On the day of my country’s death, the famous ballet by Pyotr Tchaikovsky Swan Lake was in the foreground on television. I was fifteen, and like all the other students, I was on summer vacation, so I was free to do just about anything that day.
I woke up after 9 a.m. and my parents were talking quietly about something I couldn’t quite understand. Of course, they were still whispering if there was a sleeping family member in the apartment. As my younger brother was still sleeping when I got up, my parents’ calm voices did not alarm me at first.
But when my brother got up and we tried to turn on the TV, our parents told us not to disturb. Our Rassvet television received exactly two channels, and both showed the ballet Swan Lake.
Now there is nothing inherently wrong with Swan Lake, but something was wrong with the fact that the regular programming of both channels had been replaced by ballet for no apparent reason. And my parents kept whispering, even after my brother woke up.
At breakfast we finished the last bread with tea. Mom sent me to the bakery to buy some fresh bread. I put on a light salmon colored tank top with a photo of three pencils on the front (the top was bought at the recently opened second-hand clothing store that sold western goods) and a two-tiered skirt red and white my mom made for me that summer.
The style of my new skirt was very trendy and I felt special to have a red skirt in my wardrobe. I also felt proud of the tank top because it looked western and very artistic, and I was interested in drawing at the time.
I was only beginning to scratch the surface of what it was like to dress in clothes that make you happy. My childhood buddies never paid attention to clothes because our parents usually chose our clothes from what was available in stores, and most of the kids had similar, if not the same clothes.
We differentiate ourselves by the way we behave towards others, not by the clothes we wear. If everyone is wearing boring clothes, you start to pay attention to personality. But my outfit that day made me feel happy – for no other reason than the clothes themselves.
Before I left the apartment, my parents told me not to tell anyone about what was happening on TV. I felt confused. How could I tell anyone about what was happening on TV? Why can’t I talk about the problem with the TV channels? And what could I have said, even if I wanted to tell someone about it?
It would be trivial to complain about a technical problem. And why would I want to talk to someone anyway? Even in our small town, people weren’t chatting with strangers in the bread queue. I figured I could meet someone I knew and tell them about programming today. But what could be wrong as a result? My parents’ warning troubled me, yet I didn’t ask any questions.
I came out ; it was very hot and gray. Our town only had a handful of car owners, and most people walked or took the bus to get around. But that August day there were so few people outside that I was pissed off. The five-minute walk to the bread counter was short and uneventful, but filled with a gnawing feeling, as if something horrible was going on, but I had no way of knowing what it was. ‘was.
I didn’t know what to think as I walked to my destination. Instead, I thought about the wonderful taste of the freshly made short baguettes with the sweet and buttered crumble on top. My mom gave me money to buy both the sweet baguettes and the regular bread. I loved the sweet baguettes because they unwound into fragrant, fresh and airy sheets of bread flesh with an incredibly crispy crust around the edges.
The bakery had only recently introduced this new bread and it was a hit with customers. Everyone loved having the sweet chopsticks with sweet black tea and a lemon wedge added for that little kick of spice. Those who could afford real butter loved these baguettes even more. Our family would buy butter twice a month at a local bazaar, and we would slice it very thin when we ate it.
We had four people who loved butter and a single little oval of handmade butter treasure for everyone. Butter, eggs, and meat were very expensive so we ate a lot of noodles without eggs and made a lot of predominantly vegetable soups. And we ate a lot of bread, of course. Tea, bread and jam were our breakfast champions. Adding butter to the mixture made it the breakfast of the gods.
The line for bread was short with only three people in front of me. Two of them spoke grimly. I just grabbed the edge of a sentence, uttered in a tone like a hiss: âThe USSR has collapsed. The sound of those words enveloped me like a million gallons of aerosolized soot. I felt completely disoriented, as if someone had taken my brain away, but signals from the outside world kept coming in, only to find that the command center was empty.
My eyes didn’t know what to focus on. My heart plunged through my feet somewhere to the core of the Earth. I was trying to imagine what life could be like without the USSR, but no image occurred to me. I had no idea what would happen if the USSR really collapsed.
Now Swan Lake on both TV channels suddenly made sense. I wasn’t sure if the USSR had indeed collapsed, but the pieces of the puzzle suddenly came together. The whisper of my parents. The empty streets. The unease palpable in the air.
I felt like I had run through a beautiful landscape to stop to catch my breath and discover that I had subconsciously balanced myself along the edge of a high cliff that has fallen into oblivion, a bottomless pit. The world has become terrifying. My sense of stability, my place in the world, everything I had known suddenly shattered.
It was only later that I understood what the bottomless abyss of a future without the USSR looked like in real terms. The local industry came to a screeching halt. Job losses. A burgeoning nationalism that made a walk outside after dark a life and death proposition. Massive exodus of Soviet Germans. The change of the official language and the resulting loss of a large number of Russian-speaking families.
Half of my classmates moved to Russia in the years that followed. Others went to Germany. Many people I knew had moved to another country when I returned to visit in 1997. I was unable to visit any of my friends as they were scattered all over Russia and Germany. The same loss of friends happened to my parents. Most of our family also went north.
Now, if we wanted to see all of our loved ones, we had to stop over in four countries. No more summer family reunions under the vine vault in the courtyard of the grandparents’ house. No more visiting friends. No more tea in the kitchen with classmates. No more daily phone calls with friends. More community of people united by common experiences and inside jokes.
So many years later, writing down my memories of that day made me cry unexpectedly. I forgot the disorientation, the loss of hope, the fear and the despair that my family experienced when our country died.
The USSR was a lot of things; most of them were terrible and bossy, yes, I don’t dispute that. But that was never my family’s experience, and the loss of the USSR – as the structure that held us in place and protected us from being thrown into open space – was the most fundamental loss of all my life.
I immigrated to the United States a few years after the collapse of the USSR, but it took me eighteen years to overcome the grief of losing my country. And even now, I’m not quite sure that, if given the chance, I wouldn’t go back in time to live my Soviet life.