In The Fifth Kathleen Firth Lecture at The IAFOR International Conference on the City 2017, Professor Svetlana Ter-Minasova tells the story of her life in Moscow, which she calls “a lucky life”. She documents her family history and shares her earliest memories from 1941, her wartime experiences, and her path to the present as President of the Faculty of Foreign Languages and Area Studies at Lomonosov Moscow State University.
I had neither the luck nor the chance to choose my place on Earth for beautiful views, good air, pleasant climate, etc. I just happened to have been born into it, sort of accidentally.
My poor parents were much more unlucky both timewise and placewise. Indeed, timewise, both of them were born at the beginning of the twentieth century and, consequently, had to go through a revolution, a Civil War, two World Wars and the period of Stalin’s repressions. Placewise, they began their lives at godforsaken spots on the outskirts of the Russian Empire: a small town in Nagorny Karabakh, which has been an apple of discord between Armenians and Turks since time immemorial (my father’s birthplace), and a tiny little town by the Caspian sea (my mother’s). When the “Red Revolution” (October, 1917) came, both big families (seven children in my father’s family and ten in my mother’s) lost their fathers and homes and fled to Baku, the biggest and the richest (through oil) city in the area. By pure chance, my parents met at a training college being approximately 20 years old (I say approximately as my father was officially 20, but actually 18, because he added two years at the age of 12 so as to start working). At college they fell in love (again – approximately – as it was mostly my father, as far as I know) and got married.
Two years later, by extraordinary chance, they moved to Moscow, where I was born ten years later; my birth was a kind of accident for my mother, who hated the idea of having a second child after eleven years’ interval since my sister was born. However, she had to obey Stalin’s decree prohibiting abortions, and thus, to some extent, I owe my life to Joseph Stalin, and my birthplace to a long chain of accidents.
Unlike my parents, I have been lucky since the very start of my life, and that is how I have been feeling all my long life. I was born in a very big city, more than 800 years old, the capital of a great country with a wonderful variety of everything, beginning with the weather: hot, generous summers, cold, snow-white winters, joyful springs, and romantically beautiful autumns. A city with palaces and slums, beautiful parks and dusty backyards, historical and ultra-modern buildings (including Corbusier’s) – all this has been mine.
Moscow at the time of my young years
The first memories of “my Moscow” date back to 1941 when the Second World War (The Great Patriotic War as we call it) got to Russia, which was called then the USSR. I was about three when the war broke out.
“The mighty mistress of the household before the war suddenly turned into a pale, weak and frightened creature.”
Suddenly my life changed drastically, dramatically and strikingly (choose the right word). My father, a railway man (whom I loved very much!), disappeared from the family scene – he turned up very rarely at some odd hours and never stayed long. My mother, who seemed to be very strong and very strict – the mighty mistress of the household before the war – suddenly turned into a pale, weak and frightened creature. My 14-year-old sister first caught typhus (which made my mother’s state of mind deteriorate), and then on recovery became very important being on duty during night air-raids, which were coming more and more often – practically every night.
At that time many new words appeared in the everyday family vocabulary: air-raids, sirens, black-outs, evacuation, bomb-shelters, barrage-balloons, etc.
The latter were especially mysterious. First, I watched them dragged along my street in amazement. Soon they became habitual and uninteresting. The world of my Moscow turned dark (no light inside or outside after sunset). Every night shrill wails of air-raid sirens meant an immediate mad rush to the bomb shelter in the basement of our block of flats.
However, in spite of all the horrors, the main thing I remember from all those days is a sudden feeling of freedom. I am enjoying it even now, so many years later, remembering my wartime Moscow. Indeed, suddenly I got completely free at the age of three: no father, mother having changed into a nervous frightened creature from fear and worries, which meant that nobody told me then: it is time to go to bed, to go back home by 6 p.m., etc. I could play with my two friends, boys of my age – Vladimir and Anatoly – all day long outside. They were also children of railway men, like my father, because we lived in a block of flats belonging to the People’s Commissariat of Railway Transportation (after the war the Ministry of Railway Communications) near a very famous Moscow square called “The Square of Three Railway Stations”. Parting – sometimes late at night – we used to tell each other: “So long. If we are lucky to have an air-raid this night, we’ll meet in the bomb shelter.” Indeed, very often, almost every night, we met at the bomb shelter, usually late at night, where we could go on enjoying our communication telling stories, quarrelling, even fighting, making peace, etc., on the upper plank-bed. Our mothers, frightened, pale, were worrying about their elder children who were on duty to do a very important job: putting out “incendiaries” (fire-starting bombs) with sand stored in open boxes everywhere, and a lot on the roof of the building. They did not pay any attention to us. Again we were free like never before… or after.
I remember the first fireworks in my life (and in the history of Russia) in honour of liberating two cities – Oryol and Belgorod – in Central Russia from fascists in August 1943. There were about 400 fireworks more before the end of the war in 1945 and many thousands of them since then but I have never been so impressed, and they have never been so beautiful.
I saw the first German prisoners of war after the end of the war in 1945. They were convoyed along Moscow streets – including mine – guarded by Russian soldiers and I was so frightened that could not bring myself to openly watch them from the balcony but was peeping at them hiding behind a window curtain. The dirty-grey, gloomy columns looking like enormous, endless snakes were dragging along my street.
They were followed by street-cleaning machines that washed off the dirt and rubbish left by those “snakes”. Then it looked like a sanitary act of cleaning the city streets but now I realise that it could be also a symbolic act of clearing the capital of Russia/the USSR from the horrors and dirt of World War II.
That autumn, in September 1945, I started going to school at the age of seven. I met German prisoners twice a day on the way to school and then back home. They were building big and beautiful houses in the street where we then lived (next to a railway station, of course). They looked thin and worn out, like all the Russians I saw around. I was not afraid of them any longer; my school mates and I established somewhat friendly relations, a sort of business, exchanging the contents of our lunch boxes (homemade sandwiches) for the wooden toys made by the big hungry men who did not look scary or frightening any longer.
However, it was a secret from the parents, school teachers and those classmates who lived in other places and never passed the building site.
My Moscow was rising from ashes, becoming more and more beautiful. Many historically and culturally important buildings were restored, and some were built anew.
At the age of 10 I became a pioneer. The ceremony took place in the very centre of Moscow, at the corner of the entrance to Red Square. It was in the building of Lenin’s Museum that had been the State Duma, that is, the Parliament of Russia in the tsarist Russia, before the 1917 Revolution.
I was happy in school, I liked learning new things, I made very good friends. We were taught to do only good things. I am sure the way we lived, what we wore, ate, etc. may look abominable to “Western” countries, especially those that did not go through the war – as well as to the new, post-Perestroika young Russians – but we did not know any other life and enjoyed ours because the war was over and we lived in peace.
I was about 12 years old when in my parents’ home library I came across a paperback book called Hamlet. I read it, fell in love with it, learnt “To be, or not to be” by heart. At the next pioneer meeting I was asked by our pioneer leader what I was going to do after school. I answered: “To study Shakespeare”. She immediately said: you must enter the English department of the faculty of philology at Moscow State University. She was a student there. (Again, I was lucky…)
Having left school I entered the English department of the Philological Faculty of Lomonosov Moscow State University “to study Shakespeare”. The University has become my Moscow: my home and place of work till nowadays.
I never became a professional expert on Shakespeare but that is a different story – not “My Moscow”, but “My life”.
Welcome to my Moscow!
Images | Black and white photographs reproduced courtesy of Svetlana Ter-Minasova.
Professor Svetlana Ter-Minasova first presented this material as The Fifth Kathleen Firth Lecture at The IAFOR International Conference on the City 2017.