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The Dream

For the last three decades I have been plagued by a recurring nightmare:

I find myself in St. Petersburg, Russia, running through the streets of the city where I was born. It is wet and snowing, and I'm not dressed accordingly. Nevertheless, I feel happy to be back, to browse the streets and relive a bit of my past.  At the same time, I feel tired and sleepy, almost as if I'm having a dream within a dream.

As I approach the building where I grew up, I am horrified at the unkempt appearance of its façade and the rusted door at the main entrance. I notice the cold but I'm not shivering. Instead, I feel numb. I look for someone to ask where my school is, but as I approach several people on the street they back away. They all look angry and cold.

Finally I locate my relatives and walk into their tiny, overcrowded apartment, only to realize I have brought no presents. Horrified, I wonder how I could be so insensitive. I think for a moment and begin to undress. Of course! I'll leave my clothes behind for them to keep.

Suddenly I'm out on the street again, trying to get back to America. All I have to wear is a tattered cloth, but I don't care. I only want to get out. I run faster than I ever thought possible, leaving my childhood behind.

Every time I have this dream, I awake feeling anxious and distressed. But then I rationalize that it could never happen in real life, and I drift back to sleep, tossing and turning until morning.  

Reality Hits

When we arrived in St. Petersburg, snow was falling all around. As our car made its way towards the area where I was born and grew up, I recognized many familiar streets and buildings. My heart began pounding because I knew we were close by. As the car came to a stop, I got out and felt the cold wind brushing my face. Tears began welling up in my eyes, and my throat tightened.  

Strangely, I felt sleepy and tired, just like in my dream. "No!" I told myself. "I will not let my nightmare become reality. I'm dressed appropriately and I didn't forget the presents." The past that I had yearned for three decades to reconnect with was finally within my reach.  

moscowI took a few photos to validate that this really wasn't a dream, and decided to visit my old school. I asked some passing strangers how to get there, but no one responded to my questions. They simply shuffled along through the snow without looking up at me. I shivered, but not from the cold. Was I invisible? Could this be a dream after all?  

I began to run, anxious to find my school. I desperately wanted to believe that people didn't live like this, that this Russia was different from the old Soviet Union, and that I would wake up again and find out this was just another bad dream.

Embracing Reality

But I didn't wake up. Instead, I continued walking through the snow until I found my school, and was mortified to see that it, too, was run down, just like in my dream. I couldn't go inside as the school was closed for winter session. But that was good because I wanted to remember my childhood for what it used to be, happy and content in the mind of a little girl who was still untouched by the oppression of the Soviet Union.

I stood in front of the school, finding it difficult to breathe, not knowing what to do. Then my husband gently took my hand and steered me towards the waiting car. A single tear rolled down my cheek. I couldn't tell whether it was for the childhood I had left behind, the closing door of nostalgia that had tugged at my heart for more than 30 years, or all of the people who deserved to live a better life but didn't get the chance.

Meeting the Relatives

One more stop remained on my agenda  - visiting my relatives. When I called to make arrangements, they kept asking how many were coming to see them. Knowing they were worried that we could not all fit inside their tiny apartment, I assured them there would only be two, my nephew and myself.

When we walked in, everyone was standing; the apartment was no more than 300 sq. ft. I gave my grandmother's sister, who just turned 90, a hug, and we all sat down behind a small coffee table filled with sweets and teas. I finally gave away all of the presents I had brought, it felt like a mountain collapsed from my shoulders.  

moscowMy nephew and I sat among people I hadn't seen in more than 30 years, listening to their stories and answering questions. At one point my grandma's sister asked why no one was singing and began to sing. When everyone joined her, my nephew and I laughed. This was a different life that we could no longer relate to. I took pictures and video of our gathering and we finally left, overjoyed that we had reconnected with our relatives and paid our respects.

One of my first tasks upon returning to the U.S. will be to tell my grandma all about the trip. I'll have a lot of questions to answer, and will probably have to sugarcoat certain aspects of the trip to keep her in good spirits. But I know she will love seeing the pictures and video, as this will be her final contact with her older sibling.

What I Learned on This Trip

In the last 20 years I have traveled extensively around the world, visiting many different countries. I have spent days wandering museums, cathedrals, chateaus and monuments, and learned a great deal about the origins and history of those countries. However, nothing can compare to Russia, and especially St. Petersburg.  This special city will remain as one of the most beautiful in the world.  

The Winter Palace, St. Isaac's Cathedral, the Savior of Blood, Pushkin's, Pavlov's and Petrodovert's will forever be embedded in my memory. Despite the plundering and destruction committed by the communist party, these places remain packed with history and treasures that still provide a breathtaking glimpse of the grandeur of Romanov's empire. Even today, they can make you feel like you were part of that magnificent era, if only for a brief moment.

moscowI learned that people in Russia have a lot to learn about friendliness, customer service and even smiling. Our tour guide, who brought her 6-year old son on the excursion to Hermitage, told me that Russian children are taught not to smile. Parents continue to be told not to praise their kids for fear of making them conceited.  

I also learned that life is still hard for the average Russian. Most people live on a very modest salary, and the constant fear of how and where they will make ends meet is evident in their facial expressions and behavior. People often told us that even though we spoke Russian fluently, without any trace of an accent, we look American. That seemed a bit hard to believe, so I asked several people if they could tell we were Americans just by looking at us. Each time I was told, "Yes, you don't have concerned looks on your faces. You don't look like you are worried about having a roof over your head or food for your child tomorrow."  

I felt like saying that we have our own concerns, challenges and worries, but when I looked into the world-weary eyes in front of me, I bit my lip and said nothing. We Americans are very fortunate, and Russia once again reminded me that we should always keep our "troubles" in perspective.  

In Conclusion

Visiting Russia, and especially my old hometown, was a very emotional and important trip for me. It taught me that good memories should sometimes remain just that, and should never be revisited. My picture of my perfect childhood has been permanently tarnished by this visit. On an intellectual level, I had always known the hardships my parents and relatives faced. But this trip made them real like nothing before.

During our last dinner at St. Petersburg, we toasted our parents twice and thanked them for having the courage to flee the oppressive Soviet Union and risk immigrating to America. Although Russia will continue to pull at my heart, I no longer have any illusions about my ability to live there. And I will no longer wonder whether I can interact with people in Russia as naturally as I do with Americans. Instead, I will continue to think of myself as a hybrid, although one that has more American in me than anything else.

Thank you for taking this trip with me and for allowing me to share with you what was probably one of the most emotional journeys of my life.  And, as always, thank you for your support.



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Member Comments

    • 0 votes vote up vote up

      Jenni0811 wrote Jan 11, 2009
    • Thank you for sharing a journey that was so personal and such an important homecoming for you. It is important to those of us born in the US to never forget that our ancestors, no matter how far removed now, were once in the same place you are. It is truly glorious and fortunate for all of us to be here.
      P.S. I love the pictures of your happy men!!



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    • 0 votes vote up vote up

      Cindylouwho1966 wrote Jan 11, 2009
    • Very moving. I can’t even imagine having to go to a whole different country and culture to return to my hometown.



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    • 0 votes vote up vote up

      Yana Berlin wrote Jan 11, 2009
    • Thanks Guys,

      Annie, my husband hasn’t been back to Kiev that is where he was born.  All I can tell you is that most of “us” hybrids that were born there and grew up here have an illusion of what it used to be. We all think that we lived in very nice apartments, went to very nice schools, etc. When we come back and see the sizes of everything we are shocked. Everything is much smaller in Europe, (most of all the food portions; -D )  

      Maybe because we were kids and everything appeared to us on a grandiose scale, or maybe we all wanted to hold on to that dream of a perfect childhood.

      I’m glad I went, but it was difficult to comprehend that I don’t want to live there, and not only want, I probably will not be able to. Our mentality is so different from the Russian people.  It sounds silly but it will be very hard for us to survive there.

      It’s almost like a third world country; you are either very poor or very rich. The country is corrupted and doing business there is extremely difficult for anyone that has integrity. For instance, numerous times on our trip we saw policemen getting “paid off” for stopping someone. Bribing people is something that has been going on for decades. We were told that everything has its price, and while someone may believe so that it is true everywhere, I'm one of those people that still believes that it's not.



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    • 0 votes vote up vote up

      Cynthia Schmidt wrote Jan 11, 2009
    • Thank you, Yana, for taking us to Russia with you. This was indeed a very personal journey for you into your life’s history. I know this went so much deeper than a mere vacation for you and your husband. Jenni really hit it when she mentioned how important this kind of thing is for those of us born in the U.S.

      Thank you again for sharing this experience with us.



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    • 0 votes vote up vote up

      Mary Clark wrote Jan 11, 2009
    • What an awesome trip!  Thank you Yana for sharing it with us.  The buildings in the pictures are beautiful.  Can you imagine the boost of their tourism if they would only reach out to others and SMILEhappy?



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    • 0 votes vote up vote up

      Bobbi Bacha wrote Jan 11, 2009
    • Yanna beautifully written.



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    • 0 votes vote up vote up

      Inakika wrote Jan 11, 2009
    • Oh Yana, thank you. I too am writing this through tears, I can almost feel your emotion. This was so wonderfully written and I felt as though I got to experience so much through your eyes. Thank you for this trip down memory lane. Bless you, our fearless leader.



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    • 0 votes vote up vote up

      (華娃娃) ChinaDoll wrote Jan 11, 2009
    • Thank you for sharing your trip with us.  Though I left my country at a later age, I can truly understand every word and emotion you have experienced.



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    • 0 votes vote up vote up

      Amy L. Harden wrote Jan 11, 2009
    • Yana, my dear sweet friend:

      Thank you for sharing your trip to Russia and this wonderful story of a woman meeting her past and returning to the present.  You made me cry...it is hard to return “home” again...isn’t it?...and even harder when “home” is a different culture all together and not what you remember.

      I, too am glad that your parents decided to come here...but not for the reasons that you have...if they hadn’t done so...we would have never met our beautiful Yana...Fabulously40 would have never come to being...I would have never learned or known the depths of one amazing Russian/American woman and friend.

      I pray that your trip brought you peace and you never have that dream again...  

      Bless you, my friend!

      Amy



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    • 0 votes vote up vote up

      Cassandra wrote Jan 11, 2009
    • Thank you for giving me the gift of looking through your eyes and sharing this most emotional journey . I’m so very glad that you are here and we are friends .

      Cheers to you Yana!

      Cassandra~



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    • 0 votes vote up vote up

      UK Girl wrote Jan 12, 2009
    • Yana,

      Thank you for sharing - I know it’s hard to go home after such a long time.It’s a very moving piece.

      About 5 years ago I dragged my father back to where he grew up in Ireland- I had been many times but never with him ....how I saw things as cute and rustic where not how he saw them ...

      I had never comprehended that he grew up in absolute poverty and his life had been very much like Angela’s Ashes with the drunken father and days of hunger and no soles on his shoes at school.

      I now know why my father was so driven and why he indulged my shoe passion and why he never drinks ...
      Our childhood and heritage shapes us - even a generation on.



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    • 0 votes vote up vote up

      Shopgirl1960 wrote Jan 12, 2009
    • Yana, thankyou for letting your heart touch our hearts as we traveled the journey with you through your words.
      It will forever hold a special place in my heart. And how
      glad I am that the girl from St.Petersburg,Russia was transported to our great country to thrive and have a wonderful new life. heart



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    • 0 votes vote up vote up

      Cheryl Phillips wrote Jan 12, 2009
    • Cheers. This was an incredible journey. I’ve read it twice.



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    • 0 votes vote up vote up

      Carine Nadel wrote Jan 12, 2009
    • Your family is quite handsome Yana-I agree w/ all the rest of your devoted fans, thank you so much for sharing your trip and experiences with us.



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    • 0 votes vote up vote up

      Coachmombabe wrote Jan 12, 2009
    • Yana, thank you for sharing your journey with us! You made the stories, the photos (the architecture in St.Petersburg is breathtaking!), everything, so real to us.

      I pray that now you have faced this reality of your childhood home, that the nightmares will cease. And you will be left with the amazing memories, some good, some not so good, of a trip of a lifetime!



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    • 0 votes vote up vote up

      Wittymom wrote Jan 12, 2009
    • What a wonderful journey of self exploration and realisation! Thank you so much for sharing. We all have to go “back home” at some point, I hope when I do, I can be as eloquent.



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    • 0 votes vote up vote up

      Verona09 wrote Jan 12, 2009
    • Yana...thank you for sharing ..this is very touching..as an immigrant myself..i give thanks for my many blessings..Somethings can be bitter sweet aswell.i haven’t gone back for visits to my country..because when i go now its different because am divorced...I am from Jamaica West Indies..and ppl look at you differently when you are divorced..But anyways..great story..i see a book in the making....blessings to you and family..



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    • 0 votes vote up vote up

      Marsha La Marca wrote Jan 12, 2009
    • How rewarding for you to go there and see and feel with new eyes.  Life is one long journey and to just go and be there and see it all from a new perspective.  Very heart warming , thanks for sharing your experience’s with us all.   Enjoying your site..  Thanks
      feeling fab, love and light.
      Marsha La Marca



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    • 0 votes vote up vote up

      Ray wrote Jan 12, 2009
    • Thank you for the guided tour—touching and beautiful. Perspective sure changes with age, doesn’t it? Several years ago, I took my daughters to see the big house I lived in as a child. Somehow, it had shrunk to 1,100 sq ft!



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    • 0 votes vote up vote up

      Jewels48 wrote Jan 13, 2009
    • Yana,

      Very poignant.  “Going home” can be truly transformative.  Thanks for sharing your experience.



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    • 0 votes vote up vote up

      Pam Tobey wrote Jan 13, 2009
    • Your trip and memories are so poignant. Thank you for sharing. My husband is of Russian heritage, but his family fled in 1907. We traveled to meet relatives in 1987 to the Soviet Union, and then went back during glasnost in 1991 and again in 1993. As Russia, we were able to stay with relatives and travel freely and we were able to get to know the elderly relatives who are now gone. And we were able to do the same with relatives in St. Petersburg. We met them in Leningrad, and again in St. Petersburg. Your photos of your trip remind me so much of our visits, which happened to be in the winter! The second visit, the relatives took us shopping for fur hats because all we brought were ear muffs, so of course they thought we were crazy. It is sad to think that if I go back, the Russians will be closed like you described them. I was so fortunate to visit during the time of transition and hope. The Russians were much more open and curious and wanted to speak to us, even with our rusty, basic Russian. (I’ll probably always speak in the present tense since the cases just confound me!) And we stuck out as Americans then, I guess, more from our dress (not to mention lack of hats!). But we, too, reveled in the amazing history, art and architecture.  

      I, too, found that our generation that stayed there had similar memories of childhood being great, even when it really wasn’t. I think part of that is due to Russian mothers. They really seem to take care of their children so well and try to make their lives wonderful, even when theirs as adults aren’t. I’m sorry that it tarnished some of your childhood memories, but still hang onto that childhood magic view, it does count! Your parents were especially brave to leave.  

      Thanks for sharing! It brought back many memories for me as well.



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    • 0 votes vote up vote up

      Jaelgabriela wrote Jan 13, 2009
    • I‘ts Great to read you my friend , I hope you had a safe trip back , xoxoxo !!!
      Thanks for sharing !!!!



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    • 0 votes vote up vote up

      Scorpion13 wrote Jan 13, 2009
    • Yana, your dispatches were touching and beautiful. I so enjoy your perspective as a “hybrid.”



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    • 0 votes vote up vote up

      Stephanie Wolf wrote Jan 14, 2009
    • Thank you Yana for sharing your trip.
      For those of us born here, it’s hard to imagine what our ancestors live through, especially those in the not so wealthy areas. My ancestors are in Poland, and I know from emails with relatives it is still struggling.
      Thank you again.  What a wonderful experience!



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