Skip to main content




Chapter 1

An Unspoiled Quality

A CORRUGATED FENCE RAN THE ENTIRE LENGTH OF A STREET WITH NO NAME, until it crossed another street with no name. At the end of the fence, there were six evenly spaced brick apartment buildings and a grocery. Just under the buildings' cornices, meter-high letters spelled: glory to the, soviet army, brush teeth, after eatin, welcome to, asbestos 2, and model town! The letters, red and peeling, were painted along the seams in the brickwork, which forced the authors of the slogans to be less concerned with their meaning than with the finite number of bricks in each facade.

In the fall of 1992, Lubov Alexandrovna Goldberg decided to find an extracurricular activity for her fourteen–year–old daughter.

"Children of the intelligentsia don't just come home in the afternoon and engage in idiocy," declared Mrs. Goldberg.

She would've loved it if Sasha played the piano, but the Goldbergs didn't have a piano, and there wasn't even space for a hypothetical piano in the two crowded rooms where Sasha and her mother lived.

Mrs. Goldberg's second choice was the violin. She liked to imagine the three–quarter view of Sasha in black and white, minus the frizzy bangs. This is Sasha practicing her violin. As you can see, there is a place for the arts in the increasing austerity of our lives, she wrote in her imaginary letter to Mr. Goldberg, whose address she didn't know. But after the money was spent and the violin purchased, three consecutive violin instructors declared Sasha profoundly tone deaf and musically uneducable.

"A bear stepped on her ear," Mrs. Goldberg complained to the neighbors, and Sasha thought about the weight of the bear and whether in stepping on her ear the animal would also destroy her head, cracking it like a walnut.

"Sit up, Sasha," said Mrs. Goldberg, "and chew with your mouth closed."

Then came auditions for ballet and figure–skating classes, which even Mrs. Goldberg knew were a long shot for Sasha. On the way home from the last skating audition, where the instructor delicately described her daughter as overweight and uncoordinated, Lubov Alexandrovna walked two steps ahead of Sasha in a tense and loaded silence. Trudging through the snow behind her mother, Sasha contemplated the street lamps. She tried to determine the direction of the wind by the trajectories of snowflakes in the circles of light, but the snow seemed to be flying every which way. Sasha was staring straight up when her foot hit the curb and she landed flat on her face in a snowbank. This was more than Mrs. Goldberg could take.

"I told you to stop taking such wide steps. You want to see what you look like walking? Here!" Mrs. Goldberg swung her arms wildly and took a giant step. "See? This is why you fall all the time! You trip over your own feet!"

Sasha got up and dusted herself off. Her right coat sleeve was packed with snow all the way up to her elbow, and the anticipation of it melting made her shiver.

"I have some advice for you!" shrieked Mrs. Goldberg. "Watch your step! You should see yourself in the mirror, the way you move!"

Sasha woke up and stared at the water stain on the ceiling. For a while, her eyes were empty. She allowed the horror of life to seep into them gradually, replacing the traces of forgotten dreams. It was the first day of winter recess. The Fruit Day.

Mrs. Goldberg had a new diet for Sasha: each week, six days of regular food, one day of fruit only. Fruit meant a shriveled Moroccan orange from the bottom of the fridge and a mother's promise of more, since oranges were the only fruit found, if one was lucky, in midwinter Siberia. Mrs. Goldberg was already at work or orange–hunting somewhere, her bed neat as a furniture display.

Sasha got up and went to the kitchen. Feeling faintly revolutionary, she boiled water in a calcified communal teapot and pulled a chair up to the cupboard. In the corner of the top shelf was her mother's can of Indian instant coffee. Sasha put four spoons of coffee granules and four spoons of sugar in her cup and added water. The next stop was the fridge. Her mother had hidden all the food that belonged to the Goldbergs, but the other tenants still had theirs.

Sasha found half a bologna butt wrapped in brown paper, an egg, a brick of black bread, and half a can of sweetened condensed milk. She ate a bologna omelet and washed it down with burning coffee. For dessert she had the bread with condensed milk. Some of the milk seeped through the pores in the bread and made a mess. "Fruit!" cursed Sasha, licking the drips off her fingers. When her hands were clean, she made another cup of coffee and returned to the fridge.

Sasha Goldberg was determined to enjoy her vacation. Winter recess would be over in six days, and her fellow inmates would be waiting for her by the gates of the Asbestos 2 Secondary School Number 13, ready to knock her bag out of her hands and send her flying backward down the iced–over staircase. Hello, Ugly! Wanna die now or later? She would pluck her books and her indoor shoes out of the deep snow like birthday candles out of frosting and hurry to class.

Sasha excavated the Stepanovs' enamel pot from the back of the fridge and lifted the lid. Inside, bits of boiled chicken floated in the greenish broth. Drinking the broth straight out of the pot, Sasha briefly imagined telling her mother what went on at Number 13. Of course, she would never do that. That her daughter was an oaf sticking an icicle into her bleeding nostril before going to algebra didn't belong in Lubov Goldberg's reality. Mrs. Goldberg would try, by sheer force of will, to dehumiliate Sasha on the spot. There would be questions—"Why are they doing it to you?"—and suggestions—"Perhaps you need to be friendlier. I notice you don't have any girlfriends." A multitude of diets could emerge from the stack of old Burda magazines; the spiked rubber mat for flatfoot exercises might return from the utility closet. Sasha knew that every measure would fail, and in the end, she would glimpse the true magnitude of her mother's contempt.

She poured another cup of coffee. Now she had no dessert, except for an old honey jar filled with cough drops. For as long as Sasha could remember, those cough drops had been in the fridge. She tried the lid, but it had crystallized onto the jar. Shaking from too much coffee, Sasha slammed the jar against the sink, washed the shards of glass down the drain, and sucked the mass of congealed menthol until it turned into a translucent green disc.

After her third cup of coffee, Sasha ran out of sugar. It was almost lunchtime. The neighbors who worked at the asbestos mill were about to come home to eat. Sasha dumped the dishes in the sink, took her orange out of the fridge, discarded a diamond–shaped Morocco sticker and returned to bed. In bed, she disassembled the orange, tossed the peel behind the headboard and, sucking on the sour sections, read Jules Verne until dark.

At six o'clock she heard her mother's footsteps in the corridor and, seconds later, a shouting match in the kitchen. It wasn't really a match, because the neighbors were the only ones shouting. Mrs. Goldberg never raised her voice; she wouldn't stoop to it. Sasha knew that her mother just stood there, pale and stoic, like St. Sebastian tied to a tree.

"Don't you ever feed that child?" yelled Mrs. Stepanova.

Mrs. Goldberg shut the door in Mrs. Stepanova's face and crossed her arms.

"Explain, Alexandra."

This was a purely symbolic offer. Sasha shrugged.

"Take off your pants," said Mrs. Goldberg.

Sasha got out of bed, hiked up her flannel nightgown, and pulled off her bloomers.

After beating Sasha with a dainty patent leather belt, Mrs. Goldberg dragged a chair over to Baba Zhenia's Romanian plywood armoire and took down a roll of Sasha's drawings and watercolors. Sasha looked away, preparing for the shredding. It was important to show that she didn't care. Oblivious to the suspense she had created, Mrs. Goldberg set the drawings on the desk and flipped through them slowly, sucking her lower lip with the tiniest whistle.

"I've set up an interview at the District 7 Art Studio tomorrow," she said in a faintly conciliatory voice. "If you're admitted, you'll be going three days a week, after school."

"District 7 is all the way up the devil's horns," replied Sasha, trying hard to hide her relief. "Are you sure the place is fit for the intelligentsia?"

"Don't sneer, detka," sighed Mrs. Goldberg. "You don't need another tic."

They got off the streetcar and walked along the fence, pulling the granny cart with rolled–up drawings over icy acne on the sidewalk; Mrs. Goldberg, slim and graceful, in camel spike heels she wore for the occasion, and Sasha, a brown lump in her babyish synthetic fur coat. A not–quite–right counterfeit Mickey Mouse smiled his toothy, savage smile from the coat's back.

Soon they saw a row of apartment buildings, and Mrs. Goldberg stopped to pull a scrap of paper with directions out of her glove. Sasha was careful to keep her face frozen in a mask of aloof defiance, but inside she was more apprehensive. According to the directions, the District 7 Evening Art Studio for Children was located in the basement of the after eatin building, and Sasha considered that to be a good omen.

That morning, Mrs. Goldberg had offered Sasha some of her precious coffee in exchange for the promise that during the interview Sasha would not:

stare at the wall with her mouth open like a carp

twirl her hair

bite her nails

and that she would:

keep her knees closed

keep her tongue in her mouth


"Please, bunny, I want you to try," Mrs. Goldberg had said sweetly, putting her manicured fingers on Sasha's hand.

They walked past glory to the, soviet army and brush teeth and turned left. Sasha pushed open the heavy steel door, stepped down, and felt moisture seeping through the zipper of her boot. Looking down, she saw that the front of the basement was flooded. A plank led to a second door. With the outside door shut, Sasha and Mrs. Goldberg walked the plank in airless darkness, balancing the granny cart between them like a couple of suddenly dexterous sleepwalkers.

"What a nightmare," mouthed Mrs. Goldberg, sliding her fingers along the dripping wall for support. Sasha sneered.

Someone opened the second door, and Sasha smelled plaster dust. She pushed past a thick curtain, and when her eyes adjusted to the light, she realized that she'd just stepped into her own dream. In the messy entryway, plaster busts were haphazardly scattered among easels and space heaters. In the next room, Sasha saw a claw–foot tub filled with wet clay, a stuffed fox, and a basket of wax fruit. It was as if everything old, ornate, and intricate, every shred of Western Civilization ever found in the vicinity of Asbestos 2 were stored in the basement of after eatin. Sasha would keep her knees closed, keep her tongue in her mouth, not bite her nails, and, if necessary, also lick boots, eat rocks, cry, and beg to be allowed to stay in this place.

A dour ponytailed man helped Mrs. Goldberg unroll Sasha's drawings on an antique tabletop. Sasha noticed a concrete torso in the corner. The torso must have belonged to Lenin, because it wore a suit and held a rolled–up cap in one of its fisted hands. Someone had stuck a bent aluminum fork into the other. Two ancient anatomy textbooks rested on top, where the head should have been.

The ponytailed man gave Sasha a pencil, a sheet of paper, and four rusted pushpins. She was to draw a still life, he explained, leading her down a narrow hallway into the classroom.

The five kids in the room looked up in anticipation as the man took an eraser out of his pants pocket and started making the rounds, erasing parts of their drawings. Halfway through the room, his eraser gummed up and Sasha watched him make greasy graphite smudges over drawings that seemed perfect to her.

"You can start now, Goldberg. See you in two hours." The man patted Sasha on the shoulder and disappeared, leaving behind a waft of tobacco smell.

Sasha pinned up her paper and stared at the still life. It consisted of an egg, a butter knife, and a white enameled bowl, three minutes' worth of work. Why did the man give her two hours? Maybe she misunderstood the assignment.

"Okay, let's see the damage," said one of the boys.

"Oh, fucking Bedbug with his petrified eraser. Who wants to take up a collection for a new eraser for Bedbug? Hey, what's your name?" A small long–haired boy was leaning over the top of Sasha's easel. "Donate money to get Bedbug a nice soft eraser?"

Sasha mutely pointed to the corner of her paper, where her name was written.

"I'm Katia Kotelnikova," said a tall girl with a braid. She unpinned her drawing and folded it in half. "Sasha, did you bring any extra paper? I have to start this over."

"No," said Sasha, staring at the girl's unusual costume. Katia wore felt boots with rubber galoshes and a vintage Soviet school uniform: a brown wool dress with a black apron. Sasha wondered if she was so poor that she had to wear it, or whether she was trying for a certain look.

"Why aren't you starting?" Katia asked. "You haven't got all day."

Sasha Goldberg looked around the room. The kids were still carrying on about the eraser, and she sensed that in this particular group even the beautiful ones didn't mean her any harm. It was a pleasant surprise, this feeling.

"I don't know what he expects from me. I've never done this before," she muttered, putting her pencil down.

"A comrade in trouble should never be afraid to ask for help," the long–haired boy said with a smirk. "In this basement, it's from each according to his abilities, to each according to his incompetence."

Sasha allowed herself a thin smile. These people were clearly harmless. Only the harmless and the old still made jokes about communism.

Apparently happy about the distraction, the kids nudged Sasha aside and took over her drawing. From a corner of the room, she watched them do her work. First, the boy with long hair constructed the geometric skeleton of the composition. He took into account the deep shadow of the bowl, shifting the whole setup to the right to make space for it. A fat girl with a bureaucrat's haircut drew the contours of the egg and the bowl, and then it was Katia's turn to work on the shading.

For a while the room was quiet. Katia perched upright on the edge of Sasha's stool, deftly filling the still life's contours with swatches of cross–hatching. Biting her nails, Sasha watched with fascination as the egg in the drawing acquired illusory volume, growing out of the paper's surface like an exceptionally healthy mushroom.

"It seems that Evgeny Mikhailovich has been bitten by a white–on–white bug," explained Katia. "Last week we spent six hours on a plaster cube and a dish rag, and the week before it was this big, dry"—she laughed a short, sneezelike laugh—"bone. By the time I got here, all the good spots were taken, and I had to draw the damn bone end–on. There was no way it was going to look like anything."

"It looked like a giant belly button," the boy disagreed.

"Shut up!" Katia laughed, squinting at the drawing. Katia, squinting at the drawing. Both the egg and the bowl now looked three–dimensional, firmly planted on the horizontal plane of the tabletop, with the dark table edge decisively in front. "Sasha, finish it. It needs your personal touch."

Back at her easel, Sasha lamely dragged her pencil along the contour of the bowl and the edge of the butter knife. Every line she made, no matter how light, looked entirely out of place and threatened to disturb the illusion, to flatten out the little pocket of space. Sasha was relieved to see that she was almost out of time. She chewed the cool aluminum tube at the end of her pencil and waited for Bedbug to return. Instead, an old man with a wooden leg hobbled into the classroom. The end of his nose twitched nervously and whatever was left of his hair flew around his head like a pair of poorly designed wings. There was a war hero medal on the lapel of his greasy suit.

"Goldberg?" the old man said. "Let's see."

Sasha felt every one of her muscles ball up into rocks and blood rush up to her face.

The old man stood behind her back for a small eternity. He smelled like acetone. Sasha could feel his every twitch reverberating in the rotten floorboards and her rickety stool.

"Aha," he said finally, and then, thunderously, "You are all expelled! Out! And never come back! You are all a bunch of ungrateful pigs..." he paused, surveying the room, "Cows!"

The old man seemed to be at a loss for words. He turned around sharply and left, the clicks and scrapes of his wooden leg receding down the hall. Sasha was mortified. Without taking her eyes off the floor, she got up and followed the man out of the classroom.

"Moo," Katia said behind her back, "Welcome to the collective farm!"

The classroom exploded with laughter.

Idiots, thought Sasha Goldberg, blinking away tears.

She didn't see her mother right away, only her boots, propped up on top of a cracked glass coffee table next to a bottle of cognac and a plate of thin–sliced lemons. She followed the direction of the boots and found Mrs. Goldberg, sprawled out on a dirty little sofa behind a drape.

Sasha never suspected that her mother was capable of being sprawled out. This was the same mother who, Sasha was convinced, was born wearing a starched shirt and a string of pearls. Sasha suspected that the world would have to turn ninety degrees to force Lubov Goldberg to put her feet up on a coffee table. She stood, grim and disbelieving, and watched Bedbug refill her mother's glass.

Mrs. Goldberg was laughing. Her cheeks glowed red, and her one gold canine caught the light, making her look like a vampire. Was this all it took, two glasses of cognac? Sasha waited for the one–legged man to tell her mother what had happened in the classroom, but he seemed to have forgotten all about it.

"Will you allow me the pleasure of painting your portrait someday?" he asked Mrs. Goldberg.

"We'll have to see about that, Evgeny Mikhailovich," she warbled, noticing Sasha.

Sasha struggled into her coat, and Bedbug helped Mrs. Goldberg into hers. The air outside was cold and clear. At four o'clock it was completely dark. The nearest streetlight was down by glory to the, and Sasha was able to see the moon and some stars. She stared hard, and when she looked ahead into the dark street, she saw an afterimage of black pinholes.

She looked sideways at her mother, waiting for the first hiss, but Mrs. Goldberg didn't say anything. In the absence of an assault, Sasha was left face to face with her own despair. Walking alongside Mrs. Goldberg, she felt self–pity so pure it bordered on ecstasy. If somebody said, "Sasha Goldberg, give up five years of your life to be admitted to the District 7 Evening Art Studio for Children," she would. She wished she hadn't cheated. If she had done her own work, her effort might have counted for something.

"Hope the streetcar will be here soon," Mrs. Goldberg said when they got to the tram stop. "I'm tired. Are you cold?"

Sasha was surprised at her peaceful tone. "Aren't you mad at me?" she asked flatly.

"What for?"

The tram came clanging around the corner, carrying a promise of warmth in its old–fashioned streamlined shape and incandescent yellow light. The light was deceptive; it was as cold inside the streetcar as outside. Mrs. Goldberg stuck the tickets into the hole puncher and sat down on a torn vinyl seat.

"You've been accepted. You start next week."

Sasha stared.

"Are you happy?"

"But I thought I..."

"They liked your drawings. Evgeny Mikhailovich said they had an unspoiled quality." Mrs. Goldberg laughed, a melodic, relaxed laugh.

Speechless, Sasha caught her mother's small golden head in a fake fur embrace.

Mrs. Goldberg liberated herself and adjusted her hair.

"Pay attention to the route, now. I won't be taking you every day." She put her leather glove on Sasha's sleeve and laughed again. "You know what else Evgeny Mikhailovich told me? He said that you look like me, only diluted with something stronger."

"Something stronger" was her father, and Sasha thought her mother must still be drunk because normally she never mentioned him, even obliquely. Sasha knew she didn't look anything like her mother, who was an archetypal Russian beauty. Thanks to "something stronger," Sasha Goldberg had yellow freckled skin, frizzy auburn hair, and eyes like chocolate eggs.

"You can't dilute with something stronger," she said.

"That's the smartest thing that's ever come out of your mouth, detka," agreed Mrs. Goldberg.

Excerpted from Petropolis © Copyright 2012 by Anya Ulinich. Reprinted with permission by Penguin. All rights reserved.

by by Anya Ulinich

  • paperback: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin (Non-Classics)
  • ISBN-10: 0143113011
  • ISBN-13: 9780143113010