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Felicia Swanson

How I Became a Russian Citizen

On an Aeroflot flight to Moscow in the summer of 2000, just after takeoff, the flight attendant's voice came over the loud speaker to give a stern announcement. I mused that Russians always sound angry when they're speaking, even if it's of love; it's the guttural tone, the hard consonants and relentless syllables necessary to survive the harsh winters and broad brush strokes of dense forests and unforgiving tundra. Looking around the plane, I noticed that the Russians aboard -- about half the group -- seemed agitated and annoyed by this announcement. After finishing her statement, the flight attendant repeated it in English. "I'm very sorry to say," her voice now delicate in the way of a Russian lady carefully pronouncing English consonant combinations, "but due to American regulations, we cannot allow you to smoke over American airspace. When we pass over into Canadian territory, we will tell you immediately." An hour later, when the tiny animated plane on the screen passed from Michigan to Canada, a bell went off, a little light, and half the plane rose, went to the back, and lit up.

I realized if I were to fit in during my six weeks as a student in Russia, I would have to take up smoking.

I traveled with five other students -- four writers and a photographer -- and our Russian literature professor, born in Germany, raised in Russia, and emigrated to Chicago a decade earlier. Sheremetyevo looked similar to O'Hare, overcast and concrete, but when we emerged and the Moscow cityscape came into view of our shuttle van, I had a sinking feeling in my stomach. Beyond the outlying suburbs of the nouveau riche, the epicenter of high rises looked like Cabrini Green, Chicago's infamous failed public housing project: drab, ill-kept crumbling towers to keep those dependent on government subsistence in their place. And then I realized it all looked like public housing...because that's exactly what it was.

Our dorm at the technical university was one of these towers, surrounded by one of the small dense forests that pop up throughout Moscow. A toothless man in the lobby held a stick to pry loose the elevator when it got stuck and ward off the wild dogs who came scavenging for food (as opposed to the tame dog and her pup that lived with the man in the lobby). As American students, we ranked above the Chechnyan and other provincial students staying in the dorm and received rooms on the top floor. And while the rooms were nice -- carpeted, with private bathrooms, refrigerators, and pleasant grandmotherly women who served as round-the-clock doormen -- we were not immune to the residents of the other floors. On one of the first nights I awoke to strange muffled sounds; I turned on the bedside lamp to see mice racing across the floor and cockroaches scurrying up the peppered wallpaper. The Chechnyans, too, bribed their way onto our floor, bearing smoked fish and vodka, creating a party in our kuknya, our only shared language the one of cigarettes and toasts.

So many Americans have little sense of their nationality beyond the patriotic duty to shop. Russians, however, have a deep sense of their heritage. We scored points everywhere we went by explaining we had come to study their literature. "Americanka studentka," I would say when introducing myself, "Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Turgenev, Pushkin..." which inevitably earned me big smiles and hearty handshakes and more than once, long stanzas of memorized poetry.

"Russia is a big bed," two men in a restaurant told my friend Cassie and me. They were taking puffs on their cigarettes in between slivers of meat. We burst out laughing -- what else can you do to a come-on like that? -- because by this time we were used to standing out, with our wide smiles and American-fed limbs, compared to the thin, model-like Moscovite women our age.

It is also a land without lawyers, where people fend for themselves and help their brother. While I stood in line at a kiosk on a Moscow street corner, a man came up at my right elbow and asked for money. He was middle-aged, clean but tired, as so many middle-aged Moscovite men appear. I shook my head and looked away. He remained. I turned to my Russian friend on my left. "Why is he still standing there?" I asked in English.

"He is waiting for change," she replied.

"This would never happen in Chicago," I told her.

She shrugged. "He is alcoholic," she said. "Probably he was in military."

The man remained at my side as we moved forward in line. And because I was in Moscow, because it was now my responsibility, too, to help my fellow man screwed by the government, when I paid for my cigarettes and Baltika beer, I gave him my change.

Our professor was raised under Soviet rule, so he understood how to get things done. We were given student IDs identifying us as Russian. This allowed us great mobility, and after four weeks in the city, I understood enough of the language and felt comfortable to travel by Metro alone. After four weeks of group travel, I needed to go off alone, independent of guides and fellow writers. One Sunday I planned a trip to the Tretyakov Gallery, which I had fallen in love with. I wanted hours to sit in front of paintings without the hurry of a group. This was to be my first solitary excursion, and I was nervous about being identified as a foreigner without a firm grasp of the language. So I dressed in the devushka's fare -- fitted top, short black skirt, black high heels -- and made my way to the museum, where I stood in line, preparing my entrance strategy. The fee for a foreign visitor was something like 60 rubles -- for a Russian, only 5. It was a small difference, but I didn't want to pay the extra -- I wanted to be identified as Russian. When I approached the window, I placed my open student ID on the counter next to the coin and did the one thing I knew would guarantee my nationality as Russian: I looked the woman in the eye and I did not smile. She took my money, wished me a good time, and off I went.

Toward the end of the summer we took a trip to the provinces southeast of the city, where Moscovites own dachas to escape the small, hot apartments of the urban summer. We explored the quaint villages and castles, and then took a biking tour through a forest, ending at a hunter's lodge, where we saw the first CD player in weeks. We stayed up all night in the kuknya, drinking vodka and rapping Beastie Boys albums in sequential order. Paul's Boutique, Check Your Head, Ill Communication; the night ended with the beginning of Hello Nasty when we opened the last bottle of vodka and discovered it to be cooking vinegar.

The next morning, hung over, I awoke to hear a Russian woman loudly berating someone. "All Russian women sound angry when they're talking," I thought to myself, and went back to sleep. When I finally emerged for juice and pancakes with caviar, yes indeed, I learned, she was angry -- and yelling at our instructor for his rude students who stayed up all night singing and keeping her poor family awake. I went outside and watched some bored young soldiers playing with a black snake beside a tank. I longed for home. I longed for a bathtub, an exterminator, a car with that new-car smell. I longed for checkout baggers who double-bag your groceries with bags you'll throw out as soon as you get home. I longed for fresh towels and the clean, disinfected scent of American hospitality.

Later that afternoon, after picking wildflowers and swimming in a clear lake, we started back to Moscow in a van. I picked up the last book of my trip, Sasha Sokolov's School For Fools, which I had been trying unsuccessfully to get into. Sokolov was a 20th century writer who emigrated to Canada, and his book is about a guy and a retarded kid and a bicycle. And I knew it was supposed to be beautiful -- I knew it was supposed to make some mystical kind of sense of the world, but hell if I could see it. Determined to finish it, I read on the van, all the way back to a suburb of Moscow, where we got on a bus, all the way into Moscow, and finally back on the familiar Metro. At the end of a hot summer afternoon, underground, the open windows of the car letting in thick hot air, everyone sleepy with the sun-burnt bliss of a rigorous lounging summer weekend; the car was filled with people returning from recreation, men in open shirts, women revealing body hair, even small children lying back in their seats, eyes half closed, the car filled with the strong scent of underarms that no longer bothered me after a summer spent riding the underground, and it was here that I reached the pivotal moment in the story.

I can't even tell you what happened -- I don't even know if it was plot-related, since the whole story seemed to be more about relationships than events, and it was here that Sokolov's language found its way into the center of me, and I began to sob. Long, low, shaking sobs rumbling through my whole body. It was so beautiful, and so sad, and so true for all of us -- and the American remnant in me looked up in embarrassment, though I could not stop crying and the work was so beautiful I wanted to give it the homage and respect of letting it move my whole being. Still, I felt the American pang of shame for ones emotions. And when I looked up at my comrades, they were all looking back at me, languidly observing me crying, with expressions that said, of course. Of course you are crying. You are reading a book, you are living another lifetime in those pages, you are transported to another world that is as heartfelt and full of emotion as this one, and of course you are sobbing.

Of course.

©2007 by Felicia Swanson

Felicia Swanson was born on the Mississippi River, the daughter of a nun caught by a fisherman. Her published stories, essays, and articles range from adventure travel to Catholic dissent. She currently lives with her new husband aboard the Mazurka, sailing the waters surrounding Chicago. Their adventures are chronicled at Life Aboard Mazurka.

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