Posted on May 17th, 2013
Like a dog who thinks he’s people, I was a child who thought he was an adult. This presented a conflict, growing up in a working class Moscow neighborhood where most of the children spent their free time beating each other up in schoolyards and in a large field, seeded with broken glass and dog excrement, an enormous heating plant looming over the proceedings. This hell continued until we left Russia when I was nine years old. (Growing up the rest of the way in a lower middle class neighborhood in Brooklyn presented a whole other kind of hell, at least until I hit high school age.) School was my least favorite place to be; I preferred spending time alone with my encyclopedias and classical radio and crayons. Relief from the Darwinian experiment that was my elementary school sometimes arrived courtesy of my mother.
My parents were deeply entrenched in the arts when we lived in Eastern Europe. (Immigration took care of that.) My father started off as a civil engineer but became a professional playwright. My mother performed with a puppet theater troupe. When I mention the latter to anyone here, the general response is somewhere along the lines of, “Oh, how charmingly eccentric!” But it wasn’t eccentric at all, in a country where television channels numbered three or four, and parents frequently took their kids to see age-appropriate live performances in order to foster an appreciation of culture and the arts at an early age.
My mother’s troupe performed at a space located in the dead center of Moscow, but frequently went on the road to entertain children in surrounding exurbs and sleep-away summer camps. Occasionally, my mother would take me on the road with her, usually when I was on vacation, but sometimes when my complaining about the barbarism of elementary school got to her and she would take pity. I became a sort of pet for the troupe, and I liked it that way; sitting around and pretending to understand what the adults were talking about suited me better than the alternative.
The troupe traveled in what resembled a small school bus, minus the air conditioning. They stayed in hotels of varying quality. Some towns had liquid rust for tap water; bottled water did not exist in Russia at the time, so foregoing showers (and tea) was the norm in such places. You bought food where you could, between performances, as most stores were closed at night. Sometimes, you’d come across freebies.
Driving between towns one unusually steamy day, we saw potato fields. Enormous swaths of space filled with nothing but potatoes in season, stretching off to touch the horizon on either side of the road. The yellow bus pulled to the roadside. Actors filed out, surveyed the scene, whipped out plastic bags, and set about picking the free dinner. I stood there, uncomfortably shifting from foot to foot.
“What’s gotten into you?” said my mother.
“Are we… stealing those potatoes?”
The actors had a field day with that one. “That’s a good little future Party leader you got growing up there,” someone said to my mother and lightly elbowed me in the arm.
Russian schools did their best to instill feelings of patriotism not only for the country but for the Communist ideal itself. Any sort of dishonesty toward the system, no matter how small, we were told, was a crime against society. We weren’t told what the system was doing to the country and the people, how farmers – who did not own the land or anything that grew on it – lived in poverty, how their crops were taken and dispersed as the government saw fit, and how as a result much of those fruits of the earth would go to waste and rot, because in a system like that, what’s the difference? But this is not what we were taught in school, and I remained unconvinced.
At the hotel that evening, the actors boiled potatoes. Salt and butter were brought out, as were bologna, cheese, and cucumbers. I decided to resist what unfolded before me, choosing instead to live off my conscience. My mother’s friend, young and thin and all long silky black hair, stepped in. “We rescued those potatoes,” she said. “They would have gone to waste. You should really have some. The little we took – it won’t be missed.”
This was too much for me. The sight of actors putting away those buttery, salted potatoes combined with reasoning from a woman whose pull I could not yet comprehend at that age, and I fell on the plate that was set before me. My conscience bothered me no more; was a system keeping me from dinner really worth my loyalty? And those potatoes – they were delicious.