Tuesday, July 3, 2007


Sometime in 1977 - Baba Panna – quite possibly the first person to die in my young life. This is only significant because I was a toddler of maybe 18 months. My great-grandmother on my mother’s father’s side was quite old (I think she was born in 1888) and blind, but I was introduced to her shortly before her death. I told my mother about this when we visited the cemetery together last summer, and she thought I was lying, because I couldn’t have remembered this woman at such a tender age. But I described the circumstanced of meeting her so clearly, I could not have made it up, and my mom was astonished. I thought I was pushing 4 years old with this memory. Then we walked to the grave and looked at the date. Like I said, I wasn’t even 2. Weird.

Sometime in 1978 - Ded Mitya – again, I am too young and fuzzy on the details. My great-grandfather on my mom’s mom’s side. They definitely did not take me to the funeral. He had had a stroke and was bedridden for the last year or so of his life. My parents used to leave me with my great-grandparents a lot, and Ded Mitya would tell me stories of fighting WWII in Berlin, and I would play with his war medals on a red velvet pillow.

July 25, 1980 - Vladimir Vysotsky – No, I could not have possibly been affected by the death of a Russian legend at the age of 4. I did not know who he was until at least 1986. But it was a huge phenomenon in Russia, people were depressed for months, and his music was everywhere that summer, from every open window. I also totes associate him with the Summer Olympics of 1980, because his death coincided with the ceremonies, and the authorities hushed it up as much as they could. Since I am doing this is chronological order, he was the first out of my heroes to die when I was growing up.

December 8, 1980
- John Lennon
– Ditto. I did not get into the Beatles until 1987. I was very much into Soviet Pop up until then. My parents had a reel-to-reel machine with Abbey Road, Yellow Submarine and Magical Mystery Tour. Very subversive. I used to listen to Abbey Road non-stop at full volume. I translated the lyrics. There was no Internet or even liner notes, so if you wanted to know what a song was about, you listened 15,000 times and transcribed the lyrics, then tried to figure out what they say. So to learn that the band I was so enraptured with has broken up before I was born, and one of its best musicians was shot dead when I was 4.5 was absolutely devastating.

I cried for days. 1987 was not really a good year. I had this poster of John Lennon from the Let It Be cover next to the poster of Viktor Tsoy (see below), and I would look at them, forever young, and think that I will stay young forever as well.

November 10, 1982 – Leonid Brezhnev - February 9, 1984 – Yuri Andropov - March 10, 1985 – Konstantin Chernenko – these 3 blend together in my mind. Our school experience was highly politisized, with Young Pioneers, ideological discussions, history revisionism, teambuilding, whatevs. So when 3 leaders of the Soviet Union pass away roughly at the rate of 1 per year, and yet nothing changes, you start losing any kind of faith in the system, even if you are 9 years old. There were 5 more high ranking officials who passed away in-between these three, adding to what was slangily called "The Epoch of Lavish Funerals." November, February and March are very cruel months in Russia. It was cold and bright, hard-packed snow in Siberia, the funerals always taking place in the morning for Moscow, which made it early afternoon for us. We would have memorial services at school, then there would be 3 days or so of national mourning, entire cities would be draped is black, and while they showed the funerals live on TV, all the factories would toot their horns for the minute of silence. It was creepy and majestic all at once. The whole country would then get drunk for the mourning, not because they missed the leaders, but because they had an unexpected holiday.

Side note – in Orthodox Christianity, you display the body of the deceased in an open coffin for 3 days, waiting for the soul to leave the premises. In a state funeral, you also display the body so the mourners could say goodbye. So every time a head of state died during those years, we had endless live images of the dead old white guy in his coffin being genuflected to by important Party officials and genuine mourners alike. We only had a B&W TV then, so the picture was even more depressing. It totes desensitized me to death, right then and there. During the days of mourning, only cultural programming was allowed in teevee – ballets mostly, old movies etc. No news.

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