Recently, my coming-of-age creative nonfiction piece, “Believing in Lenin,” appeared in an Oakland-based literary journal Generations.” Generations, a Journal of Ideas and Images, publishes original work by emerging and established authors to encourage conversations across the generational gaps. Since they are currently in print only, I decided to post the text here.
In Soviet Union, children were more than just children. They were October’s Kids, in honor of the revolution that stamped out Russian monarchy in 1917, and it was a pretty big deal. Decorated with star-shaped pins with Lenin’s picture as a boy, they sang spirituals like “Lenin is within you and within me” in music class, alongside the tunes about the female deer and the rays of golden sun. And if they were good, they’d be taken on a pilgrimage trip to Moscow, to see Lenin’s body in a glass case.
By the third grade, kids were promoted to pioneers, the nation’s superheroes, and given a red silk neckerchief, to be ironed and worn daily. The pioneer was inspired by the American boy scouts. He was always prepared. He didn’t copy his homework or masturbate. He was supposed to give up his seat on a bus, bring candy to sick classmates, do neighborhood cleanup projects and learn to TP the windows in case of an American nuclear attack.
Finally, in high school, teens were inoculated against capitalism through sociopolitical activities and taught to shoot from an AK-47.
But politics aside, to kids, Vladimir Ilyitch Lenin was just a kind grandpa, known for his voracious appetite and for his love of children. His bald head with a goatie and a squint watching from every classroom’s wall, suggested to an impressionable mind that no harm could come. That everything would be okay.
That’s why it was a shock to discover that not everyone adored Lenin as much as I did.
“I’m going to teach you to swear – you’re too innocent,” my friend Katya said the summer I turned nine. Not only did she boast breasts and painted her fingernails, but she could ride her bicycle very fast, all of which boosted her credibility. “So, where do you want to start?”
“Alright.” She nibbled on her nail. “Let’s start with…. prick.”
“It’s that thing that boys have and girls don’t. Say it. Prick.”
“Prick.” The word sounded foreign, adult-like, pleasurably shameful.
“Now, say,” she sculpted every syllable, “Lenin has a prick.”
As far as I was concerned, Lenin had no physical body. He was like sunshine, or motherly love, or peace on earth, bringing joy to the people without actually touching them.
“Go on.” A butterfly fluttered by, transparent in the sunlight. A bee whizzed after it.
“Just say it already. Lenin. Has. A prick.”
“You can’t prove it.”
Katya rolled her eyes. “Everyone knows it’s true. Well?” She kicked her toe into the dirt.
Katya was delusional. “I should go home,” I declared.
“Okay, fine…Lenin has it.”
“He has what?”
“Lenin has a prick.”
No bombs came swooping from the sky. Weeping family members didn’t storm out with wool socks and potatoes for my sojourn to Siberia. Instead, the birds were chirping and the birch trees were rustling, as if they’d known all along that Lenin had genitals.
“Now you are big,” Katya said. She hooked a piece of flavorless chewing gum with her nail out of her mouth and handed it down to me.
The following summer, a neighbor, four years my senior, decided to continue where Katya’s left off.
“Whatcha doin’?” he said, as I gathered pebbles into the hem of my skirt, retailored from my mother’s old one by my grandmother.
“Carrying pebbles. See? For a worm grotto I’m making.”
“Don’t you know it’s indecent?” he said.
“A grotto is indecent?”
“Lifting your skirt is indecent.”
“For real?” he said, repositioning the stack of books under his arm.
I considered the reality of things. But instead, his eyebrows and chiseled cheekbones suddenly seemed paralyzing down from where I stood.
“Maybe grow up a bit, act like a woman?” he boomed, now standing very close. “I bet Lenin’s still your little hero, isn’t he?”
The pebbles in the hem of my skirt accidentally gurgled in the affirmative. I wished I were a worm, then, so I could quietly crawl deep underground and stay for a few years.
“Such a baby!” he said and spat out of the side of his mouth. “Lenin was a murderer. He was bad, comrade.”
And he swaggered away, whistling, probably heading to meet up with the girl his age next door, the one who could sing Madonna in English and recruited kids to do her dishes in exchange for drawings of Mickey Mouse. Perhaps she too didn’t make all that much of Lenin.
I stood there with the heavy pebbles in the hem of my mother’s old skirt, unable to identify the source of this sudden questioning.
No consolation arrived, however. Soon, the Berlin Wall fell, Western sneakers, Playboy magazine and glow-in-the-dark condoms started trickling into the USSR. My hometown, Leningrad, got a fancy new name. And although Lenin’s portrait still watched from the walls, it, too, had changed.
Now, whenever the leader gazed with a smile as warm as a bowl of cabbage soup in the winter, the word prick would imprint itself right over it. Not only was Lenin bad, it was turning out, but he was also unwholesomely human.
Yet I was alone in my doubt. Just listen to that teacher prattling off the Bolshevik creed, I sneered in history class. Or my friend Lena, cutting portraits of Soviet leaders out of a newspaper and pasting them into her little album. If only they knew, knew that Lenin was bad!
Just like I used to learn odes to Lenin’s greatness, I now memorized the neighbor’s phone number. Two five two. Eleven. Twenty two. Two five two. Eleven. Twenty two. It became supremely important to know whether, in those books he read, he’d found something new to believe in. And if, in disowning Lenin’s affection, I’d gain his.
Finally, I showed up at school without my compulsory red pioneer’s neckerchief.
“Where’s your neckerchief?” the teacher said.
“How come it’s there and you’re here?”
“I forgot it.”
“You think rules don’t apply to you?” She clipped toward me, escorted by a cloud of generic perfume. Her ruler smacked down on the desk, close to my fingers. “Why didn’t you put your neckerchief on?”
“Because Lenin was…bad?”
The teacher shuffled for a while, then clipped out of the classroom to recruit the school principal.
“Leave!” squealed the principal. “And don’t you dare come back without your neckerchief around your neck!”
Too bad the neighbor couldn’t see me now. He would appreciate this act of defiance. He’d congratulate me for being so clever. Maybe he’d even tell me I was pretty, in his booming voice. And a new, wondrous life would begin.
But outside was just a chilly morning. Unfamiliar adults buried their chins in their coats. Buses and cars zipped by, spraying black sleet. The city was colossal compared to the school halls, where warm bodies of the other seventh graders were probably swaying in choir now, with me no longer a part of their familiar song. And home, with the neckerchief waiting to be tied around my neck, was receding further into the fog.
I drifted through the playgrounds, careful to avoid the leaf piles, once so delightfully crunchy. Careful to avoid the iced puddles, once so perfect to glide upon. Careful to hold down my uniform skirt against the wind. There was suddenly no destination, no answer key in the back of the textbook, except for an inconsolable suspicion that this rain, this wandering were a part of being big from now on.