We are Inna, Yulia, Victoria, Yana, Snezhana, Tamara, Olesya, Nadesha, or Lena. We come from Saint Petersburg, Moscow, Kursk, Barnaul, Kharkov, Odessa, Yekaterinburg, Stavropol, or Novosibirsk. Our hobbies are running, skating, biking and/or sailing, aerobics, dance and/or kickboxing, stretching and/or chess. We were born under the signs of Aquarius, Pisces, Virgo, Capricorn, Gemini, Cancer, Sagittarius, Scorpio, Taurus, Libra, Aries, or Leo. Some of us are 1.6 meters tall; some of us are 1.8 meters tall. We believe in God, or we are Orthodox, or we are spiritual, or it is not important. Our English is preliminary (need a translator) or conversational or excellent or fluent. We smoke occasionally; we never smoke. We drink occasionally; we never drink. We have been married once; we have never been married; we are divorced. We have no children; we have one child. Here we are in photos. Have a look. We are at the beach. We are in a hay-filled barn. We are in front of a fireplace, wearing the sort of fur cap you might recognize from Doctor Zhivago. See our lovely skin, our shimmering eyes of blue or black or brown, our long hair of any imaginable shade. Gaze at our narrow shoulders and slender waists, our full mouths and delicate necks. Go ahead. See us and dream. Click and click and click until we are a single, many-headed woman, a blur of smiles and eyes that call to you and announce: We are a sensitive, funny, outgoing, warm, sweet, intelligent, sexy, disciplined, professional, resolute, stubborn woman from Russia looking for a tall, athletic, confident, successful, witty, kind, financially stable, generous man from anywhere else.
And, yes, we swear we are the women we claim to be, just as we were all once girls. At six, seven, eight years old we watched television all day to see a wall in Berlin — a cold, gray city not unlike our own cold, gray city — tumble and tumble and tumble again. When we asked our mothers what was happening, they shook their heads and tried to explain it to us in terms we could understand: Tsk. Just an old bear, like any old bear in the forest, darling — shot a hundred times over a hundred years and just now feeling the pain of the bullets.
But what will happen to the poor bear, Mama? Who will take care of her? we asked, worried as girls of six, seven, eight will worry for the animals in children’s books.
We will see, our mothers answered. We will see.
So we waited and watched our mothers and fathers, and the mothers and fathers of our friends, and our teachers, and the bus driver, and the checkout clerk, and we scanned them for signs of anxiety about what might happen and clues as to how we should prepare. If the adults around us paced, smoked cigarette after cigarette, and asked each other, Where will we get our food? Who will pay our pensions? What jobs will there be if there is no state? then we were anxious, too, nervously chewing gum, explaining the coming hard times to our stuffed animals and imaginary friends: You must behave very well so we won’t be thrown out on the streets and made to eat from the dumpster and to wash ourselves in the subway bathrooms, where rats drink. If the adults were indifferent and shouted at each other, One government, another government — this is Russia, always Russia! then we walked around with a brave attitude and entertained our friends by proclaiming, Who cares! Nothing is going to change! Worry is for babies! If our parents were the kind to celebrate, to watch news of the politburo’s collapse with smiles on their faces and tiny glasses of vodka in their hands, to hold our chins and whisper, Just imagine what is going to come now! Things will be so much better for everyone. All this time we waited . . . , then we pulled our chins away and walked alone around our changing world and wondered, If not this, then what? What is better than this?
By fourteen, fifteen, sixteen we were old enough to understand that little uncertainties tucked themselves into bigger uncertainties, like our famous nesting dolls. In those early years we watched as the first reformist president became more and more of a buffoon in the eyes of our parents and grandparents, teachers and neighbors. We learned that we were a people without a guide in a dark time. What we’d once understood as the strong, unassailable state was now a long, nervous joke as leaders fell and the congress collapsed and banks shut our parents’ accounts and community-store shelves emptied as the hypermarts and malls opened, filled with a quantity and variety of food and clothes and toys such as we had never imagined. Skyscrapers rose in the cities, and the first generation of oligarchs clogged the Moscow streets with their imported cars. We learned that money was a goal unto itself. And just as we turned fourteen, fifteen, sixteen and started to look about for answers to questions we dared not ask — What makes a woman a woman, a man a man? — we saw our mothers, defiant or supplicant but always dignified, and our fathers, men who’d been giants in our girlhoods, massive from labor, open throated with song and laughter, now given to silence and drinking, drinking and anger, anger and sorrow. At the same time, the magazines and televisions and billboards showed us another kind of man and woman and family: smiling, fit, often at the beach, often in America.
At fifteen, sixteen, seventeen we dangled a shoe over the precipice of girlhood. Our hearts began to beat with heat and want and a lust for love. Our girlhood bodies slipped from us like old sweaters, and what had grown beneath was often stunning and confusing in equal measure. Our lips and lashes, breasts and legs filled and extended, and we woke each morning and found ourselves changed.
Some of our mothers watched over it all with a knowing eye and gave advice: If a man invites you for a lift in his car, refuse. Don’t take money from a man for a soda or a snack or anything. If they try to talk to you when you walk down the street, don’t listen to them. Keep your eyes on the sidewalk. Other mothers accosted us in the shower and in dressing rooms, taking in an eyeful and asking, incredulous, How did this happen? Only your great-aunt looked like this. Those lips, like pillows. That ass . . . And we were unsure whether to hold our heads up in pride or drop them in shame.
It was only a matter of time before others noticed the changes as well. Our brothers and fathers made remarks; our sisters ran their hands over our breasts and giggled or gasped. But no one noticed more than the men from our apartment block, our fathers’ friends from the office or the factory or the field, and our brothers’ forever-sweating classmates, who now found reasons to stop and talk to us, to pause for an extra second and ask, Are those Levi’s you’re wearing? So easy to come by these days. They look good. Sometimes we were followed by leering men who lived on the streets or in the train stations, and their gaze stuck to us like greasy fingerprints. Other kinds of men looked at us, too, men we had never seen before, Russia’s new type of men in silk suits and crisp English raincoats, their hair gelled so that it didn’t move. Sometimes they were bald and driven around by chauffeurs who knew to slow down as they passed a group of us walking home from school. Sometimes they were young and handsome and surrounded by two or three women. We noticed their curious, hungry stares and returned them with curious, hungry stares of our own.
By twenty, twenty-one, twenty-two we had entered a new century, a new millennium, and we were no longer scared little girls and cared not at all about what had happened to that bear in the woods. Political leaders, popular songs, and state-sponsored advertisements told us that it was up to the young to rebuild Russia. The future was ours.
A few of us believed this and tried out for jobs that required us to wear the ugly uniforms of store clerks and fast-food servers, and the work made us grumble and slouch. Some of us chose to forgo work and clung to boyfriends who turned into husbands and then into fathers like our own: taciturn and drunk, or belligerent and drunk, or depressed and drunk, or some odd combination of them all, depending on the day of the week and the weather and the sport results. Nevertheless, by twenty, twenty-one, twenty-two some of us were married. There were marriages of love, marriages of duty, marriages of boredom or lack of imagination. One of us married a short, odious neighbor she had never liked, simply because he stood a good chance of inheriting his grandmother’s elegant pre-revolution vacation cottage on the Volga River. It’s simple, she explained. We will have children. I might have affairs. And nine months of the year we will be miserable and cold. But for the three months of summer I will live in paradise, jump straight off the porch into the water, and eat fresh berries every day. You are crazy if you think life can be more than that.
For those of us crazy enough to think that life could be more, if only just a little bit, there was university. We went to earn degrees that would get us jobs that paid well. We longed to put our hands into our pocketbooks and pull out a plane ticket to Greece, a bra made of French lace, a pair of designer Italian shoes like the ones we saw in a magazine. Some of us were too impatient for classes, tests, and degrees, and we walked around at twenty, twenty-one, twenty-two asking ourselves: Why can’t I go live in the world, be a part of something more than this confused, old-fashioned place? We researched exit visas, one-way tickets to New York, English lessons. I can stay with Uncle Pyotr in Queens! When I was six, seven, eight, he always told me I was his favorite. . . . The more impatient among us found work at the restaurants, clubs, and hotels built to host British, German, and American businessmen. These men were nice to us, flirtatious and funny when they answered our questions: What is it like there? Can I have my own apartment? My own car? For how much? They assured us the prices were very reasonable, letting their hands come to rest on our hips, our shoulders, the backs of our necks. You would be so happy in — and they named a place we could not point to on a map.
In the manner of prayers being answered, the machines that would grant us our exodus appeared. We found them in our brothers’ bedrooms, at university libraries, in the offices where we worked, and most readily in the hundreds of new Internet cafes, where teenage boys left behind sticky keyboards. Just like that we could type in the name of a town, a city, a country, and just like that there was a map, information in Russian, photographs of the main streets. The proprietors of the cafes took great care in explaining to us the mechanics of the Internet, which, they told us with confidence, was going to change everything: Because of the Internet this computer you sit in front of is connected to almost every other computer in the world. With the click of a mouse, you can contact your uncle Pyotr in America. Amazing, really. We agreed. Amazing. And the moment they left us alone, we took out the pieces of paper hidden in our purses and pockets and typed in the addresses given to us by friends: Listen, go to this website. Lena’s sister tried it, and now she lives in Switzerland. She is married to a banker. They have a maid. We typed slowly and carefully: RussianBride.com. UkranianDelight.com. YourRussianLove.com. And, just like that, there we were — or, at least, versions of ourselves: women of eighteen, twenty-two, thirty-one who looked like us and wanted what we wanted. We sat before this machine — one part oracle, one part mirror — enchanted by the possibilities and all wishing the exact same wish.
The questionnaires were easy: Forty-five kilos. Blue, brown, black. Slender, well shaped. Rock, classical. Thrillers, romances, mysteries. Responsible, independent, calm, open-minded, kind. Some of us didn’t believe it would lead to anything. Some of us spent hours with Russian/English dictionaries, poorly translating our deepest desires and personal details: I have golden hair and diamond blue shade eyes. One day I would like to manage a hospital for sick children who are tired. Lucky for us the questions were few, and we devoted most of our energy to our photographs. Casual shots, the sites requested. Alone, if possible. Fine clothing helps present a flattering picture. No nudity. We all had old photographs tacked to the walls of our bedrooms: pictures of our second, third, fourth birthdays, our grandmothers holding a cake, our mothers smiling beside us, our thin chests in homemade sweaters that were too big and then, a few photos later, too small. There were the school photographs, groups of us in the same grade, serious and unsmiling under the flag of the USSR; and then the later photos where we stood at eleven, twelve, thirteen under the flag of Russia. Some of us had photos taken on trips to the Urals or the Black Sea, our pale bodies fading into the gray landscape, our expressions sour or wanting. These photos wouldn’t do. Those of us who could afford it had professional photos taken. Others saved money for the photographers’ fees, or begged our weak-willed fathers for it. If we could not bear to explain ourselves, we stole the money from our mothers’ purses.
It was not unusual for the photographers we hired to pull us aside and ask in confidential whispers, Maybe you want to wear a little less? as they tugged at our black hose or thumbed the collar of our turtleneck sweaters. For some of us the photographers raised an eyebrow and asked if we wanted to put shawls around our shoulders: Aren’t you cold? You must be so cold. Perhaps it is better to show only the face, the beautiful smile. Let us show the world that our Russian women are true ladies: honorable and respectable. Sometimes, if we arrived alone, they watched as we put on makeup, and they casually mentioned that they were willing to offer their top-level services, the finest photographs and most elegant prints, if we spent a private hour or two with them in the darkroom after the shoot. Those of us who did not hire a photographer begged our boyfriends to take our pictures. Of course! they replied. Let us pose together. I can borrow my father’s tripod and use the timer. You are looking very pretty these days. It is a good time to take your picture.
No, we said. Take one or two of me by myself first.
With the help of the cafe owners our images floated into the computer, and suddenly there we were: RussianDoll5399. Bride_to_Be21482. Misslady953. The cafe owners peered over our shoulders and smoked: You look nice. Yes, we agreed, seeing our face, body, birth date, height, eye color, favorite color, wishes, and dreams as if for the first time. The cafe owners took our rubles and stared at us with confused expressions: I don’t understand it. Why can’t you be happy here with a Russian man? Your father and grandfathers were Russian men. Why not marry your own, stay close to your family, make children for this new country? Is it so bad here that you have to behave like the terns or the turtles and travel thousands of miles to find your mate? I don’t understand it. . . . There are so many of us here to love you.
Some of our mothers found out when we told them, and some of them found out when our brothers or sisters dragged them to the computer cafes to show them our web page: She says she is 1.8 meters tall. See, Mama, that is a lie. And when we came home for dinner, our mothers greeted us with slaps and insults, or tears of shock, or enormous embraces and confessions: If I were your age, I would do the same thing! Yes! Why not? I may still do it. I am only forty-three, forty-four, forty-five. Your father won’t even notice I am gone. Many of us didn’t tell our mothers, or anyone, and if a man we had been e-mailing paid us a visit or sent us an airline ticket and secured us a visa, then our mothers wasted no time in calling us sluts and whores as they cried in our doorways while we packed. We stayed strong. We shouted back at them, I am going because I am in love, and that is better than this!
What did we know of love?
We knew love as we’d first discovered it at five, six, seven. The love we’d learned from storybooks. The love the mermaid had for the prince, so strong it lured her out of the sea to her death on the land. There was the love we learned in school: the love for our mother country, the adoration we pledged to farmers, cosmonauts, and soldiers we had never met. There were our first loves: the boy in history class who rarely spoke, or the neighbors’ son down the hall who played heavy-metal music and never looked us in the eye. Some of us let these loves drive us crazy, as girls do when they are eleven, twelve, thirteen. After that, love changed, turned into a strong chemistry, irrational and hasty, that left us dry in the throat and hot between the legs. We sat closer to the boys on the bus, let them hold our hands, wished for more but did not know how to name it and so could not properly ask, Could you please love me?
What did we know of love?
Our parents kept framed photographs of their wedding days in their bedrooms, and we stared at their rigid bodies and expectant faces and opulent hairdos and asked, Is this love? The man and woman in the photo said nothing, while down the hall our fathers farted loudly and our mothers slowly put the dishes away.
A few of us knew the love professed by boys who followed us like hapless dogs: I will do anything you like. We laughed at them. What could they offer us? These were boys we had known our whole lives, boys we had seen naked at the lake, wrestled with and touched and held before we’d even noticed they were boys. We wanted nothing to do with them. Then there were the few of us who, at fourteen, fifteen, sixteen, had gone all the way, had felt our first or second or third raptures, had said the words and heard the words and knew romance as it has been known since the beginning of time. For them the questionnaires were a small torture. We posted photos of ourselves wearing conservative clothes and dim smiles and made no mention of looking for “Mr. Right” or “dreaming of love.” We had found it and lost it, and at that age we thought it was something that happened only once in life.
We spent hours at the computer cafes, waiting for the responses to come. We browsed the Internet while we waited, hopping from site to site to distract ourselves. We clicked aimlessly on photographs of singers and actors we admired. There were newspapers and travel guides. There were websites of naked women on their hands and knees in the position of dogs. There were women with enormous, plastic-looking breasts and hairless parts who made unbelievable faces as men maneuvered into them. We saw websites with photos and videos of women playing with themselves until they reached a closed-eyed ecstasy. Was this love? We quickly turned off the screens and shut down the computers and called the cafe owners over to tell them the machines had broken. We left in a hurry, nerves raw, wondering where we would end up and what love would mean there.
To see if any responses had come in, some of us went in pairs and trios and held hands as if the screen were about to reveal the faces and names of our future husbands. Some of us sat alone in front of the computer and swore we would tell no one what we were about to find out. And every last one of us was disappointed. The men were old, some older than our fathers. They were bald or had unforgivable hair. Their bodies were fat and misshapen or thin and without form. If they were British, they had bad teeth, and if they were American, they wore the white grin of the wolf in the fairy tale of Little Red Cap.
Those were the ones who sent pictures of their faces. Most of the messages came to us with a single photograph of just a section of a man, usually from the belly button to the knees, sometimes standing, sometimes sitting, always naked. We turned away from the computer. Where is his face? we muttered in disbelief. Later in our lives it would become a joke: Where is his face! Ha, ha. Some of us flipped desperately through our Russian/English dictionaries, looking up words and phrases: plaything . . . erotic . . . a Russian doll for all my needs. And some of us, even more desperate, hired translators, discreet girls we knew and trusted who excelled at languages: It says here he is divorced. He has four children. He is looking for stimulation only; no commitment. He thinks you are very beautiful, like Julie Christie in Doctor Zhivago. He would like to feel your skin by a warm fire. . . . We told the translators to write back: I am a good Russian girl, and you are a piece of shit not worth stepping on with my dirtiest shoe. And some of us wrote back ourselves: Yes, I can be your Russian kitten, but first we must meet. You may send a ticket for me to this address. . . . And if we were too upset by the impoliteness of the invitations, we didn’t bother with a response and simply took the tissues offered by the cafe owners, who patted our shoulders affectionately as we cried: What is the point? Who was I to think life could be better elsewhere? I am a fool. The cafe owners spoke to us in gentle tones: There now. What is so bad about your life here? We have no war. The worst of the poverty is gone, we hope. And just look at you! You are young and beautiful, and if you want work, there is much work for the young. If you want love, there is love here — my son . . . myself. . . . And with that, even the saddest of us left the cafes more determined than ever to write our own futures, futures better than those that seemed only a repeat of generations long past.
After a while our hungry ears started to hear success stories. They were few and far between, but we listened greedily to tales of the good fortune that had reached out from the computer screen and swept up a friend of a friend of a friend. One girl met a man from Australia: He flew all the way to Novosibirsk to meet me. Can you believe it? He is tall and tan and has a job in marketing. He bought me a ticket to visit him after just two days here! He has tattoos covering both his arms, and at first it bothered me, but now it is OK. You should see them. They are very different from the tattoos on prisoners here. They don’t have anything to do with the Mafia or murder. They are pretty even, like art.
Another girl bragged that she’d gotten e-mails from a man wealthier than Richard Gere in Pretty Woman: He arranged everything — my visa through the consulate, the first-class ticket. They gave me champagne on the flight, and when I arrived at the airport in New York, his chauffeur was there to pick me up. The apartment was on the top floor of a glass building, and whatever I wanted came to me: food, clothes, cigarettes. I never had to leave. When he arrived, I was amazed by how professional he looked. White hair, a suit, very fit. We had sex immediately. And then again, and once more. When we woke up in the morning, I told him I wanted to go to the famous streets — Broadway, Fifth Avenue — but he said no, that we should stay in the room; New York was too dirty and dangerous for me. When I asked him again, he yelled at me, Do you want to get me in trouble with my wife? You can leave tomorrow! I don’t need this! My ticket back was not first class. But I don’t mind. He won’t be mad forever. I am sure he is planning a way for me to return. I am sure of it.
Other women, other stories: I met his family, and none of them would talk to me. They called me rude words under their breath. I could tell by the way they said them. After a while it was hard to pretend I didn’t hear. What could I do? I was stuck. I couldn’t even find where I was on a map. And still other stories: Yes, we married! I am a citizen now, and everything is wonderful. I have my own car, my own bathroom. He is gone most of the week, and when we see each other, he does not like to talk to me or touch me. I am learning that this is just his way. I will get used to it.
We used the good parts of the stories to keep our hopes up. Many of us began to answer responses from men who did not on first glance appeal to us. We found ourselves having romantic long-distance conversations with kind old grandfathers and men who resembled the janitors from our elementary schools. We spent more time at the computer cafes and less time at home, and our parents and siblings grew accustomed to our absence, and soon they began to treat us as if we were not there at all. Our mothers stopped asking us where we’d been, and our brothers and sisters were not interested in having us with them when they went to concerts in the town square on perfect summer nights. And so we stayed even longer at the cafes, improving our English by chatting with anonymous men who wanted to talk about only one thing. We lived and moved and ate and held ourselves back from the love of family, the love of lovers, the love of ourselves. We were careful to love only the idea of a future we could not know.
For many of us there came a day when we caught sight of a woman at the market near our house who was five or six years older than we were, cursing at a baby or a small child, at the weather, at the price of cereal, and we ran to the computer cafe and scoured our correspondences. Of the men we had kept communications with, there was one who seemed smart enough, funny enough, and not so perverted that we would be afraid. He was not our fantasy, but he looked like a man who would support us should we arrive in his life tomorrow. We started to write him warm notes. We dug around inside ourselves for some glimmer of affection with which to express our intentions: Yes, I would very much like for you to visit. Yes, I am available to travel to see you. Yes, I can leave Russia right now. I am very excited. As we typed, we pushed back the dark stories of the men who beat up girls on their arrival, tied them to beds, refused them phone calls, food, daylight. We told ourselves, I am different. I am stronger. I know how to get out of a bad situation. I can always run away if I have to. And this is what we were thinking as we smiled prettily and wheeled our bags out of customs and searched for the face we hoped was searching for ours.
For some of us it is our first time. We tell the men this, or we don’t. Regardless, they take us in whatever way they know how. They take us nervously. They take us quickly. They take us with anger, curiosity, exhilaration, or humility, and we let them and wait for them to finish and wonder, Was that it? Some of us beg for them to stop, saying it hurts, and if they are kind, they ask, Where does it hurt? But we can’t pinpoint it, because the pain is not just in our bodies but somewhere deeper, where we cannot reconcile the strange sheets, the strange sky outside the window, the strange man doing strange things to us, and we are overcome with sadness. For still others the first time is a welcome surprise, and we lock easily into an ancient rhythm of pleasure that may one day belong to us both.
Some of us don’t last a week. We are scared or harassed or bored or had a plan to leave the man from the very start. We wait until he is out of the house and take whatever won’t mark us obviously as a criminal and hit the streets of Boise or Dallas, Tampa or Los Angeles, and we are full of exhilaration and terror. We find work where we can and live day to day and try not to think about the past. The jobs we get are at the bottom: cleaning offices, washing laundry, taking care of children, taking off our clothes on stage for the dead eyes of truck drivers and men in the military. Many of us came from houses where our mothers often walked around naked, and the exchange of currency for nudity strikes us first as a fortuitous joke and then as a tiresome occupation. In the end we make enough to live on, and our English improves from all the between-dance conversation: Yes, I am from Russia. Yes, I want to be a lawyer, a dress designer, a business owner. The men are impressed by our optimism and determination: You know, you are just like the pioneers who came here all those years ago, so brave, they tell us. America needs more women like you.
If we stay with the man for a few years, the children come. We have one and then another and, if things are going well, maybe a third. We speak to them at the playground in happy, singsong Russian while the American mothers and Filipina or Jamaican nannies stare. We can’t help ourselves. Russian is the only language in which we can properly tell our children we love them. And love them we do, so much it makes us homesick. Some of us combat the constant longing for our mothers, our sisters, our holidays, our foods by forcing ourselves to become Americans alongside our American children. We sing the ugly patriotic songs, learn the Pledge of Allegiance and the correct spellings of Wednesday and February for their tests. When it comes to math, we teach them the Russian way, and, though they protest, their scores are always the highest in the class. There are some among us who come to resent our children, who chide them when they reply to us in English instead of Russian, when they look too much like their fathers. We try not to blame them for how marooned we are in America, but we are quick to discipline and even quicker to anger. Frustrated by our own cruelty, we lock ourselves in bathrooms as clean as any Russian kitchen and let the mirrors tell us what we refuse to tell ourselves: We hate this life. The children we detest chain us to men we do not love or even care for. Go ahead then, our reflections tell us. Leave. It is OK. Leave it all: the family, the home, the nest. You have done it before; you can do it again. And a few of us do as we are told.
Either way, the children age. They take on American personalities and American nicknames given to them by their fathers and schoolmates and aunts. If we stay long enough, they eventually leave us, returning home dutifully on holidays or vacations, and after some years they ask questions: What was Russia like? What was my grandfather like? Some of us claim we don’t remember, though not one of us has forgotten. At fifty-four, fifty-five, fifty-six we realize that the world is made up of two kinds of people: those who, like our husbands and mothers and grandmothers and great-grandmothers, stay where they are, and those who leave. We left seeking food, heat, mates — something our instincts told us to do. Did we want beautiful objects nestled in a beautiful life? Yes. Were we perhaps inspired by our own beauty to crave a life different from the one in which we were born? Yes. Were we wrong to want that?
At fifty-four, fifty-five, fifty-six we are locked to this foreign soil, crying into strange rivers and swimming in enormous seas and dreaming in a language we did not speak as girls. If you had asked us at five, six, seven, What is your life going to be like? not one of us would have said, I will drive a Honda. I will be a pharmacist. I will go by an American version of my name. No. All of us would have responded as Russian girls of that time did: I will live in a cottage in the woods. I will make friends with the bears. I will go to space with the cosmonauts. I will be happy and strong.