Through My Eyes Questions Answered

Through My Eyes Questions Answered

Page from a Letter to Kiev written July 28, 1977.

Siege Machinery of Soviet Immigration

We are reading the same letter dated July 28, 1977 that answered the question “what do you do with your time in America” (see the previous post). It answered other questions too on its 4 pages. This letter was the earliest in the batch that a relative of a Kiev friend brought when she came for a visit in 1989.

Why would I want to see my own letters, you ask? Well, I wanted to read them, to read them with my friends’ eyes to understand why these dry reports of my day-to-day American life attracted heaps of praise over the years. I did not yet realize how different my eyes had become.

Now I know. 40 years of Soviet immigration placed the proper value on the letters and photographs that entered the homes and the consciousness of ordinary Soviets, everyone with whom the recipients came in contact—a Facebook of sorts. Simple engineers and doctors learned that people, just like them, ate strawberries in January. Had separate bedrooms for their children. Bought a car – some even two! – a clunker? so what? Draftsmen made enough to support a family! Their children would, they said, enroll at universities of their choice, in spite of being Jewish. Sent parcels with clothes that stunned passersby (if that came from cheap stores, what could possibly expensive stores offer?)

The battle-tried and entrenched Soviet indoctrination met its match in this siege machinery—the clay feet of the Soviet colossus stood no chance against it. It took only 15 years of letters to bring it down.

Senior Matters

My parents already received a notice that their welfare payment will be $266 for both plus $68 in food stamps (this saves on taxes for food but I can’t explain how). We have an appointment on August 4 to apply for free medical coverage for senior citizens who are poor and for supplementary $30 or $40 a month of pin money.

By the way, my mother-in-law has been admitted to the hospital (she fainted in the street, the ambulance came in 3 minutes!) The conditions at the hospital – you can’t even dream of such conditions at the best health resort.

Hospital room. (Photo from

She is getting injections and heart treatment, the staff is polite and smiling even when they bring her the bedpan.

The first two days she was connected to a continuous cardiogram and her pulse information displayed on a screen. There is a lot of equipment like this and everything is in working order. Linen is changed two times a day. There is a color TV in the room and an air conditioner, and a phone by each bed.

Budget Matters

Dima’s starting salary was $650 a month after taxes (beginning in July it’s $668; everyone gets a raise annually because of inflation.) My mother-in-law had $168 (now $178), she gives us $100; she keeps the rest for big stuff like a coat and for presents for the girls. I buy groceries for her; she eats very little.

Our monthly rent is $215; telephone service — $8-10; gas — $4; electricity — $10; public transportation — $20; paying back to the community — $10, it will probably take 20 years to settle our loan. Stamps take another few dollars. We spent $250 on groceries but more in the summer because we buy more fruit.

A gallon of milk is $1.40; chicken – 39 cents a pound (about $1.20 a chicken). Meat – 80 cents a pound on average but the price is different in different stores and it’s frequently on sale. Bread is expensive, 60 cents a pound. This hurts. Locals don’t eat a lot of bread. Apples – 33-39 cents a pound; oranges – 25, peaches – 40-60, strawberries – 60, plums – 60, watermelon – 10-13, bananas – 20-25, cherries – 40-60; potatoes 15 (sometimes 6-10), cabbage – 9.

Of the money that gets subtracted from Dima’s salary, $40 goes toward his future pension. His job provided medical insurance for free, at some companies employees have to pay $40-50 a month for family members.

Life is Interesting and Great!

Everything around is so interesting but it’s impossible to write about all at once. I can’t picture how I would manage if I had to worry about getting stuff. Here I just have to think of any menu or not even plan but walk around the store and choose.

Kiev Central Gastronom (supermarket) in 2006. Photo from:

A regular Gastronom, called here supermarket, is the size of an entire floor of the Ukraina department store. I almost got used to it already. Summer camps and other services are very expensive but they never run out of customers.

All is great, honest to God. It’s not idyllic, there are issues, difficulties, some bad things but all is great. Libraries, post offices, all departments of all offices have Xerox machines. Insert 15 cents – get a copy of whatever you need, even flyers advocating revolution. … I read that there are 50,000 applicants to emigrate from the Soviet Union.

My houseguest who brought the letters disapproved of Gorbachev because he wouldn’t tell his people what exactly they should do. She went shopping with me and had much to gush about to my daughters after each trip. Her incredulity that a store clerk wore clean clothes and that a waiter replaced her beverage and thanked her, reminded me of my own incredulity 12 years earlier. I had had no letters to prepare me but maybe letters remained somewhat fairy tales anyway unless the real thing burst in. The audience did not share her excitement: “Of course a waiter is polite. He’s a waiter, he has to be.”

Unbeknownst to her, she proved to my practically-American girls that my old-country stories were not invented. And maybe even showed them what Soviet immigration meant.

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