Memories sustain in world of isolation The pensioner: Democratic reforms have caught an 85-year-old survivor of Russia's brutal past unprepared for change.

August 22, 1996|By CLARA GERMANI

MOSCOW -- Seventy years after the Bolsheviks expropriated her family home in Sebastopol, Antonina Merkulova finds herself a property owner for the first time.

Russia's wave of post-Communist privatization has finally caught up with the 85-year-old pensioner. In December she exchanged the four-room communal apartment she shared with three other families for a two-bedroom apartment of her own.

It's practically palatial. She has room to hang all the paintings her late husband, a famous Soviet film animator, made of the passionate lives they led through revolution, world war and Josef Stalin's purges.

And she hates the place.

Privatization might have provided the first real assets most Russians have ever been able to claim for themselves, but it has meant wrenching change, loneliness and isolation for many such as Merkulova.

She left behind the quaint, familiar pre-revolutionary Arbat neighborhood of central Moscow -- what she calls her "native land" -- for a Moscow suburb with all the charm of an industrial complex. Since moving she has been out of her apartment only a handful of times because she considers her new neighborhood hostile and unfamiliar.

It's a similar story for many of Russia's 37 million retirees. This older generation -- almost a fourth of all Russians -- bore the brunt of World War II, fighting or starving to save the Russian motherland. They labored in quiet submission to the ironhanded Soviet system. They were promised -- and they expected -- a secure end for their trouble: a decent pension, reliable medical care, crime-free streets and weekends in the country with the grandchildren.

Instead, thanks to the new market economy and elimination of the ruble's phony value, they've watched their life savings vanish through inflation. Merkulova's nest egg, worth the equivalent of $20,000 in 1990, isn't enough to buy a sausage. Pensions have likewise become a monthly slap in the face --Merkulova's amounts to about $50. Medical care has vanished into the uncertainty of all public services since the Soviet system's collapse in 1991.

Democratic reforms have created rich opportunities for those fast on their feet and ready to adapt to a new life. But it's too late for people of Merkulova's generation, caught unprepared for change.

A survivor

But don't mistake Merkulova for a complainer. If they gave medals for cheerful adaptability, she'd have a chestful.

She is, after all, a survivor of Russia's brutal modern history.

Like something out of a script for an epic movie, Merkulova's long life -- already 12 years more than the life expectancy for a Russian woman -- is a case history of Russia and the Soviet Union.

She was born in czarist Russia in 1911. By the time she was 11, her family home had been taken over by the revolutionary Communist government. During the famines caused by the civil war of the early 1920s, she survived for months eating apples stolen from Crimean orchards.

Beginning in the 1930s with Stalin's purges, Merkulova learned to muzzle her humor for fear it would land her in Siberia or in front of a firing squad.

She survived World War II, a conflict in which a large number of her generation died.

She especially remembers a day in 1941 at the train station in Riazan, south of Moscow. While she was waiting to change trains, a rumor that the Germans were about to bomb the station panicked thousands of passengers into a stampede. Merkulova was forced to abandon her luggage and dive onto the tracks with her toddler, Nina. She crawled desperately from track to track until she found an outbound train.

She spent the dreary stagnation of the Cold War years, when her husband was working in the Soviet film business, indulging her fantasies by copying Russian starlets' outfits on her sewing machine and then wearing them to premieres.

When democracy arrived in 1991, it was just another turn in a long chain of events. She considers it a good course for Russia, though not necessarily for her.

"I was never afraid of anything. I overcame all difficulties by smiling," says Merkulova, whose impish, sparkling blue eyes suggest she is not exaggerating. "I had a very happy life because I didn't respond to what was going on; my first thought was not to panic, but to somehow escape.

"That's why it's hard now. I'm just not ready for old age."

Indeed, her quick mind and rambunctious, talkative streak, her perfect hearing and decent vision, all seem at odds with the arthritic bend of her fingers and the cane she uses to leverage herself out of chairs.

Another time, another place

Although the walls of the apartment she shares with Nina are the boundaries of her life, her self-image and mind-set are of a woman in another time and place.

She girlishly curls her gray-blond bangs over a scar she got in some teen-age tomboy tumble. She wears pants -- practically unheard of for women of her generation, who typically swathe themselves in layers of skirts and sweaters over long johns.

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