Partners in Crime: A Russian Romance
By Elaine Teng '1, Editor-in-Chief
Inside the white house just down the street from the gym, the awards lining the mantle gleam in the light, hers on one side, his on the other. The walls are bursting with books, mostly on Russia, and in the kitchen, teacups and Russian chocolate litter the tablecloth. As Professors Jane and William Taubman sat down at their kitchen table and thought back on how they met many long years ago, they laughed.

“You want to tell the story?” she asked.

“You can tell it,” he replied.

Yet as they told the story of their life, they did it together, just as their libraries and mantles suggest, finishing each other’s sentences, laughing at old stories and even bursting into an old Soviet song simultaneously. After 41 years of marriage during which they taught together, translated together and even interviewed Mikhail Gorbachev together, they still remember exactly the day that they met, set up by Professor of English and Russian Dale Peterson and his wife.

“Jane was reading Dale’s syllabus, comparing his syllabus on Russian literature,” Bill remembered. “She never looked up. It was a real challenge to me. I pulled out all the stops. I did my imitation of the Russian news on the radio, the Russian voice on the subway, and then as we left their apartment — this was the crucial moment — she in her really cool, sexy, crimson Mustang, and I in my black Volkswagen, which looked like a hearse, I pulled up to her and spoke the words that changed her life, which were, ‘Your tail light is out,’ and this showed her I cared, apparently.”

While this was not the stuff of dreams, Jane explained why his simple words about her car captured her heart.

“Something told me. I had never known or gone out with a guy that said that sort of thing,” she said. “It’s the ‘I’m going to take care of you’ kind of message.”

The couple married at the Smith College chapel eight months after their first meeting, and has not looked back since. With overlapping but distinct interests — Bill, a political science professor, is an expert in Soviet politics, while Jane focuses on literature and culture in the Russian department — the couple’s fields — and libraries — have complemented each other throughout their years both in Amherst and in the Soviet Union.

“In Soviet times we had friends in Russia in different segments of society,” Bill remembered. “I tended, as a political scientist, to know people who were interested in politics. They worked for newspapers, institutes of the Academy of Sciences, but they couldn’t quite open up to [us] because we were Americans, whereas Jane, through her friends, knew people who were literary and cultural, and some of them were open dissidents or close to it, so we would go back and forth between these two Russian worlds. You know, the offices of Pravda—”

“And at night we would go sit around somebody’s kitchen table and hear another, very different story,” Jane finished. “And it was very interesting and a kind of intellectual balance.”

The Taubmans relished this chance to slip inside the Iron Curtain and walk the line between two disparate, conflicting worlds engaged in a cold war. In 1988, they and their two children moved to the Soviet Union for five months, joining Bill’s brother who was posted there for The New York Times.

“We were living in a tiny two-room apartment, and they were living in the big apartment of The New York Times bureau chief,” recalled Bill. “That was fun because we could live in both worlds. We could live in the world of Russians, or we could go over to their house—”

“And eat tuna fish and cold cereal,” continued Jane. “They had access to special stores, deliveries from the Finnish stores. Those were tough years in the Soviet Union. I remember once, their kids came over. They were very young, and [one of them] took a look at our two-room apartment and said, ‘This place is a dump. I want to go home.’ But it was one of the happiest, most exciting times in our lives. It was really simple and everything was very intense, and it was very intense in the country.”

When they returned from this trip, a year before the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War, the Taubmans decided to write a book capturing their personal experiences in that chaotic, historic time that would transform the world and end decades of fear and tension. Not only did the book, “Moscow Spring,” capture the dynamic, momentous atmosphere of the time, it also taught the Taubmans about their differences and strengthened their marriage by forcing them to work through them.

“We divided the chapters. I wrote the political, historical chapters, and Jane wrote the cultural and family chapters,” said Bill. “We sat down, and each one wrote his or her chapters, and what struck me then was the different way we approached it. I like to outline everything I do before I do it. Jane is the kind of person who sits down and starts typing and doesn’t care where she’s going and fills it in later. By the time the book came out, people said — and we were very pleased by this — they couldn’t tell who had written what. We each edited each other’s chapters endlessly, and it came out in a seamless web.”

“And we stayed married,” added Jane with a triumphant smile. “We didn’t fight too much.”

Their collaboration continued throughout the years, working closely together on many projects, including interviews with Mikhail Gorbachev, teaching a freshman seminar and translating for speakers on campus. Along with Professor of Russian Stanley Rabinowitz, the two would translate together, helping one another and switching off when one came upon a word he or she did not know, a sort of round robin. It worked well, until they brought to campus a leading Soviet feminist who demanded only female translators, depriving Jane of her normal trio. When she came upon a word she had never encountered before — “It’s not Turgenev or Tolstoy,” she laughed — she looked to her husband in the audience for help.

“The word means ‘monitor,’ not ‘control,’” explained Bill. “It’s a good political word. So Jane’s up there translating and she starts to say, ‘We try to control the lives of women all around the world,’ and that would be ridiculous. So I start to correct her—”

“And I looked to you because I knew it was wrong. Here’s this guy in the audience who [the speaker] doesn’t know, and he starts breaking in. And she says, ‘We don’t need your help!’ And I started to say, ‘But he’s my husband and he knows this kind of language!’ Oh God, it was awful,” Jane laughed, remembering. “It was one of the lower points of my career at Amherst College.”

On the home front, Jane does the cooking and Bill the cleaning, a silent agreement they have abided by for many years which Jane feels lies at the heart of any marriage.

“That was one of my earliest thoughts about marriage; that was what it was really about: who takes out the garbage,” she said. “It’s that kind of negotiating living together. It helps, at base, to have a common interest that you both like, and common values about the very important things. [But] I decided that is what is at the heart of it — can you really just negotiate things?”

After four decades spent in the Pioneer Valley and in Russia with their two children and their dog Brady, the Taubmans have learned innumerable things from each other and their very different personalities. Bill, who is extremely methodical and focused on the tasks at hand, has acted as a model for his more disorganized wife, while she in turn has shown him a softer side of life, the need to let go and the complexities of human relationships. And they continue to negotiate and learn from each other as they face a new stage in their lives, with Jane retiring at the end of the last academic year.

“I’m already starting my second career, which is babushka-hood,” she joked. “Now we’re getting into this new stage of how do we cope with each other’s increasing absent-minded-ness. As you get older you have to learn how to be more tolerant of yourself as well as the other in your life.”

Yet with Bill immersed in a project on Gorbachev, the two will also continue to work together, and Jane is eager to help him.

“When we go there (Russia), when we do the interviews, I can be helpful. I can be another set of ears, I can sit there and look interested, I can edit him,” she said. “He does all the hard work in deciding what to do, but I’m involved, so we’re together in our own project.”

Despite their differences, from their work habits to their personalities, the two have worked through them and formed a solid team that has pulled through over the years. Jane smiled thoughtfully while considering the one thing she could not stand about her husband.

“He can be so perfect sometimes that it’s a little intimidating,” she said. “I used to say [his] only faults were losing umbrellas and hair, one of which [he] can’t help.”

Issue 02, Submitted 2010-09-15 01:51:56