Listening to his mother argue for the glory of the Russian empire, Misha didn’t yet realize that If he had known better, he would have said something sooner.
They didn’t normally have animated conversations in the kitchen, mostly because everything that was important had become a moot point. But that changed when Misha, his sister and their mother saw the satellite photos showing the buildup of Russian troops on the Ukrainian border. Misha had found them browsing a site that he could only connect to using an illegal VPN that nobody bothered to monitor. At least not so far.
And so they were all in the kitchen talking about it.
His mother was stirring some doughy concoction in a metal bowl with a worn wooden spoon. She would talk, then look at the bowl with an exasperated expression and stir, the muscles along her forearms bulging with the strain as she shook her head. Misha or his sister would say something and then there would be silence when their mother stopped stirring and said something. She always set the bowl down when she talked and wiped her hands, as if everything she said were the single most important thing they should remember.
“Misha, how can you say these things about your own country?” she asked. “This country that has been so good to you.”
Misha leaned against the modest archway between the kitchen and a living room whose decor confirmed the fact that time had stopped there in 1962. Misha and his sister were the third generation that had lived inside its ancient gray walls and he wondered if there would be a fourth that saw the same thing. They should have at least repainted the walls. It might have made a difference.
“That’s the point,” Misha said. “Russia was better to me. In the beginning. And it was better for you, too. But it has never escaped the grasp of old men who will never let go of the Soviet Union. In their minds, it is inevitable. This has all been a detour headed in the wrong direction.”
His mother picked up the bowl, stirred ferociously and mumbled something, but all Misha and his sister could hear were hisses and shards of grumbling. Then she set the bowl down again. Wiped her hands. “Young people,” she said, pointing at them, “you think you know everything.”
She had been 35 when Misha was born and had grown up during the days of the Brezhnev Doctrine, which stated that the Soviet Union had the duty and the right to enforce Communism in any state that didn’t adhere to its true principles. The decadent Americans had put men on the moon seven times while her family had to endure cramped housing and shortages of everything from gasoline to toilet paper. But she had endured. Because she knew in her heart that decadence was reckless and myopic. Communism, for all its flaws, had at its core the grownup sensibility of duty to the greater good. She never questioned the sanity of that logic.
“Don’t you see?” she asked. “Ever since that idiot Yeltsin stood on a tank, the West has eroded our rightful place in the world year by year. It started with the Berlin wall and today they’re at our doorstep. While your generation has wallowed in blue jeans, rock music and malls plump with Western plunder, the motherland has become smaller and smaller. You have sold your country’s future for trinkets.” She waved her hand dismissively, picked up the bowl and started stirring with even more vigor than before.
Misha wished his sister could see his face just then. He allowed himself a smirk at his mother’s rantings. In years past, he would have fought back with vigor, but he had long before realized that he could never change her mind. His mother was a child of the Cold War and she was simply not capable of letting go of her life’s indoctrination as a Communist. He might as well have asked her to stop believing in God – that one secret rebellion against the state that she thought he didn’t know about.
Still, he had to say something, even if it was just because she expected it.
“Sovereign nations are not part of the shrinking motherland. They never were. We have returned to the world something that was never ours in the first place.” He pushed away from the arch, held out his hands. “Why do you think so many countries have decided, on their own, to lean towards the Western winds?”
His mother rolled her eyes, the way she always did when he spoke poetically. To her, it was more fluff and trinkets. He knew she would have liked it better if he spoke like a grown up Russian man who took the world seriously. What she would never understand was that he did take the world seriously and his soul was wounded for it.
“It means,” she said, “that like you, they mistake the glitter of an empty promise for something meaningful. And they’ve forfeited their futures for an illusion.”
“Illusions? Democracy? Having a say in how you will live your life? Having a say in how your government should act -“
His mother interrupted him. “And all the while, they feed off of Russian gas and oil. That is reality. That is the truth. That is how the real world works. They wallow in hopeless, reckless dreams and we sell them the very blood of their existence.”
“And what of Ukraine?” Misha asked.
“They have always been part of the Russian family. It’s time for them to come home.”
Misha took a step towards her. He couldn’t help himself. He decided not to correct her historical presumption. There had been times in history when Ukraine was its own country. The past thirty years among them. “By force?” he asked.
His mother stopped stirring, but did not set the bowl down. She looked at him for a moment, not as his mother, but as a stranger in the street who would never understand what he was trying to say. And if she did understand it, she would certainly never agree. Misha was already at war in his own kitchen.
“If that’s what it takes,” she said.
“I have to go,” Misha said.
“Oh no, not now. Not out with those hooligans who wear berets and smoke too many cigarettes while you bemoan the fate of your precious democracy. Not now. Not the way things are.”
“I haven’t spoken to Boris or any of the others in a long time, Mama.” He was lying, of course, already avoiding her grasp. Already making sure she would have nothing to say if the Rosgvadiya picked her up.
“Oh really? And why would that be?”
“Because we grew tired of telling each other all the things that we already knew. We realized that since nobody else was listening, it didn’t matter. And now that everyone is cowering in their kitchens, afraid of what the FSB might hear, what’s the point?”
He stared at her for a moment, hoping to see a glimmer of dread in her expression.
“Where are you going then?” she asked.
Misha was 21 years old and knew that even in Putin’s Russia, he owed no fealty to his mother. But he couldn’t quite force himself to dismiss her authority completely. He shrugged. If nothing else, he was being polite.
“To find passage out of Russia.”
His mother gasped. “You will do no such thing.”
Misha pinched his lip, sucked in a breath and held it as he watched his mother stir the pasty concoction in the metal bowl. The bowl was beaten up with dents along its sides and the dough was the same as it had been since before he was born. It had stopped evolving, somehow not knowing how be anything else. There was a Russia that he once yearned for. Now he could only see its dimly lit shadow on some distant horizon.
He glanced at his sister Hanah, who still sat at the table with her hands folded, staring blankly into the space in front of her. She didn’t say anything, but Misha caught the wrinkle that scrunched up her forehead when he mentioned leaving the country.
“Where do you want to go?” his mother asked. She stirred faster, beads of sweat popping out on her forehead. She scoffed. “America?”
Misha rolled his eyes, a gesture which had, from time to time, morphed his mother’s wooden spoon into a spear that sliced through the air to hit him on the forehead.
“God, no,” he said. “We have enough America here already.” It was true. He could go to any number of malls and see the homogeneous storefronts of an America that presented itself as unimaginative yet infuriatingly successful as a hot blonde TV newscaster who couldn’t put a face to half the names she spit out on the news. Everywhere there was Starbucks and McDonald’s and Burger King and Baby Ruth and M&Ms. All of it screaming in colors designed to ring Pavlov’s bell without anybody ever hearing it. Misha didn’t understand how America could stand the sameness of it all. The place where he got his espresso, a little dank shop with faded tile floors run by a Romanian gypsy – there was no other place like it. Nor was any other espresso quite like the steaming inspiration he guzzled from small yellow cups that had been handed down three generations. He couldn’t imagine such a place existing anywhere in America.
No, he didn’t want to go to America. But the idea of it still fired his imagination. It wasn’t the blue jeans and rock music that America had brought to his country that intrigued Misha. It was the realization that they could ask a simple question: what if? They could also ask the most important question that nobody standing in the kitchen dared utter: Why?
“I’m frustrated with what my own country has become,” he said. “I’m not a tasteless buffoon.” His mother couldn’t help the corner of her mouth curling in a wisp of a smile at that.
Besides, it was too far away. Only Russians with lots of money and overseas connections could find their way to America. The rest went to Georgia or Ukraine. Somewhere in between were the young people like himself who found their way to Germany, Finland or Belgium and found air that was free enough.
Hanah finally spoke then, her voice a harsh whisper. “Do you mean that?”
Misha wanted to answer. He wanted to tell her that he had a plan. He wanted to tell her that he wasn’t going to leave her behind. But he could never do that while his mother stirred her concoction and stared at her children, wondering how she had failed to teach them properly.
Instead, Misha placed his hand on Hanah’s shoulder and gently squeezed – a long known signal between them that said: Later.
©2022 Michael J Lawrence