We lived on the top floors of gray apartment buildings whose brick sides held a tall drink of dry blue air struck through with yellow sunlight in every season and threaded with mobiles of black swallows in summer.
We met in winter. You stood on the gray crusty snow next to a gray wooden teeter-totter. You were dressed in a little gray tweed coat. The continental sun made a sharp El Lissitzky drawing on the asphalt. I asked what your name was; you asked me what grade I was in. I said I was in second, and you said: “Ha! Second grade is way too easy! Third grade – now, that’s hard.”
Thus began the oddball friendship of our scholarly minds.
You used to say that you and I came from the same dumpster.
For a long time, I thought everybody played like we did. After we stopped being friends, I kept looking for you in other girls – and they all came slightly foreign. From different dumpsters.
We spent one whole late-summer month bluestering in the courtyard. You made up whiny little creatures called Sinyusiki the Bluesters, and we played like we were them. The rules were simple: the game was a whine opera. The Bluesters would shake, jump up and down, and extemporize various complaints in song punctuated by this refrain performed in chorus: “We’re stinky! We’re blue! We’re the Bluesters! Boo-hoo!”
We spent two weeks making up palindromes, and then another two weeks making up epic stories in which all notional words began with the same letter. The most productive initial letter in Russian is П, we found. It provides a preponderance of power. Pyotr plus Praskovya performed plenty of peripatetic peregrinations with prowess upon that preponderance in our picaresque plots.
Other neighborhood kids played team games. We hated team games. We played Badminton Cities. It’s a combination of badminton and the game of cities. You would serve me the birdie and name a city; I volley, and at the same time name a city which begins with the letter on which the name of your city ended. Moskva-Abakan-Nakhodka-Achinsk-Kazan-Nalchik-crud: the birdie flies across the fence into the terrifying adjoining backyard of the abortion clinic. Glad we have a spare birdie.
We spent a month of virtuous mornings jogging before the start of our school-day. The two of us and the famous elderly professor of medicine from your block were the only three joggers known to us in a non-jogging town, a non-jogging time.
Where did your parents get you? How did they manage to procure you? Your heavy mother with her hair chemically set in short permanent curls was permanently resting heavily on her bed, reading Arthur Haley’s Airport. Your heavy father was always going off somewhere in his white Zhiguli sedan. They never jogged in the mornings; they never ran at all. Although, what could I possibly really know about them? I was only a dumb kid. How could I fathom what palindromes played in the lives of others?
Still: your parents wouldn’t buy you a bike. They must have been afraid you’d hurt yourself. And my parents did buy me a bike, a low-framed green Salut. I was twelve then.
I was twelve and you were thirteen. I’d come to your house and you’d be doing homework. I’d peer into your papers and see long rows of round math symbols arranged into equations I didn’t understand. Or you’d be knitting, and I’d see long rows of round knits and purls, arranged into equations I didn’t understand. You were the top student in your class, and very competent in making macrame owls and flowerpots. You were older than me, always and ever older.
Except for the bike.
We were peers on the bike. I drove you around on the back wheel, and then you drove me around on the back wheel. Our street was virtually traffic-free: very few car-owners. The first skateboarders in our town would race along the same sidewalks as we did, past the bank, past the square, past the theater. It was cool to own a skateboard, but to own a bike was not too shabby either.
It was not too shabby to own a faux-leather briefcase and to use it as a schoolbag. You had one and I had one. Mine was not sturdy enough for the six big fat Soviet textbooks I carried to school daily. Every day, the briefcase would crack apart right in the middle of the street on my way home and spill its guts on the asphalt. I’d crawl around on all fours, searching the ground for the minute screws that had fallen out of the bottom of the briefcase. I soon had to resort to carrying my fancy briefcase underarm. My parents laughed at me, yet vanity prevailed.
At the time, certain classes at school were special units or special forces made and maintained at the discretion of the teaching staff. Ours was the VYFB, or the Volunteer Youth Fire Brigade. We were not allowed to go near any fires; however, we were issued nifty red VYFB membership cards. I still have mine somewhere. Yours was the YTP, or the Youth Traffic Patrol. You did do some traffic work, if not patrolling; for instance, you went to elementary classrooms and gave talks about how it was a pretty bad idea to jaywalk. One time, you participated in a big important street patrolling parade. That parade was the beginning of our end.
You needed a bike for the Big Bicycle Parade. Your group was supposed to ride bikes in formation, collectively, powerfully, impressively. It was part of the parade routine. You asked to borrow my bike. You borrowed my bike. Right after the parade, the bike got stolen. Yessiree. Some filthy thieving ass rode off into the sunset on my green Salut.
Your class dame gave me her own Prima bike to reimburse me for my Salut. That switch was totally an upgrade: an adult touring bike for a run-of-the-mill youth bike! Not too shabby. It must have killed the poor woman to forfeit such a nice, well-tuned, hard-to-come-by velocipede.
I stopped by your house shortly after the bike debacle. You opened your door a crack and said that your parents had banned you from being friends with me. They said that they’d seen me wearing lipstick; that I was a girl of uncultured behavior; that I was a poor influence; that I was interfering with your studies.
That lipstick story was a complete fabrication!
I didn’t insist on staying friends with you then. I didn’t know how to insist on anything, defend myself, advocate for myself until I was at least 25 years old. So, I just became sad and walked away.
I went down from your top floor to the basement of my tall apartment building, filled with trash and spun glass, to the attic of my tall apartment building, filled with guano, where my strange new selves and my strange new friends spent time wearing lipstick, gossiping about boys, cutting class, smoking stolen Bulgarian cigarettes and otherwise engaging in uncultured behavior.
And you? Where did you go? What’s become of you? Did you turn tall, heavy, sad? What’s become of you? Are you an electrical engineer, a mother of two, a Jehovah’s witness?
Remember the song you loved to sing with a bop, and a flop of your short flaxen hair, and a squint in your deep round cornflake-blue eyes?
“I will not be lying; I’m so fond of running! Be there frost, be there sun, I just run and run!”
Q: You have lived in the US for a few decades now, and you write in both English and Russian (poetry, prose, song lyrics…) What was the genesis of the book? Was there an event in your life or the life of the countries where you live/d that precipitated this project?
A: I’d say the book came not of any single event, but rather — as, perhaps, most books are — was borne of an aggregation of events, realizations and conversations occurring over a stretch of time, and seeded over my biography, personality, interests and skills. By now, I’ve lived in the US for fifteen years. I moved to the US from Russia as an adult, at age 29, provisionally at first. My English was fully functional and my new social surroundings in the States, as fate had it, were predominantly not newly immigrant. I’ve never had the diasporic experience that many new immigrants go through, but rather went immediately and headfirst from my Siberian (Trans-Baikalian, to be accurate) life into my Midwestern life. For most of my new Michigan acquaintances, I was the first Russian-born-and-bred person they met who could fluently and maturely speak about Russia to them; I also went back to Chita, Russia quite a bit, sometimes to teach, and for many of my Chita acquaintances I was the only person they knew who’d gone to live in the US and came back to tell the tale. Both the sides had their misconceptions and prejudices. Both the sides had questions, though, I must clarify, the Russian side had more questions, on average. “What do Americans think about us?” I was asked at many a friendly dinner. I’d tell the truth: ‘This is a poorly constructed question to which an accurate answer cannot be given.” It was never a popular answer. I remember one dialogue that went like this: “So, what do Americans think about us? They probably think we are all angry drunks and mafia people, and that bears roam our streets. Those paranoid Americans!” — “To be fair, I’d say Americans, on average, don’t think about us a lot.” — “Of course! It’s because they have no idea that other countries exist. They can’t tell Mongolia from Finland. Those illiterate Americans!” That conversation may not have quite elucidated what Americans thought of Russians, but it did clear up what my Russian interlocutor thought about the US, I thought. So eventually, I decided to make a book about what America thought of Russia and what Russia thought of America, straight from the horse’s mouth into the horse’s ear. I was at peace with the idea that the book would contain just a narrow sampling of the horses’ opinions, and that the data would be only partially trustworthy as a source of historical information. I set out to collect histories of affect.
Q: It feels as if the bilingual format is itself a work of cultural diplomacy, inviting native speakers of Russian and those of English to read, interact, and learn about each other. And this is over the course of nearly 700 pages! Can you speak about this choice to have a thoroughly bilingual and bicultural book project?
A: From inception, the book was to be bilingual and general-audience. Its secondary purpose was to be a teaching resource, because I used to teach college and when I began recording testimony in 2009, I was still thinking about all things –board books, soup cans, pop songs — in terms of how they could be used in the classroom. But foremost, the book was to be visibly bilingual, so the reader could have immediate visual confirmation of the foreignness of half the sources. It was to be affordable, as non-partisan and judgement-free as possible, and easy to process — yes, an act of people’s diplomacy. I’d jokingly say I wanted to make something a plumber named Joe or a plumber named Vanya could pick up and read while on the john. The book was to be simple — which is not the same as stupid.
Q: Interviewing Russians and Americans several decades after the end of the Cold War means that everyone you spoke to has a perspective informed by a few decades that passed since the end of the Cold War. What did you learn about the perspective your interviewees had on the events of the past with the passage of time?
A: First, we must acknowledge that perspectives on events, and memories of events, are not mental copies of events, even when the events in question are fresh or still occurring. Then, we must acknowledge that memories of past perspectives are not mental copies of those past perspectives, either. Thirdly, we must acknowledge that not all reporting of personal opinion is what we may call “honest”: people can intentionally misrepresent their actual stances in conversation for a variety of reasons, which could be a fear of persecution, the desire to appear sophisticated or knowledgeable, the tendency to mirror the interlocutor, the list goes on. Once we factor in what we, thanks to brain science, now know about the timey-wimey, wibbly-wobbly, humany-wumany nature of memory and reasoning, we will have to come to terms with the fact that our reports on past experiences and perspectives are much more like feature films than documentaries; they are stories, at least in part fictional. Whew! All that memory and cognition stuff out of the way, now to the question proper: yes, some interviewees whose stories were included in the book reported that their perspectives on past political crises and the “enemy” state changed (improved, worsened or morphed while retaining the same levels of approval) with time, age, international exposure and new political events and revelations. Others held on to their original beliefs no matter what.
What takes up the bulk of the book is looking into the whys and wheretofores of the stances reported by the interviewees; it is researching the context in which their opinions germinate, flourish or wither. What were people watching on TV or reading in the paper during the Cold War decades? How about after? What ideologies, if any, did secondary schools broadcast, and in what ways? What were their parents saying about the Cold War tensions — if anything? Did the respondents receive any military or paramilitary training as children? Was that Soviet Military Training class ideologically lively or largely ritualistic? Did any of the above have any influence on their understanding of the “war” part of the Cold War?
Now, how about the “cold” part? For the rank-and-file end recipient of government propaganda, the Cold War was more about the blocs giving each other one big protracted side-eye than about actual military action; it was a war of judgments. So, I asked my conversation partners for their evaluations of their own countries, in addition to their takes on the “enemy.” Did they believe their home countries to be good places to live? Why? Who or what said they were good, bad or middling?
Then, whether the respondents said their views had changed or remained the same, we could contextualize that change or stasis — or, if we don’t wish to employ a researcher’s lens, we can simply read the interviews as true stories, oral histories, journalism.
Q: Was there anything the interviewees felt they couldn’t have said then but were able to say now?
A: If by “then” we mean the Cold War era and by “now” we mean the stretch between the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the year 2011 when the last interview featured in the book was taken, then yes, a few respondents from the former USSR said they could talk more freely about the Soviet past, in part because they themselves had learned more about it in the intervening years due to glasnost, in part because certain topics were not taboo anymore. I did not notice any self-reported increase in freedom of speech among the US respondents.
Q: Fear of the Cold War other comes up as a theme in these interviews. One of your interviewees says: “Because I don’t think we were ever comfortable with Russia, but we didn’t know enough of Russia. Because we had so much fear, we never made the effort to get to know Russian people.” Was there a different kind of fear in Soviet Russia as compared to the United States, according to the interviews?
A: The funny thing is, the interviews show that levels of fear cannot be solidly summarized and trend-mapped across the board. You’d have two respondents sitting side by side, of the same age, sex, occupation, marital status, city of residence, and one would say she was utterly terrified of the atom bomb, while the other would state she was not scared in the slightest. Apparently, many things go into fear-making! But if I had to identify one difference which showed itself to be somewhat consistent, it’s this: some respondents from the former USSR testified that they were both afraid of the nuclear war and certain the Soviet Union would win the nuclear war. In contrast, all US respondents who were afraid of the nuclear war were certain that no one would win the war; it was unwinnable, so everybody would just senselessly die. This difference, which tracks across decades, must be due to the government narratives.
Q: I liked the story by your interviewee named Amanda, who rode the Metro and encountered a Soviet general, and this led to her questioning what she has been taught about the Soviet police state and its dangerous international presence. Small incidents like this, close encounters with individuals as opposed to grand ideologies, can be life-changing. Showing up, as individuals, can be so powerful, that physical presence, even without language. It reminds me a bit of the Civil Rights movement, of showing up publicly, as one is. What are some other ways of overcoming fear of the other, Soviet or American, that your interviewees brought up? Are there certain lessons for today in the responses about cultural diplomacy, or that people-to-people approach that Amanda seemed to be a part of?
A: Exposure is a great tool for mind-changing. Exposure doesn’t work wonders every time, but lack of exposure surely aids in further entrenchment of ideologies. Stories of how exposure shattered previously held beliefs abound in the interviews: a real live Army colonel’s armpit sniffed, an international music festival attended for the first time, a new country moved to, and suddenly those imaginary villains who were out to get you morph into just people. I think these lessons hold for today, for yesterday, for tomorrow, for here, for there, for any divided, embittered and terrified place. I’m no hippie, there’s tons of people I disagree with or plain dislike, and I would not go so far as to invite everyone to practice Vonnegut’s boko-maru to come-together-right-now, but there is nothing like exposure and contact for demoting — or promoting — the “other” from demon to human. That, and the theory of mind, and self-awareness, and cognitive hygiene.
Q: How have the dynamics of fear been in the intervening decades? According to your interviewees, is there still fear on both sides of the ocean?
A: It’s important to note that the interviews in the book are ten years old now. I’d have to make a whole new book to see what people say about their current fears. When the testimonies were collected, Dmitry Medvedev was president of Russia and Barack Obama was serving his first term in the US. The situation was more mellow than it is now, though far from rosy. That, in part, allowed me to talk to people who were relatively — though not all, and not completely — chill about their Cold War opponent. I think, today the mood would be a little different, but I’m not certain it would be unequivocally more hostile. For one, we’d be running out of older respondents, for biological reasons. I was lucky to interview folks born in 1928 for the book; today, I would be talking to younger people, who have new technologies, new data, new media narratives and new concerns.
Q: One of the Russian interviewees says something that struck me deeply: “Overall, in my view [the] Cold War existed, exists and will exist. Take sports competitions as an example, even … Learning all those secrets, all the doping they use, it’s the same thing, the same Cold War, it’s not exactly spying, but investigating, gathering intelligence, finding out new info, that’s what it is.” Did your interviewees note any other tendencies in viewing the other country that was familiar from the Cold War and came back in Putin’s time?
A: The testimonies were gathered during the Medvedev presidency, but for the sake of generalization we can call all post-Yeltsin time Putin’s time. In the book, I don’t have any responses from Soviet interviewees who changed their opinion of the US to fully favorable during perestroika and then changed it back to unfavorable after Putin came to presidency. Perhaps, some flirted with the free-market ideals and then discarded them. I’ve met people in Russia who developed a strong dislike of the US in the past decade, but I have not recorded any interviews with them. As to the US folks, their preoccupation with Russia, in my experience, seems to be generally weaker than the respective Russian preoccupation with the US even in the worst of political times, and the criticism tends to be aimed at the government but not the populace.
Q: How widespread is this opinion about the Cold War persisting–or would it be more accurate to say, returning?–among your interviewees in Russia? Is it more prevalent among the Russian people you spoke to, or among the Americans?
A: In this small sample — the book features interviews with 26 respondents — comparatively more interviewees from the former Soviet Union than from the US reported thinking that the Cold War either never ended, or was returning, or was part of a cyclical relationship pattern. One Russian respondent (b. 1969, in “Bubble Gum”) said she hoped the cyclical pattern was at least a spiral and not a vicious circle. Those US respondents who said the Cold War was over pointed out that it did not mean the end of all hostilities between the US and Russia, just those particular hostilities wound around nuclear weapons and the ideological conflict of the two systems. And only one US respondent stated that the US hands-down won the Cold War.
Q: Many of your Russian respondents live in Chita, a city in the Zabaykalsky Krai, quite a distance from Moscow. How does regionality shape these people’s experience of the Cold War? Do you think it would be substantially different if they grew up in Moscow or St. Petersburg?
A: The book has testimonies from four respondents from Chita, three from Moscow, one from Astrakhan, one from Armenia, one from Sverdlovsk, one from East Germany and one from Yugoslavia on the socialist bloc side of things; the rest of the respondents are from various places in the United States. Ages of respondents vary, as well: the oldest interviewee was born in 1928, the youngest in 1979. If there is a consistent difference between the experiences of my Chita interviewees and my Moscow interviewees, it’s that the ones from Moscow had a greater awareness of Soviet governmental oppression and antisemitism than the ones in Chita, and all three have eventually emigrated to the US. Additionally, not one of my Moscow respondents had any idea about, or fear of, a potential war with China in the 1960s, while all four Trans-Baikalian respondents cited a possible war with China as a concern. But to reiterate, it is four people matched up to three people, not some solid regional opinions pinned against each other. I don’t think solid regional opinions exist.
Q: The Cold War, of course, was several decades long, and you interview people of different ages. Do you see any meaningful differences between people growing up in the early Cold War years as contrasted to younger people?
A: Yes, both in the socialist and the capitalist bloc (though, as we will learn from one of the interviews, the capitalist bloc was known to itself not as capitalist but as free.) The older the respondents, the more informed of potential calamities and the more wary, I would say. There also seemed to be some variance in personal stance between people who were kids during World War II, kids during the McCarthy era, then during the Cuban Missile crisis, then during the detente, and then during the arms race. Those whose formative years fell on the detente reported to be less freaked out by the Cold War than those who marched in anti-nuke protests as teens in the ‘80s, etc. There appears to be a correlation between levels of fear and distrust, the actual international events of the time, and the respective ramping up or easing down of propaganda, but the correlation is not unequivocal or consistent even among the same demographic in the same country. If we look across the blocs, it becomes even more striking how individual people’s beliefs are. The chapters “A Massive Mission” and “The Die-In” reveal the parallel experiences of a Soviet girl and an American girl, both born 1969, both participating in their countries’ respective peace-promoting activities in high school — yet those experiences and their meanings are radically different.
Q: On a lighter note: If you could go back to the Cold War era and meet one person, from any country, who would it be?
A: I’d want to pick President Ronald Reagan’s brain during the disarmament process in the mid-eighties. The man who first built the US nuclear arsenal up and then took it down: what a fascinating journey of national politics and personal ethics! I’d sit him down, turn on my Dictaphone and just ask away!
Want to up your quirky seasonal film buff game? Let me get my wand. Twinkle-twinkle-pop!
I give you Tři oříšky pro Popelku, or Drei Haselnüsse für Aschenbrödel, or Three Nuts for Cinderella,1973, Barrandov Studios/DEFA. It’s a traditional, heirloom Christmas movie in Germany, Norway and the Czech Republic. Use it well!
Here’s how to use it well: sit down in front of a black-and-white television, wait for the film to be broadcast without commercial interruptions, Soviet-style, and munch on a confetto after confetto which you sneak from the bag of candy you received from Grandpa Frost at the New Year’s Tree Ball at you preschool, or elementary school, or at your parents’ workplace, or at the city theater, or at the Kremlin, if you are a fancy kid.
Contents of the bag may vary.
If you went to the Moscow Kremlin Kids’ New Year’s Ball, you might now be munching on crunchy pink Crayfish Necks, crispy golden-brown Goose Feet, chocolatey Pineapples with wafers inside, nutty Grillages, and moussey Bird Milks. I don’t know. I’ve never been. There’s probably all kinds of cool candy in your polyethene bag, a confetti of confettos. Lucky you!
If you went to the Tree Ball at the Chita Machine-Builders’ House of Culture, like I did, you will probably get a handful of boring throwaway karamelki the sugar caramelli with jammy centers, a couple of cheap raspberry-fudgy Radiums, a couple of Little Batons rolled from soybean paste, a couple of suckety Barberries, a couple of high-rent chocolate Kara-Kums, and man, if you got a Gulliver — brag to all your friends before you eat it!
Besides candy, your New Year’s gift is likely to contain an apple, a few whole walnuts (drei Walnüsse) and a tangerine, which you may wave at ghosts of Christmas oranges past through your black-and-white TV window sparkling with picturesque snowbound Bavarian castles ’round which a Prince in fancy dress gallops on his trusty steed toward his one true love, so sent forth by Bozena Nemcová and Brothers Grimm.
Eat the tangerine first. It’s the law.
By the way, don’t throw away the throwaway karamelki. Save them for when you run out of good candy. If you gleaned your candies and nuts at several New Year’s Balls — your preschool, your parents’ workplace, the municipal one — it may take you up to a week to run out of the good candy, but trust me, that black day will come.
It is mauvais ton to put really cheap candy in New Year’s Gifts, as is widely known. I hope they don’t give you any multicolored Dragée or sad Little Pillows. Those don’t even have wrappers and are sometimes called Dunka’s Joy. Dunka is a poor ignorant peasant girl. No one wants to be a Dunka. I hope that the responsible adults in your province have enough class and money not to make a Dunka out of you.
You dress up in costume for the New Year’s Tree, Grandpa Frost and the Snow Maiden; they pay you for your fancy dress in candy. It’s the law. It’s just how it is.
In the movie you are watching with chocolate on your face, Cinderella’s fancy dresses come from three magic Christmas hazelnuts. Your fancy dress comes from mom.
In preschool, the teachers decide what your fancy dress will be. If you are in a special New Year’s Matinee Tree Ball skit, you may get a special, one-off costume, like that of a Wily Fox or a Grey Wolf. In the corps de ballet, boys will be uniformed as Bunnies or Clowns, girls as Snowflakes or Firecrackers.
Preschool Snowflake dresses are beginner outfits for princesses-in-training. Every winter, in many Soviet homes, moms sew Snowflakes out of white cotton, white curtain tulle, white cheesecloth embroidered with loose paillettes, trimmed in tinsel garlands and, often, sprinkled with a fairy dust of choice words.
Moms may be too busy for seamstressing, but one must keep up with the Ivanovs. Mama’s little Snowflake must look as nice or nicer than all other little Snowflakes at the Ball.
In elementary school, costume requirements are laissez-faire. Come in costume, any costume. Still, it’s your mom’s job to make it.
You may want to be a Princess for the New Year’s at your elementary school. If you are now watching the Czech/German Cinderella movie with a hungry glimmer in your beady little eye cast toward the gauzy gowns roped out of the three magic hazelnuts, you just might be a princess-in-training, or a princess-in-exile, or a plainclothes princess. Or a princess-in-denial.
Pop a Bird Milk in your mouth and dream.
You know what?
You’ll get your dress.
I got mine from my mom in third grade, after much nagging, and sighing, and dreaming. She made a princess dress for me out of my white gym T-shirt, old kitchen curtains, and a green-and-silver tinsel garland. Sparkle-sparkle! Rustle-rustle!
If your mom is indisposed, we can try magic.
You see, I practiced. In preschool, I wanted to be a Good Fairy more than I wanted to be Cinderella. In addition to sparkly fancy dress, nearly as good as Cinderella’s, the Good Fairy has a magic wand. That’s one advantage. Two: the Good Fairy is so, so good. People always tell you to be a good girl, right? Well, the Good Fairy is so completely good that she is already The Goodest! She doesn’t need to worry about all that being-good stuff. Tinsel, tulle, magic powers and unimpeachable moral character, check — a-a-and mate!
That’s why my best friend Oksana and I spent countless hours in our preschool playroom flitting from chair to chair, tremulating with pink cotton-candy voices and gesticulating with graceful swan arms toward objects we wished to transform — twinkle-twinkle-pop!
The spinsterhood of Good Fairies was immaterial to us then.
Does Snegurochka the Snow Maiden have a boyfriend or a husband? Nah. Is she fabulous? Yes. She has all the candy and all the tinsel; she is pretty, and nobody can ever claim she is bad.
Now, hide all your good candy from your thieving evil sisters. Hide the three walnuts too, just in case.
Let me pop a Bird Milk in my mouth and get my wand.
I’m a little out of practice. We’ll start with a minor spell.
We’ll start you as a Snowflake.
You can thank me later, after you dazzle all your hipster friends with your supreme knowledge of arcane world Christmas cinema.
Colorless green ideas sleep furiously, and fur hats are cleaned with semolina. I remembered it yesterday. Beaver, mink, arctic fox, rabbit, every pedigree of a fur hat. You have one winter hat, and it is made of fur. It is not a luxury but a necessity in your climate. Hats are sourced with care, effort, deliberation and determination. The fur hat is expected to last you many years, and so it takes upkeep. You must store it in mothballs off-season, and clean the coal powerplant grime off it at least annually, with a toothbrush and gritty semolina, or with potato starch, brush-brush-brushety-brush. That’s a lot of fine motor movement. Takes a while. Glad you have opposable thumbs.
If you happened to be both in Siberia and in the 1990s, you had to sew an elastic band to your hat, so as to harness the defenseless furcake to your head, lest you fell victim to hat-snatching, which was a new kind of petty crime sweeping the nation. When I was 17, my parents had a mink hat made for me, at considerable expense. It got stolen off my head the very first day I wore it, right by the trolley stop. Never saw the hat again. It’s in hat heaven now, and also in my Top 100 Heartbreaks, bottom of list. It was the dead of January, too. The minks were so dark and shiny. I’d neglected to sew the elastic band on. Oh, the hubris of the young!
So much sewing to do. Sewing is not a specialist skill; it’s a generalist skill. Women sew all the time. Men sew, too. Your dad was in the Army with the majority of Dads; heck yeah, he can darn a sock. You must sew a clean handkerchief on your snotbaby’s dress every day you send her to daycare. You must sew elastic bands to everyone’s mittens, then thread the banded mittens through the coat sleeves, so as to make the mittens stay with their person. The detachable white collar and cuffs on a girl’s school uniform must be sewn on and taken off, sewn on and taken off, by your mom, by your older sister, by own self, week in, week out, year in, year out, thread, thread, needle and thread.
Before the white collar or the handkerchief gets sewn on, it must be handwashed and ironed. Handwashing, ironing, handwashing, ironing, looping, threading, grating, plucking feathers out of dead chicken butts, separating the wheat from the chaff, picking little rocks and fluffy dirt from rice, buckwheat, millet, sifting flour for bugs, whisking eggs with forks, polishing shoes with wax, wringing laundry dry, hanging it up on the line, beating rugs outside, scrubbing rugs by hand, fine motor, gross motor, fine motor, gross motor, fine.
Middle-school girls come to class with wrists sore from hand-wringing bedsheets dry, from hand-beating egg whites stiff. There are no electric mixers, there are no electric dryers, only human ones. I know how to sew, both by machine and by hand; I know many varieties of stitching and what purposes they are for; I can take and calculate clothing measurements and cut a pattern; I can make a dress, skirt, shirt (pants are hard but I know the theory to attempt them); I know a few embroidery techniques, I can crochet, knit, mend, darn, fix, repair, make braids, put on buttons several ways, make loops for buttons or hanging loops for curtains by plaiting thread, and all of that stuff is in no way my job, or hobby, or art. These are not outlier skills; I didn’t choose to learn them; these were general life skills taught to me, and everyone else, and her friend, and the goat she rode in on, when I was a child. A house without a sewing tape was like a house without forks. Everyone had forks, and opposable thumbs, and only so many hours in a day, and many-many teeny grains of semolina, to make food from scratch, to scratch it into the fur and then brush it out, rinse, repeat, scratch-scratch-scratchety-scratch.
Fine motor, gross motor, fine motor, gross, fine motor, gross motor, fine motor, fine, fine motor, gross motor, fine motor and — in the flick of a wrist — where did your life go.
Boom-boom-boom-PAH! Boom-boom-boom-boom-boom-PAH! We knew it as babies that the day would come when we become October Kids. Those who’d been good would become October Kids in 1st Grade, and those who’d been bad – in 2nd Grade. I am among the first ten to be promoted. Yes-siree. Big kids wearing red neckerchiefs come in the gym with a drum and a horn and a flag. Boom-boom-boom-PAH! We hold our newly bought ten-kopeck October Kid pins in our hands. When the big kids pin them on our chests – lapels for boys, pinafore straps for girls – next to the heart, on the left – I notice that Natasha has a plastic pin, while I only have a stupid metal one. Rats. Where did she get the plastic pin? Some kids just have stuff that I don’t. The plastic October Kid pin is small, cute, with a real photograph of Baby Lenin inside its tiny plastic oculus. My stupid metal pin is crude and large in comparison, and the Baby Lenin on it does not look half as angelic. Also, Natasha has a better pinafore than I do. Mine is wrinkly cotton; hers is all lace, all white lace, the whole entire thing, not just the tiny frills on the bottom. Where did she buy it? Did she have it made? Anyway, I am proud to be an October Kid, and the Big Beardy Lenin on the wall of the Assembly Hall is squinting at me with what the teachers say was his Special Smart and Kind Leninian Squint. I’m not sure if he knows that I drew an unauthorized portrait of him in my math workbook, but in case he does, here are some arguments in my defense. First of all, I did not know it was a crime to draw an unauthorized Lenin, so it’s not my fault, although I do feel very guilty all the same; and second of all, I scribbled over it at once when Lena told me only real registered artists were allowed to draw Lenin, so once it was scribbled all over it just looked like a blob of blue ink, all scribbly-scribbly, and no one would ever know it covered up a Lenin. My hand was all smudged up in the runny blue ink. By the way, Natasha has pens with light-blue ink and small dainty ballpoints, and I only have pens with regular purple-blue smudgy stuff, the boring kind which you buy at the newspaper kiosk and which smears all over your hands, papers and, somehow, face. So, I do not think Lenin knows what I did, and if he does, he is dead anyway and can’t do anything to me. Can he, though? I am kind of uneasy about it. He looks very wise and all-knowing up there on the wall, he the giant beautiful red face with a fatherly smile. Sometimes you think grown-ups do not know but then, lo and behold, some tattletale already went and told them! Like that time Lena told our teacher I’d said she was stupid. The teacher was stupid, not Lena. Lena ran and told the teacher in two minutes flat. The teacher towered over me like a big old wooden wardrobe topped with gray perma-curls and a coarse gray moustache. I could tell she took the insult hard and would not forgive me easily. I hope Lenin does not know what I did, or at least that he knows I don’t think he is stupid. I think he is the greatest. I even saw the outside of the Lenin Mausoleum when we went to Moscow. My father did not take me in, but he did put me up on his shoulders so I could see the change of the guards. It was very uncomfortable because I was already seven and very-very big. That’s why I climbed down at once. I am proud that Lenin made me an October Kid, but I never get to enjoy October Kiddom because I catch pneumonia the week after the ceremony. While all other kids in our 1st Grade are busy being October Kids and learning cursive and new hard math, I stay home for two months. Two nurses who live downstairs have me bend over the cold kitchen stool as they give me shots in the butt. Every evening, I walk over to Natasha’s to get my home assignments. Her own cursive is coming along splendidly, and she has a fez. Yep. A fez and harem pants. And I do not. It is the 60th Anniversary of the Soviet Union, and I have this stupid pneumonia. While I was getting shots in the butt, our 1st Grade was practicing for the school concert. They all will be Turkmen. They will wear yellow harem pants made from old school curtains. If I could choose which one of the fifteen republics, fifteen sisters to be, I’d choose Ukraine. Ukraine has such pretty national costumes! Girls put bright ribbons and fake flowers in their hair. Natasha tells me, though, that Ukraine, Belorussia and Moldavia are the 10th, 9th and 8th Grades, respectively, because they are older, they know more, and they perform better. They get to be the better republics. The younger the kids, the worse the republics, she says. Our 1st Grade is Turkmen, then. Still, I would have loved to wear a fez and yellow harem pants made from heavy draperies, and to sing the undulating tune Natasha performs for me – “Native land, Turkmenistan, fertile are thy fields/ Native land, Turkmenistan, the happy Soviet land!” But things being as they are, I miss the goldarn thing. Maybe things will get better. Maybe in 10th Grade I will get to be Ukraine. Maybe my mama will make me a headband with silk ribbon flowers, and I will be proud. Maybe I will be proud when I become a Young Pioneer with a drum and a horn and a flag, and I go pinning October Pins on babies in white pinafores. Maybe one day Lenin who organized the 60th Anniversary of the Soviet Union will be proud of me. Pride turns into embarrassment turns into a joke turns into nothing.
Our new 11th Grade Russian Lit teacher Stalina G., may her soul rest, opened her first lesson with a question.
What do we need to do to earn good grades in Lit?
That was the question.
She scanned the classroom in that searchlight manner schoolteachers have. Anyone? Anyone?
No-one said anything.
Time dripped silently out of the Salvador Dali clock on the classroom wall.
To get good grades in Lit, we need… Wee neeed… Weee neeed… Weeeeee…
To read, I said in exasperation.
Stalina G. beamed.
Exactly! Egg-zacklee! To read! We need to read! What is your last name? Ah! I know your family. Of course! It’s in the blood. Blue blood. The pedigree will always show!
I felt a golden teacher’s pet cap landing on my head. Heavy is the crown.
Stalina G. was a university professor and a study in contradictions.
She introduced addressing students by the respectful ‘you’ not the familiar ‘you’, collegiate style. She allowed reading choices. Soviet school students all normally had to read the same stuff, and the idea of choosing was new to us. So, I never read Gorky’s Mother, a Soviet lit staple; I read The Artamonov Business instead, by choice. The Artamonov Business is not a bad book.
Stalina was the wife of the 1st Regional Secretary of the Communist Party but, somehow, by 1990 she’d become vehemently anti-Communist. All school Lit before her had been taught through the Communist lens. She taught all school Lit through an anti-Communist lens. Everything on Earth was proof that Communists were evil. Every book.
Stalina introduced actual text analysis into our curriculum, which was a good thing, I thought, but she used the analysis to bewildering ends. One lesson was on the lyrics to Rossiya, a song by Igor Talkov, may his soul rest. The lyrics go like, Russia had been glorious, rich, peaceful and Christly, but then bloodthirsty Bolsheviks came and ruined everything.
Alright. It’s an opinion.
Stalina read the lyrics stanza by stanza, with expression, pointing out all the epithets she thought were effective. In closing, she said, this song is incontrovertible proof that Communists are evil.
No it isn’t, I thought quietly to self. Songs are not proofs. Texts are not facts. There’s plenty of proof of Communist atrocities, but song lyrics ain’t proof.
But that was not the hill for me to die on. I wasn’t going down that day.
I was going down another day, and all through my own negligence.
Stalina G. sought to re-introduce Logic and Rhetoric, which had not been taught in the Soviet times, into the secondary curriculum. Not a bad thing.
She devised an Open Lesson, kind of like a Show Class, so that the school admin and folks from the Department of Ed would come see how Rhetoric could be taught to high-schoolers.
We were the Show Class. We were completely unrehearsed.
The Show Class was late in the day. We’d just had, like, four Physics hours and two Chinese hours; out blood sugar levels were low, our stomachs were rumbling, our concentration was flagging, our heads were almost hitting the desks.
There were Ed Department people present, as well as the school principal, and we just weren’t in show-class form.
Stalina had us finish her sentences extemporaneously. I don’t know what it was supposed to achieve. There must have been a rhetorical aim and a teaching rationale provided, but my blood sugar, like I said, was low.
Okay, students. Please finish this sentence for me. At this juncture, when we particularly want to…
At this juncture, when we particularly want to…
When we particularly want…
(She motioned for me, the star pupil, to speak of our particular junctural wants.)
At this juncture, when we particularly waaaant…
To eat, I blurted.
I was not allowed in Stalina’s classroom for two weeks after that.
She stated that she did not intend to teach, or award grades to, students who did not learn and who undermined the learning process.
It took a four-way negotiation session for me to be permitted to attend Russian Lit again.
The negotiations were between Stalina, the principal, our class dame and me, and I did have to grovel.
Stalina graded my exit exam essay a C-.
She also graded my college entrance essay a C.
This is incontrovertible proof that I am shit at essays.
The train to the village takes just under two days. Sometimes we get a compartment with doors, sometimes without, sometimes we get a nice clean car with dark-red vinyl berths, sometimes we get an old one with pressed green laminated paper on the walls, but we never take the firmenny express train, because the express train does not stop where we need to get off.
Even the trains that stop at our station only do so for a minute, and when the train runs late, which it nearly always does, the train does not stop as much as slow down briefly before picking up speed again. Usually, we arrive at our station at six in the morning. Our parents wake us up when the windows are dark so we have time to get dressed, roll up our mattresses, give our bed sheets to the sleepy train attendant in wrinkled railroad uniform, pack away our toothbrushes and books, and brush our hair nice so our relatives at the station do not think we are poorly brought-up.
When the train slows down, we are already at the door, and the attendant hastily lowers the retractable steps for us to hop onto and leave, leave the car, go-go-go to our intended destination. The departing and the arriving have forty seconds to switch positions: train to platform, platform to train. The attendant is scrambling.
The station is named after some hero, I guess; there is a bust of a blind-eyed curly-haired man painted the same silver they use on low cemetery fences. The blind bust rises out of orange and yellow nasturtiums. The nasturtiums are just like the ones my Stern Grandma has growing in a chipped-enamel washbasin all rusted through with holes.
I have two grandmothers: Stern Grandma and Kind Grandma. I go to Kind Grandma’s village every summer for at least a month. My parents have jobs; they cannot babysit us kids when we are out of school.
What part of the summer is not spent with the Kind Grandma is spent at the dacha of the stern one.
My Stern Grandma’s garden is small and cultivated within an inch of its life. It is weeded and fertilized, and we are not allowed to eat any berries or vegetables without permission. That is really important. Once, someone ate the first raspberry of the season off the bush; maybe the berry just fell off. Stern Grandma cried with real tears. She wants to save everything and make it into jams, pickles, preserves.
Kind Grandma’s garden is huge, rambling and weedy, with fields of tall sunflowers and hens laying eggs in the beans, and if you make it all the way to the end of it, which you might never even do in just one short summer, there are wild strawberries and peonies, tiger lilies and wild leeks, crawly beetles, creepy caterpillars, expanses of the collective farm land where they grow buckwheat, corn and experimental hybrid grains, and beyond are oak groves, cemeteries, places in which a town child would disappear forever without a trace, while a country child knows them like the back of her brown mosquito-bit hand.
My Stern Grandma always lectures me on this or that when I am in her garden. “Potatoes like sandy soil. I am adding nitrogen fertilizers to help leaves grow. This is wild mustard, it is a weed, pull it out. These are carrot tops, don’t yank them out with the wild mustard. Throw the pea shells back into the garden. If the berry does not come off easily, don’t pick it, it is unripe. If you don’t give the cucumbers enough water, they will grow bitter.”
Blah-blah-blah. Gypsophila. Dimorphotheca. Who needs to know all this? Why would I possibly ever care?
She makes me do boring, inane things. She gives me a tray of gooseberries and a pair of scissors and tells me to snip the tail off each berry, off a million fuzzy green gooseberries shot with tiny red capillaries. Each berry has a front end and a tail end, a front tail and a tail tail. Snip. Snip. But don’t bruise the berry. Be precise. Snip. Snip. Front tail. End tail. Snip. Snip. Wait, this story isn’t over yet. Front tail. End. Front end snip. Snip. Snip. Snip. You need the same amount sugar as you have berries. Snip. Snip. In volume, not in weight. Tail end snip. Snip. Snip.
My Kind Grandma never lectures me nor makes me do anything. I wake up in the morning and she is already making cookies, frying airy dough in a deep pan to a golden crisp, drowning the crumbly twigs in powdered sugar. She knows this poor kid is stuck in the middle of nowhere without any city treats; so, we make our own treats. We fill ice-cube trays with water cut with blackcurrant preserves, or with milk, water, sugar and imitation vanilla, and we stick them in the freezer. In a few hours, we take out tiny Popsicle cubes.
In the dog days of July, the green wooden shutters remain shut. It is cool and dim in the house. I am allowed to stay inside on the mattress on the floor and read. I need to turn on the lights to be able to make out the letters in the shuttered darkness.
My Kind Grandma lets me stay up as long as I want and read what I want: The Prince and the Pauper, The Rose and the Ring, The Little Lord Fauntleroy. Often, I read till two or three in the morning. The night mosquitoes are beastly. I am allowed to sleep on the sun porch. I am allowed to decorate the wall above my bed any way I want. I cut out a hundred photos from Around the World Magazine: oceans, volcanoes, Kon-Tiki, divers in gear, naked caramel-colored aboriginal ladies adorn the plywood wall painted dirty blue. Sea corals, sea urchins, seashells, Seychelles. Treasures untold.
My Kind Grandma has both treasures and books about them. Every summer, she takes history students on archaeological digs. There are a lot of things underneath these wild peonies, buckwheat fields and secret military towns: burial grounds, primitive villages, Mongol gold, shaman coats and baby skulls left by the indigenous people who used to live along the Amur River. She has photos, coins, arrowheads, books about the Scythians, Egypt, Greece. I learn golden words like cobalt, smalt, embalming, Amun-Ra. Luxuries, treasures untold.
Her shelves are full of books on the history of the region, of Russia, of the world. Till all hours of the morning I read about the exploration of Siberia by Russians, Americans, the Chinese. Pelts. Rifles. Rivalries. Oroqen and Daur. Yerofey Khabarov. Gnats. Death toll. Tracts upon tracts of land given to peasants willing to move across the continent from their depleted homes on the European side of the Urals; land covered with taiga, rich in timber, game, fish and permafrost. Woods unconquerable, murders unpunished, wills indomitable, treasures untold.
My Stern Grandma makes us go to bed the minute it gets dark and all gardening is done for the day. We sleep on army cots in the little back room. Sometimes the smaller kid sleeps in Grandma’s bed with her.
When it is dark, it is really dark; the only light comes from small silvery celestial bodies. Going to the bathroom is terrifying: a long, dark and twisty journey across the potatoes, over the water barrels, through the brambles, ghosts, wolves, taiga, to the outhouse hole-of-death.
We keep a dented aluminum bucket on the sun porch, for the nightly needs.
When it is dark, it is really dark, so sometimes we listen to the radio. Its raspberry-red eye glows comfortingly above the golden bar of Warsaw-Berlin-Moscow-Peking.
After we are tucked in for the night, my Stern Grandma retells us books, long books, abridged and serialized. Once, she took a month to tell us the entire Count of Monte Cristo. Alexander Dumas’ novels lend themselves well to serialization: murders, duels, fights, hanged men, cliffhangers. Innocence avenged, villainy punished, wills indomitable.
She favors the adventure genre: James Fenimore Cooper, Sir Walter Scott 1st Baronet. One summer, she read a year’s worth of sci-fi magazines left at the dacha by one of our older cousins. She told us a story about one-eyed aliens who have captured an Earth spaceship and turned everyone into an alien. She told us the story over the course of a week; we could not sleep for a month. In the daytime, the terror would melt and disperse under the blistering sun, hide its last slimy droplets under the raspberry bushes. At night, when it was dark, it was really, really dark, save for the spooky light coming from the small silvery celestial bodies of aliens.
She remembers not only the plot of the book but the most memorable things characters said to one another. When she talks, she sniffles every sentence or two. The sniffling is not from a cold; it is neurological, a tic. Sniff. Sniff. Always twice.
The tic is an after-effect of the smallpox she’d had as a young freckled peasant girl in a depleted and famished Ukrainian village. She sniffles every few seconds, always twice, and her nose twitches. Twitch. Twitch. Her sniffling sounds comforting in the very dark darkness.
My Stern Grandma’s garden is no longer fertilized with super-phosphates within an inch of its life. There is dead silence between Warsaw and Berlin, and the Count of Monte Cristo has joined his beloved Mercedes forever. My Kind Grandma’s coin collection is in the local museum; her Tutankhamen has left the building; his blue-and-golden-arrowed eyes are no longer winking at orange aboriginal women; her Kon-Tiki has sailed.
Villainy is forgotten, innocence is forgotten, and crickets rule over the fields of summer sleep.
“Petrova, Korneychuk and Habibova – JUICE! Makarova and Krushelnitskaya – BILE!” shouts the nurse in the hallway.
Stomach juice is better because only takes two hours, you get to sit down and the plastic tube they feed you is thin. Bile takes four hours during which you must lie still on your right side. The thick orange rubber bile tube has a metal nipple at the end. You swallow the tube and the nipple goes deep into your body, through your esophagus, out of your stomach, in your duodenum and almost into the gallbladder. You must fast before both lab tests, but midway through the stomach juice session they insert a syringe into the tube snaking down your esophagus and squirt in some beef stock, to stimulate juice production. When they take bile they squirt in a solution of magnesium salts. No food.
We must fill ten small mayonnaise jars with juice, four test tubes with bile. I don’t know why they need such huge amounts of stuff for lab testing. Four test tubes seems like less; however, juice drips rather freely and the nurses are usually satisfied with our output, while some gallbladders don’t want to give up bile. I myself have never been able to produce more than a tube and a half of it, and so the nurses yell at me. When we make less bile than they like they reschedule the test and we have to do it all over again in a week. That means they won’t let us go home and we will spend our entire lives imprisoned in the Regional Children’s Hospital, 3rd Floor, Gastroenterology.
Now I lie here on the cot covered in orange vinyl next to another unfortunate bile secreter, and I envy the four lucky ones who are sitting up in chairs with plastic tubes in their mouths and happily churning out stomach juices.
When they release us and we get up from the bile cots, all other kids on the Floor will have had lunch already, and we’ll walk to the dining hall where cold leftovers are kept for the kids who have spent the morning in the lab. The nurses tell us to walk close to the wall so we could lean onto it if we start to feel faint.
Today in the dining hall they are serving a drink made from dried bananas. We started getting dried bananas from Vietnam recently and we figured out that the bananas can be boiled in water to make a hot drink even more recently. I get a glass of sweet liquid with a shriveled pinkie-sized poop-colored half-banana in it. After I’ve been biled dry, the banana drink is ambrosia.
Now the juice is done, the bile is done, and I’ve already swallowed the light-bulb. The light-bulb swallow test one is probably the worst of the three, but it also lasts the shortest. The cable with a little camera at the tip that they send down into the stomach is inflexible and they wiggle it around too much, but the test lasts only about two minutes. After the light-bulb my throat was all scratched up and sore.
We are getting daily shots in our butts: vitamins. B6, B1, B12. The shots hurt, especially if Nadia the nurse is on shot duty. Nadia is a curly-haired bottle-legged round-bottomed pink-lipped blue-eyed tiny-nosed dainty doll-like blonde. She is mean as a wasp. Nadia has a heavy hand with everything. When she walks into our ward with a silvery starburst of thermometers in her hand, the thermometers look ouchy.
Every spring in March our mothers take us to mandatory appointments with our pediatricians, and the pediatricians assign mandatory three-week stays in the hospital. All of us have had stomach pains at some point in our lives and now we are on special watch. If we don’t show up for our annual checkups, our mothers will be in trouble. The doctors will yell at them. Our mothers are afraid of doctors. They speak in small voices when the doctors come, and look like little children. We are afraid of doctors too.
We had stomach pains; other kids committed other crimes and must go elsewhere, like Ear-Nose-Throat, Second Floor. We envy them sometimes: we heard rumors that they get sausages and oranges for breakfast in ENT. It sounds unlikely but, then again, they were not assigned Diet #5, like most of us, or Diet #1, like the most miserable of us. Diet #5 is tasteless steamed goop. Diet #1 is strained colorless tasteless watered-down steamed goop which might as well be injected directly into the bloodstream as it requires no digestive effort.
The ENT kids don’t exactly live the life of Riley, though. They may not have to give up bile or food, but there is a scary torture room on their Floor. One device in the room is cutely named ‘the cuckoo.’ The nurses buckle in the kid and then they pump liquid up one nostril and vacuum-drain it from the other, over and over again. Some of the liquid escapes into the throat and ears. To keep from inhaling too much water the kid has to say cuckoo, cuckoo non-stop. The water brings out pus, blood, snot and, we hear, sometimes even eyeballs. The littler kids scream so hard we can hear them up on our Third Floor.
Littler kids have a bad time on our Floor as well. Parents are not allowed on the Floor, and the average kid stay is two to four weeks. Parent visits take place downstairs, in the lobby, three afternoons a week; kids may not visit with their parents for longer than 20 minutes a day. The Floor doors are locked at all other times.
This is a regional hospital. Many kids don’t get any visits because their parents live a long train trip away and do not have the time or money to travel.
The food packages our parents bring are searched, decimated and trashed by the vigilant receptionists. No fruit. No vegetables. The hospital does not want to risk an outbreak of Hepatitis A, so no vegetables or fruit.
We don’t want an outbreak of Hepatitis A either. If we get one, we’ll be quarantined for three months and there will be no parent visits ever, ever. Those metal doors will never come unlocked.
Small kids cry and miss their parents. You can’t successfully explain it to a toddler that they will only be locked here for three weeks, a month tops. More for some, though. For the three-year-old Misha it will be months and months. The nurses told us Misha’s liver is rotting and he will not live past the age of four. We big girls take care of the little girls in our wing. We empty their chamber pots, braid their hair and tell them fairy stories. We would take care of Misha too, but he must stay on the right side of the hallway with the boys. We hope those stinking boys are nice to little Misha.
Big kids cry and miss their parents, too, but they have distractions. For one, there is romance. The girls’ wing and the boys’ wing are always a-stir with gossip and will-they-won’t-they. We just have to make sure no boys are discovered in our wards past bedtime, hiding under the beds and telling ghost stories. The nurses are outraged when it happens. They call us young sluts and promise to tell our parents on us.
Other distractions are singing, scary stories and amateur theater. One girl in our Ward of six is famous for two theater acts. One is telling the story of how her boyfriend jumped off the roof and killed himself because she forgot to put on the silver ring that he had given her; the other is wrapping herself in a bed sheet and performing scenes from The Disco Dancer, a famous Bollywood movie. Her faux Hindi is very comedic; her story about blood caked on the long ash-blond eyelashes of the boyfriend is very tragic.
We get up to hi-jinks. Once, we put a flyer on the door of the Floor bathroom which said “Closed for Poop Inventory.” The flyer looked so official that a couple girls were afraid to enter and held their pee for an hour before the nurses found out.
Since all of us Gastro kids must return to this hospital every year at the same time, we know half the children already when we arrive. Some children even like going to the hospital; to them, it is like a sleep-away camp. You can steal kids’ pillows while they sit through quarter-assed classes in the School Room, and draw on kids’ faces with toothpaste in the middle of the night while they sleep, and your parents are not on your case about weeding the vegetable garden or babysitting your little brothers.
One young girl named Zhenya spent at least three springs with me in this hospital. Zhenya would come by train from a distant whistle-stop town. She was one of those kids who never got visited because their weary parents had to stay home to attend to the cow and the pigs, the potato fields and making ends meet.
One evening –- the hospital is always lonelier and sadder in the evenings, when all the bile has been given away, and all the stories told, and the only thing to do is sit on the vomit-pink bedspreads and stare out the window at the black pines outside – one evening she said to me quietly, her dark eight-year-old eyes large and serious:
“All the kids who came with me got picked up and went home with their mamas already. I am the only fucking bitch left in this whole motherfucking place.”
My death shall meet me at the spatial and temporal intersection of the icy sidewalk, the gnarly split poplar trunk, the early December afternoon, the horn buttons on the coat of a portly stranger, a very negative Celsius, my best friend’s gleeful spirit and my goddamn slippery heels.
Stop me now!
But my friend continues to push me and I keep sliding over the rind of sooty snow. Off the rind, off the orange of the Earth.
In my city, snow falls twice a year: one snowfall in October, one in May. In October, it falls two centimeters deep and immediately forms a gray crust. We have a lot of people here; and the people do not drive, they walk; they take the sidewalk to the store, the daycare, the bus stop; they trample and trample over the snow; in just one day, the sidewalks are fit for skating.
People slip, trip and fall. They break their arms, hips and collarbones. In winter, fractures are the leading cause for emergency room visits, briefly but overwhelmingly eclipsed by the Happy-New-Year alcohol poisoning around January 1st.
I am skating home from school.
She keeps pushing me in the back for blocks onward. I keep slipping and sliding, missing the trees narrowly, tumbling into people’s scratchy coats. I am such fun for my so-called best friend, me in my shit winter boots.
The winter boots I have this year look like winter boots enough; they are tall, black and leather-like. However, they don’t work as winter boots. My boots were made by Private Entrepreneurs, that is, by people who got a permit to make footwear right in their little hole-in-the-wall store. It’s a good thing the government allowed Private Enterprise: there are shoes to buy now. The shoes are awful, which is a bad thing.
My winter boots have zippers which do not zip. They have cruddy thin fake fur lining. The black paint has started coming off the boots they day we bought them, revealing something strangely and off-puttingly pink underneath.
But the worst thing is the soles. They slide around like they are made of glass.
I am the Cinderella of the perestroika age.
All Soviet girls are.
Our good fairies started enterprising as soon as private enterprise became legal. They make shirts which say something vaguely English, like CRUISING TO MOREA, shoes cobbled together from fish scales and snot, and jeans with unfinished seams, faux-stonewashed in boiling cauldrons of aniline dyes. From our good fairies, my mother bought me a jacket made from mattress ticking, a pair of white pleather kitten-heels sprouting dried glue, and these blasted winter boots.
I sewed my skirt and my satchel myself. My winter coat is from a consignment store. Fourteen years old, and I have never had a new winter coat.
My past coats and hats are a shabby motley crew; they are a bunch of bleary-eyed bums lining up at the soup kitchen on a dim December morning in a city of abandoned hopes.
Exhibit A: we have a blue plaid coat from a consignment store. All colors have bled from it long ago; it is abjectly uncleanable. The fake fur trim around the hood is matted into knots and looks like the fur trim around a wolf’s anus.
Exhibit B: it’s a hand-me-down sheepskin coat. It is not shearling. It is a solid inflexible tube of warm, thick and heavy black sheep, with two smaller inflexible tubes of sheep as sleeves. When I wear it, I cannot move my arms, bend or sit down.
And here, we have a hat that my mother made for me, her lack of millinery experience notwithstanding, from an old red fox that used to be a collar on her coat, a piece of gray fake fur that’d been lying around for ages, and some gray polyester fabric that had already served two terms as lining. She tried to make it as nice as she could. The most worn parts of the fox ended up in the back of the hat — again, looking like an animal’s behind. My schoolmates tease me about the hat. They say: here comes Genghis!
And here –- finally — we have the first coat that I ever got new. I got it when I was eighteen. It is made of a million tiny pieces of dyed rabbit fur patched together. Every evening, like all other Cinderellas who bought the same coat at the Chinese market, I sit down with a thick needle and black thread to fix the holes that have fissured the coat during the day. Most holes occur under arms. After a month of darning, it becomes impossible to move arms in this coat: the underarm sections have shrunk, and are covered in welts and seams like the skin of a burn victim.
Winter provides for a lot of sewing up and patching up: we have to wear so many layers daily, and the garments are so few, that they get worn through and through. Socks and tights turn particularly holey. We sew and fix through the dark evenings, sitting by Grandma’s table lamp with a bendy neck which provides the best light in our thrifty bleak forty-watt house.
But, besides all this tweedy drab darning, winter brings shimmer, glitter and glitz.
I wake up in the morning, which looks exactly like night, and I look at the orange streetlights through the winter-frosted glass. The egret plumes and peacock tails of frost are beaded with diamante stars that promise biting cold. Outside, the air will stop your breath and plug your throat, unless you put two layers of scarf over your lips.
I see the most beautiful things in winter.
In first grade, as a holiday treat, our class is taken to the theater for a matinee. The show starts out as a regular old play with people talking in pretend voices. Then, the lights go down and Vasilisa the Beautiful twirls onto the stage in a single stunning beam. Her gown shines on, crazy diamond, throwing splashes of pale green, pale pink, pale champagne shimmer into the blackness as she moves her billowy blinding fish-scale sleeves around and around to twinkling music.
I am spellbound.
On an inky-blue afternoon, I slowly walk home from my extended day at school. I drag my feet in my round-soled felt boots, lingering by the windows of every grocery store. The stores are decorated for the New Year’s. There are snowflakes cut out of reused candy foil by the ladies of the dairy counter; there is unsafe but pretty glitter dust made from smashed glass ornaments by the cashier. There is silver and gold tinsel craftily suspended from the ceiling: the meat counter lady wraps one end of the tinsel thread in cotton wool, wets the cotton wool in a small bowl of water, and throws it at the ceiling where it catches on the rough lime paint with a splop.
I shuffle past the do-it-yourself New Year glories of the green grocery and the carpet store. I reach the corner with the pastry kiosk and the newspaper kiosk. In my pocket, there is twenty two kopecks worth of illegal tender. I am supposed to spend this money on the school lunch, not on a tart with a dollop of brown jam and a swirl of sugar-frosted pink meringue atop a shortbread rosette.
I’ll just make sure to wipe my face thoroughly after.
Lick, lick. I quickly scan the boring window of the newspaper kiosk for traces of rare and elusive butterfly-shaped hair barrettes. As expected, there are none. But what is this?
Between two incomprehensible smudgy Pravdas, there is a glossy magazine with a most well-put-together woman on the cover. And foreign letters! Kobieta i Życie, whatever that may mean.
The woman’s eyes are peridot-green, translucent, rimmed in fuzzy black eyelashes curling up like a doll’s.
The woman’s lips are frosted pink. Girls in our school make their own frosted pink lipstick by melting red lipstick, silver powder paint and petroleum jelly in small aluminum pots over low heat. But it never comes out quite so pink, so silvery, so reflective, so rich.
And the most mesmerizing thing is the woman’s blouse. It is made of tight sheer black lace shot through with silver thread. I have never seen fabric this wondrous! Oh I want to grow up her!
I am spellbound.
I will, I will be beautiful, if only once or twice.
My mother, my grandmother, all the women I know talk about the beautiful clothes they had, or could have had, with wistfulness and sensuality. Talking about clothes is a spoken word genre. It has its own vocabulary of words and gestures: a yoke (hands smoothly circumscribe the bosom), a Mandarin collar (thumbs and forefingers of both hands gently circumnavigate the neck), an A-line skirt (palms sail away from the waist in opposite directions).
My maternal grandmother makes me at least one outfit a year. Usually, it is cut from an old flowery dress from the back of her pithy closet. She loves to talk clothes. Her favorite story is about the bolt of Chinese brocade her brother-in-law once brought home as a war trophy from Harbin.
“Silky, navy blue, with flowers and birds!” she says dreamily as I rifle through her button box. “My sister made a Sunday-go-to-town dress out of it, with a Mandarin collar (fingers around the neck) and tiny shell buttons down the front (a swift arpeggio down the center of the breastbone).”
I find a round diamante button in her button box. The button marries a big and proud brassy button off a Navy uniform.
And she says, a sequined non-sequitur: “And I used to have such small and pretty ears, like shells!”
Her brother-in-law brought two bolts of fabric from China: the blue brocade and a malachite-green cotton velvet with glued-on golden dots made of real metal foil.
The velvet was made into a gown for my grandmother, and then it became a fancy floor-length skirt for my mother. While I am little enough to fit inside, I go visit the skirt in the armoire. I sit under its dark and murky softness and look at its mysterious constellations. Stella, estrella, nebula.
When I am in second grade, my mother uses the skirt to make a New Year’s costume for me. I am the Mistress of Copper Mountain. The skirt begins under my arms and flows well into the floor.
It is very important for a little girl to be able to twirl in a proper wide swirl of a sweeping skirt, and if the skirt throws off tiny beams of light, then all the better.
The Mistress of Copper Mountain is a fairy story by Pavel Bazhov. The Mistress is a spirit of the mountain, able to turn into a green lizard. She is masterful of many enchantments; those who work the rock in the Ural Mountains to mine gems, copper and malachite should be wary of meeting her, for she can show them her best chambers, walls upon walls of lapis lazuli studded with diamonds –- or, she can kill them, banish them, make them lose their minds. Worse, she can fall in love with them and want to keep them under her crimson ceilings forever. She gives and she takes away.
What power of beauty upon men.
I have a book of stories by Pavel Bazhov. They are written in dialect but, as a child, I do not know this. I think they are written in a magical language, which is both like Russian and unlike Russian, which is understandable and not, which has just enough of here to be penetrable, and a lot of the beyond.
My favorite Bazhov story is Little Silver Hoof.
A little girl stays in a hunting cabin in the woods all winter. No parents: a Cinderella. She stays with a kindly old man who is not related to her and is nearly always away. Her one steady companion is a kitten who grows into a big honking feline brute by the end of the winter. The old man gathers wood before going off hunting. There is enough fire in the cabin to warm the tiny seven-year-old bones of the peasant girl. She has soot on her cheeks, sweat in her hair, and uncomfortable scratchy hand-me-down clothes.
The sun goes down early in winter; her only light and warmth are the embers in the stove and the purring of the cat.
The old man tells the girl about Little Silver Hoof, a small magical deer with one magical silver hoof. When the deer stamps the ground with his hoof once, a gem appears; twice, two gems; and when the deer gets excited and paws the ground over and over, he makes a veritable stampede of gems. Red, pink, blue, white, green, purple. Shiny, sparkly, pretty, precious gems.
She is spellbound.
She starts looking for Little Silver Hoof. Nothing beautiful happens: the cabin stands drab, the ashes gray, the snow boring and the woods woody.
One night, she sees Little Silver Hoof briefly. Before anything beautiful happens, he runs away, scared.
Worse, the cat runs away and gets lost.
Lonely, resolute, the girl puts on her shawl, fits her skis over her round-soled felt boots, and off she is into the big beyond, to look for her cat.
She finds her cat and Little Silver Hoof playing together in the snow, nodding at each other as if in conversation.
Little Silver Hoof runs around the cabin and stamps the ground here and there; gems fall away, excitedly gleaming, from under his hoof. Then, he runs onto the roof of the cabin and starts to paw it in earnest. The cabin is covered in an avalanche of gems, it is piled under fireworks and, as it all happens on a moonlit night in snow-covered woods, the spectacle is all the more spectacular.
The little girl and the old man salvage a few handfuls of the precious stones and take them to the cabin. These few rocks will remain material. In the morning, the deer, the cat and the bounteous glorious riches outside are gone forever.
Years go by, and the old cabin is no more. Time layers itself upon time, dirt layers itself upon dirt – but still.
If you come to that place and dig around, you can still find them: vivid green, refractive, precious and, as the Russian description goes, clear as a tear.
We have sacks upon sacks upon sacks of cabbage sitting on the pus-brown linoleum floor. My father drags the crude hemp sacks in through the double entrance doors. His mustache is frosty. Frothy drafts slither around his feet, snaking into the apartment from the cold stairwell.
The green cabbage heads bulging out of the drab sacks are large, firm, heavy and well-developed.
There will be cabbage cores aplenty.
I think cabbage cores are the single best thing to eat in the world. Among the shortlisted are green bananas from Vietnam, which come available every February or so, and frozen pineapple. I’ve only eaten it once or twice; it is as freaky, unreliable and little-understood a food as manna from the sky. Cabbage cores, however, come every fall without fail or change, and are always plentiful and crunchy.
The stinky fermenting barrel has been soaking in the bathtub for two days. We’ve had to crawl around the barrels to squat and crouch under the faucet to do out nightly ablutions. The barrel is made of wood planks banded with strips of rusty metal; dark, wet, tall as I am, it reeks to high heaven. We use it only for the sour cabbage, and it fits enough cabbage to last our family of five from October to the next October.
Sour cabbage is one of the reliable food sources, like potatoes that come in earth-leaking sacks from the fields we keep, like raspberry, blackcurrant and gooseberry jam that is made over the summer and stored in jars upon jars upon jars upon jars, this year’s batch gooey, last year’s batch crystallized into hoary-white sugary solids.
We have jars upon jars of pickled cucumbers and tomatoes, some red, some green, a cellar full of carrots, beets and black winter radishes stored in sand; those are the things we grow ourselves, and they are always there. We can always come back to the cellar and the sour cabbage barrel and get more. Unlike the fickle fruit, meat and dairy, our garden food stays by our side, a faithful spouse. We barricade ourselves in glass jars against whatever may happen.
Autumn means food. Autumn is made of food.
Sour cabbage making occupies an entire weekend, and the entire kitchen and hallway. There are vegetables lying around the floor, ready to be processed; more are being processed and done being processed. Our father is in charge of soaking the barrel, sharpening the huge sauerkraut shredder blade, bringing in the cabbages, carrots and bags of salt, getting the remaining equipment ready, and shredding the cabbage into the barrel. The shredding takes a whole day, with meal breaks. Our father stands over the barrel running cabbage heads methodically against the sharp blade, his arms sinewy, a look of concentration on his face.
Us girls’ job is to do the carrots.
Our house is made of food and rules.
The carrots come with rules. We may not use, or even own, a carrot peeler. Carrot peelers are fancy, says our father, and our father resents fancy. Therefore, we are not fancy, ever, if we know what is good for us.
We peel carrots with knives instead. Knives are not fancy. We peel endless carrots with knives and shred them into metal tubs and washbasins on small handheld graters. The shredded orange pulp colors our hands yellow, and they remain yellow for days afterward. The carrot pulp goes in the barrel, and we make more, more, more. Carrots go on for the whole day, too.
Some people add apples or berries to their cabbage. Now, that is despicably fancy. Our father wonders who those people think they are. We never add anything to ours: it’s just cabbage, carrots, salt. Stir it with a long slimy wooden pole; pierce the surface while it cooks; let the stink out while it burbles. Our sour cabbage is the most correct cabbage in the world.
Other people do stupid things; we are not to do them. We are never to make pickles with vinegar. We are never to simmer beets in butter before we put them in our borscht. Ha! Those fancy people who do it – who do they think they are?
We are not to cut potatoes on a cutting board. We are all taught how to do it holding potatoes in one hand, knife in the other. People cutting potatoes on cutting boards – laughable!
The right way to sweep the kitchen floor is toward the center. We may never shuffle our feet when walking. We may never stand in the doorway, especially resting our palms on the door frame. We may never make little pigs out of boiled eggs by giving them little carrot ears. We may never cut bread slices into two lengthwise, only across. The worst way to cut bread is to cut into hateful fancy triangles.
Who do those people think they are?
Your triangle bread may get thrown out, just you watch.
When we eat soup, we may not have anything – cabbage leaves, bits and pieces – hanging over the rim of the bowl. We may not bury butter in hot porridge: it has to stay on the top and melt on the top. At dinner, we may not be caught glancing at our father’s newspaper.
if we do, we may get thrown out of the family dinner.
Ours is the most correct household in the world.
So, we peel and shred the endless annoying small slippery orange carrots correctly. Shredding carrots is women’s work; shredding cabbage is men’s work; this is the correct way of things.
The cabbage takes a few days to cook. It sits in the kitchen corner and makes noises and smells. In another kitchen corner, we have a huge green glass bottle, which had been previously discarded from some chemical lab; in the bottle, last year’s preserves and water are being fermented into berry wine. The wine makes noise. Air bubbles go through a rubber tube into a small clear bottle filled with water.
We have a fridge inside the kitchen wall. It is not electrical. It is just a niche in the wall that stays cold in the winter. The house was built by Japanese POWs in the ’40s, and the stone walls are a meter thick. Once the cabbage is done getting sour, some of it will go in jars to be stored in the wall fridge. The rest of it will be stored frozen solid in the shed outside. When my father goes outside in the winter to get some cabbage, he does not scoop it out; he mines it out, with tools, by the sweat of his brow. He brings it home in a solid block of ice.
Some people store their sour cabbage on the balcony. We don’t have a balcony, but even if we did, we would have pried it off the wall and thrown it down, because balconies are ridiculous and so are the people who own them. Ha!
My mother peels cabbage cores for me to eat; I can put away quite a few in one sitting. I like things that go crunch: cabbage, carrots, turnips, radishes. We don’t get a lot of apples, but we do get all the crab-apples we want. We just have to wait till fall comes and night temperatures dip below the mark where we start to get colds from going outside without a hat on.
When the night temperatures are at that mark, your mother bundles you up in scarves, coats, mittens, hats, itchy scratchy undergarments, lest you get the Interminable Snot, which could stay with you and your poor mother till next May. Then, you mother would have to drag you to the pediatrician in search of a magical cure, despite her own resigned knowledge that the doctor would prescribe the same cough syrup she always prescribes, the same syrup you get from the same spoon three times a day every November, the month of the Interminable Snot.
Our Interminable Snot is our mothers’ interminable shame.
Our mothers have so many opportunities to feel shame and to be shamed. If your child is sick, the doctor might scold you for not following the treatment plan; the neighbors and the old ladies on the bench by the front door might scold you for letting your child run around hatless eating filthy crab-apples while you, the negligent mother, are off gallivanting; your boss at work might scold you for taking too many sick leaves; your own mother might scold you for not doing the mustard foot baths for your child correctly, and for wrong techniques of child rearing; your husband might scold you for letting the kids run around wild and shuffle their feet with abandon, which causes them to get holes in their shoes, which causes them to get their feet wet, which causes them to get the Interminable Snot, which is not even really an illness, so why are you making such a big deal of it, it’s ridiculous – ha!
If you are to feel like a decent mother, you cannot let your child get sick, wet her bed, have bad handwriting, be left-handed, gain less weight than the chart in the clinic says she should, or enjoy breast feedings on demand when the Polyclinic chart clearly says: nurse every three and a half hours on the dot! You cannot let your child go to school with hair not brushed properly, or tights wrinkling around the knees. You cannot let your child draw margins in her copybook in blue pen when the teacher clearly requires green, or make the margins three centimeters wide when the teacher clearly said two. You cannot have her go to school with red ribbons in her braids when the school clearly said brown or black. You cannot have your child go to school with an eighteen-sheet copybook in her bag when the teacher clearly said – twelve!
Our world is made of rules. It is the most correct world in the world.
Mother! Make sure your child is up to everyone’s standards. Spank her if her cursive letters start slanting left. Bathe her in hot mustard water when she gets colds. Don’t let her run screaming around your disapproving husband. Wash, train and insulate your child!
When the temperatures dip below the mother-insulate-your-child mark, the crab-apples become frostbitten and edible to humans. Soft, sour and squishy, they are covered in black soot; our city has a coal power plant, a machine-building plant, a textile factory, a brick factory, a sheepskin processing factory, and many other things that throw up black bile into the sky and cover freshly fallen snow overnight with a dusting of black pepper.
The soot never deters the kids from eating the blackened crab-apples. From September to November, kids hang in clusters from crab-apple trees. Their school bags litter the lawns underneath. Every day, around two p.m., when school is finally out, the crab-apple alleys and crab-apple groves around the Lenin Square suffer an infestation of filthy-faced kids calling out to each other like birds from atop the trees, laughing, gorging on the source of vitamin C as faithful as the sour cabbage that their parents are making at home en masse.
In their backpacks, the kids each have two twelve-sheet copybooks for math and two twelve-sheet copybooks for writing, two pencils, one pen with green ink, one pen with blue ink, one wooden ruler, one gray eraser, three tetanus shots, a bouquet of dahlias for each September 1st, five breast feedings a day, none for the night, two brown-ribboned braids, one pair of gym shoes, a white top, a dark bottom, one light spanking a week on the average, one daily radio program for Young Pioneers for breakfast, and one Interminable Snot.
At home, their parents have seven bushels of cabbage per October per household, one less room in the apartment than they minimally need, one light spanking a week on the average, a two-bit piece of land on which to grow dahlias for each September 1st, one school uniform per child per year, always perilously close to being too small, one stupid boss and three useless meetings per month per workplace, five days before the payday and the money is all gone, and a lot more Interminable Snot than they ever wanted.