Russian fascination


My husband was away in Moscow in 1995. It was the pre- cell phone/internet era and one day, as I received the long distance call, I was surprised to hear a lilting hello. A lady in heavily accented English asked me to hold on while she connected me to my husband. The connection didn’t materialise and as the telephone operator tried explaining what was happening, I envisioned a smart Russian at the other end.

Russia had fascinated me for long. The genesis is perhaps a primary school lesson, which talked of the first woman cosmonaut, Valentina Tereshkova. As a kid, I had loved the lady’s achievement and name. While I was growing up, USSR had always appeared more fascinating than US. The country was enigmatic. Cold war and iron curtain were terms one often heard. Then Gorbachev happened, Soviet Republic got splintered and we heard the terms Glasnost and Perestroika and these Russian words sounded exotic. Raisa Gorbacheva added to the allure.

My fascination for things Russian was not just confined to their names. Their children’s literature (translated into English) had simply bowled me over. While trying to pick up books for my daughter I had stumbled upon books published in the former USSR. I literally picked up a treasure trove at throw-away prices. We have spent and continue to spend many happy hours pouring over those books.

So, when I heard this lady at the other end, I wanted to say Valentina! (Much the same way Indians are greeted with shouts of ‘Gandhi’ or ‘Amitabh’ in some countries.) I wanted to tell her that I had even considered naming my daughter Svetlana (Then of course, I chickened out), about Raduga Publications and to ask her whether they were worse off after the break down.

Obviously I couldn’t say all that. I just managed to ask her name. I recall her ringing laughter even though I’ve forgotten the name. “It is a beautiful country but very cold”, she said as we made small talk.

On his return, my husband told us about Moscow and Uzbekistan, about the hard working people and their drinking. Old ladies selling their wares on the streets of Uzbekistan apparently used a small abacus to do rapid calculations. He spoke about a people once proud and well-off, reduced to a bad shape. Things have perhaps changed for the better now but these are the memories that get triggered every time I read something about Russia.

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