Misery and hope in Russia, 1992 – 1994

We had a very tough journey. In Kiev we travelled from the train station to the airport to board a plane to Astrakhan. As we had plenty of baggage on us, we couldn’t go by public transport but had to take taxi. I didn’t have Ukrainian currency and paid in dollars (I received some from Andrzey as he knew I would need money to get to the final destination). There were no flights available within the next few days, but the lady seeing us with a little child, asked to come over the next morning, and she would find two places. After sleeping rough on chairs, we finally got tickets, and were soon on the plane to Astrakhan. I felt very sad, depressed, and didn’t expect anything good at the place we were going to. 

We took taxi from the airport in Astrakhan, and my dollars were gone. Vlad’s mother’s flat didn’t look welcoming. There were two rooms, no furniture but beds in each room, a table and two chairs in the kitchen, and that was it. I sat on the bed and cried, I didn’t even know what to start with, where to work, and how to live there. I was in despair, and even regretted leaving Ukraine as the living conditions were much better there. Me and Vlad argued a lot, I felt like an alien at that place. But as I saw little Katie starting to smile, I knew I had to survive, and live for her. Then me and Vlad agreed we would try to get out of there, just needed to wait for an opportunity. 

After the first shock passed, we needed to think about getting a job. Vlad’s mother agreed to look after Katie, so that we could both work. Yet, we ran into troubles straight away. The housing administration office refused us permanent registration, and only gave us temporary stay for six months. The problem was that temporary registration didn’t give rights to employment. So we started to look for other opportunities. Vlad found a way to earn some cash by selling curd, which was popular there. He found a dairy establishment to buy curd from, in larger quantities, then was selling it from door to door. The profit was minimal, but better than nothing. I also found some income – I could knit, so I started to make sweaters and sell them to a small company, which then resold them to the public at a higher price.

In that way we somehow survived those 6 months, after which the authorities registered us permanently. Then we looked for permanent work, and were both employed by a bus garage as check-takers (ie selling tickets on buses – that was how buses operated at those times). Our earnings were very low, but then we learned that some check-takers were selling ‘illegal’ tickets, ie they were buying them from someone who could get ‘non-tracked’ tickets. We asked one of those people that we also wanted to participate. It was the chance to bring some additional income, the money from selling those tickets went into our own pockets. 

I got pregnant again, and though we were so poor and our future was uncertain, we decided that Katie needed a brother or a sister as she felt lonely. We were still working on buses. Once we had an incident with the woman at the garage office, who answered my call when I tried to get some information. I was waiting for the bus I was supposed to get on to continue my work, and Vlad happened to be with me at that time. I called the office and asked which bus I was waiting for, as I wasn’t sure, and what time it would arrive to that particular bus stop. The woman said something but I didn’t understand her, I asked to repeat, and she answered rudely: “Are you deaf on your right eye?” (her exact words). I didn’t know what to say and just hanged up. I told Vlad what she said, then he himself called and said to her, in the same tone: “Don’t pull your ass onto your snout”, and then hanged up (it sounded much funnier in Russian).

When my belly grew bigger, the company transferred me to another job in the building, where I was doing some light cleaning. Meanwhile, Vlad started to have some issues with the management. I don’t remember what it was exactly, but Vlad was generally ‘a fighter against injustice’. After a few encounters with the head of department, Vlad was dismissed from the garage. He then found another job as a van driver, delivering fresh bread from a large-scale bakery to small shops. It was a bit better job than the previous one. Then it was time for me to give birth to my second child, and in February (winter again!) our second daughter came into the world, and I called her Yadviga (Polish name, diminutive Yagoda, which in English means ‘berry’).

With two little children it was even harder to cope. There was no washing machine in the house, so I washed everything with hands. There were no such things as disposable diapers at that time, only fabric ones, so I was overwhelmed with washing them as it was too much. We were so poor that I got depressed from that poverty, and started to go out a lot, just to get out of the house. Vlad was still working, his mother was looking after the children, and I, having had enough of such miserable life, started to go to a Catholic church, where the priest was from Poland. I made some friends there, and started to hang out with them quite often. I actually abandoned my girls, that’s how frustrated I was.

My ‘adventures’ didn’t stop on going to church, though. I met some ‘bad’ people, thieves, and joined them in their activities. I learned how to steal money from people in restaurants; I was playing games with other con artists, the only purpose of which was extorting money from ‘dupes’, or ‘goofs’ as we called them. I was sinking deeper and deeper, and eventually came to the point of having sex for money a couple of times. I was bringing money home, and giving to my husband. He hated what I was doing, and felt frustrated, helpless, and unhappy, but because of our hardships he just closed his eyes on my adventures. I was spending some time with my daughters when coming back home, but it was obvious they didn’t get enough of attention from mummy.

I started to disgust myself, and had enough. I couldn’t believe I was doing all those things, being an educated person, musician, but lived like a scumbag. I talked to my husband, regretted for what I did, and asked to help me to come back to an upright life. It took some time to re-adjust, and I really missed my children. As I was unemployed, I signed up with the jobcentre, and even attended a course funded by them, I think it was some kind of entrepreneurial course. Then I got pregnant again, but as we didn’t want another baby, I went for abortion (it was legal and widely performed in hospitals). Soon I got pregnant again, and did the second abortion. I didn’t want more children to be brought into poverty we were in.

We also started to think about going to Poland again, to try the second time. We needed money to do that, and because there was no chance to earn enough to save, Vlad suggested asking his mother to give up her flat and move in to live with her sister, so that we could sell it. His mother agreed and said she could make a sacrifice for her grandchildren. Meanwhile, my period was delayed, I started to be concerned, and went to see a gynaecologist. She examined me and said there was nothing there, that sometimes period may be delayed due to stress. I trusted her and stopped worrying, until I felt some movement in my belly, realising I was pregnant again! Yet, it was too late for abortion, and it was too risky anyway. We had to accept having the third, though unplanned, child.

I need to mention that social services started to visit us at some point, and they didn’t like how we lived. The girls each had their own cot, but there were bare mattresses with no bedding. We experienced hardships all the time, didn’t have enough money for everything, barely had enough to feed ourselves. Even food was not always sufficient – it happened not once that we ate fried rice for a whole week, or just potatoes, so that our girls could have their meals. Two social workers kept coming again and again, saying we were bad parents, and didn’t deserve to have kids. They even said our place was in a mental hospital, or prison. I didn’t understand why they treated us in such a manner, we did nothing bad to deserve it. We were taking care of our children as our circumstances allowed us. There is a Russian saying – “You can’t jump above your ass”. That applied to us – we did what we could. 

We started to suspect that something was fishy with those visits by social workers, after they stated that our children could be taken away from us. I must say that the whole region, though officially belonging to Russia, was actually Tataria, far away from Moscow. So, the local authorities ruled in the way they wanted, and local mafia had a great influence in the region. I wouldn’t be surprised if there was some child trafficking in place there. I was wondering why they wanted to take our children away. We weren’t alcoholics or drug takers, just very poor people, and poverty shouldn’t be the ground for taking children away from parents.

When the social workers visited us again and said they would be filing a case for taking our children from us, we knew we had to act quickly to save our family.  First of all, we needed to obtain international passports to go abroad. We didn’t need an invitation this time, it was enough to declare ourselves as tourists visiting a foreign country. The officer at militia station informed us we were not Russian citizens, and gave us an article from the regulations to read (that was how we found out about that, as we weren’t even aware). He said that they couldn’t issue us permanent international passports, but one-time non-citizen documents. We were fine with that, as long as we could cross the boarder.

Another very important task we needed to complete was to find a buyer for the flat. There was no Internet available, the only option was to look at local newspapers. We found one small company looking to buy a two-bedroom flat (2 rooms were considered a two-bed property). We visited their office, and they explained they wanted to extend their office by joining a neighbours’ flat to it. There were two ladies living in that flat, and the firm needed to find an alternative accommodation for them. We agreed on the price, and in a few days the ladies visited us to view the flat, and accepted the offer. The firm paid us all the money in cash (we held no bank account). It was in rubles, and we needed to exchange them for dollars. In a few days we were able to find a bank offering that service.

After that, we started to pack our belongings, just the essential things, for the journey. We needed to leave quietly so that no one could see us. We didn’t want social workers to find out that we sold the flat. They needed to sign the papers on behalf of minor children, but we bribed one lawyer so that he could sign them instead. We were forced to do numerous illegal activities just to keep ourselves alive. There was lots of injustice in the system, and people had to do many tricks to stay on the top of the water and not get sunk. We bought train tickets and left at night, to avoid being seen by anyone. We were running after our lives, to look for a decent future for our children. It wasn’t even looking for a better life, but for LIFE. We decided to head to Rzeszow, where we stayed before. It was a huge risk, an act of a deep despair and determination. We didn’t know what lied ahead, but we knew very well what we were leaving behind.