Marriage Of Two People, Two Nations BY LIZ ATWOOD


March 01, 1992|By LIZ ATWOOD is a reporter for The Sun.

I never really knew my husband until the morning the toilet paper ran out.

We were visiting his mother in Russia and I'd been watching the roll of stiff white paper grow smaller for days. I wasn't terribly worried because I'd packed a roll of toilet tissue in my suitcase for just such emergencies.

That morning, I told Alex that we needed toilet paper, expecting that he would take a roll from his mother's supply, or at least fetch the roll we had brought.

But then Alex went in the bathroom. A few minutes later, I heard through the thin door the distinct sound of ripping paper. I remembered the Izvestia I'd seen lying on a clothes hamper.

Surely he hadn't used newspaper. When he came out, I asked him.

At first he denied it.

"I was reading the paper," he replied, but the corners of his mouth twitched suspiciously.

"No, I heard you tearing it!"

Finally he confessed. At my insistence, he hunted up another roll from somewhere in the apartment.

That incident was a revelation into his Russian character. Unflustered, adaptable, stoically patient -- characteristics that had served Alex for 24 years in Moscow and during his first year in America.

We had met when in Moscow in the summer of 1990 when I accompanied a group of journalists from The Baltimore Sun on a mission to teach Soviet journalists how to play softball. From that unlikely encounter we had fallen in love and he had finagled an assignment to America to see me. A month later, we married.

In the first few months, he overcame his homesickness and adjusted to living in Baltimore, but he never stopped complaining about how boring he thought America was.

As we returned to Moscow to visit, I was looking forward to seeing what made Russia so exciting.

His mother and his uncle Victor met us at the airport in Victor's little white Lada. My mother-in-law carried a bunch of carnations in one hand and a plastic bag containing two hats in the other.

As we went outside, she gave me a white knit cap and gave Alex the kind of heavy fur cap Russians typically wear. I'd never seen him wear a hat in Baltimore, and was surprised to see how Russian he looked when he put it on.

In the car, he handed the cap to me and I admired its rich thick fur. "What is it made of?" I asked, thinking it was too heavy for rabbit.


"Dog?" I asked aghast.

"From China," he replied nonchalantly.

At home, the transformation in his appearance was complete. He shed his leather coat for a heavy cloth one and exchanged his tennis shoes for gray boots.

We hadn't been there long when I began to better understand what I had considered idiosyncrasies of his nature. I had marveled at his interest in flea markets, but a flea-market mentality pervades Moscow. Shopping is an obsession and everyone carries shopping bags wherever they go in case they come across some bargain.

Alex was delighted when at one kiosk near the city center we found amid the clothing, electronics, liquor, candy, perfume and cigarettes, an 8-pound bag of coffee beans. We bought the bag and proudly carried it home, but our purchase attracted so much attention that Alex had to field inquiries from passers-by about where we'd gotten it.

I often had poked fun at Alex's peculiar taste in dried fish and pickled garlic. But in Moscow, I was the misfit when I politely declined those foods.

One evening I found myself staring eyeball to eyeball with the fish head that lay in the bowl of thin broth on the table in front of me.

"You want soup?" his friend Andrew had asked me, doing his best to speak English. I shook my head, and felt a little green.

Alex kept telling me, Russia is not America, but that proved little consolation when phones didn't work, and when -- for reasons beyond us -- restaurants refused to serve us and cabdrivers wouldn't take us where we wanted. Did he equate unreliability with excitement? He seemed unruffled by the inconveniences.

I grew angry at the complacency of the people. I fumed that the country would never amount to anything until the people took an interest in the government and participated in the reforms.

He countered that the people were exhausted after having sacrificed themselves to the country during 70 years of communism.

Nor was he convinced that everything had changed with the downfall of communism.

When I asked him to call the KGB public relations department to help me with a story I was writing, he refused. He said he wanted nothing to do with the agency, fearing it would recruit him to spy in America, and threaten to make it difficult for him to travel between the United States and Russia.

"That's ridiculous. All of that's changed now," I insisted.

But he wouldn't budge.

Gradually, I began to sense that despite his outward composure, inside he was really concerned about the volatile situation in his country.

One night we went to dinner at the home of his former journalism teacher, and she told us that something strange might be happening. A television news program, always aired at 9 p.m., was not on.

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