It rained on the morning of my commencement in June 1996. And there was no hot water in our building. I took an umbrella, a bottle of shampoo, a toothbrush and a towel and ran over to Danil's place across the backyard, for a quick shower.
My parents and I must have walked to the university, five minutes uphill, that morning. I can't say for sure now whether we walked or took a cab, but five minutes of downpour and a nice hair-do are incompatible, and I don't remember applying any styling mousse. I just put on some red lipstick matching my skirt and the flowers on my yellow blouse.
The university auditorium was packed: parents, professors, friends, and ourselves, the graduating students. Solemnly, we were receiving our diplomas on the podium and, as soon as we were through with that, we hurried to the back of the huge room, past the applauding crowd, to grab our last stipends, a few millions in Ukrainian currency, or some 20 U.S. dollars, a few months overdue but still very welcome.
The rain stopped soon after I officially graduated. Enough reasons to get drunk, and this I remember surprisingly well: a few beers at a low-key place near the university; Guinness at the Cowboy Bar; Corona at the billiards place; cognac at home; more beer at the beautiful park; Madeira straight from the bottle on a bench at some unlit playground; red wine straight from the bottle at 4 a.m. by the fountain in front of the Ukrainian Drama Theater.
Then, a blackout for a few weeks. After which I got packed and soon left for the United States for the next two years.
In late November 1998, I was at the cashier's office of my Kyiv alma mater, waiting for a friend, a pregnant Ph.D. student. Originally, we had been planning to meet at her place but someone told her she could finally receive her stipend for September and October, and she didn't want to postpone what had already been postponed for so long.
The cashier's office opened at 2 p.m., and she suggested that we meet at three. Suspecting nothing, I promised to pick her up at 2:15 p.m.
I came on time. I intended to look for her in the room I remembered from my own, relatively recent, student past: two windows, four tiny openings in the wall (framed with patterned grates), four women handing out cash (caged in these openings), annoyingly dim lighting and way too many people.
But I didn't get as far as that. I found myself stuck in a small rectangular lobby, from which I could only watch the crowd in the adjacent room, the treasury. My friend wasn't visible anywhere. After 15 minutes of trying to break through and watching I began taking notes.
By 2:30 p.m., not a single person had emerged with the money yet. But some clarity had been established: theoretically, post-graduate students were to receive their stipends first, then - graduate students and finally, undergraduates. In reality, however, everyone wanted to be the first, nobody cared about the seniority principle introduced by the university officials, and the hullabaloo went on.
A middle-aged, overweight clerk pushed herself through the jam and made a cheery announcement: "Don't worry, we're going to give out the money till everyone gets it, all right?" "Right, right, right," gloomily echoed the students in the lobby.
Inside the cashier's room, one window was open and the cold, steamy air was coming in, refreshing students dressed for the snowy season. I saw two guys floating above the rest, but that was just an optical illusion: they had placed themselves on the windowsill to draw attention of friends who were being late.
In the lobby, some were sitting on scratched wooden benches and chatting, others were looking through their class notes and poetry books. One student was reading a paperback by John Grisham. "You came for your stipend, too? There's murder in there," I heard someone greeting a newcoming classmate.
At 2:55 p.m., I was still waiting for my friend. I felt I was getting a sore throat, perhaps even flu.
I went outside and spoke to a graduate student ("aspirant"). He was not very hopeful about getting his money that day - but there were two more days to do this, and then he'd be taking a train to the Carpathian Mountains to backpack and ski for a couple of weeks there. His two-month stipend of slightly more than $50 seemed sufficient to him.
People outside smoked and discussed lots of issues, including the floods in Transcarpathia and frequent electricity shut-offs in Kyiv, as well as their classes and private lives. I asked one undergraduate student ("studentka") how much money she was fighting for, and she explained that undergrads with straight A’s were getting approximately $4.30 a month while those with lower grades could expect no more than $3.70.
By 3 p.m., the first few individuals left the cashier's room, with or without their money. Some sighed heavily or had problems breathing, others had their tongues hanging out or laughed hysterically. I even saw a woman with bloody nose.
"I don't remember anything like this," said a lucky one with some cash secured in her fist.
"I knew there'd be a line, but not this awful," exclaimed a not-so-lucky one.
"I can't believe we're out of there," said an exhausted one and sighed with relief.
"She can't get out...What a madhouse," complained a girl who had lost her friend.
I didn't see my pregnant friend anywhere in this mess, either, but I was curious enough to stay a bit longer.
The crowd in the cashier's room began cheering, or screaming. From the lobby, it was hard to tell what was going on inside, but the sound reminded me of my neighbors who lived a thin wall away and often watched dramatic football games on TV. When the screams came again, I thought someone stepped on a cat. Then the door squeaked, and that sounded just as human, or feline.
I went outside again and saw an ambulance parked nearby - but that was just a coincidence.
Finally, at 3:30 p.m., when I was ready to leave, my friend and her husband showed up, looking fresh and happy but nowhere near as excited as I was. They apologized for being so late. I thanked them for letting me witness something I didn't remember vividly anymore: a slaughterhouse similar to the Soviet-time lines at grocery stores.
I found out that my friend came to receive approximately $122 for two months, which seemed so much more than what undergrads and grad students were getting. Our government did value intellectuals and their work, after all.
And perhaps the notorious "brain drain" could easily be prevented - if only the university officials somehow managed to emphasize to the undergraduate students that if they worked truly hard, they'd eventually ascend to grad school, and their miserable $4.30 a month would sooner or later turn into the glorious $61. Being paid so well, who'd want to emigrate?
Sixty-one dollars might be enough to feed yourself and your family humbly but decently for almost a week. Or, on the other hand, if you saved it up for a year ($61 multiplied by 12), you could buy yourself a plane ticket to the United States.
My friend's baby boy must be 4 now. I think they still live in Kyiv. I don't. But I really miss it.
Tuesday, April 08, 2003