“We’re going to another country, Chris. Things are going to be very different.”
Almost twenty years later, I can still hear my older sister’s voice on that sunny, July afternoon in 1998. She had taken me to the park by our old house. In fact, that’s my earliest memory. I was too young (four and a half years old) to truly understand the notion of “countries”, borders, etc. Instead, my imagination conjured up scenes from Star Wars and Jurassic Park (my older brother had let me watch some of his movies). The weeks that followed brought with them a mixture of anxiety and childlike curiosity. Where were we going? How long will we be there? I’m sure I must have asked my family a million questions by the time we left for the airport that August.
I remember bits and pieces of the journey, including the unforgettable facade of Dulles International Airport, the first whiff of jet fuel I smelled as I boarded the airplane, and even the McDonald’s in Frankfurt, Germany where we sat for six hours during our layover.
Thirty hours after we had left our suburban house in Virginia, we touched down in Kiev, Ukraine. It was August 15th, 1998 – the same day of the Omagh bombing in Northern Ireland. While taxiing to our gate, I couldn’t help but notice the bleak surroundings. Parts of the tarmac were overgrown with weeds and several of the buildings were in disrepair.
For three years, my family and I stayed in a century-old apartment building near Independence Square, in downtown Kiev. We lived on the sixth floor, yet we never used the elevator, which reeked of sewage and malfunctioned daily, leaving residents and visitors trapped for hours at a time. My older brother who, because he was adopted, had darker skin, was accosted at gunpoint by Ukrainian police on several occasions – sometimes while simply walking home from school. My mother and myself, who for the most part stayed inside the apartment for the duration of our time in Ukraine (I was home-schooled), were constantly tailed by Ukrainian intelligence. In fact, the same black Toyota followed us to and from the church, supermarkets, and the American Embassy for the whole three years we resided in Kiev.
Apart from the subpar hospitality of the Ukrainian government, Kiev itself was vastly impoverished, and there seemed to be a mental health crisis. Alongside the scores of beggars on every street corner were the mentally disturbed – people who, for whatever reason, lacked the cognitive faculties to support themselves. Many of them, along with the beggars, had children. The typical Sunday church service was often interrupted more than once by individuals who claimed to “see Satan” standing beside the priest on the altar. The first time I witnessed such an outburst, I was struck by the apparent normalcy of it. The rest of the congregation remained calm and continued to listen to the priest speak while the ushers swiftly dragged the individual, still screaming, from the pews. Today, I consider myself a hopeful agnostic – but I can’t help but wonder if those people really did see something.
We returned to the United States in the August of 2001, but only for a few weeks. My sister enrolled at George Mason University and wouldn’t be accompanying the rest of us to my father’s next posting. In early September, my parents, my brother, and myself landed in Almaty, Kazakhstan – the “Heart of Asia”.
Kazakhstan, though naturally beautiful, was also ravaged by poverty, rampant alcoholism, and depression. A majority Muslim country, there was only one Roman Catholic church in the city. We lived in a two-story home (formerly a Soviet-era torture site) near the base of the Zailiyskiy Alatau Mountains. Our neighborhood was rundown and rather dangerous, though the few native families we knew on our street were extremely welcoming and kind. Stylistically, the city looked like Pyongyang – underwhelming expansiveness and untapped potential.
Within a week of arriving in Almaty, the United States came under siege. The only channels on our small television were broadcast via the Armed Forces Network (AFN), the primary source of American television for overseas viewership. That night, every channel replayed the same images out of New York City, Shanksville, and Washington D.C. The largest attack our nation had faced in decades, and we were on the other side of the planet. We awoke the next morning to bouquets of flowers and hand-written cards on our front steps – some of them placed anonymously, but most of them from our Muslim neighbors.
We stayed in Kazakhstan for two years, and though I continued to be home-schooled, my parents often took me to see the city and surrounding region. The winters in Kazakhstan were harsh, and during the spring, as the snow and ice thawed, so too would the bodies of Almaty’s homeless, many of which would go undiscovered until March or even April – having been frozen along the roads or hidden within the city’s neglected alleyways. During the warmer months, Almaty’s beggars would swarm us at the supermarkets and outside our church. Many of them, visibly emaciated and crying, appeared to be in their nineties. Many had children and grandchildren – whole generations of poverty.
On one occasion during a light snowfall, while my brother was taking me to the local movie theater (only two or three blocks from our house), we encountered a man who must have been at least eighty years old. He was bundled up to protect against the cold, but his clothes were ragged and his shoes were falling apart. He wore a Soviet-style Ushanka hat and was pushing a shopping cart full of his belongings – empty water bottles, more ragged clothing, and dog food (many of the severely impoverished resorted to eating dog and cat food, as it was cheaper and more readily available to them). From a few yards away, the man called out to my brother, asking for change. As he often did, my brother handed me a few coins from his pocket and prompted me to give them to the man. I took the coins and walked closer to the old beggar, whose face I began to see clearly. He had a gentle smile, some missing teeth, and three eyes – an extremely rare medical condition. I wanted to be afraid, but I couldn’t. The man’s smile was too sincere. I handed him the coins and returned to my brother’s side. We both waved goodbye to the man and continued walking. He waved back. It was a profoundly human moment.
The Soviet Union had, during its time of occupation, enacted a sort of caste system – one that rendered the disabled and handicapped as “untouchables”. Physical abnormalities, even those which otherwise could have been corrected at birth with routine medical procedures, were grounds for lifelong institutionalization. The same fate met those with mental handicaps.
In Kazakhstan, these “institutions” for the handicapped and disadvantaged were grossly underfunded and understaffed, even ten years after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Orphanages were also unfortunately common and largely dependent on the local soup kitchens for food. Through the local church, I became friends with several orphans, and over the course of two years, experienced firsthand their daily lives and often inescapable situations – archaic and destitute.
In 2003, after two years in Almaty, we relocated to the Baltic, specifically Latvia. The nation’s capital, Riga, was dubbed “Little Paris”, and for good reason. Of the three countries I’ve mentioned in this piece, Latvia was the most westernized. It was a quaint, European city. But one thing was still readily apparent to me – the alcoholism. On countless occasions, many times in broad daylight, we would be harassed by drunks.
But drinking and depression come with the former Soviet territory, I suppose. And something else does, as well – a deep hatred for everything Russian. My parents were fluent Russian speakers, and it was the only language they could use to communicate with the locals wherever we were. But the locals despised it – you could see them cringe. To them, Russian was sinister and haunting. The people of Latvia, in fact, so despised the Russians, that they would host an annual celebration of the Latvian SS veterans in the city square. I saw one of those celebrations firsthand – Nazi veterans, Swastika armbands, and all.
After three years in Latvia, I returned permanently to the United States. I wish I was a more polished writer, because I feel like I’ve been blessed with a unique perspective. I wish every American could see the things that I’ve seen. For the people of the former Soviet Union, the atrocities of the twentieth century still loom. It’s not a chapter in their history books, but rather a waking reality. Hundreds of millions of people today exist within the literal ruins of an evil empire, experiencing the residual pain wrought by decades of socialism. There is no speedy recovery from excessive government – but there is lingering pain.