I’d been waiting for the gates at Catherine The Great’s palace to open when an older woman walked up, asked me a question and told the guard to let me in. He knew her because each morning, she bathed in one of the ponds.
Already I liked her.
Capitalina was about 75 years old at that time. Long white hair in a bun on her neck. Bright blue eyes. Mischievous.
“Did you know of Catherine the Great’s reputation for love?” she asked while we were touring the grounds. I smiled, which was all she needed to elaborate on the Empress’ prowess in the bedroom. Her eyes twinkled as she told story after story after story.
After touring the palace, Capitalina invited me to the apartment she shared with her husband. She wanted me to see their poverty and to know that her husband had been an officer in the Soviet army.
They had two rooms and a bathroom. The living area was separated from the sleeping area by a tablecloth hung from wires. The kitchen could barely fit one person.
Capitalina spoke no English, and I was pleased she understood my Russian. She began to tell me about her grandchild. Gradually, I came to understand that her only daughter had had an abortion and that Capitalina had never shared this with anyone else.
This lovely, spirited woman remains a bright memory of my summer in the USSR. And, by the way, how she got those guards to let her in every morning to bathe in the ponds is a story I didn’t think to ask.
She was just that charismatic.