FOR SERYOZHA, 1985 was the year his family was reunited.* Seryozha was three years old, and for as long as he had known, his family had been divided: he had an older sister, whom his parents missed very much, and so Seryozha missed her too, though he was not sure he had ever seen her. She lived very far away, in Canada, with Seryozha’s grandfather. Seryozha’s parents had chosen to send her to Canada; it was an opportunity for a better life for her, but the separation seemed to weigh heavily. Now she would come home, because Seryozha’s grandfather was being allowed to return to the Soviet Union. He had been living in Canada as the Soviet ambassador. For someone like Seryozha’s grandfather, this was exile. That is what he called it: “political exile.”

Alexander Nikolaevich Yakovlev was a strange Communist bird. Raised in rural central Russia outside the city of Yaroslavl, he first learned of the Party as the all-powerful monster that punished the needy and the hungry: women in his village were jailed for digging potatoes out of the already frozen soil of collective farm fields, where they had been abandoned after a poorly managed harvest. He was not yet eighteen when he was drafted in August 1941. At the front he saw that the Communists were the bravest, most dedicated soldiers. He joined the Party. He was severely wounded and survived. Before the war was over, he was given an opportunity to go to college. He shared a dorm room with four other disabled veterans. One of them had books of poetry by Sergei Yesenin, who had once written of the beauty of the countryside not far from where Alexander Nikolaevich had grown up. Then Yesenin had led a life of glamour and debauchery, marrying the American dancer Isadora Duncan, traveling to the United States with her, and finally committing suicide in a Leningrad hotel in 1925. His books went out of print shortly after, and for the next quarter century were circulated only surreptitiously. He was too lyrical, too reckless, too human to be Soviet.

Snow-clad is the plain, and the moon is white

Covered with a shroud is my country side.

Birches dressed in white are crying, as I see.

Who is dead, I wonder? Is it really me?1

he had written in the year of his death.

Alexander Nikolaevich was struggling, in a way he could not yet put into words, with the idea of what—and who—was and was not Soviet. Yesenin, who had so eloquently written about his love of Russia and his childhood in its beautiful and impoverished countryside, was somehow not Soviet. Now, as the Red Army was liberating its own citizens from Nazi camps, they were condemned as traitors for having allowed themselves to be captured. Alexander Nikolaevich went to the railroad station to see the cattle cars carrying these inmates from the Nazi camps to the Soviet camps, and he saw women who went there in the hopes of seeing their missing men, if only for a second, and he saw hands throwing crumpled-up pieces of paper out of the cattle cars—these contained their names and addresses and the hope that someone would let their loved ones know they were alive.

Alexander Nikolaevich wondered how this could possibly be right. But the Party was very good to him. It gave him an education and started rapidly pulling him up the career ladder. Alexander Nikolaevich set his doubts aside. By the time Stalin died in 1953, Alexander Nikolaevich was a member of the Central Committee. As soon as the leader died, some of his most recent decisions were reversed: a giant planned show trial was scrapped, and the relatives of some of the members of the Party elite were released from the Gulag. In 1956, at the twentieth congress of the Soviet Communist Party, the new Party secretary, Nikita Khrushchev, condemned Stalin as an unworthy successor to Lenin, applied to his rule the damning Marxist term “cult of personality,” and disavowed mass arrests and executions.2 This was when Alexander Nikolaevich lost his ability to reconcile the Party line and his long-shelved doubts. He asked to be released from the Central Committee in order to study Marx and Marxism—first in Moscow and then for a year at Columbia University in New York. The exercise worked, both because he found Marx profoundly compelling and because the United States on the cusp of the McCarthy era and the Cold War hardly seemed like an appealing alternative to the Soviet system. He returned to the Soviet Union to rejoin the Marxist-Leninist effort.

Still, he remained, in increasing contrast to most of the nomenklatura, a thinker. In 1972, Alexander Nikolaevich published an article titled “Against Ahistoricism.” To those who could fight their way through its turgid Soviet language, the article delivered a radical message of protest against what Alexander Nikolaevich saw as the Soviet Union’s growing nationalist conservatism based on the glorification of some imaginary peasant class’s traditional values.3 “Political exile” to Canada was his punishment for publishing it.4 He returned more than a decade later, to become idea man to the new general secretary, Mikhail Gorbachev, in his project of reforming the Party and its country. In December 1985, Alexander Nikolaevich authored a document that proposed radical change:

The main components of perestroika are:

  1. A market economy in which market rates are paid for labor.
  2. The property owner as the agent of freedom.
  3. Democracy and glasnost, which bring with them information accessible to all.
  4. A system of feedback.5

To be sure, his idea of democracy was limited: in a letter to Gorbachev he suggested splitting the Communist Party in two—the Socialist Party and the People’s Democratic Party—that would make up an entity called the Communist Union, which would run the country. He proposed creating the office of a president, who would be nominated by the Communist Union and voted by the people for a ten-year term. He argued that all this needed to be done because the Soviet government needed to try to stay ahead of the curve.6Alexander Nikolaevich predicted the general vector of events accurately. The Communist Party was never split in two, but in a few years, the Soviet Union would hold a series of hybrid elections: nominations were handled from above, and the resulting legislative bodies had a convoluted structure designed to ensure the primacy of the Communist Party, but for the first time in seven decades, Soviet citizens had some choice at the polls. Gorbachev would indeed become the first president of the Soviet Union. He would also be the last, because the project of staying ahead of the curve failed.

It must have been the summer of 1985 or 1986 that Alexander Nikolaevich and Gorbachev spent together at a Party dacha in the Crimea. Seryozha met Ksenia, Gorbachev’s granddaughter, and in another year or two they would spend the summer together at a nomenklatura children’s camp on the Black Sea, but this summer, as the two men talked endlessly about what to do with their country, Seryozha was largely left to his own devices. He roamed the fenced-in grounds, which seemed boundless. He explored buildings that were designed to look like castles and had underground tunnels connecting them. He climbed down into the tunnels. Only later would it occur to Seryozha that the grounds had been heavily guarded and he had been watched at all times. Much later he would wonder, he would obsess, about how much of what he remembered of his childhood was real—whether he was ever really alone, and whether he was ever really loved by the people who surrounded him. Like the cook at his grandfather’s dacha, who seemed to adore little Seryozha—later Seryozha’s sister told him the cook had been a KGB colonel, and this made Seryozha wonder whether the love had been a part of his assignment.

SERYOZHA WAS A GRANDCHILD, not a child, of a top Party functionary, so some of his early life passed in what he thought, then and later, were regular Soviet conditions. His family, like other families, faced shortages of food and other consumer products, from toilet paper to wall paint. Little Seryozha took his turn standing in line with his number written in ballpoint pen on his palm—when lines went on for hours and days, assigning numbers became an additional measure for maintaining self-organization and what passed for fairness. But the place where Seryozha lived with his parents was known in the vernacular as tsarskoye selo—“the Czars’ Village.” The original Tsarskoye Selo—a real place that was officially named the Czar’s Village—was the site of Peter the Great’s summer residence in the early eighteenth century. Under the Soviets, Tsarskoye Selo was renamed Pushkin, for the poet who had been educated there, but the name “the Czars’ Village” began attaching itself to blocks and small neighborhoods that housed the Soviet elites.

The stores here were better stocked, even though they were affected by the shortages. The buildings were better designed and constructed.7 The air was better than anywhere else in the city: the neighborhood in the west of Moscow contained less industry and more parks than any other.8 A state born of protest against inequality had created one of the most intricate and rigid systems of privilege that the world had ever seen. It began when the first Bolsheviks moved themselves into the palaces and the luxury hotels. Within the first few years of Bolshevik Russia’s existence, the main mechanisms of privilege were defined and created. Even before the October Revolution—a few months before—Lenin had written that “the first phase of Communism” would not bring equality for all: “differences in wealth will remain unjust differences.” Just a week after the Revolution, Lenin wrote that highly qualified professionals would need to retain their privileged position “for the time being.” While the idle rich had to be stripped of their possessions, the highly trained had to be enticed to work for the new regime. The Marxist principle of “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need” was replaced with the more pragmatic approach of paying what the state could pay for extracting the maximum from those with high ability. Over the next few years, the list of those whose labor the state valued most highly was established, as were the mechanisms of compensation. The Bolsheviks placed a premium on the “creative intelligentsia,” as it was termed—writers, artists, and, especially, filmmakers—as well as scholars and scientists. Military officers ranked even higher. But most of all, the Bolsheviks valued themselves: privileges and benefits for “political workers” exceeded those of all other groups.

The reasons were not only pragmatic but also ideological. “The leadership of the Soviet Communist Party has, from its early days, been profoundly elitist in its attitudes,” Mervyn Matthews, a British scholar of Soviet society, wrote in the 1970s. “It has regarded itself as an enlightened band which understands the march of history and is destined to lead the Russian people—indeed the whole world—to communism. In daily life it has always ensured for itself and its close associates privileges commensurate with these awesome demands.”9

The Soviet privileged were entitled to higher salaries and a set of additional financial rewards; bigger and better apartments; favored access to consumer goods; and certain education and travel privileges.10 The privileges grew in value and scope during the three decades of Stalin’s rule, as did the wealth gap. In the Khrushchev decade, which saw a giant residential construction push, the gap narrowed slightly, but when Leonid Brezhnev came to power in 1964, the old tendency of growing differentiation resumed.11

Paradoxically, the peculiarities of the Soviet economic system made the borders between differently valued groups of citizens only starker and harder to penetrate. Taxation was minimal, and redistribution of wealth was not its goal.12 Because most of the extra compensation for the privileged was non-monetary, and because all of it was centrally administered, members of a given caste were grouped together socially and geographically. Members of the Politburo lived in the same building as other members of the Politburo, procured consumer goods at the same distribution centers, sent their children to the same schools, got treated at the same clinics, were given plots of land on which to build a wooden dacha—a weekend or summer house—in the same area, and took the waters in the same sanatoriums. The same was true for members of the Academy of Sciences, who had their own special infrastructure, and for members of any of the “creative unions,” such as those of the writers, artists, or cinematographers.

The quality of the construction and the comfort level of apartments varied from building to building: members of the Politburo were granted more square meters per family member but also larger windows, higher ceilings, and flooring made of harder wood. Academics got less, “creatives” less than that, engineers less still. Menial laborers often lived in dormitory rooms with linoleum flooring and shared bathroom facilities.

Those at the very top, whether out of a sense of shame or a residual longing for the security of a fortress, shielded their lives behind tall solid fences. Alexander Galich, the dissident singer-songwriter, had a song called “Beyond Seven Fences.” Its narrator, an ordinary Soviet citizen, encounters the fences that surround the Communist leaders’ estates and begins to fantasize about what the fences conceal: fresh, untrampled grass, clean air, hard-to-find chocolate-mint candy, birds of different kinds, shish kebab consumed in the security of knowing the fence is guarded, and at night, to top it all off, “they show films about whores.” The narrator cannot take it anymore, heads back to the city, and the whole way back, he is subjected to a lecture extolling Soviet egalitarianism, broadcast over the train’s radio system. He thinks of the leaders again: “Back there, beyond the seven fences, / Behind the seven locks, / they don’t have to listen to this lecture, / they can just eat their shish kebab.” The imagination painted a picture of the ultimate Soviet privilege: living in material comfort—and watching Hollywood films instead of listening to the leaders’ own propaganda.13

Much of Seryozha’s life passed behind the fences. On weekends, a black government Volga—the top model among Soviet-made cars—equipped with flashing lights that entitled it to ignore traffic regulations carried Seryozha’s family out of the city. They took Rublyovskoye Shosse, a smooth and narrow road effectively reserved for use by the Soviet elites. The Volga turned off at Kalchuga, a village of solid fences. An automatic gate would open in one of them, and the car would drive onto the grounds of a government dacha reserved for the use of Alexander Nikolaevich. On weekdays, a similar Volga carried Seryozha to a different fence along the same road. This was a preschool for the offspring of the very top of the Soviet elite—a cut above the Central Committee preschool to which Masha’s mother had bought access. In the city, the building in which Alexander Nikolaevich lived served as its own fence: it was a city block in which all entrances faced a large courtyard. Uniformed men guarded the gates between the building and the outside world. Seryozha found the men interesting and tried to charm them by talking to them. He knew he was charming—everyone said so, everyone agreed that he was wonderfully cute and fat and blond. But he could never get so much as a smile out of the men.


LYOSHA GREW UP not quite at the opposite end of the Soviet class spectrum from Seryozha but at a great, unbridgeable remove. His family, too, had privilege, and Lyosha was aware of this growing up. His grandfather, a collective farmer, had had a local Party career. This would have meant several years of added pay for serving a term in the regional Soviet, a putative legislative body, and, later, some informal privileges of access. When he died in 1978, at the age of sixty or so, he had a bit more than others in the village: he left his family a cow. His widow, Lyosha’s grandmother, sold the cow a couple of years later so that one of her five children could go to university in Perm, the nearest big city. Higher education in the Soviet Union was free, and students who had consistently high grades received a monthly stipend, yet with the food shortages, and the shortages of most other things one needed for living, no young person could reasonably expect to survive without help from home.

Lyosha’s mother, Galina, the fourth-born and the smartest of her siblings, was lucky to get the help. Her older brother had gone to a military college after his compulsory service, but their mother had not had the money to send any of the rest to university or even so much as to help them leave the village. Two sisters married out, though both would soon be widowed. Then there was the cow, and the sale of the cow, and Galina went to Perm. After university she became a history teacher. She did not have to move back to the village: she was assigned to work in the town of Solikamsk, where, as a teacher, she qualified for a room and later even a small apartment of her own.

Solikamsk was one of the oldest settlements in the Urals: salt was mined there starting in the fifteenth century. In the 1930s and 1940s the town swelled with labor camps: tens of thousands of inmates were brought in from elsewhere in Russia and, later, from the occupied Baltic states and from defeated Germany.14 By the time Galina came here in the late 1970s, the camps were gone but the town, like so many Soviet towns, seemed bloated: many of its roughly hundred thousand residents lived like temporary settlers, in makeshift accommodations.

By the age of thirty-one, Galina was working as the vice-principal of a trade school and seeing the principal of another trade school in town. He was married. She became pregnant and planned to have an abortion. It would not have been her first, and this was normal: in the absence of methods for pregnancy prevention—hormonal contraceptives were unavailable in the Soviet Union and condoms were of abominable quality and in short supply—abortion was a common contraception method. In 1984, the year Galina became pregnant, there were nearly twice as many abortions in Russia as there were births.15 There was nothing shameful about having an abortion, so there was no reason to keep the plan secret: Galina’s family knew, and her brother-in-law talked her out of it. He pointed out the obvious: she was over thirty, still unmarried, and if she had an abortion this time, she might never have a child at all. Statistically speaking, he was right: more than 90 percent of Russian women were married by age thirty,16 and few had children after that age.17

Galina agreed. She would keep the baby and raise him alone. This, too, was an ordinary path. For decades now, the Soviet Union had been trying, and failing, to recover from the catastrophic population loss caused by the Second World War and the Gulag extermination system. The thrust of the population policies initiated by Khrushchev was to get as many women as possible to have children by the comparatively few surviving men. The policies dictated that men who fathered children out of wedlock would not be held responsible for child support but the state would help the single mother both with financial subsidies and with childcare: she could even leave the child at an orphanage for any length of time, as many times as she needed, without forfeiting her parental rights. The state endeavored to remove any stigma associated with resorting to the help of orphanages, or with single motherhood and having children out of wedlock. Women could put down a fictitious man as the father on the child’s birth certificate—or even name the actual father, without his having to fear being burdened with responsibility. “The new project was designed to encourage both men and women to have non-conjugal sexual relationships that would result in procreation,” writes historian Mie Nakachi.18 When Galina’s son was born on May 9—Victory Day—1985, she gave him her own last name, Misharina, and the patronymic Yurievich, to indicate that his father’s name was Yuri. Lyosha’s full official name was thus Alexei Yurievich Misharin.

Galina became the principal at what was called a “correctional school.” The name was misleading: the school was less a correctional facility than the state’s attempt to compensate for any number of things that had gone terribly wrong with its students. Correctional schools were created to serve children deemed incapable of succeeding in mainstream schools. Most of these schools provided boarding during the week or year-round; some had special services for children with disabilities.

Galina worked at a correctional school of the most common type—the type for children whose parents failed to take care of them, often because they drank. Her students came from the neighborhood that lay between Lyosha’s childhood block and the school: while he and Galina lived in a regular concrete-block building, this neighborhood was made up of wooden barracks left over from when the Gulag exploded Solikamsk’s population. They called it the barachnyi district. Walking through it, as Galina did on her way to and from work six days a week, was considered dangerous; she carried a knife to protect herself. Sometimes she had to take Lyosha with her to the barachnyi district, usually when she was looking for a student who had gone missing. Lyosha found the barracks impressive and terrifying. The ceilings looked like they might cave in. There was a stench that was stronger and more offensive than anything he had ever smelled. Most of the inhabitants, including the parents with whom Galina occasionally had long conversations, were drunk. Lyosha was aware that this was somehow a function of poverty. He also made a mental connection between poverty and the word “suicide,” which Galina used with some regularity when talking about her students. Other words included “pregnancy” and “alcohol” and, later, “drugs.” These were children—older than Lyosha but children nonetheless, she made this clear—who drank, got pregnant, and killed themselves. Lyosha understood that the fact that these words did not apply to his and Galina’s world was a function of privilege.

One did not have to go to the barachnyi district to see extreme poverty: it was found on Lyosha and Galina’s block as well. A woman who lived one door down drank heavily, and her kids went to the correctional school. Some nights she passed out and the kids were locked out. Those nights, they often slept on Galina’s landing—Lyosha figured they chose it because they knew she would not hurt them. Unfortunately, this meant that some mornings when Galina opened the door to take Lyosha to preschool the landing stank: the children went to the bathroom there. Eventually, in the 1990s, the building’s residents installed a lock on the front door, to keep these and other interlopers out.

Lyosha’s preschool days were long: he was dropped off at six, before his mother walked the half hour to her own school, and was often not picked up until ten, when only the night guards remained on the grounds. This was just the way it had to be, because Galina was raising Lyosha alone, she had a demanding job, and her own mother lived too far away to help on a daily basis. Galina told Lyosha that his father lived in the big city of Perm, where she had gone to university. Perm was 120 kilometers* away, but for how often people went there, it may as well have been a thousand miles. Sometimes, a nice man stopped by and spent time with them. Galina told Lyosha to call him Uncle Yura.

When Lyosha was about three, Galina started to have the television turned on at all times. Sometimes she sat down in front of the black-and-white set and watched for hours as gray men on the screen did nothing but talk, occasionally raising their voices. Galina talked to Lyosha about the men—she seemed to have personal relationships with them—and there was tension in what was happening on-screen, a sense of earnestness and importance, so it was not boring. Lyosha learned some names, including Gorbachev, who was the most important. He had a large mark on his forehead, and Lyosha’s cousin, who was quite a bit older, told Lyosha that it was a map of the USSR because Gorbachev was the president. When Lyosha told Galina that, she laughed and said it was just a birthmark. She had to be right, but the cousin would not hear of it. Galina took Lyosha to the polls, explaining that it was their “civic duty.” What exactly their civic duty was, was unclear, but Lyosha liked voting because the precinct was decorated with red cloth and there were open salami sandwiches for sale.

In the summers, Lyosha stayed in the village with his grandmother. Assorted cousins were sent there as well, and their parents floated in and out, sometimes spending a week or two and sometimes staying just the weekend. One day when he was five, his aunt said, “Let’s go get baptized,” and they all went to another village, where there stood a church in a profound state of decay that was only accentuated by some recent spot repairs. A man in a dress took Lyosha by the hair and dunked his face in a vat of water. At that moment Lyosha hated the man and his own aunt, but a few minutes later he liked the bread and the wine the man put on his tongue, and he loved the little cross the man put around his neck. When they got back to their own village, Lyosha ran up to his mother shouting, “Look what I have”—meaning the little cross. Galina took a step back, looking like she might faint. She later explained to him that she was an atheist, and what that meant.

Lyosha loved to hear Galina explain things, especially when they had to do with history. She had many history books at home, and Lyosha worshipped these, particularly the ones about the Great Patriotic War. He read The Wreath of Glory, a set of heavy books in red leatherette covers. The giant anthology collected works of fiction and nonfiction, with each volume devoted to one aspect of the war: a book on the defense of Moscow, a book on Leningrad, a book on victory itself.19 He listened to vinyl records of war songs—the great march songs calling on people to rise up, the lyrical ballads about missing loved ones and fighting for them, and the heartbreaking postwar songs about lost comrades. Lyosha was convinced that his birth date was no accident: he was not just born on Victory Day—he was born on the fortieth anniversary of the end of the greatest war ever fought. When relatives came over on his birthday, he would grill them on their knowledge of war history. Once he was older, he turned the ritual into a quiz, putting days into preparing questions about the great battles at Stalingrad and Kursk. He did his best to play war songs on the piano. One of his cousins had given him a collection of Great Patriotic War sheet music for one of his birthdays. Lyosha took lessons in playing accordion, not piano, but he could read music, and he had intense determination. He played using one finger.

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