My Painful Soviet Summer

My Painful Soviet Summer

In the summer of 1991, as part of a Soviet-US cultural exchange, the US government sent me with a bunch of other college students to work as a counselor at a Soviet summer camp. In hopes of creating a spirit of friendship and mutual understanding between the Soviet and American peoples, I spent a month outside of Moscow at the Pioneer summer camp for the children of the workers of the Zorki camera factory.

When I arrived at the camp, excitement spread like wildfire. The “Amerikanka” had arrived! It was sorta like being a rock star for a few weeks. The kids and counselors were, for the most part, incredibly sweet and welcoming.

Problem was, I didn’t really know what to do there. Aside from showing up for meals (noodles with heart again, yum!), performing American songs at the weekly discos, and going swimming (on the rare occasions the camp nurse allowed the pool to open that chilly summer), I felt like a waste of space.

So I found a few things I could do well, to show everyone what a great counselor the “Amerikanka” could be too.

First thing was every night I ironed my red Communist-Youth scarf, so that it would look perfect when I tied it the following morning.

And the second thing I did was every morning I oversaw my campers’ room inspections. I learned the regulations, and I was ruthless in enforcing them. As the camper followed after me during room inspection, I pronounced there was sand in this bed! Contraband sardines are not allowed in the cabinets! And this blanket cover is completely crooked! Make the bed again!

My little role gave me a feeling like at least I was doing something. And I was doing it well!

And then one day another Amerikanka from the exchange showed up. On the first day, she showed me how she had brought a baseball and bat. And for the next few weeks, she taught the campers how to play baseball, which they seemed to enjoy a great deal. She talked with them and was kind to them and developed relationships with them.

And watching her I realized how completely and thoroughly I had missed the point.

This all took place about 25 years ago, and to this day I feel nearly physical pain when I think of those room inspections, of the time I made Anastasia with the long blond braid cry when I confiscated her grandmother’s homemade preserves: “It is forbidden to keep food in your rooms!” I declared.

To this day I think of that summer from time to time, when I find myself getting upset over the riotous shoe shelf, the clothing placed on the floor instead of the hamper, the kitchen that I scrubbed clean yesterday at 7 PM and found in chaos when I returned home at 11.

Truth is, I don’t think even one room in this house would even nearly pass one of my Zorki room inspections.

But I’m trying hard not to get lost. Not to miss the point, like I did that summer. Not to get so focused on the small stuff, the STUFF, that I forget about the big picture, these little people whom I love and who need me so much.


  1. Oy vey, I have a lot to learn. I nearly “lost it” on Monday with all the towels on the floor, papers, legos, I have a long long long LONG way to go. Hashem please help me 🙂

    • JewishMom

      me too, about 2 hours before I wrote this wonderful article!!!

  2. Oh, and I am Russian 🙂

  3. Sorry, my father doesn’t like when I say that. I am Jew with Russian origins, a Jew who happens to speak Russian.

  4. What an honest and great story. Not only does this affect how you treat your children now but when they make foolish mistakes and miss the mark like you did, you will be able to know that they too will grow past their mistakes.

  5. Chana Jenny, this is just the sort of thing that endears you to our hearts. I can relate to this story. May we all learn and grow and be better each day.

  6. I agree with Susan and Leisel.
    Your humble honesty is admitting past mistakes is a great gift to your readers.
    Since there’s no way to get through life without making mistakes, this is the most important lesson of all (from all the many important lessons you’ve taught in this venue).

  7. Shoshana

    I get this and thanks to you CJ for sharing. We’ve been getting way off course with midweek nosh and trips to the makolet and candy ALL THE TIME. Instead of just being resentful and whiny (me – not them) this week we all sat down and had a “meeting.” I told them it was getting problematic for a host of reasons – not least health, finances and just that ‘off’ feeling of having to buy stuff to feel good. I asked everyone what they really liked and we all decided together (ages 11 down to 6) that we would always have:
    hard sweet plums at home
    a cold drink twice a week after school (diet sprite or something)
    granola bars when I have the koach to make them (we were spending a fortune buying them)

    In other words, I tried to meet them where they were at – their legitimate kid desire for treats balanced with my concern that it had gotten way out of hand.

    We can’t go 0 – 60 in one go, meaning NO treats during the week, but we can go down to 2 soft drinks – and they all agreed. YAY. So far so good…

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