Veloy has been getting a Christmas package together to send to Slava and Irina in Kiev. I hope it gets through to them OK. From the news, it sounds as though things could get quite grim there this winter. . . . It brings to mind when Slava and Irina were here a year ago last August. We drove them up from Los Angeles and stopped overnight at the Peppermill in Mesquite, Nev. The rooms were ornate to the point of being gaudy. We took them to eat at the buffet, insensitive, I must admit, to the dramatic contrast it must have seemed for them at the time.
I remember how awkward it was for all of us when we realized the disparity. But at least we were able to talk about it. Slava said there wasn't a shortage of food in the cities. But in the rural areas, where his brother lived, there was barely enough to eat.So when I stayed with Slava and Irina in their apartment in Kiev in February, I was particularly conscious of noticing what problems there might be at the dinner table. Irina didn't seem to have much trouble getting food at the market. It did take a lot of work, however. Sometimes she would arrive from work late, having had to wait in line to get a good pick of chicken or vegetables. Most of our meals were simple, eaten late in the evening as we crowded around a small table in the tight kitchen, nibbling on toast, soup, hot tea and fruit juice.
Last month, when news reports showed volunteers from the cities filtering into the countryside to help bring in the potato crop, which threatened to rot in the fields, my mind went immediately to Slava and Irina, and to Natasha and Vanya in Moscow, who, even then, despite a tight budget, insisted on piling the table with fruit and pastries beyond what we could eat.
One thing that always struck me in my travels through the Soviet Union is that, even though the older generation still tends to dress in the drab, dark clothing of our broadest stereotypes, they love to dress their children in the bright, cheery parkas of Western culture. It is as if, though weighted by the spirit of a repressed past, they are dressing their children in the brightness of their most passionate dreams.
I remember, especially, one day at the monastery at Zagorsk. In the courtyard between buildings, I watched a group of teenagers as they stood together in an obviously carefree mood. They were all dressed in bright winter attire that made them indistinguishable from kids at home.
I noticed one girl in particular. She had on a long, quilted coat, lavender in color, bright mittens, a knitted cap and a scarf, wrapped around her face to hold out the brisk winter air. I took a quick photo and later, when it was developed, was especially drawn to the image of the girl in the lavender coat. So much so that I did a drawing of her and am considering doing a sculpture as well.
I realize now that, wrapped as she is in the mystery of her attire, she seems to personify the ever-present mystery and pride of the Soviet people. It is a difficult thing to admit before the rest of the world the vacuity of an entire society. In general, they are doing so with a humility that is inspiring.
While we amble on to other agendas, the Cold War tossed almost flippantly to the side, a drama of potentially horrific proportions threatens to unfold behind what was once the Iron Curtain.
Often we Americans have a hard time understanding how other cultures really function. One instant we are viewing them with skepticism, as an enemy. In the next instant, when their perceived power is revealed as facade, we suddenly change our feelings from distrust directly to disdain, depriving them, in our minds, of the color, brightness and potential splendor of their very souls.