Two Friends Conquer Time and Place

I was picking blackberries recently with my family and a Russian friend, near my parents' home outside London. The jam we made did not set properly, but that didn't really matter. The important thing was that Olga was there, forcing her way through the bramble thickets with the rest of us. Our country outing was the fulfillment of a promise we had made to each other nearly 30 years ago.

In personal terms, those 30 years had encompassed our entire adult lives. But for Olga to be blackberrying in England, they also had to encompass the end of the cold war, the collapse of the Soviet Union, and a revolution in international relations.

I met Olga when I went to Moscow on a high-school trip in 1970. We were both 16; she was studying English, I was studying Russian, and we had corresponded as pen pals in each other's languages for a couple of years.

I discovered that she was vivacious, with shoulder-length blond hair, and wearing clothes that in the West we would have called "sensible." She showed a marked reluctance to talk about politics, which I understood to mean that she didn't have much good to say about Soviet communism, but was passionate in her queries about the subtleties of English grammar.

Olga and her elder brother showed me around the city. I remember Moscow in the days of Leonid Brezhnev living up to all my Western preconceptions of drab oppression. And I remember how her class of Russian teenagers welcomed my class of English teenagers to their school. They asked us to sing songs (which embarrassed us no end as we awkwardly croaked out "Molly Malone" and "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?") and bombarded us with questions about our lives in England.

We were just as curious about their lives behind the Iron Curtain, and the week I spent with Olga and her brother served the purpose that I suppose our teachers had intended. We discovered that despite the enormous gulf that divided our countries, we had quite a lot in common. We were all adolescents from privileged backgrounds with idealistic dreams of changing the world and a shared taste for Joan Baez.

But this was the Soviet Union in 1970, a country that trapped its citizens within its borders. When I said goodbye to Olga at the train station, we promised that we would see each other again one day in England. But we both knew that, with the world as it was, we wouldn't.

We wrote to each other for another year or two, but then I went to university and gave up Russian. Olga graduated from high school, too, and the letters stopped. The Iron Curtain came down again.

I heard indirectly, some years later, that she had studied at an institute to become a foreign-language teacher and had married an Arabist. She had moved with him to South Yemen, a pro-Soviet statelet at the tip of Saudi Arabia, and was raising a son and a daughter as she taught English to government officials.

In the meantime, I had become a journalist and begun to roam the world, working in Italy, Sri Lanka, the United States, and Latin America. I had gotten married, too.

So far, so predictable; we lived in different places, but we were both following the sort of career paths for which we had been educated, and we were both fortunate enough to have found good jobs in interesting parts of the world.

And then the Soviet Union collapsed and Olga's world fell apart. No more jobs for life, no more cradle-to-grave security, and a good deal less respect in the new Russia, where you are measured by new values - such as your income - rather than by your job.

And as if to underline that she had to start afresh, a typhoon of hyperinflation ripped through the Russian economy in 1992 and wiped out all her family's savings.

But the end of the Soviet Union brought new freedoms, too, such as the freedom to travel, and Olga took full advantage of it. Not only did she visit the US, she worked there, teaching Russian at an upstate New York university. And she took her teenage son with her so that he could spend a year at an American high school.

BACK in Russia, Olga slaved nonstop to keep her family's head above water. She worked month-on, month-off rotations teaching English and Russian to oil workers at the Chevroil camp in the wilderness of Kazakhstan, and also taught private students in Moscow. By this time, I had moved to Moscow as the Monitor's correspondent there, and we became friends again. In fact, she taught me Russian for a while. But always, in the back of my mind, was the niggling thought that I had still not been able to welcome her to England.

And then, earlier this autumn, Olga decided that she was no longer going to wait for me to move back home (I live in Paris now) to fulfill her lifelong dream of visiting England. She was going to be in London for a week or so, she messaged me by e-mail. Was there any chance we could see each other there, if even for just a day or so?

How could there not be? Rarely have I been happier to go home to England than I was that Friday, knowing that at the head of Platform 12 at Waterloo Station (our meeting point), we would, at last, keep our adolescent promise. It took nearly three decades, and an earthquake in international relations, but we did it.

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