We are Inna, Yulia, Victoria, Yana, Snezhana, Tamara, Olesya, Nadesha, or Lena. We come from Saint Petersburg, Moscow, Kursk, Barnaul, Kharkov, Odessa, Yekaterinburg, Stavropol, or Novosibirsk. Our hobbies are running, skating, biking and/or sailing, aerobics, dance and/or kickboxing, stretching and/or chess. We were born under the signs of Aquarius, Pisces, Virgo, Capricorn, Gemini, Cancer, Sagittarius, Scorpio, Taurus, Libra, Aries, or Leo. Some of us are 1.6 meters tall; some of us are 1.8 meters tall. We believe in God, or we are Orthodox, or we are spiritual, or it is not important. Our English is preliminary (need a translator) or conversational or excellent or fluent….
And, yes, we swear we are the women we claim to be, just as we were all once girls. At six, seven, eight years old we watched television all day to see a wall in Berlin — a cold, gray city not unlike our own cold, gray city — tumble and tumble and tumble again. When we asked our mothers what was happening, they shook their heads and tried to explain it to us in terms we could understand: Tsk. Just an old bear, like any old bear in the forest, darling — shot a hundred times over a hundred years and just now feeling the pain of the bullets.
But what will happen to the poor bear, Mama? Who will take care of her? we asked, worried as girls of six, seven, eight will worry for the animals in children’s books.
We will see, our mothers answered. We will see.~ ~ Story available online at The Sun Magazine
The traditional use of first-person plural is to tell the story of a community, though that community may include a good deal of diversity. Khadivi’s story focuses on the diversity, which emphasizes the underlying similarity: this is the story of Russian women taking to the mail, and later, to the internet, to find a better life, somewhere, with someone somehow. These are not desperately poor or persecuted women; they could find Russian husbands and live Russian lives, but they are willing to step into nothingness on the chance that it will be better than what they see around them. The motivation reminds me of every kid who’s hopped on a bus to The City (any city, anywhere). Including me.
I was, of course, struck by the similarity to Julie Otsuka’s The Buddha in the Attic which I read about four years ago. In that case, it was Japanese women in the early 19th century, arranging marriages to Japanese men who had already immigrated to the US. The situations are somewhat different, but similar enough that a comparison is unavoidable, particularly given the similar styles.
Khadivi starts with Russian women who were children during the breakup of the Soviet Union, who grew up with a sense of the ground crumbling beneath their feet. The mechanism for their escape came about a decade later, as they were approaching majority, with the arrival of the internet:
Some of us sat alone in front of the computer and swore we would tell no one what we were about to find out. And every last one of us was disappointed. The men were old, some older than our fathers. They were bald or had unforgivable hair. Their bodies were fat and misshapen or thin and without form. If they were British, they had bad teeth, and if they were American, they wore the white grin of the wolf in the fairy tale of Little Red Cap.
Those were the ones who sent pictures of their faces. Most of the messages came to us with a single photograph of just a section of a man, usually from the belly button to the knees, sometimes standing, sometimes sitting, always naked. We turned away from the computer. Where is his face? we muttered in disbelief. Later in our lives it would become a joke: Where is his face! Ha, ha.
It’s so easy to sit in judgment of these women. After all, the pictures that appear on these sites make it clear what they’re selling. We hear about the photographers who make suggestions tailored to each woman: this one should perhaps show a little more skin, this one a little less, but over time it’s become clear: no rich man ordering a woman online is looking for shared interests and compatible life goals. As the story unfolds, it’s clear that he will give his bride whatever goals he wants her to have, and she has little choice but to accept.
It’s so easy to sit in judgment. But no, I will not.
At fifty-four, fifty-five, fifty-six we are locked to this foreign soil, crying into strange rivers and swimming in enormous seas and dreaming in a language we did not speak as girls. If you had asked us at five, six, seven, What is your life going to be like? not one of us would have said, I will drive a Honda. I will be a pharmacist. I will go by an American version of my name. No. All of us would have responded as Russian girls of that time did: I will live in a cottage in the woods. I will make friends with the bears. I will go to space with the cosmonauts. I will be happy and strong.
This is lovely writing, poetic and evocative. It’s writing that leaves me no room for judgment of these women, but instead opens the door to compassion, understanding, surely, and even admiration. Each one thinks she will be one of the success stories. She will find actual love, a new life and new family that will make up for what she left behind. She will take the risk, the leap of faith. Is she foolish? Shallow? Perhaps. But I don’t think I have half her courage.