It is February, my first month in Moscow, and I need to meet people.
So, apparently, does Tanya. She stands alone in the center of the platform. Though her gaze is serene, it is clearly a mask. The Russian phrase “a woman of a Balzacian age” comes to mind.
I go up to her, ask if she’s come for the Sunday hiking club.
“Oh, I was worried. I thought I had the wrong place,” she says. Tanya, too, has read about the club in the Moscow Times. She tells me she used to hike in the Urals. “So if I can do it as a kid …”
She also says that she used to swim in a “wonderful pool,” which the government has torn down to build a church. “I don’t know why people are so religious all of a sudden.”
All of a sudden? She’d returned to Moscow the month before—after four years in the U.S. “I ended up in this really small town in Georgia,” she says.
But, before I can ask what drew her there of all places, eight of the club’s regular hikers appear. The two of us follow them out of the metro station, onto a commuter train. Soon, lifeless villages—small houses with plastic-wrapped windows, a shut-down factory or two—drift past the windows.
I’m not sure why Tanya and I are the only ones talking—perhaps because there is no sky. She tells me that Miass, her hometown, was one of those Soviet cities that sprang up after World War II, a truck-manufacturing center with "intelligentsia"—her parents among them—imported from elsewhere. “But there was nothing in the shops, not meat, cheese—you had to queue for a year to buy a piece of furniture. We were told, ‘Work as you can, get what you wish.’ We told ourselves, ‘Pretend to work and they pretend to pay you.’”
But she supposes her parents were better off than most, able to afford her piano and ballet lessons. “Miass wasn’t so bad. There were lots of cultural activities. And how I dreamed of becoming a ballerina!”
To tell the truth, I am perplexed. Has she lost contact with her Russian friends? And how did an aspiring ballerina, a musical child with her cultured background, end up in redneck Georgia?
I ask if she’s married.
My question doesn’t appear to surprise her. “Yes,” she says. “Three times.” She actually smiles. Her last marriage was to an American—but that is over.
That Sunday, as we crunched over snow-crusted fields, Tanya talked mostly about her marriage to Cliff, her American husband. Over the next few months, as we become confidants, the puzzle of what led to putting her name on a Russian-bride site fell into place.
Back in the Soviet period, a dutiful daughter from a good family was expected to pursue higher education, which for Tanya meant engineering college in Moscow, as was the case for an army of other young women. “I was always good at maths, the exact sciences, so I didn’t question my parents.”
But, in effect, she was preparing for a career in which there were no materials. This was 1986; Gorbachev’s government was no longer rescuing unprofitable enterprises. “Perestroika means restructuring,” she says wryly.
Nor did she want to live in Moscow. She missed her parents terribly—until, that is, she met Slava at a dorm party. “He seemed a responsible person. And, of course, I was in love, thought it would be forever.” The couple married two months before she graduated, in 1990.
Then, in ’91, with the breakup of the Soviet Union, everything truly disappeared—cheap sausage, the idea of a Big Daddy in the Kremlin, money. “Though at first we all thought—especially we young people—that there would be democracy, freedom. Even Slava went down to the White House to cheer Yeltsin on the tanks.”
Tanya, as a graduated construction engineer, switched from waiting on line for supplies to queuing for baby food when her daughter, Vika, was born. Meanwhile, Slava, who had worked as a grocery-store manager during the Soviet years, found himself out of work.
“Actually, it was somewhat convenient,” she admits. Over the next eight years, she took on a string of secretarial jobs while Slava stayed home to take care of Vika. “My salary wasn’t much, a few hundred dollars. But Slava! He would tell my daughter, ‘Your mother is rich.’”
Neither were able to work at the level for which they’d been educated. It was a typical situation. By the time they divorced, in 2000, Slava still couldn’t pay child support—nor could Tanya afford to move out. “At least we had two rooms. Many divorced couples had no choice but to stay living in a single-room apartment.”
In 2001, frustrated with penury, she met the man who would become her second husband. Andrey produced made-for-TV movies, swirled in artistic circles, and was “interesting,” she says cautiously. “Though in my heart of hearts I knew it wouldn’t work. He hated children and he drank a bottle of vodka a day. He always said he couldn’t get over some girlfriend who dumped him.”
For the next two years, she had a passionate, on-again, off-again relationship with the histrionic Andrey. “It was in 2003 when we had a big breakup. I only put my name on the site out of spite—I had to get away from Andrey’s cruel words. So, when Cliff starting writing me from Georgia, I didn’t encourage him all that much.”
Cliff was undeterred. That fall, he invited Tanya to meet him in St. Petersburg. “It was cheaper than coming to Moscow. And I thought, What the heck.”
Both that weekend and the next (when she brought her daughter), Tanya was impressed by the “tall and handsome” American. “He acted the perfect gentleman. He kept showing me pictures of his big house, said we could work as partners in his contracting business. Of course, my friends said that I only wanted to move to America. But I saw an opportunity.”
Yet when she told Andrey she was leaving he tried to commit suicide. She and Andrey got married right then. The marriage, her last-ditch attempt to “save” him, lasted two months.
Through all of this, Cliff kept writing. When he found out she was divorced, “he said that if I was still interested we should try.”
Now, on the hike, Tanya tells me simply that in January 2004, when she arrived in Georgia, her American husband seemed strange, controlling. “And he built only two houses a year. Something to do with taxes, he said. He would work two months, then for the rest of the year do nothing.”
“Well, watch TV and shoot squirrels.”
“I hope you didn’t have to make squirrel soup!”
She laughs, then returns to her story. One night, when she came home later than expected from visiting a girlfriend, “he accused me of whoring. That night, while I was sleeping, he took the three cars away—and all the cash and credit cards from my purse. The only thing he left was a refrigerator’s worth of food.”
Not knowing what to do, she called the police, who asked if she felt her life was in danger. She decided against filing a restraining order and fled to Russian friends in Toronto, where she was unsuccessful at obtaining a resident card and at registering her daughter in school.
Later, she didn’t contest Cliff’s divorce petition, his claim that, as a member of the Russian mafia, she had stolen his money—nor did she file for alimony. “That’s when I figured out that he had been coming to Russia for five years, looking for a wife. I thought he was normal, but now I know he only wanted some woman to control. A Russian woman who would be dependent on him for everything.”
By now, it’s midafternoon. We stop in a forest, sit for a tea break on fallen trunks. One of the other hikers comes over to us. He has gone on every hike for the last seven years, ever since the club’s founding. “And every hike has looked the same!” he says.
One thing must be different. After the break, we come across a barbed-wire fence, cordoning off two half-built developments. One tract of villas is named Melody, the other Velvet. All around Moscow, developers have snatched up plots, sometimes firebombing the pensioners who live there in their dachas.
Tanya is silent. Perhaps she’s thinking about the lost “opportunity” in America. I ask what she’s doing now for money.
“I found a job through my ex, through Andrey, translating an American show, Episode Murder. Can you imagine sitting on your butt for days on end, typing up police interrogating suspects, body descriptions? That’s why I had to get out today.”
On the return train trip, we’re joined by people carrying cross-country skis, fishermen with ice augers—who, after we disembark, crowd before the exit turnstiles. Tanya and I are separated. Once through, I look for her pale blond head in the growing shadows, give up, e-mail her from home.
She e-mails back: “I looked for you, too. I was delayed at the gate where we had to check out from the train. Some drunken ice fisherman was in front of me and he couldn’t figure out how to put his ticket in the machine. Well, it’s not so difficult to lose each other in the crowd in Moscow.”
A week after meeting Tanya, I ask one of my classes what they would miss about Russia if they had to live away. “Black bread.” “Politics,” someone else says. “Europe would be so boring,” says another.
“When I come back …,” Vladimir starts. “At the airport, I see the people tired, not smiling. I know I am home.”
Everyone laughs, but Katya answers intensely. “I would miss my friends. Friendships in Russia are from the heart. We can speak very honestly about what we feel. We have a sincerity I don’t think I would find elsewhere.”
And so Tanya and I start a flurry of e-mails. She moves on from Episode Murder to Vegas to Dexter, a show about a serial killer. “Even though the money is so little, I consider myself as doing a kind of charity for the Russians.”
We also start what we call our “cultural evenings,” concerts at the Conservatory, the Tchaikovsky Hall. A real bargain in Moscow—for the price of a sandwich, you can listen to the sound of Russian blood pouring onto a keyboard.
One night, Tanya suggests The Snow Maiden, Rimsky-Korsakov’s fairy-tale opera. “Why not?” she says. The Snow Maiden must be played by a blonde. “Though only a 5-year-old girl can have hair the color of mine.”
In a crystal jewel box of a theater in the Hermitage Gardens, we review the synopsis notes. The Maiden, the child of Frost and Spring, begs her parents to let her live among the mortals so she can experience the joys of love.
“Trouble is that she doesn’t have a human heart,” Tanya says. “If Sun hits her, her heart will melt.”
“So it’s like this,” I say. “Falling in love will make you die and float to heaven?”
“Yes, very philosophical,” she says.
The opera itself was all Malevich constructivism: geometrical protrusions from helmets, red suns and purple moons, sprites wrapping themselves up in nets. After the Snow Maiden dies, her human lover drowns himself. The villagers sing triumphantly at the return of Sun.
Afterward, on Pushkinskaya Square, Tanya tries to find a café, but discovers that while she was away it became a 24-hour cosmetics store. “What a pity,” she says. “At midnight, you’ll need emergency eyeliner?”
“I can understand why the supermarkets stay open,” I say.
“Yes, you might wake up at 3 a.m. and need a sausage.”
Laughing at her dirty joke, we find a nearby coffeehouse. Once we’re settled, I ask her: “How do you really feel about being back in Russia?”
“At first, it was the shock of being in any new foreign place. But now?” She shrugs. “It’s home.”
“But does Russia feel different for you?”
“People do seem more relaxed. And now a hard-working person can make a decent living. Back in the Soviet days, career was a dirty word—it meant putting yourself above the community. But I do think that, before, people were more united. I think people helped each other more.”
“Does that mean you regret coming back? Would you have preferred to stay in the U.S.?”
She appears to be taken aback. “What a question. Of course, I didn’t want to come back. There are so many more opportunities in America, especially for women our age. Being 40 in the U.S. is fine: you can start a new career, meet someone new. When their marriages break up, many Russian brides are desperate to stay in the U.S.”
I relate what one of my students told me, that there have been eight wars on Russian soil in the last hundred years.
She nods. "I know. All those men killed. Why do you think so many women get dressed up in miniskirts, wear all that makeup?
“But I think people are lonelier in the U.S.,” she adds. “I don’t know, maybe this is part of living in America. Even my Russian friends there miss human contact. Here, we socialize more, mainly by visiting each other in our homes—restaurants are too expensive for most of us.”
I ask if I may write about her. Again, she is startled. “But if you think it would be helpful …”
“Is there anything you’d like people to know about Russians?” I ask.
She laughs. “About us terrible Russians? But we’re not so bad. Deep inside, we are friendlier than you think. We may look aggressive, but we’re only trying to cover up our struggling. We’re not relaxed yet, but we’re getting there.”