Dear Masha . . .

January 28, 1992|By SCOTT SHANE

Dear Masha, I just read that my government is airlifting 16 million pre-packaged army-surplus meals to the former Soviet Union, and I started thinking about a meal you fed us last summer, and I felt like apologizing.

It was a warm July afternoon at the little cottage in Iksha where you were staying for the summer. We caught the electrichka from Savelevsky station, crowded as always on Saturday with Muscovites fleeing the city, wearing canvas rucksacks and bending over the day's issue of Nezavisimaya Gazeta. Boris was waiting alongside the tracks to congratulate us for managing this time to get off at the right stop.

We took the children for a walk in the woods and met a garrulous old woman with a herd of goats. The goats and the kids took turns climbing the diagonal trunk of a fallen tree and jumping off. You stayed at the dacha, chopping and mixing, and washing dishes at the tap in the yard. When we came back, we gathered some wood and started a fire for shashlik in the metal box out back. You had scavenged some pork from someplace, and it was marinating in a secret mixture.

Even that early in the northern summer, your little yard overflowed with riches: tart apples from a half-dozen bent-over trees, cherries almost out of reach from the tree next to the clothesline, a sprawling patch of raspberries, black and red currants, and those green, grape-like berries, almost transparent, whose name I forget. The strawberries were just about gone. In the garden there was lots of dill, and cucumbers were beginning to push the blossoms aside. There were so many flowers scattered around the yard, wild- and otherwise, that we let the kids pick as many as they liked, putting vases here and there and just walking around with fistsful.

Finally, we sat down to eat, balancing our plates on our laps on the benches in the yard. There was shchi, always translated as ''cabbage soup,'' a name that doesn't do anything like justice to TC the variety of fresh stuff that had disappeared into the caldron. This was my favorite kind, made with sauerkraut, with lots of smetana, sour cream. There was vinegrette, cold vegetable salad. There were wild mushrooms Boris had collected and pickled. There was black and white bread with heft, like we haven't seen since. There was the shashlik, which had grilled on skewers forever -- Boris said the coals had to be pretty low or it wouldn't work -- with adzhika, the fiery hot-pepper paste the Russians stole when they conquered the Caucasus. We had brought beer, and there were a couple of token vodka toasts.

We sat and ate and talked for a long time. Then we went wandering around the village until we found the goat woman. We bought a liter bottle of the still-warm goat's milk while the children played with the new-born kittens in her shed. After we put the kids to bed inside the cottage, we sat again in the yard, talking until long after dark. I remember trying to fix the evening in my mind. I felt utterly content.

By that time we didn't much care that Iksha was technically closed to foreigners. The Cold War rules were breaking down, and that was a stupid rule anyway. What were they going to do? Kick us out a couple of weeks before we were leaving anyway?

We did leave. And the coup came and went, and communism fell, and the Soviet Union broke up. Winter came nevertheless. You told us recently over a crackly phone line about waiting two hours for milk, an hour and a half for bread. I imagine you trudging along the black-ice sidewalks looking for something for dinner. I used to ask, with American naivete, why? Why did the stores close for a lunch break just when people wanted to shop? Why did milk go sour so fast? You would fix your blue eyes on me and deadpan your all-purpose explanation for everything: ''Because in October, 1917, there was a revolution. . . .'' Now history has swept that answer away, and I know you didn't shed any tears.

Sixteen million army meals, left over from the gulf war, no less! That's about one dinner each for everyone in Moscow, St. Petersburg and Yekaterinburg, if they all can stomach it. I know most Russians won't buy day-old bread and would be impressed by our supermarket's winter tomatoes only until they tasted them.

''Convenience food'' hasn't really caught on there, has it? I remember some kind of puffed-rice cereal that showed up in plastic bags at our bakery once with the name ''Prepared Breakfast'' and elaborate instructions in Russian about how this was, believe it or not, food. Nobody bought it.

I know how bad things are there now -- incomparably worse than when we left, you told us on the phone. There may be many, many people who are grateful for the military-surplus meals. But it is still hard for me to picture Russians sitting down at a table and tearing open a foil-pack of U.S. Army Manicotti with Beef or Desert Storm Turkey with Gravy.

Next summer, will there be shchi and shashlik? Will the tired collective farms go private and become as fruitful as your dacha yard? In a couple of years, will we sit somewhere together around a table covered with food and laugh together, remembering the privations of communism? Or will things be even more desperate, with longer bread lines, growing chaos and rabid politicians blaming the Jews, or the Americans, saying Russians must sacrifice to pay for armaments to save the motherland from its enemies?

On Sunday, when I know you will be in church, light a candle for us all.

Love and good luck,

Scott

Scott Shane was Moscow correspondent for The Sun from 1988 until last summer.

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