From November until March, Moscow was cold, snowy and brown, the color of trees devoid of leaves and left with empty branches. But spring always came suddenly to Moscow. One day in early March, the sun melted the top layer of ice and snow, shone in the puddles, and turned the streets to mud and slush. It was still coat and hats weather, but Muscovites could sense the approach of the spring. Spring brought smiles, brighter days, revival of nature, and new ideas to Muscovites.
That particular year the new idea that the bright March weather brought to my mother involved me and sports. She had seen me trip over the rope I was supposed to skip, crawl around the ice-skating rink, and hit myself with a badminton racket. She was determined to improve my athletic ability. I was not thrilled.
Unfortunately, a youth gymnastics club was only a block away from our apartment. The club was on the second floor of a tall building stuck between the neighborhood grocery store and the district library.
“You need to be better coordinated and more graceful,” my mother said as she opened the heavy squeaky door. “You are seven, so it’s definitely not too early to start.”
We climbed up a short flight of stairs to the second floor and stopped in front of a door. A small sign hammered to the door read, “Eagle Athletics for Children.” We walked inside.
After exchanging brief greetings with a stern-looking woman in round glasses, her graying hair pinned up in a bun, my mother asked about gymnastics class availability. I held my breath, hoping that other aspiring gymnasts had already taken all the spaces.
“We just opened a new Tuesday/Thursday class for girls aged six and seven. Plenty of spaces in that one,” she said.
My heart sank.
My mother quickly filled an application, paid, and thanked the lady. As soon as we walked outside, I felt an invisible force pulling my body back to the club. What was it? Was it my mother’s convincing arguments? My own hidden desire to improve myself? Nothing like that. It was just my scarf that got stuck in the door-jamb and jerked me back. Nearly escaping strangulation, I freed the scarf. We kept walking.
“Adjust your scarf. Your first class is on Tuesday. Babushka will take you,” my mother said.
My grandmother, Babushka, lived just a few blocks away from us and always volunteered to watch me when my parents were busy. I loved spending time with her – she baked delicious apple pies and always let me win at board games. But I still was not looking forward to gymnastics, not even if Babushka took me.
The first few classes were not too bad: we did a few stretches, ran around, and twirled colorful silk ribbons in the air. Our instructor, Tatiana Ivanovna, was a retired gymnast. She was a nice older lady who did not ask too much of us. And I was grateful for that.
Soon, Babushka and I got into a routine. Every Tuesday and Thursday, we walked down the street to my gymnastics class. Babushka was enthusiastic about my new endeavor. “All girls should be elegant and graceful; gymnastics is good for you,” she often said.
Then, one Thursday, a sudden feeling of dread overcame me when I walked into the large bright room and did not see our instructor.
“Tatiana Ivanovna is away this week. I’ll be your instructor for the next three classes,” a young woman with short dark hair said. A professional gymnast, she was probably in her twenties but was as small and thin as a teenager. She smiled at the class and sat down on her black mat.
I plopped on mine and glanced at a skinny red-haired girl next to me. Sitting flat on the floor, she stretched forward, put her hands over her feet and bent her head down. Were her bones made of rubber?
“You’re flexible, stretch more,” the instructor said to me.
“Uh-huh,” I said and touched my hands to my knees. Something inside me cracked and popped.
“Excellent job, girls!” The instructor smiled. “Let’s do hand-stands now. Please line up.”
Hand-stands? She must be kidding. Surely, a human body is intended to stand on feet, not hands. What if my head slips and I break my neck? What if my wrists give way? What if…? I had to escape this nightmare, and quick. I wiped my sweaty palms on my freshly-washed leotard.
My heart racing, I searched around the room. There was no place to hide. The room was bright and open. One wall had large windows overlooking the street. Radiators were hidden in niches under the windows. The remaining three walls had large mirrors and ballet bars. The other girls lined up to do hand-stands. I sought refuge. I noticed that one radiator niche, in the far corner of the room, was empty. Perfect.
As soon as the instructor turned her back to me, I leaped for my secret hiding spot. When I crawled inside, I heard breathing. A dark-haired girl sat crouched in the corner, her knees pulled up to her chest, her eyes wide open.
“I am too scared to do the hand-stand,” she whispered and moved over.
I crawled inside and crouched next to her.
“My name is Julia. Who are you?”
“I am Julia, too.”
“Where do you live?”
“Building nine on Khlebny Street.”
“Me too! What apartment number? I am in twenty-nine, on the fourth floor.”
“Twenty-eight, on the third floor,” she said. “Do you think they are done?”
I peeked out. Most girls were doing stretches on the ballet bar. One girl was doing a hand-stand. Looking straight down at her, the instructor held the girl’s feet high up in the air.
“Oi, oi, oi,” Julia said. “Scary.”
“She’s the last one,” I whispered. “It’s safe to come out now.”
Julia and I crawled out of the radiator niche. When the instructor turned away to adjust a girl’s ponytail, we dashed to the opposite wall and took our places at the ballet bars.
“Good job with the hand-stands, everyone!” the instructor said.
I winked at Julia. She bit her lip to avoid laughing and stretched on the ballet bars with everyone else. The dreaded hand-stands were safely in the past, and a new friendship was in the future.
Thanks for reading! This story comes from my book Twelve Months of the Soviet Childhood.
The Soviet Union prided itself on its achievements in sports during the Olympic Games and other international competition. Athletic accomplishments of the Soviet Union were regarded as highly as scientific discoveries and space exploration.
Soviet athletes trained hard. Their accomplishments were used to gain prestige for the country, and to show the world the high standards of athletic preparation in the Soviet Union as well as promote the Soviet way of life. The Soviet style in gymnastics combined athletic performance with artistic ballet-style expressive movements.
To coordinate physical education programs, an organization called the Voluntary Sports Societies was created, with the goal to provide access to athletic facilities and sports to everyone in the USSR. Youth athletic clubs were an important part of that program.