollars, the value of the currency plummeted four-fold, and many banks closed their doors. Our government contacts, senior officials with twenty or thirty years seniority, saw the value of their salaries fall to less that $200 per month. Younger people, foolish enough to trust the government and the banks, lost their life savings. Restaurants emptied out. American expatriates who had come to Russia in the early 1990s to participate in the country’s rebirth finally gave up and made plans to go home.
And a month later, I could afford to rent an entire show of the famous Durov’s Animal circus for my boys’ birthday party, arranging it with the eighty-five-year-old Mrs. Durova over a glass of tea while animal trainers meandered in and out with parrots on their shoulders and boa constrictors around their necks.
My husband I both took in stray friends the second year we lived apart. Possibly it was the empty spaces in our homes that beckoned to others like a lighthouse flickering in the morning hours of the night. I had a teenager live with me to finish her senior year of high school, when her parents had to move to Kyrgyzstan. I “adopted” a Marine and reached out to others making a go of it on their own. At home, my husband took in a series of divorced colleagues. One man left cans of dog food in my pantry but apparently never brought the dog.
Jack and I talked on the phone less often. I realized that Robbie had stopped asking about the house with the green roof on it. It dawned on me that I no longer woke up angry at being left on my own, a stranger in this paradoxical land. The boys and I had our routine now, we had our rhythm. People no longer looked at me with pity, and no more did I feel Jack’s absence as a loss.
This was the dangerous part of living apart—the gradual drift.
Jack was coming to enjoy his trips, though. He made friends with the proprietor of a small tobacco shop and did shots of vodka with the shashlik (shish-kebab) vendors at the Iamailova craft market (I dubbed it the mother of all crafts fairs). During my second September, he arrived with fishing pole in hand. I brought him to the broad curving river near one of the Embassy dachas, in an area called Serebrenney Bor, where fishermen were always trying. It was a pretty, wooded spot. Across the river through the trees peeked a crumbling church and bell tower. As we ambled back to the car, we saw a grizzled Russian fisherman. Jack inquired when he had last caught a fish. The old man asked to see Jack’s equipment. They bent graying heads together over the tackle box. The Russian was bemused by the strange assortment of foolishness. But Jack made him a present of a couple of high-tech lures, and you could tell they both walked away pleased.
He returned in December for the holidays. He built a six-foot snowman for the boys. We spent Christmas day at a friend’s at the edge of the city. We walked on the frozen pond to ice fish, then warmed up with cocoa and freshly baked cookies. Somehow the chill in the family began to evaporate. On New Year’s Eve, we saw the Bolshoi Ballet’s lovely Nutcracker production, then dined with friends and strolled out into Red Square to see the fireworks.
Jack and I held hands as we shivered through the snow, and discussed my move home in six months time. It would be good for us, and good for the boys who now thought it was natural to live behind a wall, to wear an identification badge and key around their necks, and to have nannies to order around.
It was time. In March, when Russians turned out in menacing droves to protest U.S. involvement in the NATO bombing of Serbia because of Kosovo, I was already preparing to go. Passions calmed quickly, but the red paint thrown at the Embassy walls remained.
I sensed I might never return to Russia and I grasped for tiny pieces of the country to bring home for memories. I bought rugs and stamps, old newspapers, etched tea glasses in silver holders, geometric Uzbek pottery, baby quilts, blue and white Gjzhel pottery, innumerable chess sets, tiny lacquer boxes showing fairy tale vignettes, musical instruments, and dolls of all kinds—small wooden carved ones with heads that moved delightfully and large cloth ones to hang on the wall, with exquisitely detailed clothing lined with real mink. I snatched up anything made in the Arkhangelsk style, painted in tan and red depicting reindeer.
And I brought back five black and white photos depicting Russians in the Far North, leading a horse with a bicycle, trudging through the snow with water buckets, walking on bridges with empty fishing baskets. These photos now hang in the hallway leading to my children’s room. As the rest of the house slumbers, I often stand gazing at the photos with their enchanted northern lighting.
Shortly before we departed Moscow for home, I dragged the boys down to Red Square to shoot photos of them in front of St. Basil’s Cathedral, the famous church that explodes with colorful onion shaped domes. They did not want to go. I wrestled them bodily into the car and then bribed them with ice cream to pry them out of it upon arrival. Still, cooperation was elusive. Robbie, soon to be five years old, scowled in every picture and would not stay close enough to his brother for me to get a good shot. Scotty, almost three, wouldn’t leave the stroller.
As I gave up and walked them back to the car, Robbie asked why it was so important to me. I thought to tell him that we had made it on our own. That we passed through a special time and place that would never be again. That it was difficult but it wasn’t a mistake. I looked around at the center of the city, at the ancient Kremlin gate behind us and the incongruous baby blue and yellow buildings lining the cobblestone street.
I simply said, “I want you to remember later that you once lived in Russia.”
“Oh,” Robbie said in that way children have of repeating your words to imprint them in their hearts. “Because we once lived in Russia.”