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trying too hard here. The three of us smiled and took a swig of the underpriced Chilean
“Boris, didn't you tell me you like Georgian wine?”
We had discussed wine from Georgia, the former Soviet republic to the south, which
claims to be the birthplace of wine. Ancient vineyards there fell into disrepair in Soviet
times but have made a comeback since.
“You had a Georgian friend who liked giving toasts and overserving you, right?”
“It's a big story.” Boris smiled. “Eto istoria druga, Gia.”
“The story of my friend, Gia,” Sergei said, translating through a mouthful of spaghetti.
The warning from Boris that this was quite a story had Sergei a tad on edge because it
meant so much unanticipated translation. But he was also eager to listen.
“Gia and I—and both our families—lived in the same communal apartment in Moscow
until I was in the fifth grade. There were ten families. In one flat.”
In a way Boris was lucky. His family was Jewish but didn't advertise it. As Jews, not
anywhere near the top of the hierarchy in Soviet times, Boris and his family could have
been assigned to live somewhere far less pleasant than Moscow. Having the government of-
fer a job and an apartment in Moscow, or any big city, was considered a luxury. Of course,
everything is relative.
“My parents, my aunt and me, shared a single room, eighteen square meters.”
“How did everyone fit?” I wondered aloud.
Boris took his two index fingers and put them flat against each other, pointing in oppos-
ite directions, representing two beds, touching like Tetris blocks. “Don't worry about me.
I'm not sure how my parents survived. But David, they were the best years of my life. I had
my friends and family, all in one place. There was a babushka from another family who
loved to cook. I can still taste her veal cutlets.”
Sitting with Boris and Sergei in this basement café, I began to appreciate why Boris
cherished those times. The world outside—frightening and dark and complicated. The
world inside—cramped, yes, difficult, absolutely, but simple. I wouldn't wish for his life.
No doubt, I'll never understand it. But I was understanding why Boris has happy memories
of youth.
“When we were both in fifth grade, Gia moved away to Georgia. And things got worse.
Families just weren't getting along anymore. One woman spat in other families' food.”
Sadly, that was reality for too many Russians. In her 1999 book, Everyday Stalinism ,
Australian-American historian Sheila Fitzpatrick described Soviet communal apartments
as cauldrons of jealousy and paranoia. “Private property, including pots, pans and plates .
. . had to be stored in the kitchen, a public area . . . jealously guarded by each individual
family. Demarcation lines were strictly laid down. Envy and covetousness flourished in the
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