Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

My Native Country No Longer Exists

Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

My Native Country No Longer Exists

Article excerpt

I was born in the USSR. By the time I turned 5 the USSR was gone.

The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics dissolved on Dec. 25, 1991, when the leaders of Belarus, Russia and Ukraine signed the Belovezha Accords. For my family and nearly everyone else in Soviet Kazakhstan, the news was unexpected -- and devastating.

People didn't see it coming. The citizens of the Soviet Republic of Kazakhstan hadn't experienced the revolutions of 1989 first- hand, but rather as distant events that had nothing to do with them. They did not fight against Communism or the Soviet Union. For them, the collapse of the Soviet state was neither defeat nor victory. It was a historical circumstance hard to face, an unwanted reality almost impossible to deal with.

"We were afraid of the change," my aunt told me, remembering those uncertain times. "We didn't know what was going to happen and what would become of us. The change was scary because it was unknown."

It was only later that we in Kazakhstan, I am told, would learn that the people of Hungary, Poland, Romania, Czechoslovakia and Eastern Germany had democratic aspirations and hopes for more colorful, fulfilling lives. And we ... we were left behind.

They fought for democratic governments; we were afraid of life without the Soviet Union. They were demanding change; people of Soviet Kazakhstan were watching Soviet television and reading Pravda. We were as blind as were the Western experts to the impending dissolution of the USSR. Kazakhstan was the last of the Soviet republics to declare independence.


The changes we got in 1991 were for the worse. Sugar, butter and flour were still rationed, but the long queues to obtain them became even longer; milk was the most difficult of the nearly impossible- to-get necessities. My mother took turns with our next-door neighbors waking up at 4 a.m. to get a spot in the endless milk queue. We still stored boxes of pasta and toilet paper under the bed, just in case they ran out on the store shelves.

When lucky, my mom would get an occasional trip to Moscow by train. Three days there, three days in Moscow standing in queues to get warm clothes, exotic fruits and rare candy that we in Soviet Kazakhstan had never seen, then three days back.

On her return, the family would divide the sweets. For me and my friends, the wrappers were works of art -- big, gorgeous, glittery and so different. After we ate the candy, we never threw the wrappers away, we kept them as bookmarks. The clothes that my mom brought from Moscow would rotate among siblings and from one family to another, depending on the age differences among the kids. As for the fruit, it would rarely make it all the way home after a long journey on a train in the heat of the steppe.

My mom didn't bring many stories from Moscow, but she brought evidence of a more affluent and vibrant life. …

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