She was blonde. Blue eyes. The kind of girl who I had only seen in Riga. I could never get a girl from Riga. I was a dark skinned Russian. A Kazak. A Chornee. With the American girl, I had a chance. Americans do not want to be racist. In Russia we do not care. We are racist.
She was part of an American group who was going to learn Russian at Moscow State University. We were assigned to pick them up. There were two blonde girls. One girl was a red head. One girl had curly hair and glasses. We were four Russian guys. We all had the same thing on our mind. There was a chance that an American girl might think Russians were European. There was a chance we would have sex with an American girl. Having sex with an American girl was the ultimate sign of a successful revolution.
I dressed up in clothes that I had bought in America. Before the promises of democratic revolution from Gorbachev, my father was friends with the Eisenhower family. He was a Soviet official. They invited us to their summer home. I bought American jeans and an American coat. I had outgrown the American shoes. I could still wear the pants because I had bought them big. I had my mother hem them.
We met them at the airport. One of the blonde American girls smiled at me. Both of the blondes were attractive. But one had an eye that crossed when she smiled. I chose the other one.
I stuck out my hand. “Privet.”
She tried to speak to me in Russian. The Americans can never speak Russian. They come to the Russian Universities to learn, but all they do is drink Stolichnaya vodka and help the Russians practice English. Americans are a generous people. “Privet.”
I started speaking to her in English. I told her I had been to America before. I told her I had been to the Eisenhower’s. I told her that Henry Kissinger had sat in our living room. I could tell that she thought I was lying.
She smiled. “Henry Kissinger? The Henry Kissinger?”
I said, “Yes, my father was an official in the Soviet government. Very high up.”
With a Russian girl, this would have been the charm, at least before the Soviet Union fell. For an American girl, the Soviet government was Lenin and Stalin. Americans wanted to believe in Marx. I was not sure there was a difference.
She asked, “He worked in the Soviet government? How does he feel about democracy?”
I told her the truth. “He’s afraid of what’s going to happen.”
She was like all the other Americans. “Won’t things be better with freedom?”
Americans did not understand how easily freedom could be destroyed. “We have a different history. Peter the Great tried to turn us toward the West. It didn’t work for Russia. It’s how we got Lenin. I’m not sure we’re ready for democracy.”
She didn’t understand Russians. I didn’t really understand Americans. Especially when it comes to blow jobs. American girls will give blow jobs before they will sleep with you. I never slept with an American girl when I was in America. I had several blow jobs. But no American girl ever loved me. This time it would be different. A democratic revolution.
We took the metro from the airport to the university. The metro was a Soviet accomplishment. Efficient transportation for the masses. Beautiful art commissioned for each metro station. Kaganovich took credit. Krushchev expelled him from the Party. There were prostitutes and graffiti in the metro stations now. No one took credit for that.
She had one big bag. I carried it for her. Her bag was very heavy. She would be here for three months. She told me that she packed plenty of toilet paper. She thought we didn’t have any toilet paper. She was right, but I told her my father had worked for the government. We still had toilet paper if she needed some. There were some things that the communists still had.
She was afraid in the metro. My friend Peter carried a gun in case the gypsies attacked. The gypsies spotted that she was American. The Americans carry dollars. A girl and a boy tried to surround her and beg. It was always the children of the gypsies who begged until the revolution. Russians used to be too proud. I swore at them in Russian. She smiled at me. She had nice teeth. Russian girls don’t always have nice teeth.
We took a car from the metro stop. All the Russian guys had chosen the girls that we wanted. My friend Peter chose the wandering eyed blonde. He had a twitch that made him blink one eye too fast. She didn’t seem to care. We each took separate cars. My driver was a former engineer at the University. He wasn’t being paid anymore by the government. Sometimes Soviets made money by driving other people in their car. It was still a way they made money in the new Russia. He could see that the girl I was with was American. He offered to drive us. The power of an American girl.
“Kyda Bbl?” He asked.
I sat close to her in the back seat. I pressed my leg against hers. She noticed. She liked it too.
We arrived to the university when it was dark. Moscow State University was beautiful when it was pitch black. In the daylight it looked like shit. Lev Vladimirovich Rudnev had been the architect. He was a leader in Stalinist architecture. Now the building was falling apart just like Stalinist Russia. I escorted her inside. I let her walk in first. My mother told me that chivalry is not dead in communism or in democracy either. I took her inside. The guards were sleeping. The babushka that was washing the dirty floor with a filthy rag waved me on when I addressed her in Russian.
We could not take the elevators. The elevators couldn’t be trusted to go to the correct floor. The elevators might stop in between floors and if you stepped out accidentally you would fall down the elevator shaft. Someone died that way. I didn’t know him. Some people said it was suicide, but most of the suicides were committed from the top of the building.
We took the stairs. Dogs and cats lived in the staircase. Pets had been abandoned in democracy. No one could afford to feed them anymore. There was shit and garbage there too that the cats and dogs ate. Broken windows made the place stink less, but it was cold. The drug dealers lived on the ninth floor. She would be staying on the sixth. She was rooming with the wandering eye blonde.
I opened up the door and turned on the light. She screamed when she saw cockroaches scatter everywhere. I told her to sleep with the lights on.
The radio was blaring in the dorm room. The radio was always blaring. There had always been a communist message before the revolution. The radio station didn’t know what to broadcast now that communism was dead. It kept playing the same messages.
I told her, “We’ll have different stations soon. When communism ends. We’ll have Rock and Roll.”
She shrugged, “I don’t mind.”
She looked in the bathroom. “There’s no toilet paper. It’s good that I brought some.”
She unpacked her toilet paper. I told her to keep in hidden because the babushkas who cleaned around the University might steal it.
“Why doesn’t anyone have toilet paper?”
I told her the truth. “I don’t know. Maybe we’ll have more toilet paper when we have democracy. “
She nodded her head yes like she understood, but I’m not sure there is any relationship between toilet paper and democracy.
“Do you want to go and see Moscow tomorrow?” I asked.
“Sure. “ She answered.
This is the way the love affair started.
I hired a driver in the morning. I flagged him down outside my flat. He knew I probably had enough rubles. We lived in the best apartments in the city. He had some time because he had lost his job in the factory. He said he could drive us around all day.
We picked her up outside the gates. She was hard to miss. She was wearing a Columbia jacket and Jordache jeans. She had real Nike running shoes too. She told me she had taken a jog in the morning. There had been a man jerking off outside the entrance. He was wearing blue pajamas. She reported him to the guards, but they didn’t care. They told her that he did it every morning. Jerking off was not against the law. She said it still scared her.
She asked why there was no hot water when she showered. I told her that the government cleans the pipes in the summer. My mother said such nonsense isn’t true. She said that the Soviet government was too cheap to pay for hot water. After the democratic revolution it was still true. No hot water. I told her she could wash her hair at my house. She said she would. She asked why they didn’t clean the pipes in the city near Red Square. American girls are gullible.
We visited Red Square. At least Red Square was still beautiful. Stalin hadn’t torn down the Kremlin and built a swimming pool like he had with the Cathedral of the Christ. She wanted to see Lenin. Some people want to see Lenin removed. Some want him to stay. My mother said he was a terrible man. My father would not say.
There was always a line to see Lenin. There were visitors and babushkas there. The old babushkas missed Lenin. They missed the Soviet Union too. They had lost their pensions when Gorbachev came to power. They were starving. They wanted Lenin back. She just wanted to see Lenin because she had studied the Bolshevik Revolution.
I had seen Lenin in the mausoleum when I was a boy. I begged my father to take me there. My friends told me that they thought Lenin had moved under the glass case.
My father said that Lenin made the Soviet Union what it was. I didn’t know what he meant. He was not a man who liked to explain.
Lenin was still in a glass box. Some people say he is really plastic. The guards don’t let you stay long enough to really take a good look. I don’t care if he is plastic or not. He is still Lenin.
She held my hand in the mausoleum. One of the guards smiled at me. He could tell she was an American. Russians can always spot an American. When we came out of the mausoleum I told her that she needed to go to G.U.M. and buy some Soviet clothes so people wouldn’t notice her Columbia jacket. I wanted her to be my girlfriend. Sometimes the Russian Mafia take the American girls and date them because they are rich. I didn’t want that to happen to her.
She was hungry. She wanted to eat on the street from one of the stands. I told her that it might make her sick. Rumor had it that the meat was from stray dogs. I bribed one of the restaurants owners to give us a seat. There was no one there. The sign on the door said they were closed for cleaning day. Cleaning day is like no hot water in the pipes. Bullshit. The restaurant liked to keep the seating open for people with dollars. I only had rubles. But I had an American girl. He let us sit at a table in the front window. I ordered champagne. It was eleven o’clock in the morning.
“Where did you grow up?” I asked her, but I didn’t really care. I wanted her to stay in Moscow.
“In Wisconsin. On a tobacco farm.” She answered. I tried not to stare. Farmers are not the same as peasants. Peasants were the reason for the Bolshevik revolution. Lenin said he wanted to make the peasants free and equal. My mother said that Lenin and Stalin killed more people than they ever made free. We never learned this sort of thing in school. My father told her to be quiet.
I asked why she was here. “I decided that I was going to get a graduate degree. I liked Soviet history. I wanted to come and see it. Study it.”
She leaned in. “What are you going to do? You know, now that there’s freedom and democracy?”
I was going to get a graduate degree until there was no Soviet Union anymore. “I’m going to sell ice cream.”
“Ice cream?” She was disappointed.
“Ice cream. I can buy a cart and sell from it and then when I get more money I can buy more carts and then I can hire people to sell for me.” Money was to be made, but I wasn’t sure how to do it. Everyone liked ice cream. I had heard of someone who had become a millionaire.
She asked, “Why do you want to sell ice cream? I thought you were getting your Ph.D.”
She did not understand how revolutions destroy lives. “There’s no point in getting a Ph.D. now. The universities are falling apart. Little things like selling ice cream can turn into bigger things. It’s like America in the 1920s. I just need a start. A way to make money. There isn’t any money in getting a degree. Not now. I have to think about now.”
I could tell she didn’t understand. She didn’t like capitalism. Capitalism was what the revolution promised. We talked about the weather. I didn’t want her to be angry with me.
I took her to see a show at the Bolshoi. I bought tickets on the street. Russians buy the tickets cheap. Tourists buy the tickets for dollars. I don’t go to the Bolshoi very often anymore because it’s better to have dollars. My mother and father used to go every week end before Gorbachev came along. My father does not like Gorbachev. My mother thinks there might be hope.
We watched the opera and ate caviar and drank more champagne during the intermission. Exactly as the Soviets imagined. Everyone at the opera. Everyone drinking champagne and eating caviar. Equality among the masses. She liked the Bolshoi. She drank too much champagne. She wanted to go home. I wanted to take her to my apartment.
I hired a driver off the street. I told him to drive very slowly and to take the long way home. I kissed her in the back seat. She kissed me back. Then she gave me a blow job. The driver watched in the rear view mirror. He winked at me. I was glad that I wore the underwear that I had bought in the states. They were leopard print. We didn’t have these sorts of things in the Soviet Union. I bought twenty pair because I didn’t know if I could ever go back to the United States. We weren’t friends with the Eisenhower family anymore.
When we got out of the car I asked her, “Why do American girls give blow jobs before they will have sex? Russian girls won’t give blow jobs until after they’re married.”
She shrugged. “American girls don’t give blow jobs after we’re married. Only before.”
American girls have strange logic, but they give good blow jobs.
I brought her home to meet my mother. She would not be able to meet my father. He never came out of his back room anymore except to eat the food that my mother prepared for him. He ate the food after she went to bed. She didn’t know what he did in the back room. She didn’t care. She still had to live with him because there was no place else for her to live. They went their own ways after my brother died. He killed himself by jumping out of the window in my mother and father’s flat. He was an artist. A Kazak too. Two things that the Soviets hated. My father was part of what killed her son and my mother never forgave him for it.
My mother had no other family. They had been killed in the collectivization movement in Kazakhstan. She told me her people did not believe in owning the land. They fought very hard against the Soviets who wanted to own everything. My mother survived because she had a talent. She met my father when she trained as a dancer in Moscow. She could not dance at the Bolshoi because she was short and dark. She became a teacher. She told me not to drink too much red wine if I wanted my skin to be called white. I never do. My skin is lighter than hers.
I introduced the American girl to my mother. My mother couldn’t speak English very well. My mother said that I should have the American girl spend the night because it was too late to take the metro back. There were too many beggars sleeping in the tunnels. The drug dealers and the prostitutes would be out. It was too dangerous. “When it was olden days. When it was before. There no beggars. We all starving. Communism treat us all the same. Treat us all terrible.”
The American girl slept on the couch that night. Right where Henry Kissinger had sat underneath the dangling lights. She liked being so close to the place where Henry Kissinger had hit his head. My mother told her the story was true about Kissinger hitting his head. She laughed. She liked that I did not lie to her.
It wasn’t long before my mother made her a place to sleep in the study. I snuck in and slept with her. We had sex. My mother knew. She wanted me to marry the American too. She knew it would mean a better chance for me. She called her Liza. Her name was Elizabeth. Liza liked my mother too. Her father was dead and her mother drank too much. She told me that she identified with the Russian people. I was not quite sure what she meant.
I took her shopping for old books by Marx. There were many books by Marx because no one wanted to buy them anymore. Marx was history. I took her to the place where the Bolsheviks had been imprisoned. She didn’t like Lenin and Stalin. She said that they used Marxist ideals to bad ends. She didn’t understand that Lenin and Stalin said they were Marxists too. They killed people in the name of freedom. Russia was fighting for a different kind of freedom now. I was fighting too. For her.
Every weekend we shopped for old Soviet posters. No one wanted them, either. We went to the bazaars where people who were not being paid by the government anymore would sell their possessions. One time there were some stolen relics from the churches that she wanted to buy. I told her they might have come from Chernobyl and that we had to be careful because they might be radioactive. Some people had raided the churches in Chernobyl for Russian icons to sell. They were beautiful. People died because of them. I bought her painted Russian eggs instead and matyroshka dolls too. I told her that wood cannot be radioactive.
I took her on train rides all over Russia. We visited the principalities. She saw that Russia once had been great. Russia could be great again. Russia and I had a future.
She had been in Moscow for nearly two and a half months when I asked her to marry me. She would be leaving in a month. I took her to McDonald’s because she wanted to see if the restaurant was the same as in the states. The food was the same. There were fries and milkshakes too. People from the country would save their money for months to come and eat there. She said that the restaurant was exactly the same except that people stood on the toilets to piss because they didn’t know enough to sit on the seat. They were used to outhouses. There was never any toilet paper because people would steal it.
She ordered a fish sandwich. She said she was a vegetarian. There were no vegetarians in Russia.
I ordered a burger and fries. I asked her, “Would you stay here with me? Marry me?”
She said she wasn’t sure about staying in Moscow. I knew she wasn’t sure about me. My ice cream business hadn’t taken off. I was too late for the capitalist revolution. The Russian Mafia was making all the money. My mother told me to stay away from them. She had already lost one son. She could not lose another. I sometimes drove a car for money but I did not know how to survive in the new economy. My father was no longer part of the government. The new democrats let him keep his apartment because he had earned it. I did not know what to do to keep it.
“I don’t want to live here.” She had been attacked on the streets by the gypsies. When she jogged in the park, my mother made me guard her with a gun.
I asked her, “Do you love me?”
She answered. “I’m not sure what love is when I’m living here. You keep me safe. You take me places I’ve never been. But that’s not love.” She was right. That was what my mother and father had.
She took my hand, “What would it be like if we were to marry? Where would we live? I don’t know if I want to have children here.”
I pointed to the apartment around us. “We’d live here. With my mother. With my father. It’s one of the biggest apartments near Red Square. We’ll raise our children here. My mother will help. I’ll earn a living somehow. ”
She looked sad. “But what are you going to do? If you can’t sell ice cream? What kind of job will you have? What kind of job would I have?”
American girls always want a job. They called it equality in America. Russian women have to work too because of communism. My mother said they did all the work at home and outside the home because Russian men are lazy. She said that wasn’t equality but all the intelligentsia and hard workers had been killed by Stalin.
I didn’t have any answers for her. I didn’t know what kind of job I would have. What kind of future I would have. I only knew I needed her. “Stay. Please.”
She didn’t answer. She gave me a blow job instead. I knew then we wouldn’t ever marry.
She packed up to leave to go back to America. She gave my mother the left over toilet paper she had in her bag. We were no longer receiving toilet paper from the special government store.
Liza insisted on taking all her Marxist books and Soviet posters even though I promised I’d send them to her. I took her to the airport. She wore the Army coat that my friend Peter gave to her. The guards made her give it back.
I never saw her again. The democratic revolution never happened in Russia either.
H.L.S. Nelson holds a PhD and J.D. from the University of Wisconsin?Madison and specializes in the field of science, technology, and society. She has been a recipient of a National Science Foundation grant and has published a book, America Identified: Biometric Technology and Society (MIT, 2011). She is currently an associate professor at the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public and International Affairs and a Fellow at the Philosophy of Science Center. She serves as an appointee to the Department of Homeland Security’s Policy Advisory group on Data Integrity and Privacy (DPIAC). She’d give up everything else to be a novelist and has several novels in the works to make that happen.