Russians love their children too *.
August 2017, balmy evening, under the stars in Tanglewood, Berkshire, fifth row, with my husband, Sting is singing to me. He wrote this song when I was twelve and living in the Soviet Union, in my birth city of Donetsk: an industrial, cultural, and educational center with a million-plus population. I loved my hometown. My parents were loving, I cherish sweet memories of my childhood, yet the suppressive ways of some adults confused me. I witnessed many adults, teachers, and absolute strangers who would talk to the children in the voice of an authoritative mean boss who talks down to a useless employee.
Many coal mines ensured the air was thick with black particulate that landed in your lungs, carrying metallic smell with every breath. Fine powder covered everything around you. At bus stops, I would see tired men; their eyes etched with a permanent tattoo of coal dust. These were the miners that were the dark artery of our economy.
Anyone who wanted the sun to fill their apartment with the light needed to wash their windows often. Window washing was a constant process in our homes, schools, and workplaces. Women and children were experts in cleaning the glass and cracked wooden frames. Using old newspapers instead of the washcloth was the number one trick for the glass, other unique tips were privately shared as sacred knowledge. Even scientists would ditch their lab coats and test tubes for a while to clean the windows of their labs. At the time I read “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” and the windows-washing entertainment at our school reminded me of how clever Tom organized the fence painting by other kids and the community. He transformed an enormous task into a unique fun activity where volunteers self-organized into a crew to complete the challenge.
In winter, dads were in charge of cleaning out the rugs in the fresh snow. When the white snowflakes fell on the streets on a weekend day, it was a signal to start. My dad rolled our two carpets into big heavy sausages and carried them outside on his shoulders. Another option was to take it to the balcony of our second-floor apartment and throw them down while being careful not to hurt any passersby. This was the heavy lifting task. The rug was unpacked and put flat on the snow, upside down. We grabbed handfuls of snow and sprinkled the rug like it was a cake covered with sugar powder. Dad and I would walk over the rug several times, pressing our boots as hard as we can to make the snow penetrate each thread. He then turned the rug over, and we stomped or even jumped over it again. We’d repeat this process several times, laughing and playing with the snow in the process, dragging the rug to the new patch of the fresh white snow after each iteration. The snow melted under our feet, carrying away the dirt from the rug to the hidden earth.
After several turns of the rug, and much jumping up and down, dad would lift the rug and throw it onto a heavy string where mom would air-dry washed clothes. Dad beat the rug with all his strength using a special “vibivalka” tool — a bit like a table tennis paddle — until no snow was left inside any of the threads. The rugs are only marginally damp and look so much brighter and have a fresh scent that makes me feel happy and joyful. The snow around us where the rug took its “dry bath” looks flat, dirty, and tired. After the rug dries somewhat, dad rolls them and carries them back upstairs. The whole apartment smells fresh, looks bright and feels extra happy for a few days.
To live in Donetsk you had to be smart about choosing your outfit and decor. It would be silly to buy white clothes to wear outside. The thick layer of dust on my piano would be back within minutes after I wiped it off. Yet, Donetsk had a reputation of being the city of a million roses, the most beautiful women, and intelligent, humorous men. It was true on all accounts. In addition to roses, stylish women, world-class ballet, and many research institutions, the distinctive burnt smell of the coal slag heaps welcomed you, when you stepped off the train, bus or plane bringing you home.
On my eighteenth birthday, the name of my home country name was crossed out on all official documents and became the country of Ukraine. It took some time to feel that Ukraine was an independent country. Within three years or so, the divorce from the Soviet way was complete in my heart and mind, and I was proud to be Ukrainian. Except that I am a Jew, my religion is on my birth certificate and other official papers, this does not happen for those who belong to other faith groups. However, this distinction meant nothing to my friends who were Jewish, Russian, or Armenian. Most of us felt proud to be citizens of Ukraine, and not to be confused with Russia. A few years after that I moved to Boston in the United States of America. When people ask me where I am from, when they hear my accent, I say with a happy smile, “I am originally from Ukraine,” at the same time my kids say “We are from Boston.” We all laugh.
Vivid memories of the “window challenge completed” pop up in my head. I recall jumping around the kitchen window of our third-floor flat, I wanted to make sure the entire glass from the outside sparks perfectly. My toes and fingers clench to the old wood of the thin window seal, ballet-type moves of my bare feet coordinate with the waves of the heavy ball of my eight-month-pregnant belly. All body parts are balancing in the air, forty feet above the ground. Noone including myself seemed to be concerned. A decent wife was expected to accomplish this task with grace and ease. I felt proud of myself, no second thought back then. Fanfares of internal and external marches ruled my feats on this sunny spring day.
My identity is a mix of the best aspects of my past and present as a Russian Ukrainian Jewish American. I am proud of a heritage that includes Russian literature, theatre, arts, math and science, and a sense of a deep Russian soul that mourns and yet accepts tragedy and fate.
The Jewish blood running in my veins pumps constant reflections about ethics, philosophy, and the meaning of life. I love listening to Ukrainian songs. I feel angry about the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, and his politics, I do not think that he respects his people and that repression remains a constant. He exhibits the worst of old-style Russian parenting, “my way is right.”
I walk into a Russian store in Newton, MA to buy some buckwheat and “pelmeni” and witness a young woman talking to her daughter in Russian. Mom is raising her voice with conviction, “You should be ashamed of yourself”.
I freeze for a moment, the cultures keep clashing on this side of the Atlantic ocean.
Her little girl is barely four, she made some mess while drinking from a juice box, her shoulders sagged. She seems in distress but reluctant to say anything to her mom. My heart aches; it’s a pain to see the feeling of hopelessness on this curious, sweet face. It seems that she has no hope to be heard, to be understood, or to be valued on the same level as adults.
I felt that something was off when I was growing up, but I could not figure it out until much later in life. As part of our culture, we were taught that the older the person the wiser they are, and you cannot disobey, somewhat like hierarchy in the army. Older persons’ opinions are rules, not suggestions. They have authority over you. The respect goes one way, from the younger to the older, period, no discussion. It was evident that men’s needs and expectations ranked higher in adult life. The girls would be brought up differently and expected to follow stricter rules than the boys.
In these moments, I know how grateful I am to be an American.
Twenty two years ago, we entered the United States at the Logan airport in Boston. My five-year-old son asleep on my chest, his arms and legs hugging my neck and waist. Complete trust flowed from his heart to mine. Our bodies were infused together. I feel fully fueled to carry us anywhere. Sashka was the most precious miracle in my life on that day. He was the reason we embarked on our journey. I wanted my son to grow up in America. I felt that the Soviet era is not something that could be transformed into “respect goes both ways” mentality quickly enough. I must not see my son taken as a soldier to the war, which was the norm with many generations in my birthplace. I wanted my kids to experience a sense of freedom, safety, and respect when they grow up, whether it be at home, in school, on a street, in a store, or anywhere where society members have their say.
Sometimes, I worry we might have passed some of these Soviet traits down to our children, as young parents who were figuring it out and not noticing our own harsh judgments. I want to foster deep, warm, meaningful connections across generations with mutual respect being paramount. I want to choose wisely from the mix of multicultural traditions when we continue growing our family today.
When I look at the small kids, teenagers, and young adults, I see their eyes open with trust. They are wise, unique, precious miracles. I feel lucky and grateful for the countless ways my kids have brought meaning to my life. If I lose a perspective, which happens from time to time, I remind myself about the expanded vision: what does it mean to love a child, any child, and any person? My answer is — to see them for who they are. To respect them. To admire them. To learn from them. And for myself — to be the strong roots and powerful wings and carry forward with the unstoppable desire to be daring to fly. To support myself and others by believing, in all of us.
I know, “Russians love their children too”- a lot. As a Russian-Ukrainian-Jewish-American mom of two hilarious, smart, kind grown-ups, I want to let the fears go and let the joy in. No more marches. Let’s waltz. I choose to play with swaddling the wonders of parenthood. Yep — sprinkle it with humor and affection, enjoy waltzing with the flow-through ups and downs.
One-two-three…one-two-three… touch the magic.
“Russians love their children too” is a famous song by Sting (1985)