Photo by Christine Haberstock

It was pre-Chernobyl, Gorbachev was the new kid on the Soviet bloc, and glasnost was coming, but not quite there yet. In Leningrad the graying hotel maids had begged for our scented deodorants and shampoos; in Moscow the citizens had looked resigned, their hunched gloom exactly what we'd expected. But entering the Ukraine was like entering Oz: Everything twinkled and burst with color.

The capital city, Kiev, was stunning, an art-deco town with air that smelled of fresh-split cucumbers and potatoes and apricots. The people looked content, well-fed, happy with their green and sunlit city; there were no dispirited citizens lined up to get toilet paper, no defeated reek of vodka. My friend Tristan and I spent a pleasant afternoon admiring the strolling, smiling Russian families and vivid basketfuls of juice-plump fruit. This is actually a nice life, we said to each other. A simple life, maybe a little restricted, but there's some peace of mind in a simple life, isn't there?

But our strolling soon got us lost, and then we were nervous. Tristan could, in Russian, ask for a blini or a bathroom, but asking for directions was beyond her, and the Cyrillic street signs were daunting. When two 20-something Kiev boys approached us at a corner, we were relieved.

We had been warned by our Soviet tour guide, Svetlana, that people would be reluctant to speak with us — we stood out as American. But even in Leningrad and Moscow, we'd been flocked by college-age guys who tugged at our clothing and said sideways, in Chekhovian accents: You have blue jean to trade? You have Nike? You have music cassette? Madonna, “Like A Virgin,” you have, yes? We swapped our brand-name, overpacked clothing and the decadent music from our Walkmans for their worthless rubles and hammer-and-sickle-stamped packs of chewing gum that cracked like matzo and wearied our jaws. They'd slip away with our excess, eyes darting, we assumed, for KGB.

But these boys were open, fearless, hungry not for our running shoes or disposable cameras, but for talk. You are comingk back with us to our apartment, yes, for the talk, for the hangingk out? — and we accepted instantly, secure in our American citizenshipness. Inside, their apartment looked like those great, cool places on Sycamore Avenue here: high ceilings, hardwood floors, picture windows, a wealth of light and space. Posters of old Soviet films on the walls. The Kiev boys — I don't remember their names — served us tea in glasses latticed with silver, and played us their illicit, bartered cassettes of Springsteen. They wanted to talk about Hollywood and Steven Spielberg and E.T. Tristan told them we lived in Los Angeles — You are seeingk movie stars? they asked. You are knowingk any?

Life in California isn't quite like that, we told them. Not so glamorous.

Ah, yes, they said, nodding their heads. They knew all about how life really was in America. Not so good as people think. They knew about the capitalist struggle. Tristan and I, about to graduate from college with liberal-arts degrees, nodded. And they'd heard about riots, everywhere in the streets, all the time. Tristan and I looked at each other — what was happening, back home, that we didn't know about? They'd heard how there were no blacks in the state of Colorado because the governor had thrown them all out.

There's a lot of racism, definitely, I said, but —

They'd heard how Jews in America were persecuted and made to suffer, which is okay, because they are just Jews.

Well, I said, I don't know about that.

No, they said. They knew better.

Steven Spielberg is Jewish, I told them. And he's doing rather well.

They wouldn't believe me. I offered Kissinger and Barbra Streisand and Richard Dreyfuss. They shook their heads, suspicious.

I'm Jewish, I said. Their faces went shocked, then blank, then quivered with something else.

No, they said. This is true? Yes? They exchanged glances, and one said, tentatively: But, we, too, we are both Jewish! His voice had dropped to a guarded whisper, here in his cool, great apartment. He dug out his Soviet passport, stamped in those daunting Cyrillic letters, Jew.

The other one went to answer the ringing phone while we all quietly sipped tea. He returned, frowning. It was a friend's mother — the friend had been taken away in the night, for something, no one knew what. The friend was, simply, gone, and the friend's mother was hoping these boys might know something, but they did not. They shrugged, and drank tea.

Tristan and I went back to California, and began buying the new CDs at $18 a pop, and Chernobyl poisoned the Ukraine, and Mr. Gorbachev tore down that wall. And I wonder if the Kiev boys are doing okay, if they ever found their friend.

LA Weekly