by Evelyn D. Reuckert
Foreign Service families not surprisingly include children, as so clearly pointed out in the article by Robin Matthewman also carried in this issue. The author, with her family, likewise had a tour in the Soviet Union at a time when living conditions were not the easiest. They coped, however, and coped well.—Ed.
In 1976 when my husband was assigned as deputy principal officer at the U.S. consulate general in Leningrad, USSR, our children Randy and Monica were indignant at having to miss our country’s bicentennial celebrations. But by fall, when they entered the Leningrad branch of the Anglo-American school of Moscow, things were getting interesting. There, amid the clutter and debris of the cellar of the consulate general building, two American teachers taught kindergarten through eighth grade to a handful of American children. They also attempted to teach some Iranian children who spoke little English.
On cold mornings, carrying bags of sandwiches made with salami on heavy Russian bread, the children would dash downstairs and jump into the back of a van with the other students, rattling around the icy streets while the Russian driver risked head-on collisions at every turn. During winter recess they built ice slides in the consulate’s grimy courtyard. In the courtyard during the summer everyone played volleyball or sat around a barbecue pit the Marines had built.
The consulate provided the school with a Russian language teacher whose lessons the students employed on walks with their American teacher. Randy and Monica were great shoppers; from vendors on the street they bought hot meat patties and brought home to be stored in the freezer the ice cream that Russians eat all year. At the nearby post office Randy practiced his developing language skills conversing with the postmistress while purchasing beautiful postcards and commemorative stamps of the Russian cosmonauts. At shops on Nevsky Prospect he bought official portraits of Lenin and Brezhnev and maps of the Russian army’s maneuvers in the Second World War. He found paperweights with Lenin’s signature and one commemorating the Aurora, the battleship that fired the first shot in the Russian revolution. His prize acquisition was a bust of Lenin studiously perusing his papers that still looks down upon us from the library shelves in our retirement home.
Monica was not out on the streets as often as he, but with Randy she ice-skated and went to movies in converted churches. On a trip to Austria, after she announced that Vienna’s St. Stephen’s cathedral was a “working church,” we explained to her that in Austria all churches were “working churches.” Back in Russia, a local consulate employee gave Monica a pair of real Russian ballet slippers and she received invitations from the daughters of other diplomats. However, a horseback riding lesson in a village outside Leningrad proved less than enjoyable; the riding instructor was a former Cossack who placed her atop a huge stallion where she hung on for dear life. She showed no further interest in horses!
The children loved to skateboard through the Victory Arch leading onto the sloping stones of the nearby Winter Palace Square where one could imagine that the doomed Tsarevich watched the fun from a Palace window. I realized that my fourteen-year-old son had sneaked out to prowl the city during the White Nights when I saw photographs he had taken of bridges over the Neva River which are only lifted at two a.m. In another example of what a mother doesn’t know not hurting her, Randy took a photograph while standing on the frozen surface of the Mioka Canal. With their school friends the children created a funny photo album, showing them as the grubby American “hooliganki” that they were. They titled it “Four Leningrad Associates.”
Because of the crowds parading toward the Winter Palace during October Revolution celebrations, the side streets around our apartment building were blocked by trucks. But Randy circumvented this by crawling under the vehicles and emerging onto the broad Nevsky Boulevard. With a square of red cloth nailed to a stick, which he had purloined from a truck fender, he waved the symbol of communism and, shouting “Slava Sovietsky Soyuz” (Hail to the Soviet Union). With hundreds of others, he marched past his father, who was standing with other diplomats on the reviewing stand. I still have that red cloth.
At a program hosted by the red-scarfed Young Pioneers, the children were most impressed by the kindness and good manners of the Russian children, but there was no question of sending Randy to a Russian school. He would have had to trade his American jeans, which were his identity, for a uniform. So, when he completed eighth grade at the end of his first year in Leningrad, he did ninth grade work by correspondence with the University of Nebraska. At a desk in the corner of the schoolroom he wrote papers that were transmitted by pouch to an instructor in Lincoln, and returned with high grades and encouraging comments. When they returned to the Washington, D.C., suburbs, Monica, who had missed only the two middle school years, picked up where she left off, but Randy found high school boring; he had developed what was to become a lifelong fascination with Russia. In the course of working on graduate degrees he returned to Leningrad State University, later writing a thesis on the tutor to Tsar Alexander II.
We felt we could not leave Russia without having visited Lenin’s tomb. So, on Red Square, followed closely by guards taking care that the children behaved respectfully, the four of us circled Lenin’s glass-enclosed coffin. In the final summer of our Leningrad tour, the teachers held a graduation ceremony at the Consulate’s beautiful little dacha in the Leningrad suburbs. There, all the children received diplomas from the Moscow school. They are reminders still of the great adventure all of us had.