Thursday, October 28, 2010

Russian Lessons, Part 1

I gathered from the kind comments left on Weakness that ya'll are not big Tolstoy fans. We’ll have to remedy that, as William Wallace said in Braveheart. (Back in the days before Mel lost his marbles.)

I’ve told the story of how I stumbled upon Anna Karenina* in the Junior High library when I was 12 or 13, and fell in love with Tolstoy. I mean, who doesn’t like to think about the meaning of life at that age? It goes with the hormones. I saw Dr. Zhivago around the same time, and promptly sobbed my way into a fatal fascination with Russia. I devoured everything I could get my hands on concerning the Romanovs; prayed that Anastasia had somehow miraculously escaped the execution of the royal family. Obsession.

 The interest persisted beyond early adolescence. At Emory, I lapped up every Russian literature and history course that was offered. I found the  history rich and fascinating; the literature, sublime. I loved it all, from Pushkin to Lermontov, Turgenev, Gorky...all the way to Bulgakov, Ahkmatova, Pasternak, Solzhenitsyn. Even the ex-pats like Nabokov.  Finally, my senior year, the head of the Russian department said to me, “Keeem-bear-lee. You have read it all in English. Now you must read it in Russian.” The only problem was that it was my next-to-the-last-quarter in college. This dear old man was so committed to the project that he convinced me to let him tutor me in Russian 101 while I was enrolled in 102. I finished my college career off with 103, which basically meant that I finally mastered the alphabet.

Later, when my sister was at Vanderbilt, she called to taunt me, ”Guess where I’m going?” I said it wasn’t fair that she got to go on a Study Abroad program to Russia without me, because she’d copied me by getting interested in Russia in the first place. So we doctored up my transcript quite a bit, and I went along for the ride.

This was still in the days of the Cold War. I will not digress much further except to tell you that one of my cousins claimed that our antics almost kept her from getting a security clearance to join our country’s most prestigious national security organization. We never could tell if she was kidding or not.

The main things I learned on that 6-week trip were how to sing “Kalinka” in Russian, and how to drink straight vodka. It was considered a terrible breach of etiquette not to return a toast. Being Southern, I felt I had to do my part to be gracious and support Glasnost.

(Actually, I may have to tell you more about that trip one of these days when we don’t have anything else to talk about. I did learn more than I’m admitting here.)

That trip could not possibly have been any more different from the second trip I took to Russia. Back in the days of American Prosperity, my husband’s company sent us on a “Recognition Trip,” which was a cruise of the Baltic Sea countries. The Iron Curtain had crumbled. Russia was for sale. Russia was on sale. When I’d gone the first time, we weren’t allowed into many of the palaces and historic sites we desperately wanted to see. We’d taken boats from St. Petersburg out to Peterhof, Peter the Great’s summer palace, only to be told that we couldn’t go inside. We got a tour of the grounds. On this second trip, our group had the place all to ourselves. The almost-bankrupt Russian government rented out the whole palace to my husband’s company. We were served champagne and caviar on the patio overlooking the Gulf of Finland, followed by a 5-course-meal in Peter’s the Great’s throne room. Capitalism’s final triumph over Communism.

Flash forward. Days of champagne and caviar: So Over. 

Life had gotten increasingly harder and more complicated with the years. My father retired from practicing medicine, only to face a nightmare series of major surgeries and violent chronic pain. His spine was crumbling. We went back and forth to Emory six or seven times for surgeries that were as long as 15 hours each. I was trying to help my mother care for him without going insane. He was constantly having TIA's, falls, compression fractures, the whole gamut of a very painful deterioration. It was emotionally devastating.

During this time, I had one child in college, one in High School, and one in Middle School. At least one of the three was extremely high maintenance that year. (You know who you are. :) ) All three were involved in too many activities, and needed my support and participation in them. My own health had been deteriorating for several years prior to that, and I was going from doctor to doctor trying to find some answers. I was barely able to keep my head above the water. Treading hard.

In spite of all of this Because of all of this, I made the time to participate in a Bible Study at a friend’s church. I was drawn to the passionate involvement of the people there. The unconditional love. The humility. One Sunday, I attended a service with her. An announcement was made: They were sending a group to work in Russian orphanages. To send supplies and hope where they were desperately needed. Following the fall of communism, the former state-run agencies were in dire straits. Under-staffed and out of funds. Kids facing neglect. Babies not being held.

As I listened to the call for volunteers, an electrically-charged chill surged through my body. At the same moment, my friend looked at me and said, “Kim, you should go! You love Russia."

My pulse started racing. Then reality raced back. “Oh, sure. I wish,” I answered, a bit sarcastically. “I'd like to think that one day of these days I might be able to do something like that. Obviously, now’s not the time.”

She just smiled at me.

“Why don’t you pray about it?”

“Okay. I can do that. Maybe God will give me a sign or something. Maybe if He gave me, oh, like three signs, I might have to consider it…” 

(To be continued.)


*Fun Trivia Fact for lit-chicks (and guys):

Faulkner once spoke at a writer's conference. He was asked something like, "What is the most important thing that an aspiring writer can do to become the best he can be?" Faulkner's response: "Read Anna Karenina."  "And after that?" the query came. "What's the next step?" 

Without missing a beat, Faulkner replied, "Read it again."

I've read it seven or eight times. You'd think I'd be a better writer by now.


Laurel said...

That's so funny because The Sound and the Fury is my Anna Karenina.

Anna said...

You have left me hanging! I hope you finish the story soon, I thoroughly enjoy reading your blog. You seem like a person I could sit with and chat for hours. Thank you for taking the time to write!


Susan said...

Can't wait to hear the rest of the story. And, would you please include details of the shenanigans that almost derailed your cousin's job prospects? Just think there's a good story in there somewhere. So, I am making the Montgomery, Alabama to Anaheim, California trek on Tuesday. My plan is to visit Books-a-Million and purchase Anna Karenina to (try to)read during the trip. I am now inspired to give it a try. Will let you know how it turns out for me!

Mrs. Yardbird said...

I think you're a great writer. :) I'll have to read that book!

Donna said...

OK, here goes, I am off to buy the book Anna Karenina. I have seen the movie but I know from past experiences that the book is always better. I am hoping the weather will soon turn cold so I can cozy up by the fireplace and start reading! Also can't wait to here the rest of your story!

Mary Walsh said...

Hey Kim,

We went to Estonia this summer to work with the Russian orphans who live close to the Russian border but on the Estonian side. A trip is planned for next summer with St. James. I plan to go in March or when Mike sets up the trip because we are opening a day center for children with disabilities. You would love it!

The Mom said...

Faulkner had had too much of that branch water to drink or else he would have said, "Brothers Karamazov" by Dostoevsky. BTW I was a Slavic Studies major at Vanderbilt, but alas, I have not yet had the opportunity to visit Mother Russia. When I was in college, there was no detente and Richard Nixon had no yet made the visit that opened the door for other Americans to visit. I knew I liked you!

Kim said...

Oh, I love you all.

I will finish the rest of the story as soon as I possibly can. In the meantime, there's been a trans-coastal migration, and a cast of thousands are coming over this afternoon for a belated b'day party for James!

Tomorrow, hopefully.

"Mom," I love the Brothers, too.

Susan, may you have traveling mercies. Hope you enjoy AK. I haven't re-read it in years and years. Maybe it's time. Btw, that first trip was BC, so those stories may have to stay off the internet!

Kim said...
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Anonymous said...

Maybe it's the time when we grew up, but because of the Cold War, I was fascinated by Russia. Tolstoy, Dr. Zhivago, etc increased the intrigue. While I have not been able to follow up and visit any of the former soviet countries, I have visited vicariously through my sister and her family as they travelled on mission helping to encourage local congregations there.

I look forward to hearing of more of you experiences and insights!!