Sometime in the spring of ’78, I was taken out of first grade in Moscow because my parents told me we were going to take a trip. They neglected to mention we weren’t coming back. My memories of that time are fragmented and inseparable from my parents’ retellings and photos taken by friends and family. Still, some things have stayed with me through these past forty years which I’m pretty sure were lived firsthand.
The sailor’s outfit my mother made for some school event which was the wrong shade of blue, making me stand apart from my classmates—the teacher threatening to cut my curls short—the hot bubliki bought from a kiosk as reward for surviving a trip to the doctor—being held down so the dentist could drill at my teeth with no anesthetic—mooning passing trains with Pavlik in Pushkino.
In Rome, while waiting to be allowed into the US: running back to the pensione we were living in, needing to take a shit in the worst way and not making it. Then, taking off my soiled underwear and throwing it out the window so as not to be found out. They never found out.
In Billerica, Massachusetts: trying chocolate milk for the first time in school—not being allowed to go to the bathroom except for proscribed times—going to ESL—being put a grade back because I knew no English but knowing every curse word—and using many—less than a year later.
Countless times at my parents’ table with them and their friends yelling about the horrors of the old countr—seeing a Time story about John Lennon’s assassination and mixing him up with the founder of the Soviet Union—my mother telling me about what a happy child I’d been. But that was before we moved to America. I have no memory of being happy; I have to take her word for it.
My father used to tell me about how when he was in school, the heroes and villains in history books would change from year to year, depending who fell in or out of favor in the Soviet hierarchy. I think about that a lot these days. I wonder whether school children today will become inured to the daily lies and absurdities emanating from the White House the way my parents’ generation was in response to Politburo fantasies. Being deceived and acting like it’s normal has become a way of life for many. That’s the way it was in the Soviet Union for seventy-five years and many in today’s Russia wish it were so again.
At the coffee shop the other day, a woman I know asked me what I thought of the turmoil in my home country. Her boyfriend is from Russia and is in the process of applying for his green card. He’s worried that with the tensions between the two countries his status will be imperiled. I told her to tell him to hang onto his Russian passport—at the rate we’re going here, it’ll be more valuable to him than a US one.
When we left forty years ago we were stripped of our Soviet citizenship. When people ask whether I’ve ever been back, I tell them there’s nowhere for me to go back to because the country I’m from no longer exists. But now, bits and pieces of that long-gone place make regular appearance online. The Soviet Union has reemerged in some weird cyber-ghost form. So much of the art of disinformation pioneered and perfected in the Evil Empire is on proud display on all our many screens now.
But I have no plans to leave the country newly-minted novelist Sean Penn calls “a shopping mall with a flag”. Where the hell could I go?
Strangely enough, my parents’ favorite place is neither in Russia nor in America. They love Italy and have returned there countless times over the years. This June I’ll be joining them for a week in Fiesole. We can toast the anniversary of our immigration from one of our pitstops along the way. I’ll try not to shit my pants this time.