Born in 1984
On the seventieth anniversary of the Great October Socialist Revolution, Masha's grandmother, a rocket scientist, took Masha to the Church of St. John the Warrior in Central Moscow to be baptized. Masha was three and a half years old, which made her roughly three years older than all the other children in the church that day. Her grandmother Galina Vasilyevna was fifty-five, which made her roughly the age of most of the grown-ups. They were old-fifty-five was the retirement age for Soviet women, and you could hardly have found a fifty-five-year-old who was not yet a grandmother-but not so old that they remembered a time when religion was practiced openly and proudly in Russia. Until recently, Galina Vasilyevna had not given religion much thought. Her own mother had gone to church, and had had her baptized. Galina Vasilyevna had studied physics at the university and, though she graduated a few years before a course on the "foundations of scientific atheism" became a graduation requirement at all colleges, she had been taught that religion was the opium of the people.
Galina Vasilyevna had spent most of her adult life working on things that were the very opposite of religion: they were material, not at all mystical, and they flew into space. Most recently, she had been working at Scientific Production Unit Molniya ("Lightning"), which was designing the Soviet space shuttle Buran ("Blizzard"). Her task was to create the mechanism that would allow the crew to open the shuttle's door after landing. Work on the shuttle was nearly finished. In another year, Buran would take flight. Its first test flight would be unmanned, and it would be successful, but Buran would never fly again. Funding for the project would dry up, and the mechanism for opening the space-shuttle door from the inside after landing would never be used.
Galina Vasilyevna had always been extraordinarily sensitive to the subtle changes in the moods and expectations of the world around her-a most useful quality in a country like the Soviet Union, where knowing which way the wind was blowing could mean the difference between life and death. Now, even though all things appeared to be on track in her professional life-it was still a year until Buran took flight-she could feel that something was cracking, something in the very foundation of the only world she knew-the world built on the primacy of material things. The crack was demanding that other ideas, or better yet, another foundation, appear to fill the emptiness. It was as though she could anticipate that the solid and unmystical thing she had spent her life building would fall into disuse, leaving a metaphysical void.
Galina Vasilyevna may have learned that religion was the opium of the people and she may have been told, along with the rest of the country and the world, that the Bolsheviks had vanquished organized religion, but, having lived in the Soviet Union for more than half a century, she knew that this was not entirely true. Back in the 1930s, when she was a child, most Soviet adults still said openly that they believed in God. The new generation was supposed to grow up entirely free of the superstitions of which religion was merely a subset and of the heartache that made religion necessary. But then, when Galina Vasilyevna was nine, the Second World War began. The Germans were advancing so fast, and the Soviet leadership appeared so helpless, that there was nothing left to believe in but God. Soon enough, the Soviet government seemed to embrace the Russian Orthodox Church, and from that point on, the Communists and the clergy fought the Nazis together. After the war, the church went back to being an institution for the older generation, but the knowledge remained that in times of catastrophic uncertainty it could be a refuge.
Grandmother told Masha that they were going to church because of Father Alexander Men. Men was a Russian Orthodox priest for people like Galina Vasilyevna. His parents had been natural scientists, and he had a way of talking to people who did not grow up in the church. He had been ordained by the Russian Orthodox Church, which ever since the war had served at the pleasure of the Kremlin, but he had his own ways of learning and teaching, and these had brought him to the brink of being arrested. Now that things were opening up slightly, Men was on the verge of becoming spectacularly popular, gathering a following of thousands and then of hundreds of thousands, though it would still be a few years before his writing could be published in the Soviet Union. Masha did not understand much of what her grandmother told her about Father Alexander or the light in the teachings of Jesus Christ, but she did not object to going to church. November 7 was always her favorite holiday, because on that day, the anniversary of the Great October Socialist Revolution, her grandmother, who for 364 days a year was a reluctant and subcompetent cook, baked pies that Masha liked to eat.
"What the fuck did you do that for?" Masha's mother asked when she came to pick up her daughter and discovered her wearing a tiny cross around her neck. That, however, was the extent of the discussion. Tatiana did not have much use for conversation: she was a woman of action. When she had discovered that she was pregnant, she went to the Party Committee at her graduate school in the hope that the authorities would compel the future baby's father, who had at least one other girlfriend, to marry Tatiana. This was not an unusual request and would not have been an unusual intervention for the Party Committee to stage, but in Tatiana's case it backfired. Masha's father lost his spot in graduate school and, consequently, his right to live in Moscow, and had to return home to the Soviet Far East, thousands of kilometers from his girlfriends.
New motherhood brought further unpleasant surprises. It made Tatiana dependent on her parents. Virtually everyone in her generation used parents as a source of free childcare: the only alternatives were state-run neighborhood-based nursery schools, which were a cross between baby prisons and warehouses, or prohibitively expensive and questionably legal private nanny services. Tatiana had won unusual independence from her parents-unlike most other people her age, she lived separately from them, in a communal apartment she shared with just one family-but the baby tethered her anew to her parents' apartment a few blocks away. With two rooms and a kitchen, Galina Vasilyevna and Boris Mikhailovich had the space to care for little Masha, and with both of them working as senior scientists in the space industry, they had more time than their graduate-student daughter. Tatiana figured that to escape her parental home for good, she needed to make money and pull strings. None of what she had to do was exactly legal under Soviet law, which restricted all activities and banned most entrepreneurship, but much of what she did was quietly tolerated by the authorities in a majority of the cases.
At age three, Masha was admitted to a prestigious, highly selective, virtually inaccessible residential preschool for the children of Central Committee members. (In fact, by the time Masha was born, the average age of a Central Committee member was approaching seventy-five, so the school served their grandchildren and great-grandchildren as well as the children of a few extraordinarily enterprising Soviet citizens like Tatiana.) Here is how a writer from a previous generation of students described the preschool:
Inside, everything reeked of prosperity and just-baked pirozhki. The Lenin's Corner was particularly resplendent, with its white gladioli arrangements beneath Ulyanov family photos arranged like icons on a crimson velvet bulletin board. On a panoramic veranda facing the haunted woods, nomenklatura offspring snoozed al fresco, bundled like piglets in goose-feather sleeping bags. I had arrived during Dead Hour, Soviet for afternoon nap.
"Wake up, Future Communists!" the teacher cried, clapping her hands. She grinned slyly. "It's fish-fat time!" . . . A towering nanny named, I still recall, Zoya Petrovna approached me with a vast spoon of black caviar in her hand.
By the time Masha enrolled in school, the Lenin Corner had lost some of its luster and the teachers had toned down some of their rhetoric, rarely roaring the word "Communists" at their charges. But the daily rations of caviar remained, in even starker contrast to the world outside, where food shortages were the determining factor of everyday life. Still there, too, was the ubiquitous Soviet-preschool-issue single-lump farina, which could be stood vertically upon a plate. The school maintained a five-day-a-week boarding schedule, an unsurpassed Soviet luxury. On weekends, Masha, like many Soviet children, generally stayed with her grandparents. Trying to make enough to sustain this life kept Tatiana busy seven days a week.
When Masha was four, her mother taught her to tell counterfeit dollars from genuine currency. Being caught with either real or fake foreign money would have been dangerous, punishable under Soviet law by up to fifteen years behind bars, but Tatiana seemed incapable of fear. At any rate, this was her livelihood. She also ran a tutoring business: she had started out as a tutor herself, but soon figured out that she needed volume to make real money. She began matching clients-mostly high school students readying to face the grueling oral exams for university admission-with her fellow graduate students, who could prepare them. In her own tutoring, she now stuck to a highly profitable and rare specialty she had developed: she prepared young people to face the "coffins."
"Coffins" were questions specially designed for the Jewish applicants. Soviet institutions of higher learning generally fell into two categories: those that admitted no Jews at all and those that admitted a strictly limited number of Jews. The rules of non-admission were not, of course, publicly posted; rejection was administered in a peculiarly sadistic way. Jewish applicants usually took entrance exams along with all the other aspiring students. They pulled examination tickets from the same pool as everyone else. But if they succeeded in answering correctly the two or three questions on the ticket, then, alone in the room with the examiners, they would be casually issued an extra question, as though to follow up on the answers given. This would be the "coffin." In mathematics, this was usually a problem not merely complex but unsolvable. The applicant would falter and founder. The examiners would then nail the cover of the coffin shut: the Jewish applicant had failed the exam. Unless, that is, the applicant had had Tatiana for a tutor. She perfected the art of teaching her clients not merely specific "coffins," which she had somehow managed to procure, but the general algorithm for recognizing them and proving them to be unsolvable. This bucktoothed blonde in aviator glasses could teach Soviet Jews to beat the antisemitic machine, and this kept Masha in caviar and disgusting Central Committee farina.
To achieve anything even resembling a level playing field, one had to not be Jewish. One's "nationality"-what Americans would call "ethnicity"-was noted in all important identity documents, from birth certificate to internal passport to marriage certificate to personnel file at work or school. Once assigned, "nationality" was virtually unchangeable-and it was passed on from generation to generation. Zhanna's father, Boris, had somehow-most likely through the foresight and effort of his parents-lucked into documents that identified him as ethnically Russian. With his dark brown eyes and dark hair in tight curls, and his parents' identifiably Jewish first names, Dina and Yefim, he was not fooling anyone, but he managed to short-circuit most inquiries by claiming, illogically, to be "half Jewish." This skill, his ethnically correct documents, and top high school marks enabled him to get admission to university. There had been one major obstacle: unlike the overwhelming majority of Soviet high school students, Boris had not joined the Komsomol, the Communist Youth League, and his graduation documents consequently identified him as "politically unreliable." His mother, Dina Yakovlevna, lobbied the high school to change the wording. It seemed like an impossible undertaking, but it had to be done. In this family, which consisted entirely of natural scientists and medical doctors, everyone was brilliant and everyone was accomplished. The wording was changed. Boris was admitted to the Department of Radio Physics of Gorky State University. He would graduate with top honors and would complete his PhD dissertation by the time he was twenty-four. Consensus among his family and friends was that he would eventually win the Nobel Prize for his work in quantum physics.
Zhanna was born in 1984, the year Boris finished his dissertation. Her mother, Raisa, was a teacher of French. In Soviet terms, they were a bogema-bohemian-family, which meant that they organized their life in accordance with ideas that seemed Western and in ways that continuously expanded their social circle. They rented a house, while Boris's older sister and her child lived with Dina Yakovlevna, as was the norm. The house, in the dilapidated center of town, was old and wooden and had no bathtub or shower, only a toilet. The family made do-they heated water on the stove and washed over a basin, or showered at friends' houses-and anyway, they were not so Western that they had to shower every day. They were, however, so Western as to play tennis, a rarefied sport that landed the family a photo spread in the city paper when Zhanna was a toddler. All three of the people in the picture had dark hair and white-toothed smiles as wide as their cheekbones. They stood out in their gray city.
The city was named Gorky, after the Russian writer Alexei Peshkov, who, as was the Revolutionary fashion, had taken a tearjerker pen name: it meant "bitter." When Zhanna was first becoming aware of her surroundings, she had no idea that a writer named Gorky had ever existed: she thought the name was a literal description of her town. The Soviet government seemed to agree: four years before Zhanna's birth, it had chosen Gorky as the place of exile for the physicist Andrei Dmitrievich Sakharov, the 1975 Nobel Peace Prize laureate and the country's best-known dissident. Sakharov's last name meant "sugar," and from the way Zhanna's father said his name, Zhanna knew there was something magical about him. She begged her father to take her with him when he said he was going to "Sakharov's building"-she did not realize that he was not actually visiting the great man, just keeping a sort of occasional vigil-but he would not take her. She named her kitten Andrei Dmitrievich Sakharov.
Here is how Sakharov's wife, Yelena Bonner, described the city in the spring of 1987, when Zhanna was not quite three years old:
You would think it's not early April but late autumn or the onset of winter. . . . I see pedestrians pulling their feet up out of the puddles as they walk: heavy, enormous clumps of dirt cling to their shoes. The wind bends treetops right down to the ground. A mix of snow and rain is falling from a dim sky, laying dirty-white stains on the surface of something that I'm not sure deserves to be called "earth."
Copyright © 2018 by Masha Gessen. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.