about proud and willful Russian girl from Eastern Europe and American
guy who could not win her heart
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
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
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
‘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
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.
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
‘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.’
‘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
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?’
‘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,’
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
‘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
‘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