sour cream, stewed chicken, pickled vegetables, soft brown Russian bread (with as much
butter as I want!), and—vodka.
“David, vodka. You like?” says Pavel, one of Sergei's cousins. I can't tell if my smile
reveals the fear or not. But he takes it as yes. And so it begins. I am eager to get to know
Sergei's family a bit before entering a drunken stupor.
This is Sergei's mother's side of the family. She died several years ago and is buried in
the cemetery we visited in Ukraine. Sergei and I both lost our mothers when they were re-
latively young, and we often talk of that shared pain and about the positive influences our
mothers had on us.
Sergei is not close to many people on his father's side. His grandfather died fighting
with the Red Army in World War II. That was a reality faced by far too many families. Rus-
sia lost millions of men in that war, more than any other country. After his grandfather's
death, Sergei's grandmother immediately remarried. “And my father never forgave her for
that and never wanted to see her,” Sergei once told me. This unwillingness to forgive al-
ways struck Sergei as odd, coming from a man who needed forgiveness himself. Like so
many Russian men, Sergei's dad struggled with alcohol and abused his wife. “I once asked
my mother if dad ever beat her. Twice, she told me. David, I can't relate to a man who does
that. I have never raised an arm, or even raised my voice at Tania.”
Sergei could not have been more excited to see his mother's family in Nizhny. He hadn't
seen them in six years—even though it's only a six-hour train trip from Moscow, he and
Tania have just been too busy. On his last visit he had not even begun working for NPR. On
this visit, at the table, Sergei hands out his NPR business cards, and explains he works for
an Amerikanskaya radiokompaniya . They pass the cards around the table, studying every
detail, a moment that makes Sergei proud and me proud for him.
I am on my second bowl of borscht when Zhenia, trying her limited English, declares:
“I am going to come to America and write a book!”
I ask if she's serious, and she says a stern “Nyet,” then smiles. Zhenia is happy to have
a job at a small automobile company, and her dream is to travel with her boyfriend, Al-
bert, to some of the Russian cities near Nizhny, if they can save enough money. Life isn't
easy—she and Albert are cramped living with Aunt Nina, and there's little extra money for
travel. But the couple is happy, satisfied to live and eventually raise a family in Nizhny.
Meeting Zhenia makes me eager to meet more young people. In Moscow, people in their
twenties and thirties are on average wealthier and more educated, often in well-paid jobs
at energy companies or law firms. Many of them were part of the middle class that rose up
in those December 2011 protests. The image the world saw was Russia's young generation
rising up. It was an attractive narrative for Western journalists who spent years watching
and waiting for Russia to see its own Arab Spring. In truth, though, Zhenia may better fit