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A True Story of Love, Survival and Freedom

Chapter 4

A Chat Room for Two

I set up a nice, cozy, unhackable chat room for two.

Yet another Russian orthodox chapel

Since the collapse, orthodox chapels have sprouted like mushrooms after rain, especially in Soviet places of honor. Notice poor old Lenin, with his finger of shame, in the lower left of this frame: religious dogma replaces totalitarianism.

Right, I know... nothing is truly unhackable. Data packets to and from my server could be sniffed out, intercepted along the way. Anyone, with even the tiniest black hat, could be lurking between dankest Oak Bay and darkest Russia. Encryption is never enough, except when it is, and given how Russians operated, the only level of encryption we needed was a foreign language: English. Besides, Russians interested in Elena's type of depravity didn't need black hats to wreck their victims lives. Who needs a hacker, when physical violence, corrupt cops, loose Internet providers, and public shaming were all sanctioned, even encouraged by the church, the government, and society? Yeah, my little chat room -- with virtual, shag carpet in bright orange -- wasn't the kind of security Elena needed, but it was the best we could do.

In reality, it did very well. I got closer to Elena -- in ASCII text -- than I thought, humanly possible. Exceedingly rare phone calls imprinted our respective voices on the words we saw in pixels. When I first heard her speak, Elena's voice was nothing like I imagined. Instead of a shy, self effacing falsetto with upturned sentence endings, I heard a dark, smoky voice quavering with fear. Still, strength and determination underlay whatever she said. Furtive silences following a quick intake of breath, be damned. This woman was no little girl. She would do what she said. There was simply no question.

Soviet panel building entrance

Elena’s building entrance in Ivanovo, Russia A common sight in the former Soviet Union are massive, nine-story residential apartment blocks. The vast majority of the population live in these buildings, hastily constructed from prefabricated concrete panels and designed to last only 25 years. Stacks of apartments are accessed via a shared stairwell. Often, multiple generations and extended families occupy single apartments. Corridors are unusual; instead, multiple stairwells and entrances - such as this one - connect apartments that share adjoining walls in the same building. These inexpensive, poorly built structures are largely neglected, and in a constant state of disrepair.

When she didn't respond to my travel plans -- as in, went dark -- I figured, I'd blown it. Sure, I tossed my itinerary out there. Playing it ultra sophisticated with a take-it or leave-it kind of casual invite to hook up. Of course, that was bullshit. I felt anything but casual, but in my world, nonchalant is how it's played. Since then, no email, no text messages, nobody but me in the chat room -- popping in to see if she was there, like my excessively busy social life prevented me from actually waiting for her to show up online. The truth be told, I was afraid to find out that she wouldn't be there.

Cooler than dry-ice, I geared up in my natty, MEC, hiking togs, threw some desiccated sort-of-food, a primus stove, and my tent into the Volvo, then headed for the West Coast -- AKA the wet coast. It's the ultra-hip, Canadian way of dealing with stress: spend a fortune looking like you are having the most enlightened, environmentally self-righteous, good time. Getting it on, in the freezing cold, bug infested muck with mother nature. At least, I couldn't obsessively check my email, just to be slapped in the face by the complete absence of anything from Elena.

Meg with a heavy pack

When the going gets tough, the trendy go hiking! Meg's smile is indicative of a before-hike photo op.

While I fed a billion mosquitoes, flirted with hypothermia, and enjoyed my various, vacuum desiccated yummies, Elena was beating herself up for blowing off my first invitation to meet in Kiev. I had no way to know how she felt because she was doing the same thing I was. Engaging in some kind of weird, psychologically twisted, substitute action.

My emailed invite to meet-up in Kiev was open-ended. Elena desperately wanted to accept, but feared her keepers finding out. She didn't want to say anything about it until she had talked to me. Well, I meant chatted: phone and chat room dialog was volatile -- it vanished into the ether, unlike email which, once you hit send, will outlast the known universe.

As for the phone, Elena's comm rate and comprehension skills were off-the-charts better in text, than they were in person-to-person -- or voice. Don't forget, using the phone was almost impossible to hide. Her parents would recognize the foreign language and know that she was laying waste to their plans for her. Key clicks, on the other hand, could conceivably be construed as a wild game of Tetris, or anti-democracy trolling, in a pinch.

The longer we spent disconnected, the more concerned she got. Something was wrong, or maybe, tragically normal. Elena knew that it was typical of online relationships: they form, they grow, then they lose momentum and die when there's nothing left to feed their fire. She'd seen it before, chatting like crazy, but when it came to actually meeting, dropping the electronic veil, risking discovery in the real world, one or the other backed off. "Let's just keep it online for now," was followed by increasingly infrequent private messages. Then finally, none at all.

Russia winter street small shops

Many small convenience-like stores, provide a selection of staples to local residents. It is uncommon to buy more than what is needed for the next meal, usually on the way home from work. In this view, tucked in among the peep shows and street tobacco vendors are a small grocery store, a bakery, and other services (some legal, some, not so much, but essential).

Determined not to let that happen between us, she booted her computer. It was late enough, her parents should have been out cold. Still, her mother had an uncanny way of hearing anything subversive. Schtonk. Beep. Windows plays a happy tune... And she was online. Clack, click, rattle... tap, tap, tap. Desktop, keyboard action has been detected. Daughter's room. Intruder alert! She would feel her mother's possessive wrath in the morning.

Elena imagined her mother, right there, at the door, cheeks red, steam rising from her ears. She typed. "Dear Meg," stopped to think. "Of cause [sic] I want meeting..." She stopped to agitate her little gray cells, mercilessly "... probably you can arrive to visit in Ivanovo. Maybe to visit Russia is more interesting than far away Ukraine? I can to show you..." Elena knew it was impossible, crazy -- dangerous.

My more prominent traits flashed before her eyes. I was out. not only would that likely be in conflict with the people around her, it forced her to consider the ramifications of being out, herself. She couldn't expect me to hide what she actually admired. My outness would out her! I exulted in chat, more than once, that I would shout her name from the rooftops while wrapped in a pride flag, if given half a chance. Physical violence was a certainty, if not from her mother, then certainly from anyone in visual, or auditory range.

Select all. Delete. Exit. Shutdown. Nope, email wasn't going to work, and I, sure as hell, wasn't going to be showing up in Ivanovo for afternoon tea, anytime before the end of the current interglacial.

Soviet, 9-story panel-building

Dispossessing the Soviet population of their farms, villages and homes, during collectivization (Stalin's imperative to move the USSR from a garden/family/village agrarian economy toward state industrialization) caused a massive housing crisis. A program of panel building construction was undertaken, following Stalin's death, as a first response to horrifying living conditions. Rudimentary shelter was the primary purpose of these buildings; aesthetics, quality, community, and even safety were secondary. They were built in a state of disrepair. The occupants were counted on to finish and correct shoddy construction. Landscaping was not a consideration. Private transportation did not exist: construction went vertical rather than horizontal to decrease the distance citizens traveled to and from work and services.

Weekend chat sessions were hit and miss. Hit, if Elena's parents happened to be at the cabin, and miss if they weren't. Don't confuse a Russian cabin, or dacha, with the North American, cottage-by-the-lake idée fixe. There is absolutely no common ground, or lakefront, between the two concepts of property. You see, during Khrushchev's reign, Soviets got warehoused in massive social housing projects, with the same spirit destroying, humanity crushing, results as occurred in America. Only difference there, was that all Soviets got stacked into these panel buildings, instead of just the marginalized.

This colossal, social warehousing of human beings coincided with the collapse and failure of collective farming. The Soviet Union had two problems -- among many, but let's just look at this housing and farming thing. They've got millions of seriously damaged people, enduring a hopeless existence, piled on top of each other in social housing projects, with no free will of their own. Multiple generations of families were crammed into tiny, concrete-slab cells, and there wasn't enough food to feed them all.

With people living like battery hens in factory egg-farms, Soviet social engineers -- unable to grind them into McNuggets when their productivity decreased -- parceled off the destroyed, poisoned, depleted, contaminated, radioactive, eroded agricultural lands of the collective farms, and gave it to Soviet citizens as garden plots. Usually in the absolute middle of nowhere, these little garden plots provided the poor Soviet citizenry with a tiny place to call their own, breathe some not quite so toxic air, look up at their own patch of the sky, and most importantly, plant potatoes to provide calories the state couldn't.

Crowded bus stop in small Russian city

A crowded Russian bus stop in winter. Unquestioningly normal in Elena's world.

That was the dacha. Over the years, as food production began to stabilize and increase, those Soviets that were more equal than others -- notably intellectuals, architects like Elena's parents, and non-grunt labor -- put little cabins on their garden plots for weekend getaways. If Elena was lucky, she didn't have to participate. Don't get me wrong, as a kid she loved it, like any kid would, but as an adult, any time away from her pathologically possessive and manipulating mother -- whom she had to work with on the same floor, of the same firm -- was truly golden.

In Elena's playbook, weekends -- or any time -- to herself was a hit. That Saturday, however, was a miss. Mama was not only prowling around, she was meddling her daughter into a truly sickening, social engineering project of her own. Something I found out about, pretty much, in real-time while chatting with her.

I had gotten up way-too-early-on-a-Saturday-to-be-legal because Elena wanted to connect in the afternoon, her time. Of course, the assumption was that psycho-Mama and homophobic-Papa wouldn't be around. Having not gotten the memo, and being up anyway, we went ahead with our chat session. I doubt that Elena would've cancelled, and I cherished any time we could find together.

Soviet panel building exterior with stairwell entrance

This would have been a very swank building in its time: the sixties. The blue, vertical section shows the location and entrance to a common access stairwell, and possibly an elevator. This building also sports a vehicle access port to the courtyard, formed by a palisade of usually identical buildings.

I had been chattering away about ordinary things to me: home renovation fails, yacht club hijinks, hiking in the driving sleet. Elena had been countering with her normal discourse: music, the Ukrainian revolution, Soviet filmmakers, the stultifying nature of life in small-town Russia.

And then, something like, "Mama is screaming me to meet someone. Wait!" Flashed across my chat window, followed by, "LENA has left the room."

Huh? What did I say? I hadn't brought up my impetuous itinerary. In fact, the only mention of Kiev, from either of us, was in relation to the Orange Revolution. We'd been completely ignoring the elephant in the room, and instead, worked on keeping it light and noncommittal. Chats didn't tend to end so abruptly -- maybe she didn't like the decor in the room, orange shag a little too much?

Dang, it was early! Still dark. Strangely, it wasn't raining, or sleeting, or snowing. With luck there would be sunshine around noon, when it poked a few degrees above the horizon just before setting. It boggled my mind that humans lived in latitudes so close to the poles that life was nearly impossible. Then again, it was the inhospitable-wasteland aspect of the region that made it Canada instead of USA, after all.

Building a solarium

Solarium assembly in the torrential rains of Victoria

As an antidote to seasonal affective disorder, I had built my crowning achievement, a massive, insulated, four seasons solarium, onto the back of my bungalow. Bungalow on steroids, was more like what it had become. The solarium gave me a beautiful, unobstructed view of the sky -- not that it was anything but solid overcast, ninety-nine percent of the time, but I had available funds, high hopes and a passion for astronomy.

Looking skyward through layers of argon separated, architectural glass, ancient starlight almost transported me beyond the dread I was feeling about the way our chat ended. The sky was painfully clear, ice cold stars pierced indigo blue and a sliver of Earth's binary, the moon hung close to the western horizon. I could've been on a spacecraft, for how clear it was. I knew then, it was one of those moments I would carry to the end of my sentient existence.

In the distance, I heard the electronic crowing of a rooster -- my idea of an amusing, sound notification of Elena's chat-room arrival. I left my space station-solarium and padded down the long hallway to the kitchen. The chat window now read, "LENA has entered the room," and under that, "She wants marry me Arab sheik!"

Solarium placement detail

Meg's bungalow on steroids, under construction. View from the lower floor, looking up through the future stairwell, into the already placed solarium.

I started typing a response, but A: couldn't think of what to say, and B: couldn't say it before Elena's next line of text flashed onto the screen. "Meg! Where are you!?!?!" And then, "Mama, she want me go Dubai for marry rich man."

Whoa! The things I learned from Elena. It was safe to say, nothing stayed light and noncommittal for long in our relationship. I had probably responded with nothing but a question mark: a typical, too-cool-for-words Internet chat response.

What transpired that day in Elena's world was a plan her mother and a friend of her mother's hatched to hitch her awkward, not-quite-right, adult daughter to a rich guy. Her mother's friend showed up at the apartment, with her own adult daughter in tow. The point of the ambush was to convince Elena to marry a rich Arab friend of the visiting woman's Arab husband. Simply: Mama was frothing at the mouth -- with dollar signs in her eyes -- to marry Elena off to a rich sheik looking for a Russian bride, and opportunity had come-a-calling.

I just sat there. What I saw coming across the chat was absurd. Either I was crazy, or Elena's mother was selling off her daughter. I felt trapped. Helpless. Hated that feeling. Logged out of the chat room on the kitchen laptop, and logged back in with my Blackberry.

LENA: Meg?


Ahh, her end of the chat room would have printed, "MEG has left the room," and then, if she had her speakers turned on, would have made the sound of a magician zotting something into oblivion, poof.

LENA: Meg? <crying emoticon>

MEG: Whoops. Switched comp. My bad. I'm here. <not guilty emoticon>

I wandered back to the solarium, thumb-typing away. Banging out a completely useless statement of fact that did more for me than anyone. "Not even in Russia, can someone sell another human being. You don't have to go anywhere you don't want to."

Lenin points down into a small-town, Russian square, from high upon his pedestal

From way upon high on his pedestal, and long after the collapse of his Soviet Union, somewhere east of Moscow, in a small Russian city, Lenin glowers and points down into the square. The massive banner, adorning the building on the left, is testament to a nostalgic fondness for the past totalitarian regime.

Elena claimed her parents could, and would, throw her out, eliminate her job, turn her over to the police for being gay, have her committed to a mental hospital... "anything," if she didn't marry someone. It was Dima or the Sheik.

LENA: I am too much old to live here. I am should be married and children.

I sat there. What in hell does one say? More pathetic, blah, blah, blah about right and wrong, or pithy shit about hope and regurgitated, "things will get better. Take a deep breath. Go for a walk. Be strong. Don't worry, be happy." I couldn't even begin to imagine the horror she was experiencing, but I could turn some pixels on -- in a meaningful pattern -- on a computer screen on the other side of the planet. Yeah, that's effective.

LENA: Meg? R U there?

I had been thumb-typing, then erasing like crazy. Nothing I saw on my miniscule display had enough merit to post. I responded, "Yes, I am here. Adding, "I wish there was something I could do."

Then, Elena was the quiet one.

I didn't push. Through glass panels, I gazed at the moon approaching the western horizon. Already, morning twilight was chasing it across the sky.

Finally, "Meg, I can not bear to lose you."

I knew the right response was some kind of impossible promise, or delusional statement, like: I am here for you, blah, blah, blah. Instead, I simply picked up our chat. I described what I was seeing, the moon and some of the stars that hadn't been lost to the twilight.

rodina mat monument in Kiev

Motherland rodina mat monument in Kiev, Ukraine. More than thirty stories of Soviet Stainless Steel, remind gazers-upon, whose mother this land belongs to. Of course, during the war, this was the Fatherland.

As I typed purple prose, on a Black-berry, into a chat room with imaginary orange shag, Elena had been typing, "I do not know yet how shall I go to you. But I shall come to you in Ukraine. I will be for sure be there."

I was kind of mind-blown. I thumbed, "I wish you could see this." I wanted -- needed -- with all my heart to share it with her. "The sky is just starting to lighten. The moon is bright, and so clear."

LENA: I can see it! Thru window. Sun, too. But moon is there. In blue sky.

I told her that if we can both see the moon, at the same time, we are looking at exactly the same object -- the same landscape, or place -- at the same time. I explained, "Because we are on opposite sides of the planet, the moon is the only thing we can both see at the same time!"

LENA: Of cause [sic]

MEG: It is like we are magically connected when we are looking at the same thing.

After a while -- it took Elena almost as much time to type English on a Russian keyboard, as it took me to thumb text on a bar-of-soap sized mobile device, "We soon see same every things. Soon together. Soon each other at Kiev."

I was probably thumbing in travel plans when Elena got this on the chat screen: "You will wait for me, Meg?"

While I was backspacing over all my junk, just so I could type, YES, Elena got the drop on me, yet again: "Wait me, we will meet with you in Kiev, for sure."

MEG: Yes!

I got that three letter word posted, at least, then started to elaborate. My thumbs were flying across the teensy keypad like some crazed, micro sized, game of Whac-A-Mole, when: "Meg, I love you!" and then, "LENA has left the room," flashed onto my screen.

Soviet, 9-story panel-building

Nine story panel buildings form endless chains, palisades, and ramparts. Constructed from prefabricated panels, and intended to last 25 years, their purpose was to ease housing crisis brought on by the twin disasters of collectivization and WWII. Nine stories was their maximum height for fire safety, structural stress loading on lower floors, and the amount of pressure required to lift water to higher floors.

It was this conversation, among many we had, that formed the inspiration for the title of Elena's Russian language memoir, Talking to the Moon. In this recollection of her meeting me, finding herself, escaping from Russia, and then, taking back her life, she refers to herself as Natalia and to me as Kate.

She had wanted to use Catherine Janeway for me and Seven of Nine, Tertiary Adjunct of Uni-Matrix 01 for her. Despite the obvious copyright infringement pitfalls, inherent in the use of those character names, her back story and escape from the collective was disturbingly similar to that of the Borg character in the Star Trek - Voyager series.

I have translated this pivotal passage from her book, and am including it below, with Seven... er, Elena's permission.

Talking to the Moon Cover

Rounding the corner onto an un-sullied, snowy side street, Elena saw long blue shadows cast onto the powdery snow. She stopped, awestruck at the sight of an impossibly bright, full moon. It brought back one of the quirky things Meg told her: "The moon is the only object we can both see simultaneously. Maybe, when we're looking at it, at the same time, we're somehow connected, entangled." Maybe, Meg was seeing it too, right then, from her side of the planet.

Elena felt the sting of tears. The despair, anger, fear that she carried inside -- locked away, tore at her trying to break out. Elena held on, clenched her fists, gazed at the moon. "Meg," Elena whispered, talking to the moon, "where are you? You say you love me, help me. I'm in trouble."

There was no answer, only silence. Elena, standing on a deserted, snowy side street, yearned to see Meg's face in that ancient, airless landscape. To know that Meg heard her.

Of course, Meg didn't hear. How could she? Just like she couldn't truly know what Elena was going through in her dark and cold world.

Far away in British Columbia, a new day was just beginning. Elena imagined Meg would be seeing her friends, hiking in the woods, building her house. While she, on the other side of the world was talking to the moon; hoping with every fiber of her being, the invisible thread would give her strength and, and would, one day, unite her and Meg, once and for all.

Soviet panel building facade

Soviet building layout dictates that buildings like the one seen in this photo, surround a central courtyard, or common area. Elena describes lying in bed, watching the lights go out in the building opposite her window.

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