Pictures From September 1995

I promised several people, including my children, that I would post more pictures. I am always trying to combine pictures with stories, but I can’t say much about these, except that it was a family gathering in our house. Judging by the guest list and the fact that this picture was taken in fall 1995, it must be Igor’s tenth birthday.

We lived in extremely crowded conditions. This one room of fewer than 200 sq ft was the place for everything. All four of us slept there. All our belongings were stored there, all the desks, including mine for working from home, all the toys, the piano – everything was packed in this one room. Our beds and the desks were folding, the jungle gym, which you can see on that picture could be lifted up.

From left to right: Aunt Kima, her son Dodik, my Mom, me, Igor Sr (Igor’s father), Sasha – my cousin’s husband.

The next two pictures look almost identical, but I could not choose one, so I decided to post both. On the first one, you can see me in the far left corner. The older kids from left to right: my late nephew Petia (my cousin Ania’s older son), my half-brother Slava (my father’s son) and Igor. The smaller kids from left to right: my niece Iya, Anna and Vlad. (Vlad has a cold sore on his lip).

Everybody is dressed warmly because all the houses had (and still have) a centralized heating system, which was usually turned on only in October, so September would end up being one of the coldest months.

Smolny in 1995, Part 2. How I Didn’t Meet Putin

Boris’ part in this Smolny project was installing the software Dr. Conrad was trying to sell. And my part was, as usual, writing the user’s manual. In this case, it was more like a persuasive essay. I had to present a use case and show how this software will make the life of the City clerks easier.

I remember how I was inventing the names and ages of people and their addresses. But the most memorable were the letters I was scanning. Scanning was a very new thing then, at least in Russia, even the copying machines were rare. And I was given a whole bunch of real people’s paper letters to Smolny. And I read them while scanning. I can’t recall any particular case or any particular problem from these letters, but the overall impression was desperate. You could hear people crying, searching for words that would be convincing enough, pleading for help, from necessary surgery to pensions being delayed, to broken heating pipes. I could not help but think how the City clerks can read such letters and put them aside. I knew that all these letters were not processed yet, and some of them were dated two-three months before the day I was reading them.

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Smolny in 1995

The last gig I wrote about was the project in Bank Saint-Petersburg, which earned me money for our trip to Poland. 

Later in 1995, my employment situation continued to be the same as I described in the above post. I was a full-time researcher at the university, working in the Operations Research Laboratory, and Boris was my boss, which was wrong on all possible accounts. The university jobs were still paying very little for both of us, but the way we thought about it back then, it was unimaginable to leave a university position. It was academia; we were researches, and even if we aren’t paid anything, we could not drop these badges of honor. 

And still, we needed money. Maybe, some people can be happy being poor together with their loved ones, but it was never our case. We were on a hunting trail all the time. 

The next gig came one more time from Dr. Conrad, and that was my last encounter with him. The gig was huge – working with the city government. Dr. Conrad, as usual, wanted to sell something to somebody. That time, this “something” was a document flow system that would allow all the city government departments to process the letters from the public more efficiently. My job would be to interview the city government employees from all departments, analyze their needs, the existing processes bottleneck, and produce a report explaining why the proposed system was the best possible solution. Then I had to make a presentation to the whole bunch of officials. 

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A Girl With a Monkey

I’ve scanned lots of photographs from 1995, and now I can continue with our family story. Here I want to show just one picture to illustrate “how things were” back then.

I am coming to daycare to pick up Vlad and Anna, and their teacher tells me that there was a photographer with a monkey (?!) and that he took a picture of Anna with a monkey – see below.

I do not even know why and how, and why anybody would find this idea appealing. Anyway, I didn’t know anything about that. Anna said she wanted a picture with the monkey, but then she got scared, which is also visible on the picture, and then she didn’t want to back out of that!

My historical posts are being published in random order. Please refer to the page Hettie’s timeline to find where exactly each post belongs, and what was before and after.

The Fall of 1995. Anna’s Ballet Classes

Since now Anna is wondering where her older daughter got the idea of wanting to be a ballerina, I have to remind her about her ballet classes.

Here is the story. My cousin Anna is a musician, and one of her side jobs in 1996 was playing piano for ballet classes in one of the nearby schools. For my life, I can’t remember whether the lady who ran these classes was affiliated with the school, had an independent “circle,” or whatever. But she ran these ballet classes for children of different ages, and the youngest dancers were six. As an exception, she would admit children who were five and a half and were exceptionally gifted.

Let me tell you that there was some rationale behind that age limitation.

For smaller children, coordination of the movements of different parts of their bodies is challenging. Anna just turned four, and she wanted to be a ballerina :). I was trying to teach her that when asked, she has to tell that she was five and a half, but I didn’t hold much hope. My cousin suggested that we will pretend we were a little bit late and that I should push Anna into the audition room when all the children already start to repeat to movements. Then, my cousin was hoping the instructor will already like Anna and will be more willing to make an exception. She showed Anna the moves which she most likely would have to repeat during the audition, and Anna was practicing on her own, tirelessly. It was unbelievable.

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About the Rape Culture

My post in which I mentioned an attempt of rape, which happened during my travel to Poland, generated several offline conversations, and I thought I should write more on how such situations were viewed at that time. 

The more I think about it, and the more I try to recall how such situations were perceived by society, the more I wonder why I considered it reasonable. When I wrote about the classes in psychology, I mentioned that somehow women thought about themselves as equal but, on the other hand, knew that they need to prove themselves ten times more worth than the smartest men to be considered for a job. And it’s not only that the male bosses thought this way, but us, professional women, shared the same views.

A similar thing can be said about being a sexual object. We wanted to be considered seriously at work. We wanted our ideas to be heard. But at the same time, we wanted to be admired sexually. Flirting at work was not just OK, but expected. I remember once when I already lived in the US, the mother of my friend visiting from Saint Petersburg asked me: do they flirt with you at work? And when I answered: of course, not! her reaction was to the effect of “what’s wrong with you?” Married or single, with children or not, you were supposed, expected to flirt at work. Even better if you are married, because it means you are not trying to catch a husband. 

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June 1995. Our Trip to Poland. Part 2

I have no pictures from that trip. None. I didn’t own a camera, and whenever I tried to use other people’s cameras, the pictures would turn out horrible, so I was 200% convinced I will never be able to produce a single decent shot. Taking pictures, processing films was way bigger deal back then, so I never even asked our hosts. Waldek took these two pictures at home, on the next day after our arrival. 

I haven’t seen Dowgerts for five years. We barely heard anything from them except for that unbelievable humanitarian flight in December 1991 (I need to go back and check whether I wrote about it).  

Back in 1990, Waldek was a laid-off pilot. His wife Marysia was a school teacher (and I got to know her because she was a part of the teachers’ delegation to Leningrad in 1989). When I talked to them on the phone before coming, they said, “They have lots of news,” They will tell all about it when I come. The news was revealed to us immediately after they met us at the train station: Marysia was now a school principal, and Waldek was a Mayor of Pruszcz Gdanski! 

Now, they owned a car, and Waldek drove us home (as usual, everybody except Anna got seasick). The apartment was the same, but they were talking about getting a bigger and better one. Their older daughter Anetka was 17, and the next day she took us to Gdansk. She didn’t speak Russian. My kids didn’t speak English, so I had to translate their questions each time they wanted to ask something. And when Anetka took us to the city museum, and the kids had some questions, I had to translate their questions into English to Anetka, she would translate them into Polish to the museum personnel, and then the answers were translated twice 🙂  

She also took us to Mariacka Cathedra, and we climbed all the way to the top. Funny enough, Anna Climbed all the way up by herself but was scared to go down, and Anetka brought her down in her arms. 

We talked a lot. There were so many new things around, Poland has changed a lot since 1990. They showed us videos from the school plays, and it was mindblowing. They had videos with Disney cartoons. They had Legos. They had a huge collection of figurines from KinderSurprises. Anetka was talking about going to study in America. All of that was from a different universe. 

The next morning, we were ready to go to our destination – a vacation house at Krynica Morska.

My historical posts are being published in random order. Please refer to the page Hettie’s timeline to find where exactly each post belongs, and what was before and after.

June 1995. Our Trip to Poland. Part 1

Since I am writing my story partially backward, I didn’t write yet how we got to know the Dowgerts family from Pruszcz Gdansky- a small town close to Gdansk. For now, I will say that Boris and I met Dowgerts several years before, and we stayed at their place when we visited Poland in the summer of 1990. Since the www and the internet, in general, were barely emerging, it wasn’t easy to keep track of each other’s lives. The only thing I knew in May 1995 was that they will meet us and will drive us to their vacation home on the Baltic shore. I tried to get an idea of whether there will be warm enough there in mid-June, and they said – yes, it should be fine.
The airfare was expensive, and I decided to take a train to Gdansk. I believe the length of the journey was about 30 hours. The train was leaving in the late morning and arriving in Gdansk at about 6 PM the next day.
The night before our departure Vlad got a high fever, upset stomach, and nausea. And …. I decided we are still going! Yes, I made sure his temperature went down by the time we had to leave, and not just dow, but down without him taking any fever-reducing drugs. He was pretty weak and laid down for most of the first day of travel, but he was fine when we arrived to Gdansk. However, before arrival, there was a night…

I know that what I am going to tell now will sound extremely judgmental, maybe racist, so I will try very hard to stick to the facts.

We were traveling in the sleeping car. The car was almost empty; only one more compartment except ours was occupied. And the car crew was Polish.

Yes, I understand that it is not about nationality; it is about the social norms in a particular society. And I love the Polish part of me, and I love Poland deeply, but by that time I’ve interacted with Poles, male and female, long enough to know about what was considered an appropriate “manly” behavior.
The compartments in the sleeping cars were quite weird from my perspective. In the Soviet sleeping car, each compartment would host four people, two on the bottom bunks, and two on the tops. Here, the were three bunks on one side and none on the other. There were belts to prevent a person who was sleeping on the top from falling. I think that Igor was sleeping on the second bunk, and it would be logical if I would climb on the very top. But I was on the bottom bunk.

And then one of the porters knocked at the door. He said something to the effect that he forgot to give me some toiletries, which he had to provide for the sleeper passengers. I opened the door. He smelled heavily with the cheap perfume. He locked the door and threw his body over me.

I have no idea what he was thinking:). I have two hypotheses. One- that he was sure that I would succumb to his charms, and that no woman can stand them. At least that’s what I could deduce from the fact that he started to kiss me, saying in Polish, that he wants my lips. My other hypothesis is that he thought I would not risk waking up the kids because I would not want to scare them and keep quiet.
Well, it was true – I didn’t want to scare the kids. But, that was not the first rape attempt in my life, and I knew how to stand for myself!

I was turning spinning my head so that he won’t get my lips, I was pushing him away with both hands, and I was (very quietly) screaming at him to get in the hell out of here! He was still trying to talk me into I am not even sure what, saying, “please let me” in Polish, but I kept spinning and keeping whispering-yelling, and I think he finally realized that I would start screaming loudly if he persists. He retreated.

In the morning, he was very official, as if nothing happened. Do I have to say that I didn’t say a word to anybody? Neither to him nor the Dowgerts when they met us at the train station. I think that I told Boris only several weeks after we’ve returned. And you know why? First, because I believed it’s a part of women’s life. Women are getting raped. Because if you are good looking, men would want to rape you. That was a given. And because – yea, because “it was all my fault.” Because I wore a short skirt. Because I was so vivacious and so visibly excited about going to Poland. Because I knew, “how Polish men are,” and still talked friendly with them during the day.

That’s how our two-week trip to Poland started 🙂

My historical posts are being published in random order. Please refer to the page Hettie’s timeline to find where exactly each post belongs, and what was before and after.

Adding Some Missing Pictures

I was going to write a blog post about our travel to Poland in 1995, but when I started to look for the photos, I found two more, which I forgot to scan. One is from Vlad’s and Anna’s daycare from 1993 (it was taken at the same time as this picture). I hope everybody can recognize Anna and Vlad in the first row. A boy sitting between them, Dima Golyak, was from a “socially unstable family,” and I remember the teachers were constantly worrying about him. If I remember correctly, both teachers were Tanias. They were great with kids, kind, caring, and usually added a lot of common sense to rediculous rules. A girl in the red dress in the first row is a daughter of Tania, which is on the right 🙂

Another one is Igor’s school picture of most likely 1994. Because of what I’ve explained about the schools for special needs kids, the classroom size was small. Most likely, two boys wear the same kind of vest because it was a part of a set of clothes given to the boarders as a state provision.

It’s so weird to see that the kids are not smiling on these pictures, but that was a norm at that time.

The last picture I missed is another Vlad’s and Anna’s daycare picture from fall 1994:

I like it a lot 🙂

My historical posts are being published in random order. Please refer to the page Hettie’s timeline to find where exactly each post belongs, and what was before and after.

The Story Of My Ph.D.

As I mentioned earlier, I didn’t go to the postgraduate school for my Ph.D. First, I could not afford to go for several years on the postgrad stipend instead of salary, and second, it wasn’t easy to get in. I do not even remember whether it was Boris or I who first came up with the idea that I should go for a Ph.D., in some sense, both wanted it to happen.  

I registered with the Department of Mathematics and Mechanics and became “an aspirant.” For the benefit of the Russian-speakers, the Russian word aspirant means “a postgraduate student,” and a Russian word “soiskatel” means “an aspirant.” Super-confusing, I know 🙂

So, I became an aspirant, and then my timeline was entirely up to me. I didn’t have to attend any classes, except for if I felt I need it to pass the qualification exams. I had to pass four of them: English, Philosophy, Speciality One (which was Computer Science for me), and Speciality Two (which was Data Management).

I registered in 1989, and the only exam I passed before Vlad and Anna were born was English. For our English exam, we had to “submit thousands.” If you do not know what it is about, you will never guess. We had to take any book, or books, or journal articles related to our specialty, computer science, in my case. There was an official estimate of how many characters are there on each page, and we had to be ready with something like fifty pages. The examiner could open the book on any page and ask us to read a paragraph and to translate it. Also, we had to prepare several newspaper pages, and they had to be actual US or British newspapers, not Moscow News. Only the Communist Party newspapers were available, so in my case, usually, it would be “The Morning Star.”

Continue reading “The Story Of My Ph.D.”