In the mid 90’s, following the fall of the Soviet Union, Kent State University, where I taught, began getting cohorts of students from former Soviet countries. They were all on Soros Scholarships doing advanced degrees in leadership. I was host and mentor to a vibrant, middle-aged wiry man named Valeriy. Val was born and raised in the Ukraine but spoke and identified as Russian. He characterized the change – with the fall of the Soviet Union – as an identity crisis. “I had to stop thinking of myself as Russian. I am Ukrainian.”
Val’s first challenge landing in the U.S. was how many choices he had to make. When he arrived, I took him to TJ Maxx to buy himself a coat. He was overwhelmed there were so many to choose from. When he found one he liked, it turned out to be reversible, and he stood in front of the mirror in the men’s department giggling with delight. “People back home will think I have TWO coats,” he declared.
Val also wanted to buy a camera, so we went to Wal-Mart. Again, he could not wrap his mind around making choices from many different makes and models. The final selection came down to which camera used batteries that would be available back home. Same scenario at the shoe store getting him boots. Then gloves. Then a hat. It was exhausting.
I suggested we grab dinner. We sat in a booth and were handed a twelve-page menu. His head started spinning again. “Order me something, please.” So, I did, but then the server asked him if he wanted baked, mashed or fries (and he didn’t know she was talking about potatoes); then she recited five different salad dressings and asked his preference. Again, he had no idea of what she was talking about. “Give him ranch,” I said to the server.
But, after all this, it was especially telling on another day when we went to a bookstore. It was Border’s books then – a large spacious store with two stories, an escalator, a café, and many, many books.
When we walked through the entrance, he stopped in his tracks, looked all around, and then burst into tears, covering his mouth, aghast. Val had never seen so many books.
“Is it allowed to touch them?” He asked me.
“Yes, of course,” I said.
“Can you bring me back here soon and leave me here for the whole day?”
“Sure,” I said, trying to take in the enormity of what his tears meant.
Val also liked going with me to Sam’s Club.
In the store’s book aisle, we passed boxes of encyclopedias for $20 per set. Val stopped to examine them like rare jewels. “I need to buy these,” he was emphatic.
“Val, the reason they are so cheap is that now everyone uses digital references. They’re out-of-date,” I said.
“Yes, but where I live in Ukraine, these would be very helpful.” I talked him out of buying them.
But, he called the next day. He begged me to take him back to Sam’s club so he could buy three sets of encyclopedias, and soon – before they might be gone. Two classmates from Soviet countries also wanted them desperately. We went. He bought.
One really big deal at Kent State University is the liquid crystal institute which hosts meetings with scientists from around the world. When Val heard of an upcoming event, he volunteered to be a translator. Three Russian scientists attended. Val invited those scientists to his dorm room, where he served some drinks and snacks, keen on the opportunity to make them feel welcome. The three scientists saw the three boxes of encyclopedias in Val’s room and begged to buy them from him. He relented.
Val called me the next day to share all this and express his urgent need to get back to Sam’s club to buy more sets of encyclopedias. We went. He bought more. He was ecstatic.
During Val’s academic year in Ohio, he had an opportunity to visit Washington, D.C. Upon his return, he was eager to share with me two entire rolls of photographs of the “Voice of America” building. There’s nothing at all special about the “Voice of America” building – architecturally, that is. Except what it meant to him.
He explained that he began listening to it in secret to the Voice of America when he was 17. He’d asked a teacher if this was allowed. The teacher did not answer the question. His response was evasive. So, he felt he understood that the teacher was in a delicate position, and could not make a recommendation.
In sharing the photos, he extolled – as if testifying to me, about the role of this radio station in the demise of the Soviet Union. He tuned in and came to understand things – things different from the information being doled out on official Soviet stations. He said all his friends began listening, without sharing with adults, what they were doing.
In his opinion, the Voice of America and the Chernobyl nuclear accident were the two biggest things that toppled the U.S.S.R. “It had been a beautiful day – the day of the accident. People were enjoying the out-of-doors. But suddenly on all television and radio stations, there was no programming – except the playing of classical music.” People wondered what was wrong. He went on to explain when they learned of the accident, they also learned the leaders of the Communist Party had evacuated all their own families to places far away from the radioactive area. That single self-serving act broke the back of the rhetoric that the government cared about its people. There was no way to spin that selective evacuation into something good for all Russians.
Going back to his trip to Washington, D.C. he could not get over that he was allowed to tour the U.S. Capitol buildings as a foreigner, and that Congress was in session, and he was allowed to sit in the balcony, and nothing was being conducted in secret, behind closed doors.
Val’s academic year ended in May, and the Soros scholars prepared to go home. But Val didn’t show up for the ride to the airport. He went missing. This sort of thing happens regularly with foreign students. But no one knew where Val was. Perhaps others in the cohort knew but would not say.
Weeks later, Val telephoned. I was surprised and relieved to hear his voice. “Why are you overstaying your visa, Val?”
“I wasn’t ready to go,” he explained simply.
“What are you doing? No classes are in session.” I probed.
“Oh, I’m staying with a friend, and every day I go to the library, and I read.”
“This is what you have been doing for weeks?” I probed again.
“Yes,” he admitted. “There are so many books I want to read.”
This is where I was forced to explain that he’d put me in an awkward position. As a state employee at a public institution, I really could not condone his overstaying his visa.
“But call me when you need a ride to the airport. Not until then.” I concluded.
As a Professor of Reading, and a book lover, I could not fault his zest for books – and his desire to make up for what learning had been denied to him at home.
It was not a sweet ending to our friendship, however. Still, I am thinking about him now, every day, wondering where he is, and if he’s safe.
Val, if you ever hear this, I hope you know I am thinking of you.