Biographies & Memoirs

3. Vranyo, the Pretending

Aunt Polya

EAT YOUR SOUP, GOROKHOVA, or you’ll die!” shouts Aunt Polya over my head. She calls us all by our last names, and she is not really my aunt.

I am five, still a year and a half away from first grade, in a nursery school where thirty of us sit at three rectangular tables, pushed together at noon, and chew on buttered bread. It is 1961, and Yuri Gagarin, our Soviet hero, has just stepped out of his rocket that flew around Earth. Aunt Polya, in a stained apron stretched across her round stomach, holds a pitcher of milk and a thick-ribbed glass. The milk is warm, and the butter has absorbed all the rancid smells of the kitchen, but we eat and drink because we don’t want to get into trouble with Aunt Polya. We don’t want to hear her yell or see her aproned stomach loom over our faces.

Aunt Polya presides over the nursery school’s kitchen, which is behind the big peeling door we are forbidden to approach. I fear she could be in charge of more than buttering bread, pouring milk, and dispensing soup, more than ordering us to chew and swallow and not waste a single crumb. She could be in charge of our lives, since what keeps us breathing and healthy, according to Aunt Polya, is food.

“If you don’t finish your milk you’ll get sick!” she screams, now towering over my friend Genka, and I almost believe her.

After we eat, we crowd into the hallway, where our coats hang on hooks hammered into the wall. When we are all properly bundled up, we go down to the courtyard, to the sandbox and tall wooden slide. Genka and I are the only ones who, in the winter, dare coast down its iced surface standing up. The slide is in the middle of the playground, and we are herded there in pairs, in scratchy wool leggings and galoshes over felt valenki boots, our throats cinched with scarves and our waists with belts over padded coats. With all that cinching, it is difficult to stretch my arms out as I glide down, whipped by freezing air, hoping I won’t lose my balance and plop down onto what my mother calls my “soft spot” and what Genka calls my “ass.”

But now it’s late spring, a perfect time to explore the courtyard. We know there are vaulted hollows under the buildings—enticing, scary, and forbidden. While Raya, a girl with a red bow, wails over a collapsed sand castle that our teacher Zinaida Vasilievna is busy examining, Genka and I quietly creep out of the playground. We hide behind huge aluminum garbage bins and dive under an archway that leads through a damp tunnel to another courtyard separated from the street only by a metal fence. It is dizzying to think that we can simply walk through the gate and find ourselves on the sidewalk next to the street, so maligned by my mother for its dangerous streetcars and speeding trucks. But at the moment we are not interested in the risks the street can offer. We have just discovered a door under a dark archway, a rectangular sheet of wood upholstered in cracked black oilcloth that even Genka hesitates to touch.

I venture a guess that a paralyzed woman lives there. I see her in my mind, motionless and shriveled in her bed, yet still wicked, like an old, long-nosed witch from a tale of the brothers Grimm, or Baba Yaga from our own folktales, who lives in a hut that is perched on chicken legs.

Genka says that a paralyzed woman isn’t a grotesque enough inhabitant for such a place, that a more horrible defect must lurk behind the door, like a deaf child or a gnarled hunchback.

Or the garbageman, I say, and we both fall silent. We stand there, unblinking and petrified. Without doubt, the garbageman is scary enough—the scariest of all because he is real—to reside inside this dark tunnel where beads of moisture slither down the slimy stone walls.

He works in the cellar across from the playground, shoveling raw garbage dropped from each apartment through chutes. The smell of rotting trash leaks from under the cellar door and rises to the sidewalk, six cement steps up. On rare occasions he climbs the stairs to crouch on the ledge, always with his back to the sun. Gnome-like, with black stubble sprouting through his cheeks and a nose like a wilted red potato, he smokes hand-rolled cigarettes, which he crumples in his crooked fingers before lighting. His clothes are so soiled and permeated with the stink of garbage that his smell hangs in the air long after he is gone. I’ve always thought he sleeps in the cellar, somewhere in a little nook he cleared of potato peels and fish skeletons in his underground sea of decomposing trash.

But now, frozen in front of this black door, we both realize that this is the place where the garbageman must live, in the middle of this damp tunnel, in the eye of darkness, where we are no longer protected by sunlight or Zinaida Vasilievna or even screaming Aunt Polya.

Just as my heart is stumbling at this hideous thought, the door creaks, and its oilcloth slowly begins to separate from the stone frame, making Genka produce a sound as if he were choking on a bone. His eyes are two black o’s, and we run as fast as we can, out of the tunnel, into the daylight of the playground and into the arms of our teacher, Zinaida Vasilievna.

She tells us to stand in front of her, straight up, arms down at attention, and explain why we are so special that we think we can just take off on our own. What makes you different from everyone else, she demands, from the rest of our collective, those who don’t run around looking for trouble? What makes you different from those who are content with the sandbox activities?

Back inside, as everyone is herded into the bathroom to sit on tin potties, Genka and I stand in opposite corners of the room. We are told to face the corner, so all I see is a patch of paint peeling off the wall. I wish I could talk to Genka and ask him if he saw anything through the crack in the door, any hint of the garbageman—a gnarled finger or a glimpse of the quilted sleeve of his filthy jacket—but I hear Aunt Polya’s lumbering steps and her voice behind me.

“Very good, Gorokhova,” she thunders, a smell of sour butter wafting into my corner, “first you don’t finish your soup, and now you run off where you please. Your mother, I’m sure, will be happy to hear this.”

If my mother finds out, I’ll face yet another corner, this one by the garbage chute in our kitchen, after a lecture on the need to march in step with the collective and on the perils of city streets. Serving my term of punishment by the garbage chute would be ironic, I think, especially knowing that the garbageman is six floors below, on the other end of the chute line, and that if I stand on my tiptoes and throw something down—anything, even an empty matchbox—it could land directly on his head and scare him, for a change.

The thought of scaring the garbageman makes me grin, but I bite my lip because I know Aunt Polya wants to see me upset and remorseful. I think of the worst thing that may happen, my cruelest possible punishment, the loss of a Sunday trip to the ice cream kiosk with my father: the ten-minute walk to Theatre Square, where from the frozen, steaming depths of a metal cart a morose woman lifts a waffle cup packed with ice cream called crème brulee, hard as stone.

“My mother has a sick heart,” I say. “If she finds out, she may have a heart attack.” This is only a half lie since I heard my mother complaining in the elevator to our neighbor that her heart isn’t what it used to be when she was young.

“That’s interesting,” says Aunt Polya. Still facing the wall, I can only sense her presence from the kitchen smell and the movement of air giving way when she speaks. “You didn’t happen to think about your mother’s sick heart when you ran off into the street, did you?”

“We didn’t go into the street,” I say gloomily. I am telling the truth, but Aunt Polya isn’t interested in the truth. She thinks I’m talking back to her.

“Listen well, Gorokhova,” she shouts in her lunch voice, “you’re a year away from real school, where they won’t be so lenient. They’ll kick you out with a dvoika in behavior, sick hearts or not.” I am old enough to know that dvoika is the lowest grade you can get in real school. “You’ll be lucky to end up sweeping the streets. I can just see you, an eighteen-year-old hooligan with a broom.”

Standing in the corner, I contemplate my bleak future so succinctly fleshed out by Aunt Polya, afraid that in first grade my teacher, my principal, and everyone else will know not to trust me because I am the one infamous for placing the interests of the collective beneath my own. I will fail consistently: in handwriting, in gym, in keeping my hands folded on the desk, in scrubbing my collar white and then stitching it onto my uniform dress. I will not be allowed to become a member of the Young Pioneers and wear a red kerchief around my neck. My place will always be in the corner in the back, away from the teacher’s attention, the place for those who cannot be relied on, for those with a dvoika in behavior. Aunt Polya will take care of that.

After an hour of standing, I am released from the corner. Later, when Aunt Polya is pouring milk as we sit around the table, she watches me more closely than usual to make sure I finish the bread. I know she’s watching me, she knows that I know, and I know she knows that I know. We play this little game for a while: she gives me an unexpected glance, and I chew diligently, pretending I don’t know she’s looking.

The game is called vranyo. My parents play it at work, and my older sister Marina plays it at school. We all pretend to do something, and those who watch us pretend that they are seriously watching us and don’t know we are only pretending.

The vranyo game of pretend chewing pays off. Neither Aunt Polya nor Zinaida Vasilievna ever tell my mother about my courtyard exploration, and on Sunday, my hand stuffed into my father’s, we stroll to the ice cream kiosk and back, hard chunks of crème brulee slowly melting on my tongue.


“WHAT DO YOU WANT to be when you grow up, Lenochka?” asks Aunt Nina, who is my real aunt, although once removed—my mother’s cousin. We are in Aunt Nina’s apartment for her birthday, six of us, my sister Marina sitting next to me at the table covered with salads, appetizers, and Aunt Nina’s special onion pie.

My sister Marina is seventeen: she is in her last year of high school and is concocting a plan to wrestle out of our parents their permission to apply to drama school.

“A ballerina,” I say, jumping out of my chair and raising my leg behind my back.

“Sit down,” says my mother, “and finish your potatoes.”

I don’t want any more potatoes. I’m saving room for the cake I glimpsed sitting in the kitchen, all studded with raisins and sprinkled with sugar.

I wish Aunt Nina would ask Marina what she wants to be, knowing that if she told the truth my parents already know, everyone would forget about my potatoes—and everyone else’s potatoes, as well as the salted herring and beets with mayonnaise and thin slices of salami beginning to curl up at the edges. Everyone would sit with mouths gaping, wondering how such a stable family—the father the director of a technical school and the mother an anatomy professor—could have produced such an anomaly. At five, you are allowed to want to be a ballerina, or an actress, or a cosmonaut, but at Marina’s age, you are supposed to be serious and think of a real profession, like nursery school teacher, or tram driver, or the local polyclinic doctor in the white hat over suspiciously blond hair who came to our apartment when I had the flu.

“What kind of a profession is acting?” my father wonders when we are home. “Standing onstage, making a fool out of yourself. Gluposti,” he says, and waves his hand in dismissal—“nothing but silliness.”

“But there were great actors everyone respected,” argues Marina. “Stanislavsky, Nemirovich-Danchenko, Mikhail Chekhov. They even wrote books.”

“Books are good,” says my father out of a cloud of smoke. He is on his second pack of filterless Belomor cigarettes. “But learn how to read and write first. Go to a school where they teach you something useful—how to design an airplane, for example.”

“And what will you do?” chimes in my mother. “Spend your life in some provincial theater so you can come out at the end of the second act to say, Dinner is served? I won’t be able to help you find a job in Leningrad,” she warns, practical as usual. “They’ll send you to Kamchatka, and you’ll be stuck there, with society’s rejects, with sailors and ex-convicts, with those who can barely make it through a plumbing course, wishing you’d listened to what we told you.”

My mother doesn’t understand why anyone would voluntarily engage in such a disorderly and unsafe occupation as acting. First of all, it isn’t serious work. What do you study in drama school, she wonders. Not chemistry, or biology, or even Latin. You don’t contribute to the common good being an actress, she says; you aren’t doing anything solid. It’s all frivolous and chaotic, too unworthy a job for a serious citizen.

“Look at your sister Galya,” adds my mother. Galya is my father’s daughter who is ten years older than Marina and works as a pathologist at Leningrad Hospital No. 2. I don’t know what a pathologist is, but it must be something solid since my mother often uses her as an example. “She has a proper, respectable job. Nine to five-thirty, six days a week.”

On days when Marina is at meetings of her school drama club, my mother rattles the dishes in the sink, lamenting that it’s all the fault of the radio. I prick up my ears, intrigued by the thought that the radio, with its piano banging, morning gymnastics, and solemn three o’clock news could have lured Marina into the trap of acting.

“It was that program,” says my mother, Theatre at the Microphone. When they lived in Ivanovo, before I was born, Marina had spent hours standing in the corner under the radio, constantly punished for riding astride the bar in the back of a streetcar.

She would deliberately climb on when an adult was watching, says my mother, who thought she was punishing Marina. But that was my sister’s plan all along—to end up in the corner, under the radio. All they used to broadcast in the evening were radio plays. She stood there for hours, like a totem pole. My mother could barely tear her away to eat dinner. And now here we are—she wants to be an actress.

I feel a new respect for Marina, for her enviable scheme of reckless streetcar riding in front of adults who would dispense the coveted punishment. I think of her standing under an old-fashioned radio with a wool-covered front, listening to the actors’ voices, imagining them onstage, their eyes gleaming from under layers of greasepaint as they proclaimed eternal love, shed tragic tears, and died.

Then my mother changes her tone and tells my father that they have nothing to worry about. The competition to get into drama school is so fierce that there are a hundred applicants for one seat. “You must be a Sarah Bernhardt,” she insists. “You must have extraordinary connections. You must be related to the minister of culture. No one gets in,” she says and resolutely bangs a lid onto a pot of soup.

THERE IS A DOG in our house, a pedigreed Irish setter the color of copper. He is my sister’s dog, although he couldn’t have appeared in our apartment without my mother’s consent. Both my mother and sister constantly brush the dog’s long curls and let him sit in our armchair so he can look at the grainy images on our TV that flutter behind a thick, water-filled lens. When the dog is in the chair, I climb up next to him and we both watch figure skaters glide across the screen.

The dog’s name is Major, and when it is time to breed him, a man rings our doorbell and introduces himself as Ivan Sergeevich Parfenov, the head of the Leningrad chapter of an organization devoted to Irish setters. Ivan Sergeevich is soft-jowled, just like Major, and somewhere around my mother’s age. As he steps into our hallway, he bows slightly, takes off his felt hat, and hangs it on a hook across from the refrigerator.

“Who is the dog’s owner?” he inquires as my mother shows him into the kitchen, where she is already boiling water for tea.

“Marina!” she yells, and my sister appears from her room, where she was pretending to be busy with calculus problems. She is in her senior year of high school, tenth grade, and her future is set. She is guaranteed acceptance at both my mother’s medical school and my father’s technical institute. She doesn’t need to kill her summer cramming for college entrance exams or tremble at the end of August in front of lists of the accepted, pinned to the dank walls of college hallways. In my mother’s words, the future has been served to her on a silver platter.

To Marina’s surprise, Ivan Sergeevich stands up from his chair and shakes her hand. She is even more startled when he addresses her with the formal pronoun vy reserved for adults and not the casual ty, which is used with children and family members.

He makes small talk about the final exams that are looming in June and asks Marina where she is planning to apply after she graduates from high school.

It is no secret that my sister does not care for either medicine or technology. We all know that what makes her heart melt is standing on the stage of her school’s auditorium, her voice projected and her soul transformed by tragedy from the pages of Chekhov, or Gorky, or some other important playwright whose name I haven’t yet learned.

For a second she hesitates, not knowing if she should reveal the truth in front of this stranger, but Ivan Sergeevich calls her vy one more time and smiles so openly that she glances at my mother and bites her lip. “I want to be an actress,” she says looking at her feet. “I want to apply to drama school.”

My mother, busy pouring boiling water from a kettle into a small porcelain pot filled with tea essence, stops and drills her eyes into Marina, who is still staring at her feet with such concentration that I creep out of the hallway to see if anything extraordinary has attached itself to her slippers.

Ivan Sergeevich becomes agitated, as though this is the best piece of news he has heard in a long time. “I can help you, dear girl,” he exclaims enthusiastically, pressing his hands together in front of his chest as if begging Marina to take advantage of his offer. “I have a wonderful old friend, an actress, who could listen to you read. She can tell you if your talent is suitable for theater. She can advise you on what pieces would work especially well.” He names the actress and Marina stops examining her shoes and looks up. It is a name she has heard many times, first on the radio in the old Ivanovo house, and later in Leningrad, a name attached to a voice that delivers a story every day at three, for which Marina sometimes skips the last period of school.

He gives Marina the name and the telephone number, oblivious of my mother’s ominous teacup clinking and tensed back as she roots in the cupboard for a jar with strawberry jam. My mother has brought the good dishes from the other room, the set with rosebuds and a golden stripe that makes its appearance on the table only when we have guests, and we drink tea with slices of bread loaded with butter and jam while Ivan Sergeevich explains the steps in the breeding process. When we finish, he carefully sweeps breadcrumbs off the oilcloth into his palm and offers it to Major, who all this time has been waiting for a handout under the table. Then we all crowd into the hallway, and as Ivan Sergeevich reaches for his hat, my mother pulls him back into the kitchen and shuts the door.

My sister and I stand under the coat hooks, hiding in the folds of wool and crinkly raincoats, unable to hear anything but the hum of voices. I try to breathe very quietly in order not to test Marina’s patience. She wouldn’t normally let me share such a moment with her, but now, intent on unbraiding the strands of two voices behind the kitchen door, she tolerates my presence.

When the door finally opens, we skitter into Marina’s room and peek through a crack between the hinges. Ivan Sergeevich, looking uneasy, aims a little smile toward my mother, who unbolts the front door with aggressive efficiency.

The next day Marina calls the number, and the actress gives her a date for a reading. My sister’s face burns with the same feverish energy I see in my friend Genka’s face when he comes up with another plan to outsmart Aunt Polya.

“This is nothing but childish blabber,” says my father at supper, smoking the last of today’s pack of Belomors, annoyed at the noise my mother makes rattling the silverware in the sink. His head hurts, he says, because Uncle Volodya, his chauffeur, couldn’t fix his twelve-year-old Pobeda today, and he had to take a bus and hang out of its doors with other commuters like a bunch of grapes. He stubs out the cigarette and gets up. “This actress, whoever she is, will yawn through a couple of poems and send her home.”

I’m glad Marina cannot hear this since she is with her school drama club tonight.

“Maybe it’s all for the best,” sighs my mother, as she picks up a rag and starts drying the dishes. “Maybe she needs to be told by an actress that a theatrical career is out of the question. Like my mamochka always says, everything that happens, happens for the best.” A diminutive mamochka, which she uses instead of mama, sounds strange to me since I can’t imagine my wide, ancient grandma as anything miniature or slight. My grandma’s philosophy sounds strange, too: if everything happened for the best, why are there so many things around that aren’t so good?

All week I hear Marina practicing in her room, reciting and singing. Loudly and with inspiration she reads Lermontov’s “Sailboat” and Paustovsky’s “Basket with Pinecones.” Leaning on her door, I try to memorize the lines so I can repeat them later for my friend Genka in the same tragic and melancholy voice, a voice destined for somber theater audiences wrapped in velvet and furs.

After the audition, my mother receives a phone call. She tells my father about it while Marina is sent out to the bakery, but this time the kitchen door is open a crack, and hiding in the tangle of coats, I hear every word. The actress called her at work, at the faculty room of the anatomy department since we don’t have a phone at home. For about five minutes, under the gaze of a bored pathology professor, my mother heard about Marina’s outstanding talent. You must understand, the actress said, that she has a gift for acting. You must allow her to go to drama school.

My mother reports that she felt angry to hear the judgment that instantly shattered the family’s plans and legitimized, to an extent, such an unworthy profession as acting. But at the same time she can’t deny she felt something that resembled pride. For a minute, while the actress went on praising Marina’s innate gift, the anger and the pride bumped against each other, with pride unexpectedly taking the upper hand. My mother said “Thank you” and hung up.

When Marina returns home with a loaf of bread, she goes directly to the kitchen and starts setting the table. She doesn’t usually set the table unless she is told, but she knows the actress is going to call mother any day now, so she is being preemptively helpful and sweet.

My mother watches her move across the scuffed linoleum, swing open the cupboard doors, and take out four plates.

“Elena Vladimirovna telephoned me today,” she says, calling the actress by her name and patronymic, the only way an adult can be addressed in the presence of a child. “You’re going to Moscow,” she says. Marina’s hand stops in midair and drops a fork on the floor. My sister has a stupid expression on her face, a look you should never show, a look I would never let Aunt Polya see—half confusion, half fear. Maybe she thinks she’s being punished for having publicly revealed her ambition to be an actress. Maybe she thinks she did so badly at the audition that the actress has recommended that she be banished from Leningrad altogether.

“To Moscow?” she stammers out.

“Yes, to Moscow,” my mother says impatiently, not wanting to repeat the words she wasn’t happy to say in the first place. “Elena Vladimirovna said you should go to the best school there is, and Leningrad drama school is not that good.”

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