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A. Molotkov

My youth in the USSR is all about silence, the suppression of opinions.

Life has a more pronounced performative aspect, with things you say vs. things you know and think. You criticize the government only in private settings. Elsewhere, you praise it. This performance is understood as the government’s untruth, not one’s own. It’s produced in jest in order to comply with the regime.

I’ve always assumed that outside official institutions such as work or school, communication is sincere. Russians are passionate about their beliefs and don't hesitate to express them. I’m the same way. Opinionated people are just fine by me as long as they acknowledge the legitimacy of other opinions.


It’s 1976. I’m eight, and the drawing class at school is my least favorite; a stray cat has more skill than I. The classroom is tall ceilings, bright second floor windows, shabby wooden desks, chairs that have held many tons of Soviet children. I crack up at the sight of the monstrosities that appear on paper when I draw an apple, a bird. Another kid in class seems to treat drawing with similar humor. Next time, I sit next to him. His name is Vadim.

Soon, we produce silly shapes on purpose: mutant birds with squashed heads advancing ironic ornithology, apples a reasonable worm would avoid. As we share these artifacts of visual depravity, we can't constrain laughter. The teacher does what teachers do – she separates us.


When thinking and feeling become more important in our teenage years, Vadim and I get even closer. Few of my classmates seem as intelligent or as interested in books. The white ping-pong ball tracks a jagged trajectory over the table as we spend hours arguing about people and books, our own habits and motivations.

“Do you think Pechorin is a positive character?” one of us may ask, referring to Mikhail Lermontov’s protagonist in A Hero of Our Time, the world’s first psychological novel.

“Mostly good. He’s sincere; he does what he believes in.”

“But he hurts people who don't deserve it.”

Vadim introduces the rule: to read first, postponing the homework – this way, parents can't force you to go to bed. We spend hours together, then hours on the phone. We both stay up until 1 or 2 a.m. despite the early morning horror of school looming over us.

Twice a week, we take the subway to our math group at the Palace of Young Pioneers, formerly Anichkov Palace. The subway flies under the great city of Leningrad. The Palace is an elegant baroque building started by a Russian architect and finished by the famous Francesco Rastrelli. It’s a vast, imposing structure with alternating four-story and two-story sections. It’s like the Soviet system itself, with its massive weight and its refined, purely decorative details.

In later years, Vadim and I are burned out on math and often opt for the high-quality Stiga ping-pong table inside the Palace. Vadim is brilliant and fascinating – the funniest person I know. He’s confident and good-looking – but unsettled in himself, which shows up in his irritability, his tendency to debate the minute degrees of responsibilities we must share, such as who should carry the bag with the ping pong net.

“Levin is a fake character,” I reference Anna Karenina. “It’s impossible to imagine a real person doing and saying those things.”

“Nonsense!” Vadim smirks contemptuously.

“It’s not nonsense. He’s an ideological character, employed specifically to…”

“By the way, you said the same about Pierre in War and Peace,” Vadim interrupts. “You said he was fake – but he’s the central character, supposedly based on Tolstoy himself.”

“You interrupted again. Besides, Tolstoy was a fairly fake person.”

Vadim argues about Tolstoy, letting go of the Pierre sub-thread. His disrespectful debate can be infuriating. We are trained early in life to vacate a seat for the elders, to say thank you, to avoid interrupting. Why is Vadim exempt? I’m surprised he doesn't exert the effort to train himself out of his negative habits. I often appeal to him to change his ways, and he doesn't deny my points – but his own thoughts seem to occupy him so completely that often, he is simply unable to focus on what others have to say.

There are few brilliant people in my vicinity – I put up with his faux pas.


In April 1986, I’m at the end of my first year at Leningrad State. This spring has a sinister flavor in my life. I’m eighteen, and college students are denied military draft deferment, something to do with the war in Afghanistan verging on perpetuity, as any war in that region tends to do. Stories of coffins transported back to Russia are beginning to circulate; we can only imagine the victim