Last week, inspired by Julia Ioffe’s article “What I Will (And Won’t) Miss About Living in Moscow” (written about her three years in today’s Russian capital), I began to write about living in Leningrad in the 70’s and 80’s. What I miss and don’t miss about my city, about Soviet Russia – about my first home. I compare my notes to hers, and we agree and disagree. There is much of my Russia that’s gone and she has not experienced, and remnants of it that she has. There are features of Russia enduring and indelible she’s come to know and tried to understand. There are qualities that differentiate Moscow and Leningrad/St. Petersburg, coloring our memories in unique hues. But the whole exercise has proven fascinating to me, illustrative of the changes that have (and not) taken place in Russia, as well as of how it’s seen by an engaged and loving outsider – and by me.
And so, I continue.
I miss Russian forests. Growing up in a big city, I took for granted a connection with nature none of my urban American friends have ever had a chance to develop. Gentle Northern nature, where it seems like nothing crawls or reaches out to bite, sting, scratch, snag, or poison. Perhaps it only seems that way because I know what mushrooms not to pick and what berries not to eat, what grasses waving near low-lying ponds not to go near. Still, Northern forests unroll soft under your feet with a rug of bendy pine needles, with thin grass that tickles between the toes. You can run barefoot in the Northern forest, safely. You can fall on your back and watch the sunrays trickle down through the leaves. The forest stands sturdy around you, showing you the way with moss and anthills about the tree trunks, transparent enough to let you see far, to see where you’re going. It gives you shade with an umbrella of light foliage, not so thick that you can’t tell where the sun is, so you can find your way home. It feeds you with mushrooms and strawberries and raspberries and lingonberries and with large clearings so full of blueberries that if you lie down and look under the bushes, you see barely anything but the black ocean, ripe with the tart juices. And if you are lost in the midst of it in the cold of winter – if you are desperate and alone in the worst way – it will try to save your life through a long Northern night by giving you dry wood and snow to build a den, to keep you warm and hydrated.
I greatly miss being able to pick up a rucksack and board a regional rail and ride out of the city, step off anywhere and walk into the forest, walk until it is time to find a creek and pitch a tent. In this huge country of ours, from sea to an only slightly cleaner sea, there isn’t a spot that doesn’t belong to someone who thinks we can stake a claim to land, carve the continent with “No Trespassing” signs, leave some designated camping sites for the kids and the old cooks. I miss summers in a small village, where flocks of noisy children run wild and barefoot, kicking up clouds of fine dust, where morning starts with a quick trip to a neighbor, who milks the cow while I wait and pours the steaming white stream into my jar – and the freshest bread in the world and the still-warm milk is breakfast.
I don’t miss the pat slogans of a regime too comfortable with itself and ideologically rigid to take seriously its own propaganda. I do miss the ideas behind the slogans. Having known since birth what everything meant and how to tell surface from deep meaning, in the aftermath of the War and Stalinism, through the excitement of the Thaw and the stagnation of the Brezhnev era, my parents’ generation and mine were never much bothered by propaganda – we took it simply as such, with a wink and a smirk, akin to Brezhnev’s semi-senile pronouncements about cows that wouldn’t give milk if we didn’t feed them. But I miss the root worldview from which it grew — the astonishing blossom and the sickly wither of Soviet socialism. I miss feeling under my feet and taking completely for granted the safety net of free and guaranteed everything: health care, day care, education, employment, pension, shelter, a month of vacation, sick days, extracurricular activities… I miss knowing that, whatever has ever gone wrong and may be wrong still, the bright future utopia is approaching and assured. Knowing that a family hundreds of millions strong is working on it together. Knowing what the future will look like and basking in its light. It was hope. I miss sharing that hope with my friends.
I don’t miss the 20-year lag in non-military technology behind the Western world, the sloppy craftsmanship of domestic production, the inadequate planning of centralized economy. That lag was especially painful in medicine, not that we would know it most of the time. What we did know was a persistent and seemingly strange, arbitrary lack of certain specific products. Hard-smoked sausage… Toilet paper… Pantyhose… We called them “deficit” products and joked that a store that had received a shipment of one of those things could be immediately identified by a long line spilling out of its doors. In a fitting turn of irony, bad quality of locally made merchandise combined with high-quality education encouraged unprecedented ingenuity and vigor in our repair work. A Russian can repair a spaceship with a stick and a rope, and so, often a thing was not considered trustworthy until, soon after purchase, it was turned into an intricate and solid-looking patchwork. At the same time, lack of high-tech diagnostic machines produced generations of doctors who did not rely on technology to do their jobs. They had to rely on very good training. I miss Soviet doctors, not Soviet hospitals. As a sick child, I knew my pediatricians very well. Soviet doctors (what we call primary care physicians) made home visits the first half of the day, saw patients in the clinic the second half. My pediatricians tended just to stop by our apartment on their way, to check on me. Our doctors could diagnose much of many things by palpating, listening, pushing, feeling, and asking, followed by good-quality thinking. Julia Ioffe’s experience is very different today, and hers is similar to what I am hearing from my loved ones in Russia. Things have changed.
I miss the Leningrad music scene.
I miss the Leningrad music scene. From the first days of Soviet socialism, high and low culture were considered basic necessities of life and essential to building communism, thus they were heavily invested in by the State. Theatre, concert music, ballet, opera – professional and amateur. There is not a person I knew who lived in a medium-sized or large city who had never been to the opera, ballet, the philharmonic. It was unheard of. Ticket prices were never an issue (though music students like me got in everywhere for free), but availability was. Demand exceeded supply, almost all performances were sold out. It might sound strange, but I miss the pushing crowds at the ticket windows, the merry gangs of conservatory students devising strategies to thrust past the ticket checkers into closed-out concerts, with no more standing room left, and ticket checkers pretending to be angry while looking the other way. Moscow and Leningrad, the cultural capitals of the country, had and reared the best in the world. Other large cities had “good.” The best in the world visited them.
I miss Leningrad audiences – both highly demanding and truly grateful, attuned to the artists’ renderings of the music we so well knew and so deeply cherished. I miss the etiquette of the Leningrad theatre and concert hall. The absolute silence from the moment the conductor’s back was turned. The explosion of applause. It would be unthinkable for anyone to whistle during a performance (Russian equivalent to booing – an audible expression of displeasure). Our musicians measured their success by how wild the applause was at the end, by the number of encores demanded by the audience: one is absolute failure, six is spectacular success. If the audience keeps clapping, screaming, and begging until the artist refuses to come out anymore, he is welcome to consider Leningrad his loving home. That’s what usually happens after six encores. It doesn’t happen unless the artist is truly breathtaking – and often, they were. I miss everything about it. I feel a long needle pierce my heart, like a small, habitual heart attack, every time the Philadelphia audience around me claps dutifully while the exhausted musicians bow once and then starts pushing its way toward the exit before the poor souls are off the stage, as if we couldn’t wait to get out. As if this were homework or somebody were stealing our cars. As if we hated the performance with fiery passion and were plotting revenge on the way out.
I don’t miss widespread conformity in cultural expression – little things, from clothing to manners. Nearly identical colors and styles, partly due to mass production and partly to judging glances cast upon anyone standing out in the crowd. You wouldn’t see someone wearing a funny hat, or sitting on a table, or dancing in the street. I often fret about widespread lack of polity especially among young Americans and implore my students not to litter, to watch their language, to give up their seats for the pregnant and the elderly – and indeed, heartfelt courtesy is important. It’s consideration. At its heart, it’s kindness and respect. But I’ll take this fight with rude teenagers over repressed individuality and constant, crushing fear of impropriety and embarrassment, because conformity – the fear of standing out – lays down the groundwork for insecurity and low self-esteem, for allowing persecution of minorities – those whose lifestyles, whose choices, whose appearances seem fringe. Different. Other.
I don’t miss the casual anti-Semitism and racism that so offended Julia Ioffe, too. It was there then, and it is there now. I don’t miss the ubiquitous homophobia. A bizarre combination of xenophobia and worship of everything foreign we inherited from Peter the Great. Those, the worst aspects of a homogenous society, lived in the popular cultural crevices of an ideology of true internationalism taught, preached, and to a great degree practiced by the international, multi-ethnic, mind-bogglingly diverse family that was the Union of the Soviet Socialist Republics. I do miss the literature and music and dance and voices of the peoples from the Ukraine to the Caucuses to Central Asia to Siberia flowing into the river of my one native Soviet culture. I miss roaming free the vastness of the country that spanned ten time zones. Every day, a solemn voice on the radio announced exact time for every time zone in the Union. It started with Moscow, where it was 3 o’clock in the afternoon, and ended with Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky, where it was midnight. I loved that moment. It gave me shivers. It gave me a sense of the huge, united family I was part of. I miss that moment.
I miss knowing that nearly everyone around me has read and watched the same literature and movies that I have – the great stores of Russian and world classics, science fiction, children’s stories, the best of Soviet cinema… I badly miss the way we talked, peppering our conversations with quotes and references surely and deeply understood on every level by our interlocutors, funny and sad, satire and philosophy.
I don’t miss having my life planned out from beginning to end. We were settled people, and I was going to raise my children where my grandmother had raised hers, playing piano for the world. My world was big enough. Then it buckled and shattered into smaller pieces, and it turned out that the world is a lot bigger than I thought. I used to miss that overarching security every minute of every day, for many years, and there are moments when I still do. But the big world has called me and made me too big to fit back in, even if that old world of mine were still there for me to return. I think, I am content with the memory.