The Leningrad Dress | Nonfiction by Anne Raeff
In the summer of 1973 we visited my father’s relatives in the Soviet Union. For the trip, my parents bought six oversized suitcases and stuffed them with clothing, toys and Timex watches. We presented these gifts to our relatives, the ones who were not afraid to have contact with foreigners, at my great aunt Vera’s gloomy communal apartment, where we were served black market delicacies—caviar, herring, chocolate, oranges—and plenty of vodka. Even we children got a taste.
One particularly hot afternoon after another lunch filled with elaborate toasts that I didn’t understand, my parents allowed me to take my sister to the park for an ice cream. My father wrote down what I should say to the ice cream vendor in Romanized Russian, and made me practice it until I had it right. After successfully procuring two double-scoop cones, we were sitting on a bench enjoying our treat when a group of Japanese tourists surrounded us.
“Photo, photo,” they said.
“We’re American,” we said, pointing to our shoes and jeans, “American,” but they were already snapping away happily.
Among the relatives I met the summer of 1973 was Natasha, who, with my father’s sponsorship, immigrated here in 1980 with her daughter Katya and her parents. Today Natasha lives with her American husband Joe, an avid fan of conservative talk radio, in a four-bedroom/three-and-a-half bathroom house in a suburban development of Baltimore.
I visited them recently, and Katya and her husband came for dinner. Natasha prepared a full Russian meal, including a great variety of zakuski—herring, cabbage, beet and mushroom salad—served with potatoes and Russian black bread. Of course we drank vodka and raised our glasses in long, sentimental toasts to family members who were no longer with us, including my father, and, at Natasha’s insistence, to the United States and freedom.
After dinner, while Joe watched Fox news, which I was able to tune out by concentrating on the photos and drinking more vodka, we looked at Natasha’s photo albums.
“I remember that dress,” I said, pointing to a picture of Katya posing in front of The Hermitage. She was wearing my dress, one of many hand-me-downs that we had included in the suitcases of gifts we brought to the Soviet Union in 1973. I had been happy to pass it off: “I hated it. It made me look pregnant, the way it flared out above the waist. Whenever I wore it, the boys asked me how many months along I was and whether I was hoping for a boy or a girl. I cried every time my mother laid it out.”
“I would have worn that dress every day if my mother had let me,” Katya said. “No one in all of Leningrad had a dress like that.”
NER Digital is a creative writing series for the web. Anne Raeff’s short stories “The Buchovskys on Their Own” and “Keeping an Eye on Jakobson” appeared in previous issues of NER. She is the author of the novel Clara Mondschein’s Melancholia.