Under the Soviet government you lied through your teeth and were very stubborn and that’s how you survived.
Part 1 (Early Memories)
Click on images to enlarge.
Toward the end of her pregnancy, my mother went to Leningrad to be with her mother and sister, Klava (two years younger). I was born on March 8, 1930. My mother and her family always made a big fuss over me because I was born on International Women’s Day. My mother often received special gifts and attention because she gave birth to a daughter on March 8. Six months later my mother returned to Kiev.
Rena being nursed by her mother Polina Shugaevskaya (in the US her name was Pauline Shugaevsky).
I will talk about my childhood in Kiev as far as I can remember. I remember the location on the street where I played very, very well. I think I was born when my parents already lived in Kiev, so my earliest memories of Kiev go back to before I was even five.
According to Bobbi’s curriculum vitae, she taught school in Chernigov till 1930. Rena was born March 8, 1930 in Leningrad where Bobbi went to give birth. That same year she started working in Kiev.
I lived on the street that to me looked beautiful, because outside the windows of my room there were linden trees all around. At the end of the street there was a water faucet – many people did not have running water in their apartment.
We had a relatively luxurious apartment. It was on the second floor of a long, long building. There was a corridor coming in and sort of an entry way where we used to cook in the summer using a Primus stove (a type of kerosine stove). Then you came into the kitchen which had a wood burning stove – the apartment was not centrally heated.
Unlike most of our neighbors, we had running water in the kitchen and a flush toilet. I don’t remember the sink. We did not have hot water – very few people did. Only people in places like Moscow did, but having running water and a toilet inside the house was very, very nice. Other people had to use an outhouse in the backyard. We also had a space in the cellar to keep food cold and a shed to store wood.
The other rooms (besides the kitchen) had these big stoves that were tiled all the way up to the ceiling. And you burned wood on the bottom, and when the tiles heated up you let the fire burn out and closed the flue so that the tiles stayed warm through the night and provided heat for the rooms.
The second room was a room where Lusha, our housekeeper, lived. She lived with us until I was eight. I remember her from when I was a young girl and she lived with us until she got married.
The middle room was sort of our dining/sitting room with rooms on each side of it. One was a bedroom for me and my mother, and my father had a separate room because he liked to work at night. That was his bedroom and his study. So there were 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 rooms altogether plus a hallway. It was considered very luxurious because many people had just one room at the time. Housing was very short.
Rena visiting her old street in 1974, door to the apartment, apartment windows, a small gate at the end of the street. The photos are from slides taken by Luke Ocone in 1974.
Floorplan of the apartment drawn by Rena in 1986. Click to enlarge.
"We had nice things: mahogany furniture, oriental rugs, good china (blue). All of that was in my father's family."
My family lived in an area of high historic interest called Kiev Pechersk Lavra which was a former monastery. The building we lived in used to be monks cells, so it was like a long thing with doorways. It had two floors. Some of the other apartments were like ours and some others had running water. Living space in the Soviet Union was hard to get. We had this apartment because my father was in charge of a numismatics museum located in Lavra.
The Soviets turned the monastery into a “museum town”. Groups of tourists came on guided tours. The upper Lavra where I lived had a beautiful ancient church, Uspensky Cathedral. I remember following the tour inside the church and I heard the guide give a lecture on how the priests used to dupe naive believers. The lower Lavra had catacombs with the remains of saintly monks that were once the objects of worship. The entire monastery was surrounded by a wall. It was a city within a city at the end of the trolley line from the center of Kiev.
A lavra is a special monastery. There were only a very few of them in all of Russia and Ukraine. Kiev Lavra may be the oldest monastery in Ukraine and Russia. I would have to look it up. Ukraine is older than Russia because the history began there around 700. The monastery dates from 1051. Saint Nestor the Chronicler had lived there.
Lavra in 2013
By Falin - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,
St. George's (Yuriev) Monastery near Novgorod may be older than Kiev Pechersk Lavra. According to legend it was founded in 1030.
From the English language Wikipedia article Kiev Pechersk Lavra:
Kiev Pechersk Lavra, also known as the Kiev Monastery of the Caves, is a historic Orthodox Christian monastery which gave its name to one of the city districts where it is located in Kiev.
Since its foundation as the cave monastery in 1051 the Lavra has been a preeminent center of Eastern Orthodox Christianity in Eastern Europe. The word pechera means cave. The word lavra is used to describe high-ranking male monasteries for monks of the Eastern Orthodox Church.
From an Orthodox Christian website:
Changes by the Soviet authorities began in 1921. Initially, the authorities confiscated the relics and historical and artistic objects that belonged to the monastery. Buildings were converted to commercial and other uses. Many of the monastery's monuments were combined into a museum, the Lavra Museum of Religious Cults and Way of Life, which also contained collections from other museums in Kiev. After closing down the monastery completely in 1926, the Soviet government first turned the grounds into a museum preserve, the All-Ukrainian Museum Quarter, that consisted of a number of museums which emphasized anti-religious propaganda, and included archives, libraries, and workshops before closing the Quarter in 1934 and transferring the collections to new museums in Kiev.
The Uspensky Cathedral has been rebuilt since Ukraines independence and Kiev Pechersk Lavra has an active monastery again.
The main gate of Lavra was very ornate. Later I discovered that all of the decorations were icons and that even the gateway was a church. And then there was a huge, huge square with beautiful horse chestnut trees and facing it was a cathedral. The cathedral was destroyed because the Soviets put mines in it and when the electricity was turned on during the German occupation it went up in the air. (More about this later).
Then there were smaller streets. When Dad and I went and visited in 1974 we went with a group and we were pretty heavily supervised. That particular guide was a real commie and she was telling us all kinds of stories about the destruction that had nothing to do with the truth. I lived there and I knew exactly what happened.
We were able to sneak away from her and look at my street. It still had a mulberry tree and a faucet at the end of it like when I was growing up and the tree was larger. The tree was the only thing that seemed larger. Everything else seemed tiny – the long building and the street – and I remember everything as being so much larger. So that’s what happens with childhood memories. I also remember snow piled up very very high. Of course, I realize that is because I was small. We had lots and lots of snow.
There were other parts to Lavra further back. We had some friends who were also workers in museums – they were my father’s colleagues. And I remember a boy named Svetic I used to play with. I was very very fond of him and we were playmates for several years and I would go to visit them. There was the upper Lavra and the lower Lavra – it was on a hill. And the lower one had catacombs with what the Russians call holy relics or holy remnants. They were skeletons of what they called holy people. My mother said it was gruesome and she never took me, so the first time I visited it was with your Dad. It was part of the tour and it was interesting to see.
I think Svetic’s father had something to do with lower Lavra. There are still boxwood growing around there and every time I smell boxwood I can visualize it. I must have been very young – six or seven years old – because during the purge in 1937 the father was sent to Siberia and the family was thrown out and I remember my parents being very upset. Even though they tried to keep it a secret, I knew about it and I was upset too.
I still remember whole families being evicted and their furniture being thrown out on the street. Even at that age I knew that evil people would write anonymous letters to the NKVD (Soviet secret police, predecessor to the KGB) in order to have someone arrested so they could get their apartment
The ornate gate leading to Lavra Photo taken by Luke Ocone in 1974.
Uspensky Cathedral in ruins
Photo by Herbert List, 1943.
Source: click here