Breaking the rules in private vs protesting in public and the Soviet mentality

Last week, my mom wrote about the seeming contradiction she’s seen with her Russian friends, who’ve seen even peaceful protests as somehow innately bad, while not minding violating laws on the sly.

I definitely get where she’s coming from. Growing up in Russia, I’ve often seen grown-ups express the attitude that it’s almost virtuous to take advantage of loopholes, and there’s nothing wrong with violating the rules so long as they aren’t effectively enforced. Similarly, I’ve seen plenty of people take pride in following the letter of the law while violating the spirit. And it’s not even a solely Russian thing – as I got older, I saw the same kind of attitude in many other ex-Soviet countries.

I’ve already been thinking about this a lot during the pandemic. During the Illinois lockdown, people weren’t supposed to go outside except for essential reasons, such as buying groceries. But there were several professions that were exempt from that, including journalists. So long as it was in the service of performing journalism duties, we were allowed to go wherever wanted.

Which is where the gray area came in. There is only so much journalism one can do from behind the computer screen. Sometimes, one has to go to places, see things as they happen, take pictures, talk to people. And sometimes, you need to see conditions on the ground to figure out what’s worth writing about. And so, as those of you who followed me on social media know, I took trips to the suburbs, just to get out of the house and have a change of scenery. I took pictures and took notes that could be used for the article. A few times, I even legitimately got story ideas this way, or took pictures that were actually used in articles – but there were times that I didn’t. And there were some instances when I took pictures for fun and wound up using them in articles because it just happened to be apropos. But there were also times when I didn’t use them for anything.

My mom wasn’t amused by any of this, chiding me for doing non-essential travel, but I honestly didn’t feel bad. Who was to say that any given trip wouldn’t retroactively serve a journalistic purpose? To quote Harry Dresden from Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files, it was a technicality I intended to hide firmly behind, if anybody asked (which nobody did).

Honestly, I was more confused why my mom took issue with that. She actually grew up in the Soviet Union, and i know for a fact that, back then, she did things that weren’t legal, and things that were on the gray side.

It was the same thing with my visits to the Chicago beaches during the summer. While the beaches weren’t closed, the closures weren’t enforced after 7:00 PM. I didn’t feel bad about not following the rules when they weren’t in any way enforced, especially when other people did the same thing.

Now, unlike my mom’s Russian friends, I have no issue with protests, at least not per se. Even when I don’t necessarily agree with the goals, I don’t have this common Russian reaction of “what are they doing, they’re just stirring up trouble.” Protests bring attention to issues. They make a statement that the way things are won’t be tolerated. What is so wrong with people risking arrest and injury to stand up for their beliefs?

(Now, people wanting to protest without being willing to risk anything is another story)

As I commented on my mom’s blog, I don’t think the contradiction she talked about is that much of a contradiction at all. She and her friends grew up in the Soviet Union. Protest actions get people in trouble – ergo, those who start trouble are trouble-makers. Now, exploiting the blind spots of law enforcement, exploiting the loopholes and the legal particulars, doesn’t get you in trouble (if you do it right), so that’s okay.

I think it relates to the phenomenon Suki Kim described in Without You, There’s No Us, a book about her time teaching college students from North Korean Workers’ Party elite. She was struck by how her students lied constantly, without good reason, and how lying seemed so natural to them, and speculated that it was the consequence of growing up in a society where being truthful was a liability. DPRK apparatus is basically Stalinism on steroids, and my mom’s friends weren’t old enough to experience Stalinism in its original form directly, but I do think that any society where expressing one’s opinions has severe consequences makes lying feel more natural, and makes concerns about self-preservation all the more overwhelming. And, as my own example shows, one doesn’t need to live under Soviet repression to absorb some of the lessons it taught its citizens.

And, thinking at it now, I think another factor that may play into this is that my mom’s generation came of age during Perestroika, when protests helped end the Kremlin Coup and end Soviet Union once and for all – only to experience the economic devastation, privatization creating a class of oligarchs and plunging so many people further into poverty, things like job guarantees vanishing overnight… Might put a few people off protesting,

I don’t think it’s necessarily one thing, but an interaction of all three, with perhaps some factors I haven’t considered mixed in.

I will end with one side note. As several second-generation Russian-American immigrants have observed on Facebook, it’s been kind of fascinating to watch the same people who cheered on protests in Belarus complain about BLM protesters, and the same people who’d complain about police brutality in Belarus excuse police excesses in United States.

But that goes to a whole different, albeit related, bundle of traumas.

Baby Clothes in the Times of My Motherhood

In August, when my girls were visiting me here, Anna and I started talking about baby clothes when they all were babies. I funny thing is that there was a very little difference between the times when I was a baby and Igor’s times. Things just started to change at Vlad’s and Anna’s time, but a little bit too late for us – I still got a full share of caring for the babies without civilization’s advantages.
When I finished my story, Anna said that I should write a blog post about it because she never understood my challenges before. To illustrate my story, I pulled up a couple of Igor’s pictures when he was 1-2 months old; however, you’ll mostly have to use your imagination :).

There were two tops; both didn’t have any buttons or snaps or fasteners – nothing to hold them together. Such tops were called raspashonks – which can be translated as “no fastener.” The one going under was made of chintz (cotton, but not the stretchy kind). It had short sleeves and was put on a baby with the opening on the back. The upper one had long sleeves and was made of thin flannel, and it was put on a baby with the opening on the front. Both were short, just to the baby’s waist.

Diapers were made of gauze. Most of the time, three layers were sewn together in a triangle. You would fold this triangle twice and put it over the baby’s bottom, between the thighs and over the hips. If you are wondering whether there was anything water-proof, the answer is no. Even when the first leak-proof covers started to appear, pediatricians disapproved of them. They were saying babies develop a rush because of them.

Over a diaper, you would swaddle the baby’s body’s bottom in a small rectangle chintz swaddler (pelenka). Then you could put a small rectangular piece of plastic under the baby’s butt, and then you would swaddle her with a flannel pelenka. For night sleep, you would swaddle in the baby’s arms as well.

I believe this gives a good idea about the volume of washing – cleaning required, and why I was never rushing to change the diaper the moment, it was wet. Oh yes, and multiply by two, and by the absence of a washing machine!

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. 

Continue reading “About the Rape Culture”

Soviet Special Ed Schools: What was Wrong

After I posted about Igor’s school, I kept thinking about what I considered wrong about that school. As in every other school, there were some good teachers and some bad teachers. The classes were small; the kid’s needs were addressed. Still, there was something fundamentally wrong in how we, the parents, the children, and the teachers were thinking about it. 

On the one hand, it was considered shameful to admit that your child is attending a school “for special needs, whatever these needs would be. A parent would be reluctant to say what kind of school is their child attending. On the other hand, the staff was constantly promoting the idea that these kids are so lucky because “in a regular school,” nobody would take care of them, and they won’t be able to learn. I remember teachers disciplining students saying that if they don’t behave, they will be sent to “a regular school.”

The students felt simultaneously deprived and lucky, being continually reminding them that “the government provides,” pumping up the sense of entitlement. Also, they had limited contact with the outer world, which would be a case in any boarding school, multiplied by their vision disabilities. 

And back then, I didn’t know how wrong it was, and I acted, and though, and felt like all other parents of children with disabilities (except some brave souls, but I was not one of them). I am just happy that the world started to open for me, and that little by little, I started to realize that things could be different. 

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.

Mr. Jones: the Movie

On Friday, we had a movie night again, this time I invited my very good friend who loves movies, to join Igor and I. And she, in turn, invited her other friend, who is also a passionate movie lover. Our group of four watched Mr. Jones movie.

The movie seemed very interesting from the synopsis, and when I saw it coming in the Film Center from your Sofa series, I decided right away that that’s what we are watching next time. But I have to admit, I didn’t do any reading ahead.

Because of that, in the beginning, it seemed very confusing. The synopsis was saying “right before the WWII,” so I was thinking about 1937-39, but actually, the events in the movie took place in 1932-33. Initially, some small historical inaccuracies were distracting, but later I was really taken by the film. The cinematography is brilliant, and the story is captivating.

While we were watching, Igor googled the film’s origin, and we were surprised to learn that the film is based on real events.

Today, I continued googling and found a website dedicated to Gareth Jones. The site has references to most of his publications, and after I found it, I could not stop reading. Is it unbelievable, how much he was able to witness! I also found that the book of his Soviet dairies is available at the Chicago Public Library. Hopefully when the library will resume operation, Igor will be able to check it out.

It is so unfortunate, that Gareth Jons was not really heard, or rather not listened to!

Children of the Great Patriotic War

Author’s Note: I posted this on my personal blog yesterday, May 9, on what we Russians and people in many other Soviet countries celebrate as Victory Day, to mark the surrender of Nazi Germany and end of World War II in Europe. In European countries, it’s celebrated a day earlier, as Victory in Europe Day. For some  reason, Americans don’t mark it on either day, in spite of U.S.’ very substantial contribution to the war effort.

I wrote this post in OpenWriter, just in case my mom asked me to repost it here. Which, suffice to say, she did. I hope that, if Nadya and any of my mom’s grandkids that may come along read it, they will get something out of it, even though many people in this post aren’t related to them at all. And I hope that people who aren’t family that come across it will get something out of it as well.


This year marks the 75th anniversary of the Nazi Germany’s surrender. But with the shadow of COVID-19 hanging over the world, VE Day/Victory Day commemorations have been scaled back significantly in Europe and the parts of former Soviet Union that still celebrate it. (Except, God help us all, in Belarus)

In Chicago, the big banquet that would usually be held in honor of veterans, Holocaust survivors and Siege of Leningrad survivors was, of course, cancelled – though the Chicago Association of World War II Veterans and the Jewish United Fund have been congratulating them over the phone and delivering presents.

In the last decade, the number of veterans, and people old enough to remember the war first-hand has been plummeting, as more and more of them die of natural causes and illnesses. Great-Grandpa Viktor barely said two words about his service, and he’s no longer around to ask. Great-Grandpa Fyodor passed away when I was four. I have only a vague idea of what Grandma Kima’s, Grandpa Roma;s and Grandpa Slava’s lives were like during the war, and I can’t ask them now. So I decided to share some of the stories I did hear, from family members who are still around, and those who are no longer with us.

Continue reading “Children of the Great Patriotic War”

My Mom’s High School Photo Album

I photographed each and single page of my Mom’s High School graduation album, but never showed these pictures to anybody, on any of the social networks. The main reason is that I brought it from Russia just a couple of weeks before my back surgery, and less than a month before my Mom came to the US. So I had other, more urgent things to address.

Last Sunday, I brought Mom to have an afternoon coffee with me, and she asked me about the album, and I took it out. She was slowly turning the pages, looking at each face, and reading all the farewell wished from her friends. And I thought – that’s what my next historical post should be about.

Then I missed two of my “historical” days because there was too much of life going on, and I promised myself to write a historical post today.
I am saying “high school,” but actually in the Soviet Union, it was just “school.” Students went through all the ten years of education with the same group, which was called a class. And what we call “class” in the US< was called “a parallel.” Do not ask me why :). Most of the time, each parallel would have two or three classes. And these classes would stay the same unless somebody would move to another place to live, which did not happen often.

My Mom was born in 1935, and at that time, children would start the first grade at eight, which means she started school in 1943, during the war, when she was evacuated to Siberia. She returned to Leningrad when she was in the second grade, and since then, she attended the same school.

Mom graduated in June 1953, and here comes her album.

The school building. Once again, it is 1952, seven years after the war ended, and the building looks how it looks, and nobody cares – this is the first photo of the album
Mom’s class in from of the school. The schools didn’t have names, only numbers, her school is number 245. As you can see, it was girls-only school, the schools were separated into boy’s and girl’s in 1943, and returned to mixed education in 1954. Mom is in the back row, with her face turned to the side.
Continue reading “My Mom’s High School Photo Album”

My First New Year’s Eve

Since Christmas was forbidden in the Soviet Union and later partially rehabilitated in the form of New Year’s celebration, I can’t tell, “it was my first Christmas. ” Instead, it was “my first New Year,” December 31, 1963. The New Year was especially a big deal in our family because Aunt Kima’s birthday was on January 1.

I cherish these pictures because they are atypically live for that period, and none of them are staged photos. I believe my Mom never printed the pictures from that roll, which did not include me, so until we scanned the film, I didn’t know what a treasure I have in my possession.

I have some memories from that day, in part because Mom showed me these pictures often.

I just started walking and preferred to stay close to the walls:)
Continue reading “My First New Year’s Eve”

Getting the First Job After College in the Soviet Union

This is the last post related to the story of higher education in the Soviet Union: how graduates would land on their first jobs.

Since it was happening in the Soviet Union, all colleges and universities were state schools, and there was no concept of the private educational establishment. I’ve already mentioned that the cost of education was zero, which did not mean that students’ life was easy. But there was still a price student had to pay upon graduation. This price was called “a distribution of specialists” or simply “a distribution.”

The Soviet Union had a “planned economy.” That meant that the government planned ahead how much of everything had to be produced in any given year, including the number of graduates of all educational establishments. And all employers: manufacturing plants, research institutions, Department of Defence, schools, hospitals, etc. had to plan how many graduates they need to fill in their positions. Since the Soviet Union did not follow the same educational standards as the rest of the world, we did not have Bachelors’s and Masters’s; everybody had to study for five years (some professions – longer). And everybody would graduate as “specialist,” not B.S. or B.A. or M.S.

The graduates were called “young specialists,” and a couple of months before graduation, they had to be “distributed.” The organizations which wanted to hire somebody had to place their requests with an educational institution. In my case, it was the Leningrad State University. There were about 300 students who would graduate the same year as me from the Department of Mathematics and Mechanics. The University would accept about 300 requests for young specialists, including those who could continue their studies as post-grad students, and including those who will become TAs in the University. 

All students were ordered by class rank, and on the day when the distribution commission was held, they were called into the room in their rank order. 

Continue reading “Getting the First Job After College in the Soviet Union”

More on Summer 1963

I found more pictures form summer 1963, the same summer, the same place, the same people. Just wanted to keep all these old photos at one place. When I was a child, I didn’t think of them more than just “these are my baby pictures, ” but now I view them as historical documents, since they’ve captured so many signs of the epoch 🙂

With Aunt Kima. It strikes me, that she is only 39 years old on these pictures.
Continue reading “More on Summer 1963”