To Russia, with Love

Why one woman traveled to Moscow to introduce the man she married to the man he never met: his father.

by Deborah Copaken Kogan
COMRADES: The Kogan clan (from left: Paul, Sasha, Deborah and Jacob) at Saint Basil’s Cathedral in Red Square.
Photograph: Photographed by Katherine Wolkoff

AFTER A nine-hour overnight flight, we made our way to my friend Cliff’s apartment, located in central Moscow a few floors above his office at the New York Times bureau. Formerly a complex strictly for foreigners, the building had been my lifeline back when I was a photo­journalist working in the city.

As we approached Moscow from the airport, I was floored by what I saw. “Oh my god!” I said to the kids. “Isn’t that amazing!” They stared out the car window and saw nothing out of the ordinary to Western eyes: giant billboards, massive shopping malls, restaurants and coffee shops and grocery stores offering all manner of food and beverage. I, on the other hand, looked out the window and saw the complete transformation of the leaden city I once knew into a Technicolor smorgasbord of capitalists gone wild. The disconnect between what I saw and what the kids saw felt not unlike being the only one of the group on acid.

I tried explaining the time warp in which I found myself. “You don’t understand,” I told them. “When your father and I lived here in 1991, there were no functional stores, never mind shopping malls.” On every block, I said, there was a purse repair shop but no shop that sold purses. If you wanted to cook dinner or, heaven forbid, throw a dinner party without spending your life savings at the foreigners-only grocery store, you’d have to spend days hunting down black market contacts for meat, cheese, everything. You’d have to stand for hours in breadlines, hoping the bread truck happened to show up that day.

“Come on, Mom, really?” said Jacob. He’s 14, that testy age when kids question the veracity of every statement their parents utter.

To put it in terms he could grasp, I explained that, aside from when I was pregnant, I’ve weighed about 112 for my entire adult life, except for two distinct periods: during college, when I gained, then lost, then regained the proverbial freshman 15; and during the year Paul and I worked as journalists in Moscow, when I dropped down to a bone-jutting 95 pounds. I wasn’t anorexic, I told him. I was hungry.

My husband’s flight wasn’t scheduled to arrive for another two hours, so the kids and I made our way on foot from Cliff’s to Red Square, stopping near Pushkin Square at one of the dozens of Shokoladnitsa (pot of chocolate) cafés that have sprouted in Moscow the way Starbucks shops have elsewhere. I was awed by the idea of being able to stop for hot chocolate in the middle of Moscow, but my brooding teenager wasn’t moved until he spotted Saint Basil’s at the edge of its massive cobblestone plaza.

While he and his sister sketched the cathedral, I ran interference with the Russian grandmothers who kept coming up to tell my daughter she would freeze her ovaries by sitting on the ground. Time suddenly felt slippery.
Hadn’t those same babushkas just finished warning me that I’d freeze my ovaries in that exact same spot back in 1991? I wanted to shout, “Look, I’m the mother of three, the last of whom was a fortieth-birthday surprise! You were all wrong about my ovaries.”

MY HUSBAND and I met in Paris when we were both just out of college, and we moved in together almost immediately. It was as romantic and immaturely impulsive as it sounds. That our partnership has survived the 19 years since is a testament to love, no doubt, but perhaps more critically to perseverance, conflict resolution skills and a couple of excellent therapists.

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