|OF KIEV, COW’s AND COUNTRY FOLKS
by John S. Walters In 2011 I received a modest windfall, which any sensible person nearing retirement would have added to his modest nest egg. But this money was unlike any money that had ever entered my bank account. It had no interest in compounding; it begged to be spent, not in part but in whole, perhaps because it knew I hadn’t earned it, or perhaps because I feared that the benefactor, even in death, would change her mind and gift someone or something worthier than I—and I couldn’t imagine anyone or anything that wasn’t. This money arrived on fire and had to be disposed of quickly.
It so happened that I was in a squandering mood, kindled in online conversation with an engaging Russian woman, a medical doctor working for an international health organization based in Kiev, Ukraine. What more promising scenario to separate a fool from his money? Anna grew up in a village on the Volga River, coming of age in the 1970s, as did I. We were children of the Cold War.
I loved the pre-Soviet literature of her country, which as an undergraduate I had studied extensively, even if without much understanding. My reverence for Dostoevsky undermined my ability to summon Cold War hostility toward any tribe from which sprang a genius such as he.
My initial indifference toward the demise of the Soviet Union gave way to unbridled giddiness as I discovered that the departure of Russian Troops from Eastern Europe allowed for the arrival of the Russian Five, who were not, as the name suggests, a Vladivostok based-band covering the hits of Michael Jackson. This was a quintet of supremely gifted athletes who fashioned Russia’s Red Army hockey team into an Olympic juggernaut. For a princely sum these lads brought their breathtaking brilliance to Detroit, giving life to my beloved Red Wings, known formerly, and deservedly, as the Detroit Dead Things.
I set out to impress Anna with my knowledge of her country’s sports icons and literary legends, hoping to demonstrate straightaway that I was not just another ugly American unappreciative of the achievements of other cultures. But were my heroes her heroes? There were reasons to think not. I supposed that a proper Soviet education, which Anna had received, dismissed Dostoevsky as a reactionary and enemy of the people. But would not intelligent Soviet citizens, such as aspiring physicians, see through the ideological claptrap? By 2011, I imagined Dostoevsky having fully ascended in stature, his countrymen, in overwhelming numbers, acknowledging and revering him as a national treasure, along with the resurging Russian Orthodox Church.
In our first Skyped conversation, I launched into effusive praise of The Brothers Karamazov, certain that Anna would receive my commentary as both erudite and winsome. In her quite perfect English, she responded plaintively, “Please tell me you’re not Christian.”
Having stumbled badly on what I presumed to be the terra firma of Dostoevsky, I less confidently broached the subject of the Russian Five, fearing that all Russians, even those of tepid national feeling, would sooner forgive the toppling of an empire than the poaching of ice hockey superstars. But my allusions to the Russian Five elicited shrugs of indifference, even the kind of eye roll for which my daughter was famous. How the names Slava Fetisov and Igor Larionov fail to animate a Russian national is beyond my comprehension. Only Sergei Federov drew a response from Anna, who commented not on his skating prowess but on his highly publicized dalliance with Anna Kournikova.
My heroes clearly were not Anna’s. In things that truly mattered (classic literature and ice hockey), I was more Russian than she. As it turned out, Anna, perhaps like millions of post-Soviet Russian girls (even accomplished middle-aged women) just wanted to have fun.
In the time it took Boris Yeltsin to polish off a keg of Nevskoe Imperial, Anna took an exhilarating flight to an unknown future in Kiev, a rising commercial star streaking on a trajectory toward political independence, despite persistent efforts of corrupt public officials to knock it off course. Cosmopolitan Kiev offered much that hitherto had been inaccessible to Anna, including a world without boundaries, where the fluent speaker of four languages found ample opportunity to exercise her linguistic talents—as did her professional responsibilities, which included recommending treatment regimens in underdeveloped regions. Anna quite justifiably considered herself a Citizen of The World (COW)—who wanted to have fun.
This particular COW found fun and purpose in Latin dance, transmitted, perhaps, in the Soviet kinship with Cuba. Kiev provided numerous venues to indulge one’s passion for latin dance, Club Salsa being Anna’s favorite.
I did not share Anna’s enthusiasm for Latin dance, or for dance of any origin or description. In my early teens, a traumatic event rendered me dance phobic. Ever since, I have rebuffed every attempt to draw me into the simplest of musically inspired movements, even those consummated at a snail’s pace and calling for no greater dexterity than that of a thumb wrestler.
I arrived at this unhappy state in my 14th year, up to which time, however incomprehensible as it now seems, girls considered me inordinately cool. Indeed, it was not unusual for older girls to favor my affections, even over boys a few years their senior, thereby establishing as indisputable my bona fides of inordinate coolness.I was in a really good place.
My perceived coolness, I am convinced, derived from my older sister who enjoyed a fully established reputation for inordinate coolness. I’m not sure why we kids of the 1960s embraced the theory of family branding (if the eldest sibling possessed inordinate coolness, so, too, would the brothers and sisters who followed), especially when evidence abounded of the randomly spawned dork, muddying the gene pool.
In 1966, a new lounge for young teens opened its doors, which demanded my attendance. My mates and I welcomed an indoor gathering place for cute girls, never imagining that a dance floor imposed a protocol for picking up said girls—quite unlike the skating pond, where girls, as eagerly as boys, pursued a straight and unmediated path toward a warm embrace. It got cold; we got close.
In the lounge, the girls demanded dancing. They wanted to dance The Jerk, specifically, but needed an exemplar of inordinate coolness to demonstrate. I felt the weight of a collective female gaze.
I really thought I could pull this off, even as beads of sweat formed on my forehead. I was gracefully athletic, an essential and widely acknowledged component of inordinate coolness. I saw my sister dance many times at home, and I watched with pity as the dorks danced on American Bandstand. Then as now, I believed that cool guys did not dance, that dancing originated with dorks to give dorks a chance to gain proximity to girls, that inordinately cool guys sustained their inordinate coolness by refraining from activities fraught with dorkiness, like dancing and studying. But I could not imagine a cool guy shirking when pressed into a vital public service.
As the Kinks belted out You Really Got Me, I, of James Dean caliber coolness, began a roughly three minute journey (a precipitous descent from the happy heights) by the end of which I had so thoroughly diminished in stature as to join ranks with the Leonard Skolnick’s of the teen world. My adoring admirers, who only minutes earlier gazed upon me longingly, recoiled in incredulity as the image of each spasmodic movement imprinted upon their formative brains.
Dance had routed me, exposed me as an imposter, and hurled me upon the ash heap of fallen teen idols, where I commiserated with Troy Donahue and Frankie Avalon, where we prepared a place for the toddlers destined to replace us, like David Cassidy and Leif Garrett. I had become so despondent that I even considered studying.
As Anna and I proceeded in our rolling disclosure of significant deal breakers–my inability/unwillingness to dance; her inability/unwillingness to discern the greatness of Dostoevsky; my Judeo Christian proclivities; her unwillingness to acknowledge ice hockey as the apogee of sport, if not the whole of human activity– it became clear that Anna and I were not a couple destined for a lasting relationship.
Except for an aversion to marriage, Anna and I had little in common, to be sure. Despite our differences, I had never known a COW and longed to meet one; as for Anna, she got to collect another American man, even if this one she fully intended to discard. I also felt a nudge from my maternal ancestors, who came from the Ukraine. What better way to honor the Motherland than to stimulate her economy.
Anna agreed to serve as tour guide and advisor on all matters regarding East Europe.
This was my first trip abroad. I recall sharing in the rollicking good times of U.S. domestic air travel in the 70s and 80s, decades before domestic airlines institutionalized the perverse practices that have kept otherwise adventuresome feet grounded. I assumed that the practice of subjecting passengers to the most abject of conditions had extended to foreign carriers.
Upon boarding a Lufthansa airbus bound for Munich—the first leg of my journey to Kiev–I discovered to my astonishment that one doesn’t have to fly like a refugee. To board a Lufthansa airbus is to enter a land of enchantment, or so it seems to anyone conditioned to the horrors of U.S. domestic carriers.
Everything about the airbus emitted an air of unreality: the seating was comfortable and spacious, even in coach; the food was abundant and delicious and served continuously throughout the long flight. If this weren’t enough to dumbfound the provincial U.S. passenger, the stewardesses were of such extraordinary quality and substance that I thought of them not as stewards but as highly skilled professionals in the German Foreign Service, whose purpose was to treat you as an esteemed guest in the Democratic Republic of Lufthansa, not in a servile or unctuous way but in a way that acknowledged and honored your humanity, that evinced no desire to be your jailor, that responded to inquiries graciously in the passenger’s native tongue, without a hint of contempt.
These are remarkable young women of uncommon intelligence whose lovely faces are devoid of vapidity, who move effortlessly from one language to another. Their elocution in English, which is impeccable, wholly belies their Teutonic origin. I imagine the Lufthansa stewardess as masterful and at ease in translating an emergency session of the United Nations as in auctioneering at the Nebraska State Fair.
It occurred to me, minutes after boarding a German airliner in Chicago, that I satisfied the requirements of my European trip. I sought a COW and found myself amongst a coterie of such, in what felt like a leisurely glide down a placid river, scarcely aware that I was aloft, barreling toward a distant continent. In bringing to bear civility, high culture, and uncommon aeronautical expertise, Lufthansa was reversing the course of passenger airline history—which I found joyously disorienting.
These were ten hours of undiminished contentment. Upon landing in Munich I had no desire to deplane, even as the opportunity to smoke presented itself. Who was this person inhabiting my nicotine deprived body?
I arrived in Kiev later that afternoon, eager, finally, to succumb to the demands of Lord Nicotine. In baggage claim, I eyed the door opening to the out-of-doors with great anticipation. As I stood outside inhaling deeply, enjoying the bright October Kievan sky, an officious looking man approached. Making no pretense to excuse my ignorance, this formidable looking functionary, speaking a language I did not comprehend yet fully understood, directed me forthwith to Customs, where I was roughed up mentally–and just enough physically–to make me feel as if I were home, in a U.S. airport.
It took at least 90 minutes to travel the 15 miles separating the hotel from the airport. My driver, a gregarious young man commandeering a Hugo, did his best to advance us beyond each imposing obstacle, construction being the chief impediment. Clearly, Kiev was rising.
The trip to the hotel was a jarring experience. We careened headlong into the wild west of Kievan vehicular traffic, streaking by one unobserved traffic light after another. I was grateful for each construction zone that brought us to a screeching halt, giving my internal organs a chance to sort themselves into their proper anatomical position.Kiev is a city of great beauty adorned by towering chestnut trees that drop their nuggets on unsuspecting visitors, who wish they had packed a hard hat. These trees grace boulevards of such magnificent width as to accommodate at least 20 persons walking arm in arm.
The streets were remarkably free of litter. Walking several blocks through population dense sections of downtown Kiev, I noted an additional departure from the American landscape: I saw no army of destitute and homeless persons. It didn’t seem possible for a city transitioning to a market economy not to generate as many losers as winners–even if only temporarily–and that the number of displaced and dispossessed would be considerable. (Anna assured me that the homeless of Kiev are legion, but painstakingly kept out of view, relegated to areas where visitors are not likely to find them).
The leather jacket–invariably black–is the indispensable item of clothing for Kievans, regardless of age, body shape, or climatic conditions. I can report that not all leather is created equal. In east Europe, I expected the swarthy of appearance to predominate, or at least to constitute a sizeable demographic. Kiev is not the place to find them. There I saw mostly pale, fair skin, lots of elevated cheekbones, and heads crowned with blondish hair.
To their credit, the Soviets preserved many of Kiev’s historic buildings, the most impressive of which are the Orthodox Churches, which draw throngs of pilgrims, particularly to St. Vladimir’s Cathedral. To my surprise, the religious impulse is strong and widely exercised, despite the seven-decade long atheist hiatus—or perhaps because of it.
Americans are accustomed to walking life’s tight rope without a net, mindful that the descent into poverty is as swift and certain as one catastrophic illness. Prior to independence, Kievans walked confidently, without fear of stumbling, knowing that a generously cast safety net undergirded their steps—even while taking each step under the watchful eye of an unyielding bureaucracy that, for many, sucked the joy out of living.
Membership in the Soviet empire had its privileges, which it considered rights: pensions for the aged, education for the young, subsidized housing, universal health care—all of which faded away in the post-Soviet period—and which, by 2011, had become a source of growing nostalgia, as Kievans struggled to find balance on a decidedly American tightrope.
For many inhabitants of the former Soviet Union, including Anna’s elderly mother, Erika, dependence had become the ironic consequence of independence. No longer able to live independently in Moscow, Erika had recently moved into Anna’s flat, where along with room and board, she received free doctoring from her daughter, an arrangement that often impinged on the free wheeling movements of our Dancing Queen. As the infrastructure of their social welfare system collapsed, many Kievans found freedom and independence priced beyond their reach.
Financial uncertainty in no way diminished the ferocity with which Kievans exercised the freedoms of speech and assembly. I arrived in Kiev shortly after President Yankovich (he of suspected ties to the Kremlin and for whom the eminently indictable Paul Manafort served as impresario) arrested Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko (she of perceived westward leanings). Her arrest elicited massive crowds of sympathetic protestors gathered in Independence Square.
A large contingent of heavily armed military police separated the protestors from a much smaller gathering of counter-protestors who supported Ukraine’s Putin-backed President. A medium sized high school gymnasium could easily have housed the counter protestors, whose lack of enthusiasm amused me. Anna recognized several dignitaries of the East Orthodox Church from among the stiffs lined up on the side of the President. They gave the appearance of wanting to be elsewhere. (Whom did Anna favor: the Prime Minister or the President? “Neither of them is an angel”).
The military police—all gym enthusiasts by appearance–made no attempt to feign impartiality. They exercised their muscle (I thought excessively) for no purpose other than to subdue the prime minister’s supporters.
Anna and I kept a safe distance, observing events from the perimeter of the larger crowd. I, a foreigner who stupidly left his passport at the hotel, was particularly vulnerable to arrest, or so Anna thought. Further, my voice, according to Anna, drew unwanted attention, even in the din of this raucous political demonstration. She accused me of speaking like a “country person;” a euphemism for ear-splitting uneducated lout. “Please try to speak like a city person,” she pleaded, in hushed urban appropriate tones. She warned me also of my impending death, diagnosing my hands as too chronically cold to sustain life.
I assumed that the hostility expressed toward the Putin friendly President was as much directed, if not more so, toward Russia, a traditional villain that I doubted Kievans had even begun to absolve from historic injustices, let alone transgressions of recent vintage. But I was quite wrong.
Centuries of intermarriage have saturated this relationship in a deep well of ambivalence. I encountered no Kievan without at least one familial tie to Russia. In shops, restaurants, hotels—wherever Anna engaged Kievans in conversation and revealed her Russian heritage—the locals received her enthusiastically, telling of Aunts, Uncles, Grandparents, who settled in or near Anna’s hometown of Saratov. From these encounters, I witnessed a rich reserve of affection for Russia, even as Kievans prized their independence.
Poor Anna, I thought, as my forefinger extricated a chunk of rhubarb from an incisor. The embodiment of sophistication and urbanity wasted an entire day tutoring a village idiot in the art of city dwelling, answering his incessant questions, delivered invariably in the pitch of a carnival barker. She must surely have been eager to abandon this dance deficient bumpkin in favor of busting a groove at Club Salsa, if for no other reason than to shake off the day’s embarrassments. She would have been wholly justified in doing so.
Even though she could have been less imperious in regulating the volume of my speech, Anna otherwise had been a good sport, responding thoughtfully to my inquiries, as I dragged her to places of little appeal to her but of great interest to me. She had earned her deliverance. As I was about to hail a cab and release her into the night, an exasperated Anna asked, “If you don’t like to dance, what do you like to do?” “I like to drink,” said I. “Thank God,” said Anna reverentially, which had the effect of extending our association for several additional hours. PS. Anna and I spent an evening of prodigious drinking, which—as it so often does in even the most urbane of city folk–revealed in Anna the existence of a country person, a slightly debauched Tammy Wynette, I thought. About the Author:John Spencer Walters lives in the Rocky Mountains. His non-academic work has appeared in such publications as Defenestration and Foliate Oak Literary Magazine.