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”

Winter 1991 – 1992

Before I proceed with my story, I wanted to reply in more details to the comments on the previous post. “The nineties” was a very prolonged period, each several months the economic situation would change drastically. The time I was talking about in the previous post was from late fall 91 to spring 92, maybe a little bit more than that. Again, I am not going to consult the Wiki, to check the exact dates of all the legislation which were coming out these days. I am trying to recall as precise as possible how I felt back then.

In September, when I just came back from the hospital with Anna and Vlad it was not that bad yet. You could actually buy at least some things in the stores, and I remember that Boris was occasionally bringing me some groceries which he would manage to “get,” waving off my attempts of financial independence. This was one of the very few periods of our togetherness when I was OK with that.

I was eating a lot. I felt sick for the last couple of weeks of my pregnancy each time I was trying to eat something more than an apple, my body was not really processing anything. When I’ve checked into the hospital, the nurses were commenting “you are so thin!”, which sounded hilarious applied to my eight-months-pregnant with twins body, but they were right.

After Vlad and Anna were born, I started eating :). And there was actually stuff to eat. I remember making myself endless omelets with vegetables, cheese sandwiches, lots of black tea with whole milk, which was a traditional Russian breast milk production booster.

I believe things started to change for the worse in October, and then I barely had any protein till the end of the year. The hyperinflation was in full swing, and I had nothing except government subsidy for new mothers. The weirdest thing I remember about these times was my thinking about how in the world I could live on this little money till next month. I was thinking to myself: well, that’s what the government is giving for new mothers, if they came up with this sum of money, there should be a way to survive on it. It sounds completely ridiculous now, but I remember that back then these thoughts would provide some sort of comfort to me.

Continue reading “Winter 1991 – 1992”

Getting Ready To Go To America

So, I’ve got a job offer and started to get ready. At that time, getting a work visa was not at all that crazy as nowadays. My phone interviews had happened in mid-June 1996, and at mid-August, I’ve got a package in the mail. The two months in between felt weird since I was not telling anybody; only Boris and my Mom knew, and neither was happy about this development.

The package arrived, and I checked the hours of operation of the US Consulate in Saint Petersburg and went there. As far as I remember, I didn’t even need to make an appointment at that time, I could just show up, get in the line, and get in. And as far as I recall, I didn’t get any visa forms before I came to the Consulate. Now it seems unbelievable, but I actually filled in all the forms by hand and proceeded to the window to talk to the officer. She looked through my papers, asked me something about databases and then said, that the package is incomplete, that they need “articles of incorporation” and “recent tax returns”. Needless to say, these words meant nothing to me, so I had to memorize them to make sure I will be able to cite them in my email.

Another month passed, and a new package had arrived. And I went to the Consulate again, and this time, my work visa was granted.

In the next month and a half, lots of things were happening, and I can’t recall the whole sequence of events. Finding a flight. Airlines other than Aeroflot just started to make their presence in Russia. It was a total shock to me, that the ticket prices where different for different airlines, and that they could depend on the date the flight is scheduled for. It was news that we were allowed to buy a one-way ticket (it was forbidden with Aeroflot). Then there was all this business of “paying by corporate card” – in the Saint Petersburg office of KLM they recorded the credit card number in the notebook, and told me that they will pass into their New York office, and “will let me know when it comes through”. And remember, I knew nothing about the credit cards at that time!

The date was finally settled, and it was October 22. I was still running around, meeting with people, “seeing each other last time”. I remember my friend asking me: do you even believe it yourself, you are going to America, or you are watching a movie about yourself? I was definitely watching a movie. I was telling everybody that I will return in two years, that I will just save enough money to buy my own apartment. Some of the people were skeptical saying: “Everybody says they will come back, but nobody comes!”I would dismiss these comments – what did they know about me?! Still, one part of me was thinking: I will never come back, I am going away, so that I will never see my Mom anymore, and I will never have to deal with Boris anymore. I will find some nice man over there and will have a family as other people have.

I had no money. Almost none. I was always keeping a poker face about that, but by this time, I was without a rouble in my wallet by the end of the month regularly. I was barely making ends meet, but would rather die, than tell anybody. I’ve sold my desktop computer, because I had to have at least some money with me, and after repaying some minor debts I was left with 300 dollars to start my new life. I was asking John how much money I will need to get along for the first month. With all the idealism of Columbia alumnae, coming from a family with old money, he would reply: Why do you need to take any money with you? You are going to work in America! You are going to make money, not to spend money! – So, will 300 do for the start? – Sure!

Igor was not coming with me. I did not know how to figure out from a distance, whether he will be able to go to school in America, where should I start, whom should I ask. And it never occurred to me that I could ask my new employer! I would never think to do such a thing in Russia, and I had no idea it could be different in the rest of the world. So I left Igor behind, “until I figure things out”.

It was decided that the company will rent an apartment for me in the same building where G. lived with his family. The office manager (and HR, and everything else) from my new company was writing me about the train schedule, about G’s wife, who was supposed to take care of my kids, and I could not figure out what the problem was. The CEO had sent me a very long and detailed email to the effect that I have no idea, how much daycare costs in America, and indeed, I had no idea to such an extent, that I was not getting a message. Both she and John were saying: it’s very expensive! The best thing you can do is to take your mother with you so that she could take care of the kids. But that was the whole point of the idea – to get away from everybody!

The date of departure was approaching. I didn’t have any luggage, so I’ve packed our stuff into five cardboard boxes. I didn’t even take any winter boots for the kids – they are growing, and we will buy better ones in America! I didn’t have money for a cab, and one of Boris’s postgrads agreed to drive us to the airport (very few people owned cars in Russia at that time). I remember all my last good-byes, and remember the same feeling that I am not sure whether I will see everybody again, whether I will ever come back…

How I Decided To Go To America

The year was 1995, and everybody was going to America, almost like the Jews at the beginning of the 20th century. Just try to imagine, that for many years one was not allowed to go to any foreign country, even as a tourist, even to the “socialist” country without the approval of the Communist Party special commission. An opportunity to go abroad – literally anywhere abroad – was the most exciting thing one could imagine. Before Perestroika I was abroad only once – with a delegation from our University, but that will be a topic for some other blog post.

After the trips abroad have become possible, I’ve traveled once – with all my three children to Poland, during the summer of 1995. Now imagine what people felt when all of a sudden, you were allowed to travel. And also, all of a sudden there was email. And several years later – world wide web. Imagine how it felt when, after years of almost complete isolation, you could receive emails from your former classmates living in other countries. You could receive an email list with job postings. Actual job postings from the USA. And you could email, and inquiry and somebody would reply! It was a mind-blowing experience.

So as I’ve said, everybody was going to America. As if it was 1905, and the Jews were fleeing Russian trying to escape pogroms. But this time around there were not just Jews. Everybody wanted to go. And business in the US has also realized that there is a huge workforce market, with skilled workers, totally unexplored. That’s how it all started. The demand was so great that when I look back, I think one should have made a special effort not to go to America.

And there was me, a single mother of three, living in one room of 2-room (not 2-bedroom, just 2-room) apartment, being able to provide daily necessities and more, but absolutely being unable to get out of this one room.

To give some historical perspective, after 1991 all previously state-owned apartments were “privatized” meaning, that each person has received “for free” in their own possession the place they were living in. So if it happened to be a one person in a 2-room apartment, they would automatically own it. If there would be five people leaving in a similar apartment, as in my case, each of us would own “1/5 of the apartment”. The apartment renting was virtually non-existent, and when available would cost more than I could afford. Plus, you could go to the doctor only at your place of registration, and renting would not provide registration for you. Also, there was no mortgage in existence. The only way to get something bigger than one room in this 2-room apartment was to buy a place, paying in cash.

Knowing the salaries in the US, and knowing the cost of apartments in Saint-Petersburg at that time, I figured out that it will take me two years to come up with the money I needed, and joined the crowd looking for jobs in the US. I absolutely didn’t want to emigrate, at least that’s what I was telling myself. To be honest, how when I recall these times, I think that I was thinking two separate thoughts. One of them was that I can’t imagine living anywhere except Saint Petersburg, and I just need to make this trip before it is time for Anna and Vlad to go to school (because schools in America are obviously horrible, everybody knows that). The other thought (or the other me) was “I want to leave and never come back”. My relationships with my mother were a constant crisis, my relationships with Boris were a constant crisis, So for some reason, I thought that I can run away from all of these crises at once.

So I’ve stopped to resist and started to look. First, two job offers came from New York. One was arranged by John Roseman, a significant person in my life (another “save for later” note), a new-yorker living in Saint Petersburg trying to build new and just capitalism in the New Russia. This did not go through. His friends in New York told him that it is too much of responsibility to bring a single mother of three to America. “What if one of your children will get sick? You can’t stay at home, you have to go to work, what will you do?” Also, recalling other emails he’d shown to me at that time, I suspect, that the way their attorneys were going to arrange my working visa was not 100% legal (there was something along the lines “she needs first to come to the US and start working, and then…”)

The second one also came from a friend, who was already working in the US at that time. That one was some questionable Russian-owned company in New York, and the conversation went along the same lines: it’s all great, but how you feel first coming to the US and work for a little bit on some project, and then we’ll see…

That was not an option either.

My friend Irina left to work in another “strange” place. If I recall it correctly, it was presented as studying abroad, and the pay was below all possible standards, but it was not called “salary”, and thereby people could be invited to work and be paid a little bit over minimum wages. Irina talked with her boss about me. Single mother, three children. Will I go to Miami, FL, to work for 26,000? No, even being as naive as I was at that time, I knew enough to understand it was not an option.

And then there was G., with whom I worked at Urbansoft, with John being a director (another “save for later” note – he deserves a separate story). By that time G. has been working in Illinois as a consultant for some time, and one of the clients he was assigned to asked him, whether he knows somebody in Russia who would come to work for them.

Then there was a call. My goodness, an international call! And G. was asking whether I am interested… And then there was a phone interview with Patrick, the manager of IT for the company I didn’t even know the name of at that time. And – it didn’t work. I didn’t make it.

As I’ve learned later, they hired Val, who was “one person does it all” at the moment. But 6 months later they decided they need a separate DB person. And they called me again.

Patrick was not with the company anymore, so I’ve interviewed with another manager. Again – phone interview! With people from America! How exciting and how scary!

That was when my “primary key story” had happened, and I could not believe I’ve got a job offer for just knowing what is a primary key, and what is a foreign key (the very basics of the database theory for those who are not in the field). To be precise, it took not one but two phone interviews, since at the first one I sounded “a little bit nervous”, as I was told. Ha! “A little bit”! A lot!

This second interview ended with unbelievable “We would like to have you as a part of our team”. Actually, I do not recall being especially overjoyed. It was something else. I remembered Irina sitting in the empty apartment the day before her family was about to board the plane… She was really excited… as for me…

… I called Boris right away and told him we need to talk. When we met, I told him: I’ve got a job offer from America. Heading out to meet him, I was thinking to myself: if he only says, “I do not want you to go”, I will stay. He told me later that he understood quite well, that this would be the case, so he replied: Good! You should go!

Again, later he told me that he wanted me to take this opportunity, for mine and my children’s sake, and he was feeling that his life is about to end, but he said: You should go! And I was like: Well, if you really want me to go, I will go and will never look back!!!

And that’s how my journey has begun.