A small room but a rich life Moscow: Zhenya Slivkina's family resides in a 12-by-16-foot room, but her parents find ways for her to thrive.

December 28, 1997|By Kathy Lally | Kathy Lally,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOSCOW -- Zhenya Slivkina is 8 years old and just under 4 feet tall, but she has already learned how to soar over the stifling confines of childhood in Russia.

She, her parents and two dogs live in one small rectangle of a room in a communal apartment in Moscow. Never mind. Zhenya's imagination has turned the postage-stamp-sized room into a vast Olympic stage where she performs gymnastic floor routines to adoring audiences.

Her parents are struggling to stay afloat in the rising fury of Russia's economic hurricane, and their budget allows them a miserly $10 a day to run the household. Never mind. Zhenya simply loves kasha, the inexpensive porridge that can serve as breakfast or supper.

Naturally, Russia's Father Frost can't fill his Christmas sack with the Barbies and CD-ROMs and shiny bicycles that Santa Claus showers on American children.

Never mind. Zhenya has cheerfully written out her heart's desires in a sure, accomplished script. The little piece of paper will be hung on the door for Father Frost to find as he makes his rounds on New Year's Eve. Zhenya reads over her list joyfully.

"Ded Moroz," Zhenya begins in the Russian for Father Frost.

She's asking for quite a lot, she thinks:

"A ballpoint pen, a thick notebook, a water pistol, a drawing tablet, a play telephone, any toy," she writes.

"Of course, it's only a list for Ded Moroz to choose from," Zhenya's mother, Lena, says, reminding her that no child can have everything.

"The list gets longer every day," her father, Nikolai, says with an indulgent laugh.

During the Soviet years, the Communists outlawed Christmas and turned the celebration into a New Year's holiday. So Zhenya is expecting her presents on New Year's Eve instead of on the Russian Orthodox Christmas Jan. 7.

Zhenya carefully folds the piece of paper. On the outside she has written the initials D.M., so Ded Moroz cannot doubt it's for him.

An American might consider Zhenya deprived. She and her parents share a kitchen and bathroom with two other families. It's often unpleasant. The bathroom is old and dank and smells of cigarette smoke.

"I hold my nose when I use it because I've read smoke poisons children," Zhenya says.

"I'm sick and tired of the neighbors," Lena says, "but I quench the fire inside me. If you want to live peacefully with the neighbors, you can't make any remarks."

Zhenya sleeps on a youth-sized bed. She has a bookcase for her books and small collection of toys. The family's glassware sits in a cabinet above her headboard. A curtain separates her bed from the rest of the room, which has a small pull-out couch for her parents. There's a table big enough for three at mealtime.

Multiplication tables are taped to the wall for Zhenya to practice -- Zhenya is on the sixes. Two wardrobes hold their clothes and possessions; shelves provide for books and a television and VCR.

The family's whole lives are contained in the 12-by-16-foot room. But Zhenya is rich in the life of the imagination. She sits on her bed and teaches her doll how to count in English and say her ABC's -- Zhenya is learning English in school.

She dreams of being grown up enough to walk to school by herself. And five days a week, four hours a day, she practices gymnastics.

Russian life is one careful calculation after another, and Lena Slivkina always knew she was going to have to be exceptionally clever if she was going to find a way for Zhenya to thrive.

"First of all, the apartment is very damp," Lena says. "I wanted to find a way to get her out of here as much as possible. My main task is to protect her and help her develop as a normal girl."

When Zhenya started to climb a utility pipe in the corner of the room at age 3, Lena and Nikolai knew what to do. "We decided to give her to sports," Lena says.

Just before she turned 5, she was accepted by the gymnastics school of Moscow's Central Army Club. Because she is part of the national team, her training is free.

Her coach is Yelena Nikolayevna Shevchenko, an Olympic champion who won a gold medal at Seoul in 1988.

A visitor asks Zhenya if she wants to go to the Olympics. "What's that?" Zhenya asks.

"That's where Yelena Nikolayevna won her medal," her mother says.

"I want to, I want to," Zhenya says instantly and with conviction.

The first year, all the little girls cried because the coaches were stretching them so hard, Lena says. Even so, Zhenya loved it.

"She comes home after four hours of practice," Lena says, "she eats dinner, then she starts all over again," practicing on her own.

Lena worries constantly. She's afraid Zhenya doesn't have enough time to study. She and Nikolai don't want to pressure their daughter.

"If it hurts her schoolwork," Lena says, "we'll have her quit."

Her parents don't permit themselves to dream of the Olympics.

"I think education is the most important thing," Lena says. "But a child has to have serious work. Some children collect stamps; some dance. Zhenya has gymnastics.

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