ZOYA was one of those rare houseguests you wish would never leave. But then, she defied most definitions. If she had been born an American she might have been a Broadway star. She is effervescent, always singing, ever on stage. Zoya, however, was born Russian and is a maid by profession.
"Maid" in Russian has no English equivalent. In the waning days of the cold war, she had reported on me and my family, Americans living and working in Moscow, to the KGB. Oddly, we did not resent it. I suspected Mr. Gorbachev's maid reported on him as well. In the easier atmosphere of glasnost, however, Zoya, our maid, wanted nothing more than to be a friend.
Her English was at best broken, but that was no obstacle to a great actress. Once, in the pre-glasnost days when my wife and I were about to return to the United States on vacation with our Russian cat, Misha, Zoya lamented "Misha can go America, but Zoya stay here." The fact that a stray Russian cat could travel abroad then while a Soviet citizen could not, was not lost on our "maid."
Then and there, I promised Zoya that when we returned home we would sponsor her on a visit to the United States.
Last summer Zoya arrived, giggling like a giddy girl. Having worked for an American firm in Moscow for 12 years, she had friends all over America who also agreed to take her into their homes. She was treated like the lost Romanov Princess Anastasia.
American affluence was not new to Zoya. Having worked with Westerners, she had seen the clothes and cars in color photographs in Time and Newsweek. Still, American abundance overwhelms the best prepared.
Sitting in a friend's bubbling hot tub on a cool summer evening in San Francisco overlooking the bay, another of Zoya's American hosts inquired, "This must seem like a different world to you?"
"A different planet," she answered through the vapors.
It would have been unseemly to show her only affluent America. I knew Russian diplomats and tourists who spend any time in the United States have dreadful readjustment problems when they return home. So, I decided to show our houseguest the other America with its underclass. We drove through poor black neighborhoods in Washington, D.C. It seemed only truthful to give her a tour of the inner city to temper the heady glimpses she was getting of upper-middle-class America.
For years, she had seen Soviet television denigrate capitalism by showing the unemployed and homeless Americans sleeping on heating grates. After driving through a lower-income section of northeast Washington, I asked Zoya what she thought now that she had confirmed for herself some of the shortcomings of American society.
"What do they want?" was her response. "They have McDonald's, Pizza Hut, a gastronome [grocery store]. They have cars and a house. Russians should have it so good."
My attempts to explain that minority Americans wanted better paying jobs and equal opportunity were lost in interplanetary translation.
Few things are more telling than the shopping lists Russians bring with them. Zoya's top priority purchases were for her sons, one who had served in the Red Army, the other a veteran of the Soviet Navy.
More than anything else, they wanted Mother to bring back two Harley Davidson motorcycle jackets from America. I could only pity their Soviet political officers at boot camp. All those anti-imperialist indoctrination lectures during basic training might just as well have been aimed at the moon.
Like most Soviets who come to this country, Zoya was particularly interested in acquiring American high technology. Somehow, she had heard of a Western device that emitted electronic signals which sent mosquitos scurrying back to the bogs. I had forgotten Moscow's sub-Arctic climate breeds swarms of mosquitos in June and July that bite like a white-faced hornet stings. In the absence of household screening, Russians suffer horrible torment from these mosquitos which can make a good night's sleep but a w i
stful and distant memory of the Russian winter.
What remains with me most about Zoya's visit, however, were not the humorous shopping lists, so much as our chats at dusk in my garden. For two children of the cold war, one American, one Soviet, it seemed inevitable our more private chats should be discreetly held out of doors. The old caveat "Someone may be listening" seemed ludicrous in a Virginia perennial garden that September eve. But the old ways died hard for both of us. We had known each other long before Russians and Americans could talk freel y
about politics or personal matters.
Why, I asked gently, did she think Russians were not allowed to travel abroad till now?
"Brezhnev was afraid we would see all this," she replied, in a stunning admission.
Her inbred fear was clearly gone. Zoya boasted, "Now we can buy Bibles on the street!" She acknowledged the Soviet people's debt to Mikhail Gorbachev for erasing the vestiges of terror.
"Whom do you prefer, Gorbachev or Yeltsin?" I asked, half anticipating her answer.
"Gorbachev's not bad," she said, "but I like Yeltsin. Yeltsin wants to take away all the bureaucrats' privileges, the dachas, the special stores, the limousines. Yeltsin is strong."
Conversations about political preferences would have been unthinkable when we first met eight years earlier. The candor was as heady for me as American abundance was for her.
As she sat there holding a yellow rose, we talked about her family, an intimacy Soviets rarely share with non-Russians at home. Her husband makes only half the salary she takes home, she complained. Then she continued, he wants to spend all her earnings on vodka. It was not a happy situation.
I urged her to stay with my wife and me another week, wishing she did not have to leave on the next day's Aeroflot flight for Moscow. She was a wonderful spirit raiser, a window on the country that had been my home for five years.
It was then Zoya confessed, "You know, my sons told me to stay in America."
"Why?" I asked.
"Because, they said, 'Mama, it is getting worse here.' No meat. Don't come back," they told her.
BUT there was never a moment's doubt Zoya was going to be on the plane the following day. She ached for her sons. She missed the routine of her job. She may even have longed for her husband, vodka and all. Mostly, however, I suspect, she felt the omnipresent tug of the great "Russ Motherland," rodina, whose hold is beyond the ken of most non-Russians.
It was a lesson never quite understood by Leonid Brezhnev or some of the other party apparatchiks, who would let Russian cats go abroad, but not Zoya.