The Flip Side of Perestroika

A life as full of drama as a Chekhov play now on at the Karolos Koun

Anna Tok at her Athens home
Anna Tok started a new life in
Greece in 1999

WHEN Anna Tok left Russia in 1999 for economic reasons, she could have never imagined that a decade later she'd be performing in a perestroika version of Anton Chekhov's Three Sisters on an Athens stage.

But in late 2007, art imitated life and non-actor Tok found herself donning peasant clothes and playing the sisters' loyal nanny Anfisa after a friend recommended her for the part. Stars Natalia Dragoumi, Gogo Brebou and Fae Xyla were in the spotlight but, like the archival film that comes on the screen in between acts, Tok provides a feeling of authenticity to the production.

Like Anfisa, Tok has raised children for most of her life. But that's where the similarity ends. She is three decades younger than Chekhov's 80-year-old character. And, unlike the worried fictional maid, Tok is constantly smiling. The tall, slender divorcee explains: "Suffering makes a person stronger. I've passed so many bigger hardships that I don't see my current problems as difficulties."

Life started for her in Tatarstan, which is today a Russian Federation republic. The family ended up there when her coal miner father, at 45, became ill from 25 years of coal mining in Uzbekistan and his doctor recommended the change. He was to live to 85, providing his three daughters and two sons with a happy childhood. Tok remembers, "We grew up in nature. We swam, we had a boat, we'd go fishing with Dad."

Tok moved to a town 100 kilometres from St Petersburg (then Leningrad), after she married her first husband and had a son, Vladimir. Though her university studies had been cut short, Tok landed a teaching job and, a few years later, a managerial role at a big bar/restaurant.

Perestroika freefall

In the early 1990s, however - as the Athens play shows - the economy changed. Big factories and shops alike shut down. A St Petersburg entrepreneur bought the restaurant where Tok worked and shut it down.

She remembers, "That was scary, when we were all out of work and there was no money."

When she and her second husband were expecting their daughter, Alexandra, Tok craved cheese, but was only allowed small weekly rations of it. Food-shopping for the family, which also included her niece (after her sister fell sick), consisted of buying two onions here, an apple there, never a kilo of one thing. Tok's features freeze over and she resembles the unsmiling Anfisa when she says: "Then, there was nothing - just oil and spaghetti. It was very, very difficult."

She sold two fur coats to finance her son's university fees and borrowed money from a loan shark to sell items at a bazaar. For three years, she worked exhausting hours, and the family survived. She dealt with two robberies, but then one day in 1998 the currency plummeted from 7 to 24 rubbles to a dollar. How would she repay her loan?

"We felt like rats. There were a lot of suicides," Tok remembers.

Her son said, "Don't worry. It's not just you but all of Russia."

She streamlined her business, but the last straw was when a train hit her supplies truck. She wasn't injured but decided to go abroad, responding to a newspaper ad for work in Israel, France or Greece for a $600 fee. It was hardest leaving her nine-year-old behind.

Arriving in Greece

"It was my first time abroad," says Tok. She was sent to care for an elderly couple in Platanos village, on Samos. Arriving on the island at 5am, she was impressed by the light and mountains but even more so by the refrigerator full of food, including lots of the fruit that was so expensive in Russia. She gained 16 kilos that year. "I ate and ate. I just couldn't become full," Tok explains.

The elderly couple were good to her. "The first word I learned in Greek was katse (sit)," Tok says, laughing. She was sent away to Athens for a Russian-Greek dictionary. After the elderly woman died, Tok landed a job with a family in Athens that she would be with for the next seven years.

Today, she's paid off her loan and brought her teen daughter to Athens. In Russia, her niece is studying, and her son is working for a Finnish transport company, while raising his own family. Tok is enamoured with Greece's climate and sea. She swims even in the winter.

While, ironically, taking hours off of work to portray a maid on stage has cost her the day job, Tok thinks she'll find something soon. She'll miss the rest of the cast, who were like a family to her, she says, "I loved it. I went to the theatre each day as if a lover awaited me." Each night, she curls up with a Chekhov book - even if her own life has offered just as much drama.

Three Sisters: Perestroika (in Greek), directed by Marianna Kalbari, is playing at the Karolos Koun Techni Theatre (14 Frinihou St, Plaka, 210-322-2464) through to February 15th.

Article code: C13273A101

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