I was nineteen and I was getting restless. My studies at the Moscow Oil and Gas Institute were entering their third year. Thermodynamics was replacing Math, and Pipeline Design was replacing the History of the Communist Party. If it didn’t dawn on me before that I was on my way to becoming an engineer, it was obvious now. And I didn’t like it. It wasn’t just that the new subjects were dull enough to feel nostalgic for the History of the Communist Party, it was also that I did not understand them. Which, according to my classmates and popular wisdom of the time, wasn’t much of a problem. That was Moscow in 1988: as a student you were expected to forget everything you studied at school as soon as you enrolled into a university, and you were supposed to forget everything you studied there as soon as you got a job after graduating.
Still, I had exams to pass and an engineering profession hardly seemed worth the effort expended on writing crib notes on my arms, legs, eyelids, and other available body parts. This, coupled with the fact that many of my friends were either in steady relationships or in the process of getting married while I was far from anything such, got me thinking that the Soviet Union wasn’t the place to be. In a culture where being married by twenty-one was almost a requirement and being single after twenty-three was a life sentence to old-maidhood, I was finding myself well on my way to the latter. And that terrified me more than having to construct oil refineries and gas storage facilities for the rest of my life.
The trouble was that I had a very limited pool of potential suitors. As a Jew in the Soviet Union, I needed to marry a Jew or, according to my family, risk being called a Kike by my husband. Both of my parents and all four of my grandparents—not to mention numerous aunts and uncles—subscribed to a Soviet Jewish point of view that there was very little distance between love and anti-Semitism. “One moment he loves you, the next he calls you names,” the popular saying went. “Just a regular day for a Jewish woman married to a non-Jew.”
Fear of a potential anti-Semite for a husband eliminated all non-Jewish males from my radar. There weren’t many left. In the absence of Hillel (or any other Jewish youth organization for that matter) my sources for young, available, Jewish men were my Institute and my family. The Institute offered very few options, save for an occasional geeky classmate from some small town who came to Moscow with bad skin, an outdated wardrobe, and strict instructions from his mother to find a Jewish Muscovite. In those days, becoming a Moscow resident was akin to buying toilet paper with no queue at a store in broad daylight. It wasn’t possible and everyone wanted it. As a Muscovite, born and bred, I would rather die an old maid than be caught dating someone from outside of the city.
Aside from the Institute my only exposure to young Jewish men was my extended family—well-meaning relatives whose main goal in life was to set up another unfortunate Jewish family. The country was full of anti-Semites, both official and underground; engineering was the single widely accessible profession; and inventing ways to justify our existence was a favorite pastime.
“Lenin was part-Jewish,” went a common conversation among Jews. “And I heard Visotsky has some Jewish roots as well.” If we could find a known and respected member of society and convince ourselves that there was some Jewish blood there, we didn’t feel entirely useless.
Alas, none of the available Jewish young men struck my fancy no matter how hard my relatives tried. And so there was only one thing to do. I had to find a way to leave the country and I had to do it fast. Preferably, before yet another exam and before I reached that dreaded age of spinsterhood, twenty-three.
There was only one way to accomplish it and that was through emigration. I couldn’t just take off with a backpack and travel through Europe. First, I didn’t have a backpack and couldn’t buy one because it was both more desirable than caviar and less available for sale. And secondly, I was living behind the Iron Curtain, which stayed closed all the time for the majority of its citizens and especially for the youth. The only people allowed outside the country were high-level Communist Party officials, Bolshoi ballet dancers, and spies pretending to manage Bolshoi ballet dancers. Since I was neither, I had to convince my entire family to uproot so I could find a boyfriend or a prospective husband.
I first got the idea by eavesdropping on my parents’ conversations about various Jewish acquaintances leaving the country. Those conversations were always held late at night in the kitchen when they thought I was sleeping. By putting my ear against the closed door on those nights, I learned that my mother was interested in considering emigration, and my grandparents were anxious to board a plane as soon as possible. But my father wasn’t thrilled with the idea, which apparently had been floating around our family ever since my grandfather’s nephew, Victor, left in 1979. He was part of the first wave of Jewish emigration, the wave that taught the Soviet Government that the best way to get something from the US was to let out the Jews. Quick on the heels of Victor’s departure and subsequent settlement in Los Angeles, my grandparents tried to talk my father into it. But he put his foot down. He was a young specialist on the rise in the Soviet bureaucracy of engineers and he saw a bright future ahead of him. Despite the fact that words bright future and a Jew never went together in USSR and despite the fact that anti-Semitism was the country’s most widespread belief, ahead even of socialism. Yes, my father was in denial.
Almost ten years later he was no longer in denial but he also wasn’t ready. Listening in on their nighttime conversations I thought there might be a chance, but I couldn’t just start lobbying them. I had to find a way to overcome my father’s resistance and since he wasn’t budging even for my grandparents, I knew I needed something out of the ordinary to convince him. Mostly though I was just scared to approach him. If my grandfather’s arguments didn’t sway him, what chance did I have?
Then one morning, taking my regular bus to the Institute, I met a young man who took glastnost and perestroika to an entirely new level. Glastnost and perestroika, the two flagship policies of Gorbachev era, attempted to go where no Soviet citizen ever gone before. The first consisted of allowing the truth about the stagnation of the Soviet society to come out in the media and the second endeavored to restructure the same society. And while the rest of the population was content just with criticizing and occasionally calling for changes, this man was actually trying to implement those changes. He called himself Mike instead of Mikhail, wore wide gaucho pants tucked into tall riding boots, carried a cowboy hat, and sported shoulder-length blond hair. His appearance combined with his views and behavior crossed the line even then, when calling Stalin a mass murderer was the new normal.
“Nice bag,” he said to me as I was balancing on one foot trying to stay upright with the bus rollercoasting around potholes. “Where did you get it?”
He didn’t get up to offer me his seat. Two babushkas stared him down from across the aisle. They were scandalized by this lack of manners.
And so was I.
My usual rule was not to befriend men on buses especially those men who had a seat while I struggled to stay upright. According to the handbook of a properly raised Soviet girl, this was rude. I rolled my eyes and ignored him.
But he didn’t give up. He tugged on my sleeve and asked again: “Where did you get it?”
The bag in question was an old plastic bag my father brought from his travels abroad years ago—the bag I cherished, washed regularly, and carried with pride. Plastic bags, especially the ones with foreign writing and foreign images, were to us what the Birkin bag was to Samantha on “Sex and the City.” Highly desirable, rarely attainable, and revered objects of envy.
I looked at the man. True, he wasn’t being polite and offering me his seat but he exuded an air of sophistication that other boys could only dream off. His longish blond hair, his curious outfit, his indifference towards accepted norms of behavior. Everything about him was quickly bypassing the height of what was considered cool.
“My father brought it from one of his trips,” I said.
He nodded as if he knew exactly who my father was, where my father went, and how my father procured the bag.
“You want to go to a concert with me tomorrow night?” he then asked.
The babushkas across the aisle did a quick intake of breath.
I almost followed suit. And to tell the truth, at this point I really needed to sit down. I’d never been asked on a date while riding a bus. I wasn’t one of those Russian beauties with blond hair, long legs, and high cheekbones. Men on buses just didn’t notice me and, if they did, they were not the kind of men I wanted to associate with. Yet, here was an attractive young man dressed right off the pages of a foreign magazine asking me out. If I still had any doubts about him sitting comfortably and me trying not to fall, they were quickly disappearing.
But that wasn’t the case for the babushkas.
“What has the world come to?” One said to another after she made sure everyone on the bus could hear her. “He is making an acquaintance with a young woman without offering her a seat first!”
“And she seems to be considering it,” the other one echoed. “Young people today just have no shame.”
I felt myself immediately turning beet-red, but when I looked at the man to gauge his reaction to their comments, I saw that he was paying them no attention at all.
“So,” he said, “you want to come?”
I shrugged and glanced at the babushkas. They were all ears. Shaming the young, maintaining youth morality, and undermining teen reputations by spreading rumors were babushkas’ livelihood. They sat on benches outside of apartment buildings, watched the comings and goings of everyone, and they knew about other people’s lives better than the KGB. If a babushka in your neighborhood took a disliking to you, your best option was to move—far, far away and preferably to another city and another time zone.
Thankfully I wasn’t in my neighborhood.
“Sure,” I said.
Babushkas hissed their disapproval, pursed their lips, and folded their arms. But then the bus came to a stop, they scrambled out of their seats, threw me one more demeaning glance, and left.
The next day, I put on my best clothes, calculated with precision to arrive fifteen minutes late, and adopted what I thought was the best strategy to flirt with men.
“Why don’t we learn a little about each other,” I said right after we met in the metro.
“Why?” he asked. “What’s there to learn? Besides, you are late. Come on, let’s hurry, or we won’t get there on time.”
To my immense disappointment what I thought would be our first date didn’t end up being a date at all. We went to the concert, then walked back to the metro where he took a train to his stop and I took a train to mine. He didn’t offer to take me home, didn’t kiss me good-bye, and didn’t ask to see me again. Obviously, he wasn’t interested.
I ran home that evening from the metro station in the dark cursing Mike and his lack of manners while hoping no serial killer was waiting for me around the corner. My mother had a wild imagination when it came to dangers lurking in the night and she wasted no time telling me stories about murders that never made it into newspapers. This coupled with a popular detective series on television made me stay home more often that I wanted, which was probably her objective all along.
When I got home safe and sound, I promptly put Mike out of my head. But he called the next day and invited me to a party. And then to another party. And then another. And another. I went to all of them hoping that there would come a day when he’d succumb to my charms. But I kept having to go home on my own in the dark. By the fifth time I no longer ran and by the sixth I decided that friendship with Mike was good enough. After all, no one had to know we were not an item. It was sufficient that he was cool, wore Western clothes, called himself Mike, and was male.
There were two other things about Mike that I kept largely to myself. He turned out to be thirty-five years old—almost twice my age at the time—and he was virulently anti-Soviet. All of the parties he took me too were gatherings of his equally anti-Soviet friends in which we sat around listening to Bruce Springsteen, talking Reagan, and predicting a full blown Soviet demise in the near future. Had my mother known that I was regularly engaging in serious conversations against the state with an older man—and then walking home alone in complete darkness—she would have moved us to America within a week.
While anti-Soviet conversations were always part of the late night, kitchen soul searching in the USSR, the new politics of glastnost made them louder. If before those conversations were held in whisper and mostly among relatives, now they extended to barely-known acquaintances and bus stops. The danger of getting in trouble with the authorities was still there, but people paid it less and less attention. Especially young people. So, soon, somewhere between telling elaborate non-truths to my friends and parents about Mike and participating in dangerous discussions, I began to listen to his insistent anti-Soviet propaganda. And especially to his firm belief that if you could leave the country, you should. When Mike found out it I was Jewish, he told me that he was a half-Jew himself and he turned his arguments up a notch. He started involving the rest of his friends in trying to talk me into convincing my parents to leave.
“You are crazy not to go,” he’d say to me in front of everyone. “You have this amazing chance as a Jew to split. How could you not?” At this point he would shake his blond head in disbelief and address all the intellectual-wanna-be-reformers in attendance: “What do you guys think?”
Some of his friends would nod with a visible degree of discomfort, others would stare at the wall or busy themselves with whatever they had in their hands. They weren’t thrilled with this Jewish talk and neither was I. People were just not in the habit of speaking positively about Jews—especially with a Jew being present. The official Soviet propaganda machine could make an anti-Semite out of just about anyone and those who hadn’t yet arrived at hating the Jews, felt real pity for them. I, on the other hand, had spent years perfecting the art of hiding my Jewish identity just to have it spelled out in front of people I barely knew. I wanted to kill Mike in those moments and since this topic now surfaced every time we went to a party, I was beginning to suspect that my leaving the country was his way of getting rid of me. Especially since, for all his conversations of emigrating Jews, he never made any effort himself.
But Mike did his job and gave me enough confidence to approach my parents. I started with my mother and my grandparents but when the turn came to talk to my father I failed miserably. I only had to open my mouth for him to wave me away and go back to adjusting a metal hanger on his shortwave radio so that he can catch the nightly broadcast of the Voice of America. According to him, I was much too young to think properly. These kinds of serious matters should only be discussed by real adults—adults with work and life experience and at least 30 years of age. I had more than a decade to go before I could even qualify.
My father was a stubborn man. He’s always thought—and he continues to think—that he is always right. No amount of arguments could ever change his mind, especially if those arguments came from someone younger and related to him. Which is why my chances of convincing him of what he’s chosen not to believe were about the same as passing a thermodynamics exam without the crib notes. It just wasn’t going to happen. Yet, stars were aligning in my favor. Listening to my “nonsense,” as my father called my arguments, didn’t do enough to persuade him, but things that were happening all around us apparently did.
Glasnost and the accompanying freedom of expression wasn’t very much fun for us Jews. Right-wing organizations suddenly had a voice in both printed and broadcast media and the word pogrom became part of our vocabulary again. We carefully scanned the news for the dates when pogroms were announced and made sure to keep the lights off in our apartment on those nights. Our Jewish friends and neighbors were leaving in large numbers and letters began arriving regularly from my grandfather’s nephew. His family posed smiling next to large cars and beautiful houses and described in details a happy life sans fears of pogroms, and thus, with lights on.
And then few months into my limping efforts, my father had a wake up call. He’d been tracking, along with other Soviet Jews, the success of an organization called Pamyat’ and he didn’t like what he was seeing. Pamyat’ detested the Jews and blamed all Soviet ills on them. This in itself wasn’t really new for us but what caught my father’s attention was the fact that the government—for the first time in many years—didn’t only turn a deaf ear to Pamyat’s hate speeches but also found them compelling enough to grant the organization an official meeting with Boris Yeltsin. The evening he heard about it on Radio Free Europe, my father agreed to emigrate.
“I am only considering it because there is no future for Jews here,” he said. “And in America she’ll have plenty of opportunities,” he continued, pointing to me.
Everyone nodded. I pictured a backpack and an unlimited supply of plastic bags.
“She could become a doctor,” my mother chimed in. “We’ve always wanted her to be a doctor and there she’ll have just as equal chance as anyone else.”
My grandparents got animated.
“Jews have always made good doctors,” my grandmother said, herself a physician.
“Indeed,” my grandfather added. “It’s a very successful career. And well-paid.”
I figured that if I made good money I’d probably have more than just a new backpack and a few plastic bags. So I imagined myself next to a big car and a large house. My reference for all things successful was my uncle’s letters from the U.S., and the only photos he sent were photos of family next to cars and houses. At this point we were under the impression that they had at least five different cars and five different houses.
“She better become a doctor and a successful one,” my father concluded, “because we are embarking on this trip for her. We won’t really benefit from the move—we are too old to start our lives from the beginning. We’d be lucky to find jobs at all.” My father had just turned forty-three and my mother was forty.
“Would you go to medical school?” They turned to me.
I didn’t know how to respond. On one hand, I wasn’t crazy about being a doctor. On the other hand, I didn’t want to let them down. Here they were about to leave the only reality they had known, move halfway around the world, learn a new language, absorb a new culture, and build a life completely from scratch—partially because I could not find a boyfriend and I hated my studies. The least I could do is agree to study what they thought was right.
“Sure,” I said.
“Well, it’s settled then,” my father announced. “We are going.”
Then there was a bottle of vodka, a jar of pickles, black bread, cheese and a plate of sliced sausage that my grandmother took out of the refrigerator to celebrate. Everyone toasted to my success. I toasted mostly to no more engineering, seeing the skyscrapers, and finding a Jewish American husband.
After I told Mike my news, he gave me a necklace with a Star of David on it.
“Here,” he said, “you can wear it openly in America.”
We were sitting in an outdoor café enjoying the sunshine and warmth of late Moscow spring. The waitress had just brought us our ice cream and a bottle of champagne Sovetskoye, a sugary imitation of the real thing.
“Are you sure?” I said. “This is the only one you have.” I turned the necklace in my hand.
He shrugged and poured the champagne.
“Of course, I am sure,” he said, “I have no use for it here. Besides, it can remind you of what you went to look for in America.”
I was hoping he didn’t suspect my real reasons.
“Here is to you finding it and becoming a star.” He raised his glass.
And that’s when it hit me. Going to the land of freedom and equal opportunity for Jews had its own, dire consequences. The bar was now much higher. My parents expected early retirement during which they’d bask in my success. My friends pictured expensive gifts and fully funded trips to the country where plastic bags were ubiquitous. And me? I was realizing that the expectations were rising faster than the black market rate for dollar-ruble exchange. Everyone looked to me to demonstrate that this move wasn’t in vain—that in the absence of discrimination I would triumph like all the other successful Jews.
The pressure was on and we hadn’t even left yet.