My Moscow

A writer remembers the city of her youth

Translated by Antonina W. Bouis

Five generations of my family have lived in Moscow. Grandfather bought half of a dacha in a close suburb, Petrovsky Park, in early 1917. It was in the outskirts then, with a bad reputation. It had sleazy taverns, brothels and Yar, the famous Gypsy restaurant. Young Leo Tolstoy came to party here until he took himself in hand and became a great Russian writer.

My grandfather studied law at Moscow University but did not complete his studies. The revolution erupted, and he did not accept the offer of studying another year and graduating as a Soviet jurist. He mistakenly believed that this outrage wouldn’t last more than a year, but there was enough of the outrage for his entire life.

Grandmother had graduated with a gold medal from the gymnasium in Kaluga and planned to attend the Women’s Courses, but she gave birth to my mother and that ended her education at the gymnasium level. The former dacha, my grandparents’ first family nest, lasted a long time—until the late 1960s—but they moved out in the 1920s, first to Sadovaya for a year or two and then to Kalyaevskaya Street, where they spent almost their entire lives. Toward the end, they were moved out, given an apartment on Bashilovka, which is in the same area, a 10 minute walk from their first house in Petrovsky Park. A small part of the park remains today, between the Dinamo metro station and the Church of the Nativity of the Virgin on Krasnoarmeyskaya Street. In the 1930s, my father worked on the construction of the Dinamo metro station nearby.

Moscow vanished before my eyes, and I don’t much like the city that was formed as a result. It has lost its shaggy, chaotic and soft shape, lost its crookedness and privacy.

I’m a northerner in Moscow—I lived on Kalyaevskaya, then Lesnaya Street, and for the last 30 years, I’ve been on Aeroport. I like the north of Moscow. Of course, both the old center and the north are gone. You occasionally come across bits, like individual teeth in a new set of dentures.

Moscow vanished before my eyes, and I don’t much like the city that was formed as a result of the construction and destruction. I don’t like it at all. It has lost its shaggy, chaotic and soft shape, lost its crookedness and privacy, without rising to the standards of a capital city for lack of urban culture. All together now: what about the Bolshoi Theater? The Rumyantsev Library? The Conservatory? At a real stretch—the English Club … That’s not a lot for a capital. It’s no St. Petersburg.

When you start recalling the place where you spent your childhood, you interact with the past, with memory. A child’s geography expands very quickly, and each expansion opens a new world—the neighboring apartment, the neighboring courtyard, the kerosene store that takes a whole 10 minutes’ walk to reach and your great-grandfather, leaning on a cane and rattling the empty can, walks slowly.

I hold onto the can. It’s made of aluminum, with a lug crudely soldered to its lid. Kalyaevskaya was a suburban street— that is, beyond the Ring Road. I liked the name, there was something singsong in the word, and the terrorist Kalyaev was barely mentioned in history class, which was still far away for me. Kalyaevskaya is forgotten now, it’s gone back to its original name, Dolgorukovskaya, and it’s no longer suburban; it’s practically central. The trolley no longer runs down it to the Savelovsky Train Station, and the Novoslobdskaya metro station—I remember the opening!—is worn down and in need of restoration.

And they’ve forgotten Ivan Kalyaev. The revolutionaries of the pre-Bolshevik period were decent—he went to blow up the governor general, Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovich, and waited with a bomb in a calico bundle by the Nikolsky Gates near the exit from the Kremlin. He looked into the carriage, where, along with the prince condemned by the revolutionaries, sat his wife, Elizaveta Fedorovna, and their children. His hand shook and he went off with his calico bundle. Suicide bombers of all times follow the principle “The killer kills himself!” Yet this one felt sorry for the kiddies and didn’t blow himself up (but he was executed two years later at the Peter and Paul Fortress “by hanging” after finally getting to the governor general).

I had assumed that everyone lived in communal flats and I never thought about whether it was good or bad. Everyone lived that way.

When I was around six, they let me go play in our courtyard without supervision. I took my sled—very, very old, with a bent back and a soft high seat upholstered in tapestry with bobbles. It must have been my mother’s. I went to the next courtyard, to sled on the hill, which was not allowed. The hill was high and icy. The courtyard was not ours; it belonged to building 29, and I lived in 31. The neighbors are always enemies. I knew that there was hostility, but I was little, and it didn’t seem to apply to me. The little kids slid down on sleds, slightly older ones on their rumps, and the coolest and most daring, on their feet. Apparently, my shameful desire to be among the leaders, to show off, appeared early in childhood. I desperately wanted to be like the big boys, sliding standing up. Two circumstances stopped me.

If I left the sled at the bottom, they’d steal it. But that was secondary. The main thing was that I was scared. One time, overcoming both fears, I slid down on my rear, probably to get a feel for the hill, and then I tried it the grown-up way. It went well—once, and a second time. But the third time, a fat kid from 29 tripped me, and I fell over and over, breaking my nose. Blood gushed, and my fur coat was soaked by the time I got home. My nose had ceased to exist as an independent unit, merging completely with my cheeks. My girlfriend, Zhenka, pulled my sled behind me, muttering, “they told us not to go to 29.” I didn’t go there anymore, learning about borders. But there were neutral territories: for instance, Miussky Square. It was about 300 meters from the house, and it was common ground, not dangerous. Besides which, I didn’t go there alone. First, my great-grandfather took me there to join the walking group, five decent children strolling under the supervision of the “German teacher” Anna Yulianovna, a woman with a flamboyant past, about which we had no idea.

I kept friends from those days: Sasha is still alive, but two girlfriends, Masha and Tanya, have long since passed away. Thanks to them, I had my first children’s gang, which expanded my idea of life. Tanya and Masha had a private apartment without neighbors, in the House of Composers on Third Miusskaya Street, I think. Before that, I had assumed that everyone lived in communal flats and I never thought about whether it was good or bad. Everyone lived that way. A row of poplars and a drive separated Grandmother’s windows from Zhenya’s.

From my window, I could see part of Zhenya’s family’s room—fabric scraps on the floor, the rattle of a sewing machine. Aunt Shura was a dressmaker. From her window, Zhenya could see part of Grandmother’s room—a round gilt table, the black side of an upright piano and a sewing machine, too. The first television in our building was set up on that gilt table. My grandmother also supplemented her income with dressmaking, but her products were a class higher. She sewed corsets, silk an d damask monstrosities for harnessing the boundless bodies of singers and bureaucrats’ wives. Too bad not a single piece has survived for a museum of the period. Both seamstresses—Aunt Shura and Grandmother— were involved in underground economic activity and trembled at the mention of financial inspectors. But both women had to put food on the table, regardless of the difference in education and social status.

My grandmother was a lady in a suit, and Aunt Shura was “simple folk.” Equality is a great thing. Conquering additional space required proceeding illegally for some reason. I was not allowed on the street alone, but sometimes I made quick forays to expand my world. I made it to the lumber warehouse independently, left over from the days when our neighborhood—from Lesnaya Street to Miussy—was the place to buy firewood and lumber. That warehouse was one of the last in Moscow. Nearby stretched the village of Kotyashka, a group of barracks with a long wooden outhouse that had numerous holes in the bench for several occupants at a time, a standpipe in the middle of the yard and ropes with fluttering torn rags. Clothing. Later, I was in the same class with the girls from Kotyashka, and they all stopped going to school after sixth grade. Some went to trade school, others… who knows? One married a Swede from the Communist Party school that was kitty-corner from ours.

As I grew up, Moscow grew bigger and more interesting.

She was the trailblazer. Other girls set their caps at the young communists, western and eastern. My best friend picked the best one for herself—an Italian. It turned out to be a wonderful marriage; I still feel joy looking at them! Once, my girlfriend Zhenya and I went into the Pimenov church. Naturally I didn’t know anything about the extremely interesting history of the church, which for many years had been a stronghold of the Renovationist movement. My pious neighbor, Anastasia Vasilyevna, attended a different one, a good one, and I didn’t understand why—the old woman was holier than the pope and even a hint of renovationism offended her. But Zhenya and I went to the Pimenov church one winter evening. It was fine for Zhenya; she was Russian. But I was a Jew! What if they found out and made me leave? What would they say at home if they found out? The church was filled with heavenly singing, heavenly fragrance and light. I was stunned. A lot of people were there for the service. Maybe it was the Presentation of the Lord? I can’t remember.

It would be good if it had been. I love that holiday even now. Here’s something important I haven’t talked about yet—the courtyard! Everything began there, but it had nothing to do with the city of Moscow. It was village-like, plain dirt. Paving began only outside the entry gates. There was a standpipe, in ice in winter, and in a puddle in summer. It disappeared only in the early 1950s. There were many buildings in the courtyard. They surrounded the yard like mushrooms around a stump. Ours was the most decent—an annex related to the house next door, built before the revolution. It had four apartments and the spiral staircase in the center ended at the attic. The attic was locked, but we could sneak in sometimes. It was both scary and interesting. Our building was at the back of the courtyard, the one facing the street was made of wood, dilapidated, “pre-fire,” that is, it had been built before Napoleon attacked and it survived the fire of 1812. I went in there once. An old man lived there with the biggest library I had ever seen.

I remember that all the books were brown. There were also barracks—I don’t remember how many now—but by the late 1960s, only a couple two-story ones remained. The most interesting thing is that there were front gardens. All the residents of the first floors had their own black-eyed Susans and then closer to fall, asters. The holidays were observed village-style: a long table was set up in the courtyard, both for funerals and weddings.

Moscow does not let you go. There’s no city that I’ve known for so long and so well as Moscow.

I don’t remember a wedding, but there were wakes, people got drunk and played the accordion. My relatives were not invited, for many reasons, I think: not just because they were Jewish. They were awfully cultured. The courtyard folk respected my grandmother. She carried a handbag and wore high heels to her job at the music school on Pushkin Square, where she was a bookkeeper, and sometimes, she took me with her. I had a file folder with Pushkin in an oval frame on the cover. Sheet music was in the folder. My status in the courtyard was pretty high, maybe because of my father, maybe because of my grandmother. She always lent money to neighbors “till payday.” And we lived “clean,” even though we were Jewish.

Someone swiped the St. George Cross from me in the yard, which my great-grandfather’s father received for the taking of Plevna; he had served 25 years in the tsarist army, under General Skobelev. It was my fault—I had swiped it from my grandmother’s jewelry box in the first place. I wanted to show off.

Besides local geography, there was family geography. I was taken on visits from time to time: to see Grandmother Maria Petrovna on Povarskaya Street, which was called Vorovskaya then and it still had some linden trees, which were dying out. Now there’s not a single one left. One of her brothers lived in Vorotnikovsky Lane (the apartment has been preserved amazingly well) and the other in the architect Nirnzee’s house. A large chunk of Moscow’s cultural history is connected to the Nirnzee house on Bolshoi Gnezdnikovsky Lane, because The Bat cabaret was located there. Grandmother Maria went there when she was starting out on her unsuccessful theatrical career with the Moscow Free Theater, run by Mardzhanov. I went to that building to visit Viktor Novatsky, a marvelous man with a wide range of interests, a theater specialist, a sweet person and connoisseur of everything in the world. That was in later years. He was a neighbor of my great-uncle, but now both of them are gone from this world.

We visited the sister of my other grandmother, Elena, on Sretenka, on Dayev Lane. Other relatives, lived on Sretenka before—wealthy ones, according to Grandmother. They had owned a movie theater. Before the revolution, of course. There was also my great-grandmother Sonya on Ostozhenka. That house is still there across from the Institute of Foreign Languages. As I grew up, Moscow grew bigger and more interesting for me. I was taken to Izmailovo to visit relatives in Lefortovo. In the early 1960s, I mastered the area of Khitrovka-Solyanka. Mother worked on Solyanka at the Institute of Radiology and Roentgenology, in a building with caryatids, in which she died. In the 1960s, I worked at the Pediatrics Institute as a lab assistant. It was an ancient building, constructed in the 17th Century as a foundling hospital, the first in Moscow. I loved walking around there. The other side of the Yauza River was beautiful, but neglected, and there are still very lovely spots there. Now, there is a very important family connection there—my older son lives in Starosadsky Lane, opposite St. Vladimir’s Church in Starye Sady. Not so long ago, a monument to Osip Mandelstam was placed in his courtyard—it had been one of the poet’s Moscow addresses. A relative of Mandelstam had lived there in the 1930s, and now, my grandchildren do. But my younger son’s family is a five-minute walk from our first Moscow home in Petrovsky Park.

Moscow does not let you go. There’s no city that I’ve known for so long and so well as Moscow. I can’t even say if I love Moscow. Probably not. But there’s no city dearer to me. Of course, I have to spend a lot of time saying: this used to be a dog run … my music school used to be here … the Minayev market was here. A very big part of Moscow—the best part, for me—has receded into the past. It’s a good thing that the Vvedenskoe Cemetery, where all my old people are buried, is still in its place.


Ludmila Ulitskaya

Ludmila Ulitskaya is one of Russia’s most popular and renowned literary figures. She is the author of more than a dozen works of fiction, including The Big Green Tent, and The Kukotsky Enigma: A Novel. Her novels have been translated into 25 languages.

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