29 May Babinsky. Adulthood (1963 – 1967). 1: Intelligentsia. Work and Study
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To live in the Soviet Union meant to function on two parallel and mutually exclusive planes: the working man’s paradise that existed in lofty clichéd language and the reality of survival achievable through a nod and a wink that negated the lofty language.
Though similar for everybody, the reality was far from homogenous—the boundaries delineating societal tiers were more rigid than those between the social classes that the Bolshevik Revolution had brought down. The purportedly classless society had solidified into an intricately stratified organism whose workings no outsider could grasp. An insider could not fathom a different mechanism of being.
The constitution of 1936, the Stalin’s constitution, in effect at my time, defined the Soviet Union as a “socialist state of workers and peasants.” The intelligentsia and the undefined others who did not dig, hammer, milk, or harvest constituted a form of bourgeoisie that did not wish to dirty their hands to build communism.
(As the impact of the brain drain caused by the emigration began to sink in, the refreshed 1977 version of the constitution (the Soviet Union and the Communist Party had fourteen more years to breathe) declared the country a “socialist state of the whole people, expressing the will and interests of the workers, peasants, and intelligentsia, the working people of all the nations and nationalities of the country.”)
Perched on the bottom rung of the social ladder, the intelligentsia had nothing and expected nothing. In a popular anekdot, a teacher consoled a child whose father was an engineer, “That’s ok, bad things happen.”
The intelligentsia focused on chasing after good books; acquiring and sharing Samizdat; savoring Vladimir Vysotsky’s songs and regime-belittling anekdoty; reproducing and selling pornography smuggled in by sailors; and, in the dead of night, deciphering the static from Voice of America and BBC into intelligible news and jazz and rock-n-roll.
Whether the culture-purity overseers knew differently, in the everyday vernacular these genres covered the entirety of Western music. Defined as simply-dance-music, they were disdained, censored, ridiculed, relegated to home parties and restaurants and to negative characters in movies dancing caricature-like to jazz music. Periodically nearly underground but tolerated. The joke was that if policy makers outlawed jazz their children would rebel.
“Today he plays jazz, tomorrow he will sell out his Motherland,” “playing a saxophone is one step away from using a knife on somebody,” “music of fat cats,” and similar sentiments were no laughing matter. Listening to jazz implied at least learning English or, worse, absorbing capitalist concepts. Letting loose the likes of The Beatles, Rolling Stones, Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Elvis Presley, Benny Goodman, the soldiers of the psychological war unleashed by the United States, was out of the question. Even letting their names roam with impunity would corrupt young Soviet souls irrevocably.
Sax players switched to clarinet after incidents when the instrument was unbent because its shape reminded of a dollar sign. Khrushchev left in the middle of Benny Goodman’s concert and told him that there was good music and there was jazz that he didn’t like. Duke Ellington who toured the Soviet Union received a fervent reception and no reprimands; it was the reign of Brezhnev who allowed teaching jazz and performing it in not-too-important concerts. Western music, smuggled or reconstructed by enthusiasts, note by note, off the half-jammed Voice of America program from 10 to midnight Moscow time, was recorded on used X-ray film. No wonder it was known as jazz on bones, or rib, skull, or bone music.
Party membership all but closed to the non-menial class, the intelligentsia, that utilized that sacred organization as a career advancement tool. The Party had become irrelevant to its intended audience that saw it as a pointless expense of the membership fee. The post-war generation ridiculed the gullible non-Party-men whose last wish before going into battle was “if I get killed, consider me a communist.” It supplied a punchline: “and if I am not killed, then don’t.”
My adult life in Kiev represented a cookie-cutter life of a Soviet Ukrainian big-city dweller, the intelligentsia tier, the pathetic segment of it with no executive, blat, or black market privileges, the smothered Jewish slice of that segment.
The jaws of stiffening quotas and the ardent grassroots anti-Semitism deep-rooted in Ukraine squeezed the Jewry into a wary, powerless, striving for invisibility ghetto. Or rather, a section of the common ghetto, like a Jewish lot at a cemetery.
Work and Study
I started my first job in the summer of 1963, the day after high school graduation, a month before the university entrance exams. Employment made me eligible for the then-rationed flour, sugar, and rye bread (infants and disabled also received white bread rolls, and diabetics received corn oil) and for trade union membership.
(Lenin called the trade unions a transitional link between the masses and the Communist Party. Headed, top to bottom, by non-Party members, the unions organized cultural and sport events, signed off on personnel movements, awarded discounted vacations, and helped improve labor conditions and arbitrate labor disputes. Not that serious disputes would arise. And if they did, other means were used to arbitrate.
An attempt to establish an independent trade union in the late 1970s ended with the persecution of its organizers.)
The university entrance exams did not infect me with fear—I had braced for failure since childhood. The first three went smoothly. The essay returned the score of “5”. In oral exams, teachers spread paper strips with questions, called tickets, on the examiner’s desk. A few people entered, picked tickets and had about fifteen minutes to prepare. After one person got graded and walked out, another came in.
My grade in German was determined when the post-graduates who conducted the test deduced from my smile that I was able to follow their boyfriend-related banter.
The history professors concentrated on needling each other under their breaths. One spoke Ukrainian-accented Russian and wore a shirt embroidered with a Ukrainian design like one my father got upon his retirement. The other spoke a Leningrad-accented Russian and looked at the embroidered shirt with contempt. They rewarded my brisk performance with a “4”.
The elderly school teacher responsible for the language portion of the Russian Language and Literature exam listened, smiled, and nodded at the literature professor.
The professor waved aside the ticket. She had questions of her own: Do you agree with Yevtushenko’s Babi Yar that anti-Semitism has a place in the Soviet Union? Should the poem have seen the light of day? Would you recite the work of other contemporary poets? What books by Ehrenburg do you like best? Do you agree with his anti-Stalin novel The Thaw?
I spoke, quoted, recited for almost an hour fueled by defiance and adrenaline and the recognition that I had nothing to lose. Apparently, I avoided the reefs—the interrogator stated that I deserved a “3” but she would give me a “4”. Those in the room working on their tickets recoiled in fear. Those in the hallway watching through the keyhole clamored to find out why it took forever. But they did not have to worry if they were not Jewish.
My university years felt like a decompression chamber: beloved subjects to study; access to the best libraries; new languages to learn; new friendships; no chores at home (except the weekly parquet-polishing with a sharp-smelling waxy substance smeared over snub-nosed brushes pulled over slippers); dating, time permitting; and a job that, while missing dazzle or gratification, provided the funds to buy books. Even the professor who was so intent on flunking me in the entrance exam proved to be a fair grader.
(In all six years, only one openly anti-Semitic incident took place: a professor of the mandatory Ukrainian literature class flunked all four Jewish students, besides me, in his class of about fifty people and made them come back repeatedly. I happened to be sick on the date of the first try, so I was pre-warned. I decided to take advantage of my not blatantly Jewish appearance and of the fact that the group was too large for him to know anybody.
The professor waved for me to proceed with the test when I could not find my grade register in my purse. It magically surfaced as soon as he said “you’ve passed” and I helpfully opened it on the right page, not on the title page that carried my questionable first name Bena and almost-definitely-Jewish patronymic Avramovna. Many smiley encounters in the hallways later, this professor ran into me and my mother in the street. One glance at her and he knew what an unforgivable mistake he had made. But it was too late.)
Next summer, Avram presented me with a gift: a two-week cruise down the Volga River, from Moscow to Astrakhan and back. Before sailing, I stayed in Moscow at Avram’s friend’s house for a few days. First things first—she told me to begin with a pilgrimage to the Lenin’s Mausoleum.
The queue that snaked around the Red Square promised hours in the hot sun. It was a waste of time. (When I foolishly admitted to skipping the Mausoleum my Komsomol leader at work threatened to convene an emergency conference to assess my political leanings. My transgression flew out of his mind hours later when the janitor caught him in the attic with a woman not his wife.)
The cities where the ship docked left memories of uniformity, dust, mediocre museums, and statues of Lenin.
There was not much to do, except lie on the deck, watch a movie, and wait for the next meal.
The cruise served three meals and nothing in-between. (Everybody looked forward to the last appetizer: white bread sprinkled with caviar over a sheet of butter. I had tasted caviar once before but it gave me food poisoning. Now, again, after one bite I felt nauseous. I paid for that bite with what I had attributed the first time to food poisoning but which turned out to be the first of my many future allergies. A cousin said that the name Gnoyensky translated to allergy.)
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