Try living in Russia

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© Sasha Krugosvetov, 2020

© Josephine von Zitzewitz: the English translation, 2020

© Maxim Sviridenkov: the cover design and the book description on the back cover, 2020; The paintings used in the cover design are Boris Kustodiev's «Bolshevik» (1920) and «Shrovetide» (1916)

© International Union of Writers, 2020

Sasha Krugosvetov

Sasha Krugosvetov is the pen name of Lev Lapkin, a Russian writer and scientist. Born in 1941, he worked in science research and began to write fiction in the early 2010s. For his books, he was awarded several prizes at the Russian-based International Science Fiction and Fantasy Convention, «RosCon» (including 2014 Alisa Award for the best children's fantasy book, 2015 Silver RosCon Award for the best short story book and 2019 Gold RosCon Award for the best novel), the International Adam Mickiewicz Medal (Moscow/Warsaw, 2015) and other prestigious Russian literary awards. His novel, «Dado Island: The Superstitious Democracy» was translated into

Blessed is he who lived
In the world at its fateful hour
He was called by the gods themselves
To join them at the feast.
Fyodor Tyutchev


I've been living in Russia for a hundred years. Since 1913. Although I was born much later.

A hundred years ago my father lived at the edge of Orenburg, a small provincial town in tsarist Russia. Grandfather Mendel, a pious Jewish tailor, had a large family to support. He had five children from his first marriage, three boys and two girls. My father was the middle child, the third. He was right in the middle, with one older and one younger brother and sister each. After the death of my grandmother, whom I never met, my grandfather married a young peasant woman. My parents, uncles and aunts called her Auntie Musya. Auntie Musya bore Mendel a daughter. My father grew up like a selfseeding plant in the steppe. Not very tall, well-built, muscular, opinionated. The winds of the times tried to bend and break him, but he drew himself up and grew strong. Nearby was the Ural River. He would go fishing and swim tirelessly. In the vicinity there were Cossack villages. The boys from these villages would lie in wait for the Jewish kid to teach that infidel a lesson or two about life. He apprehended his offenders one by one and paid them back in kind. The adults were more benevolent. Many had their uniforms made by his father. The family might by yids, but they could be good people nonetheless. Look, they would say, how Yashka vaults his horse. He was able to jump off at a full gallop, touch the earth with his feet and jump back into the saddle with his backside facing forward. And then sit up straight. It's hard for me to imagine what life was like in my grandfather's family. I know that Mendel observed the Jewish feasts strictly. For Easter he would read the Torah, hiding the matzo on the chair under his bottom. The children would try to steal it. That was their custom. If a child managed to steal the matzo, he or she would receive a ransom for it. Grandfather pretended to be angry and did not allow anyone to get close, but somebody would inevitably manage to reach the matzo. Grandfather ostensibly failed to see that person. Did my father spend a lot of time at home? Did he master many of the patriarchal Jewish family customs? I don't know. He mastered neither the Law of Moses, nor the Jewish festivals, nor faith in his Jewish god, nor Yiddish, the second language of Jewish families in tsarist Russia. But for some reason he learned to sew a bit from his father. That I know for sure. There was a period after WWII during which we led a very modest life; I was a schoolboy and my father sewed me several pairs of trousers. His sewing was quite good, and he ironed the trousers exquisitely. And he taught me how to do it myself. I still know how to do it now. He also somehow managed to finish primary school. He finished his school education only after he'd been on civvy street for a bit. And I don't get how he managed to get out of his father's family with cut-glass Russian, no accent at all. And not a single foul word! My father, who lived through three wars… you would hear my uncles and aunts speak the same correct language. They were very simple people, with primary education and then secondary school. That they received a secondary education is entirely to the credit of the Soviet government, which offered opportunities to simple people regardless of their nationality. I never heard anyone in my family use the word «bum» or «piss», not even «take a leak», nothing of that kind, neither words nor jokes nor hints nor indecencies nor euphemisms. My father only ever spoke correct Russian. I can't figure out where he looked for it, how he filtered it out and mastered it in the draughts of the troubled and tragic twentieth century.

The Soviet Regime

My father was fourteen when the Civil War started. He ended up in the Red Army. They made him a mounted orderly. Now it came handy that he knew how to vault. He had a Red Army book that I have kept to this day. He had to fulfil difficult tasks and there were pursuits, too, but the lord spared this nimble, clever lad. Afterwards he worked in a factory. He studied. He took up singing. People kept pushing him, telling him that the opera was beckoning. My father had an amazing bass-baritone voice. «Neither sleep nor rest for the tortured soul. Night brings me no comfort, no forgetting. All that is past I experience again, alone in the silence of the night.» What a mix! Everything was in there – the revolution, the dictatorship of the proletariat, atheism, the accursed bourgeois culture. My father became a Soviet vydvizhenets, a low-ranking worker promoted to a leading role.[1] That's understandable and natural. He was of working class origin after all. What is a tailor? Not a peasant, not a landowner, not a general, and not a clerk either. That means he's a worker. My father finished school and found himself in a factory in Petrograd. Then he helped his own ageing father and his siblings to make their way there. How did they live back then? The huge flats that had belonged to members of the bourgeoisie were being cleared of their inhabitants. Rooms that were 30 or 40 square meters in size were partitioned off. Each room was then allocated to a large family. One single flat might consist of ten or even twenty such rooms. To the present day I remember the phantasmagoria of communal flats. I remember my grandfather's flat (or rather, his room in a communal flat) on Borovaya Street. I used to go there after the war, when my grandfather was still alive. What singing career? Forget the opera. The country was seething. There were so many things to do. My father joined the party. Lenin's summons. My father's belief was fierce; everything was now being done for the sake of the working people. As he was hardworking, organised, respectable, a Civil War veteran and a party member, he was quickly promoted to a leadership role. My father wanted to get an education and started a college degree. I'll ran ahead and say that his dream of higher education didn't materialise – there were the communist construction projects, special commissions by the party… «Tell me, Yakov, what is more important to you – college or your party card? You need to go where the party needs you.» The construction of Khibinogorsk. Apatity. Then came the Finnish War. And WWII was drawing near at full speed already. The trumpet kept calling. And then even the trumpet could no longer be heard. In its place came the roar of guns, explosions and friends dying; the everyday military labour that could end only in an early grave or the longawaited victory. But that was later. For now there was the dawn of the young Soviet regime, a happy time for a Jewish lad of modest origins. The fact that a host of atrocities had already been committed by that time, while many poisonous vipers were fighting under the carpet,[2] that the founders of the «radiant future» were embroiled in a long straggle to get even with each other, that by that moment the dark Eastern genius of the Kremlin had emerged fully-fledged and shown his insidious power… All this was so far away, so entirely incomprehensible to those who were the green shoots of the new Soviet land. The young vydvizhentsy did not reflect on all this; they neither saw nor understood. For them everything was simple. There it was, the bubbling, young ordinary life, so open, so naive, so selfless and honest. Work and turn the fairy tale into a true story. All paths are open to you. You are young and strong. Everything you do will turn out well. A wonderful young country. «We were born…»[3] What remained behind were years of destitution, humiliation, the Jewish pale. National inequality. Now there was no oppression. No religions. No nations. We are Soviet people. The party leads us, and Stalin is its leader. He is just like us. Simple and easy to understand. But also wise and far-sighted. Do we now have the right to judge those who were young, ardent, genuine, naive and inexperienced then? How many people in the West were taken with the new Russian idea of universal brotherhood! There it was – the city of the sun, about to be built. The Comintern (the Third International). Everybody was waiting for the worldwide proletarian revolution. The communist idea was popular all over the world. Take the French communist and writer Vaillant-Couturier. Or Henri Barbusse, who wrote «Joseph Stalin». «He was a genuine leader, a man whom the workers discussed, smiling with joy at the fact that he was both their comrade and their teacher; he was the father and older brother, really watching over all of us. You didn't know him but he knew you; he was thinking about you. No matter who you were, you were in need of precisely such a friend. And no matter who you are, the best elements of your fate were in the hands of this other person, who was also keeping watch on behalf of everybody, working; this man with the head of a scholar, the face of a worker and the clothes of a simple soldier.» When Henri Barbusse, the French writer, journalist and public figure, the laureate of the prestigious French Prix Goncourt, sang the praises of the Great Stalin, he wrote from the heart, wrote what he was thinking. So what do we expect of our inexperienced, simple-minded fathers?


The New Economic Policy and Khibinogorsk

My mother is from Odessa. My maternal grandfather was a huge, pure-bred, handsome blond man. His surname was Koch, let's face it, not a popular name during the war. Running ahead, I'll tell you that my mother didn't change her surname when she got married and that, as it turned out, hadn't been the best of decisions. There were three daughters and one son in the family. The children were well dressed, the girls all in ruches. My grandmother was a real character, the pillar of the household. There was nothing Jewish about that family apart from its origin. Neither language nor religion. I don't know why. Everybody spoke wonderful Russian, not even a Ukrainian accent. I can't tell you the reason for that either. My mother, Lyuba, was the middle daughter. The most accomplished one. The one everybody loved best was Galya, the youngest, who was considered the most beautiful. When I began to understand certain things, this didn't seem obvious to me at all – my mother is significantly more interesting than Galya, perhaps because her entire character was more animated. The oldest daughter, Dora, who was also the oldest child, was, naturally, the first one, and was loved out of habit and inertia. Dora was unlucky; she was pitied, watched over and protected. Semyon, the son, my uncle, was tall as his father, clumsy, bashful, with no real predisposition for any one thing, although he was a good student and the only one in our family to gain a degree in engineering. Nobody paid attention to my mother in her father's house – she was clever, joyful, resilient, independent, lively, sociable, balanced, pretty, she would make her way regardless. During the evacuation in the war, when my grandfather was gone already… The husbands of her daughters were at the front. My grandmother remained behind with three daughters and three grandchildren… Everything fell onto her shoulders, which were no longer young. Grandmother suffered from high blood pressure; the high mountains of the Urals were not for her. Poor grandmother. In the evening the whole family was sitting at the table, she was laughing, joking… and suddenly it all came to an end in front of her daughters. Life was cut short in flight. Her speech faltered, she only managed to say one thing: «Lyuba, look after Dora and Galya.» And then she was gone. She had managed to say the most important thing. She knew that she could count on Lyuba for anything. But that will come later. For the time being all was well in the family of my grandparents. The children were going to school. The country was ruled by the New Economic Policy – NEP Grandfather had his own «business». A tragic story that is comic at the same time. Grandfather's business partner was a sprightly young lad. He used to come to the house frequently, spending time in the company of the three marriageable young ladies. Perhaps they weren't the most beautiful, but they were pure, neat and intelligent. A real pleasure. He managed to turn the oldest girl's head, promising to marry her and seducing her on the sly. Then he took the cash register and that was the last we saw of him. Gone. The oldest daughter in tears and with a broken heart. The business bust. The disgrace to be seen by the whole of Odessa. Perhaps for this reason, perhaps for another, the family scraped together the last of their money and left for Petrograd. That was the script of providence. At first they lived in a communal flat on Mokhovaya Street, then on the Old Nevsky Prospekt. How they made ends meet is hard to say. The children were grown, the daughters were going to school, the son was working already. The inconsolable girl who'd been «jilted and abandoned» was married off upon arrival. The parents found an unprepossessing Jew, kindhearted, plump and no longer young. He had an amazing instinct for business, a characteristic that is common among the people of the Book. He was the commercial director of a furniture factory and rather well-off for by the standards of those dark times. He was glad to be married. How they made Dora agree I don't know. Perhaps she understood that such a marriage was necessary in order to solve the family's financial problems. She never looked happy. I never saw her smile. But she was a good wife. She was faithful and maintained her family as best she could. The daughter she had was the first granddaughter in a large family and everyone's darling. But with her husband she was strict. This tradition to keep one's husband under the thumb was subsequently passed down to every single woman in Auntie Dora's lineage.

My grandfather was soon arrested by the secret police. They were arresting all the NEP-men and confiscating their gold. And he, the unsuccessful NEP-man, was arrested, too. He, the NEP-man who had had his «business» stolen, together with his money and the honour of his elder daughter. What did that matter to those guys? Give it to us here and now! Not long ago I visited the Solovetsky Islands. I walked around and thought about where my grandfather might have been. Where was he locked up, in which building? My mother abandoned her studies. She made the rounds of the official channels, travelling to Odessa and, for some reason, to Rostov-on-the-Don. She collected many certificates, went to different offices, trying to prove that they had ceased being bourgeois NEP-men long ago and were now honest members of the working class. I don't know whether it was her efforts that did it or whether the screws at that point still hadn't totally lost their mind from the smell of blood. Anyway, my grandfather returned home. Why did they forgive him, why did they leave him alive? Perhaps the screws had made a mistake. I know that many screws of the first wave were shot on the Solovetsky Islands. Perhaps because they sometimes released somebody's grandmothers and – fathers. Without conforming to the important principles of supreme proletarian justice.

However, the good times didn't last long in the old communal flat on Nevsky Prospekt. The problem was that my grandfather had been repeatedly put through the «steam room» when he was on the Solovetsky Islands. Narrow benches were placed into a small room and the prisoners were made to sit astride these benches, very close together, belly to back. Then they'd fill the room with steam. To make the prisoners suffer. To make them realise that they had to surrender what they had unrighteously amassed to the country of the working people. My grandfather returned from the Solovetsky Islands suffering from severe asthma. He died shortly afterwards.

My mother was the next candidate for marriage. We've kept a portrait of hers, drawn in red sangina pencil by an unnamed suitor who had made, as they say, a spectacular career. In the family album there is the portrait of an elegant man with a violin, who apparently had also shown interest in my dear mother before she got married. But for some reason she married my father. He was of very modest means, not very educated, not at all handsome and eight years her senior. Perhaps my mother, wise even in her youth and frightened by the unpredictable turns and harsh reality of the dictatorship of the proletariat, consciously chose a successful and, in those years, fairly influential Soviet riser-through-the-ranks. Or perhaps she had discerned his generous nature, the strength and courage of his character, and his particular masculine type. It's hard for me to tell. The photographs from this time, taken when I wasn't yet born, during my parents' holidays in the Crimea, in the Caucasus, among the snowdrifts of Khibinogorsk where my father was sent on party orders, show an absolutely happy couple. Against the backdrop of glittering snow my father, torso naked, pushes his treasure in a huge wheelbarrow – my mother, clad in a thin crepe-de-chine dress. Life was smiling at them. This was a couple, a family, a union of two complex individuals who faced a very difficult fate. Their relationship, open, kind, selfless and devoted during happy moments as well as life's harsh trials, has been and will remain to me the exemplary, ideal relationship between a man and a woman.

The Northern Caucasus

The Soviet regime provided many people with the opportunity to receive a previously inaccessible higher education. Samuil graduated from medical school in the 1920s and left his native Rostov-on-the-Don on an assignment to the Northern Caucasus. He worked in hospitals and sanatoriums in Sernovodsk, Zheleznovodsk, and Piatigorsk. The clan from Rostov dreamt that the boy might finally settle down and marry a nice Jewish girl. Samuil had his own ideas regarding life. Medicine came first. Medicine was his calling. Behind the plain exterior there was a strong, resolute character. He was a good doctor, organised, knowledgeable and capable of holding his own when it came to treating a patient. He had instinct and intuition. And, most importantly, he loved his patients. That's why he could intuit what they felt. That's why he became a good doctor. And an excellent administrator. He was head of several sanatoriums, one after the other. With regard to having a Jewish wife – no, please don't start. I know what these wives are like. They sleep until midday, and around 2pm they utter the first words: «Syoma, everything hurts!» Samuil loved Tonya Fedotova, who came from an educated, well-to-do intelligentsia family. Every conceivable ethnicity was mixed into this family: there were Russian roots, Terek Cossack influence, Georgian blood and possibly a drop of Turkish blood, too. Tonya was the younger of two sisters. She was not as beautiful as the elder sister, Tanya. But my god, what a woman she was. Delicate and feminine. Slim, well-proportioned, with the Madonna's sad face. Just like Vera Kholodnaya. She played the piano and sang in a quiet voice, kept a diary and wrote poetry. Syoma knew exactly what he needed from life. How could he not have fallen in love with Antonina? If there is a young man among the readers of this sketch, listen to your older comrade. If you happen to meet a woman with a quiet voice who is not talkative and modestly averts her pensive eyes, concealed behind long lashes, don't dismiss her, don't walk past this rare stroke of luck. The strongest, most faithful, selfless and fervent female natures are hiding behind such lowly beauty, such quiet charm. It is them who bestow upon their chosen one the most passionate embraces and become his faithful support for life.

Samuil and Tonya got married. Tonya bore two sons, Vova and Misha, two years apart in age. The chief doctor was a well-respected man. His family received a flat with three rooms. Samuil gave one room to a woman without a family, a fellow doctor at his sanatorium. He had decided that two rooms were enough for his family. Antonina was very hospitable. The doors were always half open. The house was furnished with ascetic simplicity: hospital bunks, a wardrobe, table and chairs. No other furniture whatsoever. In their place a piano, a splendid library and many guests. Antonina, slow by nature, would get up at six in the morning, run to the market, then cook. She managed to feed everybody. Anyone could turn to her family and ask for help. Some insolent women came regularly, asking for money. And Antonina would slip them something. When she had no money, she would give them food, milk, eggs, everything she had. She was incapable of turning anybody away. Acquaintances and others who had come to the resort but didn't know her well would stay at the house. Everybody, apart from Samuil's relations. They couldn't forgive his choice of a wife. They still refused to recognise Antonina and her children. The children hardly knew their father's relatives. However, all their life the children entertained a very close relationship with the beautiful Tanya, Auntie Tanya. I'll charge ahead and tell you that Misha told Tanya things he wouldn't have told his own mother.


The boys were taught music and drawing. They were very capable children. Their school grades were excellent, and both had a gift for the exact sciences. The elder, Volodya, played the violin. He was a fine draftsman, able to create with a single stroke, a single line, the image of a person or outline a landscape. The younger brother, Mishka, played the piano. However, the boys weren't mollycoddled or kept indoors. Let's remember the atmosphere of a warm, southern resort town – the atmosphere of perennial feast. A host of holidaymakers, visitors from the large cities. An abundance of fruit. And an abundance of temptations. Just as all other local children, the boys ran wild in the street, made friends with the people from Caucasus, went to the mountains, climbed trees and collected mulberries. They grew up real tomboys. Once they were chasing each other and Vova slammed the door in Misha's face, bam! Now his brother had a huge conk where his nose was meant to be. And so Misha went through life with a broken, squashed nose. Another time Misha was running after Vova, threatening him with a hot iron, and when he caught up with him he pressed the iron against his bottom, and so Vova was left with the imprint of the iron for life. Antonina decided to get an education and enrolled at the Medical Institute. On the very first day of her course her neighbours told her in the evening that they had seen her dear boys walk along the cornice of the fifth floor. There could be no talk of lectures or study. Oh, it seems that Tonya's dreams of a degree, her dreams to raise her boys to become musicians, writers, artists or doctors, were all in vain. These dreams weren't meant to come true. The younger, Misha, turned out particularly sprightly. He was lively, always laughing and very kind, and as a result everybody loved him, his peers as well as the adults. And whether through constant exposure to the sun or by nature, he was not just sun-bronzed, but downright black. Black like some Indians. Mishka-the-Black, his friends would call him. And that nickname stayed with him to the end of his life. Misha loved to play billiard. He reckoned that he had to know how to do all things better than the others. Sometimes, professional billiard players would come to the sanatorium. One of them became the boy's patron and trained him rather well. Before the outbreak of the war the short ten-year old boy was a very decent player already. Whenever someone came who wanted to play for money, some new artist on tour, Misha's billiard mentor would deploy his favourite trick. Not so quick, he would say. Why don't you first play the lad over there. People would quickly gather for their favourite spectacle. The «lad» would clamber onto a chair, as he couldn't reach the balls standing on the floor. And then he would tear the guest artist to shreds, to everyone's amusement. Yes, it didn't look as if Misha would become a pianist or writer. The country was troubled. Sometimes there was trouble in this god-protected house, too. The terrible year 1937 began to ramble and roar and then exploded in claps of thunder. «Oh how I want to fly away, unseen by anyone, fly off after a ray of light and not exist at all», wrote Mandel'shtam. We won't manage to fly away, Osip Emil'evich, we won't manage to hide or turn into an invisible ray. The local NKVD was given an order; they had to uncover and arrest several thousand hidden enemies of the people. A number of them were to be executed, the other part to be sent to the GULAG. Committees of three NKVD-members were formed, arrests prepared. Lists were compiled of Trotskyites, anti-party groups, kulaks, accomplices of the White Army, spies, war specialists involved in subversive acts, saboteurs, other alien elements. Let's have a heart-to-heart with them, they will confirm everything. Sernovodsk is a small town, everybody knew at whose house the black police car would call next during the night. In the chief doctor's house they were expecting visitors, too. The family was saved by the Chechens. They loved Samuil and decided to help. Old men in burkas came and sat down in the sanatorium's courtyard. «Samuil, don't go home. Stay here for a bit. We've told your family. They won't worry. We'll see what happens.» Every child in town knew about the Chechens in the sanatorium. For the NKVD this was an unexpected turn. There could be unforeseen disturbances. They'd get a rap on the knuckles in Moscow for this. To hell with that Samuil. May he live and work for the good of the proletarian state. He's a good doctor, isn't her? Well, let him work then. We'll manage without including him in our report. Perhaps it really happened like that. Perhaps the Chechens simply hid the chief doctor, his wife and children for a while. Whatever happened, the storm passed by Samuil and his family. But for how long? Hard to predict how the events would have unfolded further. A huge, cruel, merciless war appeared at the threshold, a war that jumbled everyone and everything and destroyed all plans to build a «peaceful» life in the land of the Soviets. During the war, a torrent of casualties flooded from the frontline into the North Caucasus. The sanatorium was transformed into a war hospital. Samuil, the sanatorium's chief doctor, became head of the hospital. His non-proletarian origin didn't stand in the way of his appointment.

1A vydvizhenets was a young person with politically correct background and past who was recommended by the communist party for a leadership role in the national economy.
2Cf. the remark that Russian politics resembles «dogs fighting under a carpet», attributed to Winston Churchill.
3The first words of the official hymn of the Soviet Air Force: «We were born to turn the fairy take into a true story, to overcome space and expanse».
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