It seems like a million years ago that Sting intoned "We share the same biology/ Regardless of ideology" and earnestly reminded us that "The Russians love their children, too." It was actually 1985 -- the same year that Elton John's video for "Nikita" depicted a romance between an Englishman and a Soviet woman as a starcrossed drama of Romeo and Juliet proportions. Only a few years before glasnost, paranoia still reigned on both sides of the Iron Curtain. Most Americans knew so little about the daily lives of Soviet citizens that it was easy to demonize -- or romanticize -- them.
The incomprehension was mutual, as Laurie Alberts demonstrates in her new memoir, Between Revolutions: An American Romance with Russia. Now a teacher in Vermont College's MFA and Writing Program, she takes us back to those years just before the Cold War froze itself out. Twenty-nine-year-old Alberts arrived in Moscow in 1982 to teach English under the aegis of the American Field Service. In the book, she depicts herself as a figure exotic and fascinating to Russians, constantly bombarded with questions about the U.S. On her first day, after Alberts gives a biographical sketch of herself, a Soviet teacher who speaks perfect British English asks, "You lived in many different cities. Was it difficult to get permission?"
A student inquires, "Miss Laurie, is it true American students shoot their teachers?"
As the title intimates, the memoir involves a romance across the Iron Curtain, but it's no "Nikita," in which the only obstacles to love were menacing, anonymous soldiers. Alberts' romance with a Russian man -- and with Russia itself -- is complicated not just by politics but by deeper cultural differences, including ingrained Russian anti-Semitism.
Alberts comes to Moscow with "three semesters of college Russian" and a fascination engendered by her friendship with Soviet emigres in the U.S. They've told her not to mention the fact that she's Jewish -- "You will be treated better that way." But Alberts soon finds herself drawn into an intense, platonic relationship with a teacher named Grisha, a "man desperate for contact" whose dissatisfaction with the Soviet system stems partly from the way it defines him -- a Jew -- as an alien.
Later, after she moves to a school in Leningrad, Alberts becomes sexually involved with a man named Kolya whose warmth, impulsiveness and romanticism embody everything she loves about Russia and finds lacking in the U.S. ("There is no one but you," he tells her. "There was no one before you.") But Kolya is also openly anti-Semitic. As he insists that the two of them will find a way to make a life together, Alberts wonders whether and how to tell him the truth. "In Kolya's world," she writes, "I wasn't a Jew because he didn't want me to be one, and I didn't want to be one either. I was absolved through dishonesty. Like a Soviet, I could rewrite my own past."
As this telling passage indicates, Alberts doesn't depict herself as the heroine of her own memoir, blazing a path of American optimism through the Soviet winter. Instead, she seems to mirror her new environment -- first warming to Russian camaraderie, then succumbing to the endemic Soviet vices of hypocrisy, silence and indecisiveness. (Her reluctance to tell Kolya about her heritage is matched by his flat refusal to absorb the information.) It's not uncommon for long-term exchange students to find that the need to "blend into" a new culture slowly swamps their sense of identity, and Alberts' narrative provides a vivid demonstration of that phenomenon.
Still, because she's more reactive than active in Russia, Alberts doesn't come fully alive as a "character" until she flies back to New York, where she makes plans to return to Leningrad and put Kolya's promises to the test. Although she gives us some glimpses of her past -- such as her "Stalinesque father" -- readers who want a stronger sense of their narrator's personality may need to read Alberts' excellent first memoir Fault Line, published last year. That book gives us some background on the wanderlust that drove a studious young woman from an affluent suburban family as far away as she could get from capitalist abundance, to destinations such as an Alaskan fishing boat and a Russian dacha.
Alberts' personal conflicts are compelling, but ultimately Russia is the star of the book. Alberts leaves us with vivid images of this place of "heartbreaking, oblique northern light," where "everywhere was nyetu (we don't have it) and nyelzya (it's not allowed) and defisitni (deficit goods) and, [she] was beginning to discover, ways around them." It's difficult to remember, reading her nuanced portraits of her Soviet friends, that well-meaning pop singers once felt it necessary to remind us these people were human, too.
From Between Revolutions:
The hydrofoil, a speedy, low-slung ferry, whizzed across the sparkling Baltic to Petrodvoretz, the czar's summer palace . . .
At the hydrofoil landing, a platform connected to the mainland by a long cement dock due to the shallow gulf, policemen hurried the crowd. A Japanese delegation was being led through and they wanted us out of the way.
"Buistreye!" the policemen shouted. Faster!
Kolya shouted something back.
The cop turned and raised a menacing arm. "Less conversation," he hissed. We hurried along.
"Japanese are better than Russians," Alyosha said. "Do your police act like that?"
I thought of mounted police warning crowds to get back at parades or accidents in the city. But to make way for foreigners? No. I felt embarrassed for my humiliated friends. The palace rose like a dream beyond a long colonnade of golden fountains. A red flag waved in the breeze from the palace roof.
"Sovietskii vlast vesdye," Kolya said quietly. Soviet power is everywhere.
"What?" I asked, though I'd heard him.
"The riches of the people," he said bitterly.
Vyetta said, "It's eleven; now the fountains will turn on."
Great golden Samson rent the jaws of the lion at the head of the Grand Canal that led down to the gulf in a golden shimmer. Spectators patiently waited for the daily show: old pensioners with their canes, pimpled young soldiers with shaved scalps, gaggles of schoolchildren, peasants from villages and collective farms in their shabby padded jackets and their cheap rubber boots. Scattered among the drabness were the brightly dressed Western tourists, their pedantic Intourist guides stuffing their ears with English, German, French.
The first fountains came on. Water shot in jets from the mouths of golden fish. Slowly, more and more of the fountains spurted their water into the sky. Though beautiful, it was an odd anticlimax. Water, an element, rose through air to fall again. The foreigners grew bored and wandered away, but the Soviet spectators, except for Kolya who stared off into a middle distance, silently stood in their clumps, watching and waiting, as though there'd be more. They'd been promised a show and they stood gazing stubbornly at the gilded statuary, the narrow water jets, the yellow fantasy palace spread against the sky, the red Soviet flag hanging limp now, as water shot and fell, shot and fell. The spectacle was already over and yet went on and on, a sleight of hand as breathtaking and unyielding as the revolution. Their patience in the face of thwarted expectation pained me: We were promised. We're still waiting.