1996 | Minsk, Belarus | Age: 20
I came here with my parents from Minsk, Belarus in 1996. I was 20 years old. We could only take 2 pieces of jewelry with us. Both my mom and I had earrings, but we had other jewelry that we really wanted to bring with us, especially the pieces that had been my grandmother’s. The years are engraved on them. We put these in a little bag that I put in my coat pocket, thinking I’d just go through, and no one would say anything. It was January and really cold, and my mother made me wear this really heavy fur coat, which I hated. They took my mom and me aside to a different room, where they searched our things, and of course they found the bag of jewelry and threatened to call the police. My mom’s blood pressure started to fall, and she fainted in the middle of the airport. Then my grandmother ran through the gate screaming, and she fainted too. I stood between the two of them, screaming for help. The officials got scared and threw the little bag of jewelry at us, telling my mom that if she didn’t pull herself together, we wouldn’t be able to get on the plane. And I thought to myself, “please pull yourself together, we have to get on that plane!” She felt horrible, and it was her first time on a plane, so she was very scared. But when I was finally on that plane, it was the happiest moment of my life.
My father was a “knigolyub” - a book-lover - who belonged to a society of book enthusiasts. So we brought a set of 30 classics and others, and we’ve kept them in these plastic protectors. My first fairy tale was The Count of Monte Cristo. My father would read it to me or just tell me the story. We were allowed to bring one bag per person, so one of our bags was just all books. We also took kitchen utensils and towels. I still have the day of the week towels. “Tuesday” is clean right now. But it’s the books that I associate with my dad. When I was young, I saw him skiing, I saw him working, and I saw him with a book. I think my love of reading and writing comes from that environment that I grew up in, listening to stories and books on records. I wish my kids would do that. They get bored when I put a CD in.
In the USSR in the ‘80s it was hard to find good books, and especially in hardcover. Sometimes we had multiple copies of the same books so that my father could take them to “knigalyub” meetings on his business trips and trade them for books we didn’t have. We had about 2,000 books in our library at home. And if we couldn’t find, say hardcover Queen Margot, my father and I would make the cover on our book press at home. The press was so heavy. We didn’t have all these little luxuries, simple things like clear tape. But he’d find it through people he knew, and we’d make the hard covers, and my dad would trade them for other books. He did this so well, I’m not sure I’d be able to recognize these books now. I look at all these books my mom still has, and I just want to cry. There are so many! My father died almost 2 years ago. It was very sudden. He just collapsed from a brain aneurysm. So the books are what I treasure the most.
As a 20 year old, this is a book that I chose to bring myself. It’s a children’s book of poems and fairytales. I’ve read it to my kids. This is probably one of the first editions - 1978, and this portrait of Pushkin is from 1827. My daughter loves it because of the rhymes and repetitions. But I can’t read her most of it anymore because she won’t understand. Same with The Count of Monte Cristo. I’m reading it to her in Russian, and I find myself translating from Russian to Russian just to make her understand what’s going on. The concepts are so foreign. Even to me.