Halloween a cultural shock for Russian immigrant

Ghosts and goblins now part of new life in America

When Irina Cross first immigrated to the United States, she was in for the cultural shock of her life: Halloween.

She had no idea about Halloween or the costumed little people who would come knocking at her door.

Cross was a new immigrant, arriving on Oct. 29, 1982, from Leningrad, U.S.S.R. After a nearly 18-month sojourn through Soviet red tape in order to marry the love of her life, she had barely landed mentally when the doorbell rang.

She was in for a surprise: Americans masquerading as goblins and superheroes and shouting, "Trick or treat!" Her husband, Palo Altan Truman Cross, hadn't told her about Halloween.

"There were no dress-up rituals in Russia. I was just barely coming out of a fog. ... I thought, 'What crazy place is that?'" she recalled.

Later that evening the couple attended a neighborhood Halloween bash. Irina did not wear a costume. In her native country, masquerade balls were associated with Czarist Russia and decadence. The sight of disguised, partying adult neighbors came as a shock, she said.

This was her introduction to America.

But for Irina's 4-year-old son, Ivan, Halloween was magical. He got the job of handing out treats.

"You can't capture an expression from something like that," Truman recalled the boy's glee, noting that Ivan adapted well to the Halloween tradition.

"I remember his Superman year, his blond hair plastered black, and his Cookie Monster year, in which I made a box with holes for his head, arms, and legs," Truman said.

Truman and Irina met in what was then the U.S.S.R. in 1980. He was a scholar with a doctorate in Russian history from Indiana University's Russian and East European Institute and took a sabbatical. He arrived in Moscow that December and visited a friend's acquaintance, Yuri, in Leningrad, he said. The two men were knocking back a bottle of brandy at the kitchen table when Irina, a friend of Yuri's, walked in.

Irina was an editor at a research institute for vocational training, and she had just scored some groceries to bring to Yuri. Merchandise of any kind was hard to come by in those days, and people often sought necessities in shops during their lunch breaks or on the black market, she said.

That evening, Irina guided Truman to a shop to purchase Russian vodka.

"The way he tells it, I took him to get the vodka and it's December. The streets are icy, and he slips on an ice patch. I put out my arm and kept him from falling. That's when he decided 'That woman was for him,'" she said.

Truman, who was then 46 (Irina was 20 years younger), returned to the United States. But he returned to Russia in the summer of 1981. Irina's first marriage had by then fallen apart.

"I got up enough courage to tell him I really liked him," she said. Within a month, Truman proposed.

"But you couldn't marry a Soviet citizen just like that. The government has to give permission," she recalled.

Months of wrangling with paperwork followed. Meanwhile, Truman, back to the U.S., bought a motorcycle and broke his leg in multiple places in an accident. But that did not stop him from braving the cold Russian winter to seek marrying Irina.

"If any man shows up in Russia or Leningrad or Helsinki on crutches in December and tells you he loves you, you're going to believe it," she said.

Soviet bureaucracy once again interfered. The couple received permission on Dec. 24 at 12:15 p.m. to marry, but the government required a three-month waiting period. In a rare instance of punctuality, the government decreed the marriage would take place on March 24 at exactly 12:15 p.m., and there could be no postponement. It was a very brief, Soviet-style wedding ceremony at the "Palace of Weddings" on Lavrov Street.

But the newlyweds could not start their "happily ever after" until Irina got an international passport, which took several more months and was only granted by dispensation. To help her financially, Truman sent her rock-and-roll records, especially Beatles and Rolling Stones, which could be sold for about 90 rubles apiece -- a Russian's average monthly income, she said.

When Irina's and Ivan's passports arrived, they faced one more hurdle. Due to international politics, President Ronald Reagan had banned Russian Aeroflot planes from landing in the United States, Truman said. Irina and her son instead landed in Montreal and a few days later arrived in Palo Alto.

In Russia, Halloween is now celebrated in parts of the country, although it remains controversial among those who view it as an American corruption of Russian culture and Orthodox Russian faith, according to news sources. But costumes can command good money in Russia, the couple said.

Sitting at an outdoor Palo Alto cafe, the Crosses reflected on the holiday's personal meaning.

"Halloween for us is always a time of warm memories and nostalgic smiles when the little ghosts and goblins reappear at our door once again," Truman said


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