In the Soviet Union, kids started school when they were seven. Although we had a “prep” group in the detskiy sad, it still wasn’t considered “school.” Going to school meant that you were “a big kid,” and everybody counted the days left until their first “September First” (the official start of the school year countrywide). Very soon, the novelty would vanish, and at least half of the kids would start to hate school, but it was not the case on the first day of your first school year.
During summer in Estonia, Grandma Fania gave me lessons. I could read decently by that time, but she also taught me cursive, and we did a lot of writing exercises. I have no idea why she did this – it was by no means required. Possibly, she kept the memories of the Gymnasium in the Czarist Russia she attended – to be admitted, you had to demonstrate the ability to read, write and do basic arithmetic. Or maybe, she just wanted me to be in the top of my class from day one.
In any case, I was ready and excited. I had my new school uniform on with the “holiday” white apron, and I had flowers in my hand – that was also a must for September 1 – the flowers were given to the teachers, and everybody had to have a bouquet.
The school was less than ten minutes walk away, but I was afraid to be late!
That was my last summer before school, and that summer, I was not sent to a dacha with detsky sad, and I didn’t go to the sanatorium. Instead, it was the first of many summers I spent in Estonia, in Narva-Joesuu. When I published my old home movies, I talked about that time here. I know that my father’s side of the family spent summers there for many years before that. My great-grandfather (the father of my father’s mother, David Solomonovich Levitin died there and was buried at the local cemetery. As I mentioned earlier, I know that I spent at least some part of my very first simmer there, and I have no idea what happened later and why I never went there for seven years.
These questions didn’t bother me back then, though. For most of the summer, I was there with my great aunt Fania, whom I called granma (baba) in the absence of an actual grandma. As I mentioned earlier, my great uncle Mish and his wife Nadia rented another room in the same house. In contrast to baba Fania, uncle Misha, eight years younger than her, didn’t like being perceived as a “grandpa,” so I called him uncle. His wife Nadia was even more concerned with looking younger than she was, and I called her aunt. I know that the rest of the family just barely tolerated aunt Nadia. I do not know the actual reason, but I remember that she was criticized for exactly that: behaving as a grand dame, taking good care of herself, etc. In the pictures below, she helps me to get into the “bridge” position (remember my PE/figure skating?). Since uncle Misha was 58 at that time, she should have been fifty-something and looked outrageously good for her age (by that time’s standards).
It was my last year before school. When we returned from Loo, I started to attend the “preparatory group” in my detskiy sad, which would be the equivalent of Kindergarten in the US, only it was more rigorous.
All the children who turned six and would start the first grade in the fall had two “lessons” a day. We sat at desks that looked a lot like school desks (two kids at one desk), and we did a lot of counting and other math exercises, speech development, and so on. We had to “tell the story looking at the picture” (which I hated with a burning passion). But overall, we were enormously proud to be “almost schoolchildren,” and I liked to wear a navy blue corduroy dress with a white lace collar resembling the school uniform (it was way before I started to hate school uniforms!).
Also, I started to take figure skating classes. They were free and were run by a local enthusiast, so nobody thought a big deal about them. Unlike the famous Soviet “sports schools,” there was no selection of future champions, and we just had fun and tried our best.
We didn’t have an option of skating indoors, so in the fall, we had PE in the local school gym for two evenings a week, and it was also enormous fun.
In some of the photos below, I show the exercises we learned during these classes.
These days, I often think about what would happen to me if I wouldn’t come to the US. Suppose I would decide to stay, either because I won’t have the heart to leave Boris behind or for any other reason. Obviously, my life would be drastically different, but I am thinking more about what would be on my mind. Where would I be, and which side would I take if I stayed in Russia? It’s impossible to tell because all these twenty-six years made me a completely new person. It’s very tempting to say that I would be on the right side of things because of the “three generations of revolutionaries” because I was always a radical and “politically unreliable.”
But all these three generations of revolutionaries truly believed in Communism; they believed that you could “force mankind into happiness with the iron hand of revolution.” And I also believed in the communist ideals and social justice (one could argue that this didn’t change :)), just not so much in favor of the “iron hand.” I do not know where I would be, and that’s scary. We talked with Boris about how we didn’t feel anything wrong with most of the engineers working for the Ministry of Defence or the Ministry of Defence Manufacturing. How we were very proud of ourselves, not caring how our ideas would be used. As long as the government was willing to pay us, we didn’t care. We were “above all of that.”
Now, when I read about Skolkovo and what projects are used now during the war, and how exactly they are used – why am I surprised? I was no better.
Today, Russian State Duma changed the penal code to increase penalties for conscripts dodging draft, put in penalties for willingly surrendering to the enemy and reviving Soviet-era penalties against “marauding” (while also adding what would count as extenuating circumstances, which includes participating in the armed conflicts). And there are also supposed to be referenda on joining the Russian Federation in separatist-controlled parts of Donesk and Luhansk oblasti (the self-proclaimed People’s Republics), as well as the Ukrainian territories Russia occupied since the start of the war. The logic seems to be that, if Ukraine continues its advance, they would be attacking Russian territories, which would justify putting the country on war footing and partial mobilization. (As many people, including some pro-war commentators, have pointed out, the Russian Federation simply doesn’t have the infrastructure and the personal for the full-scale, World War II style national mobilization – then again, I can’t entirely rule out the Russian government trying it anyway).
The whole thing is flimsy as hell – but again, so is a lot of the spin coming out of Russian state media.
That was my second and last trip “to the South.” We rented a room from the same landlord and passed the time the same way as a year before. That meant that we spent mornings at the beach, then went inside to hide from the intense sun. We had milk and bread at home, and then went back to the beach. We had dinner in a small diner close to the beach and would go back to our room. Sometimes, we would wait to see a sunset over the sea.
Mom made friends with another mom who was vacationing with her son, named Sergey. He was approximate my age, and we played on the beach together. A couple of times, we went hiking in the mountains – the mountains started right there, behind the houses. Sergey and I loved making our way through the ferns. Also, that was the first time I saw blackberries and tried them. In Russian, blackberries a called hedgehog berries, and I asked mom whether it is true that only hedgehogs could it blackberries:)
It has been several months since my last historical post. I published the last one on March 13, and it was in the making for a while. After that, the war took over, and somehow I could not return to the stories of my childhood, although I made several attempts during these months. Here is another attempt.
I stayed in the sanatorium for at least two months, and I do not recall missing mom too much. Actually, I do not recall missing her when I was at dacha either. Later she told me how she was looking for excuses to visit me more often (the “parents’ days” were once a month). I think she subconsciously tried to develop in me an unhealthy attachment to her. When I was much older and stayed at the “pioneer camps,” I missed her and dreamed about the day the camp would be over.
However, in the summer of 1969, it was not the case yet. I was happy to see her when she visited, but I was not crying when she left.
On parents’ day, we had a concert for which we rehearsed for weeks.
We had a list of museums we thought we wanted to visit on Saturday (our flight out was at 6-30 PM, so we had most of the day). The Museum of Occupation was something new on the list of Vilnius museums, and I saw that it was very popular. Since this museum was the furthest from our hotel, we decided to start there and see how much time we had left for other museums.
But that museum impressed us so much that after spending 2.5 hours there, we realized we could not go anywhere else, so we spent the rest of that day walking along the streets of Old Town and talking about what we saw.
There is no other museum like this in any of the former Soviet Republics, and I think that if such museums were open in all the Russian cities, maybe, maybe… maybe things would look differently today.
The museum is located in a former Lithuanian KGB building, and the KGB internal prison is still preserved in the basement. Exhibits on the first and second floors present the history of Lithuania’s fight for freedom from 1940 to 1991.
After leaving the museum, Boris said: I am trying to figure out which parts we didn’t know. We knew most of the facts, but in some cases, we were not aware of the magnitude of the events, and in some, we simply never gave it enough thought, which I am now ashamed of.
I knew about deportations in 1941, right before the start of the war, but I didn’t know that there were multiple waves of deportations after the war. The number of displaced people might not look so big until you think about the total population of Lithuania and realize that it was more than 10% of the total population.
We knew about the Forest Brothers, but I had no idea that they kept fighting until 1953! I didn’t know how well they were organized, how much support did they have in the country, and I didn’t know about their multiple unsuccessful attempts to get some support from the West.
Knowing these facts, there is no wonder to see such overwhelming support for Ukraine everywhere in Lithuania!
The exhibit explains how “a quiet resistance” rolled out after the Forest Brothers were defeated. And once again, it made me think about the time I visited Lithuania when I was a teen and a young adult. I am ashamed of myself now that I think about how we were coming there, the occupants, and how we were oblivious that we were seen as occupants. Also, I know many Russians who moved to Lithuania after the war and after the mass deportations, and they were completely ignorant about their role in the occupation.
The part of the museum that talks about the labor camps was somewhat less impressive because I knew a lot about them. But the KGB prison left a completely grave impression, even though, theoretically, we knew how the suspects and the prisoners were treated.
And one of the most impressive parts of the exhibit was the room where they presented the complete organizational chart of the Lithuanian KGB organization, with names and photographs! That’s where I thought – we should have had this for each KGB organization on the territory of the former Soviet Union! Then, maybe…
I am not sure whether the pictures can add much, but I tried to make them informative. As for the prison, the most horrifying thing is that it is real, and not only real but also very recent.
As it often happens, after I started the daycare (detskiy sad), frequent colds started, but in addition, several times, they ended with pneumonia. Back in the 1960s, that sounded even more serious than now. A part of the reason for our trip to the Black Sea in 1968 was a belief that it should strengthen me against the frequent colds. At least that partially influenced mom’s decision.
Most likely, the situation somewhat improved, but not drastically, and the doctors recommended a sanatorium. Back then, a sanatorium mostly meant that I would stay “on fresh air” more than I would do otherwise. Also, it meant almost free boarding, which was a relief for mom.
That summer, she sent me to the sanatorium in Solnechnoe, in Karelia. It’s not like she had a choice where I would go; pediatric clinics were getting quote, and they would decide who should go and where.
Solnechnoe, former Finnish Kuokkala, was the most southern resort in the “Russian” part of the Baltic Seashore. This territory has a long history of changing ownership; some details can be found here. It is not like I cared back then, and I do not even think that mom cared. She mentioned that they routinely called Karelia “Finland,” so there was no confusion about this land.
I came to Solnechnoe in mid-May, shortly after “the May holidays” – the sequence of May 1st, 2nd, and 9th, which were all days off, plus the weekends in between. In the beginning, it didn’t feel at all like summer, we wore coats outside, and the spring bulbs just started to bloom.
Other than that, I didn’t see much difference between being at the dacha and in the sanatorium. The building was somewhat better, and for sure, it was somebody’s summer cottage nationalized by the state. In the picture above, you can see how close the building is to the seashore.
Our building housed the “younger group” and “the older group,” which included children from 5 to 7 and even two school-aged girls, Lilya and Laylay (the very back row on the left). Looking at the class picture, I remember most of the kids, how they looked in real life, what color their clothes were. For some reason, I do not remember the names of the kids with who I played most often but remember others My best friend was a girl who is the fourth from the left in the second row, but I don’t remember her name. And I remember that the girl on the very left of the second row was Ira Kolesnikova, but I was not that close with her. Also, I am surrounded by boys in all pictures, but I do not remember hanging out with the boys that much. I mostly remember the fights :).
Looking at these pictures, I remember one funny thing: there were some rules about what we should wear in certain weather. For example, we had to wear sweaters over the dresses when the temperature was below 20C (68F). On the other side of the building, the beach was right there, but we were not allowed into the water until both the air and the water temperature reached a certain degree (I have no idea what it was). There were still days when we swam, and that was a real delight!
More pictures in the next post!
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.