Night Landscape by Ilya Pyankov

Nineteen years ago, in December of 1991, the Soviet Union was finally, officially dissolved from a conglomeration of republics under a single rule to a commonwealth of independent states, the Baltic States, and Russia. The signing of the Belavezha Accords and the Alma-Ata Protocol would herald the beginning of new socio-economic life for many of the former Soviet Union republics. It would also plunge Russia into a deep recession where it was to languish until the end of the century. Food was being given out on food stamps and delivered in trucks, grocery store shelves were empty, people went to work – but were not getting paid. For the millions of Russians who weathered that difficult winter in expectation of a bright future in the months to come, the following years brought only disappointment. Struggle. Depression. But in the early nineties, when the curtain was just settling down, some felt it was time to flee.

Of course, as a child living in Russia I was not aware that much of this was going on that fateful winter. I just had the feeling that something was about to happen, something which would change my life, fundamentally and permanently. My parents and grandparents made an effort not to publicize the fact, because there was a chance that it would not happen if the wrong people found out. We-the-children were told, and were allowed to tell a few of our friends. It hardly mattered though, nobody believed us anyway. But finally the day arrived. The dream came true.

Nineteen years ago today, we moved to America.

I remember the anticipation, the surreal feeling that we were moving to the Promise Land. In kindergarten in Russia once a month, if we were lucky, we’d get a third of a banana for lunch as a special desert along with the usual buckwheat and hotdogs. But in America, you could go to the store and buy a whole banana! Or even two. America was the country of the fantastical, unattainable future. Moving there was the equivalent of moving to Mars. But one unexpected day my sister and I were told that Dad had been offered a position at the Cancer Research Center in Rochester, NY, and that soon we would pack up our four suitcases and move.

That last night I could not sleep. We had arrived at the grandparents’ house the evening before because they lived much closer to the airport than we did. The flight was early the next morning, and we would have to take off to the airport while it was still dark. This circumstance shrouded the departure in mystery and made it all the more exciting. Some of the parents’ close friends and relatives came in the evening, to celebrate our departure, to say their goodbye’s. Dad’s position was offered for three years, but I suspect everyone knew that the goodbye could be for longer. And so at night, I got up and headed for the bathroomю As I walked down the hall, I could still hear the soft laughter and familiar chatting in the living room. At that precise moment, everyone had gathered together for a last photograph, and I peered in behind them, nobody seeing me but the camera lens as the shutter closed.

A snapshot: family sitting on chairs, standing next to a table full of traditional Russian dishes, hugging, smiling, and behind them, a sleepy, rag-doll, messy-haired, pajamaed child looking straight into the camera from the dark hallway.

Then came the drive. The flight. Incredible meals on the plane. Tea bags. Look mama, it’s a magic bag! You put it in the water and it makes tea! Layover in Germany. Look at that toilet! Arrival in New York City. Everyone speaking in a different language. Trying to find our great-aunt who was supposed to greet us and take us to her apartment in Manhattan. Mama, look at that man, – he’s all brown! Asparagus for dinner. Sleep. Seven bridges seen from the aunt’s 42nd floor suite. New York, New York.

Finally. Train ride. Ham sandwiches on rye bread. Loving the ham, hating the rye. Snow. More snow.

Dad had arrived two weeks prior to find us a place in Rochester and start settling down a bit, so he picked us up from the train station with his boss (on his boss’ car). And we are home! Compared to our apartment in St.Petersburg this is a palace! No, this is a town-home! Two stories AND a basement! Carpet! Playground!

Dad smiles and tells us to take a look in the fridge (which stretches from the floor to the CEILING!). We peek inside.

And inside, there are bananas.

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