Sunday, May 22, 2011

ON TWO DIFFERENT SIDES OF A GROWING DIVIDE: Can a Rift Between Nations Affect Friendship Between People?

Today, Katia Raina is back with the last installment in her series on growing up in the Soviet Union. In this post she touches a familiar raw nerve - that of changing friendships.

Meet my friend Olga.

In the late 1980s, when I was a pre-teen, a term BFF had not yet existed, but of course, that’s exactly what she and I were.
Olga and me.  (Olga is the taller one on the left) visiting the city and the apartment of my birth at about 13 - 14 years old.
We took long walks together, weaving in and out of yards in our small Moscow Region town located about an hour’s drive outside of the capital. We studied English together. Copied each other’s homework sometimes. (Mostly, I copied hers). We talked about boys, dreaming of the day they would finally pay proper attention to us (attention that would not involve pummeling us with snowballs or stealing our school bags). Together, we hopped about on construction sites playing war with said boys. We read books together. We played with toys and paper cutouts for hours, making sure we kept it a tight secret from our peers. We circulated a newspaper for our classmates’ entertainment. We staged a play based on a story I wrote – and then practiced it for months.

Then came the teenaged years. The parties. The drinking. (Hey, it’s Russia we’re talking about!) The boys that now were paying a different sort of attention to us, which turned out to be more complicated and confusing than we ever thought it would be.
Also us in Ukraine, at my first every apartment.
Among the many scenes of our friendship, one comes to mind a lot. August 19th, 1991 was the day of my fourteenth birthday. The day when Olga and some of our friends who were boys were invited to my apartment to celebrate. That day was also a big one for Russia, it turned out. With Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev conveniently out of Moscow for vacation, a group of eight high-placed Communist party members – including a KGB chief and Gorbachev’s own vice president – tried to quietly take over power and turn the country back to its past.

On the morning of that day, these eight bandits took control of Central Television and announced that a) Gorbachev is mysteriously ill and thus cannot continue his duties at the moment, b) the country is going to change its course now, and turn back toward tight centralized control and c) a curfew will be imposed. Oh, and no demonstrating or political gathering of any kind will be tolerated.

Mass demonstration in Moscow against the 1991 coup attempt.  (Image from Wikipedia Commons)
 In other words, good-bye beginnings of democracy, free speech, perestroika, glasnost., Back to the dark days, citizens.

Well, if this happened even ten years ago, it just might have meant the end of things. But having had the taste of freedom, the Russians (and Ukrainians and Latvians, and others), were not about to relinquish their gains so easily. My mama was one of thousands of people all around the nation, who, upon listening to the long lost of curfews and prohibitions announced on Central Television, went right to the center of the capital.

I, of course, was ordered to stay home and celebrate my birthday as planned.

Hey, at least I can say, we gathered too. A different kind of gathering, to be sure. Olga and I drank wine and champagne to my health, and let boys chase us in the juvenile game of blindman’s bluff, their hands lingering over us, as they tried to figure out who they had caught. We played our usual games of “wink,” tokens (a “dare” version of a truth-or-dare game) and spin-the-bottle. But we talked politics too. We worried about my mama – and about what was going to happen to us all tomorrow. We traded newly minted “coup” jokes. We knew exactly where we stood. Just like my mama, Olga and me and our other friends have declared, there was no turning back for us. At the end of the day, drunk on champagne and our own fearlessness, we ran out onto my ninth floor balcony and started throwing watermelon rind down at the ground (wild Russian teens, I know!), while yelling out, “down with the coup, Go Yeltsin (the president of the Russian Republic who resisted the coup from the Russian Parliament building), bring back Gorbachev!”

At the end of that magical night we learned, that Russia has done it. Yeltsin has prevailed, the illegal “committee” that tried to turn the country back was arrested, and Gorbachev was coming back.

I wasn’t ever much of a patriot. Still, along with Olga, I felt proud to be a Russian that day.


Mere two years later, in 1993, when I left Russia for good, the new Russian president of Boris Yeltsin who was a symbol of Russian democracy on August of 1991, faced opposition from the public and the parliament, many of its members yearning for the return to old order.

We have seen each other twice more since then, Olga and I. She was a maid of honor at my wedding, and I will never forget it. How she danced with my new American friends. How much fun she had. Her smile and her eyes shone with happiness for me.
Olga visiting me in New Jersey about a week or so before my wedding. (Yes, I married very young!)

The next time I saw her was several years later, at her own wedding in Moscow Region.

Olga and me in a restaurant in Moscow, Russia where I came to her wedding in turn.
Now, fast forward another decade plus. My friend Olga and I still write to each other – the old-fashioned letters in cursive (which are still easy to read but are becoming harder for me to write, with my deteriorating Russian). We still share secrets, and a big part of me will always love and miss her. Mostly, though, when we talk, we exchange news of our kids, our work, our creative and personal lives. (Olga is an amazing visual artist. She stitches, she sews, she paints in glass and leather and makes jewelry like this:)

But when Olga and I talk, we now stay away from two subjects, mostly. Politics and religion.

Even though Olga is Jewish by mother, like I am, she practices Russian Orthodox faith – a popular choice now in Russia. She is a proud patriot. When she considered a trip to America, she said she was so put off by the American Embassy staff’s cocky attitude, that she changed her mind. “Let’s meet somewhere in Europe,” she told me. “On neutral territory.”

Neutral territory. The words gave me pause. They reeked of cold war a little.

I think people are more than countries. And it is true – the attitude of American Homeland Security workers can be offensive and maddening to anyone who is not a U.S. citizen (I have seen it first hand). But at the same time, through research for my books or just my family/friends ties to Russia, I have come to believe that Russian attitude can also benefit from a little adjusting.

Here are some of the developments I have come across over the past eighteen years since I left Russia:

1. Nostalgia for all things Soviet
I have seen videos of people at concert halls, clapping and cheering wildly for old patriotic songs about Communism and Motherland, songs we all used to poke fun at in the 1980s and 1990s. I have seen tears rolling down women’s cheeks – and the women are in their 40s and 50s, mind you – they are my mom’s contemporaries!

2. Collective amnesia about Soviet history
When I was researching people’s opinions about Stalin and his oppressions, I was shocked to discover dozens of young people in Russian chat rooms discussing his accomplishments, and how he never gets enough credit. And that was about five years ago. Last year, I wrote this blog post about a lawsuit trying to “clear Stalin’s name.”  Today, people on the Russian Internet are even more matter-of-fact when they speak of Stalin as one of our great leaders.

3. The nationalism
Russian nationalism was actually on the decline during my childhood. In the stagnant Brezhnev 70s, people secretly joked about our aging leader and the deterioration of our economy. In the 1980s and 1990s, everything American, from music and movies, to clothes and attitudes, was revered, longed for. Today, the rhetoric seems to have returned to a gorilla-like stance of pounding on your chest and screaming, “We are the best.” This nationalism is often accompanied by vilifying the United States of America, the land of chips, hot dogs and “gamburgers,” in many of the Russians’ eyes.

I guess I have my own nostalgia. I miss being able to talk to my old friend with the ease we once had, just as much as I miss the 1990s Russia – that wild period of hope and promise, when it seemed like the seeds of a new future would take root in Russia, after all . . .

Katia, once again you have reminded us of how complex our world and friendships are.  Thank you for sharing so personally and consequently so universally.  Although this is your final "official" chapter in this series, do feel free to pop in anytimethat you feel inspired to share more!


  1. Thanks for having me on your blog, Joyce. You and your readers have always made me feel so appreciated! :)

  2. Thank you, Joyce and Katia, for sharing something so personal, yet so universal. The differences that divide nations also divide friends and families. Katia, I hope you will always be able to stay close to your BFF!

  3. Yes, Lorrie, I hope so too!!

  4. This has been a very interesting and eye opening account of growing up in Russia. I have enjoyed reading a lot, especially since my daughter is living in a Communist country right now, and I worry.
    Thanks for doing this, Joyce and thanks to Katia for sharing her story.

  5. Oh Alex, I didn't know about your daughter. I sympathize and I know Katia does for sure.

    Cyber Hugs!

    Shoot - that sounds cold.

    How about HUGS!

  6. Thanks, Lorrie for coming by to share in this wistful story. I wish we could learn to embrace differences more, don't you?

  7. This was an interesting post about friendship, politics, many things. I would love to read about your experiences in book form, fiction or non.

    And it was heartwarming to learn that the bond you have with Olga is unbreakable, even if you have to skirt around some issues with her.

  8. That's a good way of looking at it, Medeia! And Alex, thanks for reading.

  9. I'm with you, Medeia. I want to read Katia's story in fiction too. I have a feeling we will both get to. It's just a matter of time.

  10. Katia & Joyce-
    Thanks for sharing your personal and national history with us. Amazing stories. You truly lived through an incredible time in history.