My tormented history with Russia

Seventeen years ago, my husband and I lived for a while in Rostov-on-Don, Russia. At the time, a few hours’ drive was enough to cross the border and get to Mariupol, Ukraine, which is now being wiped out by the Russian army.

In the street next to our building, street vendors were selling beers piled up in carts, and often, in the evening, while waiting for my husband to come home from work, I would sit on the balcony of our apartment, at 11e floor, and shouted “svinyi !” (“porcs!”) towards the men below. Not all of them, of course, only the drunkest and loudest, those who staggered to relieve themselves away from the group, on the walls of the adjoining building.

A wife’s life

We lived on a manicured street lined with towering trees, neatly mown lawns, and cobblestone walkways, where people met after dark to chat, drink, and hang out. Neal – my husband – and I had planned to settle there for five years, while he developed an American business model in a large Russian company.

That’s when I stopped being an independent woman and became a wife watching men who urinate in the street while waiting for her husband.

Six months earlier, in the United States, Neal’s former employer had cut his senior executive position. Stunned, he had found himself unemployed while having to pay the university fees of his two children – from a previous marriage -, alimony, and his divorce, and take on the burden of a new wife also at the recently unemployed – me. I was deeply shaken too, as I had just sold my house, quit my job, and crossed the country to join him, having lived the first two years of our relationship at a distance.

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When Neal described the new job offer he had just found to me, he emphasized the attractive salary: “We’ll have everything we need.”

In unknown land

I hadn’t really planned on spending our first years of marriage in Russia, but I knew Neal needed to work for two reasons: he saw his career as proof of his personal worth, and we were drowning in bills.

We landed in Russia at midnight and the next morning Neal started working like he had something to prove. He imposed a rhythm of twelve to fourteen hours a day, seven days a week, while I set out to discover Rostov-on-Don. Few of the locals spoke English, and I only knew a few words of Russian, which I pronounce badly. That’s probably why the cashiers always looked at me with astonishment when I asked them “Skol’ko?” (“How ?”) handing them a notebook and a pen to write down the amount in roubles. The Cyrillic alphabet intimidated me, but the numbers were identical to ours.

In the first two months I devoured the 15 books I carried in my suitcase, but I would have savored every line if I had known English books would be so hard to find, and the

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