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

March 1992 – Two More :)

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Anna 7 months old
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Vlad 7 months old

Here Anna and Vlad are seven months old. They were still tiny for the 7-month old babies, and on top of “having nothing” in the stores, there wouldn’t be any clothes for such small babies, except raspashonki – sort of tops for babies, wholly opened on the front or the back, with no buttons or any other means of holding them together. They would work for three-month olds, but not for always moving seven-month olds. Almost until they were one, I was making all their clothes myself, unless I could find something suitable in the humanitarian aid.

So here Anna wears an apron-style dress and a kerchief, which I’ve crafted from an adult headscarf. They were grey-ish blue with the white polka dots. I’ve also made Vlad’s yellow overalls do not remember what I’ve used for material, but it was some recycling.

You can also see that they are not wearing diapers. Disposable diapers did not exist back then, and the water-proof underwear where you would put an insert just started to appear. It was expensive, of mediocre quality, so there were very high chances that the pants would be wet anyway. Hence – no diapers.

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”

Flying To America For The First Time

Before I start, let me tell you a couple of words about how my children have reacted to the news that we are going to go to America. First of all, they were very excited to tell everybody around, and the funny thing is that nobody believed them! They would be at the playground, and would tell other parents: we are going to America for two years!!! And other parents would be yea, sure… And then I come and say that it’s true!

When Anna and I were talking recently about these weeks before our departure, she told me that she remembers there was one thing she was sad about, but she can’t remember what exactly it was. But I remembered! The Fall play in their daycare was in rehearsal at that time; it was a modern version of the Russian folk tale “Репка” (“The Turnip”). Both of them were playing leading parts: Anna was playing a role of Granddaughter, and Vlad was playing a Dog. And they had to miss their artistic triumph!

We were flying the KLM airlines. It was a strange flight; I do not think they even offer this kind of flight anymore: we would arrive at Copenhagen in the afternoon, spend a night in a hotel, and leave to Chicago in the morning. The hotel room and airport transfer were both paid by KLM. We did have some time to walk around the city, and I even remember that we went to see the Mermaid, but my mind was not there, and I could not fully enjoy the sights.

We had to eat somewhere, and I’ve asked at the hotel reception, where is the nearest place we can eat, and how much would it cost. I had to exchange some dollars to Denmark kronas, and I knew I wouldn’t need them after that evening. Money was scarce, I only had three hundred dollars, so I could not afford to waste any.

They directed us to the nearest McDonalds, which was a safe choice for kids, but also it was a luxury for us these days, and I could not stop thinking that I didn’t plan to spend that much money before we even come to America.

Fortunately, the hotel stay included breakfast, and we went down pretty early in the morning to be sure we eat before our bus comes. And we could hardly find any food my kids were familiar with. Neither they nor I were used to being served ice-cold milk, and they refused to drink it this way. I remember pleading them to eat some corn flakes with this cold milk, and I forgot what we ended up with, but I believe all of us had finally eaten something.

One thing which warmed my heart was that when we stepped on board of the airplane flying to Chicago, a flight attendant had given Anna and Vlad small Lego sets to build lego airplanes, and coloring books and some crayons. And that was so unusual for us! Real legos were extremely expensive in Russia, I would buy some Polish substitutes, which were also expensive, so they would only get medium-size sets for New Year or their birthdays. Having children be treated as special guests was a completely new concept to me, and I felt right away, that this new world is going to be a place of kindness.

During the long flight, the kids behaved well, didn’t make much noise, asked a flight attendant for some orange juice in English, and tried to connect with other children on the plane. So all was good. I stepped out of the airplane, holding my passport with my working vise (the kids didn’t have their separate passports then), and a note with the name of the company secretary, and their phone and address.

A border control officer took my papers and asked: do you know where you are going to go? I said: no, but somebody is picking me up. The officer said: what if nobody will meet you, what you are going to do? He’d sent me to the room with the wooden barriers, where other people were sitting and waiting, and he told me to sit and wait with them.

Imagine being after nine hours-long flight, with two five-year-olds, not even being able to tell them how much longer we need to wait, and why, and what we are waiting for in the first place. We ended up sitting there for about an hour: I and my five-year-old twins, with no food, no water, no toys, no books. They were doing great, being quite patient. And then an officer appeared at the doors and called on me. He handed me my passport and said: you can go! What? Can I go? No questions, no interrogation, no nothing? Yes, you can go.

We exited back to the baggage claim area. It was empty. No people, no luggage. And then we saw our boxes mounted on one cart, and a tall thin man standing by it – it was Val, and that was the first time we met him. I remember the kids walked towards him and clenched to his hands, and he was so surprised with that, that he just started walking, leaving me behind with the luggage:).

Those were our first steps on American soil.