When I was growing up, during the times of Gorbachev and Perestroika, which as you probably know, resulted in total change of the regime, as well as, of the whole country, things used to be different. Around the age of sixteen or seventeen I was contemplating the end of the Soviet Union and the way Russia was trying to adjust herself to the requirements of capitalism, in a slightly mad mode. We had new churches being opened on a daily basis, together with Tarot and palm readers offering their services in the proximity of the same churches, as well as all kinds of other esoteric stuff. It was total and absolute madness, but it gave me a hint that all kinds of belief systems can be turned into a profit, which is a sad fact of our world which still claims some sanity. However, while capitalism was there (in new Russia), what wasn’t common as yet, was the usage of mobile phones, and therefore, the community and friendships remained intact, for the time being, as well as some Russian sense of humour, which helped me to survive until I decided to move to Brussels to study in French. Back in Russia, my best friend and I were doing all sorts of pranks. Sergei, my friend, like me, was observing the dramatic and traumatic changes around us with total bewilderment, resulting in both of us, trying to laugh it off (not very successfully). And there were many things which were indeed funny, besides numerous new churches and witches co-existing in a weird peace. Like, imagine ten women wearing the same coat (we had shortage of choices in food, clothes and everything else) while entering an underground station in the morning! Or tanks next to the white house in Moscow, and Sergei and me drinking coca-cola right next to one (as it turned out, we left five minutes before the coup d’Etat started and were lucky to stay alive). But the funniest thing was our own invention, called the radio joke. I am not sure who came up with the idea of radio prank (probably both of us) but it was hilarious. I would sit next to my home phone and make calls. Occasionally, we would call total strangers, but usually we called our friends (no number recognition was available back then). “Hello, this is radio ‘Love’ calling you live! I am Svetlana Rudnikova, the presenter of ‘hot hour’!” I would, obviously, change my voice, with Sergei standing next to me, playing real radio, to appear as genuine as possible. “Oh my God!!!!” a hysteric answer would usually follow on my introduction. “Radio ‘Love’! Really?!!!!” “Yes! And you are our lucky winner of today to choose a song!” We would do then a small chit-chat and then conclude with a line: “Tune in now to listen to your song!” Before hanging up. The radio itself (the ‘Love’ radio), the real one, was, on almost all occasions, playing something completely different from the ‘lucky’ choices of my friends, and Sergei and I, would patiently wait before re-dialling the number ten minutes later. Sergei was the one talking, during our ‘repeat’ call.
“Hello Nastenka, this is radio ‘Love’ again on the phone!” He would listen to the reply (mostly complaints about not hearing the song which had been ordered) before proceeding to our ‘reveal the prank’ line.
“It isn’t radio ‘Love’! It is me, Sergei and Ekaterina, having a blast! We are at Ekaterina’s flat now, join us for some fried potatoes and vodka!” We would both laugh hysterically, hang up and wait for our friend to join the party. One week I was hosting, as a result, the entire faculty of acting from a famous university of film-making of Moscow. They all came to a party after our prank call, with Sergei studying at that time at the same faculty. He was a born actor, you see.
But the best bit was when radio ‘Love’ did play a song, ordered by my friend, Nastenka. It was something by The Queen. She had no doubts, whatsoever about the authenticity of the call. And even if she did laugh when we called her back and revealed the prank, I could hear disappointment in her voice, and till today, regret that call (the ‘reveal the prank’ one). We shouldn’t have done it, but it helped us to live on.
I was sixteen, and still studying at school. On the day when I encountered Dima I was taking the Moscow’s underground to deliver myself for a photo session at a modelling competition. It was the time, which lasted for a year at most, when I was dreaming of becoming a model. In other words, I was completely, totally insecure in both my body and my head.
When I entered the wagon at one remote station in our beautiful underground, I immediately spotted Dima. The guy was charming, had dark hair and was laughing in a very sure way with two girls sitting next to him.
A cute guy and a student, I sighed. No way a person like him will ever notice my presence. I was wearing a terrible fur cap (to safeguard my hair for the photo session), while the only piece of style in my wardrobe was limited to the boots, which half of Moscow was wearing at that time. It was the period when limited pieces of fashion were attacking Moscow shops in masses. I might have skipped the rainbow coat (worn by the other half of the city’s population) but I had the boots. I sat next to the guy, however, as there was a vacant place. Taking out of my suitcase a book, I tried to loose myself in studying French grammar – the subject I was supposed to know perfectly, while attending a privileged linguistic college in my native town.
“You speak French?” I heard a second later, and to my greatest amazement, this comment was coming from the cute dark-haired guy. He turned away from his fellow blonde student girlfriends and was looking intensely at me.
“Yes, professionally,” I gave the most stupid answer, while removing my fur cap with my right hand and hiding a pimple on my check with my left.
“Interesting,” the guy moved closer to me to look at my book. “Where?”
“At the University,” I said in a confident way, while trying to adjust the position of my face in such a way that he wouldn’t notice my pimple.
“Which university?”Despite the fact that I was only sixteen (and still at school), and blessed with pimples I knew which were the best universities, at that time, to learn French in Moscow.
“The Institute for Foreign Languages,” I said proudly, forecasting my future at that moment, as it’s exactly where I landed for a year before moving to Brussels, let me think … two years later?
“Oh …” I could see that the guy’s interest in me was growing. Which was fine by me, as never in my life had a guy like him talked to me for such a long time, and yes, he was the cutest guy I had met so far.
“Well …” he continued, “I also study French, at the University for Foreign Relations.”
Not only was he cute, he was also smart. At that time the institution he was attending was renowned as the ‘hottest’ place to get your degree.
“Really?” I said. “I love French. It’s the love of my life,” I lied, since the biggest love of my life at that period was George Michael and Wham!
“My name is Dima”, said the guy, while trying to hold my gaze for more than two seconds. It was exactly what I was trying to avoid, as my biggest problem at that time, apart from pimples, was that I was blushing on every possible and impossible occasion.
“My name is Ekaterina,” I answered, while wondering what on earth Dima saw in me, as the look on the faces of his two fellow girlfriends was suggesting that they were asking exactly the same question, and not in a very pleasant way.
“Voudriez-vous diner avec moi ce soir?” the eyes of Dima were really too close to mine this time.
I blushed. The thing was … I didn’t understand a word of what Dima had said. In perfect French. I was so blown away by his intense stare that it didn’t occur to me that I should also use my brain and my ears.
“Fuck!!!!” was my answer in perfect Russian, when I noticed the name of the underground stop. “I missed my station!”And without giving it an additional, mature, balanced thought I literally jumped from the train.
And only on the platform seeing the departing train and Dima in the train looking (sadly?) at me did the meaning of his sentence entered my teenage brain. “Would you like to have a dinner with me tonight?” This was what he had asked me in French.
When I was eleven I fancied a boy. It was that innocent, first-time crush when the ultimate wish is to spend more time together, and a kiss on the lips. It never happened.
What did happen, however, was a love of a book thanks to that boy. His name was Andrei and he was a son of a famous painter. Andrei, as I, was a member of exclusive club of young painters at the also famous ‘House of Artist’ in Moscow. The House of Artist was renowned and still is for its amazing exhibitions and a nice restaurant and cafeteria, with grounds next to the House stretching to Moscow river, giving a beautiful view and a time spent in peace, culture and tranquility.
I got into the club thanks to my grand-dad. At some point, a Cossack who had been first sent to Ural because he had marched by foot from Germany after the war, and thus, couldn’t be traced among members of the Russian Army, was later sent to a political prison in Siberia, where he ended up sharing a cell with another famous painter. The painter taught my grand-dad how to paint, and on his return to Ural and then, ultimately, to his Cossack village in the South of Russia, together with my grand-mum and their sons, he became a teacher of art at a local school. One day, when, as usual, I was spending my summer with my grand-parents, during the long break from school in Moscow, he started to teach me how to draw, and these lessons landed me a place in the club in the House of Artist, a small group of ten children among hundreds who didn’t get a place.
It soon emerged that I wasn’t doing that well when my artistic expression had to be supervised at certain hours. I wasn’t that interested in learning further technique of painting or in spending an hour trying to figure out how to draw a still picture of some fruits at the back of the studio. I was eleven years old and was more interested in socializing. Another girl, Nastya, had the same ideas as me, and we would bring our tiny collections of barbie girls and spend all our breaks on playing.
There was also a boy, Andrei, who was very interesting. He wouldn’t play barbies but draw in that dismissive way of a rebel. If we had to do a still picture, he would draw a portrait of a teacher, and then it was time for a landscape, he would make a still picture of a tree.
Needless to say, he was a subject of admiration of all girls in our group, me including. Andrei had a liking of me, since he would always try to sit next to me and engage in some intellectual conversation. Even at that age I would catch myself thinking that here was an intellect way beyond childhood, and that Andrei was simply a genius. One day, on the way home, when we traveled together for something like five underground stations until his stop, Andrei asked me whether I had already read ‘The Master and Margarita’. I hadn’t and for a good reason. ‘The Master and Margarita’, a masterpiece written by Mikhail Bulgakov, which was published only after his death, is a story of a Devil who visits the Soviet Union under Stalin’s regime, with a parallel story of Jesus Christ and Pontius Pilate. It isn’t a book that one reads at the age of eleven. But because I admired Andrei and didn’t want to appear stupid, I answered that ‘yes, of course’, which provoked a zero reaction on Andrei’s face. I reckon he would have been much more surprised if I had answered the truth. I had never read any work by Bulgakov by that point.
“What did you think of Woland?” Andrei then asked me a question, sending me into frenzy of trying to guess who the hell Woland was. If you haven’t read the book yet, I strongly advice you to do it now (urgently so), as it is the best book ever of satire on the Soviet regime (and just the best book, in general) and has amazing insights into the character of the Devil. Professor Woland is the devil who seems to be so ‘impressed’ by the bureaucracy of the Soviet Union, that he can’t stop making practical jokes on Moscow and its establishment. It is both funny and mesmerizing, especially that Bulgakov gives us a human insight into what had happened to Christ.
Not knowing what to answer, I asked Andrei’s opinion on Woland.“He seems quite an interesting character, someone very unusual,” Andrei gave a prompt answer of someone who had read the book and had thought about its message and meaning. Thankfully, we reached Andrei’s stop and he would never discover that I had lied. He stopped going to the club of young artists (probably he was bored due his rebellious nature) and I haven’t seen him since.
Andrei has remained in my life that mysterious boy who helped me to discover my most favorite book ever. Because the first thing I asked my mum once I was back home was to give me ‘The Master and Margarita’ to read. Even if surprised by such request, she didn’t say anything and just gave me the book. In our family the rule was that one could read anything as long as one would read. And in any case, we only had good books in the house.
I started to read the book that night, starting to laugh on the second page thanks to its humour and couldn’t stop for two days. ‘The Master and Margarita’ became my most treasured book which I reread every two or three years, discovering every time something new, thanks to a boy who was way too smart for his age.
Let’s make a break in psychiatry and return to Russia for a bit, my country, my native land.
I was born into a truly picturesque environment, I was born in Moscow. If you ever plan a trip to Russia, I really advise you NOT to miss that place. Moscow has the true Russian architecture, with its magnificent Kremlin, decorating the central space. There is also a mausoleum of Lenin there, something I never visited and never will, but let’s ignore a small negativity of the legacy of some Egyptian traditions to mummify a dead body, and move on towards the Cathedral of Vasily the Blessed, known as St. Basil Cathedral, and also as Pokrovsky Cathedral, built from 1551 to 1561 on the decree from Ivan the Terrible, to commemorate the capture of Kazan and Astrakhan.
The Cathedral is more than magnificent, it is truly, I feel, a symbol of Russia and of Russian Orthodox Christianity. It stands tall and proud across the Moscow river, and when you drive past it at night, you land up in a magical domain, once you see it illuminated, like a star in a beautiful night. It shines by its beauty, and it shines its Christianity. It is a partial museum now, and when on a visit there, I always felt that it should be restored as a proper church. I know that from 1991 Church services restarted there, which is a blessing, of course.
The grave of the Russian Saint, Saint Vasily is there, the Russian Holy Fool (read about holy foolishness on my post here), and it has a shape of a bonfire, a design that is totally unique and as Dimitry Shidkovsky, described in his book ‘Russian Architecture and the West’, “It is like no other Russian building. Nothing similar can be found in the entire millennium of Byzantine tradition from the fifth to the fifteenth century…a strangeness that astonishes by its unexpectedness, complexity and dazzling interleaving of the manifold details of its design.” (2007, p. 126).
Moscow is full of magical, unexpected places. It is a unique combination of old and new, where almost each corner presents something wonderful and unique, and is truly Russian. If I return to Russia as a tourist, I will start with Moscow, and then proceed to the golden ring, and definitely not miss Suzdal, a city full of churches, but let’s take a walk in Moscow first.
My favourite place to hang out was always the Old Arbat and then walking towards the Kremlin across the bridge, right down to the Oktiabriaskaya underground station. Or turn right after leaving the Arbat and walk through the boulevard park towards Ostozhenka, where the Linguistic University can be found (former Institute of Foreign Languages, where I studied for a year, before moving to Brussels to continue my other degree in languages there). The Old Arbat is a pedestrian street, favourite of the artists, and vagabonds. It always attracted weird crowds of people, and that’s maybe I loved it so much. I felt like a part of the crowd of interesting, unusual people, of artists, painters and performers. My other best friend, Sergei, would often take me there, and we would chat and drink with his friends of the University of Film and Cinema (BGIK) where he studied to become an actor.
The Old Arbat has many interesting cafes, where one can get a good impression of how Russian people eat. It is always a nice warm meal, very delicious, as how pancakes, pastries, delicious porridges, fresh bread from the oven, and the incredible influence we got as legacy from Georgia and Armenia, can not taste good? Tea is more popular than coffee, and drinking tea is a proper ritual. If you are invited for a tea to the Russian family, except a feast. People in Russia, and my native town, are extremely hospitable. You will need to go on a diet, I guarantee you that. Russian host will bring everything he or she has on the table. Last time I was back in Moscow, my best friend, Masha, prepared a table that an army could eat. She made me my favorite meatballs, numerous salads, pastries, and a cake. My other best friend, Anya, made for me a special chicken and a salad of shrimps under the mayonnaise, that is now my signature dish if I am hosting.
I used to love walking in Moscow. I would spend days on it. After finishing my classes at the University, I would walk towards the Park of Culture, and admire the tress, and the lake, and then walk towards the Crimea Bridge and admire my native city. From the Crimea bridge that connects the underground station of Park of Culture and Oktyabriaskaya, one can get a glimpse of the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour and see the House of Artist, where I used to attend lessons in drawing, and that always has interesting, unique expositions.
Moscow is huge, and as a whole, does reflect well the Russian culture. It has churches with bells, numerous parks, incredible underground station, and people that read. One of the most amazing book shops, called Dom Knigi stands proud on the New Arbat, and if you are lucky one day to travel on the Moscow’s underground station, you will get the impression that you travel in a moving library. Everyone reads. Rides are long to connect people who go to work or to study, and they use this time with wisdom: they read.
At night the center is illuminated and if you do believe in magic, you will notice, that you are indeed in a magical land. I left my native, my beloved city at the age of nineteen to study in French in Brussels, another city I fell in love with. But I will tell you more about Brussels in another post.
I was born in a beautiful world, in a beautiful country, in Russia. The country that saved the world at some point in human history. It is sad that it isn’t mentioned enough in history books, while it should be the case, of course, all the time. If you don’t know about it, I will tell you. It was during the Second World War, during the fight with the fascists.
My grand-parents fought in that war, and so many people suffered, too many. An incomprehensible number for a true human mind. 56 MILLION. The Jewish, the different, the Slavic race, and other beautiful souls. How could it have ever happened, is a question that I do ask myself each day, because history does matter, and it does matter to KNOW.
My family was absolutely amazing. I had a loving, very curious mum, a wonderful farther, and beautiful set of grand-parents on each side of my charming parents. I spent my summers in a Cossack village, because I have beautiful Cossack genes from my farther, and I travelled to St-Petersburg, called Leningrad at that time, with my mother, who came from aristocracy ancestors (a real catastrophe, that most of them they killed, but some of them survived, thanks GOD). She showed me beautiful museums and powerful paintings, and taught me history and maths. Maths wasn’t my favourite subject, but thanks to my mother I kind of survived the test nightmare of algebra and the like they impose on children in our modern schools.
The idyllic picture of my childhood was broken when something bad happened in my land. We can blame the capitalism (and easy prey), or we can skip all that critical thinking analysis and simply aim at the truth: bad people got greedy, and sold their souls to deprive my Russia from its true meaning: an amazing land, guided by goodness and God. Jesus watches this land, and so do I.
Gorbachev, the kind, beautiful man, tried to create something even more beautiful. He announced some important changes: freedom of speech (extremely important), Perestroika (I still struggle to translate this dilemma), etc, etc, etc. He wanted more good, he had a vision of communism, a term that we started to believe to fear, but in simple language, it just means: everyone is equal, everyone has the same rights, everyone should receive free medical care, have food on the table and receive education for free, and isn’t it wonderful?
Gorbachev wanted even more: he wanted to wake up people and show them that everyone can enjoy theirs jobs: be you a cleaner, a clerk, or a president. It doesn’t matter WHAT you do, what matters is that you enjoy what you are doing. With my extra superiors efforts in this life to survive, I think I deserve more money than a bad-mouthing former ‘neighbour’ who learned to envy success, but it means that I have even a better vision than Gorbachev,more in the lines of Tolstoy, our beautiful Russian writer. Leo Tolstoy, was a true aristocrat, a philanthropist, who wanted to see beautiful Russia, where kindness would rule, and everyone would have food on the table, and lead meaningful lives. If you haven’t yet read his books, I strongly advise you to correct this mistake rather urgently, and start with his diaries, and only after proceed to Anna Karenina, and leave ‘War and Peace’ till the end, once your master your French. It’s a read I successfully skipped at my literature lessons at school, because I didn’t speak French yet properly, and the rest what was left in Russian (‘War and Peace” is written in both Russian and French), told us about long war narratives, that I found boring. But the love story was amazing, and I read all parts related to that, and passed my literature exam with outmost distinction. At nights I was absorbing his diaries though,- beautiful notes, that I discovered by accident as it seemed, but of course, it wasn’t an accident, because good books always find their reader.
The dilemma of Perestroika resulted in a brain-damage. That’s the only term in English I can find to describe what happened next to my beautiful, unique country. But I will try to explain it in more accessible words.
There were kiosks at first, ugly corner shops selling Coca-Cola (the only nice thing), snickers, and cigarettes. My best friend and I, bought our first cigarettes there when we were just thirteen. No one was checking for age, and no one cared, as long as you had money and you could pay.
Then, even bigger things happened. Vouchers came out from the state companies for ordinary people to get their chance to own some assets in their own country. But the country was starving, because Boris Yeltsin was in power, having chased Gorbachev out of the regime, and out of Russia. I want to know how it could happen, and I tried, because I was watching what was happening to my country with a disbelief of a twelve, and then fourteen, and then fifteen, sixteen years-old mind, and I was watching how Kashpirovsky was allowed to go on the state TV and hypnotise the entire nation via a live transmission. I tried to warn my grand-mother, who, as many others, was watching that nonsense, an act of black magic, coming directly from those in power then. Kashpirovsky was telling: ‘everyone will be fine, and everyone won’t be fine’, confusing the entire beautiful land, and how this was allowed is beyond my beautiful mind, but I want to know how it was even possible. I want to KNOW the truth. Because history DOES matter, and we can never forget, in order not to repeat the mistakes of the humanity.
My grand-mother got gangrene after watching it, and died in pain and suffering some years later. That was the moment, outside the church when we said goodbye to her, that I run out and shouted to the sky, to God: ‘’what the fuck? How is it possible? Where are YOU?’’
But of course, God was watching, as he always does, because at the end of the day, goodness always prevails, otherwise, it isn’t possible to continue living, and the universe is doomed. And this simply can’t happen.
The vouchers were immediately bought back by what you know now as OLIGARCHS. Everyone was starving, no one had enough food. There was some promise of American food aid, that they send sometimes to deprived troops in the army, and we got it at school. I tried the sausages and dry milk, and it was disgusting. But it helped to live. I brought all my ‘American’ packages to my grand-mum, because she was starving, and she had sold her voucher back to the oligarchs because she didn’t have any money, as the rest of the nice, not that ordinary Russian population, for a penny.
Oligarchs were made, together with parlours of bad witches. It was all around Moscow, you have to believe me. Everywhere you looked, there was some advertisement: ‘a curse to ban your enemies’’, ‘I will help you to make even more money’, ‘I will bring you your lover back’. That was the moment when I vomited from my first cigarette, because it was the only thing that could help me to cope, with what was happening to Russia. People were shouting and people were crying. And I was shouted at and I was crying. My beautiful mother was in Italy then, because of some strange set of circumstances. I rejoined her when I went to study in Brussels, in French, at the age of nineteen.
Christian churches were opened though, including my favourite church, and it should be amazing and it should be unique, but money was being made on them too, and I almost stopped to believe, but I am not allowed, because God doesn’t let me. And I want to believe, because the idea to the contrary can’t be processed by my inquisitive mind. People were dying then in Russia, and everyone was miserable and upset, and it seemed like a fog, had embraced my beautiful land. Everyone was after apartments, where to get what one wanted, they were ready to put their relatives inside the psychiatric hospital. It was a legal procedure: you pay the ‘doctor”, he signs the letter, and then the poor distressed individual (usually an older relative) is driven inside a psychiatric hospital to disappear. Other schemes were created, and it was all about money, it was all about how to get even more rich.
I want to know how did it happen, and I want to know who was behind all that, and what was said, and understand the incomprehensible dilemma of oligarchs now ruling the world, from their perspectives of offshore brands, stealing money from innocent people, stealing properties from other countries, stealing all the goodness what is still left in this world.
They call it Psychosis. That’s how my quest, my incomprehension about what happened to Russia, and as a result, to the rest of the world, is defined in medical, psychiatric terms. It struck me shortly after September 11, right when I landed working as a financial analyst of banks in a beautiful company in Amsterdam. I saw the image of crushing planes when I was at my gym. I even tried to go to my step class like some other members. But I couldn’t stay there. Instead I run outside and I vomited, and then I watched how stock markets made billions on the sake of the human distress, because I worked in finances, and it was in front of my eyes. And I remember thinking: ‘but that’s exactly what happened back in Russia’, and it was hard to process, and I couldn’t understand how people could laugh, and continue living, and not just cry, like I was doing after that day. I, obviously, couldn’t return to the gym after that day either. I hate all the gyms now.
You know what happened next: Saddam Hussein was publicly executed on a stage. Apparently you could even ‘enjoy’ a place on a stage to watch that awful act. Apparently, it was even filmed, like some sort of Big Brother, that is presented to us as something that we should enjoy and be entertained with, as if it is normal. Amelie Nothomb, my favourite Belgian writer wrote about a similar story in ‘Sulphuric Acid’. I read it in French, but you can get it in English. All her books are more than amazing, they are unique. If you haven’t read her yet, I urgently advise you to do so. Start with ‘Stupeur et Tremblements’ – a beautiful, enjoyable read, a comedy, and then move to her other books, in the order that she wrote them, like I do.
One day, when I came back to Brussels, after my spell in the Amsterdam city for good seven years, I woke up in one of my lucid dreaming, crying. I was standing in front of Saint Basil Cathedral in Moscow, one of the most beautiful churches, the real, and I was crying and I was in terrible pain.
And now I know, I was crying for Russia, and I was crying for my beautiful land, and I was crying for what happened to Jesus, and I was crying to what had happened on our planet earth.
But they call it psychosis, because some people tell you that you should just be happy and enjoy your life.
And of course, one should be happy and enjoy one’s life. But I don’t know how to be happy when such terrible things happen on this earth.
How is it even possible, can someone explain??? How can one dare to feel happy when so many other beautiful people are in so much pain?
We never forget about our first love, do we? Some of us are lucky and their first love is the love of their lives (the story of my grand-parents), but most of us either search for the one (real love with sparkles), or settle for the mediocrity, such as ‘settling’ with someone for the sake of being settled, or looking for someone who can provide (women) or clean the house (men).
I will never forget my first love because he was a very interesting guy, and I can’t forget him because he gave me confidence. Confidence that I wasn’t that bad-looking, was ‘datable’, and could get the best guy on earth if only I wouldn’t ruin it, like I did with him, something which, unfortunately, stayed with me till the day. Present me with ‘the one’, and I will find a reason to ruin it. Misha wasn’t the best guy on earth but he was definitely the most popular guy at our school. I was fourteen when I met him, he was sixteen, joining our school to finish final year after having lived on the other side of Moscow. His mother was our teacher in chemistry. He soon became the talk of the whole school, among both girls and boys alike. Not only he was very good-looking, funny and smart, he was also different from everyone else. Like, for instance, he didn’t give a damn about any rules and would smoke a cigarette right at the entrance to the school, where his mother was giving classes and where he was supposed to study. I didn’t pay any attention to him (apart from making a mental note that I should dare an act of smoking right in front of the school when I reached my final year, instead of hiding behind the entrance at the back at that time), because there was no chance he would ever notice me. Why should he? I was two years younger, in a class that older boys usually ignored (too studious, etc…not me and my best friend, but he wouldn’t know), with pimples, having a weird hair-do, wearing terrible clothes, and not the prettiest girl in the school. Probably, the opposite.
(me at that time) But it was me he addressed once we approached the entrance of the school with my best friend.“Got any lighter?” he asked me, and I was so shocked by the request (more like by the fact that he was talking to me) that I answered the first thing which came into my mind, which should be a lesson to hold my tongue in the future…to no avail. “Not on me at this moment, unless I try to push it out of me”. I, obviously, thought about my reply for the rest of the day, and days after, because I couldn’t believe that I could be so stupid. I also reckoned that I had turned totally red when I had spoken, which was another disaster. It wasn’t anymore about just paying attention to Misha, it was about thinking about him all the bloody time from that moment on. Soon it became the talk of the whole school, Misha and me. Girls from my class would run to me and whisper into my ear: “We heard Misha discussing with other boys whether Ekaterina should become his girlfriend!”Misha himself would come into our class, for some reason during maths, when the whole class was waiting in fear for the appearance of our scary teacher in maths, with on one occasion, his own mum, a teacher in chemistry, coming in, in order to drag him out back into the corridor.
I became the best pupil in chemistry. Well, I had to, since I fancied the son of the teacher. It took me a month of sleepless nights but I arrived. The teacher (the mum) was so impressed that she didn’t drag Misha from our class in maths next time, once she saw that Misha was chatting to me, with the whole class (mostly girls) watching the scene in total bewilderment. All nice and rosy until Misha invited me on a date. The idea was to spend the Easter together. It was weird, but never mind. After that, I find it boring when someone offers a normal date. A dinner and a drink? Thank you very much but I rather spend a night marching five kilometres in Moscow. That’s what we did, with Misha. We met in the centre and just walked and walked until we reached my apartment, five kilometres further, where my step-mother was pouring my dad some vodka, keeping him away in the kitchen, so that he doesn’t kill Misha the moment he meets him. At two o’clock in the morning. We went to the living room. My step-mum brought us some cakes, tea and other treats, closing the door behind and managing to continue calming my dad. Misha was supposed to sleep where I was, in the same room, not that anyone would sleep with each other, which was the main concern of my dad, and he made sure to visit the toilette every five minutes for the rest of the night, making sure that no one would get any sleep in any case. In retrospect I realise now that it was a perfect moment for me to loose my virginity, with a guy with whom I was in love and who fancied me back. But no, I pretended to be an idiot. The moment when we finally ended up in the room together, I became so shy that for some reason I decided to ransack one of my cupboards and drag out my collection of barbies (two dolls) and show them to Misha. I still remember the reaction on his face. It was that unclear stare, a stage in between ‘shall I laugh, or run home?’ All transport was sleeping with the rest of Moscow’s population, making running impossible. But he should have laughed. He didn’t.
He then kissed me good-night, asking whether he could kiss me on the forehead. I said yes, without kissing him back on the lips. I was waiting for him to fall asleep for the rest of the night, but he never did, and we both lay there awake, regretting the lost opportunity. Misha dropped the talk about the possibility of me becoming his girlfriend after that night, and maybe for a good reason. Last time I checked he is now a spiritual yogi somewhere in India. Great, but I prefer more comfort in my daily life.
Still, while Misha looked exactly like that singer Gotye, he isn’t just ‘Somebody that I used to know’ (which is, ironically, a favourite song of my dad). I named my son after him. As they say it, first love never dies.
I had beautiful summers in Russia. Children are quite lucky in Russia as they get three months off during summer months! It is a nightmare for the parents, but total delight for the kids. Three full months of fun, three full months of the joy of childhood, freedom and exploration! I was sent each summer to my grand-parents in the south of Russia, right at the border with Ukraine. It was a small Cossack village, quiet, remote, and oh my god, so peaceful! One could go out at night and hear only the sound of an owl, and see the stars far away in the sky. My grand-parents had a farm, and it was the best farm in the village. Both of them survived the hardship of the area of Stalin, both of them returned to the house which had been confiscated by Bolsheviks at some point, and rebuilt everything from scratch. They built two houses instead of one, created a bathhouse, planted a vineyard, had three cows, several chickens, and lots of fruits and vegetables in a big garden. We even had watermelons. My grand-parents would wake up at five in the morning and go around with their tasks. My grand-dad would milk the cows, while my grand-mum would make breakfast. It was a feast every day, especially when we, the children (numerous cousins) would come for the summer. Pancakes, pastries, cakes, we would devour it in the morning before proceeding to help around the farm. It was organised to perfection. We had to do several tasks, each of us in the morning, before getting free time till the rest of the day. My cousin Olga (same age as I) and I would usually take out the weed. We would work around the field of strawberries, sing songs, eat some strawberries, spot occasional snakes in the grass. At twelve we would have lunch, usually some soup and a salad, sitting around a big cheerful table in the garden with apple trees. After lunch my grand-mum would take out some sweets and give one to each of us. We never had more than two sweets a day. It was hard to get them in the shops, and eating too many sweets wasn’t encouraged. Instead, we would get lots of fruits, and fresh milk from the cow. In the afternoon, Olga and I would go down to the river. Calling it a river is perhaps a big word, it was a tiny, narrow, patch of water, surrounding the village on one side, with vipers liking it as much as us. But as children, we weren’t afraid of the snakes and would dare to go for a swim. We would build castles out of stones, run around the river, meet with other children of the village, play games. We would go back to the farm for the dinner (potatoes, eggs, vegetables, and chicken once a week), and then would go out again for the night. It was a party in the park every night. Boys would bring their guitars, we would make a fire, and sing till late at night, usually with my grand-mum coming to fetch us, to send us to bed.We would return to the house, drink some milk and eat some fresh bread, and fall deeply asleep, to wake up the next morning to another beautiful day. If I think of happiness, I always have the image of my summers in Russia. It was pure happiness, because it was so simple.
There is a reason as to why I go back to the 1990s in Russia so often on my blog, because it was exactly at that time that devil made his appearance in my country. The Christianity was proclaimed as official religion, and he, quite, obviously, couldn’t miss the opportunity to battle for a few remaining souls.
I could watch what was happening in my country from a vintage point of a teenager, which helped me somehow, because it is much more difficult to survive the battle between good and evil when you are an adult. The mundane daily responsibilities don’t allow space for any deep philosophical inclinations, and then, of course, it is hard to believe in anything, yet, allow oneself any ‘magical’ thinking, because one is always at risk to end up on the radar of the psychiatrists. The psychiatrists rule the world based in normality, and no one dares anymore to proclaim loud and clear: yes, there is the devil, and yes, there is God, and Jesus was real.
Back in the 1990s in Russia I met the character, the devil, on numerous occasions. He was lurking around, and once when I was with one of my best friends, he announced himself around us, right when we were admiring the visitors to a local church. My friend Anya and I were skipping a class in algebra, and were sitting on the bench on the hill, above a Russian Orthodox Church where some people started to go because Christianity had seen its return, and people didn’t have to hide anymore their faith in secret.
It was an interesting development for both me and Anya as we had grown up in a country without any religion. The Soviet Union’s doctrine was based on absence of any belief system, besides the building of a communal goal, with stuff like ‘Jesus’ or ‘God’ considered to be absolute madness, and where those who had dared to proclaim otherwise, were deemed to be mad, and had to undergo a psychiatric treatment. Interestingly enough while I live now in a so-called free society, the mantra that you can believe in anything you want as long as you remain silent, is truer than anywhere else. You are proclaimed as insane immediately if you start talking about God and the devil, and especially if you hint at the fact that you see their manifestations in a daily reality.
So, Anya and I were watching the church with deep curiosity, it was indeed totally beyond any logical thinking. How come, we both wondered, that a country of absolute atheists suddenly turned into zealous church devotees?
“Look, even young people go now there,” I made a remark to Anya, and she nodded to me an agreement, noticing as me, a couple of what looked like students entering the door of the church.
“And I still remember how the doors to the same church were totally closed in the seventies,” we both jumped from fright as we hadn’t noticed the man, sitting now next to us on the bench, approaching us, let alone, materializing himself, suddenly on the bench. But here he was, wearing an interesting red hat, and staring longingly into the distance at the church, furtively giving me a wink in the process, locking his eyes with mine for a brief moment.
A though immediately entered my mind that he was the devil, and I allowed it to remain there, because I was still a teenager, and radical thoughts and visions are more tolerated when you are still at a precarious age. I haven’t yet reached the years when you learn that weird thoughts are not allowed, and that the psychiatry as an institution has the reins and power to silence all ‘different’ individuals once and for good. All those that have seen the devil, met him and know that he is real, are sitting behind the psychiatric bars. Since I am not there, I decided that I have the liberty to say whatever I want, and therefore, I am taking this opportunity to reassure you that everything ever written in the Bible is totally real, not that I had read all of it, due to the difficulty of the scripture. But I live the stories written in it in real life, and manifestations of it and the truth, reach me on a daily basis, usually in my dreams.
And so I allowed the thought to remain there and it was scary but at the same fascinating. Oh wow, I thought, it isn’t all fables and just stories then, is it? Here he is, the devil, and once I permitted the thought to stay there, it took that definite proportions when you realize that perhaps, magic is all real, and I was blessed (or cursed) to see and witness the manifestations of it in my daily reality. It was also interesting to observe that Anya jumped from fear and started to run away, while I remained sitting on the bench for another good couple of minutes, to (and I realize it only now) come to terms to my ‘raison d’etre’ from now on. Yes, I would be chased by the presence of the devil my entire life, and it’s only with experience that I learned that the only way to fight him is via Christianity and belief in Jesus.
Amazingly enough we didn’t talk with Anya about that particular manifestation of the character. I think that like me, she realized the significance of the presence of the man in the red hat, but it was too scary to admit the reality as it is: yes, the devil is real, and he is chasing the earth for a few remaining souls.
It was also the same year that I went to receive baptism and became a Russian Orthodox, embracing a difficult and run with obstacles life. Because the life of a true Christian, the life of a Holy Fool, is one of a martyr, and I ended up fighting with the devil my entire life.
Having met the character many times since that first encounter, I will tell you more about him from now on. He is a great manipulator, and uses clever tactics to lure one into his kingdom. He can also take different forms, and only once I saw the real him, as depicted in Christian scary stories, when I was lucid-dreaming in my sleep.
But this is a tale I will share with you next time.
But let’s return to the 1990s in Moscow, a period in time that reminds me of the situation we are all in now: the unprecedented external circumstances that will affect us all, but we just don’t know how exactly. Today we have a virus that is hanging above our heads as a threat to our every existence, while back in Moscow from 1989 onward, we had a change in ideology, when instead of socialism, we were presented with capitalism.
Unlike the situation now that has a precise threat, such as a virus, the developments back in Russia were happening in a cunning way, leaving most people deceived and totally unprepared. First, it started with the opening of the MacDonald’s in the center of Moscow as its main restaurant, with queues stretching for more than a kilometer to get inside. It was more than a restaurant, it became a symbol of a better life, attracting the inhabitants of Moscow with the lure of life under capitalism. The small corner shops started to sell coca-cola and twix chocolate, and because of the novelty, it seemed indeed like a promise of a life never experienced before, such as the availability of burger and chips. It was, of course, a moment of absolute novelty, hidden behind the dangers of fast unhealthy food, but Moscovites, without knowing better, thought for a short while, that it would lead to something better, because it was just simply exciting. Burgers and chips do provide the moment of instant gratification, but after a while they loose their appeal and are extremely unhealthy.
It was at the moment of MacDonald’s madness, right when people believed that life could ever be something better, something better than the security of a job for life, good medical services, children all going to school and never being hungry that the future rulers of Russian capitalism, the oligarchs and the greedy ones, set up their oil and gas voucher scheme where they robbed an entire nation. People wanted quick money, and sold their vouchers back to the capitalists for a penny, thinking of a relief of some useless groceries and a trip to MacDonald’s. It was only later, watching the oligarchs from their offshore villas that they realized that they were robbed, and so was the entire Russian nation.
The current situation around the Corona virus reminds me of the 1990s years in Russia for a number of reasons. I can feel the same despair from people around that I felt in my native country then. And it isn’t just the fear of the virus, and the illness affecting so many people, it is more about the anxiety of all of us, those who don’t possess millions about what tomorrow might bring. It is the rising unemployment, people applying for universal credit, lack of adequate medical services in otherwise ‘prosperous’ countries, the insecurity of zero-hour contracts, and the possibility of so many small businesses not surviving this crisis. I can feel the anxiety of our world that simply woke up to the reality in which we have been living already for a long while. The society woke up to the face of the capitalism, and the virus showed us the precocity of life. Such as that it isn’t shopping, holidays, or a new car that matter, but having a good and secure job, seeing children going to school and playing with each on the streets, sharing a simple meal among friends, and enjoying the parks and the nature.
The virus of today is a wake-up call for our world, but will we respond to the alarm once it’s all over?
Before I re-launch myself into the 1990s in Russia, quite remarkable time by all standards, I should probably tell more about myself.
I was born in the 1970s (more towards the 1980), to an interesting family. My mum, originally from Saint-Petersburg, had met my dad when they both studied at the University of Friendship of People, very famous place, where lots of international students came to study. From my mum’s side, it was always a family of teachers and academics. My grandma, her mum, was a daughter of a headmistress of a gymnasium, while my granddad, her dad, was a professor of geology at the same university. At home talks around the dinner table were always around philosophy, books, theater pieces to visit, music to discover, students to help. My granddad was so popular among students that some of them would show up on occasions for tea, just to have a chat with him around matters that mattered. There was also a secret within a family, which became less dangerous under Gorbachev, such as that my great granddad on the side of my grandma was a baron who had left his relatives in Russia all his fortune, by the letter with notification was well-hidden and never shown to the authorities, to avoid being sent to Gulag.
On the side of my dad, it was the Cossack’s gene. His parents run a beautiful farm in the south of Russia, where I would spend most of my summers. It was a truly amazing place, built from scratch by the hands of my granddad. He had met my grandma in a remote village in Ural, where he was sent because he had come as a prisoner from Germany after the second world war, and under Stalin, back in the Soviet Union, all prisoners were sent to such ‘installments’, remote places in the middle of nowhere, to build entire towns from scratch for the benefit of the country. My grandma’s family was also sent to such a place due to some black spots in the biography of the family, with their fault being that her dad, my great-granddad, was the head of the Baptiste Christian church in whole Caucasus area of Russia. But I will come back to that story in due term, for now, I want to just say that my granddad, once he and my grandma returned to his land, the Cossack village, destroyed and taken away by the Soviets, built two houses, and created an amazing farm, where even grapes could grow, and we had our own wine, and fresh fruits each summer.
They had three sons, with my dad being the middle one. He wanted to study in Moscow, and he achieved that. By the time I was born, both he and my mum worked at the University of Friendship as lecturers, and we lived in the best area of Moscow, known as ‘Yogo-Zapandii’ area, now popular among the Russian celebrities.
Our apartment had only two rooms, and was on the sixteen floor. There was something wrong with that place, but till today, I am not sure exactly what, apart from a weird dream I had once, that I was reborn there following a very difficult, terrifying life. I also saw the devil there for the first time, staring at me outside the window when I was sleeping in my cot, at the age of 2 or three. My parents reassured me that it was just a bad dream, and I tried to believe them for a while, but of course, I know now, and probably always did, that what I see and hear, is indeed real, as scary as it sometimes can be. I have to add here that the first appearance of the devil in my life was how he is often portrayed in references to the Bible, even if I wasn’t really afraid, just curious and amazed. Parents and adults would always say that all that wasn’t real, but I kind of, made to myself a note, at the age of 2 or three, that they could be wrong sometimes, and magic is real, and one didn’t even need to try, to see its manifestations on a daily basis.
Some strange problems with our apartment apart, I was born into a privileged family by that times standards. Everyone was an academic, I would go to one of the best schools in Moscow, and we always had nice food, and holidays in either Latvia or Crimea. I spent my summers in the Cossack village, helping on the farm (you can read about my summers in here), and was blessed with great friends, and lots of opportunities to express myself, such as learning French, practicing piano, ice-skating, and many other beautiful and really not mundane things.
But then, everything changed in the 1990s when Yeltsin came to power, and Soviet Union collapsed, becoming a monster in the eyes of all those who weren’t born here, and that image influenced also those who were born there, like I was.
And that’s why I probably talk about the 1990s so much. It was the time that something really bad happened to my native country, and when I go back there, I still see the manifestations of what went wrong then. The wild capitalism became an ideology as if it’s a must, a prominent way for people to live their lives. But it isn’t the best ideology, far from it. When I was growing up, under the socialism, everyone had food on the table, and children run happy outside, because there were no worries and everyone was more or less equal, even when one was born into a privileged family.