Russian Past

Alan shows me how to write a job resume, and we recreate my Russian life – my university English classes and my desk duty at the House of Friendship and Peace – using such words as “educational background” and “work experience.”   Committed to paper and arranged in columns under headings, my Russian past looks unfamiliar and impressive, having acquired unexpected solidity and heft.  It looks as if it were the past of someone else, some other Elena Gorokhova, self-confident and successful, who welcomed foreign delegations visiting the city, then at night dove into the philological depths of research at the University.  I didn’t know I had a Master’s Degree in English and Linguistics; I didn’t know what a Master’s Degree was until Alan told me.  It feels satisfying to be called a master, even though I have trouble picturing myself among these mystifying masters’ ranks.

“You can go to graduate school and get a Doctorate,” says Alan, and I think of the Russian Doctoral Degree, which I would never even dream of, which marked the top spot on the Olympus of Russian academia accessible only to the heads of major university departments, those professors whose office doors were never opened to reveal a live human being inside.

“With the amount of credits you took,” Alan adds, “you may already have a Doctorate.”  The other day he pored over the translated copy of my university diploma, five typed pages of the courses I took for six years after work, four times a week, two classes a night.  “I can’t believe the amount of hours you studied English,” he says.  “No wonder you can speak it.”  I’m not always sure I can speak or write it, but Alan’s voice is so tender and sincere, so loving that I decide to believe him.

I tell Alan of walking along the Neva embankment with my university friend Nina when classes ended at ten, of the gold cupola of St. Isaac’s Cathedral and the dark facades of the Admiralty and the Hermitage on the other side, grim and unglamorous at that hour of the night.  We walked over the Palace Bridge – the river strapped under the armor of ice for five months – leaning into the wind, talking about banned books, Tarkovsky’s films, and those who’d left the country.  “Anywhere out of here,” Nina said.  “I’d go anywhere.  Even to Patagonia.”  In our tight friendship, she was the one with the Jewish husband and hopes for immigrating to the West.  I had no such far-reaching plans: my biggest wish was to reunite with Boris from Kiev whom I met in the Crimea.  Four times a week, Nina and I walked and talked, trying to glimpse into the future – not the bright future that glared from the front page of Pravda but the real life lurking ahead of us, as impenetrable as a winter night in Leningrad.  So isn’t it ironic, I ask Alan, that she is still in Leningrad, huddling in one room with her husband and her son, and I’m the one molding my past into a job resume on the other side of the Atlantic?