It was the fall of 1979. I was a foreign exchange student in what was then still the Soviet Union, in a city that was then called Leningrad. I was twenty-five years old and far too naïve for my age. I had landed in Leningrad in August, in the after-glow of summer. And my memory is one of a place that was a riot of greens and blues and gold: the parks and trees bursting with foliage, the canal waters shimmering as they flowed beneath a myriad of bridges, the gold domes of buildings ablaze with the kiss of the sun’s rays dancing on their surface. It was a unique moment in history to be permitted to be there, and I was entranced by this beautiful old city, the lovers strolling along its avenues, the street vendors hawking kvass (a strange home-made brew of bread-y beer) and a sense that my personal destiny was going to take a significantly magical turn.
But as September receded into October, the cold and gray of autumn seeped into the air. By mid-October, fall was more like incipient winter, with frigid temperatures, daylight squeezed into a mere four hours between 11 and 3, and stalactite-icicles dangling from frozen bare tree branches. More than that, though, I came to feel what it was like to live in a totalitarian state, when you had to watch every word you said lest you be reported to the KGB, where the bare essentials necessary to live were difficult to come by for the average citizen, and the future held no promise of any change. People’s souls were drained, as all energy was focused on obtaining food, clothing, shelter, warmth. They would duck out of the office during the day for hours, searching endlessly for staples, joining any line being formed outside a store because something – it didn’t matter what – was being sold. And it was sure to be something “defitsit”, since everything was deficit. The crumbling facades of buildings housed apartments that were carved up into communal living arrangements, several families living in one apartment. I remember buying fruit, coffee, lemons (!) in the dollar stores reserved for foreigners, so that I could give them to my Russian friends.
And so, November slid its way in, and the American exchange students started to think about Thanksgiving. We figured it would be a dinner of tinned sardines, boiled potatoes and bread. But by the grace and kindness of the American consulate, we were invited to Thanksgiving dinner at a dacha somewhere north, outside the city, along the Gulf of Finland.
And this is what I remember of that glorious dinner – an amazing house in the country, covered in snow, its interior alive with color. A fireplace with a roaring fire to warm the very marrow of our chilled bones. And a table laden with, groaning under, the weight of a surplus of food – turkey, wine, vegetables. And, yes – best of all – stuffing. Gelatinous, cornbread, gooey, pre-artisanal, gut-filling Stovetop stuffing. A reminder of home. We sat down together, to eat, and I truly gave thanks that year – for I understood what it meant to be lucky enough to have been born, to grow up, in a society that is a liberal democracy.
Fast forward to May, 1980, a week before I was to return home. I was in a car with two other American students, being driven by a Russian friend. Suddenly, we were surrounded by three government cars, sirens blaring. We stopped and were immediately surrounded by men who dragged us out of the car, separated us from our Russian friend, forced us into one of their cars and drove us to an unmarked building. We were taken to a basement room, no windows, a desk, two chairs. These were pre-cellphone days. We had no means of notifying anyone that we had been taken. We had no way of knowing where we were. No one would know where we had been taken, by whom, why. Our demands to call the consulate were met with smirks and laughs. We had no idea why we had been taken and were terrified for the safety of our Russian friend. This sudden loss of liberty, this assault on the self, the sense of powerlessness – I remember what a gut-wrenching sucker-punch shock it was. Once they started to question us, it became apparent that they thought we were smuggling icons – which we weren’t. And after a few hours, they let us go – out onto the street, just like that, to figure out where we were and how to get back to our dormitory. Our friend was also released. But I will never forget the faces of these Soviet men, how they laughed at their unfettered power over others, their arrogance as they mocked the concept of liberty. This is what happens when there is no redress to the rule of law. This onslaught to one’s sense of dignity – this is what the defenseless feel. We must recognize it, whenever and wherever it rears its head, and we must fight it.
So, yes. There once was a place called Leningrad, circa 1979. This construct of Leningrad is a place and time that lives within my memory. I see it in my mind’s eye. Over the decades since, it has changed its name. It has seen the expansion and contraction of economic, social and political opportunities and freedoms. Other cities, towns and countries like it have seen borders redrawn and names changed, mainly through conflict and wars – all driven by some primal instinct of territoriality and misplaced allegiances to tribe or beliefs. But are we not more than the hunter-gatherers we once were? Does not the existence of music, art, literature, speak of something greater, something intangible that resides within us – a soul perhaps? We are human beings, capable of kindness, love, empathy. We have the ability to dream, to ponder creation. To feel wonder. We should, in the end, be able to rise above divisions we have constructed out of air.
So as we approach Thanksgiving, and we sit down to the table with family and friends, let us remember that we are each but one small breath in the living organism that is humanity. Be kind to all outside your door as you dig into that stuffing.
Who am I kidding – get a box of Stovetop stuffing and follow the recipe on the carton.