I am writing this post at the request of my writing mentor who said "We all want to know!" Irkadura was supposed to be the book that drew from the wealth of information I'm sitting on, having grown up in Soviet Union, lived in GDR in my teenage years, witnessed the fall of the Berlin Wall, and having returned to Moscow where shortly after snipers were shooting people from the roofs, and the country as I knew it ceased to exist. This was the book he asked me to write. It didn't turn out the way he envisioned it, as I was still going through lots of personal pain which spilled itself out in Irkadura. I wasn't ready. Nor am I ready now. TUBE is not what I thought it'd be either. I'm still healing, still trying to find the ground under my feet. Hell, I'm not even supporting myself financially yet, after turning my life upside down and giving everything up to write and finding happiness where I didn't think was any. But I will try. Because these are the times when I must speak, and speak I will.
Let me preface this by giving you a little history on me, as I'm one of those people who isn't surprised or shocked by anything anymore, and therefore I might appear to you callous or brutal or unfeeling. My jokes might appear to you as inappropriate; too strident, too sarcastic. That is not so. I'm overflowing with warmth and love; I simply learned to protect it. Survival was never a question for me, it was a necessity and it was what I did. If I didn't laugh at my hardships and the hardships of others, I would've wilted in misery and despair. Hence, my harsh humor. I'm a generation of Russians who have laughed to keep from crying, and yet our generation has not seen the horrors our parents have seen, nor what their parents have seen, so our pains are really nothing compared to theirs.
Well then. Here is my tale.
It was a cold February of 1976 when I was born in one of Moscow's hospitals, small and thin and one month early (or a few weeks—not sure how early). Unknowingly, I was born into what America is about to taste—a despotism, a dictatorship that aggressively exploited the fear of foreigners (non-Russians), non-conformists, and anti-communists, and an authoritarian nationalistic regime where any opposition was squashed before it could be voiced. In other words, red fascism, and I don't say this phrase lightly.
I grew up thin and weak and malnourished, which the legends of my family blame on me: I spit out the boob at six months old, I wasn't eating to the point of getting dystrophic and my father having to give me a blood transfusion so I wouldn't die, my grandmother routinely beating me with the spoon on my forehead to make me eat, and my great grandmother telling me stories how she danced for me, to distract me enough so that my grandmother could shove a spoon in my mouth. Where was my mother? Seeking a better life after a divorce when I was four. Why wasn't I eating? It was my only defense, my only power, silence and hunger strikes. I've been yelled at, beaten, and sexually abused, and I fought it the only way I could—by turning into a statue.
This was the climate inside my family, a family that has been demolished by the regime that promised everyone equal opportunities and instead stripped people of all sense of ownership, individualism, and love. Hence, rampant abuse. Little did I understand it back then. And little did I know that I was about to taste the outside of my family, the system of Soviet schools that churned out docile, conditioned workers for factories to drive the country into the bright future that would never arrive but looked pretty on the slogans and the placards carried by faithful citizens on the national holiday parades.
My first brush with my country trying to erase any expression of my personality came in the shape of the scratchy wool uniform of ugly brown color. You see, my mother was making clothes for as long as I can remember, knitting, sewing. As did my grandmother and my great grandmother. When I wore those beautiful dresses, the other girls hated me. They couldn't have those dresses. You couldn't buy them. In fact, you couldn't buy anything beautiful even if you tried. You were lucky enough to get something functional. You stood in lines and grabbed whatever you could grab, forget the size or the color or the quality. And so my dresses stood out. Because my mother is an amazing artist and has an amazing taste, which she has picked up from reading books and foreign fashion magazines (from the former Soviet block, like Bulgaria and Romania). She was an anomaly back then, and in that she was lucky and unlucky. I could write a whole book about my mother, and maybe one day I will. But back to my life.
I hated the uniform. I hated the way it constricted my movement. But I loved the lace collar and cuffs my mother made. They were special, and they made me feel good. With time, I learned to love the uniform, mostly because of the pinafores—at least they could be changed from black for every day to white for festive days. So you see, I normalized it. I learned to live with it and carry on. This is the danger of any dictatorship. It quietly eats away at your mind, and finally you concede to it and carry on with your life. The sunsets look the same as they always did, and you forget that anything is wrong, and those around you who didn't forget and try to speak get silenced, so you don't know any better.
My hair was a big deal. You might be smiling now. Don't. My aunt cut my hair in a cute bob, and that was sticking out of the crowd. All Soviet children had to look the same. The Soviet Union was the factory for producing happy citizens, remember? All girls had long hair in ponytails or braids. And here I came to school looking like a tiny Mireille Mathieu. How dare I! I had to grow my hair back out. And when one day my mother took me to the Beauty Institute (imagine, it existed) and had my ears pierced, and when I showed up at school with small golden earrings, the teacher took them out. My ears grew back together again. I couldn't look pretty. I couldn't look like me. I had to conform.
Later I was sworn into a pioneer and had to wear the red kerchief on my neck. It was an offense to the state to show up with your kerchief not ironed (which happened to me several times). When words like that were spoken to me, I have started smelling bullshit. It was just too far-fetched and improbable and overly dramatic. An offense to the state? My kerchief not ironed? What? But I learned to live with it. I started ironing it. I felt proud of my ironed kerchief. You see what's happening here? I normalized it. Just as I have normalized the violence that was going on in my family. I got used to it. I lived with it. It was a part of my daily routine. This is why you often hear survivors talk about the horrors they've lived through with stony, unmoving faces. It's not that they feel nothing, it's that they have trained themselves to accept it and view it as normal, to survive. This is the danger we're facing in America, the gradual smoothing of the rough edges of anyone who names things for what they are—sexism, misogyny, rape, racism, bigotry, supremacism, fascism. We have to speak. We must speak. When we stop speaking, we become sheep and get squashed and discarded like trash.
In my teens I got pregnant. There was never any talk about any kind of sexual education. Not in schools. Not at home. Though plenty of rape, which confused the hell out of me and caused me to repress every single instance of the incest I suffered until I was well away from the country of my birth and secure and content in America, which was when my body had decided it was finally safe to let me in on the secret I've been carrying inside me for so long. And that was precisely the way to rule people during communism. Secrets. You never knew the truth about anything, and you didn't know where to find it. I never knew that by having sex I'd be pregnant. After all, it didn't happen to me when I was a child, did it? Why would it be any different when I was 17? Nobody talked to me about my period, when to expect it (I was 13 when I got my first), what it means, how to live with it, how to love it. I hated it. Do you notice the pattern here? A lot of hate. Coming from a lot of fear. Which is again what we are witnessing now in America.
What did I do with my hate? I turned it inward. In my teens I often thought about suicide. Becoming a mother at 18 distracted me from it, and possibly saved me. My family tried to get rid of my daughter Anya. They sent me to the hospital for an abortion. I've seen benches and benches filled with hushed teenage girls and their mothers, waiting for their uteri to be scrubbed clean of what the Soviet Union didn't have. Babies were dropped off by storks. Well, I couldn't do it. I left and went back home—which at the time was the home of my teenage husband—and we had our baby. We had to get married underage, so I was taught by my step-mother on how to give the bribe to the official at the ZAGS (Marriage Registration Office). It was the only bribe I gave in my life, and I was burning from shame. It was how things were done, I was told. I was told to live a double-life—the one on the surface, happy and perfect and equal, and the one inside—miserable and lonely and repressed. That is how everyone lived. That is how you survived. You knew whose palm to grease and when, and if you were a woman remotely cute, you knew who to sleep with and when. I was propositioned once, at 16. I got scouted out by an agent for a French (or some foreign) modeling agency and told by a brusque lady that if I wanted to advance in the modeling career, I had to sleep with the photographer. Soviet girls were willing to do anything back then to escape abroad. I ran out of there like my hair was on fire. That was my short modeling stint. I didn't know it was a window into the hidden prostitution business that flourished underneath all that prim and proper Socialist propaganda. I was lucky to have escaped it.
My aunt tried to marry me off to a Frenchman. She made us eat dinner. My value was primarily in my beauty, and even that was flawed. My mother often lamented my too-long nose (gone now due to the nose job I did 6 years ago—the remnants of my healing) and my too-wide ass (I'm skinny as a stick; what wide ass?). As a woman in a dictatorship you were a commodity, a pretty doll to hang on an arm of a man who was the doer. You as a woman were the one to be paraded in public, to be fucked in private, and to keep your mouth shut; to get pregnant, to give children to the Soviet state, to raise them as devout citizens, to work (at least they tried make us equal in that regard), and to give your life to your country when the country demanded it. Like the myth of the World War II Soviet partisan Zoya Kosmodemyanskaya who was in the wrong place at the wrong time (the truth still remains a mystery), but whose story (she was tortured, and later gave a brave speech while being executed by Germans) fit the overall propaganda, and so she was elevated to the status of a hero, all with a very important goal in mind—to erase the sexuality and the allure of women (she was a symbol of a sexless hero rather than the women heroes we all want to see), to erase any kind of affection or the expression of love among the Soviet people; she died for her country, not for people she loved. It was scornful to express love. Because love led to people feeling things, and feeling things led people to question things, and questioning things led people to a revolt, and that was not what communism could afford. In fact, any kind of sign of affection in schools was publicly reprimanded and chastised. Meetings were called, and the pair in question was called to stand and asked to confess to this and to that, and to apologize. For what? For loving one another.
This is what can crush dictatorship—the expression of love. A simple generous act to someone close to you will keep our collective feelings alive. It doesn't seem like much, but it's incredibly important. We must express how we feel. We must share our feelings with one another. How are you today? Tomorrow? Every day of the next four years? Feel, feel, feel. Any attempt on silencing this is an attempt to strip you of your very humanity.
And that is another big weapon of any dictatorship. Confusion. You know this from prison experiments, when lack of any outside information crushed the participants into submission or near madness. That is precisely what Soviet Union did. The news, the media, everything was censored and filtered and guarded. Inside, behind the iron wall, we common ordinary people had no way of comparing our lives with the rest of the world. We thought it was normal. Again, we normalized it. How could we know any better? We were confused. Our bodies and minds told us one thing, our families and institutions and the government told us another. I can still experience this bewildering, infuriating, and numbing confusion when I visit the Russian Consulate in Seattle. It's not as bad as it was back in Russia, but it echoes painfully. Starting from the glass door that is locked, and the attendant looking at you through it, and you feeling like a fool because you don't understand what is going on. It's their business hours. Why can't you come in? And when you finally are let in, you're told conflicting messages, and have to sit and wait for who knows how long (though lately that's been improving), and when you submit your documents for anything, you're invariably always wrong and have to redo nearly everything, and if you voice your complaint, you're scolded, or near-shouted at, and what do you do? You get used to it. You joke about it with others in line behind you. You normalize it.
THIS IS THE DANGER WE'RE FACING. NORMALIZATION.
Here are a few more examples of what I've lived through, or else this post will turn into a book (and who knows, maybe one day I will write another Irkadura, or a memoir, or something of the sort); in no particular order:
- The judge has put his hand on my knee and squeezed it while he asked, "Do you want a divorce fast, or do you want to wait for two years like all those old ladies outside?" To get anything from the system officials, you had to either be related to them, or to bribe them, or to sleep with them.
- A man was killed by mafia thugs in front on my eyes; they asked me to go home and be quiet. I never called militia, as I knew they would do nothing. Militia was a joke, all bosses bought by the local thugs, making money on the side, closing their eyes on illegal activity. We had no crime in Soviet Union, remember? The serial killer Andrei Chikatilo got away with killing over 50 children and women in the course of 12 years precisely for the reason that the government didn't believe our society could produce such a monster. Remind you of something?
- My first husband's older brother was brutally killed in his own apartment, suffering multiple knife stab wounds. He has died from bleeding: not one neighbor called the militia, though they must've heard the scuffle and his cries. He was the one who picked me up from the hospital with my baby Anya—her father wasn't in town. His death remains unsolved to this day.
- My cousin's wife's mother was killed in a grocery store for a bottle of vodka. The rates of death due to alcoholism in Russia are staggering, with 25% of men dying before they turn 55. These men self-medicate, to survive. If they had access to drugs, they'd do drugs (it's easier to get drugs in America, though my information might be outdated; historically the drug of Russians was vodka).
- I know men who were raped and were unable to ever seek help or speak about it as they would've lost their jobs and their status; I've fictionalized their storied in Irkadura and TUBE (and will probably fictionalize more).
- My teeth were drilled without anesthesia when I was 16 and had my first cavity, as Soviet medical healthcare system was free, and you got what you got and didn't complain, suffering through being handled like meat and not like a human being. Good doctors lived on bribes. If you had no money, you endured long lines and butcher-like service with the rest of the population.
- The car my father gave me after marriage got "undressed" down to the carcass, and the money I got from my mother selling her apartment and giving me half was gone after my first husband gave a chunk of it to a shady man who promised to turn it around in one week and triple the amount (or some scheme like that), and when I left him and moved out, all my possessions (those I managed to buy with the rest of the money) were stolen from the car of my friend—we left the car alone only for a few minutes. This was my reality. If you left anything without watching it, it was stolen in the blink of an eye. If you had anything of value, it was taken. It was the country of people starving for goods, of the bogus equality that existed only on paper.
And that concludes this very long post. I have so much more in me, I can either keep spilling it here, if you express interest in knowing more, or I can keep storing it for a book. Future will tell. Thank you for reading this far. I love you.
A few helpful links: