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  • When I was a child I feared the Russians. Every night I prayed to God: Please, prevent Cruschtschev from starting another war!"

    The Russians had lost more lives in World War II than any other country. The Russians had raped more German women than soldiers of any other nationality. The Russians were communists.

    Later I became a Marxist myself for a while and the Russians became fascinating. Much later I looked for Russian pen - pals and I even learnt Russian. Such a beautiful language with all the soft "shhh" - sounds and the grammar was just like Latin!

    As a middle - aged woman I flew to meet my pen - pal Tatiana in Angarsk, Siberia near Lake Baikal. Americans think the Three Great Lakes are the most enormous ones on the planet: wrong! Lake Baikal is much much older, much, much deeper and has much more water. From here flowers started to cover the world many millions of years ago. It harbors the only sweetwater seals on Earth.

    I flew with Aeroflot to Irkutsk. All the seats were broken. My Russian was lousy, but my fellow passengers drownd that in free vodka, which was offered to me from right and left. A plane had just crashed trying to land in Irkutsk. All the vodka erased any thoughts of the crash.

    Tanya stood there at the tiny airport with flowers and friends. They brought me to many different houses of many friends and there was more vodka and delicious food. Really: the food was overwhelmingly delicious: caviar and fish salads and cakes just as I knew them from my childhood in Germany. Even though the concrete blocks in which people lived were so ugly, so Stalinist (and I knew them from visiting East Germany) I felt home.

    I had thought Siberia to be the strangest place on Earth for me. But so much was so very familiar: the plintze pancakes with cranberries and the delicious cream on top that Tanya prepared for me for breakfast, the curtains in the winmdows, how people dressed, how they behaved, contained and politely, just like Germans in my childhood in the fifties.

    And birchtrees everywhere! There are no birches in Mexico and I noticed how I had missed them. Their leaves sang to me during the short and hot Siberian summer nights.

    In Irkutsk there were the few churches that had survived Stalin, lovingly restored now, so beautiful, when I entered, it took my breath away. The Irkutsk streets were filled with Mercedeses, which tried to run me over if I did not run faster. I imagined all the drivers to be Russian Mafia bosses.

    Far away in Siberia I met the most beautiful women I have ever seen, I saw people dance perfect Tango and play the violin so beautifully that my eyes started to water. I met the most educated people I have ever met, many selling cheap jewelry on street corners as with the fall of communism they had lost their jobs and all their many social securities.

    I met the Buriats and visited a recently reopened Buddhist monastery. I met Tanya´s parents, who had been pioneers under Stalin in these regions. They were the sweetest people and cooked for me and their huge love was their tiny garden out in the tundra, where Tanya´s mother harvested her own tomatoes once a year. And was she proud of it!

    I met many people, who hated Russia and wanted out. I wondered: who will rescue this country?

    In a small country church at the shores of Lake Baikal I watched a Orthodox Russian mass and cried for all the death and damage Germans and Russians have done to each other over so many sad centuries.

    I showed my pictures in the Irkutsk Art Museum.

    Tanya became my sister. She has one son, who fought in Afghanistan and discovered heroine there. He never could let go of it. I learnt that a whole young generation of Russians had become a generation lost to heroine. The drug was stronger than any communist discipline and order.

    Finally we went in the Transiberian train to Moscow, Tanya and me. I just saw millions and millions of birch trees, but she could see how they were different here than there and she was right: she had observed much more closely than I had.

    Then came Moscow with the Kremlin, so beautiful, it could have been invented by Walt Disney. The Moscow Subway: absolutely gorgeous. The whole city: beautiful. Malls so elegant and expensive and filled with beautiful young Russians living the high life as if there was no tomorrow. But I hated Moscow. I never ever want to go back there. It was the place with the most unfriendly people I have ever been in my life. Tanya would ask for a street name and people would answer: I do not have time to give you directions!

    If I had been alone I would have sat down on a street corner and cried.

    That was in 2002. Tanya is still my sister.

    Painting by Kiki: SISTERS by Kiki
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