Krizis, teachers repeated during our phonetics course. Have you heard about the krizis? We sat in a fifth-floor classroom of the private Moscow university from which my semester-long study abroad program was based. The program kept us separated from classes with Russians, but during our lunch hours we’d sit in the atrium and observe them, their cropped fur jackets and slick boots. In the afternoons, we asked the teachers, “What kind of students go here? Are they rich?” We had only been in the city a few weeks, but already we were beginning to feel the edges of the gap between the shoeless men at the train stations and the students wearing gold-plated fangs on their necklaces. One boy from Massachusetts raised his hand and tried, “Are these the new—noviye—Russians?” Our teachers nodded weightily. They stood to close the classroom door, insulating our lesson from the busy hallways, before continuing. These students, they reminded us, are not like you, they’re not interested in this country. Their families capitalized on the collapse when the rest of us suffered. They can pay for a private university like this while everyone else is getting poorer. Have you heard there’s a krizis?
Every weekday of that sweet-smelling fall I walked from university to the metro station, passing sculpture gardens, women selling knit gloves, stray dogs dying in the street. I took pictures of the sun setting over the river. This was my semester to be free.
My father called internationally on a Saturday morning. “I’m not going to say there’s a crisis,” he said, “but when you get back we need to talk about a couple things. About your college account.” He paused. “Could you graduate early?”
I was crouching next to my cell phone charger in my host mother’s kitchen. “I don’t think so,” I said. He exhaled. “I could go down to part-time tuition the last semester, maybe, but I don’t think…this semester isn’t fulfilling any requirements.”
“Okay,” he said quickly, “that’s fine.”
“Is it a big deal?”
“Have you been following the news?”
No, I wasn’t exactly reading any papers, since Pravda’s active vocabulary was a bit beyond my own, but on the street I heard Russians talking about the economy and from the slush of their words emerged recognizable sounds—economika, they said, recessiya. “Kind of,” I answered my father.
“Then you know. Look, we’ll figure something out, but try not to worry about it now. Just have a good time,” he said, “and don’t spend any money.”
As the semester drew on, we tried to let the new and frightening words loose from our teeth during class. Krizis, one girl said, can we talk about that? This time my teachers laughed: Recession? You know Putin says there is no recession. I slid my eyes to the other students and laughed with them. Yet I couldn’t tell where the joke lay; I still couldn’t read a newspaper. The subject changed to American elections, and I credited poor listening comprehension for my recent confusion about tenses—that now when the teachers, between jokes, mentioned with scorn the Russian students at our university, they seemed to talk not only about the collapse that had been but the one that was unfolding before them. That the decline was no longer an approaching worry but a reality that we had to touch gingerly, laugh about, finally turn our backs. But this couldn’t be. Even the prime minister said so. And the country was so beautiful, and crisp, and cold, that I believed its leaders’ wills could bend an economy. Days grew shorter. Street sweepers ducked inside the buildings and came out wielding snow shovels. I ice-skated in Red Square in December and, gliding, marveled at how wonderful the whole world was.
My father met me at the airport. Wearing a fox hat, I said, “You know Putin says there’s no recession?”
“Tell that to Charles Schwab,” he said.
At home he showed me a print-out of my college account, which my parents saved for eighteen years, which held every birthday check from my grandparents, every scrambled-eggs dinner prepared by my mom. It had been enough to take me a year into grad school, if I wanted.
The numbers didn’t add up. “How much is this?” I asked.
“Almost two semesters,” he said, leaning back in his chair.
“But I have three left,” I said. He knew that already. The print-out showed now every stupid risk I’d taken: my single dorm room at a college only fifteen miles from home, the private school in Moscow where all we’d done was listen to Russian adults joke about politicians we didn’t understand. The ice skates, the fur trim on my new jacket.
“It’s not that bad,” he said.
“You’re right,” I said, “it’s not that bad.”
I hurried to the basement stairs and called my brother in the employee break room at a Whole Foods. “Is it like this for you? I don’t have enough money to pay for college, I have none of the money I thought I would, it’s awful—”
“Welcome back,” he said.
“I didn’t think it would be like this,” I said, my voice rising, “I’ve saved all my money since I was a junior in high school and I thought, I don’t know, maybe I could travel and now—”
“Listen,” he said. “You’re lucky. Okay?”
I looked at my bare feet on the steps. “Okay.”
My college brushes up against the edge of a narrow park filled with statues and cyclists. Beyond that I can see the Hudson and ridges of Jersey. My savings from babysitting and part-time editorial assistant work are being absorbed into my college account, each ten-dollar trickle another hour I’ve spent at a desk downtown. I bring apples in my backpack for lunch.
Each evening outside my dormitory is no less beautiful, the air smelling no less of flowers and traffic than in Russia half a year ago. I try to remind myself I am lucky. I try to be novaya, as blissfully ignorant as I believed those wealthy students to be last fall, so each time I hear the word “crisis” I can still let it slide foreign across my ears: krizis, the newscasters say, it’s a krizis.