I first started going back to Moscow, the city where I was born and which I left as a child, in the summer of 1995, when I was in college. I had never seen anything like it. There were guys on the street wearing leather jackets over tracksuits. There were old ladies on the street selling their socks. My grandmother’s courtyard had become an open-air brothel—young women would line up at night and cars would come in and shine their lights on them and choose. And the people that my parents had known—academics, engineers, literary critics—had been thrown out of work and were living, many of them, in desperate poverty.
I was young and carefree (though very serious), and I traveled around the country by train. I went south, to the Caucasus, then to Crimea, through Ukraine. Almost everywhere I went, I met young people, like me, who took me in. In Pyatigorsk, an old resort town at the foothills of the Caucasus, where the great Romantic poet Lermontov had been killed in a duel, I learned what it meant to start drinking in the morning after you’d been drinking at night. I also met a young man who was back from his military unit for the weekend. There was a war then, too, with Chechnya. This young man, my age, 20, had been part of the attempted capture of Chechen rebels who had taken over a hospital in the Russian city of Budyonnovsk. The Russian army decided to send tanks to liberate the hospital. The Chechen fighters, experienced men, had trapped the tanks in the city streets and then proceeded to light them up. The young man said he was in a tank when flames came through the top of it, and then his commanding officer was on fire. He scrambled out of the tank, he said, and ran.
In the fall I returned to Moscow and started a semester-abroad program at a college near the Novoslobodskaya metro. Moscow at the time was a place you could buy anything—except a place to sit down and eat. There were a few old and elaborate Soviet restaurants, and there were food stands on the street, but that was it. In the Soviet era, which had carried over to the present, people ate at the often very delicious cafeterias in their workplaces. Our college had such a cafeteria. But if you left the confines of the institution and wandered into the big city, you were out of luck.
I had gone, in a sense, to look for my mother: She had died in our home in Newton, Massachusetts, three years earlier, of breast cancer, while I was still in high school, and though we had been friendly, I felt like I did not know her very well. I did not understand her background, only that she was a literary critic and had read every book ever written. For dinner she would fry a pork chop and heat some peas out of a can. Then we would all sit together at the table and read our books—my mom read new novels in English, German, Russian; my dad read mysteries and anything anti-Communist; I read my assignments for school. People coming to visit would occasionally find this scandalous, but that was how we liked it. We were my mother’s family. We wanted to read.
Seeing Russia as an adult, I understood. It was a poor country. It was a violent country. It was an uncomfortable country, where there was nowhere to sit down and eat. So people escaped into the nonmaterial world. They sought meaning in art, or music, or literature. My mother had her books; my father, a practical man, a computer programmer, had math, and his hatred of communism, and a kind of stubborn Jewish pride. What am I? What is my life for? These Tolstoyan questions seemed, somehow, not out of place in Moscow. For something like $10 I bought a ticket to a staging of Chekhov’s The Seagull at the Moscow Art Theater. I had never seen it before. “I am the seagull!” Nina said, in this staging, very forcefully. “I am the seagull!” (Treplev had earlier shot the seagull, for no good reason.) It was something, it seemed to me, that only a Russian person would say. An American person would more likely have said, “I am a lawyer. I work in marketing. I am a college student.”
At my Russian college, in my classes, everywhere I looked, there was my mother. That young girl poring over a book; and that one; and that one. I fell in love with a girl named Anya. She had enormous green eyes and she had read everything. We decided to get married. “I knew this would happen,” said my grandmother. I was flabbergasted. How could she have known? “You’re 20 years old,” she said. “Not 80, like me.” Anya and I moved to America and, after a few years, broke up.
But I kept going back to Russia. I had become a writer and a journalist, and it was an interesting place to write about, and I had the advantage of knowing the language. But also I was moved by its attempts to free itself of its history, to change. At the time Russia was “transitioning,” under Yeltsin and his reformers, from communism to capitalism. There would be growing pains, everyone said. People would be shot on the street, young girls would be sold into prostitution, old ladies would be murdered for their apartments—but at the end of it, the economists said, you’d have a very nice country. Like Poland.