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I was Mrs. Gorbachev's "Interpreter" for a Day

I was Mrs. Gorbachev's "Interpreter" for a Day

Posted by Masha Furmanova (nee Shukin) on Sep 9th 2022

March 2,1999 - Tuesday afternoon (Mikhail Gorbachev's 68th birthday.) 

The phone rings. It's my dad. He asks me what my plans are on Thursday. I tell him, "I work at the shop (Maison Russe) until five and then plan to go listen to Former President of the USSR, Mikhail Gorbachev, speak at Benedictine University." My father's response: "No. You'll be spending the day shopping with Mrs. Gorbachev." Benedictine University had approached my father because he was "The Russian" on staff and was asked if "he knew anyone who could be Mrs. Gorbachev's interpreter for a day." He was quick to say, "My daughter, Masha." 

March 3, 1999 - Wednesday

I get a phone call from an individual at Benedictine University who was organizing Mrs. Gorbachev's schedule. She informs me that: Mrs. Gorbachev doesn't want small chit chat, or questions, and no fanfare. Mrs. Gorbachev doesn't want "a friend." Mrs. Gorbachev wants only an interpreter. I promise to abide. 

March 4,1999 - Thursday, about noon. 

A limousine is sent to pick me up at Maison Russe. Within a few minutes I'm at a hotel. (Which hotel? I can't remember.) I was escorted into a room which was obviously shared by two of the Gorbachev's Russian security guards - Misha and Andrei. They politely asked questions about America and my Russian background. But, that was short lived as, once they felt comfortable with me, they got down to business and asked if I might be able to obtain for them a case of whiskey. Sure, why not try? I contact my brother and together with Misha, the arrangements are made. 

About 1:00pm 

I didn't know what was keeping Mdm. Gorbachev, and nobody seemed to think I needed to know. But, who was I to complain? I was about to spend time with the wife of Time Magazine's Man of the Decade! Soon enough, I was released into the hallway. There, my escorts and I waited. I don't think we said much, just stood there. Suddenly, a door from across the hall opened. Out came a couple of men in suits and ties, followed by Mikhail Sergeyvich Gorbachev, himself. They went past me into an adjoining room on my side of the hallway. I could have touched him. I don't think he noticed me as I stood un-noticeably astonished. Shortly thereafter, Raisa Maximovna, her assistant, and I were on our way to Sax Fifth Avenue in Oak Brook Shopping Mall. I sat quietly on the opposite side, across from them in a stretch limousine, knowing not to speak unless spoken to. Mdm. Gorbacheva introduced her assistant. I introduced myself briefly, probably expressing my credentials with, "my parents and husband are from Russia." We shared a couple of pleasantries. But, then there was a lot of silence. 

About 2:00pm 

We went into Sax Fifth Avenue as a group. As instructed, I walked wordlessly next to Raisa Maximovna into the ladies' department. It turned out there were two Russian speaking saleswomen. Both began to express their love and admiration for the Former President's wife, and her husband, with wide smiles, almost in tears. "Oh, Raisa Maximovna! What an honour to be in your presence! We are so grateful to your husband, Mikhail Sergeyvich!" All announced loudly and with grand fanfare. Raisa Maximovna graciously shook each of their hands and did not say much in return, but perhaps a kind thank you. The Russian speaking saleswomen then began, like flies on honey, to buzz around and address the revered visitor's needs. As the official interpreter, I had little to do (but giggle). It was about then that I noticed a few men in uniform and holsters standing around the perimeter. 

I'm not sure if Mdm. Gorbacheva felt badly for me, as it was clear an interpreter really wasn't needed at this moment, but, she definitely made an effort to make me feel needed as, every so often she would ask for my help or opinion on an article of clothing. The gals at Sax were bringing clothing that Raisa Maximovna had requested. Countless pairs of black slacks and button-down blouses. I was sitting on a bench against the wall in the anterior of a private dressing room where there was a full size mirror on a stand that she would make use of while trying on each garment. A fella and I were seated on a bench and were quietly chattering. Mdm. Gorbacheva quite suddenly scolded me for my lack of attention to the goings-on; and, donning a light green, short sleeved blouse, asked what I thought about it. I said it fit well and the color was nice on her. (Could I tell her otherwise?) She later explained she didn't take it because she already owned a similar blouse. 

About 5:00pm 

Still at Sax (we didn't go to any other store), we are led to the men's notions department. I stand on the side, observing and speaking-only-when-spoken-to. Mdm. Gorbachev unfolds a small piece of paper, and tells me that these are her husband's measurements. She asks me, but I am unable to convert the Russian sizes to US sizes. A Russian speaking saleswoman cheerfully comes to her aid. She picks out some socks for him. 

Shopping continues as we visit other departments, and naturally, there comes a time for a bathroom break. Mrs. Gorbachev and I went into the ladies' room together. While washing our hands she suddenly decided to open up a little. The First Lady of the Former President of Russia, in a soft voice, started with, "Mashenka..." * and in the calmest of manners shares a synopsis of the time she and her husband were being held hostage during the coup. She made it clear that it was an awful and frightening experience. She said it was so traumatizing that as a result she had lost vision in one of her eyes. As she spoke, I was looking at her reflection in the mirror. Then we turned to face each other and with just a few words, I empathized with her. Had I not been instructed to keep quiet, I would have pursued with more questions and interest. 

About 8:00pm 

With the shopping completed, the saleswomen packaged all goods to go. (I wasn't privy to the final choices she made). At check out, her first credit card was declined! She didn't act surprised - just a little bothered, perhaps, as another card did go through. For me and the saleswomen it was disconcerting there for a little bit. 

About 9:00pm 

The limo delivered us to the hotel. Recognizing that we had had a very long day, Mrs. Gorbachev welcomed me into her suite and offered me something to eat and drink. Something told me that I would be left alone to eat had I taken her up on her kind offer, so I asked for a glass of water. Then, rather boldly, I asked if a photograph could be taken together. She not only posed with me for a photograph, she also autographed a portrait she had brought from a back room. She thanked me and I left to begin a delivery for Misha and Andrei. 

About 9:30pm 

My next and final task of the day was to have the limousine driver return to Maison Russe for a pick-up and then take me to Benedictine University for a delivery. He was quick to oblige. My brother, Paul, was waiting at the shop with the case of whiskey. I'm sure he and I had a laugh about the whole incredible idea we were involved in. It wasn't anything illegal, by any means, but, it felt like we were up to something; a black limousine; in the middle of the night; a drop off of "the stuff" to the back of the university building, where a speech was still going on by a former USSR president... (Who would suspect?) It went without a hitch. Misha and Andrei met me, gave me more than enough cash to cover the cost, and thanked me; no small talk, no long good-byes. I was free to go. 

About 10:15pm 

On my way home sitting back in the black stretch limousine, like some important diplomat, I had a giggle with myself... Because of me, Jack Daniels whiskey would be enjoyed by some visiting Russians, and maybe even by the Former President of the USSR (who knows!) 

My day with The First Lady of the USSR as an interpreter did not involve any of my translating skills. Instead, very graciously, Raisa Maximovna incorporated me into her day with small tasks and made me feel her warmth and welcomeness. It was truly an honour to have been so trusted by her. 

Very sadly and unexpectedly, six months later, on September 20, 1999, Raisa Maximovna Gorbacheva died of leukemia. She was 67. Memory Eternal. 

~ Masha

* In Russian, the name Masha is a diminutive of Maria and is the first level of informality on the many levels of familiarity indicated within Russian customs. The length of the diminutive gets longer as a relationship get's closer. To some I am: Mashunya, Marusya, and my father, lovingly called me Mashenka.