Remaining Light

Pola Shreiber

© Copyright 2023 by Pola Shreiber

Palace_Square,_Coat_of_arms_of_Russia,_Saint_Petersburg,_Russia.  Courtesy of Wilimedia Commons.
Palace Square, Coat of arms of Russia, St. Petersburg, Russia.  Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

I came from a different world, a forgone era dismantled brick by brick and condemned unanimously by humanity—Soviet Russia. And yet, Russia was the world of my childhood and my youth, the world that formed me.

I grew up in St. Petersburg, a majestic city built at the dawn of the 18th century by the Russian tsar Peter the Great and situated in the delta of river Neva. Exquisite architecture adorned the streets. Numerous bridges were cast over the waterways; like long elegant fingers, they held the city in their grasp.

My family didn’t live in the original part of St. Petersburg. Our neighborhood was built in the late fifties by the Soviets when the city was called Leningrad. Rectangular five-story apartment complexes invaded the landscape with oppressive uniformity, broken up and brightened by large courtyards with shade trees, benches, and playgrounds.

We lived in a three-room apartment shared by three families. The distribution of “living spaces” in Leningrad was done by one of the official agencies: Zhil Control. The agency's philosophy was to mix “Intelligentsia” with “Working Class.” Intelligentsia was to learn to live with regular workers, “the building blocks of Soviet Society.” Ironically, the Filatovs, the largest and the only blue-collar family in our apartment occupied the smallest room.

All three families shared a kitchen. There was one stove, one sink, and three small sets of counters with cabinets above them. Each cabinet represented a family’s lifestyle and tastes. We all shared a single bathroom. Like the kitchen, there were three tiny shelves with toiletries, three soap dishes by the sink, and three racks of towels. There was often a line, especially in the morning. Every family had to clean the common areas, such as the hallway, kitchen, and bathroom, according to an agreed schedule. My Mother always hired Zina (our blue-color neighbor) to clean for her. Zina did so gladly; she needed an extra income. So much for the classless society.

I loved playing with Filatov’s children—Tanya and Alic. We would take turns riding my tricycle in the apartment hallway, careful not to run into a rickety table with a communal telephone and three separate tattered phone books. None of us had many toys to play with, but we had each other. I didn’t know to be unhappy.

I was a late child. My Mother was 40 years old when she was finally able to conceive.
The siege women are finally getting pregnant,” the doctors said.
They spoke of the survivors of the Siege of Leningrad during World War Two. My Mother was one of them. Germans surrounded the city cutting off all supplies, no food, no water, no heat. One hundred twenty-five grams of “bread” per person per day was the ration, a little black square that had fit in one’s palm.
It wasn’t really bread,” my Mother said once. “Mostly sawdust.”
The Siege lasted 872 days. One million people died.

My Mother was a striking woman, tall and athletically built, with bright green eyes and jet-black hair. She worked as a costume designer at Leningrad Film Studio and was known for her strength and relentless determination. One felt either very safe with my Mother or constantly threatened, as if about to be crushed. For me, it was always both. I had to develop a great deal of ferocity and stamina to evolve and claim my life as an individual separate from her.

My father, Beno, was very different from my Mother. He was a retired film director, handsome, and a great success with women in his younger years. At 55, Beno retained all of his aristocratic elegance and impeccable taste. His documentaries won many awards, which meant little to my father, and so did career advancement. It drove my Mother crazy.

For me, my father was kindness and warmth. Nothing was more comforting than to have my little hand cradled in his large, soft, and warm hand.

One flight up the stairs lived our friends Mitya and Tanya Tolstoy. Mitya was a talented composer and a professor at the Leningrad Conservatory. They had a son, Denis. Mitya was a Count and the son of Alexei Tolstoy, a writer whose body of work was a required study for classical literature. Alexei Tolstoy was a cousin of Leo Tolstoy. The family whose collective talent greatly impacted world culture was a part of our daily life.

Another flight up on the third floor lived a much-celebrated actor, Igor Dmitriev, and his family. They had a son Liosha. Liosha, Denis, and I didn’t just play together; we lived together, from one apartment to another, to the park-like courtyard just outside the building. We went to the same English school, the same summerhouses, and the same winter resorts exclusive to the members of the Soviet cultural elite. We were family.

The days in our room in apartment #4 were often spent in a haze of cigarette smoke with my Mother—on the sofa—reading, my father—playing chess with Mitya, and me doing homework.

After a game of chess, Mitya often wandered to the piano. What remarkable music his large hands gave birth to! For the length of time he played, my world existed only in sound. He was majestic.

Another frequent visitor was my father’s friend, Grigori, a well-known children’s writer. He was a man of restless energy with a disobedient mop of chestnut curls bouncing relentlessly on his head. He was also a friend of my favorite poet at the time, Arseni Tarkovsky, who enchanted me with a unique style, unusual imagery, and unexpected rhythm. Arseni’s son, Andrei, was a film director. His work was unusual, highly stylized, visually stunning, and powerful. As I watched Andrei Tarkovsky’s films in the darkened cinema, I always had a profound sense of being inside a world of true, transcendent art. Arseni Tarkovsky’s poems were threaded through all of his films.
“You like Arseni’s poems? How wonderful. He will be delighted when I tell him,” Grigori said casually when he learned how much I admired Arseni Tarkovsky’s work. I found it doubtful that a poetic giant like Tarkovsky would be waiting for praise from a 14-year-old girl.

And yes, even as a child, I knew I lived a privileged life in one of the smoked filled rooms of apartment #4. I was surrounded by people who have a place in world history, and their influence is potent.
In September of 1977, I found myself, a first-year student, in the halls of The Institute of Theater, Music, and Cinema. Words like “adult,” “individual,” and “responsibility” were suddenly ringing all around me. I tasted them, turned them over in my mind, tried them on. I felt awkward, as if wearing someone else’s clothes, pretending the fit was perfect.

The Institute of Theater, Music, and Cinema was a prestigious institution; only a select few were admitted each year. I got lucky. I was eighteen, fresh out of high school, a tall, slender girl, neither beautiful nor ugly, the youngest in class. That year I met Nikita.

We were both part of the Department of Art and Design. Nikita was several years older—mature, knowledgeable, and talented. Our professors greatly anticipated his arrival. “A student is transferring from the renowned Muhin Art Institute. He is amazingly skilled,” I heard the hushed whispers.

The first time I watched Nikita cross the courtyard on the way to our art studio, I knew he was the one I wanted to know, the one I wanted to discover. Nikita had an air of mysterious elegance: long black hair, small goatee, slightly slanted, deep brown eyes. He was tall and slender with a self-assured gait. Nikita was the son of a Russian diplomat who lived for some years in Paris. Nikita had traveled with him beyond the iron curtain, a privilege none of us could even dream of possessing. He knew everything about the West.

“You know, in the West, they eat cake with the fork…” Nikita would comment casually as we sat in the commissary between classes.

Who would do such an absurd thing? We all thought. After all, Russians eat their cake with a teaspoon. No one dared to argue.

Nikita also drove the Volga, a government-issued car not available to ordinary citizens. Private cars were rare in Soviet Russia. Almost everyone used public transportation. Young people didn’t have cars, and no one had the Volga except for Nikita—a man of mysterious privilege, worldly intelligence, and original talent.

Halfway through my first semester, we moved. My family finally managed to get a “separate” two-room apartment. The moving day was hectic and exciting. My Mother couldn’t wait to experience the privilege of having a private kitchen and bathroom; by then, neither could my father and I. The apartment was a fourth-floor walk-up that faced the Neva embankment. All windows opened up to the river. From the fourth floor, all one could see was a body of water as strong and commanding as steel.

Nikita lived not far from us in one of the grey-bricked five-story apartment complexes. Sometimes Nikita offered me a ride home from school. How thrilled I was to be in the Volga with this amazing man who knew and understood everything, from art theory to women’s fashion, from the ways of the Western world to the best toy stores in St. Petersburg.
One day Nikita offered to work with me on a class assignment. Each of us had to design a set for a fairy tale. I agreed. I didn’t know what to expect or how to behave, whether to wear something nice or casual. I ended up in jeans and a sweater, as I always did. Later I learned that Nikita had very particular views on women’s fashion. According to him, to look attractive, women must always wear high heels and floor-length skirts. I never complied.

We ended up at his apartment. Nikita’s room was crowded and unkempt. An old piano in need of dusting stood in the corner. To my surprise, I didn’t see many art supplies or drawings. A small easel displayed a blank sheet of watercolor paper. A large fish tank was the centerpiece of the room. Nikita threw his coat down and pointed to the sofa bed. I sat down and looked at the fish swimming in circles. They were gold and orange with long black trailing fins.

“If you look long enough at the movement and color of water and fish somehow intermixed, you begin to feel warm. No matter how cold it may be in the room,” Nikita said.
I nodded, not sure what to say. The walls of the room were painted white, which was highly unusual since every living space in Russia was usually wallpapered.
“You painted the walls white,” I said.

“No one wallpapers in the West,” Nikita replied.
The painting above the piano drew my attention. It was a portrait of a middle-aged woman sitting calmly with her hands folded on her lap. She was looking in the distance. Her face showed the harshness and determination of a hard life lived, but her hands remained relaxed and gentle.
“It’s my mother,” said Nikita. “I painted this portrait when I was still in Muchino.”
The painting was beautiful, stylized, and alive with character and color, a testament to his artistry and skill. I possessed neither in comparison.

Nikita brought us two cups of tea. I had never drunk anything so strong and bitter, but I didn’t dare to complain. We started sketching. Nikita glanced at my drawing and frowned. “Let me show you,” he insisted and quickly took over, sketching with strong masculine strokes, furiously filling one page after the other with different concepts. “This one, this one is perfect. Show it in class tomorrow.” He pushed the drawing towards me.

Nikita seemed to love working on my assignment better than his own. I didn’t share his enthusiasm. The thought of presenting his ideas as my own was humiliating, no matter how brilliant his concepts might be. It was my work and my journey; however, I struggled. My relationship with Nikita was just beginning. I didn’t want to jeopardize it. It took me a long time to learn how to benefit from Nikita’s talent and knowledge without being trampled by him. That night became one of many for us, staying up late, sometimes all night, drinking unbearably strong tea, sketching, talking, working together so closely.

I delighted in Nikita’s company. He delighted in being with an adoring young girl who hung on to his every word but didn’t depend on him or anyone else to make her happy. Sometimes, when his Volga was in repair, or he simply didn’t feel like driving, Nikita took the bus.

On those days, we walked around the city together. The Institute of Theater Music and Cinema was located in the central part of St. Petersburg, the old city, where each building was an architectural masterpiece and each bridge—a sculpture, a city where every stone bore the energy of millions of lives.

We walked for hours before catching a bus. Sometimes we stopped by Nikita’s friend’s apartment to visit; sometimes, we window-shopped or ran errands. I was happy to go anywhere with Nikita. The world changed color in his presence; long lines, muddy snow, packed buses all acquired depth and significance. When I was with him, the world was unreachable by the mundane.

Nikita never touched me. I wished he did. He never made me feel unsafe. I wanted to feel unsafe. I wanted to understand what this relationship meant to him. I never knew and didn’t dare ask. Meaningful words were not a part of our language.

Later that winter, the theater department organized a party at our college. There was a lot of dancing. Nikita loved to dance, and so did I. We danced any time there was music, no matter how big or small the space was. One of our ex-classmates, Katya, showed up at the party. She insisted Nikita dance with her and refused to take no for an answer. I was left alone for some time. A young man I remembered from one of our previous parties approached me.

“Hey, remember me?” He smiled and pushed an unruly lock of blond hair out of his face, “Andrei, Ira’s brother. I was hoping to run into you today! Want to dance?” he asked.

“Sure,” I said and followed him to the floor. Andrei was a great dancer, fun, upbeat, with a refreshing energy about him. We danced and talked, enjoying each other’s company. The room was getting stuffy, and I decided to step outside in the courtyard. Andrei followed me.

The night was cold and fresh; snow enveloped my shoes. I walked toward the cleared path on the darkened side of the courtyard. Suddenly I felt Andrei’s arms holding my shoulders. His soft, moist lips touched mine; his breath gently warmed my face. I stepped back in surprise.
“I am sorry,” I said. “I have to go inside.” Andrei reluctantly let me pass.
I took a couple of steps and looked back. Andrei stood in the middle of the courtyard, tall, handsome, still smiling at me with bright blue eyes—a young man every girl should want for a boyfriend. I turned away and walked toward the building. A feeling of loss suddenly overwhelmed me.

When the party was over, Nikita and I decided to walk home. It was late, and the city was silent.
“I can’t believe Katya showed up just to pester me all night,” Nikita said suddenly. I didn’t answer. Nikita stopped abruptly, pulled me close, and kissed me. The kiss was violent. I felt like I was marked as his property, and no intruder was allowed to claim my affection, not even for one night. Nikita said nothing for the rest of the way. My lips were bruised the next day. I didn’t confuse it for love.

I knew what love was. I loved plenty. I loved my city, especially when it was covered in snow. How we longed for snow by the end of autumn-the magic shift of the world to pure white. How breathtaking were the sunsets that changed the white into burning magenta; how rich were the deep blue nights. I was never cold in the winter. I loved the way the world paused respectfully for the forces of nature when the city was still seized by frost.
I lived my life in a wondrous place-my soul.

By the third year of college, Nikita and I shared a circle of friends. We gathered in the evenings in one of the apartments, dancing, drinking wine, and talking. At the end of each party, Nikita and I took the long way home, walking through the crisp winter nights. We didn’t speak; we didn’t look at each other. It felt natural to be together. It felt restful. When we reached my house, Nikita nodded goodbye, turned around, and walked away. The night took him in, draping a soft white curtain of snow between us.

There were days when Nikita disappeared. He didn’t show up for classes or call me. I never stopped my life for him. I worked on my projects or spent time with my friends. However, in the evening, I waited for the call that would bring me Nikita’s voice. Eventually, the phone always rang.

I lost my father in December, during my fourth year of college. He died suddenly of a heart attack while visiting an old friend in Poland. My quiet, gentle father simply stepped out of my life. That winter was dark, without the sunsets, just a rapid fading of light into black. We were left alone, my Mother and I, in an apartment that was suddenly cold. The wooden floors felt barren, despite the expensive rugs. The windows, with their icy panes of glass, stared blindly into the night. Sunrises never seemed to come.

I fell ill that winter. A heavy weight invaded my chest, and the air tasted thin. I gasped for breath and hoped that the world would come to my rescue. The doctors were perplexed and had nothing to offer. I grew weak and unnaturally thin. Darkness and fear threatened to immobilize me and take over. After a while, I stopped reaching out to the world in the hope of a cure. For the first time, I allowed myself to fully feel and bear the crushing weight of loss, rejection, and loneliness.

I didn’t die. I pushed through the winter and welcomed spring as a rebirth. By sheer miracle, I managed not to fall behind in college. I had one more year to go. I was hopeful and determined about the future. However, the events of the dark winter took a toll on my Mother. She grew restless and wanted a change.

“There is nothing left for me here,” she would say, restyling yet another garment. By then, at the age of 62, my Mother was retired from the film studio and found herself in a void. My father’s death marked the end of the era, the era of her youth, challenge, and wonderment. However, she was not ready for surrender. There was too much left to conquer for my ever-youthful, ever-adventurous Mother.

Inna wanted to immigrate. During Brezhnev’s rule, the iron curtain had a small gap. Jewish families were allowed to immigrate to Israel. Being Jewish in Soviet Russia had nothing to do with religion; it was strictly a matter of ethnicity. Some said that the loophole was a concession made to the West, others—that, once again, Russia wanted to purge itself of Jews. My Mother, however, was a pure-bred Russian. My father, the only full-blooded Jew in our family, was deceased. I was a half-breed and was against immigration. My life was in my city, surrounded by the friends I loved. Russian land, culture, history, Russian poetic, and rich language were my soul.
“Let it be worse, but in a different puddle,” was my Mother’s slogan as she began a campaign bordering on conspiracy to obtain exit visas. Watching her unyielding determination was frightening and invigorating at the same time. Connecting with the underground emigration movement was dangerous. My Mother didn’t care. It gave her a healthy infusion of life. The fact that Inna wasn’t even allowed to apply didn’t stop her. My objections mattered little. To my Mother, they were childish and absurd. We were not to stay.

I wasn’t worried. I didn’t believe she could succeed.

Summer came and dressed the world in green. Rain transformed the city. Asphalt roads glistened, edged with the lace of white wildflowers. The breeze bore the smell of earth, of grass—of life itself.

The classes were over, but Nikita and I kept spending time together. One night after a boozy gathering, we went to his place. It was late, but the twilight remained. The “White nights” they call this time of summer in St. Petersburg. We were both tired but unwilling to end the night. Nikita sat heavily on the sofa, looking up at me with gentle eyes. I kept standing. There was something helpless about him—his fatigue, his surrender to the late hour, and the forces he no longer had the energy to control. Nikita put his hands on my hips and closed his eyes. I didn’t stop him. Slowly and carefully, he began undressing me.
You have such beautiful hips,” he said as his eyes explored my body. He touched me slowly, taking in my form, absorbing every inch. I delighted in his surrender, his tenderness, and my complete willingness to bare myself before him. Things changed between us that night. The forces of life were shifting. The world we knew had stepped aside and opened a window—a place to be without guard where the consequences mattered little, a place where we could be together in a moment, a moment that felt like an eternity. I lay my head on Nikita’s chest, hardly believing it was possible to give him all my affection and receive it back. We didn’t have sex, as if afraid to break the delicacy and enchantment of what we now shared. The white nights—the time when evening never fades to night but evolves into a bright new morning, the time when darkness never comes…. The white nights are over by August.

One late evening in early September, as my Mother and I were settled in the living room, the phone rang. Inna went into the hallway to answer. A minute later, she returned. I could see from her expression something had happened.

What is it?” I asked.

“It was AVIR.” She said. “We got permission to leave.”

My Mother later told me I turned white at the news. I stood up and froze. My face also reflected a wild, primal joy.

Instinctively I knew—I just got a ticket to life.

I met Nikita the following week after it was officially confirmed that the visas came through. All my Mother and I had to do was pick them up or not. It was our last chance to turn back.

Nikita and I were driving by one of the oldest parks in the city. The white moist bodies of birch trees leaned over the road. Their green branches moved slowly as if taking deep, labored breaths and exhaled with sad resignation. A warm wind touched my face. Nikita was at the wheel. I wished we could keep driving forever.
“Please stop the car,” I finally heard myself say.
Nikita glanced at me in surprise. “Why?”

“I need you to stop the car. Please…” He slowed down and pulled to the side of the road. The wind stopped, and all I could hear was the hissing tires of passing cars. “We got the final permission.”
“I was afraid you would say that,” Nikita started. His hands gripped the steering wheel tighter. “I know right now I am supposed to say, don’t go, I love you, I can’t live without you. But I just can’t. You may ask me, why have you started all this now? And all I can say is that it wasn’t something I could help.”

I listened quietly. There was mercy in this clarity that I never knew before.

“All right,” I said. “I guess that’s all I needed to hear.”
I looked straight ahead at the long stretch of road. Nikita started the car, and we drove on. Thank you. I thought, for the strength and decency to be so honest.

I wasn’t sad. I felt strangely free.

Weeks went by, filled with the methodical demolition of the life my Mother and I knew. We were not allowed to take much with us; a couple of suitcases, a portfolio of my work (thank God), and $100 each. All our possessions were given away. The phone call we received that September evening turned everything we owned into ash.

The fall came, gentle as a whisper. The leaves turned red and gold, slowly falling at my feet, laying a soft carpet for my every step. The weather was unusually warm. The “women’s” summer, as they called it, the time in a woman’s life right before old age when she becomes radiant and beautiful once again, a farewell to youth. My city was giving me a colorful send-off, celebrating my departure, forgiving me for abandonment, and comforting me with warmth. And so, I marched forward in this flaming beauty of farewell.

Our apartment was always full of people those days: friends, acquaintances, and distant relatives who came to say goodbye. Some were collecting our belongings and removing furniture; some were reminiscing and making our meals. Nikita was there for me no matter what the circumstance or what help was needed, organizing and packing my artwork and driving us around the city to different agencies that demanded yet another document. I don’t remember exactly where we went, who came to the apartment and took what, who gave what advice, or made what meal. There was no room in my soul to track these events, no room for pain or fear or regret, no room to feel at all. I simply moved forward at a strong and steady pace. 

On the evening of our last day in Russia, we had a farewell party. Everything was gone except my Mother’s bed, a makeshift table, and a cot in my room. Everyone who wanted to say goodbye was welcome. People came in a steady stream throughout the day. Igor cried as he did at my father’s funeral. I wasn’t sure if the tears were real or belonged to his refined acting skill.
“Going away… Russian intelligentsia is departing. Who’s going to be left?” Mitya said morbidly. The gathering felt more like a wake than a party. We would never be allowed to return, and I would never see my friends again.
As the last group walked out of the apartment, I noticed Nikita. He lingered awkwardly by the door, watching me, strangely unsure of himself. I was grateful. I took his hand and led him to my room. The space was stripped of all life; just the bare, cold floor and small old cot remained.

Nikita looked at me timidly, “What here? Now?”

“Yes,” I said. “Here. Now”.
I don’t remember how we undressed or whether Nikita undressed me first. Did we kiss? Were we at all tender with each other? All I knew was he was on top of me and inside me. It was not meant to be an act of love or pleasure but a seal on an intangible document confirming yes, it was real, and yes, it was love for both of us, even if for a moment. The narrow cot screeched. The empty room echoed. We were silent. Our bodies moved diligently, fulfilling their duty and completing the task. When it was over, I knew that I had prevailed. Now I could leave and go on. For me, it was closure. Nikita walked to the door and quietly left the apartment.

On the way to the airport, I struggled through the gravity of my every step. Nikita bought me a huge bouquet of what seemed to be every variety of flower ever grown. He tied the stems with a wide silk ribbon. The bouquet was so big that I could barely hold it in my arms. When we reached the lobby, Nikita turned to me.

“Give me your lips,” he said. We kissed in front of everyone. Time stopped as if the world had stepped aside to honor the moment. The lobby where we stood was vast and empty. It contained only us. The crowd did not exist.

The next thing I remember, I was in a long hallway and walking towards the plane, walking away from Nikita and from my whole life. I didn’t need to look back. I felt his glance with every part of my body. I always will.

I sat very still and waited for the plane to move. Every second of time pulsated through my veins. As the roar of the engines shook the air, a cry came out of me, a cry of raw and unabashed grief. Tears rained down, and my body shook. The plane was gaining momentum. With unthinkable speed, everything I knew was falling away. The wings of the airplane cut through the sky, severing my life forever in half.

From that day on, I would live with this duality, looking for a connecting bridge and the courage to walk across it.

This is a story of first love: for a young man, for a magnificent city, and for an incomprehensible country, and the light that transcends despite severance and loss. My life is a complicated journey from the Soviet Union to America that led me to a long career in film and television production in Hollywood. I hold a BFA from the Leningrad Institute of Theatre, Music, and Cinematography and an MFA from the California Institute of the Arts.

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