When I was eleven years old, my mother took me to see Dr. Zhivago on the large screen at the Midland Theater in Kansas City. Perhaps it was because the story was so compelling; perhaps it was because the scenery was so grand; perhaps it was simply because Omar Sharif was so incredibly handsome (never mind that he is Egyptian rather than Russian). Whatever the reason, that movie began what was to be a lingering fascination with Russia. Unfortunately for me at the time, it was the middle of the Cold War, and there was little information about Russia to be found in the heart of America. There were no penpals, no emigres in my middle-class suburban neighborhood, and anyway "we" were supposed to be afraid of "them." I settled for learning a few Cyrillic characters from some library books, tried to fight my way through Anna Karenina, and eventually let the subject go. Twenty-five years later, quite by accident, I found the penpal I had always wanted. E-mail and the Internet have opened doors that I never dreamed would someday exist. My friend Olga and I have shared stories of childbirth, diapers, in-laws, husbands, siblings. We have talked of food and work. We have shared hopes and fears. In other words, we have shared a relationship as far removed as possible from the grandeur and romance of Dr. Zhivago. And yet, we are not so far from it after all. That which is compelling about Dr. Zhivago is its story of ordinary people trying to live ordinary lives under extraordinary circumstances. What, then, can I say for Olga and me? The end of the Soviet era may be less cataclysmic than its beginning, but it is no less profound. And so what Russia means to me becomes complicated indeed. In a way, it is embarrassing to admit that my impressions of Russia are based as much on a Hollywood movie as on real experience. But what Russia means to me has come to me from many places, and rarely from Russia itself. It's as if I have been given a Brazil nut and then asked to say what the rainforest means. How can my answer be anything more than a stereotype? But I suppose we all carry places in our minds. Here, then, is what Russia means to me: It means people, people of great courage and endurance, yet also of great wit and friendship. It means the siege of St. Petersburg and the excitement of May Day celebrations. It means women standing in lines for food, and teenagers dancing at a disco. It means angry words from politicians, and caring words from friends. It means good food and good drink. Russia also means visionary minds. I have always thought of Russians as soulful people. This must come, I think from the great art and music of Stravinsky, Mussorgsky, Chagall, and Kandinsky. It is also the sweeping novels of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, the poetry of Yevtushenko. Russia means great achievements in math and science. It means the political vision of Lenin and of Catherine the Great. And in its darker incarnation, it means the vision of Stalin and of Ivan the Terrible, too. Russia also means places of great beauty and places of great tragedy. It means the bitter cold of Siberia, and yet the unsung tranquility of its Lake Baikal. It means the Ural Mountains and the Volga River. It means the beauty of St Petersburg and the terror of Chernobyl. It means Red Square and Grozny. But let me not forget the more personal meaning of Russia. Russia is Russian, a language which has my mind twisted in knots sometimes, it is so difficult. It is, as I am learning, a colorful language in which to swear. Russia is also family, now. Never mind that I have never met my godson; he wears the same clothes in which I have dressed my own children. He, too, is Russia to me. And for me, a person who just manages to endure winter every year, Russia means impossible cold. The White Nights of summer sound wonderful, but I am always mindful that they must also mean awfully dark days in the winter. Sometimes I check on the temperature in St. Petersburg just to make myself feel better about how cold the weather is here. When I first sat down to write what Russia means to me, I had no idea it would be so hard. I had no idea I would spend days trying to sort fact from fiction, the past from the present. And despite all of my thought and words, I still feel that I have not begun to express the contrasts that are Russia to me. A lot has happened in Russia in my lifetime, and here in middle America we are just beginning to hear about it first-hand. I teach at a community college. Last year we had one Russian student. This year we have five, and a tutor from Ukraine. These students are all adding every day to my definition of Russia. And as I fight my way through the language, I learn more and more. Definitions change. So, I'm sure, will Russia.
By Daphne Bryan