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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

15 Years Later, This Nation Still Intrigues

I could tell from the subject line of the incoming e-mail that my friend Liz in Connecticut was desperate: "Pomogi!" she wrote. With school about to begin, Liz, who teaches beginning Russian to American middle-schoolers, wanted some teaching materials for use in her seventh- and eighth-grade classes.

"IF POSSIBLE," she wrote, "can you get me any kind of ‘authentic’ stuff written in Russian, like theater ticket stubs, restaurant menus (especially from McDonald’s, Pizza Hut), train stubs, guides, bus tickets, receipts, theater brochures, travel guides, computer-related written materials, clothes catalogs, etc., etc. — anything that might interest your average teenager."

Is that all, I thought? But, of course, I was happy to help Liz, for she is one of my favorite people.

Liz and I met 15 years ago in Philadelphia, two members of a group of 27 American students headed to Moscow for a semester at the Pushkin Russian Language Institute. We left the security and familiarity of the United States on Sept. 1 for the adventure of a lifetime, arriving in Moscow exactly 15 years ago, on a cold, gray Sept. 2.

Over the next few months, Liz and I got to know each other quite well. Actually, we had no choice. We slept in the same room along with Julie, another compatriot. In all, there were five of us women sharing a small two-room suite and bath, three sleeping in the larger room, two in the smaller. We quickly learned the meaning of the word kollektiv.

Of the five of us, Liz and I seemed to form the closest bond. We learned that we were both Libras — both born in early October — that we both loved cats, but, most importantly, that we both shared a fascination with this country. We often ventured into the city together, exploring the wonders of the Soviet Union’s capital in the early days of perestroika, years before neon and the golden arches ever appeared as blights on the landscape.

After our four months were over, both Liz and I wanted to come back here. But in the mid-1980s, there were few opportunities for Americans to work in the Soviet Union. Then, in 1986, General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev pulled the Soviet support personnel out of the U.S. Embassy in a diplomatic tit-for-tat, and that opened the way for young Americans to work at the embassy. Eventually, both Liz and I were posted here, where we continued our exploration of this country and watched the events of Gorbachev’s historic experiment unfold.

In the late 1980s, our paths diverged. I went home for a time to teach Russian, then returned here to work on disarmament contracts. Liz eventually went home to continue her studies and work in various jobs that required a knowledge of Russian. Over the years, I shuttled back and forth from Russia and Arizona, while Liz stayed largely on the East Coast. For a couple of years, we lost track of each other, but now we’re back in frequent contact.

Fifteen years after Liz and I first met, our love affair with this country continues. She feeds her interest by teaching the language to the next generation of students; I feed mine by living here and trying to convey in words what I see and experience.

These 15 years have been full of cataclysmic changes, excitement, joy, sorrow. For me, the years of living in and exploring this country have been more interesting or bearable because of people like Liz, with whom I’ve shared my experiences.

Happy anniversary, Liz.