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The Russians are coming! The Russians are coming!

Tuesday, Nov. 22, 2011

Thanksgiving memories of turkey, football, and revolutions that changed the world

Thanksgiving 1989 was a cold one in the Midwest: a couple feet of snow blanketed the fields and forests of Chicagoland. It was a year that we came home—all five of us kids—to the big white house where my family had moved the year I went away to college. We came with significant others in tow for the Thanksgiving inspection. It was the last Thanksgiving with my grandfather Henry, born in 1900, and it was the year the Russians came to play football.

Stanislav was 15 years old and he was staying with our family. He was one of 10 high-schoolers (five boys, five girls, one teacher) from Leningrad. (It would be two years before the city reclaimed its original name of St. Petersburg, but people who called that fabled city home were already talking about the restoration as a matter of course.) Stas was sandy-haired, slight of build, and generally a quiet kid, at least around anyone older than he was. He shared my younger brother’s room and the two of them went to school together every day for six weeks. My mother packed their lunches and on Stas’ sandwich of sliced turkey or ham or roast beef she always put extra lettuce. His request.

You see, in the fading days of the Soviet Union, fresh vegetables year ’round were not widely available. The problems with food distribution were emblematic of a system that was broken in so many ways. A friend of mine who was in Leningrad recounted seeing two women in a state store fighting over a single carrot.

A different country
But it was clear things were changing: the perestroika and glasnost were reshaping the U.S.S.R., and in Central and Eastern Europe it was the year of revolutions. Gorbachev had led the Soviet Union for four years already, but the Russian kids visiting us weren’t, for the most part, big fans. Less talk, more action is what they wanted. Also weighing on their minds was this fact: The Baltic Republics were still part of the Soviet Union but had declared a desire for independence.

The Russian students arrived in Chicagoland just after Halloween. On Nov. 9, the Berlin Wall was toppled. Stas watched the event on television with my family. “I think I’m going home to a different country,” he told my mother.

A week later, riot police suppressed a peaceful demonstration in Prague. The ensuing protests throughout the country became the Velvet Revolution that ended communism in Czechoslovakia. On the day before Thanksgiving, the space shuttle Discovery was launched. My mother woke Stas and my brother early for the occasion, so they could watch it live. At Camp David, in a Thanksgiving eve message, President George H.W. Bush described Eastern Europeans as “new pilgrims … on a voyage of freedom.”

Table set
On Thanksgiving Day in our warm kitchen there was turkey in the oven and potatoes (mashed and sweet) and stuffing in pans and casserole dishes and cranberry relish spooned into cut crystal bowls. There must have been 20 people at the house that day—too many to fit around the dining table. So in addition to the table in the dining room, the cherry dining set that had been my grandfather’s was put in the living room as the kids’ table—where Grandpa Hank also sat, much to his delight. He had never been to Russia. Once upon a time he was scheduled to take the next ship across the Atlantic to drive a tank in the Great War in Europe, but he liked to joke that the Kaiser heard that Henry was coming and called it quits.

So what were the Russian boys doing in the suburbs of Chicago? They came on an exchange program begun, with fits and starts, during the Reagan presidency. But this was the first year that a proper, organized exchange took place. In the fall, a small group of high school kids from the Soviet Union came to the United States. The following March, an equal number of American students who were studying Russian in school—including my brother—lived for some weeks with host families in Leningrad.

Why was this suburban high school teaching Russian? There was no native Russian population in our town to speak of. This was not Chicago proper; our town of 10,000 was never home to masses of immigrants from the lands of the Slavs. This was a WASPy suburb, far enough up the Chicago-Northwestern line that there was a rookery for great blue herons just outside of town and, a little bit further north, a lake popular with hunters. It was simply that in the late 1960s and early 1970s, as language offerings were expanded at the school, Russian language—and a young, dynamic teacher—became part of the mix. The teacher rode a motorcycle and listened to the Doobie Brothers and kids loved him. There were even those who weren’t studying Russian who would hang around the Russian club.

Forward pass
While the big bird roasted in the oven, we went out on our parcel of land where the suburbs meet the farmlands under the wide-open Midwestern sky—blue and fragile like porcelain with the sun shining down on brilliant, sparkling snow—and we taught the Russians how to play football. The teams were six-on-seven. There was Stas and his friend Anton from Leningrad and the twins Anton was staying with. There was my high school buddy Joe and his brother and my brother and two of his friends and a future brother-in-law. We offered up tips as we struggled through knee-deep powder for an end run: forward pass and lateral and tackle the receiver before he scores.

Stas took that last lesson to heart. He didn’t wait for Joe to catch the pass. He saw him high-stepping it into the clear so he ran after him and wrapped his arms around Joe’s waist and took him down. Anton piled on. We refined the lessons about rules over the course of the game. Winning wasn’t really the point, was it? The point was more to share the exuberance of being alive to run and throw and play. The point was the conversation that my younger brother and Stas had in a quieter time: about how absurd it seemed that they might ever be fighting one another in a war.

One of the reasons that this Thanksgiving is so memorable to me is that it offers a reminder. There are these things that we do right. There is good that can be done in the world. Bringing people together face to face across continents and histories. Undoing the injustices of decades of history. So act.

Does this sound too simple? No doubt. But I’ll say it nonetheless because it is also easy to forget. Sometimes all we can notice is that today we roll the stone up the hill and the damn thing rolls right back down again. The forces of gravity conspire against us. Why even try? But that’s hardly the spirit of Thanksgiving. No, the spirit of Thanksgiving is in counting blessings. Start with those of the past year. Start with articulating hopes and aspirations and dreams.

 

As a postscript, I should note that soon after the breakup of the Soviet Union, some folks tried to kill the Russian language program at our high school. The families that had participated in the exchange with Leningrad rallied to save the program, but only for a few years. They stopped teaching Russian a while back. French, German, Spanish, and Latin are still on the schedule. As is Chinese I, II, and III. That’s not surprising; it seems in keeping with the turning of political and economic wheels. And across the street from the school is the Gator Aid Sports Science Institute, the testing lab for the most researched sports drink on the planet, they say. But that’s another story.

Keep the faith,

Steven Boyd Saum

 

 

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