The Russians Return to Cuba

By Irina Echarry

Nilda's son wanted to be a cosmonaut. Photo: Caridad

HAVANA TIMES, Feb. 14 — Thousands of people are turning out daily for the 19th edition of the Cuba International Book Fair as if it were a question of life or death, or as if by missing it they’d be committing some sort of crime.  For most people, this reunion with Russia —this years guest country—, rekindles nostalgic memories.

Some, like Augusto, 47, evidence a kind of pride when viewing a portrait of Khrushchev standing alongside Fidel.  In his mind, these are “memories of a time when we lived happily.  Here we spoke of fighting the enemy, but at the same time we could dream.  You have to understand, I studied in the USSR, I fell in love there and everything.  Later I returned to Cuba because my life was here and because it was my duty to return to my country with the benefits of my studies.

“I’ve always considered myself a better person because I had the luck of studying engineering there… of seeing another world.  Moscow is a beautiful city. As a result, my daughter is named Tatiana, after a woman I knew there.  Life makes lots of twists, sometimes I wonder if I might see her again someday. You should note that I came to the Fair simply to recall those years, because the fact is that these books can be bought in any bookstore.”

At the Fair are emblematic posters of the first years of the Cuban Revolution, created in the style of socialist realism from the perspective of Russian artists, as well as story books, novels, scientific texts and technical manuals, books on animals and on flowers characteristic of the country.  They all capture the interests of visitors to the expo.


Nilda, standing wistfully before photos of cosmonauts Arnaldo Tamayo Mendez and Yuri Romanenko, spoke about her son’s passion for the cosmos. “He wanted to be like them, to go higher and higher, to land on the moon.  He had a notebook full of clippings from newspapers and the magazine Bohemia.  He dreamt of those things.  He envisioned discovering a new planet… Sure, the mind of a child is powerful.  He wound up becoming a dentist, because who wants to be a cosmonaut here?  It was only a dream…”

This was a dream that many Cuban boys and girls shared in the 70s and 80s. It was a time in which an optimistic phrase was repeated in schools: “The future belongs to us.”

That’s why Amilcar, 22, said his father had encouraged him to come to the Fair. “He told me the Russians had returned… he was hoping I’d find the future they promised us years ago, because I still haven’t seen it.  Yet here I am, and I don’t like anything I see.  I don’t even understand the language.  I don’t think I’ll come back.”

At the Cuba International Book Fair the present merges with the past, and people continue dreaming of what’s to come.  Perhaps it’s the search for the future that motivates the visitors who poke around in the hall dedicated to Russia.

They search for a future they might find in books, thumbing through thick novels by Cuban or Russian writers, or children’s stories and books on science and world art.  It’s a good reason to attend the Cabaña sometime between now and Feb. 21st.

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2 thoughts on “The Russians Return to Cuba

  • I felt bitter pain when hearing stories of the scarcity of food or seeing how difficult it is to get from point A to B. When growing up I remember how long my parents had to save for, to buy me a piano, an unthinkable luxury, or my aunt’s story of her first trip to West Germany, where she burst into tears of humiliation in a food shop which had 50 types of cheese. As a mathematician she is far from “the sentimental type”. Unlike anywhere else in the world I found a level of understanding which goes beyond words. I couldn’t help feeling nostalgic for something that is no more. You can buy anything in Russia now, there is a growing divide between the rich and the poor and Moscow has quickly become one of the most expensive cities in the world. Sometimes it does make me wonder though, whether part of the price is that we are gradually losing our national identity. I hope Cuba finds its unique future, and a happy medium between the two worlds that we in Russia have so far failed to…

  • My story is simple: I was brought up in the former Soviet Union and educated in Russia after the collapse of the USSR. Through a twist of fate I ended up working and living in the UK. I travel a lot but have always wanted to visit Cuba and there I was in January this year, spending a week on my own in Havana before joining an organized cycling tour for another two weeks. I saw a beautiful country which was very complex, a country that as a foreigner I would probably never understand and yet so incredibly familiar, that I just couldn’t help feeling at home on so many levels. I met some amazing people who spoke impeccable Russian, were very cultured, and were somehow unspoilt by the shallowness of the “commodities fetishism” world that many of us are surrounded by today. I saw people who had a lot of honour and pride and were real survivors, and yet managed to keep human qualities and warmth that make the world go round, as my mother would say. (apologies, overrunning my 1000…

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