In Russia, my breakfasts rarely varied. Every single one started with the strike of a match, its sulphur‐y scent my appetizer, lingering in the air of the tiny kitchen. Once the burner was flaring, I would start making coffee in a tiny metal cup. I'd let it boil a while and watch the coarse grounds circulate like a load of clothes in a washing machine. I’d extinguish the burner, let the tumult inside subside, and slowly pour the liquid into a delicate china mug, trying to keep the grounds from entering. It never worked. I was always chewing by the last few sips.
For food, there were two options. The first option: khlopya, a Russian imitation of American breakfast cereal. My landlady assumed that I, like other Americans before me, would only eat cornflakes. Instead of milk, I would dribble thick, sludgy kefir over the sugar‐crusted flakes. I didn't like it, but I learned how to pour just barely enough kefir so as to make the cereal duller, less difficult to chew.
The second option was bread. Plain bread, maybe with butter, maybe with nothing. Occasionally an apple or an orange.
Very rarely, and only on a weekend when I had nothing to do until the afternoon, I would wake up, strike my match, make my coffee, chew my grounds, and leave my cloistered apartment without eating anything. I'd walk to the local market and buy a single grapefruit for 15 or 20 rubles, and then stroll along the Moscow River as I peeled its rubbery rind into a continuous strip. Between my fingers, I would roll the thick, spongy pith into little balls, which I would flick into the murky water running next to me. I could make one grapefruit last three kilometers.
But really, it wasn’t just my breakfasts that were routine in Russia. Strict routines governed every aspect of my Moscow life. Every morning, I rolled out of bed without pressing the snooze button. I dressed quickly and quietly and tiptoed out of my apartment so as not to wake my roommates. I locked the apartment’s three padded doors behind me and walked to the corner where I bought the same newspaper at the same stand from the same man. I came here to study abroad, to expand my boundaries and broaden my horizons, but every day my world seemed smaller and smaller.
On Tuesdays, I’d get lunch at a cafeteria two blocks away. I’d sit alone and avoid eye contact, pretending to read a novel while I listened and attempted to translate every conversation that surrounded me. I learned about cheating husbands, crazy mothers, unhappy sons. Every other day’s diet consisted of bread and cheese purchased at a dingy grocery store across the street. On Wednesdays, I’d treat myself to a decadent Russian chocolate bar. On Thursdays, I’d go to a small cafe after classes, order a cappuccino, sit by the window, and painfully translate stiff poetry. One line earned me one sip. Sometimes my drink would last for hours, the last drop chilling and clammy, nearly curdled, slurped up as the bored employees waited for me to leave.
I was deep in my own head nearly all of the time, focusing on fitting in, on not attracting attention, on surviving. I was here to learn the language, but terrified to speak to anyone. So I spoke to myself every step I took. I conjugated verbs. I practiced awkward tenses. I described my surroundings to myself in silent, voice‐in‐head Russian. I am walking down the dirty sidewalk. I will be entering the university campus in five minutes. I will have been living here for three months in two weeks. I am hungry. I am lonely.
And then it was time to leave. I thought I was excited to get home, to go back to a land where neighbors smiled at each other, where women wore pants and had firm handshakes, where people went for jogs and ate salads and appreciated a good curry. But as I packed up my suitcases, carefully swaddling flimsymatrioshki in my t‐shirts so they wouldn’t splinter, I felt that all I had to show for my time here was a handful of souvenirs and countless, silent hours where I remembered what I was thinking but not what I was doing.
I had few people to say goodbye to. I had thanked my professors on the last day of class. I had dinner with two friends the evening before I departed. My landlady, who liked to sleep in, had simply reminded me to leave the key on the table if she wasn’t around when I left. So the morning before I flew out was wide open, a grey gloomy space on my calendar, much like the wintry Moscow sky.
I thought about just sitting in my bedroom. But I knew that I needed to do something classic, something Russian, something typical—some experience to put in my suitcase by the Russian nesting dolls and say, “Look, I did this thing! I learned about Russia! I expanded myself! I am a citizen of the world!” Because really, I felt like I had never been smaller and narrower and more isolated.
I knew just what I had to do: finally visit Lenin’s embalmed body, ghoulishly on display in a dusky mausoleum on Red Square. I’d hurried by his tomb nearly every day, not interested in joining the throng of people waiting to get a peek of his shriveled body. There was always a line snaking around the unscalable walls of the Kremlin, waiting for their brief visit with Lenin. A line full of gawking spectators; of young, newly‐married Russian couples paying respects to the father of the revolution; of babushki bemoaning their lack of a pension and yearning for the good old days of Communism. Rumors fly. People whisper that it’s not actually Lenin on display—that it’s a wax doll, a tiny mannequin, or a just some random person’s body because the original Lenin started decomposing. But seeing the spirit‐less corpse of the man who shaped the country is probably the closest you can get to seeing the spirit of Russia.
So the next morning, I got up early. I surveyed my neatly packed suitcases and headed out the door, without my match, my coffee, my breakfast. I shuffled out of the metro at the Красный Площадь stop and shuffled into my place in line. I was behind the usual cast of characters, those that I had ignored for the last four months as I wandered the streets in my own company. A couple groups of young Russians, girls in tiny skirts and thigh‐high boots, boys with leather jackets, slicked‐back hair, and cigarettes in the corners of their mouths. American tourists—identified by their overalls and blindingly white New Balances. Babushki, holding plastic bags full of sundries (extra sweaters, rain jackets, snacks, who knows), chastising the young people to “Be quiet,” to “show some respect,” to “not sit on the sidewalk— don’t you know you’ll never be able to have children.”
It started to rain. The Tajik street cleaners scurried out from the doorways and the alleys where they waited, armed with their brooms made from hundreds of tiny twigs. They swept the water—a rhythmicschwhip‐schwip‐schwip of sticks on cement—out of the way of Muscovites who did not notice them.
For forty‐five minutes, I waited in line. The rain slowly seeped through my leather boots, through my wool jacket, saturating my body and my jeans. The dampness crept up the legs of my pants, a soggy line advancing from my hem toward my knee. The Russian grandmothers in line in front of me looked and shook their heads, disapproving of my clothing choice, my inability to remain presentable, and the fact that I was alone. They spoke in loud voices to each other, but with regular sideways glances at me. They wanted me to hear. As I finally approached the dark maw of the mausoleum, I shivered from clamminess—my legs covered in goosebumps, my feet squelching with every step of my soggy boots.
Everything was a deep, sultry red. Even the floor and the walls. I remember velvet, but the ushers, who hurried visitors along and slung piercing “shushes” at everyone, made us walk so quickly, I don't remember if it was from a red velvet rope, a red velvet wall hanging, or just an especially lush red carpet. I couldn't even slow down to get a good look at Lenin's body. As if I was on a train, I watched Lenin over my shoulder as the flow of people pushed me past him. He was tiny. His cheeks were sunken. His eyebrows were prominent. His skin, oddly pink.
But then I was in Red Square, blinking painfully at the circus towers of St. Basil’s Cathedral and disoriented by the many red stars that dot the high walls of the Kremlin. I didn’t know what I had seen, really: it could have been a mannequin, a doll, a dead child. But I did know that I had seen enough. I hadhad enough. I turned my back on Red Square, on the mausoleum, on Lenin, and walked toward the steely entrance of the closest metro station—toward a long flight in a crowded airplane. My final footsteps across the cobbles of Red Square clattered into the air, joining the mélange of cigarette smoke and Cyrillic syllables that blanketed the sky. I inhaled one last lungful of soot, damp concrete, and other people's watchful glances. I went home.