ONCE SHE WAS A CHILD tells
the universal story of childhood in times of upheaval, as conveyed by
some of the most extraordinary international woman writers. Done
mostly on location, these intimate encounters mirror a rainbow of
human existence shaped by injustice, turmoil and struggle, and still
victorious: six year-old Russian Svetlana Vasilenko awaiting death
while caught between the Powers dueling with nuclear bombs; the little
Italian child Dacia Maraini starved in a Japanese concentration camp;
twelve-year-old. Belgian Amélie Nothomb, reading by candle light in a
Bangladeshi lepers’ house; five-year-old Leena Lander living in the
Finnish prison for delinquent boys where her father worked as a
supervisor, contemplating in fear and horror her sexually mangled doll
found thrown in the forest; the Israeli Esterl Ettinger yearning for
grandparents murdered in the Holocaust; eight-year-old Palestinian
Anissa Darwish torn by war from the Malkha village of her sweet
childhood – all and each of the writers in this book map the way to
survival and hope.
They ask us also to take a second look at our own life, and, well
informed, to make sure the right decisions are taken in all that
concerns this precious little world.
As a literary form, ONCE SHE WAS A CHILD is a
hybrid: it owns the genes of literary fiction, with its attention to
language, ambiguities and symbols, carved out by the author’s mostly
invisible questions, and editing; and it carries the genes of
narrative nonfiction as those are real life stories of real, and most
impressive persons, showing how gloriously they’ve survived Evil.
Glimpses from The Past, of childhood recollections, set, like pearls
on a string, with my journal as the connecting thread or background.
The reader is invited to absorb. At the end of the book s/he’ll
discover in a separate section, as an addendum, how far they’ve
reached in The Present. –C.H.
Tel-Aviv, 12 January
I am working on the conversation with Svetlana, and in my ears her
melancholy voice keeps echoing, “Each moment we don’t know, now, at this
very second, the ‘blow’ will come.”
In a duet with my radio, here, now.
The day before yesterday they announced that Saddam Hussein had pledged
not to attack Israel.
Yesterday came an Iraqi denial. “We were not exchanging messages with
The United States announced that it would not attack Iraq before the
end of the Winter Olympics, on February 22.
The United States will not attack before Parents’ Day at the university
of the Clintons’ daughter, on March first, says the radio.
Svetlana arrived at Yaddo, an artist colony in Upstate New York, a few
days before I left it.
In Israel I asked Victor, a friend who came several times especially
from Jerusalem and translated word for word from the Russian of our
conversation. When we finished, he said, “My wife had been the victim of
an atomic accident, before she was even born.”
Russia is helping Iran build atomic reactors.
Back in February Victor had said:
“My wife was born in 1958. I found out about her
problem right when we met, in the beginning of the Eighties. I found out
that she was suffering from glandular enlargement. The symptoms of the
disease were that she would get tired very quickly and have headaches.
After a medical checkup, they suggested an operation to remove the gland.
In the course of treating her, the doctors, who looked into her life
history, said that most probably it was a result of the fact that her
mother had been pregnant with her after an explosion which took place in
1957 near them, in a town which was then called
Cheliabinsk 65, and today has a more civilian name,
Sneginsk. The place is in the Ural Mountains. Northeast Russia.
“They built a center for nuclear research there, and that’s where the
“This town was fenced in and under strict guard, like Svetlana’s.
“My wife wasn’t living inside the military town but in a village a few
dozens kilometers away.
“From the rumors I learned that radioactive water had
gathered in containers above the allowed ceiling allowed, exploded and
poured out into the area, and permeated into the lakes and rivers in the
neighborhood. There were many lakes there, and streams and rivers.
“They didn’t make any official announcement, but they evacuated all
those who lived in a radius of five, ten kilometers. They built new
villages for them and destroyed the old ones.
“The main problem, as I see it, is that this radiation spread in the
water, through the streams and the lakes – because the lakes there are
connected to each other, that’s how nature is over there, a very beautiful
area, lakes, thick forests...
“They lived in the village until she was fifteen – then her father got
an appointment in the county town, managing the milk industry there.
“He told me that he’d even spoken with the members of the committee
which had been set up to deal with the problem. They’d set up several
committees there, a military one, a government one, and many senior
officials came to the area – it was the first radioactive disaster in
Russia on such a scale. In 1957.
“And even he didn’t know exactly, they didn’t know the real dangers. No
one explained to people what radiation was, what it meant, what radiation
“They didn’t explain it to the inhabitants.”
“But all their food, the animals –”
“Exactly: cows, milk, grass, food for the cows – the whole environment
there was highly contaminated, and is still contaminated today, as far as
“Her father was responsible for the milk. I believe they inspected the
milk secretly so that even he and the locals didn’t know, it was known
only to the scientists, who had been signed to secrecy, and to party
“The actual fact that there had been an explosion was known more or
less the whole time, but they started writing about it intensively and
openly only after Gurbachev came to power and the freedom of speech over
there developed a little, and especially after the Chernobyl disaster.
“Chernobyl was in May 1986.
“After the Chernobyl disaster there was a great rise in awareness in
Russia of the nuclear problem and many residents in many counties woke up
and started looking around them, what’s this atomic station over here and
what’s this factory over there, and what kind of material is being buried
“People started to open their eyes a little.”
The Good, The Bad, and the Beautiful
Yesterday I told you about 1962 and about the
I was six at the time.
There was a quarrel between Kennedy and Khrushchev, the atomic quarrel
which could have resulted in the end of the world. Kennedy gave Khrushchev
an ultimatum, to get the missiles out of Cuba within an allotted time.
And in our town, because it was a missile town, and it concerned all of
us, our fathers and our mothers and us children – everyone really, at
work, at home, in kindergarten, everyone was talking about it. Will there
be war or not. Many officers used to come to our house, because we had a
television set, and my mother was known for her hospitality, and they
talked about these problems at the table. They sat around the table, and
we children played next to them.
Then father disappeared. By then he had already been sleeping at the
launching site. All the officers were sleeping there. It was already a
state of emergency.
For a week we didn’t know what was going on.
One day, when I was in kindergarten, they came to us and said, “Take
the children to the steppe because the ultimatum is about to expire
tonight and we can expect a ‘blow’.”
At our place it was nighttime, and for the Americans it was daytime.
My father was a senior lieutenant at the time, or a captain. Not long
ago he said to me – before that he had been unable to say it – a little
while before his death we talked and he told me that he had sat in the
bunker, and I asked him what he had been doing at that moment, and he
replied that he had been waiting for the order to push the button.
That is, he could have blown up...
He wasn’t alone there, he was with his friends, the same friends who
used to visit our house, and I asked what they had been doing then and
what they had been thinking, what they had been talking about. He thought
for a moment and then said,
“We were playing cards.”
It must have been because... In Chekhov’s plays officers play cards
Before a duel?
Or before shooting themselves...
Sounds like something out of ANNA KARENINA
It’s very important that you mention ANNA KARENINA,
this is also an important memory...
Immediately, they took us in military buses to the steppe, and the
whole night we sat with our kindergarten teachers. These women didn’t
conceal what was waiting for us, because they were worried for themselves;
they were no Janusz Korczaks, they cried, they were worried, they
remembered their own children... It was like the night before the gallows.
If it were possible to ask the grown-ups who were with us...
It’s one thing to sit at home, and another to be in the steppe and wait
every moment after moment you may be dead.
They gave us, as on New Year’s Eve, the best chocolate candy there was
at the time, in pretty cellophane wrappers.
We ate the candy and played with the cellophane wrappers.
And I think – I may be making this up – there were also
It was the first time I felt a fear of death.
My memory is not very good, I usually remember only flashes, but here I
even remember how I was afraid of death. I remember how the time dragged,
I remember how we played, I remember pictures of people sitting, as if
it’s all in a flashback in the cinema. I remember who was sitting there, I
remember we didn’t sleep all night and we sat and waited for the sunrise,
and how when it started clearing and the sky became very gray and then
brighter and brighter, we realized we’d been saved. There was a joy that
surrounded us all.
Khrushchev had been thinking throughout that night, and to this day no
one knows what happened, but he withdrew the missiles.
We didn’t hear it on the radio nor did anybody bother to inform us that
they were taking the missiles out of Cuba.
And then they came to take us. But I don’t remember that. I remember
only that it became bright and we were glad.
We sat in a circle. I don’t remember what we talked about, but we
talked about games – what games we would have been able to play if there
had been light –
How, if we had been in kindergarten at sleeping time, we would have
talked about ghosts –
Now it comes into my head that my father played the game “Preference,”
with cards, and we children talked about games...
I, then and since then, have pulled away from collective joy. I thought
about death, how it comes, what it would be like.
We didn’t believe in God, we didn’t have that kind of education,
therefore I made it up then and there – What will we turn into? What kind
I thought, Where will I disappear to? How can that be?
And that became my thought in life.
At the age of six you knew about molecules?!
We knew a lot, because with our fathers it was ‘a new cult,’ of
physicists. A friend of my father’s, Uncle Pasha, he told us, for
instance, about Einstein’s theory, about the planet Mars, about the
cosmos. We lived in a military town, and so we knew a lot. Often Korolev
would visit us; he was the chief designer who sent everybody out to space,
astronauts came to our house, Tereshkova came.
I remember that we didn’t know that Korolev was the chief designer. He
used to live next door to us, also in a Finnish cabin. we called him Uncle
Serioza, and he would drive us in his vehicle... Only later I found out
that Uncle Serioza was the one in charge of everything.
But already then you could feel that he was something – all the
astronauts, Tereshkova, they were all around him.
Across from our house lived another Svetlana, who was much older than
me, married, and her husband was in the astronauts’ unit. They would sit
at her house, one had already been in space, one was just getting ready to
go. We saw and knew. So the word ‘molecule’... (laughs)
We children, we all wanted to be astronauts ourselves. I dreamt about
Tereshkova, I dreamt of being a cosmonaut like her.
I remember the steppe when it was already daylight. It was very gray.
The sky must not have been clean, there were clouds, because when it
became light, everything looked gray.
Sometimes when I go fishing at the same exact place where we were, when
at night I sit there holding a rod, because for fishing you have to go
early in the morning, then I see this grayness. And when I’m there I
always think how it was that night.
Then the fish come...
Sometimes you stayed the night at kindergarten?
Yes, often, because everyone worked in shifts. It was a
twenty-four-hour-kindergarten and the parents could take their children
home whenever they wanted.
What happened the day after the false alarm, in the family, among the
children, the teachers, the grown-ups, your father?
I don’t remember – as I said – what happened at the kindergarten when
we returned. As of that moment I don’t remember.
And your father and mother, they didn’t speak about it? The children
didn’t become unruly? You weren’t asked how you felt?
Maybe it was a kind of shock.
They didn’t have psychologists to take care of the children?
With psychology at the time it wasn’t so... Freud wasn’t allowed and
psychology doesn’t have the same role it has in the West.
Women come to each other to tell things.
You don’t remember hearing such conversations? They didn’t talk about
It was as if everyone had forgotten... There was a lot of talk and
preparations for the next war...
I remember the Caribbean Crisis, but when I was ten, father left us,
and then we went to see him in the hospital and he said goodbye, I don’t
remember that. Mother tells me that I cried terribly, that I jumped on him
and said, “Daddy don’t leave!” but I don’t remember. It’s just Mother
Whereas the Caribbean Crisis, which is like an abstract term for many
people... I spoke with many people, they don’t remember it at all...
Father left the year they entered Czechoslovakia.
I simply remember things by political moments. Because it concerned the
life of the military town.
In a military town such political events concerned the families
directly. For example in 1968 some of my friends’
fathers... In 1968, when they entered
Czechoslovakia, I simply remember that the whole town was shaking. I
remember a picture – a boy came over, a friend of mine, Yury Kahuyev. He
was all covered with white anti-mosquito lotion, there were lots of
mosquitoes there, and he was shouting at me – “They sent the army into
I mean, we lived it.
I was twelve then.
At the time part of the army went to Czechoslovakia and part was
fighting the locusts.
And who took care of the missiles?
The worst drunks, the worst soldiers, the most indolent of the officers
– they were sent to fight against the field-mice, against the locusts.
Soldiers as well as officers.
I remember my father’s friend, Uncle Pasha, who had become a drunk: he
wrote me a few dozens pages about how he fought the locusts, and this
description is maybe one of the best pages in world literature...
It’s like something from the Bible.
Are there still missiles there now?
Yes. Now the Americans live there and they are supervising the
What’s important about ANNA KARENINA?
There were two books that my mother loved – ANNA
KARENINA, and THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE-DAME. We
always read the books out loud. I remember that I was very young – five,
six – and that she was reading in the book as if it were about her own
A similar history to ANNA KARENINA. Military
That was the book I was read out loud in the evenings. She would read
and cry, because it resembled her own life.
And my father resembled Vronsky very much, according to the
description. Robust, average height. Mother was tall and thin, like Anna
Karenina’s husband, Karenin, resembled a wicked neighbor of ours very
much. He was also a moralist.
And my mother was always doing ‘bad deeds.’
Indeed I wanted to focus on your childhood.
Oh. Where should I begin?
Nine months before you were born –
I can, why not...
One night –
I can begin even before that.
I was born in this military town in the region of Astrakhan, called
Kapustin Iar, near Stalingrad – nowadays, Volgograd.
The town had been built right after the war by Korolev. He sent Gagarin
first into space. From this town they launched a first satellite and a
second satellite, and it was a secret town. There in the steppe there were
the most scary missiles.
My parents came to build this town. They had lived before in different
places – Father had lived in St. Petersburg – then Leningrad, and my
mother came from the city of Lugansk, in the Ukraine.
My mother finished college in construction, and Dad finished the
military college for gunners and went on to study at the military academy
for gunners. They were young but had already gone through the war. Dad was
at the siege in Leningrad and Mom was in the Romanian prison as a prisoner
When they met, Dad was a first lieutenant and Mom was an engineer.
They went out together for a long time. Back then, it was a most
puritanical period. Although my mother had already reached thirty.
At a certain moment, Dad started noticing Mom’s friend. They all used
to go and dance at the Officers’ Club. There were pretty dances, they
danced the waltz... I’ve been to the Officers’ Club and seen it.
My mother’s friend was an excellent dancer.
My mother was shy and always stood by the wall.
My father was considered the most handsome and the most amusing and the
most educated and the most urbane.
He was friends with sons of generals, and they said to my
father, why do you make friends with a country girl?
That’s what they thought about my mother.
He still continued going out with my mother. But at the same time he
had a woman with whom he went as a man. My mother knew about it and was
very afraid that one time he would stay with that woman.
After the war many of my mother’s female friends didn’t have partners.
The town was built partly of small wooden houses with gardens, built
mostly by German prisoners of war, and in another part they started a
modern construction of apartment houses. My mother lived in a small house,
she had a room there.
One time Dad came to Mom and said that he was going to the birthday
party of that friend of hers, and Mom said that she wouldn’t let him go,
and so he stayed at her place, and that’s how I was conceived.
And my mother became pregnant with me. In the spring of
I was born out of a great love.
Mom and Dad were unmarried, and there were many things against my
birth. In 1955 there was still a law that prohibited
abortions. This law was abolished in autumn 1955. If
it had been abolished a little sooner, I wouldn’t have been born.
As it was, the whole town was against it. In their opinion it wasn’t
good. It wasn’t right.
The moral views back then were... (laughs)
Russia is a country of peasants.
Friends of my mom’s ‘wrote’ – letters informing about her – to Dad’s
commanders. Then my mother’s brother came, he returned from military
service in the Russian navy, and took my mother to my grandmother
to perform an illegal abortion. My mother ran away and gave birth to me.
Later on this uncle became my godfather.
My parents didn’t marry but lived together for ten years.
I had a brother who was almost born, but my mother didn’t dare have
him. Her female friends pressured her to perform an abortion. She was
already in the seventh month.
He was born alive but died immediately.
I wrote about it in one of my stories.
All her life my mother has remembered my brother. And so have I.
I was five then.
I remember we ran to see her at the hospital. The town was at the top
of a hill, surrounded by a barbed-wire fence, and it was forbidden to
enter; entry was only allowed by special permits. At the foot of the hill
there was an old Cossack village, and inside the village there was a
hospital, and I remember that a friend of Mom’s called Liza came to me and
said that I had a brother, and I remember that we ran for a long time and
it was very hot, we ran and ran, and they told us...
The town was young and it didn’t have some important things, it
didn’t have a maternity hospital. In my passport it says that I was born
not in the military town, but in the village.
Mom’s female friends started persuading her to get rid of the baby
because she’d already given birth to me and caused a scandal in the town.
It was immoral...
An officer was not allowed to get a divorce and if he did, they would
‘write’ against him, and he could be demoted.
My dad never wanted to marry Mom. He lived in our house, acknowledged
me, and educated me.
He told me, “I’ve always loved her, she was the only one, but I would
never have married her.” He thought himself far above my mother, saw his
love for her as a misfortune.
Because he had fallen in love with a creature inferior to him.
I understand that it may have been the influence of Russian literature,
as if Dad were a feudal lord who couldn’t marry a peasant girl. When I
visited my relatives in Leningrad they treated me just that way – like a
girl who was born to a feudal lord, out of wedlock.
When I was born, Dad wrote a note to Mom: “Our daughter is as precious
as gold”; but beforehand, he had told my mom that he would marry her only
if she had a son.
And it was a girl.
Supposedly, if I had been a boy, I would have been considered a
continuation of the roots, but since it was a girl – it’s like nothing.
I’ve always known about the note.
When I was born, a postcard of congratulation immediately arrived from
my grandmother in Leningrad. She actually acknowledged me and loved me
very much. At first I was named Larisa, and the card said,
“Congratulations on the birth of Larisa.” It had angels above a baby’s
I still keep it.
Dad gave me the name Svetlana, in honor of Svetlana, Stalin’s daughter.
Dad was an officer and must have liked Stalin. I’d never asked him if he
had named me in honor of her. In 1956, after the
Twentieth Assembly, and Krushchev’s speech, it was perhaps even a call of
defiance. The officers didn’t like Khrushchev that much. The military
didn’t like Khrushchev.
So because of the abortion of the son, your mom lost the chance to
marry your dad?
Mom thinks that.
How did she have the abortion?
I know she swallowed some kind of pills. Which stop the pregnancy,
cause an abortion.
In the hospital. It was legal.
The doctors gave her the pills? In the seventh month?!
It was a military town with a structure of its own: “A woman has
already given birth to one child without a husband, and now she intends to
have another one? Maybe she’s stupid? Such idiots must have an abortion,
why should she give birth? And she’s poor, she has nothing.”
But your dad lived with your mom, didn’t he?
They considered her a single woman.
Mom saw the child when it came out, saw how he breathed twice.
They didn’t put him in an incubator?
They must have not managed to in time...
Does your father have a version of his own?
My father is dead now, but when I visited him in Riga a few years ago,
I asked him, and he answered me, that all his life he had loved only my
mother. And I think this is true. I remember how they loved each other.
They were the legendary couple in our town...
The end of the relationship was tragic...
As a child, did you feel that people, or at school, treated you
differently because you were not a ‘legitimate’ child?
There was something like that. But because I studied hard and
was an excellent student, a kind of an exemplary girl, and I studied with
children from single-parent families, they were drawn to me and I was
drawn to them, we had the same fate –
One time the teachers told me not to befriend these kids.
Because they weren’t good students?
They didn’t study well. There is this Russian proverb, that the apple
falls near the tree. That children from mothers who behave in such immoral
ways, who give birth to children without husbands, and then have men come
to them – that is, they continue their immoral lives – that also their
children are stamped with an immoral strain of behavior. These kids didn’t
study well, they were unruly, and I was different.
Although the line of destiny was the same line.
On the street I lived in I was often told that I was a daughter without
By children as well as by their parents.
Dad had already left by then. At some point he started living
separately, and would only visit us.
We had a neighbor who always used to bother my mother. He wrote letters
to her bosses, to her managers – that men were coming to her. She lived
alone, and of course she would have men over from time to time. He often
told me, in the kitchen, that I was the result of a single-parent family.
The house was divided into two parts – a small part which was ours, and
a big part which was his. And a shared kitchen.
He had a wife and a daughter who was my friend, a little younger than
me, and we are still friends to this day.
He actually educated me through his attitude. He always told me, “You
will be a whore just like your mom.”
So I didn’t have contacts with boys.
In first grade I didn’t study very well. He said: “This one will always
be backwards.” That’s why I wanted to be a good student.
He killed a dog of mine which I loved very much, ‘Alpha’ – so I got
It was a constant struggle.
I was eight. At that moment I wanted to poison his rooster. As a
revenge. With my friend, Natasha, we made this mixture of tobacco and a
few other disgusting things, and some pills. He had a big and handsome
rooster, with a large tail, and that rooster was so proud. I remember how
we tried to poison him, and he walked around the tub and looked at us, and
didn’t try to taste from the tub. So this feeling of a murderer...
When the rooster didn’t drink from the mixture, I was on the one hand
disappointed, on the other hand glad. He was too handsome a rooster to
kill. It was too unjustified.
We went away from the kitchen, and I gave a hard blow to his
daughter, Nadia. I went into the room, she was alone, I was disappointed,
and I hit her. To this day she remembers it and asks me, “What was it,
what was it,” and I don’t tell her.
With Natasha, at the age of eight, we wanted to start a business. We
bought some inkwells, we collected chicken feathers, we cut them in the
shape of pens, and we wanted to sell them on the streets – pen and
inkwell. We wanted to start a business and buy a piano. When the neighbor
saw many inkwells under the oven, he called the police and said, that
“I don’t know what is going on, but maybe they are stealing.”
The policeman, whose family name was Onopenko, was short and liked
women, and he said, “Maria, sit quietly with your daughter because your
neighbor will eat you.”
Was he scary?
No... He was an urban policeman.
But to this day I never deal with business...
The peak of the struggle was when the neighbor told Natasha’s mother –
she was my only and best friend – not to let us be friends.
He told her, “You have a girl who is becoming a young woman, and she is
visiting a house in which lives a woman who is visited by all kinds of
We kept on being friends, secretly.
What was your relationship with your father after he left?
We visited him often, more than he visited us. He moved to a different
communal apartment. When we came over to see him, we saw how the others
were sitting in the kitchen. It was also a family of friends – Uncle Zania,
Aunt Ira, and my friend, Yula, with whom I studied at school. Uncle Zania
was a military man as well.
Dad had his own room there. Back then everybody lived in communal
apartments. There was a problem with housing. They built very slowly.
At some point Aunt Ira fell in love with my father. She only told us
that later on, but my mother knew everything by then. Dad must have also
been attracted to her. He told Mom later that he almost married her, but
because of his friend, he stopped himself.
Ira and her husband lived very badly.
Once, Mom saw the way Ira handed my father a towel, and for her, she
remembers to this day, that was the cruelest sight, it caused much
I visited there often because I was friends with Yula, I would sit
there for hours, and I didn’t sense anything. To tell you the truth, I
didn’t love him that much in my childhood.
When he left, I started loving him.
Because he made my mother suffer, I thought that she loved him more
than she loved me.
Towards the end, he would often come home drunk. On the eighth of
March, for her birthday, he would toss her a bottle of perfume, “Krasnaya
Moskva” – Red Moscow – and leave. I remember that once the perfume bottle
broke, and Mom ran after him with me, and I remembered his back and for a
long time I couldn’t remember his face. If I didn’t look at pictures, I
would remember only the back.
Why did you run after him?
To bring him back.
She thinks that if she had been proud, he would have respected her.
Suddenly a person appeared for Mom. He was very young and handsome, an
officer in the army. He was also called Uncle Serioza. He was ten years
younger than she. He loved her very much. He lived in Sebastopol, on the
Crimean peninsula, and he would come over from there to visit. I liked him
very much and wanted him to be my father. Because by that time I didn’t
like Dad at all.
When my mother and Uncle Serioza decided to get married, my father
Until he overcame him and mother turned down Uncle Serioza, and Uncle
Serioza left and went back to Sebastopol.
Mom said that even in the Romanian prison she hadn’t been so tormented
as she was by Dad.
This torment went on for ten years. When he left, I felt relieved. Even
though for my birthdays he would find me presents that no other kid in
town got. For example a doll, he called her Svetlana, and she was my size.
I had never seen anything like it.
He must have bought the presents in Leningrad or somewhere else, and
brought them over, and waited until my birthday in January. Everybody
envied me for having such an extraordinary father.
When he left, I was denied this prestige...
When did you meet him?
I would often go to his mother, my grandmother, and I visited his
brothers and sisters. Each one of them treated me differently. One
sister simply hated me. She actually resembles me very much, the same face
but him I only saw when I was seventeen. I went then to apply to the
Institute of High Education in Moscow. When I wasn’t accepted in Moscow, I
went to visit him in Riga. He didn’t know I was coming. The door was open,
and I saw, sitting in the room, a simply handsome man who I could have
loved. I mean, I looked at him as a man and not as a father.
He was glad to see me, but we had this tradition of saying horrible
things to each other, and he said, “Your mother was much more beautiful at
your age than you are now.” It almost made me cry. Because at that age you
always think about your external appearance.
Then came his wife, Aunt Katia, and she gave us some food. We
went to the zoo and bought some beer there and sat in a pine forest like
the one here, and drank beer.
I told him I didn’t know what to do if I wasn’t accepted at the
university. He said I would stay with them and work, and study in Riga.
I didn’t like Riga at all. I went to Leningrad, to Moscow, and I met
Dad only when I came to visit my friends in Riga.
When I had my wedding, he didn’t show up. He sent some money, and that
hurt me. I wanted to see him at the wedding. And when I had a son, he also
reacted with indifference. We had this sort of relationship... Of a grown
Once my son went to Riga without me. Until then they hadn’t seen each
other. When my son was ten, he and my husband went to Riga.
There they fell in love with each other, my son and my dad. My son
remembers it as a wondrous episode in his life.
I can’t imagine my father being open. He’s always been closed.
Are you his only child?
Such a character. When I saw him for the last time, he met me not at
home but on the street. When he saw me, he started crying, and jumped on
my neck, and hugged me so much that I thought that maybe he really loved
But when we arrived at his apartment, we quarreled immediately.
We drank a little, and he told me he’d read one of my stories – “Going
He said, “You write so cleverly... Strange, where did you learn it? You
grew up only with Mom, you were without a father.”
Again I could hardly restrain myself from crying.
I told him, “Walk me home.” I had to leave by then, I was there
for two days of work.
He said, “No.”
Even his wife said, “Walk her home.”
And he wouldn’t.
For two years I didn’t write to him and I didn’t call him. I was hurt,
and that’s how we parted.
For two years I didn’t see him. Then at some moment at the end of July,
I was vacationing in Yalta, and I really wanted to call him, I really did.
I was standing with a friend, she was smoking, and I said to her, “Luba, I
want to call Dad so much, but I don’t know the reason... We don’t usually
call each other just like that. There has to be a reason.”
She says, “Call without a reason.”
I said, “I can’t.”
I waited for a reason. The 25th of October was
his birthday, and I called him. And they told me he had died on the
29th of July. He’d had an operation.
Maybe he had been thinking about me then...
From Yalta I went to see Mom and she asked, “How’s Dad? Are you two in
I said, “Mom, I haven’t been in touch with him for two years now.”
She looked at me and said, “You know, I think he’s already dead.”
That was on the sixth of August. I had just arrived and she was busy
putting up some wallpaper. She just looked at me and said, “You know, I
think he’s not alive anymore.” Said she had dreamt this.
When I come to Kapustin Iar, I always visit Aunt Ira. And she also
asked, “How’s your dad?”
She loved him very much, remember I told you that?
I said I hadn’t seen him in a long time, hadn’t heard for a long time,
and she suddenly cried. She asked, “Is he even alive?” By that time many
of their friends had died. They must have absorbed radiation, they all
I said, “Aunt Ira, I don’t know. He’s probably alive.
Because if he’d died, they would have told me.”
She looked at me and cried.
It was a common feeling for everyone. I had a feeling, Mom did, and
Aunt Ira. It was such a strange situation.
They didn’t even operate on him. He died from the anesthesia.
There was this sort of history: his friend – Belinov – was a big
missile designer, they were all in the same shift, I don’t remember what
year. Mom told me that: Belinov was the commander and Dad had a lower rank
and they all went out to the conduct the experiment. There was an
explosion there. After that they demoted Belinov. He went from major
general to lieutenant.
And all these friends, sooner or later...
It was not far from the town we lived in.
In general the rate of death was high. Many of my friends are already
dead. Children of my friends are dying. Of leukemia. I, for instance, for
a long time thought I wouldn’t have children. Even before the marriage, I
told my husband:
“Be prepared, we might not have children.”
-tr. from the Hebrew by Michal Sapir
Svetlana Vasilenko is the author of
SHAMARA AND OTHER STORIES. “Though her subsequent novellas and
short stories have been translated into various languages, this book
marks Vasilenko’s first sustained appearance in English.” Svetlana
Vasilenko was born in 1956 in a small closed
military town, Kapustin Yar, on the Volga, attached to a cosmodrome built
in 1946; “this rocket settlement provided the
setting for most of her stories.”
“On April 12, 1961 the first earthling escaped the
gravity well of planet earth. In the spaceship Vostok 1, Senior Lieutenant
Yuri Alexeyevich Gagarin orbited earth one time at an altitude of
187 3/4 miles (302 kilometers)
for 108 minutes at 18,000
miles an hour. He was the first man to see that the earth was indeed
round, indeed mostly water, and indeed magnificent.” This is part of
PBS’s Russian Archives Online.
Sergey Pavlovich Korolov
(1906-1966) , Soviet designer of guided missiles, rockets, and spacecraft.
“During World War II Korolyov was held under
technical arrest but spent the years designing and testing liquid-fuel
rocket boosters for military aircraft. After the war he modified the
German V-2 missile, increasing its range to about
426 miles (685 km). He also
supervised the test firing of captured V-2 missiles
at the Kapustin Yar proving ground in 1947. In
1953 he began to develop the series of ballistic
missiles that led to the Soviet Union’s first intercontinental ballistic
missile. Essentially apolitical, he did not join the Communist Party until
after Stalin’s death in 1953.
“Korolyov was placed in charge of systems engineering for Soviet launch
vehicles and spacecraft; he directed the design, testing, construction,
and launching of the Vostok, Voskhod, and Soyuz manned spacecraft as well
as of the unmanned spacecraft in the Cosmos, Molniya, and Zond series. He
was the guiding genius behind the Soviet spaceflight program until his
death, and he was buried in the Kremlin wall on Red Square. In accordance
with the Soviet government’s space policies, his identity and role in his
nation’s space program were not publicly revealed until after his death.”
“Sergey Korolyov was one of the founders of Moscow Group for the Study of
Reactive Motion and participated in the Soviet Union’s first launch of a
liquid-propellant rocket in 1933.…
“Around 1958, Korolev argued for the pursuit of
manned space flight instead of military reconnaissance satellites. After a
lengthy and dangerous debate, he obtained approval for the development of
the Vostok project provided the launch vehicle could also be used for
is information about Korolev and Gagarin.
Valentina Vladimirovna Tereshkova,
(1937- ), Soviet cosmonaut. “She was the first woman
to orbit the earth, in Vostok 6 on June
16-19, 1963. She left the Soviet space program soon
after and married cosmonaut Andriyan Nikolayev. She was president of the
Committee of Soviet Women (1968-86) and a member of
the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union
Kasputin Iar: “One of three launch sites operated by the
USSR between 1966 and 1987.”
located aerial views. “Kapustin Yar
was the Soviet’s first acknowledged missile test site. The site was
previously an artillery range. First rocket test was on Oct.
18, 1947 and the initial program of 11 V-2
launches ended Nov. 13 the same year.”
is a map of and information about Kapustin Yar. This site is part of
RussianSpaceWeb.com, designed by Anatoly Zak.
Here is a huge searchable
resource regarding the Caribbean Missile Crisis – Columbia University
Press’ CIAIO, for subscribers, but with free trial
is the remarkable collection of documents of the the Avalon Project at the
Yale Law School, “Foreign Relations of the United States :
1961-1963 Cuban Missile Crisis and Aftermath.”
Here is the Naval
Historical Center’s record of the role of the U.S.
Navy in the Cuban Missile Crisis, with links. This site is maintained by
the Department of the Navy.
is interesting as it reveals the real status of women in
USSR even in this instance.
©2002 Corinna Hasofferett