Cosmonaut Olga Returns from Space

Picture credit: Elia Pellegrini

St. Petersburg in June. But before June in St. Petersburg there was April in Missouri, and a series of orientation sessions with study abroad applicants – the usual crop of 19-20-year olds, most of them lifelong residents of the Show Me State, the majority of them new to the bold idea of overseas travel. Trips to St. Petersburg often attract the “alternative crowd,” those who tend towards the unconventional, those who have a need to feel “different.” Russia, whatever you think of it, IS different or at least can appear so, especially if you come from Missouri. But then again, quite a few places can feel different if you come from Missouri. Having conducted several such study abroad trips, my friend and trip co-director Nick and I sort of know what to expect: a couple of former high school arty intellectuals who had an unusual teacher and got hooked on Dostoyevsky; one or two habitual pot smokers; an aspiring musician… or two; an aspiring artist… or two; a post-break-up case looking to turn a new page in a dramatic fashion; a couple of frat boys who decided to shock their “brothers” by doing something “cool dude”; an assortment of literary types… That kind of crowd. But Dawn, who shows up for our second orientation meeting, doesn’t easily fit the mold.

Technically, she is not even a student. Already in her forties, she is not pursuing a degree at our university, but rather wants to register specifically for the trip. We desperately need the numbers and I’m happy to welcome her to the group, even though at first her motivations remain something of a mystery. A mystery, I should add, that evaporates fairly quickly – as soon as she declares herself to be a writer. A writer desirous of a trip to St. Petersburg – makes sense to the point of being a cliché, no further questions asked. Welcome aboard, Dawn!

Dawn is different though, and not just because of her age. She arrives at the meeting in a rusted-up Dodge Dakota truck that proudly exhibits a massive W sign on its bumper. Presently, the truck is parked in the alley next to our building, its formidable size in jolting contrast to the miniature stature of its owner. I take note of a gun rack mounted on the rear window. Republicans are a rare breed on our liberal arts campus, located smack in the middle of the Bush country. On this account, Nick and I look at her with some fascination – his though slightly less benign than mine. Nick is a New Yorker and his political sensibilities are overdeveloped, while I’m still in my “oh, all Americans are so endlessly interesting” phase. And when I start talking to Dawn (Nick is still fuming over the W sign – “Did you see that shit?!”) she doesn’t disappoint.

A recent divorcee (“one slimy asshole if you pardon my French”), a wiry bleached blonde – she lives by herself on a homestead by the Lake of the Ozarks, sharing her trailer with a couple of German Shepherds and a sizeable gun collection. When not writing she roams the verdant hills and valleys of the Ozarks with her dogs and shoots off guns at a makeshift range next to her trailer. She hunts for recreation. And Dawn is writing a book about… At first I think I have misheard… But no, she IS writing a book about… a Russian cosmonaut. And she needs the material for her book – hence this trip to Russia. Since her early childhood she has been fascinated with space exploration, especially of its Soviet variety. Despite her politics, during the cold war space race Dawn rooted for the Soviets. She knows the names of all Soviet spaceships and their crew members, and is surprisingly well informed about the engineering design of various docking stations. One of the German Shepherds is named after the first female cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova. Tereshkova happens to be a male dog. I raise my eyebrows. “He’s been fixed,” explains Dawn. Oh, OK… I forget to ask about the second dog. She invites us to come out to her trailer to “have a few Buds and shoot some guns.” I’m curious but Nick is doubtful whether it’s appropriate to share such pastimes with prospective students. We promise Dawn to do Buds and guns “after the trip.”

Problems begin on the flight to Frankfurt. Dawn has never been on a plane before and is understandably nervous. A couple of hours into the flight she emerges in the aisle next to my seat and pleads with me to come and sit next to her – she is terrified of turbulence and would like to hold my hand. “Like for a few minutes – to calm you down?” I ask her, puzzled by the strange request. Well, not for a few minutes – she really would like me to hold her hand all the way to Frankfurt. I turn to Nick, who is seated next to me, but Nick is conveniently asleep. Bastard. I politely decline and suggest (foolishly as it turns out) that instead of holding my hand she might order a drink or two to calm down the nerves. She considers my recommendation and apparently finds it sensible. I walk her back to her seat, she gives me a grateful smile and pushes a call button for the flight attendant. By the time we land in Frankfurt Dawn is plastered and refuses to disembark. We spend some twenty minutes cajoling her into leaving the plane. She is suddenly homesick and misses her dogs, especially the sweetheart Tereshkova. Then she is just sick. “Did we get our PhDs for THIS?” grumbles Nick helping me clean up after Dawn. I catch a sympathetic glance from the tall and Nordic-looking flight attendant. But I’m sure she’s seen worse.

In the anticipation of our connecting flight to St. Petersburg, Nick and I huddle together for an emergency conclave, one of many to come during this trip. We’ve had problem students before but there is something particularly dramatic about this case. And we’re not even in Russia yet. “I think she may have a drinking problem,” muses Nick. We look at each other apprehensively: Russia should not be a destination of choice for someone with such a problem. We steel ourselves for things to come.

And boy do they come. After a few days in the city Dawn ceases to attend classes and stops leaving her dorm room in the morning. For an aspiring writer, she is singularly indifferent to the sights and sounds of St. Petersburg. Students begin to whisper about her nocturnal habits that render her listless by sunrise. There is a 24/7 kiosk selling cheap booze around the corner from the dorm, right by the tram stop. It’s a shabby glass affair, which doubles as a vibrant social spot for a motley crew of local down-and-outs. About a week in, we’re walking as a group past the kiosk on our way to the tram stop when a shabby drunk peels off from his determined-looking comrades and cries out to me: “Hey, man, are you with the Americans from the dorms?”

From previous experience, I have learned to avoid cultivating such ties of intimacy with the locals. “Why?” I respond, making a point of sounding non-committal.

“Nothing. Just tell Dawn that I got her what I promised. Tell her Igor will wait for her by the стекляшка (glass kiosk). Tonight!” Igor’s toothless grin is pure exuberance.

“Fucking hell,” sighs Nick, “She already knows the locals – we’re in trouble.”

That trouble arrives in many guises and we’re always on high alert. At our group dinner outings, Nick and I make certain that one of us is seated next to Dawn – ostensibly to make her feel comfortable and accepted, but in reality to monitor her alcohol intake, which is prodigious. We endlessly debate what to do about her. We can’t really call her parents. Can we send her back? But on what grounds? She is not even a student… And what right do I actually have to instruct a 45-year old Missouri huntress on what and how much she should drink? Also when sober she is actually quite nice – sort of shy and self-effacing. I just can’t figure out what the hell she is doing in Russia – there is absolutely no indication that the land of her beloved cosmonauts is of any interest to her.

So she is shy and self-effacing when sober, but when intoxicated she is anything but shy. In fact, after a couple of shots of vodka (her new drink of choice, Bud is forgotten) Dawn is instantly transformed into a violently amorous creature. It’s remarkable how little alcohol it takes to alter her personality so dramatically – there is some brutal efficiency to this metamorphosis. When inebriated, Dawn embarks on a prowl for love. Students scatter, Nick and I deflect her advances while trying not to hurt her feelings (“it’s not you, it’s me and those pesky study abroad rules” kind of stuff), but Dawn can be insistent and when rejected she is not above inflicting pain on the offending party.

One night, our group is dining at my childhood friend’s restaurant with a strange name “Summer Is No Different From Winter.” My friend is a successful St. Petersburg businessman, which means he survived the bloody turf battles of the 90s and is someone who is not easily fazed. But by the end of the evening, he pulls me aside to tell me that he is worried about one of my students. I already know which one. Apparently Dawn had assessed (correctly) our host’s ability to circumnavigate the laws of the land of the cosmonauts. She asked him to get her a gun. The request was submitted within minutes after her demand that Nick “smooch me on the lips right fucking now” had been politely declined. I share this bit of news with Nick and that’s really something I should’ve not done – he is livid and yells that enough is enough and we need to send this sex-crazed Republican gun nut home “right fucking now.” It looks like some sort of confrontation is now unavoidable.

At first, I can’t locate Dawn but then spot her at another table – in the company of three rather dangerously-looking chaps. The guys are laughing out loud, they seem to find Dawn entertaining. I approach the table with some hesitation – I know the type, when entertained they don’t appreciate being interrupted. I plead with Dawn to get up and leave the restaurant quietly – there will be a cab, it’s going to be alright, we have a trip to Novgorod planned for tomorrow, you’ll sleep it off. Dawn interrupts her act and looks at me with visible contempt, all of a sudden she comes across as introspective and calm: “YOU (it’s clear she has forgotten my name), you listen to me good, I’ll say this once and I’m not gonna repeat myself again. Read my lips, you asshole: I AM NOT LEAVING THIS FUCKING COUNTRY WITHOUT GETTING LAID!”

Things come to a head the next day, during our scheduled trip to the ancient city of Novgorod, which our local guide keeps referring to as Novgorod the Great. In doing these study abroad programs in Russia I often rely on the help of my numerous local friends. It’s just easier that way. And this Novgorod trip is not an exception – arranged for us by another childhood friend, who now has his own tour company. He accompanies us on this bus trip to make sure… actually I don’t know why, but am happy to have him seated next to me. These childhood friendships can be the source of comfort like no other. While I went off to America to become an academic, my boys back home were left behind to adapt to the new stark realities of Russian capitalism. Some of them fared better than others. Andrei, the tour operator, has done quite well.

So we’re on the bus, driving back to St. Petersburg. Everything has worked out seamlessly – the bus, the excursions, the ample lunch at the Detinets restaurant. And it’s such a pleasure to be talking to Andrei – ever since I left I’ve missed our endless conversations, our multi-hour walks around the city. The breakdown of our routine that had always seemed permanent still haunts me, so many years later. Just before leaving Novgorod’s city limits the bus makes a scheduled stop at a souvenir store. And as soon as Nick and I see the merchandise we recognize our fatal mistake. Among the inevitable matryoshka dolls and decommissioned military army hats there is a whole shelf of “souvenir vodkas.” I rush to distract Dawn (who’s been acting subdued and guilty the whole day), but I’m just a minute too late, she’s already made her purchase. I make her promise me that she won’t open these “souvenir bottles” until we leave the Russian airspace some forty-eight hours later. She nods solemnly and excuses herself to go to the bathroom. I look at Nick, Nick rolls his eyes and shakes his head dejectedly. We know that we’re in for a rough bus ride back to St. Petersburg.

Dawn starts acting up within a few minutes after the bus pulls away from the souvenir store. First, she belts out a melancholy country song that makes her sad and restless. She gets up and walks down the center aisle, her flaying arms spread sideways like wings of a wounded bird on the beach. As she moves forward towards the driver, tips of her palms brush against the heads and ears of the passengers – students recoil from her, duck and giggle nervously. Soon enough she is standing next to me. I’m trying to disregard her presence, but it’s immediate and impossible to ignore. I feel unpleasant wetness on my ear.

“Kiss me, Russian boy,” she mumbles.

It’s actually quite horrifying. I get up and tell her to go back to her seat – a command that she flouts with natural ease. In the meantime, she has lost interest in me and moved on towards the driver, who looks uncomfortable and pleads with me to get her “the fuck away from me.” He is an Afghan vet and not easily intimidated, but there is something about Dawn in heat that inspires even the toughest of the tough to run for cover.

Andrei appears nervous, he’s the organizer of the bus excursion and feels personally responsible for its successful completion. He gets up and says soothing things in his broken English: “Laif gud, no problema.”

The words seem nonsensical to me but they do get Dawn’s attention. A predatory smile visits her lips, she scowls: she is Artemis, the goddess of wild hunts, she is a lioness about to pounce on her terror-stricken prey. She moves closely to Andrei, who now looks petrified. He is all muscle – a black belt in karate and an infantryman in the past – yet nothing in his previous life experience, neither his karate nor military training, had prepared him for this encounter. He tries to move away from the huntress but there is nowhere to go. He grabs my hand and loudly whispers, “Help!”

But it’s too late: Dawn issues a guttural howl and lunges at him, sinking her bared teeth into his muscular neck.

Andrei screams, the driver hits the breaks. Nick and I rush Dawn and pull her away from Andrei, who is yelling profanities in fluent Russian. I plead with him not to use his karate skills. He noisily exhales his pain and frustration but agrees. Finally, Dawn is restrained and given some water.

I inspect Andrei’s neck, it bears the marks of the attack. I’m trying to calm him down: “Look, it’s just like a hickey. Remember we used to be proud of those, a badge of honor.”

“Fuck that,” Andrei cuts me off, in no mood to reminisce about our past adventures.

Nick and I have moved to the front seat, Dawn is seated between us – a prisoner under guard, a stubborn exclamation sign inserted within a pair of brackets. She finally gets to hold my hand, which she doesn’t let go until we arrive at the dorms. Apprehensive of her next move, we’re helping her off the bus. But she has sobered up and her hunting zeal has evaporated. She now looks shrunk and miserable. She is crying. Suddenly I feel terribly sorry for her: “Look, Dawn, it’s almost over, we’re flying back in a couple of days.” She snivels pitifully. “Good, I want to go home. I hate it here. I miss the lake. I miss my dogs. I really-really miss Tereshkova.”


The package arrives just before Christmas, when I feel my Midwestern isolation particularly acutely. The town is lit up with holiday decorations and because of that I’m especially aware of its foreignness – more than usual it appears to me like a movie set. Each evening, when leaving campus and driving down Kansas Expressway back to my rental apartment I fantasize about being in St. Petersburg, about being immersed in its familiar snowy comforts.

The package is from Dawn and it takes me a few seconds to remember who she actually is. There is a Christmas card and it’s really nice. She wishes me “Happy Holidays” and I’m surprised by this respectful nod to modern sensibilities. The card accompanies a manila envelope containing about thirty sheets of paper – a draft of the first chapter of Dawn’s novel. She hopes for some feedback but mainly wants me to know that her claim to be a writer is not “some bullshit.” The trip, she writes, has helped her a lot. I pour myself a tumbler of Jameson and spend the next hour reading her work.

It goes like this: The year is 1975, a very significant year in the history of space exploration, the year of the famed Soyuz-Apollo flight. Cosmonaut Olga has just returned to his native Leningrad from an extended space mission. He was away for months and now feels the need to re-acclimate to his city – to its gothic cathedrals and the crooked hilly streets that descend dramatically to the river. He finally arrives at his communal apartment. It is late and the apartment is quiet, the neighbors are all asleep. And it’s freezing inside the apartment. “What the hell,” thinks Olga and checks the thermostat. Sure enough, it’s set at 60 degrees. “You damn cheapskates,” grumbles cosmonaut Olga about his neighbors and cranks the thermostat up to 75. There is nothing in the fridge: just a few Buds and a TV dinner in the freezer. Those damn cheapskates. He picks up a Bud and frees the TV dinner from its wrappings. Thank god the microwave oven is still working. What kind of homecoming is there without a Bud and a properly heated TV dinner? Olga feels happy and smiles to himself. God, it’s good to return home from space…

While I was reading, it started snowing outside, something that happens rarely in Southwest Missouri. The snow is always welcome, snow and I – we’re friends. I put aside the printed sheets and pick up the card. As I said, it’s really nice and ends with an invitation to visit Dawn on her homestead. And why not? She has recently purchased a new double-barreled pump-action shotgun and we could shoot skeets or just do some target shooting out in the field. She owns a motorboat, nothing fancy (not like those big-ass boats that the rich folks from Kansas City bring down to the lake), but if the weather is not too bad we could take it out for a spin. We’ll barbeque and down a few Buds, and talk some, and, later, we’ll take the dogs out for a long walk by the lake – the sweet Tereshkova, of course, and also… that other dog.

Maxim Matusevich

Maxim Matusevich is a professor of history at Seton Hall University, where he also directs the Russian and East European Studies Program. Originally from St. Petersburg, Russia, he has lived in the United States since 1991. Maxim has published extensively as a historian of Africa and the Cold War, but he also writes and publishes fiction and non-fiction. His work has appeared in the Kenyon Review, New England Review, the Bare Life Review, San Antonio Review, Fatal Flaw Literary Magazine, the museum of americana, and elsewhere.

Maxim Matusevich is a professor of history at Seton Hall University, where he also directs the Russian and East European Studies Program. Originally from St. Petersburg, Russia, he has lived in the United States since 1991. Maxim has published extensively as a historian of Africa and the Cold War, but he also writes and publishes fiction and non-fiction. His work has appeared in the Kenyon Review, New England Review, the Bare Life Review, San Antonio Review, Fatal Flaw Literary Magazine, the museum of americana, and elsewhere.

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