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Moscow, November 1982

Updated: Dec 4, 2018

Article / I recount the story of my birth.

I was born during the dry Moscow November of 1982, three days after Leonid Brezhnev (ruler of the USSR since 1964) collapsed from a stroke. My mother claimed that she’d predicted both the exact date of my birth and the fact that she was having a girl (there was no Soviet technology to tell her either of these things). She was twenty-five then, and in the process of amicably divorcing my biological father, Volodya, whom she’d married four years earlier.

When I asked her what she’d done the night before she went to the hospital to have me, my mother answered, “I think I was dancing.”

“Where?” I asked.

“In our kitchen.”

She’d thrown a party that night—her friends came over and played Beatles records in our ground-floor communal apartment. Neither my mother nor her friends had ever been out of the Soviet Union, but they all listened to forbidden Western records pirated and distributed in back alleys. If they couldn’t get the records, they found the sheet music and played the guitar or piano. That’s how my mom first heard Sinatra—performed on the piano in a friend’s apartment.

“Who was at the party?” I asked her.

“You know, the usual crowd.”

The usual crowd came from the Department of Psychology at Moscow State University and referred to one another by their last names. Volkonskyi, Yassenin, Bordova, Lilova, Arkansky, Voloshina, Bayarin. . . . They spent a lot of time in my mom’s kitchen.

“Were you celebrating Brezhnev’s death?”

Nu chto ty! We had no idea what was going on. Nobody would tell us anything.”

The authorities had kept the news under wraps, fearing that it would lead to a coup. But they still had to secretly commemorate the deceased leader, so TV stations replaced daytime broadcasts with heavy films about the Russian Revolution. Public officials wore black.

“I had a party to have a party,” my mom told me. “I was celebrating your arrival.”

After the party in her kitchen, my mom rode to the hospital in a taxi with Volodya. The streets looked eerily empty, and the naked trees drifted by the windows, pointing her toward the hospital.

Once there, she felt nervous because no one was allowed into the delivery room except nurses and doctors, and she’d have to face childbirth alone. She developed an excruciating ache in her left molar and told the hospital staff she wanted to leave.

“What do you mean you want to leave?” the nurses yelled. “You’re about to have a baby!”

Since she was too pregnant to take medication, my mom wanted to see her healer, Vadim Akimov, who practiced everything from acupuncture to channeling energy from his hands; he was fashionable among my mother’s friends. She stood by the pay phone in the hospital hallway with a handful of two-kopek coins, dialing everyone she knew until she determined his whereabouts, then fled the hospital and hailed a second taxi.

I asked her, “How’d you get past the nurses?”

“You know how I am when I need something—I can convince anyone of anything.”

She went to the house of a well-known Soviet writer (and anti-Semite), Anatoly Sofronov. She wasn’t friends with Sofronov, she hadn’t even met him, but Akimov was in the process of healing Sofronov’s wife of terrible neck pains and had told my mother to meet him there.

She showed up, pregnant and delirious, and Akimov put his hands to her cheeks.

He healed her tooth.

She went back to the hospital and had me without any pain on November 14, just as she’d predicted.

When I was born, I was covered from head to toe with black hair and weighed less than a sack of potatoes. My blonde mother questioned whether I was really her baby—infant swapping was common in Soviet maternity wards. I weighed two and a half kilograms (about six pounds); a standard sack of Russian potatoes was three. “Three Kilograms” was my hospital nickname. My mother remembered the nurses scolding her after she propped me up against a pillow.

“What are you doing letting your Three Kilograms touch the bed? She might catch something!

Meanwhile, Brezhnev’s death was still just a rumor. It wasn’t officially confirmed until his funeral on November 15. That day, none of the nurses showed up on the maternity ward, and the babies weren’t brought in for breast-feeding. The mothers were frantic.

“As usual, no one would tell us a thing.”

The hospital staff had abandoned their patients—they’d been summoned for a meeting about Brezhnev’s demise.

Read the story in Narrative Magazine.


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