Isaac Levitan, At the Birch Grove
By Vicki Boykis
When I was a teenager, I used to have dreams of Russia. I used to dream that my grandmother opened her arms to me and I ran into them, and then she vanished. Or, I dreamed that I finally arrived at the Red Square, flying there using only my hands. I had variations of these dreams for years. Living in central Pennsylvania, I felt entirely cut off from the Russian side of my culture and experienced a yearning to reconnect with it unparalleled with anything else I had ever known. And then, finally, when I was eighteen, my grandmother got sick, and my dad arranged tickets. Please, please, please, take me, I begged him for weeks. I deserve closure over my dreams. “It will be terrible,” he said. But he took me.
The moment the plane landed at Sheremetyevo was one of the most emotional of my life. Until that moment, I hadn’t seen Russia since I was five. Homeland, homeland, homeland, my heart thudded as we descended over the tarmac and landed, and then we were on Russian soil.
It’s one thing to constantly be forced to read in Russian, watch Russian movies, and participate in a Russian immigrant culture that pretends you’re still in Russia while completely being surrounded by Americans. It’s another to sit quietly in the courtyard of a monastery on the banks of the Volga and watch the sun work its way through the wood-hewn fence, birch trees standing quietly in the distance.
Russia is an enormous mess. I hate the alcoholics pissing in the stoops, the endless mud, the senseless, barbaric racism, the cruelty of life. I hate Putin and everything that comes with him. But for me, Russia is so much more than its government.
I love Russia, because Russia is a part of me in a way that I cannot extricate from anything else. I love birch trees. I love the incipient smell of rain and then watching that rain drip down the windows as a tea kettle whistles. I love the women who wear ridiculous high heels to go to the grocery store. I get unironic chills when I hear Russian folk songs. Russia is a part of me in a way that is impossible to excise. No matter how hard Putin, the overwhelming corruption, racism, rampant crime, and poverty try, I cannot separate Russia from who I am, and so we remain linked, like distant lovers, but separate. For now.
I haven’t been back to Russia since, but only because life has gotten in the way. If I could go, I would in a heartbeat. My next dream, for when my daughter becomes a little older, is to travel to Russia and show her all of its great terribleness and to teach her that this is her heritage, part of who she is, too. Lately, I’ve started having dreams about being in the Red Square again, this time with her in them. In the dream, she is not a toddler anymore, and she walks carefully, with the poised coordination of a teenager. And she opens her arms wide and says, in perfect Russian, “So this is what it was all about,” and runs through the vastness, laughing.