Friday, March 14, 2008

Russian Affair, Part 10

(Lera, left, and Lindsay in Moscow, May 1999)

I first met Lera 10 years ago, when she was 15 years old and interviewing for a chance to come here - to Washington, Pa. - on an exchange program. But I had seen her a couple of years earlier, while touring her school. It was hard to forget her - tall and such an uncommonly beautiful child with such a command of the English language at such a young age.

Lera was one of a dozen finalists for a program sponsored by the Observer-Reporter and the Kuznetsk Worker that would send two students from her city to ours for a couple of weeks, to live in American homes and attend school here, and to return and write about their experiences for the newspaper. In the interview, I asked her to tell me a little about her home life. It was April then, and snowing every day. She told me she had the most important chore in her household: to grow tomato seeds into plants. She said she had to be very careful to keep the seeds pots watered, but not too wet, and to make sure the plantings got sunlight but were not too close to the windows to freeze. She said that if she failed, her family would suffer dearly, so important to their survival was their summer garden.
Her parents were both medical doctors, who were, oddly enough, among the lowest-paid workers in Russia at the time. It makes no sense, but a worker in a fast-food restaurant could make twice the money as a surgeon.

Lera did come here, attended classes at McGuffey High School, went to the Homecoming Dance and a football game, experienced pizzas and malls. She was astounded at the deer that wandered in the yard of her hosts, the Logue family, my next-door neighbors. "Why aren't you shooting them and eating them?" she wondered.
When I took my neighbors Linda Logue and her daughter, Lindsay, to Russia in May 1999, we saw Lera in Moscow, where her parents had moved in search of better jobs. She gave me a copy of the New Testament in Russian, to sharpen my reading skills.

We never saw Lera again. Her e-mails to Lindsay stopped. Some friends in Novokuznetsk had heard that she was planning to immigrate to Israel.
She would be 25 years old now. I wonder about her; wonder if she was able to avoid being exploited or demoralized in the harsh environment that surrounded her; wonder if she is still the innocent, sincere and thoughtful person she was as a teenager.

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