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Natasha

A story about proud and willful Russian girl from Eastern Europe and American guy who could not win her heart

By James Mackintosh

NatashaNatasha was her name, but then in the crumbling Russian Empire there are so many Natashas, that the name, ennobled by Tolstoy’s Natasha Rostova in War and Peace, has today become synonymous with girls of easy virtue. ‘There were a few “Natashas” on the prowl,’ is a phrase that emerged from modern-day thrillers set in Russia. And apparently “Natashas” are a growing social problem in some Turkish towns on the border with Russia, where men abandon their wives to spend all their money and time on these painted blonde sex bombs.

But attachment to a name always depends on whom you know by that name. It is true that the name Natasha, like Tanya belongs to hundreds of thousands of the fairer sex in the Russian empire, and what a bewildering range of women from the commonplace to the most fascinating women on this earth. But when you have glimpsed that special person, however aloof or remote, what wonderful warmth, beauty and mystery is bestowed on even the most common of names. “Tanya” takes on an obsessive mystique and “Natasha” softens the hardest heart.

Natasha was a tall, attractive woman in her late thirties. She was one of those women who, although almost a good-sized man’s height, has a certain delicacy of movement and an elegance and a yielding quality that instinctively made you feel she would be putty in the hands of the right man. In short she was sensuous and alluring without intentionally being so.

I invited Natasha to the newly opened Irish Bar in Kiev, O’Brien’s. She came dressed in an obviously inexpensive, slightly shabby coat, a short skirt more suitable for a teenager, with hair crudely pomaded, lipstick applied in a huge gash around her mouth and lashings of cheap perfume. It was this contradiction between Natasha’s highly cultured, well-educated mind and a body, dressed up like a tart ready for action, which was so puzzling and different. In the west she would have been a decent, bourgeois product – here she was flirtatious, exciting, sexy. I was overcome with a desire for her and yet could not fail to notice how poor she was. It was obvious from the clothes she wore and it came out in her excitement at going out to a western bar with prices way beyond her budget. For too long she had been cooped up inside a limited world.

I met Natasha again a week later on a Sunday afternoon in early February. We walked along the banks of the river Dnipro, down through the pine trees to the beaches with snow on them. We could see the shimmering gold, blue and green domes of the Lavra cathedral across the vast, white expanse of the frozen river, uneven with drifted snow on it. We walked past old men doing gymnastics, past huddles of people fishing through holes in the ice on the river. The sun had a wan strength to it. Natasha looked very Russian in her large fur hat, which made her even taller, her high cheekbones surrounding lively, brown eyes and a large sensuous mouth. She was the real article, intelligent, sensitive and gorgeous. On an impulse I took her hand. She disengaged it gently and looked at me.
‘James, let me tell you honestly what I’m thinking if I may…. I like you… but you are younger than me…. you are single and free. I have two teenage sons. I carry a baggage of life with me. If we were to start an affair where would it lead? There are so many young, wonderfully attractive, available girls you can choose from here – find the one for you.’
And with that she sighed and took my arm.
‘Come on,” she said, “let’s have a drink,’ and she led me to one of the riverside cafes. We ordered coffee and cognacs and Natasha began to talk about her life.

2

She had grown up in Kiev and spent her teenage and student years during the seventies inside the bosom of the Soviet empire, when life was simple, ordered and conventional. There was a wistfulness in Natasha’s voice describing the nostalgia of the old days. Entertainment was innocent and simple, going out with a group of friends into the forest with some bottles of Soviet champagne and playing guitar and singing songs.
‘Student life was amazingly cheap,’ she said. ‘You didn’t think twice about getting on an airplane to fly to Moscow for a party or a concert. Everybody had some kind of work, you know. We were secure. Life wasn’t bad. As long as we didn’t ask too many questions, or show too much independence – or turn our heads towards the evil, capitalist west.’
She grinned.
‘It was a very conventional society. All us girls were encouraged to marry young. Twenty-four was already too late! How were we to know what the future would bring?’

Natasha married at an early age and embarked upon a secure and standard married life with her husband. Two sons were born in quick succession and Natasha found a relatively good position as an economist. The years drifted serenely by until the middle of the eighties.But history intrudes on all our lives and the city of Kiev has probably been more affected by historical events than any other city in Europe in the last hundred years. German occupation in the First World War, the cataclysm of the revolution, the horror of the Stalin-induced famine, the abyss of the Second World War. And then a nearly forty-year period of relative peace and stability, when the city patched itself up and started functioning again, until the Chernobyl disaster signaled the beginning of the end. By nineteen eighty-nine Natasha and her contemporaries were embarking upon another wrenching, soul-bursting life change. All the certainty of the old order crumbled inexorably from within and there was nothing positive to replace it.
‘The economy started to collapse, James. You products of the comfortable west, you just cannot imagine how it was. During one week the ruble crashed completely and our life savings disappeared. Many people became desperate and some even thought they were facing starvation. Luckily we know how to survive just about anything here. It’s in our blood.’

Natasha stopped talking. We ordered a second cognac and the sun started to go down over the river until only the streaks of light of the fading day flashed across the ice and the last remaining ice fishermen packed their bags and headed for home. She sighed.
‘My husband and I weren’t able to prevent our marriage from falling apart. He lost his job and became very bitter. To be honest we had stopped loving each other some years before but we were held together by convention and for the sake of our children. And now everything was so insecure there didn’t seem to be any more reason for convention and he couldn’t even support himself, let alone provide for the children. We argued and we fought and then one day he just left. I have hardly ever seen him since.’

Natasha told me how she had decided to learn English to try and improve her future prospects. Kiev was seeing the beginnings of foreign investment but they seemed like pinpricks of light in the desolation of economic depression that changed little or nothing. The economy continued to slip and the city became deathly quiet as if under a huge siege, as if in a state of war. Men turned to drink, depression and abuse. Natasha joined the ranks of thousands of other women, whose material and emotional lives were a disaster.

The logical conclusion was to find a better man to look after her and who better than a westerner, a gentle, foreign prince who would come on a white charger and sweep her off her feet and she would become a devoted and loyal wife until the end of her days – yes she seriously thought she might fall in love with a foreign man.

Natasha, who was computer literate and inquisitive by nature, experimented with meeting foreign men through the Internet, a new craze that was sweeping through the crumbling Russian empire on the back of the explosion of Internet access. Soon she struck up an e-mail correspondence with a Dutchman called Albert. He was a successful banker, rich, refined – late forties to her mid thirties, divorced. They seemed to share the same interests. ‘Perhaps he might be the right type of man for her,’ she thought, ‘and of course he was from the exotic west.’
‘I decided to invite Albert to Kiev,’ Natasha told me, ‘and he wrote me that, as his bank had some affiliation with one of our finance groups, he was able to combine business with pleasure, and could come immediately. So I arranged everything for him, his visa, his hotel and when he arrived I showed him round the city and acted like his unofficial guide and interpreter. I even organized a trip to the Crimea, to Yalta where he spoke at a financial forum. He was one of the first western bankers our people had ever met there and they treated him like an absolute celebrity. It was a wonderful time and he loved it in Crimea. We stayed in a suite together in the Hotel Ariadne, on the promenade in Yalta. Do you know it?’
I nodded.
‘It was a very romantic time,’ she added. wistfully.
We drained our cognac glasses and ordered more.
‘After that Albert immediately invited me to Holland. He seemed to be very keen on me, which was rather flattering. He offered to pay all my expenses; otherwise I really couldn’t have managed it. I had a holiday coming up so I decided to go. He was the first man I had met from the west and I found him dynamic and exciting – and I was so curious to see the ‘fairy tale’ west,’

3

Natasha flew to Rotterdam and spent some quiet days with Albert. She found she was very attracted by the unostentatious ease and comfort of the Dutch way of life, the expensive and luxurious town flat that Albert lived in, the bright cafes, the colourful supermarket, and the friendly Dutch people. She even liked the cold blustery days and the proximity of the North Sea. She enjoyed the prestige of going out to social events with this important man. He carefully chose and bought her a couple of elegant evening dresses. The dresses accentuated her natural attractiveness and showed off to advantage her tall, voluptuous figure. The Dutch women showered her with compliments and she felt great. Natasha smiled at the memory.
‘But you know, James, there was something a little bit cold and impersonal about Albert. I
just thought maybe that was what some western men were like. They weren’t used to revealing their feelings. They were less sentimental than our Russian men. He was kind and generous; he didn’t drink, unlike my husband, thank God. But he was so controlled. After I had been there about five days he got a phone call. He took it in his study but I couldn’t help overhearing him. He seemed to lose his temper and he raised his voice and I heard him saying, “Tanya! Please Tanya!” Immediately after the phone conversation he sat down at his computer and spent some minutes tapping away furiously at an e-mail.’

The next day, curiosity got the better of Natasha. She went to the computer. After all Albert had said she could use the Internet if she wished. Timidly she looked at the latest e-mails he had received. There was nothing out of the ordinary except one folder called RW. With a sudden intuition, she imagined RW could stand for Russian Women. She could not resist opening the folder and there before her were hundred’s of e-mails from all over the Russian Empire. There was Tanya from Riga, Svetlana from St Petersburg, Katia from Minsk, and countless, nameless other girls – all had sent photos, some with sexy see-through clothes – and all were staring out with the same innocent yet guilty looks of those who try to short-cut a culture gap.

And there she was. Natasha from Kiev, pinned down like an animal, to be bought and sold, to be prodded and analyzed. And Tanya from Riga had been in Albert’s flat only two months before and he had visited her one month ago. His latest e-mail, written yesterday suggested another meeting in two weeks time – soon after Natasha was supposed to go back to Kiev.
‘How many affairs had he been conducting at the same time,’ she thought. ‘Five, ten, twenty?
‘What did you do then?’ I asked her a bit shocked.
Natasha smiled wryly at me. She had an engaging smile.
‘I wasn’t altogether surprised. I realized that I had been rather naïve like most of the other girls. I mean there is an element of business about the whole thing isn’t there? He paid all my expenses. He bought me beautiful dresses. What was I supposed to do in return? Just not ask too many questions.’ She laughed a little bitterly. ‘No, I decided I wasn’t going to be bought by anyone. It was very attractive and easy being a partner of a rich, western man but you want to know the truth, I was already getting a bit bored and those e-mails just revealed how artificial it all was. No, I decided I would go back and face the problems of my own country, find my own way to support my parents and my sons however daunting the future appeared, and not put my fate in the hands of some affluent, selfish foreigner.’

So Natasha packed her bags; telephoned to change the date of her return ticket, wrote an explanation for Albert and left the same afternoon. Albert came home to an empty flat and a gaping void. All those Eastern European women. They had been so easy, so naïve, so desperate. He had enjoyed them but they had left no mark, no impression on his character. Natasha had been different. He was essentially lonely and she had filled his home like no other woman since the early days of his marriage. Perhaps this one, he wondered, had the quality of a woman worth loving. He was too egoistic to realize it was he, who was no longer able to love.

“What happened next?” I said quietly.
The night sky had come up with winter stars clearly outlined by a waning moon.

‘Albert kept calling me and saying he desperately wanted to see me. He insisted on coming to Kiev. You know how it is. When a woman becomes unattainable, she becomes very desirable. Finally I agreed and he came and spent two days here last month. We walked together by the river just as you and I did today and he offered me money, lots of money to go back to Holland with him. He even offered to buy a flat for my parents, and God knows they need that security for their old age. But I refused him. I understood clearly that I wouldn’t fall in love with him and what is the point of compromising. It is far better to believe and hope that things will get better in our lives.’
The night sky had come up with winter stars clearly outlined by a waning moon. Natasha paused and looked at her watch.
“James, it’s time to go home. “Wish me the best of luck for tomorrow. I have an interview for a position of Financial Manager and the salary is really very good.’

As Natasha had predicted, I soon met a youngish, dynamic, single woman and started a relationship with her. I didn’t see Natasha for nearly nine months but one evening on an impulse I called her and we arranged to meet up the next day. When I met her, she looked subtly different, less attractive as if a hard life had taken its toll on her, and yet also more settled.
‘I managed to get that position of Financial Manager,’ she said proudly. ‘I was rather at a low ebb when I met you but things are far, far better now. I am able to support all my family and save some money for the future. And what is more important, I believe in our future.’ She paused. ‘You remember the Dutch guy I told you about, Albert. Well he still telephones me from time to time. I’m polite with him but I try to explain to him that I am in relationship – and it fulfils me.’
Natasha had fallen in love with a man of her own age, a talented but troubled artist who had literally nothing - a man of great sensitivity, near collapse under the stress of the ongoing economic crisis. She had taken him in, cared for him, nurtured him and given him the strength to continue – and fulfilled that profound law that life is about giving and not taking.
Albert, for all his social success, his money his sophistication and his intelligence could not win her heart. He still calls her. He has various adventures with other girls from Eastern Europe but they have lost their flavour because he compares them to the proud and willful Natasha and they do not match up.

I have never seen Natasha since but will remember her. She had a singular quality – goodness.
And under a lowering winter sky, the crowds in the city mingled in confusion, shame and horror at their uncertain future – and yet in their hearts shone the bright flame of freedom.

February, 2003, Ukraine

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