Friday, January 6, 2012

Mission to Moscow -- or -- The Day My Universe Changed (2002-11), Part 4



With my arrival in Moscow I enter into the historical memory of many old friends and colleagues who are reading these notes.  I was so excited to be living in Russia that I decided I must share it with those I had left behind, and so I began keeping a travel log to which I would add photos and impressions.  Every few months I would send the latest installment to my family and to my friends at CSC and NASA.  All in all, it was the best, happiest two years of my former life.

I will not reproduce those old notes here.  Their purpose served, I move on to the unwritten life, those things I could not or would not write about at that time.

My apartment was on Kutuzovskiy prospekt, one of the most desirable streets in Moscow, the equivalent of Park or 5th Avenue in New York City.  I immediately fell in love with my new home.  I was a twenty minute walk from the Embassy, and only a forty minute walk from Red Square.  The theater district was spread at my feet, walking distance or a quick metro or bus ride away.  I would go on long walks through old districts and would wonder if George Kennan had also walked there 70 years earlier.

Moscow River at Night
Most of all I was struck by how Moscow had changed since the 1980s.  Although I had briefly returned to Russia for conferences in 1993 and again in 2003, only now was I able to take in the dramatic changes that had occurred.   I could see it in every store, the new or renovated buildings, in the theaters, and in the stylish clothing.  Most of all, I could see it in the faces of the people.  Instead of a gray mass of expressionless faces, in September 2005 I saw people smiling, enjoying their new lives in a country that was freer, government notwithstanding, than it had been at any time in its history.  This was far from an American style democracy, but the fears, the terrors of the Stalinist period that I had spent so many years studying and documenting were gone.  Even the silent repression of the Brezhnev years had for the most part evaporated.  People felt liberated and were living as they never had before.
Novy Arbat Street, Moscow's Time Square

I, too, felt liberated from an oppressive personal situation in the United States, and I smiled as I walked the streets of Moscow.  I smiled a second, still secret smile:  I had shaved my legs for the first time since college and felt wonderful.  I calculated that I could continue shaving my legs for weeks to come and still have time to let the hair grow back before my first trip to the US.

To my own surprise, I found I enjoyed my work in the Consular Section.  The thought of having to conduct visa interviews had nearly convinced me not to go to work for the State Department.  It seemed so foreign to me, so different from anything I had ever done.  I could not imagine what it would be like.  After a first few, tense weeks, I relaxed and began to enjoy my daily routine.  I found I enjoyed talking with people, hearing their stories as I reviewed their visa applications.

View of the Russian White House from Kutuzovskiy
I can't say I was a good consular officer.  I tended to believe the stories I heard and to give the benefit of the doubt.  A person's story had to be in a universe of its own before I would begin to question and give the occasional refusal.  After all, my own story would be difficult for anyone to believe, and that thought was always somewhere in the back of my mind as applicant after applicant appeared at my window.

Kievskaya, my Metro Station
I will never forget the young woman in her mid-20s who appeared before me one day with an application to go to some mid-western university.  I opened her file and discovered she had been refused twice, with one interviewer writing that the woman appeared to him to be involved in the sex trade.  Two refusals like that tend to be fatal, but before I closed the file, the applicant implored me to take a closer look.  I hesitated and started turning pages.  According to what I saw, the applicant was a Ph.D. candidate in linguistics.  There was a long CV and a list of publications.  I looked at the woman and asked if any of her publications were included in the file.  They were, and I began to scan one of them.  It had been published in a refereed journal.  I looked again and saw that one of the co-authors was a U.S. professor who had arranged a one-semester collaboration with her.  This was the reason she was applying, and I could see no reason on earth why she should have been refused.  I asked about the two previous interviews.  "The first consul just looked at me and said refused," she said, "and the second one refused me without asking a single question."  With some degree of anger I entered notes into the system deploring how such an error could have been made.  The young woman glowed with the biggest of smiles when I told her, "Of course I'm approving your visa.  I wish you all possible success in your research."  I sometimes wonder whether I, too, would have refused her had it not been for my own psychological makeup, my transgender side, that probed for a different reality below the surface.
As Featured in State Magazine

Best of all in Moscow, I had friends.  Since the debacle of trying to talk about being transgender in 1990, I had not had many personal friends.  Those that I did have had to pass inspection at home, and thus my circle of friends had slowly shrunk to the people I worked with at CSC.  Now I could choose my own friends, and I rediscovered the joy of having friends with whom I could have a meal, go to the movies, or go on a trip.

I was something of a fish out of water as far as the other Foreign Service Officers (FSOs) were concerned.  I was not one of the young 20 or 30-somethings looking for a spouse, and neither was I one of the 40 or 50-something married FSOs with spouse and children.  Thus I quickly fell into a wonderful circle of Foreign Service Nationals (FSNs) who worked as assistants in the Consular Section.  Almost all of them were women, many of them were divorced, and a number of them were around my age.  We had an informal theater club and would head out in the evenings to everything from art exhibits to serious drama to comedy and even to the puppet theater.  Sometimes OI would call me up on a Friday evening and say, "Hey, let's go to the movies and get sushi tomorrow."  And so we would.
Thanksgiving 2006 with Friends

The fact that I was married made me non-threatening to these Russian women even as it struck them as strange that my spouse had not accompanied me.  "She will be coming later, won't she?" I would be asked.  "Of course she will," I would answer even as it was becoming increasingly clear that she never would.

I also had friends from my earlier visits.  AI, my historian friend who had worked with me in the 1980s, was well into her 70s but still active.  Some evenings I would go to her apartment after work to help her with her historical writing.  Like so much of the old intelligentsia, she had not benefited from the capitalist windfall of the new Russia.  She was living in the same simple apartment she had lived in twenty years earlier.  She had lost her job in the 1970s for daring to write about the astronomers who had been purged in the 1930s, and in 1991 she had been one of the first to join the human chain that protected Boris Yeltsin's Russian White House in the face of troops sent by the coup plotters who had put Mikhail Gorbachev under house arrest.  Yet here was AI today, living as she always had.  One evening when I arrived, she had the kitchen table set for dinner.  As I enjoyed her home cooking and the fruits of her carefully tended garden, I said, "Next time I'll take you to Yolki Palki."  That was a chain of restaurants akin to Appleby's in the US, and there was one directly across the street from AI's apartment.  She had never heard of it.  Fourteen years after the fall of the Soviet Union, and AI had never once set foot in a Yolki Palki.

Wintry Scene near Home
The winter of 2005-06 brought wonderful frosts with temperatures regularly down to -30 or -35C.  I had never experienced such cold in my life, but I loved walking through Moscow all bundled up, looking at the brilliant blue winter sky.  When the snows came, they stayed and did not melt until mid-April.  I went cross country skiing for the first and only time in my life.

I went home for Christmas, 2005, and again for my son's high school graduation in May 2006.  That would be the last time that my spouse and I would come together in joy for a family event.

In the fall of 2006 I moved out of the Consular Section and into the Environment, Science, and Technology (EST) Section.  This was a change from my original assignment, which had me doing consular work for two years.  The stories had spread around the Embassy about the former rocket scientist doing visa interviews, and I was asked if I would consider a transfer.  The person who was supposed to come to Moscow and take over the civilian nuclear portfolio was not able to come, and no one could be found in the US who take that person's place on short notice.  I readily agreed, and the Consular Section acquiesced.

Getting my Portrait Painted
During my second year in Moscow I could be found at Rosatom nearly as often as at the Embassy.  I accompanied high level delegations that came to Moscow to carry out negotiations on more treaties than I can now remember, and on occasion I was able to travel to such places as the nuclear center at Dubna.  The work was harder than visa interviews and frequently had me on the go late into the evening and on the weekends, but just as had happened on the Russia Desk, I found I was able to step in and begin working in an area that until then I had known little or nothing about.  It was tiring to the bone but exhilarating.

Two of my sisters came to visit in September 2006.  I showed them all over Moscow and then took them to St. Petersburg where we stayed with my dear friends Zh* and V*, whom I had known since they kept me fed in the frigid winter of 1987-88.
Summer Bicycling with Visiting Friends

Every other month I would go to Petersburg by express train to spend a weekend with V* and Zh*, and sometimes V* would come to Moscow to spend a weekend with me.  Through her I met her brother S* and sister-in-law M* who had left Tashkent and moved to the outskirts of Moscow several years earlier.  V*, also born in what was now Uzbekistan, had moved to Leningrad, now Petersburg, with Zh* decades earlier.  Our weekends together were always filled with good food, laughter, and warmth.

I returned home again for Christmas, 2006, but this time it did not feel like Christmas.  My spouse's aunt had passed away, and there was the funeral to attend to.  My mother's health had taken a sharp turn for the worse, and the holiday season did not feel like a cause for joy.  I returned home one last time in February 2007, but of that I will tell later.

Summer 2007
The last, happiest of weeks in two happy years came in May 2007.  My son had come to visit for three weeks, and he quickly fell in love with the city as much as I had.  He delayed his return home for another three weeks, and I took him everywhere I could.  When I was at work, he would go out on his own by foot or on my bicycle.  Once he spent most of a night helping sanitation workers clean Red Square.  He invited one of them, a young man from Tajikistan, home for breakfast.  For the first time since he was a young boy, my son and I had time alone and began to know each other all over again.  When I took him to the airport in early July, it finally hit me that I, too, would soon be leaving . . . for good.

Two weeks later the movers came.  In the course of a morning they packed and removed everything except the two suitcases I had come with.  I looked at my bare walls after they left and then took a walk through my neighborhood.  There were tears in my eys.  I didn't want to leave.  How could two years, a time that had seemed like an eternity when I arrived, be gone so quickly?

I already knew that my onward assignment would be in Uzbekistan, and that made me happy.  I knew I would get to see a part of the former Soviet Union I had never seen before.  I also knew that I would for the most part be able to get by using my Russian, but the State Department in its wisdom decided I also should be trained in the Uzbek language for six months before going to Tashkent.  That meant returning to the US and to the Foreign Service Institute.  It also meant returning to Silver Spring, to my spouse, to the house that no longer felt like a home.

Final Days, Saying Goodbye
As I walked around Moscow in those last days and hours, I wondered if I would ever see my Russian friends again.  I grieved, and as I did I came to understand more clearly than ever before that I had no wish to return to my old life.  I had experienced freedom, a new life, and for my own salvation would not, could not return to the past.

I boarded my flight back to the US on a bright August day.  I looked at the Russian fields as the plane rose higher and higher and turned to the northwest.  "How am I going to do this?" I wondered.  1990 had been a disaster.  So had 2000-2002.  I had nothing but a history of failure behind me in my personal life.  This time I had to find the strength to succeed no matter what the pain.  There had to be a way out, a way forward.  There simply must be.  There had to be. . . .

* * * * * * * * * * * *

Follow these links for more of the retrospective story: 
Previous entry -- Povorot -- or -- The Day My Universe Changed (2002-11), Part 3
Following entry --  Decision on Gros Morne -- or -- The Day My Universe Changed (2002-11), Part 5




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