Growing Up In The Russian Wild West

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There’s a name for people like me – I’m a ‘child of the Perestroika’, a series of economic and political reforms instated after the fall of Communism and the Soviet Union. 90’s Russia is widely known to be a time of lawlessness, widespread corruption and rapid change, but the reality for most people was probably not what you would’ve expected it to be.

For the first eight years of my life, I lived in a satellite suburb of Moscow called Zelenograd. Check the Wikipedia link if you want the full history lesson but the short version is that it was built to be a Russian version of Silicon Valley, was a closed city at one point (meaning no pesky secret-stealing foreigners were allowed in) and now loads of people move there because it’s not as insanely polluted or expensive as Moscow but has great rail links for commuting there for work.

A typical train (source)

A typical train (source)

The train station, Kryukovo, was a busy part of town. Kiosks and small shops called pavilions lined the street outside, open late for commuters (out-of-town shopping centres weren’t a thing back then) and there was a market that sold everything from clothes to fruit and vegetables. There were also babushki sitting on fold-up chairs in a row selling bunches of seasonal flowers from their dachas. There was a stall selling draught kvas, a traditional Russian savoury version of Coca Cola, a big vat of it with a tap on the side and a bored overweight woman sitting under a cafe umbrella. I was more interested in the stall with the huge cooler box full of ice cream for just five roubles.

We lived in a five-storey panel apartment block called a Khrushyovka, ten minutes away from the station and yes, we had carpets on the walls. The neighbours were more or less friends until someone started taking a shit in the hallway every night and the atmosphere became that of chlorine and suspicion.

There was one time when my mum was walking home from the station late at night and got followed by a man all the way to our front door but we never experienced any actual crime.

My mum was a single mother (which was unusual for that time but it wasn’t unusual to have a boyfriend who was an asshole and ran off) but that didn’t mean we were isolated. There was a strong family-oriented culture at the time and my babushka (grandmother) and dedushki (grandfathers) were around constantly, especially as my mum was working in Moscow full-time as an accountant for a US company. She later told me she effectively blagged the job and had no idea what she was doing most of the time but she seemed to do well for herself regardless.

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A corner of the Khrushyovka and babushka taking me sledging

Dedushka Sasha (Alexander), me and some Soviet-era swings

Dedushka Sasha, me and some Soviet-era swings.

We were never a rich family – we never had a car or a fancy TV. Even when my mum bought our first Sony to replace the Rubin, the programming was so shit that I preferred to pull a random book off a shelf. That was how I majorly got into crime fiction such as Rex Stout and Earl S Gardner as well as discovering Joanna Chmielewska, but also The Art of Erotic Massage and Story of O. The latter two later mysteriously disappeared until I found them hidden at the back of the tallest shelf a few years ago.

I started kindergarten fairly early; when some of the other children asked where my dad was, I told them he was dead. I never miss him – you can’t miss someone you’ve never met. The worst thing about kindergarten was the afternoon naps – we had to lug out these fold-out beds and sleep for something like 3 whole hours. I would get so bored I would take out my hairclips and play ‘dolls’ with them.

I started school at 7 because my family wanted me to go to a gymnasium, which was basically a selective primary school and took kids on a year later than standard Russian primary schools. To help prepare for exams, I was tutored by a nice woman called Anna Viktorovna at her flat. She had really curly hair and a Siamese cat. She worked for the gymnasium where I was enrolling and we had to pretend we didn’t know each other when we met in the hallways.

I had English lessons once a week after school (most memorable lesson: (female) teacher wore a crochet top with nothing underneath. NIPPLES) and violin lessons once a week during school but that wasn’t helicopter parenting by any means, it was just what people did to give their children a good education. After a while I ‘accidentally’ smashed my violin against a wall on the way home from school.

The Rubin TV set I mentioned earlier went straight to the dacha, a wooden house in the country surrounded by what I could only describe as a chaotic small-scale farm. This was the grandparents’ domain – dedushka Misha and babushka grew tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers in big greenhouses and there was also everything from gooseberries to potatoes. I’m not talking about cute grandparents-pottering-about-the-garden style gardening, it was a ‘why the fuck would you need to go to a supermarket to buy any vegetables when we have more than enough here’ type of operation. Anything that wasn’t eaten fresh was pickled and stored in the cellar.

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I spent summers and school holidays at the dacha. Most families had both parents working and there was no such thing as private childcare. Besides, the family support system was so strong that it was unthinkable for someone other than the grandparents to babysit. As a result there were about fifteen of us around every summer. My grandparents were busy during the day; babushka spent most of her time tending to the vegetation and dedushka Misha was either fixing things (he was a carpenter by trade) or, as I found out later, having a sneaky drink in the summer house at the bottom of the garden. Even though the whole concept of a house in the country and a summer house sounds posh, it was anything but; the water came from a well we shared with our neighbours, the shower was a wooden hut with a rainwater barrel on top and the toilet was another hut with a pit dug out underneath and a city of spiders living in the roof.

The other dacha residents were a tabby called Malyavka with plenty of battle scars and half of one ear missing, and a black mongrel guardswoman called Aza, same as many of our neighbours. Dacha cats had very different lives to city cats; they ate scraps and whatever rodent they caught. The dogs lived outside in kennels apart from in the winter, and there was a Mexican wave of barking at night when a tipsy dedushka shuffled past on his way home from an evening at a friend’s dacha.

The lack of home comforts and adults to wrap the kids in the proverbial cotton wool meant I had a pretty fun childhood. We all learned to ride bikes at an early age and spent our days bombing down forest paths, stealing dedushkas‘ valuable planks and nails to build structurally horrific treehouses and baking potatoes in coals. Sometimes a cool older sibling was dispatched to keep us in check. Then we would ride out of the village and down the road to the dam, where we would jump into the water off a rope tied to an overhanging tree branch and miraculously not get sepsis from broken glass at the bottom.

I ended up staying in contact with one of the girls from the dacha era after I moved. She was a bridesmaid at my wedding and wants me to be godmother to her daughter.

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Sometimes someone’s parents would come down from the city and have a shashlik – a Russian version of a barbeque and similar to a shish kebab – skewers of marinated pork placed on top of a mangal, which is basically a deep metal box with holes in the bottom, filled with charcoal. Side dishes were usually potatoes and salad (homegrown of course – the dedushki and babushki would be mortally offended if their children preferred shop-bought. All the neighbours joined in and someone would bring a guitar over. The kids would be offered a glass of wine while the veterans of drinking stuck to ice-cold shots of vodka. I would fall asleep listening to the sounds of a crackling bonfire and uneven drunken singing.

My sister, when younger, with one of the post-Malyavka cats.

My sister, when younger, with one of the post-Malyavka cats. She’ll kill me if she ever sees this photo.

It’s easy to see everything through rose-tinted glasses when you look back at your life, but I still believe I had a much better childhood than my sister, who spent hers stuck to a TV screen and a computer. We were poor as hell but I was happy, healthy, didn’t place much value on material goods and learned how to make my own entertainment.

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Marquise the city cat with some flowers from the dacha. We found him cowering on the landing one day, he purred his way into the flat and never left.

Of course there’s always going to be some nostalgia when you look back at a time you didn’t have to hold down a job, worry about your credit rating or whether 0% yoghurt is a fad. The photos might be outdated and your brain might helpfully remember all the moments that make you cringe but the moment you stop feeling ashamed of where you came from is the moment you become a proper adult. Your past shaped you into who you are today and you should be proud that your family, friends and environment did such a good job to turn you into the awesome motherfucker you are today. That’s the philosophy I’m sticking with, anyway.

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