My Russian Life
It’s incredibly hard to write your own bio. A bit like you’ve been buried and then asked to give your own eulogy. It’s even harder to write about yourself when you haven’t done anything incredible with your life, like led a revolution, discovered an obscure physics law, or gone to the Moon. I have never been to the Moon. To be honest, I never even wanted to be an astronaut. Not even in kindergarten when all the other kids wanted to be the astronauts. If anyone remembers me when I was five years old, and somehow you heard that I wanted to be an astronaut – I swear that I said it only because everyone else was saying it. I wanted to be Vasilisa the Beautiful and to live in a tall tower guarded by a dragon. I hoped the dragon would eat the Prince who would eventually come to save me, because I was never really impressed by the Prince as a character.
In high school, my perspective changed. I decided that I would be either a hairdresser or a truck driver. I don’t remember why I wanted to be a hairdresser. However, I remember very clearly why I wanted to become a truck driver. First of all, truck drivers don’t work with people; they drive through the night, listen to the radio and don’t talk to anyone. Secondly, you don’t really have to save money for a car: why would you need a Fiat when you have a MAZ? Lastly, you work for 12 hours and then you have two days off and you can do whatever you want with that time. I wanted to do whatever I wanted outside of the job. And outside of work, I wanted to be a famous writer.
It’s hard to explain now why I thought that the presence of my name in a seventh-grade literature book should be an absolute prerequisite to becoming a famous writer. However, I clearly remember that I wanted future generations to remember me as a classic author, alongside Mark Twain and Leo Tolstoy, and not as a “minor” writer, like Ivan Bunin or Mikhail Prishvin (who by the way doesn’t even have his picture on Wikipedia.)
When I told my mother (no, not about my dream of being a writer) that I wanted to be a truck driver, I honestly expected a huge scandal. However, my mother told me that I could be whatever I wanted, even a janitor, as soon as I finished a college degree.
The “story of me” started even before my birth. I was born for a reason. During the Communist era in Russia people couldn’t buy or sell their homes. The homes didn’t even belong to them. The government distributed the housing, six square meters per person. Now, my mother really wanted a three bedroom house, but the family was one person short of qualifying for a new flat. My mother was (and is) a very practical woman. She knew how to resolve the problem. This is how nine months later I was brought into the world. I can honestly say that the entire process of the conceiving to my birth was somewhat obscure. I didn’t even have a name until it was time to officially register me. My mother named me Irina because that was the name of the midwife who my mother liked. Sometimes I think that it could have been worse. Much worse.
I remember very little about my life in the three bedroom flat that my family moved to after my birth, except that my grandmother insisted on placing my potty in the corridor whenever the older kids came to visit my older brother. When his friends arrived I had to run into the bedroom holding the potty to my behind.
Maybe for that reason when I turned three, I started running away from home. I remember being picked up by the police and delivered back. I remember my father sitting in front of me and teaching me my name and home address. That’s pretty much all that I remember about my father.
Sometimes I wonder if my life would be any different if I was born into the family of a famous writer or an artist, or a professor. Would it be different if the reason for my birth wasn’t six square meters? I’m not sure what kind of reasons “normal” families have for bringing children into this world. Would it be different if the place of my birth were Moscow or New York?
I was born in Chelyabinsk.
When I moved to America, people often asked me (because of my thick accent) where I was from. Usually, when I said, “I am from Chelyabinsk” I had to explain further, that it’s a large industrial city where tanks and tractors are made. I saw that it didn’t impress anyone. So, I changed my story. I said, that it’s a secret city where the government conducts genetic experiments on people, and that I had to run away because I was selected for an experiment. Actually that’s partly true. Chelyabinsk for a long time was a secret city and no tourists where allowed there. However, it had nothing to do with the genetic medicine so much as the nuclear technology.
So, I was born in Chelyabinsk. I was born there but I hadn’t really lived in the city long enough to call it my own. I returned there often, but never for an extended period of time. I spent my life traveling between the northern parts of Russia and Siberia where I lived with my mother, who moved there with my stepfather. My stepfather was a sort of police officer.
Had I been born into a normal family, one which would dress me in pink dresses and take me to a zoo on the weekends, my life would have been too ordinary. I wouldn’t have anything to write about. I would never have lived in Pechora, where for three years in a row a trailer was my home, and where the winters started right after they ended. I was really lucky that way, because I am sure that not a single person who I know can say that they had to carry buckets of water daily to fill a barrel for cooking, drinking, washing, and heating.
If I had been born in Moscow to a “normal family”, I wouldn’t know for certain that the absence of a toilet in the house is worse than the absence of running water.
After living in Pechora, I always thought that it was unfair of my mother to mention Zoya Kosmodemyanskaya, a partisan who German troops tortured by walking her barefoot on the snow. I spent three years in the outhouse, with pants below my knees, in the -58F. If this is not heroic, I don’t know what is.
Worse to me, however, than the subzero outhouse was the birth of my younger brother. My mother believed that children strengthen family bonds. She hadn’t learned from previous experience – I was the living example of the opposite. From the day my brother was brought to the trailer, my stepfather, who until then was almost invisible, turned into a monster.
I know that I am not supposed to speak of my parents with disrespect, because they clothed me and fed me. And since I have no respect for my stepfather, I wanted to ignore him in my bio completely. I thought that it wouldn’t be fair not to mention him at all, since he was a huge influence on my development as a child.
When I tell my friends about my stepfather, they usually get really quiet and stone-faced. It’s considered impolite to call your stepfather an asshole. My stepfather was an asshole. There’s no better way to describe the man.
Some of my friends advised me not to include my stepfather in my bio. They suggested that I write only about nice things and beautiful moments. But if I did that I would have to start my bio from the time when I was 17 years old, when my family finally kicked me out of the house. If I did that I wouldn’t have a chance to talk about the Great Opposition, which lasted for 10 years, during which my mother either remained neutral to me or took the side of the enemy.
It all started when my grandmother sent me a gift for my birthday. It was a wrist watch she had found in the street one day. She had it repaired and sent the watch for my eighth birthday. I wore it for two days before my stepfather noticed it and ordered me to take it off. When I asked why (that morning I was sweeping the floor in my parents’ bedroom while my stepfather laid on the bed waiting for breakfast) he said,
“Are you questioning me, nasal mucus? I bought my first watch when I was 25 years old! You have not worked a day in your life! When I was your age I was head of a collective farm!”
I should have obeyed the order dutifully, following my mother’s wisdom that the “word is silver, but the silence is gold”. But I doubted that he was the head of a collective farm when he was eight years old. So I told him so.
My stepfather jumped from the bed and hung over me with all his height (he was a really tall man).
“You are a slut. Just like your mother! I found her on the street without underwear! I will send you both to Chelyabinsk on foot, on the freight train!”
I really wanted to know which it was: on foot or by train, but my mother came flying in to the bedroom. She told me to leave the bedroom and closed the door behind her.
During the next decade the monologs of my stepfather varied, but not much. The terminology stayed the same. Sometimes “slut” was replaced with “prostitute” but the freight train always persisted. I need to emphasize that the inclusion of my mother’s underwearlessness also continued. The monologs lasted from five minutes (while sober) to a couple of hours (when my stepfather was drunk) while the guilty side (me) remained in the middle of the room. He was drunk a lot.
When I talk with people from my past they ask me if my parents are well. My alternative parents (the ones in my imagination) live in Moscow. We often call each other and send each other imaginary greeting cards for birthdays and holidays. I don’t really know much about my real parents. I know only that they live in Chelyabinsk.
After three years in Pechora I was sent to Chelyabinsk, to live with my grandmother. To my surprise, I made the trip on a passenger train. The entire previous year I had been ill and my mother didn’t have a time for me – she was busy with the new baby.
My grandmother lived in a studio apartment, on the fourth floor of a five-story building. My older brother, my grandfather and two chickens also lived there. Later that year my grandmother cooked the chickens. She told me that they flew away from the balcony and now lived in the park.
I am sure most people think that it’s impossible to fit four people and two birds in one studio apartment. Well, it is possible.
My grandfather either slept or was absent from home. He usually woke up after the lunch, when I came from school, and yelled to my grandma,
My grandma would bring him chicken soup and a salad. He ate. Then he would walk to the bathroom wearing just underwear. My grandmother would yell at him,
“No shame in you, old fart! Put pants on, at least!”
My grandpa would return from the bathroom in a brown suit with the World War II medals covering his chest. He would shine his shoes and go the Victory park located nearby to “play cards”. My grandmother usually yelled before the door closed behind him,
“I know what cards you are playing there, alcoholic!”
Grandpa would return late in the evening and went straight to bed. My grandma would undress him and cover him with a blanket, saying under her breath,
“Drunk again, bustard!”
Only once I heard my grandpa replaying to her,
“It’s enough, grandma…”
My older brother would returned from the college in the evening. He would eat his dinner, do his pushups, change into jeans and go out with his friends. I had an unexplainable need for my older brother, but he ignored me most of the time. So one day I laid on the floor in the hallway, steadying my shoulder against the entrance door and my feet against the opposite wall.
“Take me with you, please”, I whined.
“Go ask grandma if you can come”, he said.
I jumped from the floor and ran into the kitchen, hearing the sound of the shutting door behind me.
Sometimes my brother stayed home. When he stayed home he usually soldered gadgets from parts he found in the radio bazaar. He made me a telescope that I set on the balcony. I watched the stars in the summer and the snowflakes in the winter.
My grandma went to bed early. She laid on the sofa-bed, in the clothes she wore all day, under an old blanket. I slept next to her.
“Tell me a story,” I would ask.
My grandma would be quiet for a long time and then she would say,
“A long time ago, in a place that no one even remembers anymore…”
She would stop and her eyes would close. I waited for a while and then would say,
“A frog lady lived?”
“See, you know everything yourself”, she would say. “Sleep now.”
But I didn’t go to sleep. I would get up and sneak into the hallway. I would climb on top of the dresser and lay there listening to plays on the radio. I still love them.
I know for a fact that no one ever considered me a retard, except for my seventh grade math teacher. However, I always knew that I had a really slow perception of the world. It’s like something would happen but the understanding of the situation would come to me much later. Like many years later. For example, I worked for a newspaper and the editor once invited me to his office after the workday, and we spent two hours drinking champagne and eating chocolate. I was proud that I was singled out from the entire team, and I imagined that I was pretty interesting to talk to. Only several years later I realized that his intent was probably different than just feeding me chocolate.
I don’t even remember why I started writing about it, because, really, I wanted to tell a story about being an orphan. My parents decided that it would be good experience for me to see how children without parents lived. Yes, I lived in an orphanage for about two years. I hated every second of being there. I hated it even more than my stepfather.
I had many reasons to hate it, some reasons I can explain and others I cannot. Let’s begin with the reasons that I can explain. I hated living in the same room with eight other girls. I liked privacy. There was no privacy at all. I found it very hard to meet new people and make new friends.
To be honest, I remember very little about my first room at the orphanage. In the first year I moved from room to room, trying to fit in and adjust. I was absolutely unable to become a part of the community. Two girls that I do remember where the older girls. One of them, Masha, was kind enough to pick nits from my hair that I somehow acquired. The other, Anna, a fine girl with blond hair, had sex with one of the high school guys (in the room where we slept).
We didn’t have showers. On weekends we went to the public sauna. To take my clothes off in front of the girls that I lived with was even more impossible than to live with them. The only girls who were not dragged into the sauna where those who had their periods. When I discovered this, I had my period every single weekend.
Still, the worst activity was kitchen duty. Kitchen duty was assigned to one room at a time and rotated accordingly. The people on duty usually got up at five in the morning and then spent the entire day (between school and homework) cleaning the dishes, peeling potatoes and serving the other kids. There was only one cook, an old Mongolian woman who didn’t have any hair. She usually covered her head with a scarf and painted on her brows with a black pencil. She probably was a good person, but she never spoke to anyone. It was said that she killed her husband and buried him in his basement.
I don’t remember what we did in the evenings. We didn’t have a TV set or a library. I think we spent most of the evenings sitting on our beds and telling each other stories. Most of which were not even true.
On the subject of social dysfunction, I want to say that I never had a best friend. There was no Facebook or Twitter at the time and all communications were conducted face to face. Or in my situation, not conducted at all. I was the one who played alone in the sand while everyone else played ball or hide-and-seek. Nevertheless, I always wanted to have a friend. I wanted it so much that once I even decided to obtain an imaginary friend. I even came up with a name for him. But he never appeared.
Growing up, I didn’t merely suffer from the absence of a best friend. Most of the time, I had no friends. I was the one who everyone ostracized and boycotted. This is exactly why I spent most of my time in the… library. Ha-ha! I wish I did. In reality I spent most of my time in the company of punks who considered going to the dump, finding empty aerosol bottles and then blowing them up in a fire to be pure fun.
My mother used to say, “tell me who is your friend and I will tell you who you are”. I didn’t think this was fair, because I didn’t really have a choice of who to call “my friend”. This is why when my only lifetime friend – Tanya Kamenskaya found out that I am writing my bio and asked to include her – I decided to do so.
Tanya, this part is about you.
I know that you are crazy. I knew it even before you told me that you were kicked out of the school for riding your bike on top of the school roof. I stopped doubting it when, remember, one evening I went to walk you to the bus stop and we stopped by the train station, by the bonfire, where the autumn leaves were burning, and you told me that in your previous life you were Thais of Athens. And I was Alexander the Great. I understood even then that it’s probably more important to be a King and a warrior, than… well, you know who. Still, I was upset because you didn’t even offer me a choice.
Do you remember how we fought all the time, because you always insisted that your world was better and more magical than mine? And also, I never loved Chelyabinsk, and you always said that a person should live in the place where he or she was born.
Nevertheless, you are the only person who believes in me. I probably will never live up to your image of me, I will never win the Nobel prize and no one will name a street after me. I presume that you know that, still you believe in me.
Since this is an author biography, I probably should mention how I became a writer. In reality, I always wanted to be one of those people who write about themselves “even in my early childhood I was fascinated with painting and I showed strong signs of artistic talent” or “even as a kid I knew that I would connect my life with music.” I didn’t have any such talents in my early years. My only talent was stubbornness. Most likely I would never have started writing if not for my stepfather. To protest and oppose my stepfather, I started a diary where I would write ugly things about him. Later, I started writing short stories (usually about aliens coming to Earth to take me home). I remember that one day my stepfather found one of my notebooks hidden under the bench in the veranda. I found him screaming and ripping the notebook into the small pieces.
Thankfully, notebooks were really cheap back then.
I know that this is just a bio, not a memoir. But who said that I should follow a structure now if I didn’t care about structure for the first eight pages. We are not in school. This is why, using the opportunity, I want to say that in addition to people who didn’t give a flying fuck about me there were also people who didn’t let me die from hunger and solitude.
I want to say “thank you” to Inna Molchanov, a poet from Siberia who I was really close to during my college years. I will never forget how once we decided to get rich and spent all of our money on ten pairs of cheap Chinese boots. We spent the whole day standing on the bazaar but didn’t sell a single pair. And then we ended up leaving the hotel in which we lived at the time, and sharing the floor in the house of some friend, in the room, where she practiced her extrasensory powers and where, by her words, her dead grandmother often came to visit.
I am thankful for my older brother, Sergey, who I haven’t spoken to in the last 12 years. Sergey, I will never forget those nights when we drank vodka all night long, and then went to the night store downstairs to get “another one,” and ate all of your wife’s food knowing that she would kill us in the morning. The only thing that wasn’t fair is that in the morning you went to bed and I had to go to work.
I want to say “thank you” to Vitaliy Kalpidi, who never looked down on me, knowing for certain that I had never read any books by Homer. He is the only one these days in Chelyabinsk believes that poetry is worth writing.
In the end I want to thank the Soviet Government who precisely followed the rule of six square feet per person. If not for that rule – I might never have existed.
And I certainly don’t want to say “thank you” to the aliens, who never came to Earth in order to take me home.