By Masha Gvozdov
I still recall the date of my permanent move to the United States: April 21, 1990. I was 10 years old. When we first moved to Washington DC, we stayed at my maternal aunt’s penthouse apartment. Thanks to my cousins’ barbies, skate boards, Bart Simpson shirts and Freddy Krueger masks, we quickly learned what was cool and what was not. We ate pizza, swam in the pool and experienced the sweet smell of packaged goods that hung in the air of the supermarkets. My cousins taught us to say ‘OK!’ and ‘Cowabunga!’ and despite not really speaking the same language, we quickly developed a bond.
Unlike the unpredictable, almost chaotic streets of the USSR, this was a world of bright plastics, where store aisles were organized, streets paved and lines on the roads clearly painted. It was a world of smiles and ‘haves’ in contrast to the frowns and ‘have nots’ of the Soviet Union. The bright candy packages and Saturday morning commercials that were as magical as the cartoons they interrupted, made me want to immerse myself in a box of lucky charms and slip and slide down rainbows with those joyful elves. This new world seemed to present itself as a forbidden one where rules were loose and desirable, where stores were filled with comic books and stickers, the sheer number of which surpassed any child’s fantasy. This new world presented itself as a place of fun and plenty of it, a dream from which I didn’t have to wake up. I could do anything, be anything; and most importantly, I could have anything. All this made the old world that I had come from seem dull and grey.
Nevertheless, I loved that old grey world that we had left. There was plenty of color and wonder in what nature had presented me there. Walking through lavender hills and pine covered cliffs, feeding the swans that stopped over in winter on stormy beaches, choosing the perfect morsel from piles of pomegranates and fresh honeycombs at the local markets, playing near the ruins of civilizations which lived there thousands of years ago, losing hours among the roses and peonies in my grandmother’s garden, searching for the peacocks and the dolphins which were never too far from my prying eyes and spying on tourists at bustling cafes.
There is a creativity that accompanies a lack of material possessions; it’s a process of having to make. There is an organic and magical quality to a life that relies on imagination to compensate for lack of abundance. It’s a quality that at this point in my life resides in the soft caresses of nostalgia, but a nostalgia that I can never lose or replace.
It’s easy to see, now as an adult, that abundance of material things does not make life better, and is actually contributing to global warming and the destruction of the environment. Today, I value other things that living in the US has taught me: things that are hidden under the layers of desires. There is certainly a huge class divide here and we are inherently told what to like, buy, wear and listen to from the moment our parents set us in front of a television set.
But underneath all that, I found a community of people that are not guided by gender roles and prejudices that have been passed down from not being familiar with someone of a different race. I found that being an unmarried woman in her 30s, who is an artist and values nature more than labels is a lot more accepted in America today than in the reformed post-Soviet countries. I console myself by thinking that they will get there too, as soon as they get over the economic hurdles.
Pop-culture, food, art, music, movies that we see, stories that we read – all these societal elements teach us how to be the humans that we are. Each country has its own jokes, its own idols, its own laws and references that make the people in that place unique and unfamiliar to someone not from there.
There is, however, something deeper than the external pop cultural differences that connects us all; that makes us understand each other, regardless of language and cultural norms, and if we can just peel away the layers of plastic, we will find that we are really not that different.
A few years ago, I started a project with a couple of my friends which took me on a sailing journey through the Panama Canal and across the Pacific Ocean to Hawaii. Being on the Ocean for over 40 days and trusting in nature and our ability to work with her, was an experience like no other. Borders and anxiety-causing current events disappeared and a simple world in which we needed to pay attention to the laws of nature emerged from the waves.
This project, ‘The Beautiful Nation Project’, brought together a global network of scientists, educators and explorers to report from the sea for classrooms. We helped to give classroom teachers live access to resources to help teach global citizenship, marine science, conservation education, sustainable development, geography and oceanography. It was our way to abolish government-made borders and show the world as one beautiful nation whose ruler was the sea, where nature’s laws are strict, yet simple, and the inhabitants are all equally unique.
“I am a citizen of the most beautiful nation on Earth. A nation whose laws are harsh yet simple, a nation that never cheats, which is immense and without borders, where life is lived in the present. In this limitless nation, this nation of wind, light, and peace, there is no other ruler besides the sea.”
Perhaps one day I will build a boat on my property in Yalta, the place of my birth, and sail it back to New York, the place I call home. It would be a sail for peace; a journey that would defy government-imposed barriers. As someone who has seen her homeland, Crimea, wave three different flags in her life time: USSR, Ukraine and Russia, I can attest to the fact that a government does not define a nation. It can only be defined by its inhabitants, and despite their ancient Tartar roots and Russian and Ukrainain influences, the people of Crimea are like those of any other place. They wish to be a part of the world. They want to be seen as a destination once again and not just a zone of contention. Crimea, like all former Soviet Republics, went through a dark ordeal in the 90’s with systematic collapse, and they still struggle for foothold, yet they persevere. I’ve heard a lot of people, both here and there, try to find a culprit for a system that’s letting them down. It’s not productive to blame one nation or another for widespread corruption following the dissipation of a country. It seems that global progress does not move in favor of all places and all people at the same time, and in order to achieve an equal world, we need to understand and empathize with one another. I believe that the only way back up, is together.
We all have the same blood that flows like rivers through our veins. We have hearts that beat with the same rhythm as the waves in the ocean. We have minds that may conceive an idea one side of the world that is desperately needed on the other side. We have to find a way to look beyond nationalism and ideology and work together as a planet. We must figure out a way to value fairness, love and creativity. Maybe a day will come when we will be guided by a common dream, and abide by the laws of nature over the otherwise trivial laws of man.
Hear our interview with Masha in Podcast Ep. 22- Crimea Calling