Whoever saves a life, saves the world
My mother gave her life to me in a strange braid of stories. Obviously, one of them was the key to my own existence. My life’s miracle happened not when my father stayed with her for a short time in the vacant room of a cramped communal apartment, nor on the day I was delivered in the maternity ward of a state-run Leningrad hospital full of screaming women. It was here, at the Finland Railway Station, on this grainy, dark, asphalt platform, strewn with spit, where my mother made a fateful decision.
After the war, Russia had almost no men left. The Eastern mentality doesn’t value human life very much; tyrannical regimes do so even less. In order to conquer Berlin in time for the May 1st celebration, as Stalin wanted, an extra 100,000 young boys had been pushed to their unnecessary deaths. Kamikaze behavior was a national norm. So, happy Victory Days turned into an ongoing tragedy and lifetime disaster for the female population. With the one-to-six male-to-female ratio, the stories about someone getting a husband were told with the excitement of God’s miracle witnessed.
My mother was thirty-five – an old age by Russian standards, especially when eighteen-year-old beauties couldn’t find themselves a date. She survived the Great Patriotic War in Stalingrad and Siberia. By tremendous effort, and against the plans of the Soviet government to keep engineers and skilled workers at metallurgical plants in Siberia and the Ural Mountains, she returned to Leningrad. She found that, due to the same government plan, her sunny pre-war apartment had been confiscated. She bribed some shady housing official with a gold coin smuggled from Siberia, and ended up in a dark dump of a room on the ground-floor of a communalka, with the drunkards and their wives, beaten too cruelly and too often. Her father, a prominent surgeon in the city, had died. She was left with an elderly mother, an old revolutionary of sparkling intellect, who corresponded with writers and philosophers, and who was destined to end her life in this dark room. My mother, who supported her, was very proud that my grandmother never went hungry.
I am still scared just trying to envision the unimaginable reality of my mother’s everyday life. Every morning she runs after the overcrowded tram, with people hanging from it like grapes, she fights to squeeze herself into the packed crowd. She stands the whole way, defending herself from being pinched and fondled. She fights again to get out, then elbows into another tram, and pushes to get out again. Just those three hours of such travel every day would exhaust anyone’s strength, but work itself hasn’t even started yet.
American women didn’t get much support from Russians in their struggle for equality. Russian women, unfortunately, did not need to prove that they could do men’s work. Ever since the Revolution, they were forced to abandon their femininity. Mandatory employment in road construction and in railroad building was not a good addition to their beauty. Dressed in shapeless boots and thick felt padded jackets, they shoveled gravel and moved heavy rails, and with their skin and their voices hardened by the frozen wind, they obviously didn’t look like desirable objects for French lovers. The famous French actor Yves Montand, who, as a Communist supporter, was invited to Moscow, was so shaken by the Soviet women’s appearance, that on returning to France he organized the exhibition “Is it possible to love a woman in such underwear?” and left the Communist Party.
The absence of living quarters as a life sentence to never have privacy, nor to have one’s own place (even a few square yards), led to the destruction of any natural female instinct for love. Due to the absence of homes, the profession of homemaker disappeared. In spite of everything, women were making flowery dresses in summer, in which they looked very strange, arriving to prison camps and being punished for tardiness. Thank God that after Stalin’s death, the Soviets stopped incarcerating people for being 15 minutes late for work. My mother was so scared of being tardy that she once ran out of the house in her coat, but without her skirt. Due to the bewildered glances of the passengers on the streetcar, she realized her mistake, and covered herself with an anti-chemical robe when she got to work.
I never knew what my mother was doing at work. She had security clearance number two, a very serious level of clearance by Soviet standards. Her obviously military plant, named “Bolshevik,” was so huge, that thousands of workers entered in the morning and dispersed after the day shift. Once, in the middle of the night, my taxi stopped at the railroad crossing near her plant and the gates slowly opened. A train exited the plant, transporting two large cannons, each the size of a building. These navy guns were so huge that it took a few minutes until the platforms carrying them passed.
My mother was a metallurgical engineer and anti-corrosion of navy guns was her specialty. Some female occupation! The stress she worked under was difficult to imagine. In a military factory, any break in production or rejected weapons could be followed by a prison sentence for sabotage. The people she supervised were often drunk. Drinking was a strange form of self-defense for the Russian working class against the exploitation by the Communist regime. Once, a totally drunk worker fell into the bath of boiling chemical oil prepared for the anti-corrosion processing of metal parts. Even though my mother expected punishment, strangely enough, she was not tried, and wasn’t even blamed for the drunkard’s demise.
Such was her reality: the noise of the metallurgical plant, spills of hazardous chemicals, and drunk, illiterate workers cursing each other and their lives. At the end of the day, if she was lucky not to be kept an extra two hours for the mandatory Communist meeting, she boarded two cramped trams on the road home, to arrive there in the dark.
The scariest part for me is to imagine her home life. In June, this summer, I brought my two teenaged sons to Leningrad. I wanted them to see the communal apartment. They couldn’t even perceive it as a reality of human life. Still the same eight door bells connecting to one dark room for each family. One bathroom, one toilet, and one kitchen with two gas stoves for all eight families. Eight kitchen tables. It was by far not the worst example of a socialist paradise.
This dirty communal apartment stands as a monument to the greatest dream of socialism. Some Kafka-style memorial to 75 years of human life wasted: in other words, to the destroyed lives of three generations.
I see this dark corridor barely lit by one dusty bulb, dangling on the old crooked cord, the heavy wooden trunks with the copper corners, and the rusty old bicycles hanging on the walls from metal hooks. I see my still young mom coming home from work to wait in line for the only toilet, for the only water sink, for the only gas stove. She was so tired that in my childhood I never had a chance to talk to her after work. She would collapse into sleep. Some stupid women in the kitchen are gossiping and fighting. She can’t and doesn’t want to compete with them for a place in the kitchen; she just closes the door to her room and drops dead into her bed. She gets up at midnight, when everyone in the communal apartment has gone, and does her kitchen work, enjoying the rare luxury of being alone.
What moved her to keep the pregnancy under such terrible circumstances? My father refused to marry her with the cruel words that a child was her problem. Many years later, aging, married to a much younger wife and satisfied with life, he told me that returning from war alive with all his limbs intact, he was attacked by dozens of women of all ages. Who could judge him? He could do much better than to marry an old woman almost his age with no room of her own.
In Stalin’s time and in post-Stalinist Russia, a child of non-married parents was considered to be fatherless and had in his documents a dash instead of the father’s name. Unmarried pregnant women didn’t have any chance for support. Unwed mothers had an allowance of 5 rubles per month, which would hardly buy two emaciated chickens on the market.
What moved her to keep this pregnancy while all her female coworkers with just one exception ended up unmarried and childless?
Stalin’s death, some years later, would change the history of the Soviet Union. Abortions would be allowed. Not only would this new law affect the fate and the future of the Soviet country, but of the whole world. In my time, the country would become a gigantic abortion factory. A one-child-per-family generation would be created and it would be the end of the Communist regime.
When children are raised spoiled by undivided parental love and when they inherit their parents’ yearning for a better life, they obtain an unheard of idea about their own rights. Individualism laughs into Communism’s small-poxed face. In Stalin’s verboten times, women were still dying from botched abortions, often with police investigators sitting near their beds, forbidding nurses from starting medical treatment until the name of the abortion performer was surrendered. Abortionists who were caught were usually sent to prison camps.
Somehow, my mother found a willing doctor and prepaid five hundred rubles, almost a month’s salary—an exorbitant amount of money. It was too dangerous for the doctor to operate in Leningrad, so he told her to leave the city and to take the suburban commuter train to the small town of Zelenogorsk.
Here she stands in front of the train door, on the dark asphalt of the Finland Railway Station platform, and only one step separates her from my non-existence. She told me later that she heard the voice of her father, a talented doctor, a beautiful human being, destroyed by “the workers power,” which meant tyranny of the worst, destruction for the best, and slavery for the rest, asking her to keep the child.
The train moves slowly. She doesn’t move, just stands silently on the platform in her crepe de chine dress.
To bring a child into the world when everything and everyone is against you, to raise a decent human being under the juggernaut of the tyrannical state, is a heroic deed comparable to Joan of Arc’s, or maybe even more heroic. Joan of Arc had an army. My mother was alone. Joan of Arc heard many voices. My mother heard only one voice that made her stay in this Finland Station. Joan of Arc saved France. My mother saved just one human being, but as the Talmud says, whoever saves a human life, saves the world.
By Tatiana Menaker