It was the first time I'd flown Aeroflot, the former Soviet (now Russian) airline. I'd had a late meeting and arrived at the plane's door out of breath. Passengers were pulling down pillows and blankets, placing belongings strategically in unclaimed seats next to them, settling in for the long flight from Washington to Moscow. I slid down next to a woman in a pale yellow sweater and white sneakers. Her hair was tied neatly in a ponytail by a jeweled clasp. She didn't look up, but curled her body as far into the seat as it would go.
"Dobrie Dyen," I said, hoping to practice my Russian. A simple "good day."
"Dobrie Dyen," she returned, softly, staring at the seat in front of her. She seemed tired.
"Vyi zhivyote v Moskve?" I asked.
"Nyet," she said. "V Gruzii."
I had already hit a snag. I switched to English. "You don't live in Moscow, but I don't understand. Where do you live?"
"In Georgia," she said in slightly accented English.
"Oh. Stalin was from there, right?" One of the few points of reference that most Americans have for Georgia.
She sighed. "Yes, he was born there."
She clearly was not in the mood for talking, and I was already thinking about sleep after a long day. Or maybe she was just anticipating another American's automatic dismissal of anything Soviet. But something made me push on.
"Stalin did some good things," I said, surprising myself. I would never have said that if another American had been listening. It was like saying Hitler was a decent fellow. But there was some truth in it - Stalin introduced universal literacy and transformed a backward nation into a world power - and focusing on good things felt restful to me. Besides, I had never felt as caught up in the cold war as many Americans had. Hate felt as strange to me in thinking about nations as it did in thinking about people.
"Yes, Stalin did some good things," she said, turning her head slightly toward me.
If you want a shock, look at some of the old footage of Stalin. Look in his eyes. At certain moments you can see something remarkable, a sadness, grief. You can see longing and tenderness. And loneliness. He was a poet as a young man, and a decent one. What he wrote still touches Georgian hearts. Go figure. Few people are as black or as white as ideologies make them.
"I've talked to a lot of people who grew up in the Soviet Union," I said, "and most of them say they had a good childhood. Was yours, too?"
"Yes, absolutely. It was wonderful," she said. I saw the corner of her mouth turn up in a smile.
What was it about my seatmate that made it so easy to think of good things, even in Stalin, even in Soviet life? She told me her father had been a member of the Communist Party, in charge of the transportation system of Georgia's capital, Tbilisi. He never rose higher, though. He was chastised for wanting to paint some city buses bright colors. He refused to accept bribes, even though it was the only accepted way to get rich. He told his children never to lie. He worked 12 hours a day, more than most capitalists. Living in a system that encouraged thievery, he never stole a ruble. His daughter, telling me this, her crouch now less severe, straightened the clasp in her hair.
"How come all the questions are coming from me?" I laughed. "Aren't you going to ask me anything?"
She was silent for a few moments, then sat up and, for the first time, looked at me. "No," she said. "I'm not comfortable asking questions. But you can keep asking, if you want. I don't mind."
For people who lived in the Soviet Union, questions still feel slightly dangerous. I realized the intimacy of the invitation, and I pressed on with a calm excitement as I discovered more of what was beautiful in her, her family, her nation, and her life. I started measuring our relationship, not by the usual standards of physical and emotional connection, not by the gaps in religion and in the politics of our respective nations, but by the moral ideals we shared. It was not what I could define logically or with my senses that made me want more, but how much I could see of my best self in her. I was surprised how easy it was.
As the night moved on, the lights dimmed in the cabin - all except the two over our heads. We never touched across the armrest. We never slept at all.
Five years later, on an evening when hate had found new life in another battle of systems, this time between America and parts of the Muslim world, as images of that conflict shocked again and again from the television screen, she folded softly under my arm and closed her eyes to rest. I picked up the book beside me on the bed and read her a passage I had come across in the 1930s classic "The Origin of Russian Communism," by Nicolas Berdyaev: "A man who is gripped by the emotion of hatred cannot be concerned with the future, with a new life; only love turns a man towards the future, frees him from the heavy shackles of the past, and is a means of creating a new and better life." And, he adds: "The preponderance of hate over love is terrible among communists."
I switched off the TV, and we both soon fell asleep.