Mary Graber Essay

Mary Graber, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

Russia and Russians ARE a mystery to the average US citizen!  I think that much of the “aura” of the Russian mystic stems from our own history as a country and it’s relationship to Russia and the former Soviet Union.  When I was growing up, the only thing I heard about Russia was relating to “spies” and the dreaded KGB.  There were also many jokes made as to the “studda-bubba” women and in particular I recall a funny commercial that aired when I was a teen ager.  I cannot recall what they were selling (who ever can??) but the commercial featured Russian women on the model’s runway competing for some beauty contest.  The women were walking up and down the runway while an announcer with a thick Russian accent yelled out “Sweem-vare”  for “swimwear”!  The bathing suits were dingy grey one piece suits featured on several rather large, old and generally not too attractive women. As a young adult this was my impression of Russia; that they were all spies working against the US for the KGB and that all the women wore old style, extra large clothing!
When the cold war ended I was a married 20-something and my memories of that time were all the obvious ones; the Berlin wall coming down; news footage of Russians and Poles and others in the streets.  Little did I know that within 10 years I would be adopting a baby boy and a baby girl from those same streets!  My son was born in Poland in 1991 and my husband and I adopted him in 1992.  Our daughter, Irina was born in St. Petersburg Russia in 1993 and we brought her to the US in 1994.  All of the stereotypes that I had grown up with vanished!  I cannot say that all that was replaced was necessarily good though!  Having gone through 2 adoptions within the former Soviet Union, I truly understood what the term bureaucracy means!  I think if I tried at the time to understand the “whys” behind some of the requests that were made as prospective adoptive parents; my head would have literally exploded.  On the other hand, the idea that Russian women are unattractive and unfashionable went right out the window.  Not only are they some of the most beautiful women that I have ever seen; I was amazed at their ability to negotiate through snow and ice covered streets on 4” heels.  
The old notion of the KGB wasn’t erased completely either.  While we were in the hotel, we started to hear what sounded like people in the downstairs casino from our radio that was positioned between our beds.  When we called to the front desk and explained what we were hearing, the “radio” went silent!  
The interesting thing about our trips was the instant recognition by most of the Russians (and Poles) that we were Americans.  We simply could not understand how perfect strangers would see us and begin to speak in halted English.  Did we have tattoos on our foreheads saying we are Americans??  I am of Slovak heritage and my husband is of German heritage..certainly we don’t actually “look” like a different ethnicity than the average Russian.  I broached the question to one such English speaker in Russia asking him, “How do you know we are not Russian??”  He looked at me as if the answer were completely obvious if not to us than to everyone around us and said quite simply-“You Americans smile too much.”  With that he walked away…not smiling of course.
To Americans the Russian “seriousness” makes us all a bit on edge.  We like to look into someone’s face and get an idea of what they are thinking; especially about us.  When we look into the face of a Russian, we do not get a clue.  There may be humor, contempt, irony, hostility or love; but they’ll never let you see it.  I guess that makes Americans still somewhat suspicious of the Russian people.  After all, we might think, what are they trying to hide?  And again the old stereo types resurface of the secret spy networks and the infamous KGB!  
My children are now close to 20 years old and 18 years old.  To our family Russia and Poland are parts of our family and are not viewed as strange or different.  Both of my children are aware and proud of their heritage as much as they are proud of their status as Americans.   They smile like Americans though!

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