Berdy in Red Square.
At Home in the Whirlwind
By J. Quinn Martin
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Rush to Russian
For Russia, the past three decades have been tumultuous, even by the standards of that country’s turbulent history. Communist leader Leonid Brezhnev’s repressive-but-stable Soviet Union of the 1960s and 1970s quickly turned into Mikhail Gorbachev’s open-but-chaotic perestroika of the 1980s. Then, seemingly overnight, the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, and Russia began the transition from communism to capitalism and from dictatorial rule to something akin to democracy. The post-1991 years have been filled with striking ups and downs, from economic collapse to demographic crisis to social upheaval and rebirth.
For Mickey Berdy ’78, all these events are more than history. For much of the past 25 years, beginning immediately after she graduated with a degree in Russian language and literature, Berdy has lived and worked in Moscow. She has produced documentaries and talk shows for Russian and American television, translated fiction and nonfiction, interpreted for Boris Yeltsin and Nancy Reagan, co-authored a Russian-English dictionary and, most recently, founded a non-government organization that promotes healthy living across the country. She has lived Russian history—and, in some cases, even shaped it.
Berdy initially decided to move to Russia after graduation both because of her language courses and because of a three-week tour of Russia during her sophomore year, which had given her a taste of the country and left her with a hunger for more. Back in those days, one of the few ways to get into the country was as a student, so Berdy signed up for a semester of language study at the distinguished Pushkin Institute of Literature in central Moscow.
During her semester at the Pushkin Institute she gathered connections and eventually landed a job editing and translating articles for a state publishing house, one of a handful of jobs that gave foreigners the chance to work within the Soviet system. “My first job,” Berdy says, “was a great example of the old Soviet joke, ‘You pretend to work, and we pretend to pay you.’ You really had to stretch out the workday with smoke breaks and coordinated trips to food stores. The women in the office would divide up the shopping list: I’d buy the bread orders, someone else would buy all the dairy products, a third would stand in line for meat.”
Life in the isolated, upside-down world of the Soviet Union was often bizarre. “On the news you saw one version of reality, on the streets you saw another. If you came upon a line, you’d stand in it first and then ask what they were selling. You had to order phone calls home two days in advance. Letters took a couple of months to get home; no fax or e-mail, of course. In those days, foreigners were only allowed to travel 25 kilometers beyond the borders of Moscow.
“But, to paraphrase Joseph Brodsky, in spite of all that we had fun and fell in love,” Berdy says. “Because the only people who could socialize with an American in those years were stoolies, black marketeers and people in the arts—and the first two categories were not much fun—I had a Bohemian lifestyle. I hung out with lots of underground artists and musicians.”
In 1981 Berdy married Yuri Ivanov, the bass player from Skomorokhi, the first rock group officially permitted in the Soviet Union. She went to parties with dissident artists and spent her weekends at Peredelkino, an exclusive writers’ retreat outside of Moscow. There was something magical about those years living behind the Iron Curtain. So few foreigners had access to Russia, and even fewer had the language skills to understand it all. In the pre-perestroika era, Berdy was part of a tiny circle of foreigners with a real understanding of Soviet life.
Photo: Alexander Antonov