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First Draft

by aimee friedland

If you are of anti-Russian sentiment, this does not apply to you.
If you are interested in learning where my fascination with Russia came from, read this essay.

Given the hundreds of pages I've already written, the tears I've expelled, the impassioned states of hope and hopelessness

that have taunted me- I honestly thought that by now, I'd have a better answer for you.

At the risk of seeming blind-sided, I cannot imagine myself anywhere else but in St. Petersburg. Having only spent 6 weeks of

my summer there, I can hardly classify myself as an expert, however to say that I love and relate to the city is an

understatement. What I feel is more of a deep, unfaltering connection, something undeniably clear in my eyes, but

inexplicable to others. As Tatyana Tolstaya states, "Logical categories are inapplicable to the soul." True to this

statement, it is perhaps important to note that my interest in Russia began in a dream.

I was 15; it was a summer night preceding my study abroad trip to France. Insomnia had hit me full-force, and I spent large

parts of my evenings studying French grammar. Somewhere between le subjunctive and le passé antérieur, I fell asleep. What

was then portrayed to me was neither a dazzling image of the Eiffel Tower, nor anything else resembling the "City of Lights."

I saw myself in an airport, grey and outdated. I was in Russia.

Only a year later, standing alone and bewildered in the Pulkovo-2 baggage claim would I realize the power of my dreams �" and

the magnitude of what I had just undertaken. My luggage was lost, my pant legs saturated in muddy rainwater, and flight

delays had caused me to arrive one day late, unannounced and unexpected at my Host Mother's apartment.

Cracking open the door, Natasha's tiny blue eyes peered at me.
"Who's there?"
"It's Aimee, the American."
"Oh," she upheld, "come in. I thought you were supposed to arrive yesterday. I made you all this food; I will need to heat it

up now."

Thus began my exposure to the dualities of the Russian character. Natasha, on one hand, possessed a calm indifference towards

the greater inconveniences and misfortunes of life, yet remained staunchly opposed to what I would classify as mundane. My

spontaneous arrival was more than acceptable, she said, although she could not tolerate the way I slurped soup.

In Russia, the feeling that you cannot control the conditions and circumstances of your own life is still eminent. The

bureaucracy, above all, struck me as inefficient and corrupt. Everything from obtaining drivers licenses to mailing packages

and extending one's visa is operated on a system of bribes. Poverty looms around every corner, sharply contrasting with the

elite crop of designer stores lining St. Petersburg's main artery, Nevskij Prospekt.

Everyone acknowledges that such a gap in wealth is unfair, but so is everything else in Russian life. Natasha frequently

hinted at her economic shortcomings, which prompted me to ask her if she would perhaps prefer living somewhere else. Being

Jewish, her daughter had already immigrated to Israel 10 years prior, and I wondered if Natasha had planned to do the same.

"No," she told me plainly, "my life will be bad anywhere: in Russia, in Israel, all bad."
"And in the U.S.?" I proposed.
"Maybe a little better, but still bad," she shrugged.

While full of pessimism, I strongly admired the simple and honest demeanor in which Natasha expressed herself. Theorized by

professors and romanticized by Tolstaya herself, the enigmatic "Russian Soul" has always interested me, and seemingly

correlated to Natasha's peculiar love of suffering. I asked her one evening what she thought of this, only to have the topic

dismissed immediately.
"It's just a myth," she said, and with that the conversation was over.

Although Natasha and I spoke no further of such profundity, an internal dialogue had been sparked in me, one inspired by the

everyday teachings of Russian life. In six week's time, I had already mastered the art of elbowing my way through subway

crowds, taken to eating heartily - not out of hunger, but politeness, and perhaps most importantly, I had fallen in love with

a Russian. Whereas Natasha had spoken too succinctly, unwilling to justify the fundamental whys and hows of her homeland,

Artyom spared no detail in my "education." It is from him that I learned the true nature of Russian life, and love.

Now, to explain to you the hardships of a long-distance relationship would be the utmost waste, cliché, sin I could ever

commit. I am not the first girl to have her heart torn in two, nor the first to leave someone behind. If anything, Artyom

taught me that in the face of adversity, one must be tough and tolerant. To live through changes as tumultuous as in Russia,

a nation of bitter extremes from North to South, East to West; where xenophobia is the subject of an 11-year civil war, and

corruption a common practice �" one must endure suffering, even come to enjoy it.

It was this exact sentiment that I saw eternalized in Natasha's eyes, a mélange of fear and trust, will and apathy; a wealth

of feeling and sensitivity to make up for the logic that she generally lacked. Remarkably, it was neither she, nor Artyom to

introduce such feelings to me �" they had been in fact been planted long prior to this, in one night's dream. A dream �" the

word seems just as foolish to me now as it did 800 words ago, although I read further and take comfort that Tolstaya

describes it as one of life's "most important" things. I can also take comfort in where this dream has taken me: to Russia

and back, to great friends, unforgettable love, to tears and desperation, then acceptance and perseverance all over again. It

has taken me to an early high school graduation, financial self-sufficiency, and to this very college application. Perhaps

more importantly, though, I now realize that despite others' disinclinations to believe, the Russian Soul exists. If

anywhere, it exists inside of me.