Once upon a time I was afraid of Russia: that was during the Cold War era, when my fourth-grade teacher Miss Doris Newbold told our class that Titusville, Pennsylvania (pop.8,000+) was tenth on the list of cities to be bombed by the Soviet Union. I did not question the logic of her pronouncement. I knew that my town had a steel mill; my mother Esther and my uncle Paul both worked there. She claimed that our production of this product made us vulnerable. Who was I to question her higher authority? So after class I ran the two blocks to my home on Second Street and scrambled down the wooden steps to our basement. The basement had an outer room with windows and a cement floor, but in the very back, near the furnace, was a small narrow oblong space, all of dirt. I ducked in and crouched on the floor. If the bomb hit, I just might be saved.
Unfortunately, there was enough light coming into the room that once my eyes adjusted, I could see spider webs festooning the low ceiling—lots of them. I didn’t wait long to see what kind of spiders might have made them. I pulled myself up and headed back through the cellar’s main room, with its electric wringer washer and its wooden shelves sagging with hundreds of jars of colorful canned goods. My grandmother Ruby was in the kitchen, as usual, and when she saw me emerging from the basement, eyes tear-stained and school dress grimy, she exclaimed,
“Why Susan, whatever is wrong?”
Usually I came home from school in a happy mood, as I had good grades and liked nearly all of my classmates. But today I was disheveled and in tears.
“Miss Newbold said we are going to be bombed by Russia!”
Ruby quickly grabbed the bottom of her blue calico apron and pulled it up over her face. At the time I thought she was wiping the sweat from her face, as she had been stirring a pot of something on a hot stove, but I realize now that she must have been laughing. She was always very careful about not hurting any of her five granddaughters’ feelings.
“No, dear. I think that is hardly possible. Why don’t you sit down and have a piece of cake and we can talk.”
While I am no longer afraid of Russia, somewhere, subliminally, I still view it as “other”: other to my life, other to my way of thinking. And although I am curious about that country and though I love to travel, I have no desire to go there. That must be the result of an atavistic fear stemming back to my Elm Street School Days.
This holiday, after our two older sons, one daughter-in-law, and three granddaughters left, I had planned a trip to southern Utah with a visiting Fulbright scholar from Russia, Tamara Sukacheva. While I would have preferred to be in Moab with warmer weather (it was 15 degrees there in the morning), I had a chance to learn more about the country and people that I once feared.
Tamara Sukacheva is a mathematical logician, a professor at a university in Novgorod, Russia’s oldest city. Now she is in Salt Lake City, developing a mathematical model for predicting climate change in sea ice. She is fifty-eight years old, has been widowed for ten years, and lives with her daughter’s family, sharing a room with a three-year-old grandson. She does not drive a car, and in the summers she takes the bus to her dacha in the country twice daily to care for her garden. Her dacha, by the way, is a very small shack with no plumbing, set on a treeless plain with a small plot of land behind it. Her mother lives near her as does her thirty-four year old son Daniela. (I have a thirty-four year old son, Daniel.)
Since I am determined to stay as active as I can during my retirement, I have returned to Utah’s Fulbright Board. We plan activities for Fulbrighters coming here from other countries. In November I had a brunch for people and then we visited the Native Elder Show at the Deer Valley ski area, where our guests could learn about Navajo weaving and crafts. They loved meeting the native elders and some were able to try weaving with these beautiful women. Tamara came and a few weeks later fed me lunch at her apartment: borscht and blini. Both were delicious. When I learned that she had seen nothing of Utah outside of downtown Salt Lake and the University of Utah, I invited her to come with us to Moab after Christmas.
“Great!” she proclaimed.
I picked her up on New Year’s Eve and brought her to our house. We went to a neighborhood party that night. She brought gifts for us and for our neighbors: small baskets made of birch bark filled with candy. Novgorod, it seems, is the birch bark craft center of the world. She showed me many pictures of the beautiful things made there, including shoes. At one time the nobility wore shoes made of animal skins, while the serfs had birch bark shoes—they lasted about one week. I also learned that the New Year is the most important holiday in Russia. It lasts a week and ends on 7 January, with the celebration of Russian Orthodox Christmas. So I was glad that we could take her to a celebration. She had never had guacamole, salsa, nor ricotta and spinach stuffed chicken thighs. She took several pictures of the buffet table.
I did find it something of a struggle to communicate with her. Tamara speaks very little English, and I have about twenty words of Russia—I only know those because I used to teach Slavic literature in translation. We did well, though, using gestures and expressions and repeating things often.
We have had multiple visitors from other countries over the years, most of them professors associated with Fulbright. It remains an embarrassment when our guests see our house. Though it is small by Park City standards (about 2700 square feet), it would be huge almost anywhere else on the planet. I tried to explain to Tamara that this is a small not a large (velike) house, but to no avail. What I said made no sense to her. Even our small guest bedroom (12 by 14 or so) was, to her, a large space.
On New Year’s Day I packed up a box and a cooler of food and we headed to Moab, where we stayed at the Gonzo Inn. The suite had a pull-out bed in the living room and a small kitchenette. I knew that while when I have lived overseas on Fulbright grants I was wealthy, Fulbrighters coming here have sticker shock. They have enough to get by but little left for extras, like restaurants. We had breakfasts in our room and took lunches with us.
Tamara found Arches and Canyonlands both “very interesting.” She had learned about our national parks on the Internet, and while Russia has a few of them, her country has nothing like our vast network of public spaces. We were able to see quite a bit in our few days there, but I always forget how far apart things are in this state. Tamara loves to walk, but hiking was limited because some of the trails were icy. We walked to the Windows Arches and partway to Delicate Arch, and we walked to the meteor crater in Canyonlands, because Bll is fascinated by the rock formations there. We took other walks along the park roads; there is little traffic now and the roads were ice free. During our time we saw few other visitors, a plus I think; most of those that we encountered were from Asia.
We visited the Green River overlook and Dead Horse Point, where the state of Utah has built a very nice museum. I don’t think I had ever seen the parks dusted with snow before; they are magnificent. The snow outlines the myriad rock contours, highlighting their strange shapes, and the shadows are bluer, deeper.
Our inn had a Jacuzzi, which I also called a “hot tub.” Tamara had heard Jacuzzi before but not “hot tub,” which she continually pronounced “hot butt.” When I proposed trying it our first night, she promptly took all her clothes off and wrapped a towel around her body. She grabbed the soap and shampoo from the bathroom.
“I am ready!”
“Where is your bathing suit?”
Before we left on our excursion I had told her to bring a bathing suit.
“I need bathing suit? We go swimming?”
I finally made her understand that in America, we wear bathing suits to the “hot butt.” And when I realized that she planned to take a shower at the Jacuzzi when we were finished, I also explained (laboriously) that there was no shower there.
Not so in Russia, I learned. Novgorod has many “banias,” or public baths, where people bathe naked and then shower after. Aha, I thought, a small light dawning: that is why at my health club in Park City I recently saw a sign reading,
“VISITORS MUST WEAR BATHING SUITS IN THE SAUNA.”
Some poor unsuspecting Russian (Eastern European, etc.) must have walked in wearing only a birthday suit.
She loved soaking in the tub. Afterwards she got out and stamped her feet in the snow.
“This bring good health.”
Conversing together became slightly easier toward the end of our trip. I learned that while Tamara and her family lack some of our material goods, they are rich in love and food. Families remain close there, supporting one another always. When the old wooden fence around her dacha fell down, her son and his friends spent a weekend there putting up a new metal one. Her living arrangements with her daughter seem to work quite well, despite their small space, and her daughter’s family is building a home where Tamara will have her own bedroom. It is different there, though: she showed me pictures of the house in its present state. The family works on it as their money and time allow; they are not taking out a mortgage from the bank so that they can have the house NOW. Her twelve-year-old grandson’s greatest joy comes from his music. He is in a band where players play traditional Russian instruments. She showed me a picture of this large group: it looked like something from the Fifties here. All the members were wearing folk costumes. They are raising money to go to a band competition in Estonia. Somehow this seems like a better choice than being immersed in social media here as many (though not all) teens are here. I think in general Russians are more innocent than we are.
But it is easy to make these worn comparisons. The truth is much more complex.
Tamara would not say anything negative against Putin when we asked her.
“He is a very clever men, but the people around him are not clever.”
Maybe that’s a holdover from the Soviet period, not criticizing leaders. She did tell us that she can’t understand why so many Russian people are still so poor, as the country is very wealthy in agricultural and mineral resources. I suspect it is because Russia went from feudal to modern times, skipping the Renaissance and Enlightenment ages that did so much to grow the middle class in the West. My attempts to ask her about that, though, were futile, so we went back to talking about our respective grandchildren. That’s universal.
I envy her her geographically close family and her personal strength, surviving as a widow for over a decade. She has been remarkably successful in what is, in Russia as here, a male-dominated profession. She laughs about this. When she went to a conference in Poland, she was the only professor who did not have to share a room with someone else. That was because she was the only woman there. I know from my semester teaching in Bulgaria that professors in the Eastern bloc have very low salaries and heavy workloads, so this Fulbright grant has provided a wonderful opportunity for her to do nothing but her research. I discovered that her sponsoring American professor has not even met with her yet, but as I had the same experience in Montenegro I was not surprised. With her ever positive spirit, she has seized this chance and works constantly on her project. While I could not always read her face, I found her to be very warm. She always stood very close to me, smiling.
I was exhausted by the end of our trip, probably because of the effort it took to explain things, but I found learning about her world fascinating. I did not have to come home and hide in the crawl space under our house; Russia is no longer “other.”
A very happy New Year to all.