Copyright 2023 by Pola Shreiber
Palace Square, Coat of arms of Russia, St. Petersburg, Russia. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
was a late child.
My Mother was 40 years old when she was finally able to conceive.
women are finally getting pregnant,” the doctors said.
spoke of the
survivors of the Siege
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
really bread,” my Mother said once. “Mostly sawdust.”
Siege lasted 872
days. One million people died.
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
father, Beno, was
very different from my Mother. He was a retired film director,
handsome, and a great success with women in his younger
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.
me, my father
was kindness and warmth. Nothing was more
comforting than to
have my little hand cradled in his large, soft, and warm
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.
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
the members of the Soviet cultural elite. We were family.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
“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.
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
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
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.
lived not far
from us in one of the
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
theory to women’s fashion, from the ways of the Western world
to the best toy stores in St. Petersburg.
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
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.
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.
the walls white,” I said.
one wallpapers in the West,” Nikita replied.
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.
my mother,” said Nikita. “I painted this portrait when I
was still in Muchino.”
beautiful, stylized, and alive with character and color, a testament
to his artistry and skill. I possessed neither in comparison.
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.
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
Nikita’s company. He delighted in being with an
adoring young girl who hung on to his every word but
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.
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.
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
The world changed color in his presence;
lines, muddy snow, packed buses all acquired depth and significance.
When I was with him, the world was unreachable by the mundane.
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.
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
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.
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.
I said and followed him to the floor.
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.
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
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
the party was
over, Nikita and I decided to walk home. It was late, and the city
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.
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.
lived my life in a
wondrous place-my soul.
the third year of
college, Nikita and I shared a circle of friends. We
gathered in the evenings
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
walked away. The night took him in, draping a soft white curtain of
snow between us.
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
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.
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 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.
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.
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,
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
“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
worried. I didn’t believe she could succeed.…
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.
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.
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
where we could be together in a moment,
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.…
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.
AVIR.” She said. “We got permission to leave.”
Mother later told
me I turned white at the news. I stood up and froze. My face also
reflected a wild, primal joy.
knew—I just got a
ticket to life.…
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.
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.
the car,” I finally heard myself say.
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.
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.”
There was mercy in this clarity that I never knew before.
I said. “I guess that’s all I needed to hear.”
ahead at the long stretch of road. Nikita started the car, and we
drove on. Thank you. I thought, for the
decency to be so honest.
I felt strangely free.…
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.
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.…
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
forward at a strong and steady pace.
the evening of
our last day in Russia, we
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.
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,
I would never see my friends again.
the last group
walked out of the apartment, I noticed Nikita. He
lingered awkwardly by the door, watching me, strangely
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.
looked at me
timidly, “What here? Now?”
I said. “Here. Now”.
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.
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
The lobby where we stood was vast and empty. It contained only us.
The crowd did not exist.
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
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,
I knew was falling away. The wings of the airplane cut through the
sky, severing my life forever in half.
that day on, I
would live with this duality, looking for a connecting bridge and the
courage to walk across it.
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
of the message
won't know where to send it.)
Preservation Foundation, Inc., A Nonprofit Book Publisher