My Ups and Downs at Urbansoft

At the end of December, John went back to the US for Christmas. I was still working at that “it’s great!” project and on my makeshift database. And I came up with something cool. Something I was very proud of. 

I did most of that work at home because it was time around the holidays. Although I did have a modem, that was before the times you could email a bulk attachment, so usually, I would compress my code with tar command and copy a .tar file to the diskette, and take this diskette to the office. 

The next day John should have to be back, and I was anticipating my triumph. At about 9 PM, when kids were already long asleep, I started to make my final .tar file. 

Nowadays, even some of the younger IT people might not know what the tar command does, yet along those of my readers who are not programmers. The fact is that the tar command has positional parameters, the first one is the name of the file, which is the destination of compression, and the rest of the file names are the files which you are compressing. My project consisted of one huge file with the actual code, and two smaller files with some addition. So I am typing this tar command and hit enter. And the next thing I realize is that I’ve omitted the destination filename! You figured out what had happened – the actual file with the code was used as a destination to compress two smaller files, and thus my code was deleted! 

Yea. Its was bare Linux in 1992. No Time Machine. No UNDO. It was gone. And it was 9 PM of the day before I wanted to show my progress. And it was a week’s work. 

I was going to have a sleepless night.

I found a several days old version of that code and started debugging all over again. It was easier the second time because as soon as I saw a bug, I could remember how I fixed it. But still – that was quite a work. By 3 AM, I was done, and I was still able to bring this code to the office the next day and still had my moment of triumph. But since then, I am very diligent in saving my work. And these days, when anybody is embarrassed with a mistake they made, I am always like – that’s fine, you can’t even imagine how many mistakes I’ve made!

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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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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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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To the 28th Anniversary of the Last Russian Revolution

The event as significant, as the last Russian revolution deserves more extensive description. However, for my whole family and me these days will be forever associated with the birth of Vlad and Anna, my extraordinary twins. Anna likes to joke that she brought down communism, and whether you agree with this statement or not, the connection will always be there.

I was eight months pregnant; the doctors did not believe there were any chances I could go full -term, so I was due to the hospital on August 24. The coup started on August 19, and we all understood that it was a coup. And the people said: no! I know, these days it is fashionable to question the latter statement. But that’s how we felt back then, and it felt damn good! The only thing I’ve resented back then was that I was in no condition to go to a protest to the Palace Square! Which tells something about me :).

The world was collapsing, the radio was turned on in the hospital delivery room, we were breastfeeding our babies while listening to the news about the Communist party offices being shut down. That’s how the new chapter for our family has 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.

Summer 1992

I know that I am jumping from one point of time in my life to another with no notice, but I promise it will all be straightened up on my Timeline. Chronologically, this post follows the story about kids and me getting settled in the University boarding house.

We had a great six weeks over there. As I’ve mentioned, we had a flat of two rooms and a kitchen, all for ourselves. That was way more space than I had in Saint Petersburg. The hot water was running only theoretically, so I had two big buckets, a basin, and a huge portable electric boiler. I would fill in a bucket with cold water, immerse a boiler into the water and plug it in. I would fill a basin to the half with cold water and then using a dipper; I would pour hot water in it, to make warm water of the desired temperature. That’s how Anna and Vlad had their baths before going to bed. Igor would stay his feet inside the basin, and I would combine cold and hot water in a dipper, and poured it over him, making it feel like a shower. He was almost seven then and felt utterly embarrassed to stay naked in front of me. When everybody went to bed, I would wash similarly.

There were cockroaches everywhere, so many I learned not to be afraid of them, and kill them by a dozen. Still – I did not have to cook and wash the dishes, and life was great. We would take a bus and go to the parks of Peterhoff to see the famous fountains. We were swimming in the pons of the University Park (former Lichtenberg Manor). We would buy raw milk from the gypsies. One of Boris’s postgrad students named Irina would occasionally babysit for free, and then I would be able to do some work outside of the babies bedtime.

It was there that both Anna and Vlad started walking. As with many other skills, Anna would be the first to master, making her steps barely lifting her feet, but beaming with happiness. Vlad would successfully hide his attempts to walk (Irina asked me once, whether I knew that Vlad is trying to walk when nobody sees him). On public, he was only crawling, moving extremely fast on his butt, and only several weeks later, he had demonstrated perfect walking.

By the beginning of August, Anna, Vlad, and I returned to the city. My Mom was staying for some more time in the boarding house with Igor. Igor was not a baby and didn’t need constant attention, so this was a vacation for her.

Boris took these pictures by our building in the city. Anna and Vlad were approaching their first birthday. I was done with breastfeeding in extreme conditions and weighed 49 kg (about 109 lb). The clothes were hanging on me like on the hanger, but as you can see, it didn’t bother me much:)

Anna 11 months
Vlad 11 months

Late Spring-Early Summer 1992

Another thing which has happened that spring was my atopic pregnancy, which was just short of ending tragically. I refused to go to the hospital even after I’ve collapsed on the kitchen floor, and my mom called 03. Fortunately, the doctor told me: we will take one more call, and then I’ll come back. By the time they were back, I was ready:).

There was a reason I refused to go: nobody except me has ever taken care of Vlad and Anna. Except for Boris for a couple of hours here and there. I remember half-lying down on my mother’s bed (no idea, why on her’s, not mine) and dictating each and the single thing about the babies: sleep times, meal times, amount of food, naps, clothes for inside and outdoors. I remember that Boris managed to come before I was taken to the hospital, although I do not understand how he could get there on time.

I didn’t know what was going on with me, except that I could not move and could not breathe. When the doctor in the hospital has told me I have an atopic pregnancy, I didn’t believe her. I was taken to the operating room right away, and I remember that the surgeon asked me whether I want another tube to be removed as well. It’s hard to believe, but just a week before that Boris and I were talking about that option, and he said that he does not like the idea of doing something non-revertable. So I said no.

After the surgery, I’ve stayed in the hospital for five more days; eight patients in the room, atopic pregnancies, abortions, ovarian cancer – you name it, ages from nineteen to seventy-five. Two hours a day for visitors.

I had no breast milk the first day, and I thought it’s gone for good, but the next day it has reappeared. I’ve started to pump, just for the sake of keeping it coming, and it was then that I saw it was yellowish-grey and half transparent. To the” breastfeeding only” fanatics: I am absolutely sure my babies were better off with the US baby formula (that’s when it became handy, the Christmas gift from a Jewish charity!). After five days, my stitches were removed, and I was allowed to go home the next morning. I left the same night.

I was not allowed to lift any significant weight after the surgery, so I had to crowdsource my childcare. All of my friends who could come, for half a day, or for just an hour, were coming when they could. When nobody was around, I was moving on my knees and lifting the babies from that position.

Still, the warmer weather was approaching, at least theoretically, and life was turning for the better. By June, I’ve returned back to work at the University. This didn’t change much in my life since the year was 1992, and the people, whos’ salaries were financed by the government, didn’t get paid for months.

But fortunately, there was another perk. A relict from the Soviet times, when the local Unions were another branch of government – a summer boarding house.

I need to step back and explain what was so special about this last fact. I haven’t met with this perception in the States, but I might have a wrong referential group. In the Soviet Union and later in Russia there was no concept of suburbs in the American sense. We lived in the cities with relatively high pollution level. Granted there were magnitude fewer cars on the streets, but their engines were producing a lot of pollution. Besides, there were plants and factories, and there were not enough parks.
Any good mother had to provide a way for her children to “get some fresh air” during summer. This meant ideally to find a dacha somewhere in the countryside, where the children could stay with rotating parents/grandparents or send her children to the pioneer camp. The camp was for the children who were already in grade school, meaning they should have been seven or older. The younger children could be sent to a dacha with their daycare, but by my time, very few of them had dachas.

Besides each mother would have to resolve a dilemma, which way she would be the worst mother: if she would send her child to the daycare dacha, where she should suffer without her mother, or if she would have her stay in a polluted city and attend a “daycare on duty.” Many daycare facilities would close for summer without providing any alternatives. So you would be labeled a bad mother in any case :).

The University boarding house was a relict from the Soviet Union epoch and a present from heaven for me. It was opened all year long, but the summer sessions were in particular demand.

The University of Saint-Petersburg STEM campus was located outside of the city, in the countryside, or rather in the middle of nowhere. That was an idea of academician Alexandrov to build a university campus “as they do on the West.” There were many things wrong with this idea in the Soviet Union times, but a side effect was this boarding house right there, clean air, very little of civilization, and almost across the street of my work.

The price for the 3-weeks stay was pretty symbolic, especially counting the fact that we were getting meals three times a day, and most of the time they were eatable. I did buy extra fruits and other stuff for the kids, but that was fine. In the boarding house, I had more space than in my apartment, I barely ever had to cook and wash the dishes. I slept for 7 hours straight and was having a real vacation. Whatever work had to be done, was done primarily when Vlad and Anna were asleep.

Winter-Spring 1992. About Good People

As I’ve mentioned earlier, winter 1991-92 was especially bad economically. And as a consequence, people were the most unkind. Several months later, when a situation has become a little bit better, people were much more inclined to let me skip the line and started to express more kindness towards the babies.

One thing I still can’t understand was the fact that for some reason, my twins were drawing lots of male attraction in my direction. Once I was taking the bedding to the laundry service. I’ve left the baby carriage outside for just a couple of minutes to bring my bundles in (it was a norm in Russia at that time, nobody thought that something terrible could happen to the babies in the course of a couple of minutes, and who in the right mind would want extra babies in their lives?!). When I’ve emerged out of the laundry service, I saw a guy standing by the baby carriage marveling at my babies. They were tiny at that time, bundled tight in the blankets, one with pink polka dots, another – with dark green. This was an indication of the gender of a tiny person inside each of the bundles.

The guy moved his gaze away from the babies and looked at me. “Twins!” – He exclaimed – “a boy and a girl! How you are doing this?! Any chance you are taking orders?” “No,” – I’ve replied – “It’s a matter of inspiration!”

There were multiple other occasions, especially by late spring-early summer, when Vlad and Anna very not just tiny bundles anymore. Men would stop by me when I was sitting on the bench at the playground and say: “Such beautiful babies! Any chance they need a father?” This was especially surprising since by late spring when I was almost done with breastfeeding, I was far from being a pretty sight. I weighed 49 kilograms (about 109 lb) while being 164 centimeters tall (5 feet 3.5 inches). My clothes were hanging on me like on the coat hanger, my face was covered with sores due to the lack of vitamins, and my teeth became so fragile, that I was missing several pieces, so I can’t even say that my smile was pretty.

Continue reading “Winter-Spring 1992. About Good People”