memoirs menu previous chapter next chapter

Single Parent in Otradnoye

Lyuda & Artyom Although I felt, happy, safe and secure with Artyom at my parents', more and more often I dreamed of living with my son on our own and creating our life together. I was planning how I would organise everything and what a happy little family we were going to be. My life had a new meaning now when I was caring about the dearest human being I had ever known and who entirely depended on me.

We had a room in the hostel about 11 square meters in size. I tried to make it as cosy as I could. By chance I bought a very nice set of furniture of a beautiful green colour which reminded me of the sea. It was made in Poland and consisted of a wall unit, a couch, a table and two armchairs, all fitted the room just nicely. The unit was so efficient that I could comfortably fit all our stuff in it. Every little thing that I could get and arrange in our little home gave me a lot of joy and satisfaction. Although it was only a hostel I felt it was our only home on this planet.

The view from the window was on a forest of straight and beautiful pine trees. In autumn when the weather was wet but mild we went mushroom picking starting straight from the door.

The school had two more hostels where the young people lived. They were 15-17 years of age and came from different parts of the Soviet Union to get there education. Many of them were from Siberia. I could have stayed teaching but I thought it would be more convenient for me to work as a house mother in the hostel. It was an evening job and I could work while Artyom was asleep, checking on him any time, sometimes take him with me if necessary. My friends wanted to participate in childcare as well and so everything was going to work out very well that way. How wrong I was!

One English teacher in our school was going to be made redundant but as a single mother I had the right to stay. Two other teachers were older than me and more experienced so I thought if I moved to work in the hostel it would also be a favour to them. And it was. It also was the wrong decision that made my life more difficult in the future.

While I was in Siberia on maternity leave the administration of the school changed. The previous principal left and the new one had a lot of his own ideas. In Russia they say: "A new broomstick sweeps in a new way". He did not want single mothers to work in the school as he thought they could not do their job properly. Of course we were more vulnerable as we had little children dependent on us. According to Soviet law we had more rights than families. We had priority in getting an apartment and moving out of the hostel which was everybody's dream.

People were tired and fed up living in the hostel, sharing kitchen and toilet as well as gossip. Everybody wanted the comfort and privacy of their own home. When the next apartment arrived and the time came to decide whose it was going to be it was a most stressful time for many people. The battles were hot. The decisions were very often unexpected.

The list of people waiting for an apartment was long. It was 1982 and by that time I had already worked in the school for six years and was near the top of the list. As a single mother I had also an additional right to priority.

Being a house mother in the hostel meant to look after boys and girls in the evenings, help them with their problems as they arose. If someone was ill to call a doctor, if someone needed advice listen to them and help if we could. We also were responsible for organising their leisure time: a lecture, a discussion, a party and so on. We had to have a monthly plan of what we were going to do with the students signed by the administration.

The teachers also had a duty to come to the hostel once so often with a lecture or whatever they planned. Nobody was very keen on working in the hostel because it meant to be away from home in the evenings so it was house mothers who were always there. It was us to blame if something went wrong.

1982 was the Brezhnev time in Russia just before Perestroika. The problems in the country were at their worst. Apathy in the society was at its worst and one of the problems was drinking.

When we (other house mothers and I) came to the hostel in the evenings with the intention of reading to the students some poetry or having a discussion we had a big chance of finding most of them drunk. Many of our students had a lot of money as their parents lived in the north where the salaries were higher than average.

The government always tried to compensate to people living under difficult conditions and having the lack of fruit, veg. and sunshine. The parents were generous with their offspring and sent them lots of money whenever they had a chance. They did not see how that money was spent.

Many times we asked the shop assistants in the local shop not to sell vodka and wine to the children under eighteen but they still did. They were more interested in making profit rather than in who drank their vodka.

There was a bad 'tradition' in the hostel when the older students fought the new comers and often in quite a brutal way. There was a case when the face of the victim was so bruised that we could hardly recognise who it was.

There was a lot of stealing going on with breaking into rooms. The administration was not always quick enough to repair the doors and locks so many rooms stayed open all the time making their owners feel very insecure.

Once when I came to my work place I found that a group of students were missing. They were hiding in the forest as they were afraid of being beaten up by the older students. We had to go, look for them and persuade them to return to the hostel, promising some sort of protection of course.

The students of the school were being trained in working professions as well as getting secondary education. The profession was mostly taught by young men, most of whom lived in the same hostel. Their job was also to look after the students in the evening as well as day time. It was a great help because otherwise it would have been absolutely impossible for us women to deal with many situations and simply dangerous to face the drunk teenagers. If something extraordinary happened we asked help from the men who lived in the hostel and they never refused.

This was the situation in which I found myself having come back from Siberia. What a mistake I made having given up my teaching! It was so easy for the administration to find the faults and denounce me and others as poor workers not being able to do our job properly. No matter how hard we tried there was always something which we could not help. It was very frustrating.

I was reprimanded several times. The reprimands came in a written form. One had to give 'explanation' in writing of what had happened and why and put one's signature underneath. It would not be all needed in a good collective, just a word would have been enough. The fact my administration went through all the procedures as they 'should' made me think they were planning to get rid of me in the near future.

The most upsetting thing to me was that some colleagues with whom I had been working for many years started 'to witness' against me. Some people stopped saying 'hello' to me when we met. Some were only talking to me when nobody from administration were nowhere near us.

I learned a lot about human nature in those days. I consider them to be a very important time of my life. I was very pleased that my own feelings towards the people were more hurt and disappointment rather than hatred and anger. I never stopped saying 'hello' to people and tried to be nicer to them the nastier they were to me. I hoped that one day they would understand me, my behaviour and appreciate it. And they did.

It was the most difficult time of my life. I did not want to get up in the morning to face another 'battle'. There were tears in my eyes more and more often which I tried to hide from Artyom. He was only two years old and I wanted him to be a happy boy.

By law they could not dismiss me. They should have offered me any work in the school during day time and helped me to get a place in the nursery.

The principal did not bother with the law, and not only in respect of me, as we learned later. He seemed to behave like a little tsar at his work place where he could do what he liked and nobody could get him.

I was dismissed. I found myself without any income, with a two year old child on my hands and without a place in the nursery. I lost my many years' queue for the dream apartment and even if I found another job I would have to join and start queuing all over again. They also warned me that I had to move out of the hostel as soon as possible.

All this happened to me in Communist Russia a few years before Perestroika. It was not easy to go to court with a small child. We had to go to another town by public transport: I never had a car. One visit was not enough. Nothing was done by mail but every little thing or detail required a separate visit to the authorities.

The case took a month to come to court. While I was waiting for it the principal of our school was dismissed from his post for having stolen ten thousand roubles from the school's money.

I met him on a bright sunny spring morning on my way to court. He patted me on the shoulder and said: "Good luck to you". I knew he was going to jail and I smiled and said: "Thank you. All the best to you too!"

I won the case and got my job back. I also got a place in the nursery for Artyom and several months later the next flat the school got was also ours. It only had one room but it was twenty square meters, sunny and had a small balcony. We had a little kitchen and a bathroom with a toilet. The main thing was it was all ours and there was no neighbours.

I started to look for another job and found a vacancy for an English teacher in one of the schools of Leningrad but which was only twenty minutes away from Otradnoye by bus. It was actually half way between Otradnoye and Leningrad. I thought I was lucky to get a job there. That was where I met my red haired Lyudmila who is in America now. She was the first person I met in the building, which I later thought was noteworthy. She showed me where the headmistress's office was.

Several months later I was lucky again. I heard the rumours that a single woman who lived in a two room flat would rather move to a one room if paid some money. "Must be some drunk" I thought. I met her and her appearance and lifestyle suggested quite heavy drinking. We made a deal for one thousand roubles which was good money at the time.

My parents offered us the money and when all the paperwork for the exchange was done they came all the way from Siberia to help us to move. The woman with whom we were doing the exchange found herself in the hospital with bad heart so we had to move both our stuff and hers as well.

It was just before the New Year 1987. The winter was frosty, snowy and incredibly beautiful. It got dark early and we were moving 'the stuff' under the starlet sky admiring its beauty. There were about four or five hundred meters between the blocks of flats and we used sledges to move the things. The snow creaked under the sledges and it was all very romantic.

Artyom was six years old and he was very excited about having his own room from now on. Not many children at that age in Russia could boast about having their own accommodation. Artyom's room was about seventeen square meters and the green set of furniture which we had in the hostel fit wonderfully into it. We displayed all his toys, of which he had loads and all his books of which he had tons!

So we had a wonderful accommodation and we both went to the same school in Leningrad where I was a teacher of the English language and Artyom was a pupil in year One. It was a very happy time of our lives!

Artyom loved to play with his model cars and he loved drawing. He was drawing planes, helicopters, men in action and was talking all the time while describing those actions. I read him books every day. I thought the more I read to him the more he would love reading. We read all sorts of books: mostly Russian and foreign classics and lots of Russian fairy tales such as: "Go, I don't know where, bring, I don't know what".

Very often Artyom had his friends to play with. He always surprised me how loyal he had been to his friends. He had three best friends for a long time: two Romas and Vova. I rarely had fewer than three or four children to feed but I did not mind. One Roma was my best friend Lyuba's son who lived in Otradnoye.

The other Roma Artyom 'found' himself when we lived in the hostel. Alla, Roma's mother, and I became the best of friends later on. Alla and Roma also moved out of the hostel soon after us and lived in close proximity.

Artyom's friend Vova Baranov was a friend from school. They chose each other of their own accord. Many people told me Vova was not the best company for Artyom but I used to answer I hoped Artyom was a good company for Vova then. The matter was that Vova had a snotty nose and he was not doing at school very well. That put some people off. They did not see that Vova was a very kind boy, he also was very communicative. Artyom was a bit shy in comparison.

I liked Artyom and Vova's friendship and kept it going as I could. They slept in each other's houses occasionally. They played a lot together and as they were in the same class they spent a lot of time together during their extra curricular activities. Whenever they went to the children's performances, circus and so on Artyom and Vova were inseparable. We became very good friends with Tatyana, Vova's mother.

Sometimes when I was coming home from school Artyom and the two Romas could see me from the distance because they were playing outside. Artyom used to start running towards me with his arms apart. The two Romas could not help running either. So there were three of them running towards me which was both touching and funny because they were not little any more, but seven or eight years old 'ducklings'. Moments like that were unforgettable.

Now when we had plenty of room my parents sent me my piano from Siberia. They sent it in a big container and it was still much cheaper than to buy another piano in Otradnoye or Leningrad. Especially that mine was made in East Germany and was generally considered better than a Soviet one.

When Artyom was seven or eight I sent him to a music school in Otradnoye. It was a pity it was in some distance from where we lived and I had to worry each time he had to go without me. If he walked it was better, if he took a bus he had to cross the road once and the roads in Russia always drove me mad.

There were often times when Artyom's lessons at school finished before mine. Then he had to sit at the back desk in my class and wait when I finished my teaching. Sometimes I gave him the key from our flat and asked one of the elder pupils to help him across the road and into the bus. There were no more crossings when he came to Otradnoye and I did not worry. Although I knew there would always be some sort of worry there from the moment I became a mother.

There were days when Artyom went home before me, I finished my lessons and was on a bus home approaching Otradnoye. I saw Artyom crossing the road with the other people towards the music school which meant he had been home, had done what he had to and now, good boy, he was on the way to where he should.

Our main worries in those days were Artyom's colds in autumns and winters. The climate in Leningrad was awkward. I remember it being twenty six below zero at the beginning of the week and two above zero by the end of the same week. Artyom's illness started with some ordinary cough.

We had a 'standard procedure' for that in Russia. It was also common among all my friends and acquaintances. I used to put some dry mustard powder into warm water in a bucket. Artyom sat in an arm chair with his feet in the warm water and I read him stories to pass the time and occasionally added some hot water to the bucket. He sweated and I changed his clothes, gave him some warm milk with a bit of honey to drink before he went to bed. This treatment did work but not always. On several occasions the cough became worse whatever I did and three or four times ended in pneumonia. I was devastated.

Two or three times Artyom was taken to hospital and I thought it would break my heart.

next chapter