Moscow Childhood: The Make-Up of a Generation, 1991

I was born in 1953, the year of Stalin's death. This fact made my father very proud. I do not think he ever mentioned my birth without speaking about the significance of that year: the beginning of spring, the Russian "thaw," a promise of change. Indeed, when I look back at my childhood, I do think that ours was a very special generation: not really free, but semi-free, semi-tamed. After Stalin's death, people were returning from labour camps and prisons; millions of falsely accused confronted the accusers who had safely settled in the jobs and rooms of these others who were never expected to come back. I remember that atmosphere in our apartment, an atmosphere of hidden jubilation, a semi-relief, a presence of emotions which were not to be named because it was still . . . not safe.

I lived in the centre of Moscow, on the second floor of what used to be a pre-revolutionary glass factory. The floor had thirteen rooms, one family to a room, 45 people in all. Millions of Russian city children were brought up in this manner. We were part of the Soviet middle class: our parents were not the chiefs and leaders of the communist party. So every family living in the space of one room had three generations in it. The oldest generation was mostly grandmothers. As a rule, the grandfathers were dead, killed in the Second World War, died in the camps, died shortly after returning. The grandmothers were the official voice of wisdom: they discussed prices, recipes, new and rare acquisitions, the behavior of wives in the second generation, and then the grandchildren. Rarely did they remember the past. Everyone knew about each other something that should have been forgotten. There were always innuendoes: who had said what concerning Stalin, who had been pleased when the Germans attacked, and who was making a career now and at what cost. Needless to say, under this supervision the second generation -- our mothers and fathers -- did not flourish. Divorces were more common than marriages. Mothers never really rushed home, but we children kept to each other like a little flock. At home we had clear goals: to outsmart the grandmothers, to have a few unsupervised moments of freedom with our parents, and to prepare our homework. And although this sounds very drab, ours was indeed a magical existence.

First of all, homework. Every house had a library where the classics of Russian literature and Western civilisation were easily recognisable: the same editions, hard-bound, with beautiful print -- Stalin loved good hard-bound books, one pattern for all; paperbacks for him were too flimsy. Those books, nevertheless, coloured our years of growing up. I believe no one of my generation can now look at these books without a feeling of joyful recollection and a profound sense of friendship. Sinyavsky, an emigre-writer who now lives in France, says about Russian hospitality: "Russians are welcoming from grief." It is also because of this, perhaps, that Russians are also well-read. Be that as it may, what opened to Russian school-children was an unparalleled universe of mastery and creativity. As a rule of thumb, when the child read, the grandmothers rejoiced. The unspoken law of the Russian household is that all is well if the child studies. By what else do you measure the normality of life? Divorces, poverty, one child to a family, hidden secrets and skeletons . . . locked grief, but children read! I was the lucky one. I loved to read. This meant that I was the beloved child of all grandmothers, an example to follow. I was even allowed to sit with them when they spoke to each other and, because of this, I understood something of their interchange. Theirs was a community of survivors, and they could look without a shiver into the eyes of change, personal misfortune, political upheaval. They expected nothing from their children. Their only vulnerability was their grandchildren, the objects of motherhood which came to them so very late. These women could not remember or analyse their youth, their aspirations -- it was all under lock, a thought that could never be thought out to the fullest. They were taught to abandon Christianity, and they did; they believed in Stalin, and then he proved to be a monster. They could not open the heavy door of reflection; their only armament was work and common-sense.

I remember also a couple of older people who lived in the house next door -- a husband and wife, a rare and unusual reality for their age group. They were both tall and slender, and very handsome; they had two dogs as beautiful as themselves. Our grandmothers never talked to them, nor were they ever discussed or mentioned. I liked them both because they were a tangible proof that we could not have come from apes, but . . . from eagles. I never saw children around them; once they mentioned a son, uncertainly, I thought. They were the quietest faces of my childhood, and sometimes I sat with them on the bench of our yard. Their figures somehow slowed time down, which was immediately accelerated by the summons of our grandmother -- to eat, to run to a store and, of course, to read.

My friendship with these grandmothers did not exactly endear me to my friends. My girl-friend was taking piano (her family was better off than mine) and she had to endure daily my shining example from her grandmother. I was not taking music but I would have been, according to her grandmother, good enough to go far. This, indeed, was nonsense, but not to grandmothers. Our studying habits were their only investment, their only value in a life that was literally pillaged and robbed.

Thus, I still remember the secret bond between us girls at school. We did not want to grow up to have a family (we had no example of what family meant); we wanted to be heroes who fought for justice just as in the books which we had read; we wanted to bring glory and fame and self-sacrifice and service, something profoundly heroic. When we went for walks in the evening and had long discussions we would see the windows of the libraries. Green lamps, silence and (as in all good novels) snow outside. There was a mystery in this grown-up world of studying, concentration, potential. But we also wanted to bring to some fulfillment this reality of our reading. So we were turning 15, well-read . . . and totally unprepared for life.

In our teenage years, the life which had been postponed and shielded by books and homework, finally started to show through the cracks. We were idealistic, perhaps, but not altogether unobservant, and the tragedies hidden in every family were becoming more and more difficult to ignore. Taught by literature and poetry a certain ability of insight, we suddenly had to confront the villain of our childhood -- the state itself, a state which had broken our parents' lives and which, nevertheless, was represented by our parents, our uncles, by everyone who had survived and knew how to lie low or how to get ahead. Now this surrender was demanded from us as well. Our grandmothers who so tyrannically and capably protected our childhood, were getting on in years and becoming children themselves: strokes, cancer, indigestion, heart troubles. At 15, most of us already knew that silence was golden, that the state liked obedience and that we too would become its active silent members. The double-think which hit Russian youth in 1968 (the year of the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia) was the end of our childhood; it was also the most painful and silent reorientation. Thoughts were left unfinished and then simply locked up and discarded.

It was actually easy for me. At 14, I started to live with my father's family, and my father was outspoken, a dissident. He also lost his job in 1968 and was black-listed for four years. My life-decision was made by my finally-found parents; I was allowed to continue in life in the direction of my reading: from literature to Christianity, from poetry to a sense of pride in my parents' choice. This seemed so natural. It was harder for my girl-friends. The dreams of childhood, it seemed, had to be rejected absolutely and abruptly, and even somewhat triumphantly. When my family was exiled from Russia in 1972, I thought that this was final: another act of inner division in another Soviet generation.

I can speak with some knowledge only for the Russian city generation. We were shielded from the truth of collectivisation, something that village children saw clearly and possibly with a mixture of inertia and cynicism. My generation would have shared in that cynicism as well, but life seemed to be presenting more and more choices. Some dissidents were exiled, but some remained in the country like eyesores. There was no Stalin to kill them outright, the economy demanded help from the West, and the dissidents became a part of the trade-off. As I was going to a university in the West, it was members of my generation -- and not merely of my father's -- we were becoming more outspoken. If you talked to them, they would tell you that they could no longer let others be arrested and pushed into mental hospitals and, also . . . inevitably . . . that they loved literature and poetry too much (a very Russian trait) to remain acquiescent in the face of continuing injustice. They simply had to go in the direction opened up to them by their childhood reading.

What, or who then, initiated the change? Those who by some strange quirk of nature were incapable of double-think, and whose sacrifice became impossible to ignore in the treacherous years of the Russian post-thaw period with its new semi-severe winter. In the churches now their sacrifice is called the blood of martyrs. But there were always martyrs in Russian post-revolutionary history! What made the difference in their passive observers? Could it have been the secret world of our childhood (those books in the bindings ordered by Stalin) and, of course, our grandmothers who made sure we read and read and read. What was it then that we were learning on those quiet evenings?

The energy of world culture has influenced the growing minds of a generation which was searching for any kind of direction and familial closeness. It is that energy which has finally manifested itself in the monumental changes of the past five years. The most painful question that Russia faces now is whether that energy is sufficient to return vibrancy and openness to the economy, the ecology and, ultimately, the moral and spiritual health of the nation.

In other words, when the father was crushed and a good son arrested, literature -- the prodigal son of our civilization -- came back to protect his home against which he had so often rebelled at more peaceful times. The problem, however, remains that he faced a broken and corrupted household.