How We Kept Warn

In the big cities, all houses were heated by central heating: by hot water going through the batteries. The more batteries, the warmer. The government tried to save money, so there was supposed to be only enough heating to keep the temperature to 18 C. However, 18 C is rather chilly, we wanted the rooms to be warmer. So, before the colds come, my parents would go to the plumber, give him 25 rubles, and he would install an extra battery, so that we would be warm all winter long. In Spring, he would come for inspection, and say: "You have an extra battery, this is not allowed." So, he took this battery away until the late Fall. This way, everyone was happy: we were warm, and he had extra money to get drunk.

How We Dressed

How my father learned to make clothes

Clothes were difficult to buy, and those we could buy did not look good. When my Dad was a student, one of his friends managed to buy a nice-looking Chinese raincoat -- so all of the friends were wearing this raincoat in turn when they went on a date. At some point, when I was little kid, my Dad decided to take the matters in his own hands, and to learn the art of tailoring. After all, his grandfather was a tailor. He started with making pants for himself. He made his first pair of pants, they were not very good, but he learned from his mistakes, so he make another better pair, then the third one, and finally he made the fourth pair that looked good. So, he started wearing the fourth pair of pants and decided to bring the first three pairs to the used-clothes store. Since not too many new clothes were available in the stores, used-clothes stores were very popular. The salesman at the used-clothes store looked at the first pair of pants and said: "These are self-made, not good, no one will buy them, throw them away". Then he looked at the second pair and said: "A typical Soviet sh-t. I will give you 5 rubles for them". Then he looked at the third pair and said: "There is no label, but I can tell these are German-made. Only Germans make it neat not only on the outside but also on the inside. So I will give you 15 rubles." My Dad was very proud of this compliment -- and extra money did not hurt either.

The Beatles Jacket

When I was in high school, we all LOVED the Beatles. We tried to grow long hair -- this was only possible in summer, during the school vacations, in other times, teachers forced us to have haircuts. We sang their songs, we LOVED their songs -- and our English teachers used their songs to teach us English. I saved money from lunches until I had enough to buy a photo of the Beatles on the black market. Once my parents learned how to make clothes, they made me a collar-less jacket exactly like they were wearing; we called it "bitlovka" in Russian. I loved it, and I was periodically wearing it year after year (for the most festive occasions), even 15 years later when big holes appeared in it -- the first ones were patched, but after a while, it became impossible to patch them. My Mom, upon seeing that it is no longer possible to wear this jacket, combined it with other worn-out clothes, and exchanged a certain number of kilograms of old clothes for a decent quality lipstick -- in the Soviet Union, everything was difficult to get, so the only way to buy a good book like Dumas' Three Musketeers was to exchange it for 20 kilograms of waste paper, and the only way to buy a good lipstick was to exchange it for some amount of used clothes. I was somewhat upset with this loss of my favorite jacket, and it took me some time to fully forgive my Mom.

Suit in Which I Emigrated

At some point, my old pants and jacket got worn out, I realized it was time to buy a new one. So I start suggesting, to Olga, what kind of suit I would like to buy. Olga said: "Vladik, you don't understand", and brought me to DLT, the big department store. In the men clothes' department, we could not find anything of my size (46, a pretty average size) at all. I could not believe it, so I tried to ask the salesladies. It was difficult to get their attention: as it was typical in the Soviet Union, they talked to each other and paid no attention to the customers. When they finally paid some attention, they confirmed that there was nothing of my size. So I told Olga: whenever you see something of my size, buy. And in a few months, she did. This was a suit in which I left Russia. It all worked well but when I was giving a talk at Yale, the zipper on my pants broke. I did not know what to do: in Russia, it would have been a catastrophe, you could not just go and buy a new zipper or new pants. However, my colleagues suggested that I go to the nearest store. I asked the salesperson for some pants that would more or less match my jacket. He went to look for it and came back with pants of exactly the right color and right size! I could not believe my eyes. Then he took a razor to cut off the label -- and accidentally cut through the pants! I was thinking: "Oh no, I was lucky to get the only pants in the US that fit with my jacket, and they are ruined". But the salesperson told me not to worry, and brought an identical pair! When Olga joined me in the US in a few months, she did not at first believe my story, since the new pants looked exactly the same as the old ones -- but the remaining small label was in English!


How Much Money We Earned

Never enough. In my family, everyone worked, but we never had enough money. We had to literally count every kopek, every day we wrote down how much we spent, and counted what remained. One day I came up 1 ruble less, I was upset, my parents were upset, until I remembered that I spent this money on membership dues to some obligatory nonsense like Volunteer (as if) Society for Helping the Army. As a result, every time we needed to go on vacation, we never had enough money, so my parents would bring my grandfather's golden watch to the pawnshop to get the needed money. In the Fall, they would pay back with interest and get the watch back until the next year.

Who Controlled the Money

Definitely, the mistress of the house. In our family, it was my grandmother; when I got married, it was my wife. You get a salary, you bring it all to you wife, and then every morning, you ask for a ruble for lunch. My Dad was an exception: he had a special agreement with my Mom that while he would bring her the whole salary, he could keep half of his bonus to once in a while go drink beer with his friends. Bonuses were not big, but enough to get some beer. This was unusual, all his friends were envious of him, since they had to plead with their wives for their beer money every time. When we came to the US, I quickly realized that in the US husbands also have a say in how to spend money. A few months after we arrived, Olga's sister called Olga and asked about some financial issues, to which Olga, already being Americanized, replied: "I have to ask Vladik". I still remember her sister's shock: "What does Vladik have to do with this?"

Money and Kids

In Russia, the usual attitude was that you are not supposed to talk to children about money, since that would make them stressful. In my family, the attitude was always different: from early childhood, I knew that I cannot get expensive toys since we could not afford them, and I had to write down -- up to a kopeck -- where I spent my lunch money. Sometimes I cheated: once, instead of having a full lunch, I bought a photo of the Beatles, another time I bought cigarettes -- to impress girls, but that was rare. We followed the same policy with our son Misha. Honestly, I was a little but afraid that this would make him stressed, but he seemed to be OK with that. This was very unusual. I remember how friends visited us, when Misha was probably 6 years old, and it so happened that we explained to them our open children-and-money policy. They thought we were joking. So I asked Misha how much cheese costs. To the horror of our friends, he replied "3 roubles a kilogram", exactly what the standard cheese cost. And he replies casually, while continuing to play with his toy cars.

Money and I

Many years ago, when still in Russia, we learned that there is a cocoa shortage in the world, and that the price of chocolate was supposed to be increased soon. People rushed into the stores to buy all the chocolates they had. I also went and bought 10 bars of my favorite Skazki Pushkina (Pushkin's Fairy Tales) chocolate bars. A few days later, the new prices were announced. The prices on all chocolate bars indeed became higher by 50% or more. There was only one exception: Skazki Pushkina. This was a chocolate most beloved by little kids, so they decided to keep its price artificially low. I did not get any money smarts in the US. For example, when I attended a conference in India in 2013, I had some rupees left at the end. I knew that another conference will take place there in a few years, so on changing them to dollars and then back during the next trip, I kept Indian cash. This amount was in 500-Rupee notes. In 2018, I came to India again to attend yet another conference. On arrival, I was informed that two years before that, since many of such notes turned out to be fake, there was an exchange, all old notes were to be exchanged at the bank for the new ones after checking for fakes. After a short period of time, the old notes became invalid. As the local guy explained to me, these are now even less valuable than paper: on a piece of paper, you can write something, but on these notes, you cannot even write. This shows that I do not have a good money instinct :-(

People's Attitude to Communists

Kilograms and Pounds

Before communists came to power in 1917, Russia used feet, inches, miles of different type, etc. Communists introduced kilometers, kilograms, etc. People used to hate these units, just because these units were forced upon them. When I was a kid, in late 1950s, my grandmother would often take me with her to the farmer's market. More than 40 years have passed since the communist takeover. The scales are in kilograms and grams only. Still, when my grandmother asks an old farmer lady selling chicken: "How much for your chicken?" the answer would be something like "8 roubles per pound". They will both spend a lot of time translating into pounds, but none of them would utter the dreaded "k" word. In the countryside, when you asked for a distance to the next village, the answer would be in versts (Russian miles), practically never in kilometers. Khrushchev changed it all. Being of a farmer stock himself, he started using these pounds and poods (1 pood = 40 pounds) in his speeches, so it was no longer illegal to use them. And then, I guess, people realized that the new units are not so bad, they are easier to use, so the old units kind of died out.

Old Names Never Died

When communists came to power in 1917, they changed street names, city names, etc. But people continued to use the old names, and the communists had to live with that. For example, St. Petersburg, the city where I was born, was first renamed Petrograd (russified version of this name) and then, in 1924, Leningrad - after the late dictator. People called it Peter, for short, and even the communists talked in their newspapers about the revolutionary traditions of Petersburg-Petrograd-Leningrad. Same with the street names. The street on which I lived was originally called Kirochnaya, because on this street, there was a Kirche - a German church. The communists renamed it into Saltykov-Schedrin street, after a 19 century satirist. Actually, he was not a bad satirist, but people hated this new name anyway. Of course, we had to use it on official occasions, but between friends we called it Kirochanaya street. My parents told me that when I was born in 1952, 35 years after the communist takeover, they brought me to the polyclinic near our home, to sign me for medical service. "What is your address?" -- asked a lady behind the counter. Well, they knew it is an official place, so they said "Saltykov-Shchedrin street". To their big surpsise, the lady writes down: "Kirochnaya street" and files my file under the letter "K". Of course, I do not remember that, but I have seen my file later many times, it did say "Kirochnaya", and it was filed under the letter "K". In 1980, 63 years after the communist takeover, we bring our newborn son Misha to the same polyclinic. There is a young lady filling the forms. "What is your address?" -- again, this is an official place, so we answer: "Saltykov-Shchedrin street". She writes down: "Kirochnaya street" and files Misha's file under the letter "K"!


How I Was Baptized

When I was born, both my parents and my grandmother worked, so somebody needed to take care of me when they were at work. At that time, it was easy. People living in villages -- where there were not many things to buy and not much entertainment -- were not allowed to leave, with few exceptions, and being a babysitter or a maid was one of the legal ways to leave (for boys it was also joining the army). As a result, there were plenty of young girls who could be hired and they came cheap, so everyone could afford them. My babysitter was supposed to take me to the nearby Tavrichesky Garden, so that I could breathe healthy fresh air, but instead, she went with me to the nearby barracks, where she flirted with the young soldiers. She felt guilty that she was ruining my health, so she decided to compensate that. First, she spent a significant part of her meager salary to buy me a big teddy bear. She put in my bed when I was asleep. According to my parents, when I woke up and saw a horrible bear lying near me, I was scared almost to death and started crying in horror. She also decided to save the soul of the Jewish boy -- in the villages, most people were still religious. So, she brought me to a local church, lied to the priest that I was her son, and convinced him to baptize me -- the priest was clearly very brave since without documents, that was strictly illegal.


No one in my family was religious. My grandfather Rafail was bar-mitzvah'd, but never went to the synagogue after that. To him, like to most people in Russia, religion was opium for the people. My Dad remembered that when he was little, he would get Chanukah gifts from his grandfather Yakov. But some cultural traditions remained. Every Spring (as I understood later, at the Passover time), my parents would dress me nicely, get dressed nicely themselves, and we would go to my Mon's godmother for a festive feast, whose central point was the delicious matzo ball soup. As a teenager, I got interested in Jewish traditions, and went to the synagogue several times. In general, religion was, to put it mildly, not encouraged. Parents were deprived of parental rights if they taught religion to their kids, kids were expelled from university if they were seen entering a church, a mosque, or a synagogue -- and there people photographing everyone entering. I was lucky, I had my photos taken but my University was liberal, they did not penalize us. During the Simchat Torah, when many Jews came to the synagogue to celebrate, I stood in the line to carry the Torahs. When my turn came, I told the guys that I know practically nothing about the Jewish traditions, so I am not sure I am eligible to carry the Torah. There were three guys there, two of them started very loudly arguing in Yiddish, all I could understand is one of them saying "A Yid" (that I am a Jew), while the other one replied "Nicht A Yid" -- not a Jew. The third guy listened for a while, then showed me that they are both crazy and gave me the Torah to carry. At Passover, I would go to the synagogue's bakery to buy some matzos. In St. Petersburg, we were lucky, because in many other cities, it was simply impossible, so Jews would got to Petersburg or Moscow. It was not easy, since no one -- neither we nor the synagogue -- were allowed to buy big amounts of flour, even small amounts were difficult to get. So, to buy matzos, you needed to buy the flour somewhere -- which usually meant going to many stores and standing in long lines -- and bring it to the synagogue. My relatives who emigrated to Israel quickly learned that these Petersburg matzos -- made of non-kosher flour -- were not kosher, but they tasted good. We will love matzos. To many American Jews, this is a boring taste that they have to endure to honor their tradition -- but to us, they continue to be a rare feast.

How Olga's Grandfather Tried to Convert the Baptists

Olga's grandfather Nikolai was always full of energy. When he retired around 60 years old, he was still full on energy, so he asked for some volunteer work. He lived in Krasnodar, were they were many Baptists. The Communists actively fought the Baptists, since they did not obey the authorities. At first, they arrested and jailed them, but then they realized that it does not help, so they decided to educate them. So Nikolai was advised to go and lecture to the Baptists. At that time, the usual Communists' argument again religion came from astronomy -- the astronauts flew in space, and they did not see neither God, nor angels. So, Nikolai started lecturing them on astronomy. Most of these folks did not even go to high school, to them it was very interesting. They, in their turn, tried to teach him the word of God. At that time, it was practically impossible to get a Bible or a prayer book, so what the Baptists did they bought anti-religious brochures -- there were plenty of them and many of them had citations from the Bible (with a following critique), covered everything but these citations by glued-on white paper, and these were their prayer books. They also liked to sing, and their tradition was to use popular melodies that everyone knew, but use religious words instead of the original secular texts. For example, we had a very popular pilot's song, with a cheerful melody and words Still higher and higher and higher -- they sang Still closer and closer and closer to God. Olga's grandfather became good friends with the Baptists. He saw how eager there were to learn new things, so he gave them a gift -- an expensive and difficult-to-buy book on astronomy (translation from English), with beautiful color pictures of planets, galaxies, etc. In return, they have him an even more expensive gift -- the Bible printed on very thin paper. Such books were smuggled by Western tourist into the USSR. This was the most expensive thing Olga's grandfather owned in his life: he bragged about it, he carried it everywhere with him -- and, as a result, in a few days, it was stolen from him :-(

Easter Movies

Easter in the Orthodox calendar is often at the end of April, around May 1. In Christianity, this is the main holiday., celebrating the resurrection of Jesus Christ - and thus, his victory over Death, the victory showing others that death is not the end. This is the time for the all-night service. This was the only day of the year when the communists routinely allowed the priests to go outside the church with the crosses - they blessed the people, they blessed the colored eggs and a special cake - kulich - traditional for Easter, that people brought in for this blessing. Thousands would flock to the services. In contrast to Stalin's time, there was no explicit prohibition from attending these services, but to discourage people from attending them, the government would show American and French movies on the TV all night long - movies that otherwise, one would never see. That the TV worked all night long was also unusual, because usually - with the exception of the New Year eve - TV would stop a little after midnight. (There was a daily all-night program on the radio Dlia Teh Kto Ne Spit (for those who are Not Sleeping), people joking called it Dlia Teh Komu Ne S Kem Spat' - for those who do not have anyone to sleep with, but it was mostly pop songs.) By this unusual all-night TV program, we knew when is Easter - otherwise, there was no official announcement of religious holidays.

How I Learned My First Foreign Words

How I Learned My First French Words

In the 19 century, noble people in Russia spoke French to each other, Russian was the language of slaves. Even in 1825, when some officers tried to start a revolution and were arrested, some of them asked for official interpreters at their trials, since their Russian was not very good. Noble people also woke up late -- often after middy -- and went to bed late, way after midnight. When I was a kid, I live with my parents and my grandmother in a room in a communal apartment -- ten families sharing one kitchen: this is how most people lived. Our room was actually half of the original bigger room, it was separated by a very thin wall, so we could hear everything in the other part of this original room. In that other part lives an old lady who somehow survived the revolution, and who still retained the old habits. So, when at about 11 pm, we would go to sleep, she would have visitors until 1 or 2 am, and they would speak French with each other. They were old, their hearing was not good anymore, so to hear each other, they shouted. So, while we were trying to sleep, they yelled: -- Bonjour! -- Bonjour! -- Comment ca va!

How I Learned My First English Words

Before my Mom married my Dad, one of her suitors was a sailor who used to visit her when on shore. Even when I was a kid, he would come to visit us, usually at daytime when my parents were at work, and I was alone with my grandmother. He was always drunk, he could barely walk. He started teaching me English -- the international language of sailors, called me boy. I was scared of him. My grandmother would always ask: "Sasha, why don't you come when you are sober". I was puzzled by that too, but later on I realized that when on shore, he was never sober: for several months, he was at sea, with no possibility to get drunk, so when he came on shore and got his salary, he immediately started drinking -- until his money ran out and he would have to go to sea again. This was not my only source of English, I also went to an illegal kindergarten. When I was a kid, official kindergartens were only for party bosses. However, pensions for old people were very small, so many old ladies had small kindergartens in their rooms. As practically anything in the Soviet Union, it was illegal. Our lady tried to teach us English and good manners. Some English I learned, but good manners I could not. I still remember, with horror, how we were supposed to eat a soft-boiled egg with a spoon from a special device -- other kids mastered that art, but I had egg all over me and all over the table :-(

How I Learned My First Hebrew Words

This was much later, when I was a freshman at the university. At that time, people were who wanted to emigrate were not jailed as before, but they were still fired from their jobs -- and not allowed to emigrate. Some of them knew some Hebrew, so the Soviet government allowed them to teach Hebrew to interested folks. This was a very liberal step, since for many decades, Hebrew was officially considered a reactional language -- used for religion and for Zionism -- and it was illegal to teach it.Even l'Humanite, the newspaper published by the French Communist Party, had an article about our Leningrad Ulpan. I volunteered to study. All private activities were heavily taxed, to make them ompletely unprofitable. So while our teachers were no longer afraid of the KGB, they were very much afraid of tax inspectors. To study, we use photographed copies of pages from an Israeli textbook, a very pro-socialist one. Haver (comrade) was how people in this textbook talked to each other -- which never happened between friends in the Soviet Union, only in silly and boring government-published novels about how we are all good friends living happy lives in the communist paradise. It all ended really fast, since in a few months, another liberalization came, and our teachers were allowed to emigrate. For several years, I kept the textbook, waiting for an opportunity to study some more -- until I met Olga, my wife. We started studying Hebrew together, this turned into a romance, we got married, other problems surfaced, and the textbook again went back to its secret hiding place -- secret since Hebrew was still, legally speaking, a reactionary language :-(

Culture Shock

Many movies show a culture shock that immigrants from the Soviet Union experienced when they came to the US. But to us, culture shocks came much earlier.

How Olga Had a Culture Shock

My wife Olga had a culture shock in 1976, when she first came to St. Petersburg. Most of her life, she lives in Novosibirsk, where stores did not even have meat departments, and where before every major holiday, she stood several hours in line to get some sausage. In St. Petersburg, when we walked along Nevsky prospect -- the city's main street -- I showed her Eliseev store, the main city food store. On the walls, there were two tableaux, each almost 10 by then, one for cheeses, one for sausages. At each of the almost 100 cells, there was a name of the cheese or sausage; when the cell was lit that meant that this particular cheese or sausage was available in the store. When we walked in, about half of the cells were lit. And you could see all these cheese and sausages, and people were buying them -- without standing in a long line. This was a shock, but this was not all. In the middle of the store was an older man who was very loudly complaining: "Communists have ruined everything, there is absolutely nothing to eat!" -- and no one arrested him!

How I Had a Culture Shock

My culture shock was when I was first allowed to travel abroad, to Bulgaria in 1988. To people outside the communist block, Bulgaria may have seemed like a province of the Soviet Union, but to us, going there was -- until perestroika -- an almost impossible dream. Every time I would go to a new place, Olga would prepare a list of things of buy if I see them. This time, our son Misha needed some shirts, and it was not possible to buy them in the stores. So, she wrote down the desired size, the desired color (if there is a choice), what size to buy if there are no shirts his size -- the usual preparation for shopping in the Soviet Union. So, I get to the Central Department Store in Sofia, to the children clothes department, and I give Olga's cheat sheet to the saleslady. She looks at the size, at the color, and asks a question that would have been impossible in the Soviet Union: "How many do you want?" I think I was brave enough to say "two", so she sold me two shirts of exactly Misha's size and exactly the colors that Olga wanted. Well, eventually I brought these shirts back to Misha, but it turned out to be not so straightforward. When I went to Sofia airport for a flight back, I saw a big sign that since children's clothes are subsidised by the state, it is prohibited to take them out of the country. My heart fell, but I got lucky. A few people before me in line to a custom's officer, there was a Soviet lady who got upset when she was asked to open her suitcase: "I am on a business trip from the Soviet Union, how dare you ask to check my luggage". To this, the customs officer loudly replied: "This is not Sofia region of the Soviet Union, it is an independent country of Bulgaria!". He was so proud of himself that, instead of inspecting any more folks, he waved us all in, and started going from one colleague customs officer to another repeating this story. So I brought my shirts. There were many other culture-shocking things in Bulgaria. For example, there were copy shops everywhere where you could go and make copies of anything you want. In the Soviet Union, copy machines were heavily controlled by the KGB, to make sure that no one makes a copy of Solzhenitsyn's novels or, God forbid, of the Bible. Olga's engineer Mom had high security clearance for only one reasons: because she had access to a copy machine. Another culture shock was attitude to the Jews. In the Soviet Union, Jews were not very welcome, but here, in every kiosk, you could buy a postcard with Sofia synagogue, and there was even the Museum of Jewish culture -- which I could not resist visiting. Nothing like that existed in the Soviet Union. Sofia was the place where I first tried Coca Cola. In Soviet Union, we only had pepsi. I took two bottles of Coke with me to the Soviet Union, so that all my friends could taste it. Interestingly, when I came to the US, I did not recognize the taste: what we had in Bulgaria was the New Coke, a short-time experiment of the Coca Cola company to change the taste. We also ate frog legs for the first time, adding to the impression of Bulgaria as almost West. And at the local university, there were advertisement for students of tours to Greece and Turkey -- in the Soviet Union, even going to a "socialist" country was difficult, and going to a capitalist country (like Greece or Turkey) was practically impossible. Also different was attitude to the leaders. Our conference was at Golden Sands, a resort on the Black Sea. A rather small part of the beach with a house in it was surrounded by a see-through fence. We could not go there, and the locals explained that this was a place where Todor Zhivkov, the country's communist dictator, would sometimes swim. In comparison with the Soviet Union, where there were kilometers of protective zone between us and the leaders this was very unusual: one could easily shoot him at this distance. Not everything was perfect. Before I left for Bulgaria, one of my colleagues asked me to bring fish oil to his newborn son. All the kids in St. Petersburg ate fish oil, this was the main source of Vitamin D that we did not get from our weak Northern sun. Usually, it was easy to buy, but this time, as often happened in the communist economy, it disappeared. I went to a local drugstore in Bulgaria, but it disappeared in Bulgaria as well. A local friend -- one of the conference organizers -- encouraged me that Bulgarian economy is not so bad as the Soviet one, that it will appear in a week or two, and he will buy and send me some. In two weeks, instead of fish oil, I got a letter from him that explained what happened: he did buy it and he did try to send it to me, but it was turned back by the Soviet customs, and the explaining letter from the Soviet customs was attached. This letter explained that to import a medicine into the Soviet Union, it is necessary to attach ten documents: a doctor's prescription, an official letter from the Soviet Ministry of Health confirming that this medicine cannot be bought in the Soviet Union, etc., etc. It all sounded reasonable if one forgets that this was about fish oil :-(

My Family

Grandfather Boris

Boris Melnikov graduate from an Agriculture College after 1917. The new regime trusted people from poor families more than people who were prosperous under the Tsar. Since Boris was of a poor family, he was promoted several times, and his family lived a reasonable prospering life. My Mom (born in 1925) went to a special privileged Capella school where, in addition to the usual subjects, professional singers would teach kids how to sign, professional dancers - how to dance, etc. The Communists always promoted specialists from poor families who were educated after 1917. At first, there was not enough such specialists so they had to tolerate those who serve in the Tsarist times. By the end of 1920s, there were already enough post-1917 educated specialists, so the Communists decided to replace all the old cadres. For that, in late 1920s and early 1930s, they staged several "processes" in which well-known members of the intelligentsia would be denounced by their colleagues and they would denounce themselves as saboteurs and wreckers. Each such process would follow by a summary dismissal of all the old specialists. After a PromParty process in which several top engineers were denounced (some shot), most of the old-time engineers were dismissed, many of them arrested. Now was the turn of agriculture specialist. The need was acute because the country was in the middle of a disatrous hunger caused by Stalin's ruthless collectivization policy, and the government needed scapegoats to blame for the hunger and misery. To the Communists, since Grandfather Boris was of poor origin, he looked like a perfect candidate to become a denouncer. Boris refused to become a false witness against his friends and colleagues, and since he refused, he immediately became an enemy. He was arrested and sent to Gulag where he stayed for more than 20 years, until Stalin died in 1953 and Khrushchev freed the surviving Gulag slaves. He was not the only one who refused, and, as a result, the communists gave up on the idea of an open political process - but they arrested all the old-guard specialists nevertheless. As was the habit under the Communist regime, Boris's wife and daughter had to publicly denounce him as the enemy of the people. My Mom was immediately expelled from the special Capella school and sent to a regular public school, they were sent to smaller room to live. However, these were more liberal times: in late 1930s, they would arrest the whole family, but as early as 1931, they allowed the family to be free. They did not even search my Grandmother thoroughly, so she managed to keep his photo and an amateur small oil painting of the house in which Boris was born - and she kept it with her, as her most precious possessions, when she was evacuated during the Second World War and when she came back. They were free, but this "freedom" was relative, they came after her every night. There were rules on the books that when you arrest someone and search his or her room, there should be an impartial witness present to make sure that all is done legally. In principle, they could grab anyone and make him or her serve, but people tried to find excuses -- and if they could not avoid, talked about the arrests. Since Bulia was a wife of the enemy of the people, she could not resist too much - otherwise, they would just arrest her as all other wives of the enemies. KGB arrested people at nights, and every night, they would wake her up and keep her awake for a few hours while she saw her friends and neighbors led to concentration camps and often death. And she could not talk about that in the morning, and she could not explain on her work why she was always sleepy. Even in the early 1960s, when they stopped arresting people in mass, KGB still had a grip on my grandmother. A scoundrel in a KGB uniform (black suit and tie) would come and bring her to a place where they could be overheard (in our communal apartment, the only such place was a bathroom), and ask her questions on who said what and who met whom. We grumbled but we could not stop them. Boris survived. After 1953, when Stalin dies, he was released, but 20 years in a concentration camp ruined his health. He was officially proclaimed disabled, and in a year or so after becoming free, he died in a special nursing home for the disabled in a year or two. I never saw him. All I remember is a small postcard-size painting of the house in which he was born.

Grandmother Bulia

Maria Vasilievna Mel'nikova (born Vasilieva), my Mother's Mom, wa born in 1895 and grew up in an orphanage in St. Petersburg, Russia. We called her Bulia -- short of "babulia", a tender word for grandmother. She did not know who her parents were. I inherited my Jewish nose from her (my Dad's nose was straight), so people often took her for a Jew, but who knows, 23andMe listed my heritage as half Ashkenazi Jewish and half unidentified European. In addition to school education, the orphanage prepared girls for life: they learned how to cook, how to sew clothes, and how to take care of expenses. All her life, she kept detailed daily records of all her expenses, and at the end of the day, made sure that the remaining amount of money matched with what she spent. She always had to save every kopeck. In the late 1960s, when she was already in her 70s, she confessed to us that she always wanted to buy herself a green dress. We have it to her as a present, and this was the first frivolous purchase that we had. Her orphanage was a progressive institution that believed that all the problems in the world come from the fact that people are divided by religion and by ethnicity. So, to avoid such divisions, at the age of 16, every girl was given for adoption to a completely different family: Bulia, with her black hair and brown eyes, was adopted by a blonde blue-eyes Finnish Halinen family, an Armenian girl was adopted by a Russian family, etc. She lives with them until 1918. By that time, Bulia started working for the government, and in 1918, when the Whites (anti-communist forces) were approaching St. Petersburg and all the government offices moved to Moscow, she moved to Moscow as well. People from all over the former Empire came to Moscow. Bulia always told us stories of unusually dressed newcomers from the Central Asia who were not accustomed to having public toilets in their desert life and thus, used the back streets as toilets. In 1917, the Halinens ended up on the Russian side of the border. In 1944, after the war, by an international agreement, they had a chance to go to Finland, but decided to stay -- a decision they regretted often. After the Soviet borders re-opened in the late 1980s, they moved to Finland. The Halinens really felt like a family. They lived in Karelia, in a small town on Gimoly close to the Finnish border -- so close that in the Communist time, a special KGB permit was needed to visit them (so we never had a chance to visit). Every Fall, they would come to St. Petersburg to sell cranberries on the market, to supplement their small salaries. They usually stayed with us. We did not have enough beds in our room to host them all, so we had to cram: e.g., the three Halinen girls had to sleep in one bed during their visits. Still, that was much better than staying at the dirty and expensive marketplace dorms, and few existing hotels were both too expensive and impossible to get. They gave us some juicy cranberries as a gift. I really enjoyed them. Girls who were in an orphanage with Bulia always felt like sisters to her -- I called them aunts. Aunt Zhenya -- Evgeniya Yakovlevna Lemishevskaya -- live in Moscow, we stayed with her when we went to Moscow, and Aunt Zhenya and her relatives stayed with us when they visited St. Petersburg. Aunt Shura -- Alexandra Andreevna -- was a barber, she became my personal barber, cutting my hair so that I will have some peyses left. Another Aunt -- Maria Faddeevna -- had a tragic history. In 1918, after she moved to Moscow (like Bulia), she started working as a waiter in the Kremlin cafeteria. There she met a young and attractive Commissar Aaron Perel'man who came from the front, they fell in love, got married, and moved back to St. Petersburg to work there. In 1937, during the Great Terror, he was arrested and shot, together with many other folks who fought in the Russian Civil War. Bulia felt responsible for his arrest. A few days before his arrest, he asked her advice: "Marusia (short of Maria) -- he said -- my boss has just been arrested, should I run away and hide?" "Let us wait", Bulia said, "they will see that you are innocent". Well, that did not work, he was shot, and his family was sent "to the 101th kilometer" -- to a village at least 100 km away from the big cities, without the right to come back. After Stalin died, she could visit St. Petersburg again, but she had no place to stay, so she continued living and working in the collective farm. When I was young, every Fall, she would bring us a sack of homegrown potatoes. At that time, there were no potatoes in the store, and at the market they were too expensive, so this sack of potatoes helped us all the way through the winter. But back to Bulia. She used to tell us funny stories of how she got adjusted to the life in Moscow. At that time, before radio and TV that levelled all accents, there were different accents and even different words in different cities. For example, in St. Petersburg a pen (at that time, people used fountain pens) was called "vstavochka", meaning something you insert (into a cover). To the great embarrassment of Buila, in Moscow, pen was called "ruchka" (from "ruka", hand, meaning something you hold in your hand), while "vstavochka" was a slang word for a penis. I was reminded of this when a few years ago, a visitor from Germany asked our department's secretary whether she had an extra rubber: in British English, "rubber" means an eraser, but in the US, it is a slang word for a condom. Back to Bulia. In a few years, she got married to Boris Mel'nikov, they moved back to St. Petersburg, and in 1925, my Mom Galina was born. Boris started working as a surveyor ("zemlemer", which is exactly what "geometry" means in the original Greek) with the regional agriculture office. In 1931, the Communists started one of the public trails against so-called Agrarian Party -- mostly innocent researchers and practitioners in agriculture. Mainly it was aimed against the agriculture workers who were educated before the Communist revolution. Boris was educated after the revolution, so he was not one of the original targets. Instead, the KGB wanted him to testify that his bosses were enemies of the people, plotting bad things against the peasants. Later, when everyone knew better than to resist, he would have no choice, but these were more liberal times, so he said that did not want to lie, he could only tell the truth -- that his bosses were hard-working people trying their best to help the peasants. What he did not realize that this was the beginning of tightening the screws. Boris was arrested and sent to the Far North. These were still relatively liberal times, so while Bulia had to divorce him and publish an official letter in the newspaper that she and her daughter officially renounce this enemy of the people, they were allowed to live in St. Petersburg -- a few years later, this would be impossible. Boris also was lucky: a few years later, he would have been shot; instead, he survived, he was released after Stalin died. He was completely disabled by then and he did shortly after that, so I never saw him. Bulia kept a few of his photos (a big no-no at that time). While she was sent into exile, this was a threat that she lived under until Stalin died. During the mass arrests in 1937, the KGB folks retained a letter of the law that a civilian witness had to be present during an arrest and search. As a wife of an "enemy of the people", eligible for deportation at any time, she could not say "no". So almost every night, she had to spend half of the night officially "witnessing" someone else's tragedy. (Even in the 1960s, I remember that a KGB guy came to see Bulia. In a communal apartment, it is difficult to find a place where one can talk undisturbed, so they locked themselves in the bathroom.) During the Siege of Leningrad, when more than a million people died from hunger, the only food that non-menial workers got was 125 grams of bread a day; this was guaranteed death. Menial workers got 250 grams a day, which gave a chance to survive. Bulia asked her friend -- who was working in a regional Communist Party committee -- to get her a menial job. She got such a job and in exchange, she gave her friend the only valuable thing that she owned -- her piano. This was barely enough for her and for my Mom, but they survived for a year until they were evacuated to a countryside. Bulia's birthday was on April 30. She loved sweet things, especially good eclairs, so in the morning, I would go to Nord - café on Nevsky Prospect where they made great eclairs -- and stand in a long line to buy them. The official name of this café was Sever, the Russian version of Nord, it was Nord until 1940s when Stalin decided to Russify all the words, but people still called it Nord. On April 30, there was always a very long line, starting outside the store, since there was no place for so many people inside: people were preparing to celebrate the May 1 holiday, the International Workers Solidarity Day, an official holiday in the Soviet Union. On May 1, all the stores were closed, so they had to go buy eclairs the day before (not much earlier: these eclairs did not last long). I did not mind standing in the line, it was nice to make Bulia happy, and the weather was usually good -- around May 1, in St. Petersburg and Moscow, the government seeded the clouds to force possible rains to come outside the cities and to keep the weather sunny during the May 1 celebrations. However, I was embarrassed that my friends would see me in this line and think that I decided to celebrate May 1 (in my family, we never celebrated communist holidays). Sometimes I would see friends passing by -- the store was very close to Mathematics Institute where many of my friends either worked or went to seminars -- and I would explain to them that this was actually for my grandmother's birthday. Many of them joked my standing in line to celebrate May 1 showed that I was a true communist sympathizer only pretending to be anti-Soviet.

Our Own Rich (?) American Uncle

In the beginning of the 20 century, many people from Russia emigrated. Some of them became rich (at least rich by Russian standards), and they would seek their relatives back in Russia and give them royal presents. There is a special expression in Russian language, "Rich American Uncle". The Kreinovich family had our own "American uncle", although it never became clear whether he was rich. A few years before 1917, my grandfather Rafail got a letter that some Kreinovich has died in the USA, and Rafail, as his closest relative, was his legal heir. The American Kreinovich has left some money, but he has left some debts, and it was not even clear that there was more money than debts. Rafail had two choices: he could accept -- and risk inheriting debts -- or decline. My grandmother Riva was more of an adventurist nature, she nudged him to accept, but he was a more cautious person, so he declined. For a few years after that, Grandmother Riva would nudge him for missing a chance, but in a few year, the 1917 revolution came, and it turned out that his decline saved their lives: even if they ended up rich, they would probably have been shot. His reluctance to take a risk served him well later on. He was an accountant, and he was promoted to the status of the accountant of Central Asian Military District. My grandmother Riva would nudge him: "Rafail, join the Communist Party, you will be promoted, we will live better", but he could not be moved. And this saved his life: in 1937, most of the Communist officers and staff were shot as enemies of the people, but he survived.

Our Neighbors

Most of our life in the Soviet Union, we lived in so-called communal apartments, where several families lived together.

Party Member Neighbor, or What We Used for Toilet Paper

Toilet paper was difficult to get, so we usually used newspaper. This way, it is not so boring to be in the restroom: you can also read. For a while, we had a neighbor who was the member of the Communist party, so she was required to subscribe to the central Pravda newspaper and to a local communist newspaper. She was generous with us, so in the restroom, there were always enough newspapers. These newspapers were not much fun reading, but still. Then came something more interesting. Our neighbor was also requires to subscribe to collective works of Lenin, Stalin, etc. At the 20th Congress, Stalin was denounced, so she brought all his collective works to the restroom. I started reading out of curiosity, but it was even more boring that current newspapers. Then the Moscow communists quarreled with Mao, so she brought collected works of Mao to the restroom too. These were more interesting. I still remember the article in which Mao explained the Marxist thesis that practice is a criterion for truth: two soldiers argued whether ducks could swim. They could not agree, so they asked their commander to help. The commanded did not know himself, but to resolve their dispute, he placed a duck into water -- and the duck started swimming. The question was resolved.

Fearless Zina Gaifutdinova

Once in a while, there were elections. Communists allowed only one candidate for each position, so there was no chance of electing anyone else. You could, in principle, vote against, but to do this, you would need to go to a special cabin, and there was only one reason to go this cabin, so you will be immediately marked by the KGB. So, once people come to the voting place, practically everyone would vote For. The problem was to get people to the voting place in the first place. The communists liked 99.9% numbers, so local bosses were reprimanded if many people did not show up. One way was to attract people -- usually, some usually deficit foods were sold at the voting places. If that did not work, KGN would come and threaten you. One of our neighbors, Zina Gaifutdinova was fearless. Every election was all observed the same spectacle. She would call the elections office and tell them that she would not come until some leak or something else that we all wanted to be repaired for weeks would be repaired. Every time the same thing happened. First, a KGB man would arrive, in a usual KGB uniform: suit, white shirt, and tie, and in the presence of the whole apartment start shaming and threatening her. But, with our silent support, she stood her ground. And every time, a plumber -- or whoever else was needed -- would come with his instrument and repair what was needed to repair, after which she went and voted. Worked every time! Unfortunately, elections were rare.

A Former Prostitute

All ten families living in our apartment shared the same bathroom. There was only one lady who we did not allow to use it: a lady who lived in a room near the balcony. It was known that she was a former prostitute, she had skin sores, and we were afraid that she had syphilis and we could be infected by it. She was already over 60 but rumors were that once in a while she continued to get clients. One night, we learned that it was true. One night, the whole apartment was woken up by men's loud cries for help coming from her room. One of her windows was facing the balcony, so we could all see a drunken man standing there in his underwear yelling for help. It turned out that our neighbor locked the door and took away his pants until he would pay. He did not want to pay, he wanted to get out. We advised him to open the window and step into the balcony, but he was too drunk to think, he kept repeating that he would fall down and die. At the end, he stopped yelling, I think he decided to pay. There was not much entertainment around, so we all had a lot of fun.

Yakov Kreinovich

These are recollections of Yakov Kreinovich ("deda Yasha"), Vladik's father.

Kindergarden years

When deda Yasha was little, his father was the main accountant of the Central Asian Military District (it was then called Turkestan Military District) located in Tashkent, Uzbekistan. He went to the kindergarden of the Military District Headquarters, where he was with children of general, commanders, etc., so whatever he did not learn from his Dad, kids at the kindergarden told him. He started school at age 9, so they were big kids. Two events he remembers. One was when Lazar' Kaganovich, a big Party boss and a Politburo member, visited Tashkent: they changed his bedsheets every night, which at that time was very unusual. Another was when Nikolai Dybenko visited, the leader of the Baltic Fleet sailors (and a husband of Kollontai, one of the important revolutionary heroines); Dybenko asked for a new girl every two-three days. Girls went willingly, they considered it to be a great honor to be with the revolutionary hero.

Uzbeks and Russians

While the armed revolts were forcefully suppressed in the 1930s, Uzbekistan was still dangerous. Graffiti "Rus, go home" covered all the walls and fences in Tashkent. Areas where Uzbeks lived where considered dangerous. For example, it was cheaper to rent a room in one of these areas because of the dangers. On the other hand, those who rented these rooms were considered to be kind of local, so it was not that bad. The situation was slightly better for non-ethnic Russians, e.g., for Jews, but still it was dangerous. Deda Yasha remembers that at some point, he was dating a Jewish girl who was renting a room in the Uzbek-populated district. that time, because life was dangerous, a gentleman was suppose to accompany his date home to make sure that nothing bad happens to her along the way. When deda Yasha accompanied this girlfriend home, he felt more or less OK, because the locals knew her, but on his way back home, he always felt very scary. There were certain regions in Uzbekistan where it was not recommended for ethnic Russians to enter. When it was necessary to send people to these areas, ethnic Russians were usually not included. Local guerillas (called "basmachi") basically controlled these areas. They would require each family to give them a few sheep to eat; if you do not give them the sheep, they may kill you, and if you report on them to the communists, they may kill your whole family. Once, their neighbors' daughter was sent to one of these remote areas with a geological expedition, in search of minerals, she was raped and killed, and it was a normal every day event, not something extraordinary. During the war, many people from Moscow were evacuated to Central Asia, but most important people went to Alma-Ata, the capital of Kazakhstan, and not to Tashkent, because Tashkent was known to be too dangerous. There was another reason: Tashkent is much warmer than Alma-Ata, because it is further to the South than Alma-Ata and also because Tashkent is at the sea level and Alma-Ata is high in the mountains. For people from Moscow and Petersburg, Tashkent felt too hot while Alma-Ata felt much more comfortable.


At the age of nine, deda Yasha entered school and studied at school until 7th grade. He was studying very well, he had many As. He finished the 7th grade in 1941 when the war started. First, all the schoolkids were sent to gather a cherepashka ("little turtle") beetle that was damaging the crops. After they came back, the authorities decided to mobilize most kids for the "work front", to work on factories producing important things for the war. Several of deda Yasha's friends like Semen Dubrovksy had influential parents who got special exception for their kids, but deda Yasha was one of those who had to drop school and work at a factory.

Youth communist league (Komsomol)

When we were young, everyone starting with age 14 was made a member of the Youth Communist League (Komsomol), just like before that, everyone was a member of the Young Pioneers. In deda Yasha's time, only few students joined Komsomol, in his class, they had maybe four Komsomol members.


At the factory, deda Yasha found his talent of being able to do things with his own hands, and come up with technical ideas that would improve these things, something that he is still doing.

Shady connections

Many young people working at the factory were engaged in not-exactly-legal and plainly illegal activities as a way to supplement their semi-starving income. For example, they used their access to factory equipment to do some repairs on the side in addition to their work for the state. Since deda Yasha turned out to be one of the best technicians, he was often asked to repair and do things. Due to his skills, he was highly respected by the informal leaders of these shady gangs. This even sometimes caused envy from other young people. The public garden attached to the Officers Club was the main place for young people to hang out: there were regular dances, movies, etc. Several times over there, young people threatened to cut him with a knife because they felt that his respect was undeserved -- they believed that their own stealing, selling, etc., deserve more respect, but the bosses knew that skilled people are rare, so he was protected. For example, in the 1930s and 1940s, the main emphasis in sorts was on patriotic sports related to the country's defense. One of these sports was target shooting. Deda Yasha was very good at target shooting, he things one reason is that he is cross-eyed. He even made it to the Uzbekistan youth team who was selected to go to Moscow for the shooting competition. Target shooting was what kids did when they had spare time, there were special shooting stands, etc. ("tir"). However, access to these shooting stands was limited and cost money, so all the kids wanted to own a gun to practice shooting. On a more serious level, in a dangerous atmosphere, a good way to protect yourself was to carry a gun. Guns were strictly illegal, but many people had them, because during the war, guns were plentiful. Guns in working condition were difficult to get, but since few people knew how to repair a broken gun, it was rather easy and cheap to buy a broken gun. Deda Yasha was given two broken guns with a promise that if repairs both he would be able to keep of them. This was a good incentive, deda Yasha repaired both guns successfully, and became a proud owner of the Nagant revolver. He was not the only one with a gun, he and his friends would place some bottles in the yard as targets and practice shooting them with their guns. Sometimes, when deda Yasha's parents were both out (e.g., on a business trip), he and his friends would have a party in their house and shoot into the ceiling to celebrate, or just to emphasize the rhythm of music; for example, they would dance Lezginka, a fiery dance from the Caucasus very popular at that time, because everything from the Caucasus, the birthplace of Stalin, was very popular. Lezginka's melody has short melodic lines with sudden interruptions in between, so they would fire the guns during these interruptions. Everyone knew a humorous Russian text to accompany this melody, deda Yasha remembers: "Ukusila mushka sobachku", meaning "a little fly bit a little dog", then the melody disruption is naturally explained as the jerk of the dog that was just bitten by the fly. This home-shooting practice would leave holes in the ceiling, so baba Riva, deda Yasha's Mom, would later wonder what causes these holes. Owning a gun was strictly illegal, in principle, one could go to jail for main years for that. The police did not specifically target kids practice-shooting with guns, they had more serious criminals to catch, but if they would get caught, they would most probably go to jail, in war time, justice was swift and severe. Some of deda Yasha's friends and neighbors were not only target shooting, they also used sometimes used their guns to rob passers-by. Deda Yasha's parents did not know much about his shooting activity, but they realized that he is running with the wrong crowd, and that many people in the factory were involved in something illegal. However, they could not do much. As the war started, food prices on the market became astronomical, so people would eat what they grow themselves and what they got for their food rations. Since deda Yasha was working at an airplane factory, and doing a menial labor, his bread rations were higher than his parents, so they had no control over him. Baba Riva took it philosophically: maybe it is even better if deda Yasha gets caught and goes to jail, this way he had a good chance of surviving the war, while if he gets of age and gets drafted into the army there is a very high chance that he will get killed at the front. This all stopped when deda Yasha had to move to St. Petersburg with his institute, in Petersburg, the control was much harsher, so he left his gun with his friends. About a year after deda Yasha moved to Petersburg, ded Rafail (his Dad) managed to get himself a business trip to Petersburg (it was not easy to travel those days, right after the war, you still need special permission to buy tickets), his main objective was to check whether deda Yasha was still hanging out with the wrong crowd. When he saw deda Yasha's more respectful classmates, he calmed down. When deda Yasha came back to Tashkent after graduating from the institute, he learned that after the war, the control has tightened in Tashkent as well. Many of his former friends and neighbors were in jail for stealing, robbery, gun possession, etc.

How deda Yasha became a student

A few years after deda Yasha started working on an airplane factory, Voronezh Aviation Institute was evacuated to Tashkent. They needed students because otherwise they were afraid that the institute would be disbanded, so they started recruiting. This was not easy since most young people were drafted into the army. Deda Yasha, who was working -- and working very well -- at the airplane factory, naturally became one of the folks that they wanted to recruit as their students. They set up special preparatory classes where they would prepare future students for entering the institute. The idea was that the exit exams for these classes would serve as entrance exams to the institute. Deda Yasha was eager to join, but there was a problem: they needed a certificate of graduation from high school, while deda Yasha only had 7 full classes of education. There was some material that he never studied, e.g., topics like logarithms in math, some fiction books in literature classes, etc. Deda Yasha decided that since he was a very good student and clearly smart -- he got excellent grades without spending too much time studying -- he was able to catch up (and he did, of course). But to get into the preparatory classes, he needed a formal certificate. Luckily, in Tashkent, during the war, one could buy anything on a market: a gun, a diploma, a document. Semen Dubrovsky, who later became Vice-Minister, made deda Yasha a diploma: a blank of a high school diploma could be bought rather cheap (it was not in big demand), and they had another friend Yura Yaroshevky who was good in making fake stamps. Deda Yasha warned Semen not to put too many As in the fake diploma since he was planning to study all the material in a few months, there was not time to get his knowledge to the A grade level. So, deda Yasha got in the preparatory classes. Of course, this was only to get in, he still needed to study hard to pass the exams. He concentrated on the most important things: mathematics and physics; there was supposed to be also an exam in Russian literature, but deda Yasha did not have time to attentively read all the fiction books that they were required to study. Luckily, the Voronezh institute professors were not very picky, and they also decided that literature is not that important, so they gave him a passing grade in literature as well. Thus deda Yasha became a student. While he passed the exams, he had a lot to catch up when a student, since he never had the drill in all that mathematics like logarithms. Luckily, he had a good physical intuition, which helped him in physics and engineering classes -- and helped him understand the corresponding formulas, although the derivation of these formulas from first principle was tough for him at first.

How they moved to St. Petersburg

No matter how hard the professors from the Voronezh aviation institute tried, they did not recruit enough students, so after the war, the Voronezh Aviation Institute was merged with the Leningrad Aviation institute that was also evacuated to Tashkent during the way. People also realized, based on the war experience, that it is no longer just the plane itself which is important, what is even more important is what instruments one has on the plane. During the war, instruments progressed a lot, so it was decided to transformed this joint school into Institute for Aviation Instruments (LIAP). To move to Petersburg, all the students and faculty and all the equipment was placed on a train. Students were packed tight in a freight cartridge, so right that there was no room to turn, so what they did is during the night someone would command "Turn" and they would all turn from one side to the other. To support themselves in the first months of their study at the new home, they brought apples: apples were plentiful in Tashkent, but rare in Petersburg, so they could sell them and get warm clothes (which no one needs in Tashkent) and cheaper food. The institute administrators had the exact same idea, so not only they brought apples with them, they sold all the desks and other stuff in Tashkent, bought apples for all this money, expecting to sell these apples in Petersburg and buy some furniture there. This did not work well: the train was inspected mid-way, and when it turned out that the state-owned furniture was missing, several administrators were arrested. The students sold apples at the market. At that time, people from Petersburg mostly saw local apples, which come in two types: sour apples called Antonovka and sweet apples called Belyi Naliv. When they saw Tashkent apples, they asked: Is this Belyi Naliv? Tashkent students had no idea what type of apple it was, so they came up with a fake name for these apples: Black Nail (Chyorny Gvozd'). What helped was that most students had an experience of selling and buying things at the market. In Tashkent, in contrast to Petersburg where most things were sold in the stores were prices were fixed, in Tashkent, stores were mostly empty, things were mostly bought and sold in the market, so kids learned the art of bargaining from early age.

How he survived the student years: food

The student stipend was small, food rations for students were small, so for out-of-town students who could not eat with their parents, it was difficult to get enough food. Food parcels from parents helped. Deda Yasha's parents sent him cotton oil, one of his roommates was from Belorussia, his parents sent him potatoes, so they fried potatoes in cotton oil. For fuel, they did what many people in St, Petersburg did those days: they looked for pieces of destroyed fences, etc. Their successful experience of selling Tashkent apples at the market gave them an idea of a supplementary income: many people who brought food and clothes to the market did not have selling skills, did not know the demand for different products, and sometimes did not have time to stand all day, while the Tashkent students had good marketing skills and plenty of spare time. This turned into a win-win situation: the students would help sell the stuff for a higher rate that the seller would do on his or her own, and the students would get a portion of this extra profit for their selling work. Another advantage of having students as sellers was that, in contrast to Tashkent, police in Petersburg were constantly checking sellers' documents to make sure that all the sales were legal. In the communist times, there were so many restrictions that almost every sale was, strictly speaking, illegal: for example, a peasant from a collective farm, even if he grew his own food stuff, was supposed to work for the state on the collective farm 24/7 and not go to Petersburg to sell stuff. Having students selling stuff helped. Tashkent students became know at the market, they mostly went to the market closest to their institute called Haymarket "Sennoy" -- because it started in the 19 century as place where they sold hay. This market was one of the largest in Petersburg, all Russian kids learned, at school, a famous poem by the Russian 19 century poet Nekrasov about a peasant slave lady who is being beaten at the Heymarket; this was one of the poems that turned the Russian public opinion against slavery. This market is now gone, there is a metro station with that name now ("Sennaya"). Deda Yasha was known at the market as Black Yasha ("Yashka Chernyi"): not only he had black hair and black eyes, he also had a black leather coat. Police understood that students needs to eat, so they usually let students operate. Deda Yasha still remember the police officer in charge of the market, his first name was Pavel, everyone called him by his short name Pashka. In return, students helped police: once in a while Pashka would ask students to go to the morgue with them, to see if they recognized recently killed people, who they frequented, etc. A market was a place to visit for a criminal: this is where one can sell stolen good, and this is where one can buy stuff -- and spend the ill-gained money. Deda Yasha remember that the police was not very much interested in regular crime, they were mostly interested in "political" cases, when someone expressed disagreement with the communist rule. Students spent their stipends and their hard-earned money in different ways. Some students were mature enough to save this money and spent it for necessities only, but not deda Yasha, he was known as a "restaurant type" because once he got his stipend, he would then bring his girlfriend to a restaurant (and restaurants were very expensive at that time), spend all the stipend in one night -- and then subsist on potatoes fried in cotton oil until next month. The most fashionable restaurants in Russia at that time where Georgian restaurants, but they were only in big cities, they were unheard of in Tashkent. Deda Yasha remembers that the first time he went into a Georgian restaurant, on the menu there were lots of exotic dishes and he had not a clue what they were. Since he did not have too much money, he ordered the cheapest things on the menu: sulugini and tsitsaki. Suluguni turned out be goat cheese, but tsistaki is a Georgian version of very spicy pepperoncini, which neither he not his girlfriend were able to eat.

How he survived the student years: clothes

Clothes were difficult to get. Deda Yasha and several of his roommates managed to buy a Chinese raincoat, it was too small for all of them, so they did not wear it, they would take in turn when they would go on a date and take it with them, to make sire that their dates notice the fancy raincoat.

How he survived student years: studying

Most students also worked and partied, so it was difficult to wake up in the morning. For deda Yasha, this was especially difficult, since he always had trouble waking up in the morning: as long as I remember, he always sets up two alarm clocks with 5-10 minute interval because one alarm clock was not enough. He was known in the institute for his ability to sleep through everything in the morning, not being bothered by any noise. His friends made fun on him, but they also helped him wake up by carrying his bed with his sleeping on it into a restroom -- there, the sound and the smell would wake him up. His fellow student Nadezhda "Nadia" (now Tovmach), mother of Vladik's friend Yuri Tomvach, was an active participant in -- and often an intiator of -- these daily processions, she later bragged that if it was not her persistence, he would not have graduated.

Diploma defense

Deda Yasha was advised, before his defense, to shave off his mustaches, because the professors thought that students with mustaches were more interested in girls than in studies and routinely have them one letter grade less. He dutifully shaved off his mustaches, defended his diploma, and then grew it again.

Wine state farm where deda Yasha's Dad worked after the war

Ded Rafail, deda Yasha's Dad, after the war started working as an accountant for the wine-producing state farm (sovkhoz) Kibrai The boss of this state farm was in full control of everything. He argued with ded Rafail that there was no need to pay workers salary: they have water, they have grass, they have fuel (they were given dry branches remaining after cotton was collected), so they could grow sheep. Sheep was the main source of living for the Uzbekistan population outside big cities: working on a state farm, even if they pay you salary, did not bring much money, but you grow sheep and you have food and yourself and wool and meat to sell at the market. Workers used to call ded Rafail a bad man: their salaries were low, and they thought that this was because he was stealing all their money. He did his accounting with a mechanical device called arithmometer, in this device, to do the computations, you rotated the handle back and forth, so the workers used to say "He rotates three time in one direction -- to him, to him, to him, and only time in the other direction: to us". After grapes were collected, they were placed in big open barrels where the fermentation was taking place, they were 10-15 meters across. One day, students were working on this farm, including a female friend of Galia Egmenova, one of deda Yasha's and baba Galia's friends. Galia and that students were both studying wine making as their majors. That student accidentally fell into this open barrel, and started swimming. Everyone encouraged her to swim back to shore, but she was probably getting intoxicated by the alcohol fumes, so instead of coming back she was swimming in the middle of this barrel, enjoying herself. In deda Yasha's circle of friends, this became a synonym of getting drunk: instead of saying that someone is drunk, they would say that he or she "started swimming".

Working at a defense factory

In Petersburg, deda Yasha was in charge of a shop at a factory that produced instruments for the airplanes. He would often go on business trips to different factories and military bases where the planes were built, tested, and stationed. First time he went on a business trip, the pilots took him on a test flight, so that he would get a feel of how the instruments work during the real flight. The plane was supposed to climb into high altitudes where it is very cold, and there was no heating on the plane, so, to stay warm, pilots and passengers were given warm overalls with a fur collar. The person who have deda Yasha his overall told him not to sh-t over the collar. At first he took it as a joke. He put the overall on, and after the plane into all kind of aerobatics typical for a dogfighting fighter plane, he felt such a big urge to defecate that he ran into the restroom immediately after landing as fact as he could, lowered the back of his overall to be able to do his job -- and nearly did what he was warned against. These test flights, with tested equipment on a new not-well-tested plane, were often dangerous. Deda Yasha was lucky, even when some things malfunctioned when he was in air, he was never hurt. The only time he thought he might die was during one flight back to Petersburg on a civilian plane. On that plane was a movie actor who was well known at that time. When that actor saw deda Yasha -- who was rather handsome in his youth -- he assumed that he also comes from making movies at some distant location. Deda Yasha denied that he was in the movies but he was evasive about what exactly he was doing, because he was supposed to give out information about his classified work. So, the actor became further reassured that deda Yasha was participating in making some movie -- because artistic folks often hides things form each other, to avoid rivalry. When they were talking, deda Yasha -- who was an aviation engineer after all -- noticed, when looking out of the window, that a hose bringing fuel to the engine broke, and fuel was spilling all over the plan fuselage. This is a very dangerous situation, because in this case, a little spark can ignite the plane. He quietly knocked into the pilots' cabin and told them about it. The plane immediately changed course to go into emergency landing into the nearest airport. To avoid panic, one of the pilots went into the passenger cabin and started entertaining the passenger with interesting stories. When the plane safely landed, the movie actor finally agreed: Yes, you are not in the movie business. This job was not without some perks. During business trips, factory representatives were often carrying classified documents and/or instruments, so they were officially issued weapons to protect these classified things. At that time, the only people who were allowed to carry weapons were either in uniform (army, police), or KGB, so when people saw a group of weaponed guys in civilian clothes, they assumed that they are with KGB. Because of this, deda Yasha and his colleagues were often given first-class service at restaurants and other places; he still remembers a khinkali place which they frequented on such trips -- khinkali is a Georgian version of Russian pelmeni, boiled meat dumplings; the main difference is that khinkali is larger in size and spicier. Another perk came during Khruschev's time when the leadership decided to produce more civilian goods. In particular, every defense factory was required to produce something for civilians. For the airplane instrument factory where deda Yasha worked, the factory that produced radars and other instruments, a natural idea was to produce TV sets. These sets were difficult to get, but for every tube and other electronic part that fit within the tolerances, there were quite a few that had to be discarded. Workers at the plant could purchase these discarded parts, and with a good knowledge of electronics, one could assemble a TV set out of them. This is what deda Yasha did, so we got our first TV when few people had them.