It feels like a different lifetime but at one point it was real. I was born in one of the most beautiful places in the world, Almaty. Things did not work out between my parents and my mother decided to move to Siberia - as if there were no other place on earth to start your life all over again. Imagine my agony of living in a place where winters lasted 6-7 months a year after having spent a few early years in a warm climate, living in a sophisticated, cosmopolitan city and being exposed to a better lifestyle thanks to my grandfather’s top government post. Though we were not wealthy, it was still like switching from day to night.
The first couple of years in Siberia we lived in a small village by the river. My mother worked at a local clinic as a doctor. In our spare time we did a lot of outdoor and nature activities – fishing and swimming in the river; hiking, nature watching, mushroom and berry picking in summer and fall; and skiing, sledding, building snowmen and fortresses or just simply playing in the snow in winter. I remember running away from an upset bear while walking in the woods and also seeing some wild animals wandering in the village in search of food during brutal winter days. As hard as it was for me to adapt to my new life, living close to nature was a great outlet.
Things got complicated when we moved to the city and I started school. Back at home we attend(ed) secondary general education schools. You basically go to the same school that is in your district for 10 years following a rigid curriculum and wearing a uniform. School curriculum was the same no matter where your school was – Siberia, Kazakhstan, Moscow or any other place in the FSU.
School academics were not much of a problem for me. I loved to study and enjoyed most of the classes with the exception of the History of the Communist Party and similar ideological propaganda classes and Civil Defense where we learned how to shoot a rifle and about workings of other destructive weapons.
The main problem was that I felt like a misfit. I was not liked and did not get along with my classmates. I am not going to go into too much detail but let’s just say that it was a bit of struggle to survive and preserve my sanity while being stuck with the same people for so many years. I was an introvert, a geek and a bookworm, and this created an outlet for coping with being teased and picked on. I also liked sports and enjoyed kicking a soccer ball and playing ice hockey. I frequently got in trouble with my parents for coming home with bruises and with dirty or ripped clothes after playing heated games that sometimes resulted in unrefined conflict resolution.
I loved reading biographies of famous people – scientists, writers, musicians and explorers – and dreamed of travelling the world and learning about different countries. I made a mistake of telling a few people at school about travelling the world when I grew up and leaving the SU. While they thought I was crazy I kept on dreaming.
I had to walk to and from school every day, which was sometimes a challenge and a real adventure. Classes started at 8 in the morning and it was about a 20 minute walk to school. Being followed by stray dogs and walking through rain was not so bad. Unfortunately, it would start snowing in October-November and it would not melt until late spring. Now imagine walking to school in the dark during heavy snowfalls with snowdrifts as tall as you, and there are no trails. Every now and then I got completely stuck and had to wait till the morning light to dig myself out and continue walking to school. Upon finally making it to school I would be scolded by teachers and subjected to disciplinary actions – either staying late after classes to work on some ridiculously stupid assignment or taking a note home to my parents. Never mind that you felt cold and wet from snow and exhausted after a major ordeal of digging yourself out of the snow. There were other kids who went through the same ordeal. So we learned to be tough and cope with things the best we could and not let it get to us.
Upon learning that I grew up in Siberia, some people in the States would ask me odd and amusing questions. What did it feel like? What did people look like? Did we have buildings, enough to eat, sunlight, transportation and how would I get to school? At first I felt a bit puzzled but over time I learned to react and respond with humor. I made up a story of taming an abandoned bear cub and riding it to school and many believed it. I have been asked questions about my great escape from Siberia and coming to the US. There was no great escape. I studied hard and followed my dream.
People say that the things that don’t break you make you stronger. I believe they do make you stronger by helping shape your character, coping skills, and possibly your destiny. But they can also leave you with memories that from time to time haunt you. That’s OK. You learn to adapt, keep an open mind and enjoy life’s journey. You count your blessings and accomplishments and remind yourself of all the good things. Plus there is always a new year.