Lyudmila and her family. . . . . . became my dear friends
CAUTION, the doors are now closing. The next stop will be Yugo Zapadnaya.'' Several dozen people in heavy fur coats had already gotten on the crowded subway car, but as the doors slid closed, 15 more Russians elbowed their way in. Two young men in wild-looking Cossack hats broke into smiles as they were jammed into each other when the train started and the crowd shifted backward with a jerk. A babushka's plastic bag of eggs seemed to be in imminent danger. It was rush hour in Moscow. I had been shopping near Red Square and had lingered a little too long buying bread for dinner. Offices and factories were letting out and Muscovites were going home en masse. The car on the subway line running out from the Kremlin was packed to the very limit. My destination was the Pushkin Institute, a small university specializing in teaching Russian to foreigners. I was one of a thousand students from all over the world who lived and studied there.
Our accommodations were not the ivy-covered dormitories I had grown used to in the past four years, but still, the 13-story ``student hotel'' we shared with a small population of cockroaches had the flavor of home. Our bedrooms were small for the five of us living together, but we managed to eat, study, and sleep among lines of dripping laundry without bothering one another too much. The bathrooms were slightly primitive and the fixtures somehow didn't have the sturdiness of their American Standard counterparts. A friend of mine came to class one morning and announced he had dropped a can of shaving cream in his sink. We were unimpressed until his roommates added that the basin had split and fallen to the floor in pieces. That, they concluded, is life in Moscow.
It is a life that takes some getting used to, and all of us had some adjusting to do. The Vietnamese on our floor were amazed by the Soviet kitchen appliances and one day arrived at the Institute with six new refrigerators to be shipped to their families at home. We Americans, on the other hand, learned to stand patiently in lines for food and to curtail our speech in the vicinity of strategically located listening devices on our dorm room ceilings.
All of us, Pakistanis, Germans, Egyptians, struggled with the language. We mixed up case endings as we greeted each other on the way to class in the morning, but no one was really embarrassed. We were all there with one goal -- to polish our language skills.
Of course, there was plenty of opportunity to practice our Russian. Like most Soviet students, we attended five hours of classes six days a week. Lecture topics ranged from the uses of the imperfect verb in the past tense to Mayakovsky's revolutionary poetry to Gorbachev's initiative for peace at the Geneva summit. We were often asked to prepare dialogues about our experiences in the city using idioms and grammatical constructions we were studying that day. Most of us, college graduates or even PhD candidates in Slavic languages, considered this rather elementary until we tried.
``Excuse me please,'' I asked Sarah, a Cornell alumna who was my frequent partner in these games, ``can you tell me where the Lenin museum is located? I would like to visit it.'' Our teacher broke in quietly and pointed out that I had used the verb to visit that implied I was part of an official delegation on a formal tour of the museum. Possible, but not probable. I tried again and this time picked the right verb.
That verb came in handy when I telephoned a complete stranger and asked to visit her. She is one of the best friends of my Russian professor at home, a recent Soviet 'emigr'e. Under orders to come immediately, I found their prefab apartment complex an hour later among identical buildings on a quiet street not far from the Institute. Lyudmila and her husband, Alexander, both chemists, their grown son, daughter, and her husband live well by Soviet standards. They have a ``large apartment'' -- a tiny kitchen and three rooms that serve as studies, living rooms, or bedrooms depending on the time of day.
They welcomed me at the front door with a kiss and led me into the kitchen, the hub of life in Russian homes. All six of us wedged ourselves around the table. I sat on a stool with my back against the refrigerator and Lyudmila, two feet across the table, leaned against the stove. We were crowded, but comfortable, and the atmosphere was jovial. Tea was poured and questions began to fly.
Where did I go to college? A major in Russian and math? How utterly contrary to Soviet educational philosophy, but wonderful. Where do I live? Such a large house for four people? And then, suddenly, did I like Moscow? They were surprised to find out that this was my third trip to the Soviet Union. Just what was it, they asked with a chuckle, that kept me coming back? They themselves had contemplated leaving.
The conversation, like many that would follow, turned to religion, politics, and literature. Often their questions were about life in the United States, but just as frequently they explained things in Soviet society that puzzled me.
One evening Alexander announced that he would spend the next day at a vegetable base. In response to my confused look, he explained that every year in the fall the workers at his biochemical research institute were given a day off so they could help bring in the harvest. They loaded vegetables grown outside Moscow into huge warehouses where they would be stored (or as Alexander says, would rot) for the winter months. In the rush to industrialize, he said, a large majority of the Soviet population moved to cities to work in factories, leaving a shortage of laborers in agriculture. Even high school students were asked to pitch in. My grimace elicited the comment that farm work is a nice break from everyday routine. It even has its benefits. Alexander's daughter met her husband harvesting potatoes on a collective farm.
By the end of the semester, Lyudmila and her family had become some of my dearest friends. My circle of acquaintance, however, was not limited to them. It included a magazine editor, a journalist, a teacher of Bulgarian, a literary critic, and several professional translators. We went to restaurants, concerts, and theater performances together.
One friend told me about the icons he restored in a local church and proudly showed me the collection of angels and Madonnas that adorns the walls of his apartment. His five-year-old daughter shyly recited some of her recently composed, adult-sounding poetry and then proceeded to give me a comprehensive lesson in Russian phonetics as I read her a story. My L's, she surmised, were not quite soft enough and I accented the wrong syllables in several words. I was impressed. She had been speaking Russian only a few months longer than I!
Invitations took me to dinner at Soviet apartments four or five nights a week, but on other evenings I had to fend for myself. Local stores in the ``micro region'' provided a fairly steady supply of bread, cheese, and other staples, but for fruit and vegetables I had to venture farther afield. The Novocher-iomusky market was located two stops away on the metro. The huge building seemed to encompass many of the characteristics and contradictions of Soviet society under its arched roof.
The flowers Russians use as gifts on every occasion filled the entrance way with varied hues of red, yellow, blue, and orange. Women in kerchiefs clustered around the doors with strings of dried mushrooms and handmade lace they tried to press on shoppers. Behind them were vegetable-laden tables manned by people from all over the Soviet Union -- Georgians, Uzbekis, and Muscovites from the local state farm. At harvest time they sold shiny red apples, peppers, apricots, nuts, pears, cucumbers, and, of course, the ever-present cabbage and potatoes. Midwinter, when fruits and vegetables disappeared from stores, these ``socialist'' merchants raised their prices and engaged in competitive bargaining just as any Western shopkeeper would.
I discovered one day in December that green peppers were running 40 rubles ($60) a kilogram and fruit sellers were very eager to do business. ``Devushka'' (the name for all women from 15 to 60), a Georgian called to me in slow, accented Russian, ``come try these wonderful apples.'' He cut a slice and handed it to me. Farther down the aisle, a woman surrounded by barrels of fish and honey offered me a pickled flower stem. That I could not resist. It was quite good and I smiled indicating so. Her gold false teeth glittered as she grinned in return.
I left the market laden with bags of carrots, tomatoes, beans, and radishes, the first I had seen in weeks. The tomatoes, alas, were a little squashed when I got home. It was rush hour again and the metro was jammed. But crowded subways, like priests waving incense in icon-filled churches, little girls in big red bows skating down icy sidewalks, and that distinctive smell of cabbage that hangs over most buildings, are all part of the Moscow experience.