Happy, happy, irrevocable period… (Leo Tolstoy)
My childhood was dark and cheerless. My predominant feeling then was one of desolation. Sometimes it seemed to me that all what was happening to me was a leaden dream, and someday I would wake up in some sunny country, among loving and intelligent people.
When the Bolsheviks had driven away the “landowners and capitalists”, central Moscow’s tenement buildings and mansions were populated by “workers and peasants”, and also by Jews. It was in one of such houses (more precisely, in one of the communal apartments created in one of such houses) that my childhood passed. Even more precisely, it passed in nurseries, kindergartens, and, beginning with school age, in an extended-day group, music school and young pioneer camps. So, as a matter of fact, a room in that flat was just one of the shelters, where I had a bed.
As for my social class background, it was “from public servants”. My parents were military doctors. My father died at a firing range, when I was two months old, and I shared the room with my mother, brother and maternal grandmother. The house, where our communal apartment was situated, is a listed building in the Art Nouveau style. It is so-called the “Snail House” crowned with “horns”, which I mistook for minarets. The house had a front door and a no less impressive back stairs where you could get through the kitchen door and which we used to carry out the garbage.
The street, in which our house was situated, was called Podsosensky, meaning “under the pines”. Before the Bolsheviks’ advent it had been the Vvedensky Street, named after the church of the Presentation of the Mother in the Temple that under the pines. The origin of this street’s name remained secret up to the time of Perestroika. However, my mother once confessed that she had been taken to the above church by her granny. The church building was preserved, although it looked run-down and housed an electrical goods plant (it has been renovated and is again operational by now).
My father was native of the Chernigov Province, southern Russia. At the time of the Stolypin agrarian reforms his family moved to Siberia, where their last name started to end in “-ykh”. He graduated from book-keeping courses, then from a medical college. He was a many-sided man; he jumped with a parachute, was a chess master, and took an interest in philosophical issues. My mother, too, graduated from a medical college. For some time she was a regiment doctor in the Buryat-Mongolian Autonomous Republic in the Far East (where she met my father), then worked in Moscow. All in all, I am a free ploughman on the paternal side and I am both a landlord and a serf on the maternal side (however, one should recognize Vladimir Lenin as my “metaphysical” father, the kinship with whom showed most pronouncedly in the days of my youth and which is specifically reflected in my last name1).
In 1950s – 1960s, the city of Moscow (its “historical” part, to be more precise) was quiet and patriarchal. There were few cars and lorries, and horse drawn carts could still be seen in the streets. Pokrovsky boulevard running nearby was a place to rest and walk; there used to be old ladies sitting on the benches and students swotting away at their textbooks. Along the boulevard went electric trams. They were of two kinds: heavyset one-carriage and high two-carriage ones. The keep a tram moving, the driver would harshly turn the handle of the master-controller.
Beside Pokrovsky boulevard was the Milyutin Garden. In warm seasons, draughts and chess sets would be served out, while in winter a figure skating club was operating there (Milyutin had been shot in 1937 as an “enemy of the people”, but informally the garden still kept on bearing his name). There was also an open-air concert hall there (but I do not remember anybody ever perform there). Not far away from the Milyutin Garden there was the painter Vladimir Pchelin’s memorial flat (later on, already being a youth, I visited that flat and even played the piano for the painter’s widow, Yelizaveta Vasilyevna).
Beyond the Pokrovsky Gate was Chistoprudny (clean ponds) Boulevard. In summer, swans would swim there, and a skating rink would be arranged there in winter. Beside Chistoprudny Boulevard the “Coliseum” cinema was situated. There were several halls there, and you could see variety actors performing before the cinema show. The latter was also preceded by a news-reel, satirical one, “Fitil” (a fuse) or a social and political one, “News of the Day”. Subsequently, the drama theatre “Sovremennik” (the contemporary) was housed in that building.
The Communists abolished private property. Still, a “personal subsidiary plots” were allowed for peasants, while owners of a different kind were tolerated in Moscow, the shoe shiners. They would not only polish, but also mend footwear and sell associated goods, that is, insoles, shoe laces and shoe polish. Muscovites would call them “Armenians”, although, in reality, they were Assyrians.
I would go skiing to the Izmailovsky Wood, where I would get on the metro from “Kurskaya” station. The latter was located on Garden Ring avenue, where many blocks of flats had been built by German prisoners of war. My mother would recollect how ragged Germans went door to door begging and uttering only one word, “khlep” (bread).
In the area of the Pokrovsky Gate, one could see the God’s fool Mitya with his breast laden with badges and medals (subsequently, he would be found hanged in the attic of one of the blocks of flats). In the streets you could also see itinerant grinders crying out “knives and scissors to grind who wants”. Milkwomen walked door to door delivering milk and dairy products from the countryside. Almost all our family’s acquaintances lived within walking distance, so we would visit and receive them rather often.
Living in a Soviet communal apartment implied a bunch of unique sensations. Perhaps, one of the major objects of note there was a telephone; it hung on the wall, and one could only use it in a standing position (which did not prevent one from prolonged talks, though). The major speaker here was Revekka Yevelevna. With her guttural, pervasive voice, she would usually declaim in Yiddish, sometimes turning to Russian, for example, “Bronya, you’ve completely forgotten the Yiddish language”. However, she did not like to step to the telephone. Passing by the ringing phone, she would quicken her steps, saying “Can’t hear, can’t hear…”
A long hallway passed into the kitchen with its one end, the other end running straight into our room’s door. Probably for that reason, Revekka who lived next door would sometimes “miss” the target. Then one could watch the following scene: our door suddenly opens, and Revekka comes in wearing her concavo-convex eyeglasses and holding a chamber-pot in her hand. She perplexedly looks around and says: “Where on earth have I got into?”
Refrigerators were rare then, so we used a cold store-room, where every family had their shelf. Our family did not have a TV set, either. I would ask my neighbours to let me in to watch some interesting programme (there was a sole channel which was transmitted from the Shabolovka tower from 4 pm till midnight).
There were a wired-radio outlet in every room, and radio transmission was carried out from 6 am till midnight. The old Russian intelligentsia was not yet completely done away with and retained their positions in the All-Union radio. Thanks to it, you could hear, apart from communist propaganda, classical music of the highest standard (especially, when some communist leader was mourned). Considerable attention was paid to its popularization. Among grown-ups, this work was being done by Konstantin Adzhemov, and among children, by Dmitry Kabalevsky. Besides, there was a remarkable programme on the radio, “The theatre at the microphone”, where plays by great play-writers were transmitted performed by great actors, such as Vera Pashennaya, Pavel Massalsky, Mark Prudkin, Maria Babanova, etc. Splendid were children’s programmes, the “soul” of which was “radio magician” Nikolai Litvinov. Those were the remnants of the great Russian culture.
Despite the intensive nutrition and exhaustive muffling, I would fall ill rather often. Then our district doctor Tsilya Alexandrovna would visit me and prescribe me tetracycline.
The kindergarten I attended was considered prestigious. Apart from Russian children, it was also attended by those from Indian and Iranian embassies situated nearby. Two Indian boys, Shankar and Sekar, were laden with chains and lockets, and they gave off a fragrant aroma. They were very friendly and sometimes they would treat us to mangoes. The Iranian boy, Khosre, on the contrary, was wild and unsociable; he would retire into some nook, were he would bark and howl. However, his father who would come to pick him up was cultured and gentle.
Our governess was a semiliterate countrywoman. If something went not to her liking, she would exclaim: “Dash my buttons”. In summer, our kindergarten would move to the countryside. There was a nanny there who, in order to lull us, would repeat: “To the right side, hand under your shteek”. If we behaved badly, we would be driven out into the courtyard, where a bad-tempered dog lived. Having only our night robes on, we would go around in circles until we became quiet.
As early as in the kindergarten, much attention was paid to cultivating collectivism. If someone dared to stand out from the common ruck, he (or she, in this case) would be reprimanded in chorus: “Nadya is an upstart”.
For dinner in our kindergarten we would often have a rice and milk soup and also mashed potatoes and aubergine paste. You could guess where meat disappeared, if you came up to the kindergarten building at the end of the work day and see the kindergarten’s director and governess coming out with tightly stuffed bags in their hands.
Foodstuffs (as well as nonfood products) were in short supply then. So, a notification system had been developed among the locals. For example, “buckwheat’s sold in the Grey Shop”, or: doctor sausage in the Glass Shop”, “acidophilin at the Dumbs”, “cottage cheese at the “Working Moscow” grocer’s”. There were long queues everywhere, so, to save the time, we would sometimes cooperate with our neighbours – someone would stand in the queue to the cash-desk, while the other, to the counter.
Despite the massive communist propaganda, the local inhabitants stubbornly held on to the old names with regard to not only the shops, but also the lanes and streets. They would say: Vorontsovo Pole, Pokrovka, Maroseyka, Yakovlevsky, Maly Kazyonny, Bolshoi Kazyonny, although all those streets and lanes had rather long ago been given new names, respectively of Vladimir Obukh, Nikolai Chernyshevsky, Bogdan Kmelnitsky, Anna Yelizarova and Arkady Gaidar. As the “backbone” of our district could be regarded Lyalin Lane, once named after one of the local landlords and for some reason not renamed. There the famous secondary French school No. 10 was situated, which I never happened to attend.
My first school teacher was the “strict, but fair” Edvil Isaakovna. Having explained the lesson she would ask: “Well, children, maybe something is unclear to you?” However, If anybody dared to ask her any question, she, incinerating the “rascal” with her fierce eyes, would say: “Where were you, when I was explaining? Sit down, you’ve got a poor”.
In another event, in an extended-day class, when we sat down to do our homework, she suddenly declared: “Let’s not do our homework today!” General exaltation immediately began: everybody jumped up from their desks and shouted “Hurrah!”, and the red-haired plump girl Marina Kaplun was jumping and clapping her hands. Edvil watched this ignominy for some time and finally summed up: “I see you can’t behave yourselves. You will do your homework!”
We wrote with pens which we dipped into the ink-pot for which an opening had been made in the desk and into which a cleaning lady would pour ink every morning. To avoid blots, we would have to use blotters and penwipers. On the positive side, almost all of us learned to write beautifully, and the interchange of hairlines and strokes became our immutable rule. As part of “aesthetic upbringing”, at the end of each written homework we would have to draw a “border”, that is, a coloured ornament consisting of various geometrical figures. But most of all we liked “cinema lessons”, when we moved from our class to a little cinema hall, where the “cinema-lesson lady” would project us popular scientific films.
That was the so called “Khrushchev’s thaw”. Pictures of Stalin were still hanging in some places (for example, at the upper hall of “Arbatskaya” metro station), but the fight against his personality cult was in full swing. In this connection, people would joke: “The personality cult is when one despises all, the fight against the personality cult is when all despise one, and, as a result, all despise all”.
Many jokes circulated about the then head of state Nikita Khrushchev at the time. Here are some of them.
- In which pocket does Khrushchev carry his comb?
- He doesn’t need a comb, ‘cause he’s bald.
- They say that at night one can see Khrushchev with a folding-bed walking in circles around the Lenin mausoleum.
- When visiting the Louvre, Khrushchev asked: “What’s that ass with ears?” “That’s a mirror, Nikita Sergeyevich” was the answer.
- Under Lenin it’s like in the metro – everywhere there’s darkness, in front there is light; under Stalin it’s like in the tram – some are sitting (that is, serve their time), others are trembling; and under Khrushchev it’s like in the plane – one is ruling, others are airsick.
At the time of the Caribbean crisis, the overall situation in Moscow was really apocalyptic. There were rumours that special pills would be given out for the people to die painlessly. I begged my mother not to go out, should the “yellow rain” be falling. Witty fellows, however, suggested in case of an atomic war that you “cover yourself with a white sheet and slowly crawl to the cemetery”. Finally, the instinct of self-preservation prevailed, and Khrushchev took his missiles away from Cuba.
Subsequently, the Soviet government put forward the idea of “peaceful coexistence of countries with different political and social systems” and headed for détente, because the generation that had gone through the atrocities of war was still alive, and nobody wanted repetition. V-Day observed on May 9th in Russia was no holiday then – it was the day of remembrance and grief, and no one brandished the Georgian ribbons. The more shocking sound the statements of the official Russian propaganda of the “Restoration” era, kind of: “we consider using tactical nuclear weapons”, “we will reach Brussels in two days”, “we will turn America into radioactive dust”, and “meeting your death is no fear when you have got people round you”. Truly, whom God wishes to destroy, he first makes mad. Equally absurd is the fact that Russia rises against Europe, an integral part of which (despite all its distinctiveness) it has almost always been.
In autumn 1964 Khrushchev was fired for “voluntarism”. The Brezhnev “stagnation” began (or “stability”, as it is called now). On November 7th, the Bolshevik revolution anniversary, people were gloomy, grumbling: “A feast is no feast without Khrushchev”. Really, everybody had long used to his somewhat rude jokes and escapades. But now there was nobody to show the Americans “Kuzka’s mother”, to bang his shoe on the table at a UN General Assembly meeting, and to promise “the current generation of Soviet people living under communism”. At a history lesson, Edvil Isaakovna asked us to take a pencil, open our textbook on a certain page and delete a block of the text, starting with the words “The keynote speech at the congress was delivered by…” and ending with the words “… wished the Soviet people further success in building communism”, saying “you don’t have to read it”.
My transition from primary to secondary school did come as a qualitative leap. Now for each subject we had an individual teacher, but I failed to develop any friendliness to any of them, neither special interest towards the subjects they taught. True, there was a teacher who stood out amongst others – it was a teacher of Russian language and literature, Valentina Ivanovna Uit. She treated reverently the subject she taught and would politely address us with “vy” (plural you).
I attended a music school starting from the reception class. But I cannot say that it gave me much pleasure. Rather, I was driven to it by some call of duty, which, according to I. Kant, is inherent in all men (apparently, in a varying degree). Possibly, I would have given up my music lessons, had I not been taken notice of by A. B. Goldenweiser’s pupil, Olga Petrovna Zimina, thanks to whom I became a successor of great Russian pianism.
Perhaps, the only subject I undoubtedly liked at the music school was choir, which was taught to us by the gracious and slender Lidia Vladimirovna Tikheyeva. Certainly, there was the joy of joint music-making there. We would largely sing young pioneer and patriotic songs and also those written by Lidia Vladimirovna’s friend, Tamara Popatenko. However, classical music was in our repertoire, too, for example, a chorus from Mozart’s “The Abduction from the Seraglio”. We would perform in Moscow’s various concert halls.
Mutual sympathy was developed between me and Olga Varfolomeyevna Vakhromeyeva, who taught solfeggio in the neighbouring class. She was talked about in a whisper that his husband was a “minister of religion” (and her brother was metropolitan Philaret, one of supreme hierarchs with the Russian Orthodox Church, rector of the Moscow Theological Academy at the time). Her father was a well-known musicologist Varfolomey Vakhromeyev, who was our music school’s director till 1963. Subsequently, I came across Olga Varfolomeyevna in one of Russian Orthodox temples near Moscow, where her husband, Father Vasily served as dean.
I also attended music literature lessons. There, I for the first time heard and “fell in love” with Beethoven’s Sonata Pathétique. As part of general music education, I would attend subscription concerts at Moscow Conservatoire’s Grand Hall. Usually, I and my friend would walk there, passing across the Kremlin (the admission to which was free at the time), entering it through the Spasskya Tower’s gate and leaving it through the Brovitskaya Tower’s gate.
At the Conservatoire, I still found the atmosphere that only befitted the temple of Music. That atmosphere, apart from the magnificent hall, was created by the then public the basis of which was formed by those unfortunate, lovely old ladies, whose husbands had either rotted away in Stalin camps, or been killed in the war, or just ruined themselves by drinking. It was also there that I heard Svyatoslav Richter for the first time. I cannot say that his playing made a powerful impression on me – it was much more interesting for me to whisper with my pal then. However, I could not help avoiding the effect of great music works on me (greatly performed, at that), and, eventually, I grew to perceive and perform those works myself. Contributing to it were also lecture concerts presented by a remarkable popularizer of classical music, Svetlana Vinogradova.
From the 7th form on, both at school and at a pioneer camp, hooligans and repeater students appeared to strike the keynote of everyday life. Teachers and leaders themselves seemed to be afraid of them. Sorting things out, fights and beatings became nearly everyday practice. In the meantime, as our pop idols came pillars of the then variety music, notably, Emil Gorovets, Jean Tatlian, Muslim Magomayev, Polad Bülbüloğlu. As for the accessible foreign music, we especially enjoyed listening to the song “Autumn Rain” performed by Gjorgje Marjanovic.
All this would have lingered who knows how long, if a phantom of friendship had not dawned on me one day. This augured if not a change for the better in my life, but, anyway, some new phase of it. It is precisely this event that Leo Tolstoy considered to be the beginning of youth. This new view of live, that is, living under the aspect of friendship, required some outward changes. Then I quit a general education school and decided to enter a school of music.
1 “kartavykh” means “of those having a burr”.