No. 9: The Russia House Matryoshka Dolls

IMG_0284Artist: Unknown, Moscow street artist
Title: The Russia House Matryoshka Dolls
Date: ca. 1991
Culture: Russian
Provenance: Made to order in Moscow by EAH’s father as a gift

In a past that feels so distant that it seems impossible that I could have lived it, my family lived in Soviet Moscow where my dad was a journalist. We lived in an apartment compound set aside for foreigners; although our family knew many Russians who we called friends, we were profoundly insulated from the harshest realities of communist life. In fact, Moscow’s tight-knit community of foreigners formed what amounted to an intimate small-town community.

It was in this context that I enjoyed my very own fifteen minutes of fame. I was in fifth grade at the Anglo-American School, and I was suffering a bit academically, having been moved forward a grade when I really shouldn’t have been. But even though I was behind in some ways, I—apparently—stood out for my dramatic and oratory talents, winning starring roles in various school productions. I had always been the ham of my family, so I guess this isn’t too surprising. So on the heels of a couple of impressive performances at my school, word got out that a movie with Michelle Pfeiffer and Sean Connery would be filming in Moscow and that the casting directors were looking for a boy and a girl to play Michelle Pfeiffer’s son and daughter. Lo, the academically-behind-but-dramatically-audacious girl got her big break. I was cast as Anna in The Russia House.

It was a bit role, to put it gently. Still, I missed a lot of school to film on-site in Moscow (including at a nearby town called Kolomenskoye where stands a church I later visited during graduate school to complete research for my dissertation), London, and Lisbon. Sean Connery was a charmer. He would often sing to me: “I’ve got a girl who’s mighty sweet, big blue eyes and tiny feet.” Michelle Pfeiffer was lovely but more reserved. She brought me one of those sparkly glitter wands on one of our first days of filming together. Somewhere in the bowels of my house is a blue autograph book that I got for the occasion of my debut as a film star. The pages include a lipstick kiss from the makeup artist, an inscription from Michelle Pfeiffer, who calls me her “lovely daughter,” and a note from Sean Connery, who calls me “Helen” and who wishes me well as a future “writer and/or doctor.” I was too embarrassed to tell the likes of him that “actor” was also on my future career wish list.

Fast-forward several months and my mom and sisters and I found ourselves jarringly living back in Central Illinois. My mom corrected the error of my having skipped a year of school and I was placed back into a new fourth grade classroom in the middle of the school year. It was awful in all the ways you might imagine. But my teacher, for whom I hold no love, thought a good way to acclimate me to the classroom would be to stand me up in front of the class so all the curious students could ask this odd girl their many questions. It was embarrassing and scary and I was miserable. Not long after this episode, a kid from my class reported back to me that her mom said I had made up the whole thing.

You know what? It felt like I could have made it all up. The contrast between the expat community in Moscow and the public schools in Decatur, Illinois, was . . . stark. I had culture shock. And my mini-celebrity status just made me feel even more out of place. The town decided to make a big deal out of me and host a movie premier in my honor at a local theater. They picked me up in a limo and I wore a special dress. I was interviewed on the local radio station. I got a lot of press in the local newspaper, which complained that there was too much dialogue and not enough action in the movie. And, young though I was, it was not lost on me that it was ridiculous that I was getting so much attention, since I was in only a handful of scenes during which I spoke Russian that wasn’t even translated for the audience. I was so embarrassed, but I also knew that I needed to be careful not to seem snotty or unappreciative. It was a lot to take on at ten years old.

Now, with the great salve that is time, I can look back on my brush with fame and smile. I mean, how many people get to share cranberry juice with Sean Connery and picnic with Michelle Pfeiffer?

Not long after we moved back to Illinois, when my dad was still in Moscow, he gifted me a personalized set of matryoshka dolls. The largest, outermost doll is Sean Connery, the middle is Michelle Pfeiffer (the artist, I have to say, did a piss-poor job with her likeness), and I’m the innermost doll. Practically everyone we knew in Moscow had had a set of matryoshka dolls in their houses. There were the traditional sets and there were also the political ones with some of the biggies of Soviet history: Lenin, Stalin, Kruschev, etc. This set, however, was a little nesting doll version of my very own history with Russia. I kept the set on a windowsill in my bedroom, a constant reminder of the not-so-distant past that felt stunningly far away.

It was not until nearly two decades later that I really had the distance to reflect on my family’s time in Moscow, on my brush with becoming an actor, and on what it all meant to me. For whatever reason, I had ceased to be the ham I was as a younger kid. I had become more reserved, turning my creative attention instead to dance and violin. Ultimately, in college, I rediscovered Russian culture and kept it alive for myself by studying its architecture. Today I see a Russian church or palace and somehow the very essence of Russia and Russianness pops into sharp focus for me. I am able to see all of the beauty of that culture, which is magically encapsulated in that image. It also calls to mind so much more: the cozy-hazy memories of sleeping in public spaces the way only small children can as the melodic cadences of the Russian language lull me to sleep, the acrid smell of cigarette smoke, strong tea, and newspaper print in my dad’s office, the golden lights and the murky feeling of jet lag in our apartments, the brilliant spring days and our trips to the markets where everything smelled of mud and dill and garlic. It’s all tangled up together, and it’s beautiful.

I think for so many of us, processing our life experiences is akin to nesting and un-nesting a set of matryoshka dolls. When the dolls are nested inside one another, you only see the outermost doll, of course, but the full set is there just the same, waiting for someone to open up that outermost doll and reveal all that lies within.


4 thoughts on “No. 9: The Russia House Matryoshka Dolls

  1. Ellen! This is beautifully written. Reading your words. I enjoyed it so much just as I remember Moscow and you now! Back in Moscow, I, too, lived in Moscow during the same time as you. I, too, went to AAS. You may not remember me. I am Tonya Wilkins (Lawson). I have picture of us in the AAS yearbook! You can friend request me on FB! Love reconnecting with friends from all my travels during my childhood!

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s