& Company


The Mystery of the Ex-Patriate Mind

by Matthew-Daniel Stremba

Who can explain it—how Russia captivates the minds of many Americans? A few of those enthralled Yanks have actually chosen to live and work there, a tradition that you can trace back pretty far. In 1932, Langston Hughes (1902-1967), American writer, went to the USSR with two dozen other black westerners. There were credible prospects, then, of wages to be made in Moscow, no small incentive during the Great Depression.

While there, Hughes was surprised to be introduced to a fluent Russian speaker who certainly didn't look Russian. Emma Harris was an African-American actress who'd been in Russia since the end of the 19th century! Once the companion of splendid Tsarist aristocrats, she'd come to know the hardships of Soviet existence. What ever happened to her?

Much before Ms. Harris, Ira Aldridge (1807-1867) came to Russia. In search of opportunity on stage denied him at home in pre-Civil-War America, he had performed across Europe. The black actor spent enough time in Tsarist Russia that he chanced to meet the Ukrainian national poet, Taras Shevchenko. One—the child of free blacks, the other—a freed serf, neither fluent in the other's language, yet they sat down and managed a conversation.

Countless other Americans arrived in Russia before WWII, enthusiastic believers in the Soviet experiment. Some are buried there; some left progeny behind. John Scott (1912-1976) in his book, Behind the Urals, describes his life in the 1930s as a welder, foreman, chemist in Magnitogorsk, then a brand new industrial city. He returned to the USA in 1941.

In 2002-2004, I met a few latter-day American ex-pats, who, under such a Russian spell, had been enduring living on the local economy down in Yekaterinburg—one a teacher of Russian grade-school kids, the other always looking for some project. I have every reason to believe they're still there.

Then there were the USG employees in Russia, not ex-pats in the strict sense of the word. But three of them married their Russian sweethearts. We witnessed two of the weddings. These brides were not from the category advertised on the internet. No, the three couples of whom I speak started as wholly normal boy-meets-girl relationships.

Just this summer, back in the USA already one year, we were happy to hear from one of those newly married—Glen. Glen had met Valentina when he was working for the USG in Moscow. That was before we came to know him. Transferred to the US Consulate in Yekaterinburg, Glen continued a long-distance relationship with Valentina. Slava Bogu, it endured the miles. And one day they made it all legal right there in a Yekat city government registry.

Glen signing the wedding register

A civil ceremony in Russia is a far cry from a church wedding, but it is indeed a ceremony. Music pipes up from somewhere. The couple makes a grand entrance. A state official gives a little secular homily on the institution of marriage, prompts their vows, witnesses the exchange of rings, supervises their signing the register, their kiss, a toast, and their first dance! Not even a Baptist will pass up this ritual twirl on the dance floor—just this one time, of course. Glen and Valentina, however, as far as we know, are not Baptists.

Glen dancing with his bride, Valentina

And then the registry staff ushered all of us into a small ballroom for more toasting and some sweets, while the space we had just vacated was filling with the next wedding party.

Glen finished his Yekat assignment and went home to the USA with Valentina. And this summer—good Lord! —he was back in Russia! They were visiting the Bride's family.

With his permission, we quote him below.

Hi Matthew and Barbara,

We greet you from the Pskov region, in the city of Velikiye Luki! We just had one of those classic taxi rides, in which you pray to the Mother of God to save you.

Yesterday we went to the meat market, and between two stands of "home grown" meat was a PERFUME stand!!! And, of course, next to that was a FLOWER stand!!!

We walk out of the meat market, and what do we see??? An unattended bag of sunflower seeds being madly attacked by a flock of hungry pigeons, freely perusing the seeds, devouring beaks in perpetual motion. Finally a few umbrella waves later, the owner re-arranged the seeds and opened for business once again.

Just how long could the man stay away from Russia? Glen's report, you can see, is not a complaint. It's a fun variant on this dancing under a spell those countries over there cast over certain individuals. It's a spell my Bride and I have felt in Ukraine's L'viv, Uzhhorod, and Kyiv. And now it's Uzbekistan's Tashkent that tugs at our hearts.

For another American's take on the charms of Russia, see on this site: RUSSIA IS A DISEASE, THE RUSSIAN SAID.

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