Monday, March 10, 2008

Russian Affair, Part 6

Just shoved from the door of a bus and standing ankle-deep in slush on a strange street in St. Petersburg, I felt confused and afraid. I began walking toward the center of the city and passed an impromptu flea market. A boy ran up to me, waving a sheaf of mimeographed illustrations. I stopped and looked at them. They appeared to be of Kalashnikov machine guns, pistols and - possibly - grenade launchers. The boy pointed to a man standing in front of the open trunk of a Mercedes-Benz. I hurried on, wondering how this country had gotten so out of control.

Russia appeared to be going insane in 1994. The value of the ruble was tumbling dramatically, from one day to the next. Criminals and prostitutes seemed to operate freely and openly everywhere. I was alarmed, but I was also fascinated. Russia had gotten my attention, and soon I would be seduced.

Maybe it was the rhythm of their language; maybe it was the romantic severity of their weather; or maybe it was my roots in eastern Poland that caused me to fall in love with the Russian people. Sometimes I would find myself sitting around a table pushed up close to a warm stove, my ears still burning from the cold outside, sipping tea and listening to others talking in a tongue I could not understand, and I would be hurtled back in time and halfway around the world to the kitchen of my great-grandparents - my Babu and Jadgi - and I would feel I had come all the way back home.

In the morning in Novokuznetsk, the sidewalks flow with people headed to work. I liked to walk against the current and watch the parade of faces: some old, some gleeful, some tough, some drunk, some tired, each with its own story. The word Beauty conjures many images, the first of which for me is the oval of a woman's face, framed by the fur of her hat, her cheeks ever-so-slightly reddened by the cold. There may be no expression, but the eyes tell everything. I saw in so many of these eyes sadness and resignation, but also strength and perseverance.

I came to know many of the faces, and the stories behind them. I tell you about Edvard and Nadejda next.

("Olya," oil on cardboard, 1998, by Ivan Bacharev)

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