Photo: Ludovic Bertron
From my favorite armchair in my Upper East Side apartment I am Skyping with my Ukrainian friend Valya. It’s been 26 years since we parted, since I fled the Communists. That was a freezing December day in 1988, when my seventeen-year-old daughter and I kissed our friends goodbye for the last time before jumping on the Kiev-Moscow train with two pieces of luggage and $90 in our wallet, the amount of foreign currency permitted by the Communist government for those granted exit visas to leave the USSR for good.
In our long phone conversations, Valya and I have been speaking about the recent fighting in Ukraine. She says she is proud of the people in Kiev that have shown so much strength and dignity in their defense of democracy. Though I was born and raised in Kiev, New York has been my hometown for a long time now. I never thought I would feel such a sharp emotional reaction to this. I am amazed to realize how many changes occurred in the city where I grew up since the collapse of Communist regime.
Our stories of the past always seem to include the New Year holiday.
Valya lives in Kiev with her 95-year-old father, a World War II veteran, whose health is deteriorating rapidly. The city is unstable, of course, and it’s not clear what Russian emperor Putin will do next, but she will get a spruce tree for the holiday and have a festive family dinner.
In the land I left behind, the USSR, religious holidays were banned. There was no Passover or Easter, Rosh Hashanah, Chanukah, or Christmas on the Soviet calendar. Atheism, denial of any kind of religious belief, was a mandatory subject in Soviet colleges that everyone, including me, was forced to study. The worship of demented Russian leaders — Lenin, Stalin, Brezhnev — was a substitute for religion, imposed from childhood.
The one and only holiday, beloved by the people, that had survived the Bolshevik Revolution and was accepted by the Soviet regime was the New Year. The evergreen spruce tree was placed in almost every house as the symbol of a new beginning.
After a recent conversation with Valya, in my New York City apartment I pulled out my overstuffed photo album and started flipping through the pages till I found a small black-and-white picture of my first public performance under a decorated spruce at a New Year children’s show. It was held at the Gliere Music College in Kiev, where my mother was teaching piano classes.
I am about four or five and look very inspired, wearing a velvet burgundy dress with a white crocheted collar made by my grandmother. I recited children’s poet Samuil Marshak’s famous “Tale of an Unknown Hero,” which I memorized by listening to my father read it to me before bedtime. After the show, the other children and I danced around the spruce tree singing the popular song, “A Little Green Spruce.”
Two major characters that accompanied the celebration of a New Year were Father Frost and the Snow Maiden, his granddaughter. Father Frost had always appeared with a red sack full of toys for kids. I had preserved figurines of Father Frost and Snow Maiden from my childhood to pass on to my daughter. They were handmade and lasted forever. I experienced a sense of loss leaving those two behind while packing our luggage in December 1988.
We were about to leave Mother Russia behind after many years of waiting, filled with my constant struggle to break through the iron wall and escape from a totalitarian Communist regime where being a Jew was shameful and dangerous. We could take only two pieces of luggage with us and had to be mindful about every single item needed for the long journey to a new life.
Over the previous ten years I had survived a brutal divorce, the death of my father and grandmother, Chernobyl’s explosion, being persecuted by the KGB because I was a Refusenik, and losing my job as a speech pathologist. And yet somehow, my little tree decorations were among the few items I desperately wanted to keep. Neither my daughter nor I were aware back then that Jewish people in our new country, the United States of America, didn’t put spruces and pines in their homes in December. Those evergreen trees had a name we never heard before: the Christmas tree. Gradually we learned how to light menorah, make latkes, and sing Hanukkah songs in December.
I always enjoy seeing pines and spruces at the open tree markets during the holidays in New York City. I close my eyes and inhale the aroma.
Last December, my Rabittzin Judy shared with me an op-ed in The New York Times by Gary Shteyngart about his childhood memories of New Year celebrations in Leningrad. Of course, everybody’s memories are different. Nevertheless, I was surprised by the four-year-old writer being scared of his father dressed up as Father Frost in the guise of a bear and by the bloodshed little Gary anticipates witnessing on the Neva River as drunken Russians fought with each other on New Year’s Eve.
As much violence and drama as I experienced in my 40 years of living in the Soviet Union, I never observed anything resembling Mr. Shteyngart’s recollections. I celebrated the New Year in Kiev, Moscow, and the Carpathian mountains, and it was always the most peaceful and joyful time of the year in the otherwise repressed lives of Soviet citizens. And I never saw Father Frost, i.e. Santa Claus, wearing anything else but the traditional red smock.
In my photo album I found another picture, taken in 1977 at my job in a psycho-neurological clinic, where I worked with children diagnosed with severe stuttering, helping them to develop more fluid speech.
I’m standing under the decorated spruce tree. I am 29. My hair is carefully arranged in a Soviet-style adaptation of a Sassoon haircut. I was very proud of my skills to manage my hair looking like I just walked out of a beauty parlor. But I don’t look relaxed in the photo. I’m not smiling. I always felt haunted by my unhappy marriage, trapped in a relationship I’m unable to break free from, while leading another, secret life. I am involved in the underground resistance, secretly distributing samizdat literature and letters from Israel and the US among people I could trust. I have a lover, Mark, who is also my colleague at work. He shares my dream of escaping suffocating Soviet society. I am a fighter, a risk taker.
Another large photo: January 1981, a year after my divorce. I went on a New Year holiday ski vacation to the Carpathian Mountains with my friend Zoya. Our trip started in Ivano-Frankovsk, then we travelled around the Carpathian mountains by bus and stayed in the ski resort of Yaremche for several days.
I was briefly involved with a handsome photographer, Michael, who travelled with our group and gradually won me over with his steady admiration, impeccable manners, and outstanding photography. The Carpathian mountains were gorgeously dressed with gigantic spruces wearing heavy snow coats and hats. I was wearing a light, tightly fit belted black coat, and a fur hat. I smile for the camera. I had some pretty dreadful years behind me, though my former husband, still not letting me go, occupied one room in our apartment, complicating my new life as a divorced woman.
I didn’t anticipate feeling so comfortable with the Western Ukrainians I met on that trip. I even enjoyed the sound of the Ukrainian they spoke: it had a certain softness to it, quite different from the language I heard growing up in Kiev. I despised learning Ukrainian in my school years, being forced to memorize senseless lines from the poems of Pavlo Tychyna and other Communist Party worshippers, full of open propaganda. One of Tychyna’s poems, “Revolution on Maidan,” glorifying the October Revolution of 1917, was very primitive and simplistic, and sounded like a sad mockery of the real democracy reclaimed on Kiev’s Maidan recently, nearly a hundred years later.
The Carpathians, or, as we called them, Western Ukrainians, were strongly opposed to Soviet domination. A common joke among Jews living in Ukraine was that we’re better off with Western Ukrainians, not because they love Jews, but because they hate the Russians more.
On that vacation captured in the photo, I skied, climbed mountains, went sleigh riding, and enjoyed hot-mulled wine, known as glintwein. My friend Zoya and I spent one night with a Ukrainian family in a remote village at the top of the Carpathians.
It was bitterly cold outside, but we warmed up by the huge hot brick stove in the middle of the house, fed by large wood logs. The owners, Ukrainian peasants, offered us warmth and hospitality. They shared with us a simple meal of cooked cabbage, beets, and potatoes, and we sang folk songs under the decorated spruce tree taken from their own back yard. There was no electricity, only an oil lamp, a magic winter night.
Not surprisingly, Western Ukrainians took an active role in supporting, first, the Orange Revolution, when thousands of protesters achieved victory in overthrowing the corrupt government in Kiev that had stolen the presidential election in 2004, and more recently the uprising on Maidan Square. They refused to accept the Kremlin’s hand trying to crush Ukrainian freedom and newly found national identity. I stay tuned to the news, discussing these events with my daughter and friends like Valya.
I don’t have any photos of it, but I remember the last big New Year’s party in my house in Kiev, in December 1983, complete with a large spruce tree. All the guests were friends of my boyfriend, Igor, the love of my life. We had been together since April and had a very turbulent relationship. Right after midnight, when we toasted champagne to the New Year, my spruce tree collapsed. We were able to catch it, preventing a complete crash, but many of the decorations fell to the floor and broke. I saw this as a bad omen, throwing a shadow over the coming year. By the following summer, Igor and I had broken up and, right after that, I became very sick with pneumonia.
I never had another spruce tree in my home, but the memory of the tree and the New Year celebration are deeply engraved in my mind. They became a bridge to success in my new life in America.
My daughter Mila and I landed in the US in May 1989. We survived six weeks at the Latham Hotel on 28th street in Manhattan, among drug dealers, street hookers, and rats; then we moved to an overpriced studio in Brooklyn. Six months later, in November, I decided to try my luck by taking the exam to obtain a temporary teaching license. I was making little money cleaning people’s apartments, while teaching myself English as well as I could. We slept on a mattress on the bare floor and could barely pay the rent. With no extended family or close friends nearby, my only hope was to master English well enough to find a steady job, like teaching. The agency that worked on settling the newly arrived refugees from the USSR estimated at the time that my English language vocabulary was around 300 words. I had very little hope of passing the exam, but I borrowed all the books I could find in the Brooklyn Public library on Grand Army Plaza related to teaching and education and studied them tirelessly every day.
The exam took place at the Department of Education in downtown Brooklyn. The first part of the test was an essay: How would you help instill pride in your students about their heritage? To my horror I realized that I didn’t know what the word instill meant, so I focused on pride and heritage.
Forty-five minutes later I was called into a room for the oral part of the exam. I was greeted by a middle-aged American woman in a business suit. She turned on a tape recorder, had me spell my first and last name for her, then said, “I want you to present how you would organize a Thanksgiving celebration with elementary school children.”
I thought for a moment, my dread building. “I am sorry, but I don’t know anything about Thanksgiving,” I nervously confessed.
The examiner looked at me in disbelief and turned off the tape recorder.
“For how long have you been living in this country?” she asked.
“I admire you,” she told me. “You are very brave. Tell me, is there any other holiday you know about?”
“I know about the New Year celebration,” I said right away, desperate for a chance.
“Very well. Go ahead.” She turned the tape recorder on.
I was ready. I talked nonstop about decorating the spruce tree, making gifts, putting on the holiday show, inviting Santa Claus — whose name I had luckily learned already — to give presents to children. I even mentioned involving parents in the celebration, recalling all those numerous shows I helped put on in my daughter’s school in Kiev.
When I finished, the examiner turned off the tape recorder and said, “Well done. Good luck to you.”
I couldn’t believe my eyes when a few weeks later I received a letter stating that I had passed the test!
No matter how many challenges I had to overcome in my new American life, I never developed nostalgia about the land I left behind. But evergreen spruce trees, decorated or not, always manage to play tricks on my memory. Like the old black-and-white pictures from my photo album, they are blended deeply into my consciousness, bringing back to life both the past as well as that hope that in this new New Year, some of my dreams might again come true.