Carol in Russia
Yesterday, I was cleaning out my library to pack up for the move to Maine—and I found part of an old JOURNAL that I kept while I was working as a midwife in Russia (actually, it was still the USSR in 1990, right before the collapse). I forgot that I even kept a journal! Another midwife and I had been asked by an early-on, joint Soviet-American business venture to go to the USSR to try to help improve maternity care there. I was, purportedly, the first American to deliver a Russian baby. The birth was filmed and aired on 20/20 with Barbara Walters. Such an honor!
This part of the journey is about our first days there, trying to find our way around the chaos that was Moscow.
November 23, 1990.
Flying Into The Dark
Moscow. So here we were. We had left Finland sparkling in the sun, looking down on adorable miniature farms with their barns painted red. We were healthy and happy and excited.
It had been a very turbulent flight over the polar ice cap. I found myself praying to the Gods of Aviation a lot. Now as we approached our destination, we came through the clouds to a disturbing atmosphere…like impenetrable smog. The sparkling sun was gone, replaced by a steely grayness—a seemingly total lack of daylight—I thought, so this is what they mean by the “Iron Curtain.”
My traveling partner was another midwife named Karen. Karen was part Native American and had a long black braid down her back. The Russians that we stayed with said she reminded them of Pocahontas—so I affectionately nicknamed her “Poke” and called her that for the rest of our time behind the Iron Curtain.
Poke commented on the surrealness of the landscape at the time of the landing—so it wasn’t just me. The “suburbs” had weathered, unpainted shacks and dilapidated dwellings. The land was stark with silhouettes of solitary, bony black trees.
We cleared Customs without any problems, which was a miracle because we had so much equipment with us. We came out through a throng of waiting people, again darkness…dark clothes, gray faces. The throng didn’t feel particularly menacing, just desperate somehow…as if wishing we were coming for them. I realized how conspicuous we must be with our three carriage loads of supplies. I also realized, for many, we were the first glimpse of Americans that they had ever seen.
I had a momentary feeling of being “larger than life,” of being very tall. It was probably from finally being free of the bucking plane.
I stood waiting and watching and I knew immediately when the two women walked by us—yet I still approached them from behind and stood to the side when I called, “Alla!” The surprised women wheeled around and held up a little sign that said CAROL LEONARD.
They said, shyly, “Carol?” (Pronounced Karo.)
They were absolutely adorable, so wonderful, these two little women smiling enormous smiles. Alla had a dark complexion; Vera was a light blond. Both women were fiftyish with the most incredible, sparkling eyes full of mirth. We immediately hugged and in a threesome “pod,” we went and pulled Poke into our huddle, all of us laughing. I was extremely relieved. We had made it without a hitch and these two tiny Russian women were obviously very glad that we were there.
They had a van waiting for us, a van with fabric curtains and a driver named Constantine. Constantine was relatively young and very nervous but friendly and shy. As we drove towards the center of the city, we were asking millions of questions—and being asked many in return. Alla was interpreting.
Of course, quite soon the topic turned to obstetrics. Vera, who was doctor and an OB/gyn, stated that their foremost problem with deliveries was postpartum hemorrhage. A long discussion ensued about the importance of diet, with Poke doing a short discourse on the benefits of aqueous extracts from carrot seed, nettlewort, spinach, burdock root, and ocean kelp. Ah, midwives. Apparently, anywhere we were in the world, it took approximately ten minutes of foreplay before the exchange of hot information began.
Constantine drove us in the gathering gloom, which was dusk in Red Square. We stopped in front of a park with hundreds of squatters’ makeshift, cardboard shelters—they were protesting the lack of housing. As we drove on to Vera’s place, I was profoundly struck by the bleakness—street after street of sooty gray buildings with lines of darkly clothed people. A total lack of color—very Felinni-esque.
Our hosts told us that the electricity was being rationed at the time, so the streets were very dimly lit, adding to the otherworldly scene. The only color seen for miles was a garishly lit-up bright red star—HUGE—high over the Kremlin.
I remembered a friend’s cryptic words when I was leaving the US. She said, “You will soon be entering the dark. All the teachings will be about how you deal with the dark.” What in Hades did that mean?
At Vera’s, we drove through a very tall, arched entryway into a compound of old buildings about nine stories high. It seemed as though we had stepped back into the Middle Ages. In the entrance to Vera’s building, the once lovely tiled floors were destroyed and covered by pieces of cardboard. The entry hall was concrete that was painted a god-awful dark, seaweed green.
Constantine and the two Ruskie women began loading all our luggage into a rickety wire-mesh cage that was the elevator. Watching the cage dangling from cables, swaying back and forth, made my old elevator paranoia kick in full-blown. I opted to run up the seven flights of concrete stairs. At every landing, there were buckets of refuse; old potato-peelings and cabbage, etc. Alla left us, saying she would call for us in the morning.
Vera’s apartment was a tiny, one-bedroom affair, but it was very orderly and lovingly kept. Poke said she thought that Vera was comparatively “well-to-do.” Vera had been a gynecologist for thirty-one years. Lesson # 1: We may be in the heart of darkness here—but Vera is filled with joy and laughter and delight. Our dinner consisted of Vera frying up some pork chops. (That left out Poke, the Vegetarian Princess…and, yes, I did resort to eating my totem animal.) I knew those chops were very expensive and hard for her to get. Vera also sliced some tomatoes and put cilantro on them, which was a wonderful surprise!
Poke and I offered some of our American bread and cheese, and Vera brought out some Ruskie Vodka (pronounced Wodka). We commenced to laughing and trying to communicate with hand signals and hilarious, pathetic accents. Without Alla to interpret we were sunk. Vera spoke no English and we spoke no Ruskie. Fortunately, we figured out that Vera spoke Deutsch and I had studied four years of German in school (painfully, I might add). But now it finally paid off! For the rest of the time in the USSR, we communicated by doing a rudimentary job of butchering German.
I was pretty exhausted that first night from the schlep, so I crawled into Vera’s offered bed (she ensconced herself on the living room couch). I dozed off to Poke getting a Russian alphabet lesson in the kitchen. “Ah, Bay, Day…”
However, at 3:15 AM, Poke and I found ourselves back in the kitchen writing by some twinkling candles and drinking tea, our biological clocks gone totally haywire. I looked out the window and down below us was a block long wall topped with concertina wire, curled barbed wire. We were looking directly down into the compound of a prison.
November 23, 1990.