It was late at night on the Trans-Siberian Railway, and I was watching a Russian smoke a cigarette, holding the unfiltered cylinder between his index finger and his thumb in the European fashion.
I had been sleeping fitfully in a small, cramped compartment, and I finally just gave up and went outside into the corridor. That’s where I encountered the Russian, cigarette poised in that elegant, exotic fashion. Wow! I thought. I really am half a world away from home.
I traveled to Russia in the spring of 1991 to visit Kharkiv, Cincinnati’s sister city in the Ukraine. The sister cities program—an effort to cultivate international goodwill and cultural exchange—was pretty new, our partnership with Kharkiv had just begun, and our delegation of Cincinnati businesspeople, artists, politicians, and other city leaders didn’t really know what to expect.
I’ve thought about that trip often in the past few months as America’s relationship with Russia has gotten frostier over the conflict in Ukraine. I don’t really understand what’s going on there now, but I’m glad I visited when I did, at a time when the people I met were on the verge of something new. I took a lot of hope away with me from that experience. I like to think I left some behind, too.
Of course, Russia was the Soviet Union then, and Ukraine was part of it. Still, you could feel change in the air. We were in the age of perestroika; our sister city visit was evidence of the U.S.S.R.’s new openness under Mikhail Gorbachev. We were making this long journey to see what could be done to establish business ties and to sample cultural life. It was a little like what we used to do in the South when new neighbors arrived: We’d bake a pie, take it to the newcomers, and maybe have a peek around to see what they’d done with the place.
There were over 30 of us who boarded the plane from Cincinnati, clutching the visas that had taken weeks to obtain. We were carting along cartons of medical supplies; Dr. Stanley Troup from UC’s Medical Center was on the trip, and he hoped to visit patients affected by the Chernobyl disaster. Individually, we’d been told not to bring anything more than we could carry ourselves—there would be no porters. I was in line with a small suitcase and a guitar case—pushing one along the floor with my foot, protecting the other with my life.
We flew from Cincinnati to New York, then to London, then on to Moscow. In the airport in Moscow, we had our first dose of culture shock: We couldn’t read the most basic information. Confused by the time zone changes, baffled by Cyrillic signage, I was left to guard a pile of boxes and suitcases while the rest of the Cincinnati crew went to check in. My companions returned in enough time to snap multiple pictures of me, exhausted, sleeping on the luggage.
We had changed planes in London, and on that flight I met a British journalist on his way to Moscow for May 9—Victory Day, the celebration of the end of the Great Patriotic War, as they call World War II in Russia. He quickly picked up that we were Americans on a cultural exchange and figured we could use a bit of a history lesson about the role the Russians played in that conflict. “You won’t find one family untouched by the war,” he said solemnly.
The Russians lost over 20 million lives in WWII, he said. “Think about that: One member out of every single family.” Then he bought me a shot of vodka and laughed as I choked down the strong, clear liquid. “You’d better learn how to drink vodka, where you’re going,” he said.
It was cold enough for a winter coat when we finally arrived in Kharkiv. But we had heat in our hotel rooms, and I slept for 24 hours straight. Then I rejoined my group to eat breakfast and review the itinerary with our translator and guide. I was scheduled to sing, which was not a surprise. The surprise was that I was also scheduled to speak: I would be addressing the National Writers’ Union of Ukraine, a gathering of novelists, poets, playwrights, and journalists. I was totally unprepared, and it was the eve of Victory Day—a holiday which, I now knew, was sacrosanct. How was I going to give a speech in English to Ukrainian writers that would have the proper gravitas?
Translator in tow, I rode in a beat-up taxi to the aged office building where the Writers’ Union met. The room was filled with men in tweed sport coats, some of whom were very old. They gathered around me and shook my hand over and over, big smiles on their weathered faces. As they talked, and my guide translated, I learned just how sacred a date May 9 was for them. Their finest young men died on the battlefield while their city’s citizens perished of the cold, disease, and starvation during the Nazi occupation. One charming old man took my hand and told me about seeing U.S. aircraft arrive at the end of the war. “Instead of bombs,” he said, “they opened the bay doors of the planes, and, oh, it was wonderful! Hams tied to parachutes floated down to us, medical supplies, and bread. We wouldn’t have survived, and we never got to thank you.” He wiped tears from his eyes, and the translator paused to wipe his eyes as well. “Now the spring has come, and we can tell you of our great love for your country,” the man said.
The translator and I looked at each other and sighed. I had better have something good to say.
When we were seated a charming Ukrainian band came in to perform for us. Young girls played balalaikas—a kind of triangular three-string guitar—and sang a folk tune in delicate harmony. They were in the traditional costume of the Ukraine with ribbons in their hair and dresses, their skirts swinging over starched gauze slips.
It was lovely, but I was beginning to feel quite nervous. What did I have to say to these solemn people who had been through so much, who were so open in sharing their sadness and loss? When it was my turn to speak, I took a deep breath. “I have to confess,” I began, then waited for the translator to catch up, “that I never finished War and Peace.”
I didn’t mean to be funny, but it brought down the house.
“We are thinking,” one of the elderly writers said, “that our leaders have not finished it either.” There was another roar of laughter.
I didn’t have to do much talking. They were eager to tell me of their experiences. Several of them had been exiled to Siberia in the pre-glasnost days, punishment for having written books or poems that incited government ire. In Siberia they froze, their hands frostbitten and black, fingers swollen so thick they could not hold pencils. One poet told of struggling to put one word a day on paper. If the government could not stop their writing, the forbidding Siberian winter did.
The next day was Victory Day. The whole group from Cincinnati was taken into town, where we were given bouquets. Our guides instructed us to walk past the soldiers guarding The Motherland Calls statue—we were not to smile, we were not to stop—and lay our flowers at the base of the monument. It was so solemn, we wondered what the Russians would say if they could see the way we celebrate the Fourth of July.
Reporters and photographers clustered around small knots of elderly men and women. They had on the same kind of worn tweed jackets I’d seen at the Writers’ Union the day before—a government gift to veterans, we were told. They also received free dental work as payment for their service. The veterans I saw had had their teeth fixed all right, but it looked like they had mouthfuls of lead, like the character “Jaws” in the James Bond movie.
There were, throughout our visit, more festive occasions. At a picnic, I sang Patsy Cline songs with a gypsy trio, one of whom had at least heard of Patsy. I could tell they thought they had great good fortune to play American country music, although my memory of the event is somewhat hazy. There was vodka—a lot of it. Our hosts offered repeated toasts to the Americans, and of course, we had to toast the citizens of Kharkiv in return. By the time the lamb and beef shish kebabs arrived, we were all toasty.
We were invited to ride a yacht at an outdoor park, but the day was so bitterly cold and the water so choppy I couldn’t face it; I hid until the boat had boarded and set sail. Jim Tarbell, along on the trip to discuss business with Kharkiv’s aspiring restaurateurs, spent the outing seasick. True to form, Bobbie Sterne, the city’s unflappable former mayor, never lost her composure.
Even in a beautiful setting, reminders of war were never far away. I recall a trip to a lovely apple orchard, the trees so ancient their branches were crooked and twisted. “This we call the Killing Fields,” our guide said through a translator. When Hitler came, she explained, the German troops rounded up Jews, gypsies, and other “undesirables.” Then they dug trenches in the earth, lined up their captives, and shot them where they could be easily buried.
“For a long time, no one knew what had happened here,” the guide said. “Then some years back, the farmers began to complain that nothing would grow here, the crops they planted died. Talk began to circulate that a terrible thing had taken place.” Eventually the site was excavated and the evidence of that horrible time was uncovered. The citizens of the town were making a memorial to the forgotten dead.
So many parts of that trip will remain with me forever. On a weekend in Kiev, I saw Muslim women wearing black harem pants on the street. I wandered under the lovely linden trees Boris Pasternak wrote about and happened on a gypsy market selling produce, bought the most perfect, jewel-like pomegranate I had ever seen, and ate it on the street, red seeds running out of my mouth with the sweet juice. At dinner at a fancy restaurant on top of the hotel where we stayed, I saw two men at a table drinking vodka and quarreling. After 20 minutes, one of the men turned his head away and threw up. A waiter dropped a dinner napkin over the mess, brought the man another bottle of vodka, and moved on as if this was customary dining etiquette in the capital city.
Throughout our stay we traveled between history and modernity. We wandered in and out of richly decorated Russian Orthodox Churches where priests in their black robes, their beards long and fiercely lustrous, looked like medieval icons. We ate with artists and went to avant-garde exhibitions that bristled with the work of young perestroika-inspired talents. In Moscow we toured the apartments of folk artists who had set up an assembly line in their kitchen for the production of Gorby dolls—a comic version of the traditional wooden nesting toys painted to look like Gorbachev. These artists were saving their money to come to the United States. They showed us the posters on their bedroom walls: huge colored pictures of bikini-clad blonde women surfing on a California beach.
“America is not like this,” I said seriously. “We have cold weather and cars that won’t start and a lot of disagreement in our government.” They appeared to be listening, but their English wasn’t very good, and our Russian was non-existent. Every time I see a blonde in a bikini I think of those young artists and wonder if they ever got here.
Part of our purpose during our visit was to exchange ideas with others in our field. On one occasion I went along with Jim Tarbell to meet a restaurant owner. It was a casual place—Kharkiv’s version of Arnold’s, I suppose. But I couldn’t take it. The smell of the boiling dumplings hit me like the aroma of a bad cheese, and I had to go outside and sit on a bench while Jim chatted with the operators. An old man approached me, gesturing and talking quickly in Russian. I couldn’t understand him, of course, but I reached in my handbag to find something that might make an appropriate gift.
We had come on this trip with the understanding that there were still many things frequently unavailable to—and considered luxuries by—people in the U.S.S.R. American blue jeans, for example: some of us had joked about taking jeans and selling them for a profit. I had brought lipsticks to give out to our hotel maids, but that wouldn’t work with this old fellow. So I offered him cigarettes.
But no, that wasn’t what he wanted. So I offered money. No. He was trying to communicate something important, but I was at a loss to understand what it was. So he kept gesticulating, his face contorted with frustration.
Finally our guide came out and translated. “He doesn’t want your cigarettes
or candy,” the guide said, still smiling. “He’s admiring your large American breasts.”
It is a memory I carry with me when I get low. Maybe the Russians didn’t entirely understand my folk music. But I felt I had planted the Stars and Stripes firmly in Soviet soil: I had impressed them with something made in America.
I had taken along a lot of blue jeans to wear when we traveled. When we left, I gave all my denim away—passed jeans out to random people I encountered. Giving them freely, as they had given to me for three weeks. It just seemed the right thing to do.
Originally published in the April 2015 issue.