As an 80’s kid growing up under the specter of the Cold War coupled with my father’s untimely death in 1982, my fascination with Russia and my ancestry ran deep. The Patriarch of my uncommon maiden name, my paternal Great-Grandpa, came to America solo at age 17 in 1902 from a village named Biyalikamen. It is situated in what is now Western Ukraine. While I’m still researching, I’m certain all four sets of Great grandparents are either from Galicia, the region historically spanning Southeastern Poland and Western Ukraine, or Russia proper.
At 22, I was beyond fortunate and elated to participate in an artist’s exchange to Russia. The Soviet Union had collapsed eighteen months before my graduation from Art school. The excursion, sponsored by my school, infused funds to former artists-in-residence and enabled them to keep their artist retreat property afloat for one more summer. The first week was spent at a compound located on a small lake near a military base about 45 km outside of Moscow. The accommodations were dilapidated but comfortable. Once back in the States, I described it as “sleep away camp with carpet.” Our guides, artists Olga & Boris, dutifully provided translation.
During the day we shared printmaking techniques with one another. The Russians created beautiful works, making do with limited materials and make-shift equipment. One ingenious contraption, used to polish lithography stones, utilized a truck axel. We took breaks in the late afternoon for walks to a grouping of Dachas, small vacation cottages that looked like gingerbread houses, where we drank fresh water straight from the well and picked wildflowers.
In the evening everyone relaxed lakeside. As I was eaten alive by mosquitoes, we drank homemade cherry vodka and snacked on a stash of Hershey’s chocolate I brought from home. All the while, the Russian men smoked like chimneys. I also brought a cornucopia of OTC medicines, personal care products, foodstuffs including coffee, dried salami, hearty crackers, and the most coveted of prizes, Levi’s jeans. These became thank you gifts for each of our host’s unending hospitality and generosity throughout the journey.
We visited Moscow’s Red Square where if you blinked you’d miss the changing of the guard at Lenin’s tomb. St. Basil’s Cathedral loomed so fantastical, it looked as if it were made from gumdrops. The line for the Red Square MacDonalds wrapped around the restaurant twice. I found this infuriating, not because of the wait. But rather, the fact Moskovites were eagerly spending half a month’s salary on Happy Meals. In Gorky Park toppled statues of Lenin were scrawled with graffiti. We haggled at flea markets (“Skolko?”) and marveled at every train station and metro stop, gobsmacked by their ornate scrollwork and Soviet-era reliefs.
In stark contrast to my bucolic time at the retreat, the reality of Moscow was grim. At every transit hub and public plaza, dozens if not hundreds of people displayed random items in an attempt to barter for necessities. I photographed a woman holding a pair of shoes and canned vegetables. Her face was plagued by the same desperation as the migrant mother in Dorothea Lange’s famous Dustbowl-era portrait. The markets had hardly any food, the pharmacies had very little medicine, the city’s infrastructure was failing, and its citizens had no money. Worse, the elder generation, who had only lived under Communism, had no idea how to adjust to the fledgling capitalist economy.
During one visit to an artist’s apartment, his mother served homemade mushroom barley soup for lunch. When I raved it tasted exactly like my Grandma Libby’s, she insisted on serving seconds. So as not to insult her, I said yes reluctantly, but emphasized “only a drop.” I knew her pot had to stretch to feed three people over several days. This sweet woman looked so much like my Grandpa Nat, by then gone twelve years, I wept. Never had I ever recognized me in anyone’s visage other than my immediate family members. And haven’t since.
The Russian people’s faces, their warmth, kindness, and an insatiable curiosity for all things American made an indelible mark on me and filled me with gratitude. So as the bombs fall, all of these memories and so many more are flooding back. My heart is heavy and hurts for the people of Ukraine and Russia alike. I am them, and they are me. Say a prayer for us all.