Last summer we visited the hometown of my mother-in-law, in the north of Kazakhstan near Semey, for a memorial service. It was once a thriving farming village of a few thousand people, but after the fall of the Soviet Union, it collapsed like everything else, and the place became a ghost town. Now, just a few old people still live there amidst the ruins.
Relatives from around the country came for the service, and while everyone was preparing for the big festive meal, I walked around the village with my uncle-in-law, inviting the few people who still lived there for the party. He showed me around: where his house used to stand, where his fields once were, where they swam in the river and where his street once was.
It really shook me. Of course I knew what a terrible disaster the collapse of the Soviet Union had been for locals, and I had read all about it and discussed it many times. I understood it, intellectually. However, walking through this town that disappeared, with a man talking about his childhood and pointing at ruins and stands of grass, I imagined it was my hometown, and I finally understood the disaster on an emotional level. It really shook me.