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Wednesday, 13 December, 2000, 13:01 GMT
Our comrades in Havana
A Soviet-era TV is repaired in Havana
A Soviet-era TV is repaired in Havana
By Tom Gibb in Havana

For almost 30 years until the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, Cuba was financially supported by successive Soviet presidents but with the idealogical solidarity broken and the Russian economy in tatters, preferential treatment for Cuba ground to a halt.

In the intervening decade, Cuba has found ways of surviving without its former financial backer but the legacy of Soviet involvement remains.

Natasha Balashova and her two friends have not forgotten the songs of their youth. They sing Russian folk songs and drink tea on a hot Cuban afternoon.

From being a good mother-in-law, Cuba became a mother

Former Soviet citizen
Natasha, who married a Cuban, has made the island her home for the last 30 years. Speaking Spanish with a strong Russian accent, she looks back with longing to the days when Cuba and the Soviet Union were close allies.

"We were just at the point where we believed Cuba could take a great step forward when the collapse of the Soviet Union occurred," she said.

Along with the Cubans, we felt the impact of everything that happened. All of a sudden, there were no contracts to acquire Russian oil, soap ... anything."

Natasha and her friends are part of a community of some 2,000 former Soviet citizens still living in Cuba. They shared the terrible shortages of the early 1990s when there was real hunger on the island.

A Lenin statue is brushed up in a Cuban park
A bust of Lenin is brushed up in a Cuban park
"My mother, after the Second World War, used to crush eggshells to use to wash bottles of oil. So I started to do the same because there was no detergent.

"We all discover hidden reserves within ourselves," she said. "In using that creativity to overcome problems brought me great happiness. Of course, I suffered deeply the collapse of my homeland. I felt the ground had been taken from under my feet.

"If before I lived with my heart divided, afterwards, my heart moved completely to Cuba. From being a good mother-in-law, Cuba became a mother."

Chalk and cheese

Before the Soviet collapse, Natasha and her friends worked liaising between the Soviet technicians on the island and the Cubans.

Despite all the official efforts to forge a brotherhood, in practice, Cubans and Russians were like chalk and cheese.

The Soviets lived in separate compounds, they didn't learn Spanish, they had their own schools and they frowned upon Russians who married Cubans, accusing them of deserting the fatherland.

"They would reproach us, as if we were traitors, because we chose Cubans instead of Russians," said Nina Taritcha. "Of course, it was only like this at first. We would end up being tremendous friends."

QThe Slav culture didn't manage to set seed in the tropical island culture

Nina Taritcha
For their part, the Cubans nicknamed the Russians 'bolas' - the Spanish for bowling ball - something large, round and clumsy.

Today, apart from the towering Soviet embassy in western Havana and the old Russian cars, very little evidence of three decades of Soviet presence remains.

"Culturally, it's true that in so many years, we didn't form close links. Our cultures are so different," said Nina Taritcha.

"The Slav culture didn't manage to set seed in the tropical island culture, with so many links to Africa. The Slav culture was never felt here, but we're still working on that.

"We've formed our trio to singing Russian folk songs and we sing them wherever we go."

With the visit of the Russian president to Cuba, Natasha is hoping some of the old ties might be restored.

More tolerant

She visited Russia once in 1992, and vowed then never to return. But she now thinks it might be time to end her self-imposed exile.

"For me, it was such a shock," she said.

"I told my sister that I will never go back. Of course, now the shock has passed. My brothers and sisters and all my friends are there. I'm more tolerant now.

"If I go back, it will be to see my sky, my rivers, my woods and my brothers. But I no longer hope to see the country I left.

"I have accepted there is no return to that."

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13 Dec 00 | Americas
Putin seeks Cuban friendship
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