Generations of women in Russia live in a much closer proximity as compared to women in America. Grandmothers share apartments with mothers and daughters, and often granddaughters. I grew up in a typical household where in a three-room apartment lived my great grandmother, my grandmother, my mother, my aunt, my sister, and later my cousin. There were also four dogs (the number varied), cats, rats, and cockroaches. Though cockroaches weren't pets. Rather, they considered themselves the apartment owners, walking around freely and escaping every kind of poison the women in my household tried on them.
The living conditions haven't changed much (though they definitely improved) since I grew up and left for America eighteen years ago. I've met women who live three- to four-generations deep in the same apartment, sharing the kitchen (the place for family meetings), the bathroom (the source of family squabbles), and the rooms (the family mess depositories, with hardly anything ever thrown away—from all the apartments I've visited, only two were free of clutter and clean). Often there aren't any men present, or they come and go. In reverse, some households are structured around men, with women taking care of men, and men mostly lodging—leaving for work in the morning and coming late at night for dinner, to disappear again in the morning. A kind of an hierarchy establishes itself in the absence of men. One woman has the status of an adult, pulling the household on her shoulders. The rest fulfill the roles of children, regardless of their ages. I've met many women (and I was such a child myself) who have been taking care of their mothers—parenting them, making decisions for them, feeding them—and not the other way around. Deprived of independence due to living conditions, these girl-parents would watch over their younger siblings while their mothers drunk themselves stupid, or disappeared for days, trying to "fix their personal life," i.e., fetch a husband, or worked several jobs and neglected the family, or were simply unsuited to be parents for various reasons—psychological problems, history of family violence, chronic lack of money, etc. Of course, not every Russian family is in a state I've described—bear in mind, I'm only talking about a small slice of Moscow families I've visited or been told about (or remember myself). Many families do live alone, i.e., only parents and children in the same apartment (no grandparents or great grandparents). And yet the stories I've heard stem from more or less from the same realm of young girls having to share cramped, close quarters with their families, and having to grow up quickly and become little adults prematurely, shouldering responsibilities unsuitable for their age.
Rita grew up in such a family. She didn't know her father, and her mother liked to beat her on the head for not finishing homework on time. Rita hardly remembers her mother saying a kind word to her. Most of the time their kitchen was filled with yelling. "What are you looking at? Get back to studying! Stupid bitch!" Smack! Rita would get a knock in the forehead, delivered with knuckles—a painful blow. Rita couldn't concentrate on her homework, with her mother breathing down her neck. She learned to hide her pain and to feign concentration. She knew that after a while her mother would lose interest and go talk on the phone, mercifully leaving Rita alone. And yet Rita loves her mother very much. A grown woman in her thirties, Rita now takes care of her mother in ways her mother doesn't quite see, by cleaning the apartment they live in, making sure there are groceries, getting side jobs when her mother's occasional jobs dry up, keeping tabs of her elderly grandparents who live below poverty line, bringing them money or groceries when needed (and when she can), and diffusing conflicts between her mother and her uncle. They constantly fight over who will do the chores of taking grandma (or grandpa) to the doctor, for example. Or who will take care of the dogs. And so on. And while they fight (when they were little, they fought all the time, Rita says), Rita quietly does what they can't agree on, which is pretty much everything. "I can't start figuring out my life. Who will take care of my grandparents?" "But what about your mom?" I ask. "Or your uncle?" Rita waves her hand impatiently. "I can't rely on them. They're like children, always bickering." Rita just broke up with a boyfriend who stuck around for years, waiting for Rita to leave her parenting duties, but after a while he has lost his patience. They had a row, and he left. Now Rita is alone. She laughs, "Good riddance. One less child to deal with." She smokes, looks out the window. "I want children, but I don't know if I'll ever have any. Time is running away from me, you know? I got what, five more years? Something like that." Someone calls her, and she tells me she's got to go. Her mom urgently needs her, and we part.
Alyona was a quiet child in a household where her mother was a dominant figure. Her father was what's called in Russia a "подкаблучник," a spineless man often unemployed, or if employed, laid off often. Alyona has sister Larisa who is much older than her, so when she was growing up, they didn't connect much. Larisa married when she turned eighteen and left the household to live with her husband. Alyona continued living with her parents until she was in her twenties and found a young man to marry. There were two contenders, one with good looks and one with good money. Alyona picked the one with money. "She was always so practical," her older sister Larisa says. "She watched dad struggle with holding down jobs, watched them argue over money, watched me marry for love and barely make ends meet, while studying and pregnant, so she made a decision to break out of this cycle." Larisa tells me Alyona's story over a cup of tea. "And now look at her. They got this gigantic apartment. I mean, it's huge! You should see it. She really scored. She's pregnant with their second child now, taking care of her husband, cooking him these gigantic meals. I don't know where she got it from! She has never cooked, not on my memory. Just this quiet little thing, walking around the apartment like a shadow." Larisa sounds bitter. She is living with her husband and son in a tiny one-room flat on the outskirts of Moscow. "Always did everything mom asked of her." This confirms my thoughts—Alyona acted very much like a little adult by necessity. While her older sister rebelled and met boys, while her dominant mother and submissive father had fights, she quietly cleaned and learned how to cook. Her mother wouldn't let her into the kitchen, but Alyona washed the dishes and noted everything. "I don't know what she found in him," Larisa snorts. "That husband of hers. He's nothing to look at. All she cares about is his money. I'm telling you. She buys herself all these clothes. And they go to church!" Larisa says in a horrified whisper. "What's wrong with that?" I ask. "Are you out of your mind? Church people." Larisa shudders. "He brainwashed her. I tell you." She shows me Alyona's picture. She and her husband look very happy. "You don't see each other often, do you?" I say. "Not if I can help it," Larisa shrugs. "He's boring. Not a conversationalist. Nothing to talk about. Comes from a small town. A peasant, is what he is." "Did you ever think she's with him because she loves him?" "Please!" Larisa refuses to hear me. She's convinced her little sister has sold her soul to a man for money, and she switches the topic to her job and money problems.
Inga lived a good happy life until she turned fourteen, and three generations of her family—her cousin, his mom and dad (her aunt and uncle), and his grandparents died in the 1999 Moscow apartment bombings. When explosives detonated on the ground floor, a whole section of the building collapsed, burying under the rubble close to a hundred people, killing them instantly. Inga's relatives all lived in the same building entrance, their apartments located on different floors. By an odd stroke of fate, the great grandmother was gone at the time. Inga thinks she was at the dacha. When she learned that she has lost three generations of her family, she went crazy. "Until that moment I didn't know I wasn't safe," Inga says. "It made me suddenly grow up. It was like a trigger to become an adult. I remember two things: terrorists like pretty numbers, like 09.09.1999, and anyone can die at any moment, no matter where one lives." Inga's memories are hazy. She remembers her mother crying hard. She was close with her sister. She remembers that she wasn't taken to identify the bodies, but that she was told they were identified by their teeth and crosses. Those were her first funerals, and the bodies were swaddled, looking like mummies, and they smelled. We drank tea and talked about how you never think something as horrendous will touch you or your family, and when it does, you have a hard time believing it. Things like that happen in the news, to someone else, not to your cousin and aunt and uncle and grandparents. "They were just gone, just like that," Inga says. She couldn't be a careless child after that.
Sonya's story is that of a teenage pregnancy that neither she, nor the father expected. She was a student in the Moscow Financial Institute. He was a teacher. They had an affair. Sonya's parents were scandalized but with time accepted her position: she was going to raise her baby boy on her own. The father didn't want anything to do with the child. At first. "Sasha sees him now," Sonya tells me. Sasha is sixteen, a bright young man who's winning a contest after contest in physics in high school. He is quiet and studious. "Does the father help with money?" I ask. "No. But Sasha visits him. They spend time together." Sonya has since married and given birth to another boy, Mitya. "I don't like it how my husband reacts to my sons differently," she says. "When Sasha does something wrong, he reprimands him. But when Mitya does something wrong, he just dismisses it as a boy growing up, testing his boundaries." Sonya had to grow up quickly, just like the other women in these stories. She hardly had time to be a teenager, and she still doesn't spend any time on herself. It all goes to her sons and her husband. On top of it she works full-time at a bank. When I saw her, she was sick and was apologizing for being sick. "It's the boys. They always bring home some virus." Her eyes were red, and she looked like crying. "When was the last time you had a vacation?" I ask. "Why, just last year—" "I'm not asking as a family," I interrupt. "I'm asking when was the last time you have spent time alone?" Sonya blinks at me. She can't remember. "You need some time to yourself," I say. "Can you make it happen?" She laughs. "You're silly. How can I get away? Who will take care of the children?" "But what about your husband?" I ask. "Can't he give you a break?" She shrugs, looks away. "Are you happy with him?" "I don't know," she shakes her head. "I don't know. Sometimes I feel so tired. I want to drop it all and just run away. What kind of a mother would I be then?" "I think you should do it," I say. "Just drop everything and run away. At least for a week." Her eyes become dreamy, but in the next second she dismisses the idea. "No. I can't. Kostya won't know what to do with them. How can I leave them alone?" We agree to meet again and talk more, but later she calls me and tells me they're all sick again, and she can't make it. We never say a proper goodbye to each other, and I wonder what that teacher thought when he took on a responsibility of having sex with a student, a young girl, without protection. A grown man, he was just another child himself, and Sonya had to take the burden of child rearing off his shoulders.
There are more of these little stories in my head, but by writing them out I realized they depress me. One of you has commented on the previous part of this post, "Aren't there any uplifting, empowering stories?" There are. I just happen to hear these ones when I was in Moscow. And they're empowering simply because these women shared their pains with me, and in such they felt lighter. I was struggling with an intense desire to do something for these women, something amazing, but there is only one me. I was in despair over it, until I realized I can continue writing. I can fictionalize their stories. I can make them into characters who come out as winners. I can maybe write a whole collection of these, like Petrushevskaya. As to Part 3 of this post, I think I'll stop. TUBE is calling to me, and I can't ignore it anymore. This break was too long anyway. With that...share your own stories, or ask questions.
I'm moving on.