short excerpts...other writings...upon occasion or as prompted...
The tiger in the water? A representation of my life -- spirit and environment!


Wednesday, May 12, 2010

My Friend, Sveta

Thanks to my friend, Svetlana (Sveta), I knew what to do to get my daughter, Lizzie, into school when I took her with me on a study year in Moscow. Thanks to Sveta, Lizzie was adequately prepared for school once we got past the first few weeks of filling out all the paperwork and receiving all the permissions (not easy in the days of the Soviet Union -- American kids simply did not "transfer" to Soviet schools, and approving anomalies did not come easy to USSR bureaucrats). Thanks to Sveta, I grew to know Soviet society and, more important, Soviet people very well.

Sveta and I had become acquainted two years earlier. When I showed up in 1984 in Moscow with Lizzie in tow, Sveta already knew who she was and eagerly awaited the opportunity to meet her and introduce her to children’s life in the Soviet Union. To Sveta’s delight, while waiting to get Lizzie enrolled in school, I still had to go to my own classes at the University of Moscow, where I was taking a graduate course in dialectology. Concurrently, I was conducting research for my dissertation at Dissertatsionyj zal (the dissertation archives) at Biblioteka imeni Lenina (Lenin Library) downtown. So, Lizzie would have been alone for long periods of time had not Sveta, a graduate student in the field of philosophy, watched out for her. Sveta also gave Lizzie indirect lessons in Russian that stood her in good stead in her early days in School #77. Sveta knew no English so all communication was in Russian, and Lizzie picked up the language by necessity. When she started attending school, Lizzie already had a comfort level in communicating and sufficient tolerance of ambiguity in the language not to panic when she did not understand.

Sveta and I were bonded by our daughters, Sonya and Noelle, and her brother, who lived in the same "sektor" (dorm area) of the university that we did. Although I never met Sonya, who had moved back to Krasnodar to live with her father shortly before I became acquainted with Sveta, I felt like I knew her because she, like Noelle, suffered from hydrocephalus, colloquially known as water-on-the-brain. Although Sveta never met Noelle, she felt like she knew her because both her brother and Noelle coped daily with paraplegia. Until I showed up with Lizzie, we had only pictures through which to share our families. Now I had a real child with me, Noelle’s sister, Lizzie. Sveta promised to bring her real McCoy, Sonya, from Krasnodar so the children could play together. Like most graduate students, we had great plans for ourselves and for our children.

The three of us had not spent many hours together, however, before Sveta was diagnosed with tuberculosis. I urged her to stay in Moscow where the medical care was more advanced and where I could keep an eye on her. Her husband demanded that she return to Krasnodar where he could take care of her and she could be with her daughter. She returned to Krasnodar, begging me to come visit her there. I had no visa for Krasnodar and no hope at that time for getting one because I would have had to indicate that I was planning to visit a friend—at a time when Russians were not supposed to be friends with Americans.

“No problem,” said Sveta. “Just jump on the train and come without a visa. No one will know you are not Russian.” Well, perhaps my generic appearance and my Russian-language skills would allow me to pass for a Russian. The Ministry of Education of Ukraine proved that hypothesis to be true ten years later when it bought me a Russian ticket, not a foreigner ticket, through Simferopol to Sudak in the Crimea on the Black Sea. Nonetheless, Lizzie’s grey eyes, auburn hair, dimples, and freckles would not pass, in spite of her school uniform, for the features of a Russian child. So, I did not go—that time.

Two years later, when I came back to Moscow to provide consultation to the American ambassador on language programs, I applied for a visa to Krasnodar and sent a telegram to Sveta, telling her my plans. (This was, of course, before the days of Internet, cell phones, and other marvelous forms of instant communication.) Sveta, upon learning that I was in Moscow and doubting that I would be able to get a visa for Krasnodar, hopped immediately onto a plane and flew to meet me in Moscow, but she never informed me that she was coming. In the interim, I did get a visa for Krasnodar, and off I went to Domodedovo Airport to fly to the land of the Kuban, the middle land of European Russia. The plane from Krasnodar had landed, and in a spurt of efficiency, the airline officials had us already lined up to load onto the plane as the last of the passengers from Krasnodar were disembarking. Like in the plot of a B-rated movie, as I shuffled behind the other passengers to get onto the plane, through a window in the panel that separated embarking from disembarking passengers, I caught a glimpse of Sveta. I stopped and pounded on the window. She turned and rushed over.

“I’ll fly back,” she mouthed. “Meet me tonight at the town square.” That was all she was able to get out before we were both pushed away from each other by the stream of passengers behind us, pushing us forward.

Sveta did not make it back to Krasnodar that evening. For hours, I waited in vain at the town square. At least, the weather was not severe. Over the next few days, I became acquainted with Krasnodar, a city that represented the mix that could be seen throughout Russia: a modern Intourist hotel for visiting foreigners and houses without plumbing for residents. I remembered Sveta telling me how she had to go to the end of the street to pump water for use at home. Now, Sveta was in Moscow, and I was in her town. I sent a telegram to Zina, a mutual friend living in the outskirts of Moscow to whom Sveta had introduced me in 1982. I knew that Sveta would have checked in with her. In the telegram, I asked them both to meet me at Arbat Restaurant in the center of town at 7:00 on Friday. I flew back to Moscow on Friday, and once again found myself waiting for hours for Sveta. Finally, around 9:00, I called Zina at home. She answered the phone.

“We just got the telegram,” she explained, “only ten minutes ago. We are coming. We will be there in an hour.”

“I sent the telegram three days ago,” I remarked, but my remark should not have been in surprise.

“Yeah,” said Zina. “That might be, but you know the KGB has to read it first and then would try to deliver it at a time that could be said it was delivered but late enough that you would miss meeting with us. It is good that you called.”

We did meet. It was to be the last time I would see Sveta. Only then, I had no inkling of how ill she was. The call from Zina, telling me that Sveta had died, came in the middle of the night two years later. There was nothing strange about the time. There is an 11-hour difference in time zones between Moscow and California. Nonetheless, given that the call came in the middle of the night and carried such tragic news, I was certain for days that I had dreamed it. Unfortunately, it was no dream.

I have written poems in Russian for Sveta on several occasions: when she was dying and on the anniversaries of her death. Recently, I wrote one on the occasion of the twentieth anniversary of her death. How young she died, and how many years have passed! More important and more unbelievably, so much has changed in those twenty years that one would not today recognize Sveta’s rodina (motherland) as the same country. The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics has reverted to Old Russia with many, many new elements, making it a New Russia. The worries we suffered are now only a dim memory from the social history of the former Soviet Union.

[If you do not read Russian, skip forward to the English translation.]

Не «прощай», Света, а «пока»!

На 20-ую годовщину смерти
Моей молодой подруги советской.

Ох, как я помню московские вечера
И наши чувства, как будьто все прошло вчера.
Под громкой музыкой радио шептали,
Недопустимые мысли выражали.

Ох, как я помню наши поделившие
Идеи и надежды на будущее,
На дружбу вечную, жизнь удачную,
И работу и степень кандидатскую.

И помню как мы сидели с ее братом
Живущем в блоке с нами рядом.
Талантливым, он был, и безумно милым,
Жизнерадостным, жизнелюбивым, мирным.

А сейчас призасыпанный землей лежит
Из-за бессмысленной смерти—перитонит.
И помню неутещающие слезы
И вечно повторяющие вопросы:

Почему? Как? Чем объяснить? Чем утешить?
Ну, сегодня же что значит перитонит?
Вопросы никак неотвечаемые.
Ответы никак непонимаемые.

Я помню как мы все теснее сближились,
Как мы, русская с американкой, дружились.
При холодной войне кто это подумал бы?
Но у нас больше смерти общего, увы!

Она родила дочь, а я сразу за ней.
Головная водянка у наших дочерей
И парализированные ноги.
К тому же у обеих и припадки.

Помню как Света от горя с ума сошла.
Я не могла помогать. Я была в США.
Я помню как от тюберкулеза она,
До своего времени, увы, умерла.

О Свет, все изменилось после распада!
Скрывать дружбу как мы скрывали не надо.
И не надо бояться как мы боялись.
Создать открытое общество старались.

Но сейчас на том свете, не на этом, ты.
Туда пошли подряд, друзья мои, все вы.
В то время была я в далекой стране,
Справляясь только матом о суровой судьбе.

Но настоящая дружба не умирает,
Только организм приятеля изчезает.
Твой дух, который жил, все еще живет
У меня в сердце и мыслях и даже расстет.

Ветераны мы холодной войны.
Ветераны мы жестокой судьбы.
Но надо иметь ввиду с другой стороны
Что уникальную дружбу имели мы.

(Translation: “Not Good-Bye, Sveta, Just Ciao for Now.” On the 20th anniversary of the death of my young Soviet friend. Oh, how I remember the Moscow evenings and our feelings, as if everything had happened yesterday, how we turned up the radio and whispered disallowed ideas into each others’ ears. Oh, how I remember our shared thoughts and hopes for the future, for eternal friendship, a successful life, and for jobs and our doctorates. I remember how we sat with her brother who lived in the dorm room next to us. Talented he was and really kind, filled with the joy of living, the love of life, a peaceful mind. And now he lies buried under a mound of earth because of a senseless death—peritonitis. I remember uncomforted tears and eternally repeating cries: Why? How? For what reason? How to keep on going? After all, how fatal is peritonitis today? Questions that had no answers. Answers that could be understood no way. I remember how we grew closer, how we, Russian and American, celebrated friendship. During the Cold War, who would have thought this? Alas, we had more than death in common. She gave birth to a daughter, and so did I. Both daughters had water-on-the-brain, and both suffered from seizures; my daughter was moreover paraplegic. I remember how Sveta went crazy with grief. I could not help. I was in the USA. I remember how tuberculosis took her life, alas, prematurely. Oh, Svet’ everything has changed since communism’s fall. One no longer has to hide a friendship as we did. One no longer has to fear as we did. An open society is appearing. But now you are in that world, not this. You, my friends, went there one after another. I was in a faraway land, and only cursing helped me cope with a cruel fate. But true friendship does not die. Only the body we no longer see. Your spirit, which lived then, lives now in my heart and in my mind and even grows. Veterans of the Cold War were we. Victims of a cruel fate were we. But one must hold to another view: we had a unique friendship, so true.)

My poems about Sveta were not without effect on others. A teacher, whom I shall call Elena and with whom I was working at the time, had not seen a close personal friend in many years and had the opportunity to meet her in Bulgaria. This was a bit risky when the Soviet empire reigned since Bulgaria was held closely in check by the USSR. Still, both Easterners and Westerners could travel there, making Bulgaria about the only crossroads available for those who wanted to meet. Elena confided in me where she was going and whom she was going to meet in case something happened. She gave me her phone numbers and other ways to reach her if she did not show up at work at the end of her scheduled annual leave.

“I would never have dared to take such a risk without you,” she told me. “I am a refusenik [someone who defied the Soviet government] and am here in the US as a refugee. For my own safety, I should not go to Bulgaria, but after listening to your poems about Sveta, I realize that friendship has a sacred character to it. We do not come by true friends easily, and we should not abandon them under any circumstances. I will go and see my friend, see how and if I can help her, and I will rely on God to take care of me and bring me back.”

She returned on time. Her decision, she said, had been the right one.

Once again, something bad -— the death of my friend —- had been turned into something good -— Elena’s courage to see her friend before it was too late. This has been a theme in my life: bad turning into good, into a chance for one person to help another, even for one person to help many.


This excerpt is adapted from my book, Blest Atheist (MSI Press, copyright 2009).


  1. Sitka has an award for you at All Gods Creatures.
    Blessings, hugs, and prayers,

  2. Thanks, Andrea. I have to get ready for work, so I will drop by tonight.

  3. What a touching tribute to your friend....


About Me

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I am the mother of 4 birth children (plus 3 others who lived with us) and grandmother of 2, all of them exceptional children. Married for 42 years, I grew up in Maine, live in California, and work in many places in education, linguistics, and program management. In my spare time, I rescue and tame feral cats and have the scars to prove it. A long-time ignorantly blissful atheist converted by a theophanic experience to Catholicism, I am now a joyful catechist. Oh, I also authored a dozen books, two under my pen name of Mahlou (Blest Atheist and A Believer-in-Waiting's First Encounters with God).

My Other Blogs

100th Lamb. This is my main blog, the one I keep most updated.

The Clan of Mahlou
. This is background information about various members of the extended Mahlou family. It is very much a work still in progress. Soon I will begin posting excerpts from a new book I am writing, Raising God's Rainbow Makers.

Modern Mysticism. This blog discusses the mystical in our pragmatic, practical, realistic, and rational 21st century world and is to those who spend some or much of their time in an irrational/mystical relationship with God. If such things do not strain your credulity, you are welcome to follow the blog and participate in it.

Recommended Reading List

Because I am blog inept, I don't quite know how to get a reading list to stay at the end of the page and not disappear from sight. Therefore, I entered it as my first post. I suppose that is not all that bad because readers started commenting about the books, even suggesting additional readings. So, you can participate with others in my reading list by clicking here.
I do post additional books as I read them and find them to be meaningful to me, and therefore, hopefully, meaningful to you. One advantage of all the plane traveling I do is that I acquire reading time that I might not otherwise take.