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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

FACES & VOICES: To Russia, With Thanks for the Memories




Dear Readers, I am writing to say good-bye. The faces and voices of Russia are limitless, but my time is up.


It is hard to believe I have occupied this space for five years. I dedicated the column to a Russian I love, and, if I was inspired, it was thanks to him. When I was absurd, I could always count on the eXile to point it out, for which also, many thanks.


My great hero in journalism was Hedrick Smith of The New York Times who, in the depths of the Cold War, broke new ground by going out to meet "ordinary" Russians. I have always found the people of this country far more interesting than anything that goes on behind the Kremlin walls.


When I suggested the idea of a portrait gallery in prose, however, the initial reaction of editors was: "Isn't there a danger that you will just collect a lot of complaining people?" Many Russians lead difficult lives, it is true, but I have rarely met a Russian without a sense of humor and, in the bleakest situations, the human spirit triumphs.


As I journalist, I am constantly learning myself in order to communicate. I think many of my readers have been expatriates, grappling with the mysteries of Russia. One foreign gentleman wrote to me saying he was grateful that I met so many Russians because it saved him the trouble of doing so.


What I did not expect was that many Russians would also become loyal readers. To my horror, I discovered that in some Russian schools, Womack was the set text used by teachers of English. I can only assume that Russians enjoyed a good laugh over the misconceptions of this stupid foreigner.


Looking back, I remember many of the wonderful characters whom I interviewed or, rather, with whom I hung out and had adventures.


Recently, I met Valentina Mikhailina, the owner of Russia's first ostrich farm, who made me an omelet from a giant egg, and Vladimir Petrushin, chief trainer at Moscow's dolphin aquarium, who let me go swimming with his Arctic whale.


Over the years, there were scores of others: the late Mikhail Matveyev, at whose dacha I spent idyllic times and learned much about Russian rural life; Aunt Dusya, who had a cherry orchard worthy of Chekhov; Dr. Mitko Kr'stev, the Bulgarian-born keeper of Russia's national lilac collection. There was Lydia Ivanovna, a former physiotherapist who was tricked out of her apartment in a scam, only to be turned out of a makeshift hut when Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov ordered a cleanup of the city before the World Youth Games.


Russian scientists and artists, working from enthusiasm despite poor wages, never ceased to inspire me. My friend Mikhail Butov remained loyal to literature; he eventually was rewarded for this loyalty, winning the Smirnoff-Booker Prize in 1999 for his novel "Freedom."


But I was also impressed by those who tried to carve out new lives for themselves in commerce, people like Andrei Zaborsky, who made a fortune from selling small but necessary items such as batteries and light bulbs.


There were sad stories, too, of beggars, invalids, bankrupts and even a man on death row. Generous readers wrote in offering to help.


The greatest character, however, was Mother Russia herself. Her vast landscapes and uncompromising seasons formed the backdrop against which the human dramas unfolded. For now, I am giving up this column, but I sense that soon I shall also leave Russia, my adopted home for more than 12 years.


I have a request to make of Mother Russia and a wish for her. I ask her to free me so that I shall not be drawn back like a tortured soul after I have gone. And I wish her self-confidence. For when Russia is at ease with herself, the outside world will automatically respect her.