Any friend is a gift. But it's truly special to have friends who are like family. And it's best of all when those friends are both Ukrainian and Russian.
My large, special Russian-Ukrainian "family," however, wouldn't understand the peculiar joint letters Americans send out to everyone in their families. "How could you write one letter to everyone?" I can hear them say. "Why on earth would Uncle Vanya want to read what you wrote to Babushka Tanya?"
Dearest friends –
I'm thinking a lot about you these days. I have some wonderful stories to tell you. I'll begin with what Vanya (from Kiev) did. I tutor him in English via Skype, along with other students in Ukraine – and Russia. Together they produce an online magazine written by people learning English.
Each month, Vanya finds some amazing video on the Internet and writes about it. In March, I told him we needed a video about "respect" for our next issue. "Sure," he said cheerfully. "No problem."
A week later he sent me a YouTube video called, "Good People." (A better translation of the Russian title: "The World Is Not Without Kind People.") My Vanya from Ukraine had selected a film about random acts of kindness done by Russians.
* * * *
Then there's my Vanya from Moscow. He's not a student; he's already grown. He was visiting us in the States and gave a talk at a local school. During the question-and-answer period, someone asked if he liked being Russian. He smiled. "Do I have a choice? It's like asking me, do I like my hands? They're simply mine. I've never thought that I could not use them well." And any of you who know my Moscow Vanya know he has used his Russian hands to do much good.
* * * *
Finally, I'll tell you what Katya did recently. (She's another student in Ukraine.) During my first trip to Russia, my friends took me on a boat trip up the Volga. I bought a wool scarf – the softest, most beautiful scarf I've ever seen.
A few months later, a friend saw it and was speechless with admiration. She was familiar with the unique Russian technique, having read about it, she said. She had never seen one in person. My heart told me to give it to her.
I still don't regret it, but the moment it went out the door I missed it.
Every journey to Russia since, I've looked for another such scarf without success. But a month ago, Katya sent me a scarf identical to the one I gave away 10 years ago. "How amazing," I whispered as I held it in my hands. "I bought one in Russia, gave it to an American friend, and it's come back to me from Ukraine."
I immediately remembered a little boy on that same boat trip up the Volga. He was reading "Winnie-the-Pooh." I smiled at seeing a loved childhood friend so far from home. "Did you know," I asked the little boy, "that Winnie-the-Pooh speaks English, too?" He looked at me, shocked that anyone could be so ignorant. "Winnie-the-Pooh is Russian!" he said. Then he had regrets. "Well," he added to comfort me, "I think he learns English in school."
* * * *
And so my dear Russian and Ukrainian friends, I'm so glad our world has you both, and we don't have to choose between a right or left hand. During these more complicated times, it's such a relief to want good for everyone. There's something very real in that thought. Because it's possible.
Maybe joint letters aren't so bad after all.