How I Learned About THAT…

In support of those who walk this path alone …

This blog post was originally written in Russian about ten years ago. In the information vacuum of nowaday’s Russia, it was reposted multiple times and hopefully helped a large number of young gay people and their parents to navigate life challenges. 

I thought that at the present moment, this post is valuable only from the historical perspective. But to my surprise, it turned out that many people are still not completely aware of what it means to be homosexual. And I decided to write this post again, this time – in English. Here it comes.

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People often ask me when did I learn about Vlad’s sexual orientation. The short answer: shortly after he had figured it out about himself. Which was a little bit after Anna suspected that it was the case. At that time, he was a couple of months short of being fourteen, and I’ve noticed that he looked sad and concerned for several days. I was bugging him with the questions, what was wrong, but he brushed off my concerns. That could not deceive me; I was sure that something serious is going on. Finally, I got a chance to talk to him one night when everybody else was out.  

I asked him to share with me what was wrong. He started: you are going to be very disappointed with me. Perhaps, you won’t love me anymore, but I need to tell you something. I think that I am gay. 

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Student’s Life: Financials

The economic situation of a student in the Soviet Union was very different from the one of the nowadays US college student. Even then, different people had different experiences, and I am going to describe how it looked for me.

We didn’t have to pay anything for our education, and most of us didn’t work, especially during the first two years. As I’ve mentioned previously, most of the college students lived with their parents, so technically speaking, you didn’t have any significant expenses. Most of the college students had government stipends. You would get 40 rubles a month if you didn’t fail any exams in the previous semester, 46 rubles if you got all B and A, and 50 rubles if you got all A.

Different families decided differently on how their college-age children would spend their stipends. Some would request to contribute all the money to the “family fund,” some would say: whatever you want to do with this money, up to you. But most families presumed that their college-age child would start covering some of their expenses. Most often, it would be public transportation, lunches at the University, school supplies, and some of the clothing.

That was doable, but you needed to plan carefully, which not that many of the students could do. Although my Mom taught me to record expenses since I was twelve, it was challenging for me to stay on the budget, when I had my own money for the first time. I guess money management is something you have to figure out from your personal experience.

The most substantial expense was food, lunches in the University, and whenever in the city I would end up wondering after classes were over. We didn’t have a concept of a brown-bag lunch, neither in grade school nor in the University or later at work.

The University cafeterias had commercial espresso machines, although we had no idea back then, that’s what it was :). The “small regular” meant one expresso shot, the “large regular” meant americano, a “double small” meant double espresso, and then it was a “large double” – and americano with an extra espresso shot. And there was no milk of any kind to add to your coffee unless you buy a carton of milk.

The most common food was a hotdog, but it was not what you think. It was a single hotdog boiled in hot water with a piece of rye bread. No hot dog bun, no relish, no mustard, no onions. That would be my typical lunch. Or you could buy two hot dogs. There could be some pastry, and I am trying to recall why I didn’t buy it. Also, there were chocolate bars with filling. And it always felt very exquisite when you purchase a double coffee and a chocolate bar. The bar cost 55 kopecks, more than a hot dog, and it felt like a gigantic waste of money, but it felt so cool :).

If we planned to go somewhere after we return to the city from the campus, we would usually eat pyshkas, a kind of donuts, in a small place right by the Baltic railway station. One pyshka cost 5 kopecks, and a “coffee” – a drink made of dissolved sweet concentrated milk with a coffee flavor – cost 11 kopeks. So for 51 kopecks, you could get four pyshkas and a coffee and be hunger-free until late evening. That was my and other people’s dinner more often than you can imagine.

The public transportation cost from 3 to 5 kopecks a ride, depending on the type of transportation, and electric train tickets were discounted big for students, especially if you buy 3- or 6-month pass. Those passes were non-transferable and had an owner name written in.

A Typical Day of the Student of the Leningrad State University(circa 1980)

On a typical day, I would wake up, have a cup of coffee (instant or greek, we didn’t have coffee makers) with a little bit of something, and head to the Baltic railway station. There was no subway station close to where I lived back then, so I had to take a tram for about 20 min and then walk.

Each class in the University was divided into groups, like homerooms at school, and everybody in a group would have the same schedule for all subjects, except for English and PE. We felt like one unit, and usually took a train together. Many groups had a designated train car (something like “the third from the locomotive”), and everybody would sit together. In some cases, people might get on the train at one of the subsequent stops, but they would still find their group, and those who got on the train earlier, would hold places for them.

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Attending the University: Military Studies, Schedules and Transportation

Last week, when I was in Helsinki, I also went to Saint-Petersburg for two days. There was nothing neither touristy nor nostalgic in this visit. I had an appointment with the realtor, and I also visited the HSE, where Boris is now teaching. Visiting this school and seeing how normal it is, made me think yet another time about my years as a student. I realized I’ve stopped blogging about this segment of my history, and now I will continue from where I stopped last time. There will be several posts describing our everyday life as students in the early 1980s.

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Working at UrbanSoft: Winter 1992-93

Now it is time to say a few words about John Roseman, a person who had an enormous impact on my life.

He was from New York and had an MS in Computer Science from Columbia. Now, recalling what he was saying at that time, he must have been from the old money family. He was very democratic and eager to participate in the creation of the new capitalist society in the new Russia. However, this was not a charity, he had some investors, and was looking for ways to make a profit, if not in Russia, then taking some US contracts. Tall and skinny, in his mid-40s, he moved differently, gestured differently, smiled, and was very visibly a creature of a different world.

Sometimes, especially in our Russian eyes he looked naive, and we almost openly laughed at him when he was writing letters to the office of the Mayor of Saint Petersburg, in his broken Russian, suggesting to instill parking fees, parking by the subway stations, development of the city bicycle system and other similar improvements. But the longer I live in the US, and the longer I live in general, the less I find it funny.

Living in Russia in the early 1990s was hard, even for us. The food situation was a little bit better, but as for the rest, we didn’t even know what we were lacking. John was shipping containers of everything from New York. Not just computers and printers, but the printing paper, labels and even the packs of cheap ball pens, and we could not believe he is actually buying them “for the office,” that we can take them when needed and use.

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Winter 1992-1993: a Second Job

You might ask – why I needed a second job? As I’ve mentioned earlier, the pay in the University was close to nothing and often paid months later than it was due. The next question would be – if that was the case, then why I would stay at this job? Why I won’t find another job instead of looking for a second one? Oddly enough, the job in the University was the only one I could consider “a real job,” the others were “ways to make money.”

This presumption goes back to the Soviet Union. At that time you were supposed to have only one job, less some rare exception. Also, since there can’t be unemployment in the socialist state, you should have always been employed. Also, it was extremely undesirable to change jobs; you would always need a solid, respectable reason to leave your job. Our employment history was a physical object. It was called “a Labor Booklet.” When you start a new job, an HR person would ask for your Labor Booklet and would put a record, indicating your place of employment, your position and title, and the date you started. You could not start any new position anywhere without presenting your Labor Booklet, which would have a record of when and for what reason your previous employment was terminated.

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Attending the University: How We Learned to Program

Back to my years at Leningrad State University. In my last post related to this part of our family history, I described how most of the subjects were taught except for programming.

For a start, programming did exist in 1980, even in the Soviet Union, and I was very interested in it. Since I was enrolled into a specialized high school for mathematics and physics, we even had a computer!  

I believe this school computer was one of the “native” ones developed in the country, not copied from the Western prototypes (my former classmates may remember better). Since it was just one computer for a whole school, and not a super-powerful one, we did most of our programming on paper and didn’t debug our programs. We were only allowed “to touch the keys” a couple of times during a semester.

However, at the University, we had actual programming, and we were supposed to debug our programs and to show some results. 

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Parenting During the Economic Collapse

Another follow-up for my visit with my daughter. I’ve realized that I ran pretty fast through the first months of Vlad’s and Anna’s life, focusing more on what was happening with the country. I didn’t write much about our everyday lives, and how it was – raising baby twins amid the economic collapse. 

There were many aspects of parenting, where I would make decisions in the survival mode, not because I liked a certain approach better, but because that was the only option. I do not have a lot of pictures from that time. I didn’t own a camera, and taking pictures was not an everyday activity. Boris would occasionally bring his camera with him, and then we would have a photo session. 

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Understanding Our Family History

Another topic of my conversation with Anna was about an understanding of people’s motives and preception of the world around them. That’s precisely the reason I started this blog; that’s why I try to be very honest with myself about the past.

Anna told me that she read somewhere on the internet about her great-grandfather, the one who was NKVD Major General, and about his career in the 1920s. She asked me whether she understood correctly, what he was doing in Middle Asia and Azerbaijan, and I confirmed. I think that it is essential to understand what many people were both the executors and the victims of the Great Terror. That is something I am not going to hide. And as Anna put it, she wants to understand, what was going on the people’s heads, how they could justify within themselves all these actions. How could a highly educated and very intelligent person consciously participate in the “kulak’s liquidation.” I can only guess about him. But I remember what his sister-in-law, my grand aunt, was telling me about her joining the Communist Party after most of her family was prosecuted. And I am going to write about it in the future. 

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Fall 1992: Finding a Stable Daycare

In fall 1992, I had two problems to address: finding a second job and enrolling Vlad and Anna into daycare. I’ve already mentioned it briefly in previous posts, but I will elaborate more here. The daycare situation was really weird. Since the very early days of the USSR, it was proclaimed that women are liberated from the house slavery and can in enslaved at work. During 1920-30, women were encouraged to bring their babies to daycare at a very early age. Technically speaking the “nurseries” which would take children starting from 3 months of age existed even at my time. But you would be considered a horrible mother if you would send your child to a nursery. Since women were allowed to stay home until a child reaches the age of 18 months, the groups which would take smaller children have been closing right and left.

I found one nursery which still had a group for toddlers from 12 to 24 months, just one for the whole Gavan, the part of the city where we lived. This nursery was partially subsidized by one of the largest shipbuilding plants in the town, so I guess that was the reason.

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