Essay: Two Russian lives diverge

ST. PETERSBURG, Russia — Natasha lives in a small two-room apartment on the outskirts of St. Petersburg. Coats and slippers clutter the cramped entryway. From the kitchen waft smells of boiling potatoes and freshly cut vegetables.

Natasha is the main reason I try visit St. Petersburg regularly. She was my mother’s best friend at university, the Herzen Pedagogical Institute, where they studied languages like English and German in hope of becoming translators, or writers.

Natasha is 62 now, and though her spine is curved and her long fingers covered in eczema, you can still see the beauty she must have been in her youth, with her wide gray eyes and high cheekbones. 

In the 1960s and 1970s, she and my mother, Ella, trudged the same Soviet path: a good university (but not the best, since their Judaism precluded that), state-assigned jobs (as translators), free time spent strolling along Nevsky Prospekt (St. Petersburg’s main street) or waiting hours in line for a new pair of shoes (often the wrong size) or lipstick (a novelty). They loved poetry and rock 'n’ roll, lived for reading the illicit poems of Anna Akhmatova and listening quietly to the banned Beatles in the middle of the night on records bought on the black market.

Soon after, their paths diverged.

Natasha, ever the man-eater, settled down, married and had a son, Maxim. My mother, called in by the KGB in an appeal to spy on her hippie friends, began planning to flee the Soviet Union, which she did in 1974 after increased Jewish emigration was sanctioned by the meeting of American President Gerald Ford and Soviet Premier Leonid Brezhnev.

From there, their stories can be told in snapshots. My mother made it, by way of Rome, to New York, where she worked as a translator, mainly crafting Russian and German medical texts into English. She met my father, who had fled the Soviet Union in 1975 and gotten political asylum. He was redoing his residency to get approval to work as a psychiatrist in the United States. Upon having me, my mother stopped working, proudly shedding the “double burden” carried by Soviet women — having to work and care for the home equally in the hopes of building an egalitarian society (it never quite worked out that way, though, and Soviet men found it difficult to shun their patriarchal upbringing and lift a finger in the home).

Natasha, meanwhile, found work with the customs service, a lucrative gig. She would later tell my mother how her home was filled with the best French cognac and Italian leather, “gifts” from the people she did business with. They weren’t seen as bribes. They were signs of thanks. But after several years, when it became accepted to give doctors a bottle of rare whisky and teachers a box of fine chocolate, it also came to be accepted that if you failed to deliver your contribution, you, or your child, wouldn’t quite get the full attention of the doctor or teacher, or customs official, for that matter.

At first, my mother and Natasha stayed in touch. Letters were sent. They took months to arrive. As time went on, the relationship faded. But Natasha still remembers, and mentions every time I see her, how my mother, in 1993, sent back with a relative a bright warm winter coat for Natasha. It made her the envy of everyone, and it hangs in her foyer still.

To look at the two women now is to see not just two lives but two countries diverged.

Not to say my mother’s life turned out perfectly. She went through a horrid divorce. She is in ill health and worries constantly about the cost of health care. Her savings are small and financial security is far from sure.

But she lives in a nice apartment in New York, and when she has to go to the doctor, she does. She has a good car, and doesn’t scrimp on food. And, she would likely say, she has three children who are living the successful lives she imagined and so meticulously planned for them.

Visiting Natasha after having had a 700 ruble ($24) lunch in an average St. Petersburg cafe is the sort of thing that makes me feel guilty. She counts every kopeck — 72 rubles for a packet of cheese, 40 rubles for the tomatoes that lie sliced on the table.

Natasha worked for the customs service for over a decade and left five years ago after her boss decided her position would better suit his nephew. She is of pension age now, and receives a monthly 6,000 rubles from the state. But that’s not enough to live in Russia, where yearly inflation regularly reaches double digits, the price of food and transport is steadily rising, and things like clothes, shoes and electronics remain out of reach even for the average lowly Western freelance journalist.

So, after retiring, Natasha made the daily commute — 45 minutes, two buses — to a job selling beauty supplies. Then the financial crisis hit in late 2008 and demand dried up. Now, more than ever, she scrimps and saves each ruble to pay the bills — and bribes — needed to treat her acute osteoporosis. Most days, she can barely walk.

“It’s a hard life,” Natasha told me during my most recent visit. “Everything costs so much. I don’t know what the future will bring.”

For a while, she relied on Maxim, who followed his mother into the customs service. As the crisis unfolded, his employer — the state — stopped paying his salary. A year and a half later, he still goes to work every day, thinking that will be the day the payments start coming in. At 39, Maxim has no professional training and sees looking for work elsewhere as an impossibility.

Maxim’s wife kicked him out of the house after he stopped bringing home a paycheck. Maxim visits his two daughters regularly, doting on them, trying to find them presents.

His wife’s sister, meanwhile, shows up to family events with bruised eyes, once with a broken nose. Her husband beats her, but he has a steady job, so he is allowed to stay.

It’s a difficult life, one full of hardship and little joy. Whenever I see Natasha, I bring her clothes from the States, or give her money. Sometimes we go to a cafe in the center, something she doesn’t get to do very often. She likes to remember her youth, telling stories of her affairs, or what my mother was like when she was my age. And always, there’s that tinge of sadness when she wonders why she never left.