By Sue Moore
Vicksburg resident Jim Butterfield, a Western Michigan University political science professor, wasn’t expecting to find love during a sabbatical in Russia in 1994. It happened anyway. He met Natasha Yakimenko in the Moscow office of the Agency for International Development (USAID) where she was working.
“We worked so well together,” Butterfield said. “She was on the team of Russian interpreters and I was the only American who spoke Russian. “It took us three years to decide to get married through our long-distance romance.”
One thing that helped to seal the deal: Butterfield sent Natasha flowers and a jar of pickles. She had told him she was sick of chocolate. Male consultants would often drop by the translation pool and bring chocolate. She said she wished they’d bring pickles once in a while. He picked up on that and sent them to her as a surprise. “I love pickles any time of the day,” she had told him.
In those years after the fall of Communism, U.S. consular officials were suspicious of women applying to come to the States. “We had to show that it wasn’t a relationship of convenience, via emails, phone bills and letters to get approval,” Butterfield said.
When Natasha was interviewed at the U.S. Embassy, she was asked, “Are you excited about moving to the U.S.?” No, she had answered, “because I have my life here and I don’t know how it will fit in over there.” The embassy employee assured her she would be all right and stamped her visa.
Although she had previously visited the U.S., there were plenty of reasons that Yakimenko did not want to leave Russia. Among them: She had a terrific job as an interpreter with AID, a mother who was still alive and a son Ivan, then 12.
Yakimenko was well educated, with a Ph.D in American Literature from Moscow University. She came from parents who were both university professors and wanted their daughter to have the very best that education had to offer. She started taking English lessons at the age of seven and found it easy to learn. Upon graduation, she went to work at the Institute for World Literature in Moscow, a research organization. Despite the education and jobs, she and her parents were not paid much more than a worker in a factory. They lived in a small apartment with few luxuries.
Her father had served in World War II, first in the artillery and then as a war correspondent. He had suffered many wounds with shell fragments remaining in his spine until he died at age 58. He was gratified that he was still alive when over 20 million Russians had lost their lives. He went to graduate school where he met Natasha’s mother. He authored war novels and both taught at Moscow University.
With the collapse of Communism on December 31, 1991 and dissolution of the Soviet Union, life in Russia became something like shock therapy, according to Yakimenko. Inflation was 2,500 percent the first year although salaries stayed the same. She recalls standing in line for hours just to buy milk in the winter. It was brutal, she said. “Nobody knew how to reform a Communist society. The American government wanted to make sure that Communism didn’t ever come back. They sent highly paid consultants from Harvard to help develop a market economy, but at a huge price.”
At that time, she augmented her meager paycheck by editing trash novels, then interviewed for a job with the U.S. State Department. “I was so naïve. I just asked to do this job part time because I wasn’t ready to leave academia so I didn’t get the job.”
But she got the next best thing: “The interviewer put a letter of recommendation in my file and when the USAID office was set up, I was the only person they knew about. I had lots of translation jobs and worked long hours with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control in an attempt to set up a disease surveillance system. It turned out that Russia had been collecting this type of information all along, but in a very different format.”
Her employer, the World Literature Institute, hosted Americans. She came to Jackson, Miss. on an exchange program in 1992. “It wasn’t the America I expected. I was just amazed at how rural it was. I saw firsthand the north-south animosity I read about in southern literature was still alive when being hosted by professors at the university. We were there a week and then flew to New York City where I stayed with a Jewish couple in their apartment who were psychoanalysts. The third night, we moved to an apartment of a Jesuit priest. The USSR was not homogeneous and I learned in my first trip that the U.S. wasn’t either, so I found I loved life in New York during my brief visit.”
From Russia With Love will conclude next month.