Reading the book “The Seventh Secretary” by Michel Heller has brought back to me masses of memories of the “Soviet phase” of this little island. At that time, I was not yet fifteen years old and I have strong sensory evocations of this colonial period. I recall sweets and foods purchased through the informal markets run by the wives of Soviet technicians. It is curious that we didn’t refer to them by their nationality, Soviets, much less as “comrades,” but that we used a noun whose phonetics did not allow for details. They were “los bolos”: unformed, coarse, an unworked piece of mud; massive and without grace; able to make a washing machine that used the electricity of the entire house, but that – even today – continues to function in more than a few Cuban homes.
Many of our parents had studied or worked in the USSR, but we did not know of borsht soup nor did we like vodka, and everything “Soviet” seemed to us to be old-fashionable, rigid and passé. What paralyzed us about them was the bear-like power that emanated from their gestures and the veiled warning with which they sustained our Caribbean “paradise.”
The mixture of fear and mockery that the Bolos generated in us still remains. If today a tourist who wanders through the city does not want to be bothered by persistent sellers of tobacco, sex or rum, he only has to whisper something like “Tavarich,” “Niet ponimayo” and the startled seller will melt away.
*Translator’s note: Bolo is Cuban slang for a Russian. In Spanish a bolo is a type of bowling pin.