By James Michael Dorsey
At 67 Natalia still held a slight veneer of beauty which was most unusual for a post-war child of Russia.
The day we met in Saint Petersburg, through a mutual friend, she insisted on taking me to the Tikhvin cemetery, a maze of gigantic baroque monuments to famous dead Russians, and at the grave of Pushkin’s wife, she closed her eyes, appearingly transported to another place, and in the softest of voices, began to recite his poetry, obviously imprinted on her soul as it seems to be in that of most Russians.
Even though we had just met I felt her need to talk to someone from another place; someone whose life was not molded by the past shackles of Communism, and there, among the elite artistic deceased of her country her life story poured out like a bursting dam.
It began with a tirade against the just re-elected president Putin, whom it seemed had no support from anyone I met in the entire country and had apparently stolen the recent election as everyone had predicted he would. “We are now free to say anything we want,” she told me, “But life is just the same.” Still she could not help giving me a running commentary on Russian history that that also flowed from most of my local acquaintances, realizing that those of her age received more political indoctrination than education as a child.
As we strolled past the graves of Russia’s great writers she spoke of how her mother told her as a young girl to never have dreams as they would never come true, and that she should get a job as a waitress or cook because that way she would always have food. This was the mind set of those who survived the war, living on garbage or starving. She said this as a matter of fact with no self- pity in her voice, making the gap obvious between those who grew up under communism and the young girls strolling by in their short skirts and high heels wobbling over cobblestone streets with ipods in their ears.
I changed the conversation and told her I had a small amount of ashes with me; the remains of a deceased friend whose wish was to be spread all over the world, wherever his friends traveled, and I thought this a proper place to leave them. This was obviously not a mood raiser and a look of incomprehension spread across her face as she asked me what I meant.
I told her about my friend, a famous man and world traveler whose friends were spreading his ashes wherever we now traveled, but could see that she didn’t understand. “Why do you have human ashes?” she asked. “Bodies only burn in war.” I explained as best as I could, but apparently cremation is an alien concept in Russia and she said I could not do that there, meaning the grave of Mrs. Pushkin, and making me feel as though it would be some sort of desecration. I did not pursue the matter and we walked on a while, not speaking until we reached the grave of Tolstoy where she paused and said, “OK, you can leave ashes here.” Obviously Mr. Tolstoy was much further down her list of great people.
Where the Cold War Was Really Cold
She would not speak of her childhood anymore but told me of various jobs she held as a young woman, trying to keep food on the table for her mother and herself after losing her father to the “Great Patriotic War.”
Her eyes finally showed some life when she told me she now runs a bed and breakfast for exchange students and they bring the world to her for the first time. She pulled out a photo of a girl from Ghana and said, “Imagine seeing Ghana” as though it were another planet. I told her that now she was traveling the world through the eyes of her boarders and that in itself was living a dream. She looked thoughtful for a moment, obviously considering this concept for the first time and with a tiny smile said, “You’re right.”
We walked on in silence as I processed this incredible insight to a culture long alien to me.
My childhood included the days of bomb shelters, and drop and cover drills in school, living in constant fear of when the “Rooskies” would drop the big one directly on top of my house. I remember the Cuban missile crisis as though it were yesterday, was taught that communism was a dirty word, and now I was learning from their side, from a parallel life that was raised on the same stories about America. But we were mainly separated by the fact that I grew up in a land not knowing hunger or living in fear that my government would knock on my door in the middle of the night.
We parted ways at the underground station, and she invited my wife and I to her home the next day, “for pancakes” she said, as I watched her descend into the bowls of Saint Petersburg.