Read an Excerpt
As I look back, I see that everything went too smoothly for me.
I had no experience with the sadness of life. Even before I
met Sergei, I was a happy child, innocent and naive, blessed
with good health and much love.
My father, Alexander Alexeyevich Gordeev, was a dancer
for the famous Moiseev Dance Company, a folk dancing
troupe that performed throughout the world. He had strong
legs and a long neck like a ballet dancer, and a stomach that
was absolutely flat. Everything he did, he did fast, and he
always moved quickly around the house. I can remember my
father jumping over swords when he danced, bringing his
legs up to his chin as the knifelike blades flashed beneath
him, fourteen, fifteen, sixteen times in a row. Or he'd kneel
down and kick, left and right, left and: right, in the athletic
manner of the folk dancers of Russia.
My father wanted me to be a ballet dancer. That was his
big dream. He was disappointed that I became a skater. He
had gray-blue eyes, the same color as mine, and a kind face.
But he was also strict and serious, as if his kind face didn't
quite match the words that came out of his mouth.
He met my mother, Elena Levovna, at a dance class when
she was fourteen. They married when she was nineteen, and
I was born when she was twenty. My mother was the sweet
one, always perfect with children, the person I most admire
on this earth. Selfless, generous, she was also
quite beautiful as a young woman, five feet six inches tall,
with a tiny waist and a very feminine figure. She walked like
a ballerina, one foot just in front of the other. Her hair was
brown, like mine, and wavy. Her fingernails were strong, and
she polished them red and wore makeup every day. I used to
watch in fascination as she applied it. She
was always tender with my younger sister, Maria, and me,
smiling much more often than my father.
She worked as a teletype operator for the Soviet news
agency Tass. She was proud of her job, which paid her 250
roubles a month--more than my father made--and she
liked to look nice when she went to work. She always
wore high heels and beautiful clothes that my father had
brought back from overseas, attire that set her apart
from most Soviet women. She, too, traveled for her
work. When I was eleven, my mother spent six months
in Yugoslavia, and the next year she worked twelve
months in Bonn, West Germany.
Even when she was based in
Moscow, my mom worked
long and irregular hours,
from eight in the morning till eight in the evening one
day; then from eight in the evening till eight in the
morning the next.
So my maternal
Fedoseeva, took care
of me and my sister.
We didn't have to
worry about day care or
babysitters. We called
her Babushka, and
she was an important
person in my life. She
was short and a little
heavy, but walked
very nimbly and was
full of energy.
One time, when I was twelve, we were training at a
place on the Black Sea, and one of the other skaters
left my suitcase in the Moscow airport. The boys were
in charge of the bags, the girls were in charge of the tennis racquets, and
when I got off the plane, I had this boy's tennis racquet but
he'd forgotten my bag. I could have killed him. So I called
home to ask them to send my suitcase to me.
My grandmother went to the airport and picked up my
bag, but she didn't trust putting it on an airplane by itself. So
she took it on an overnight train to Krasnodar, five hundred
miles, then took a bus to the resort where we trained. I
got a call from the guard at the gate saying my bag had
arrived. I went to pick it up, and there was my
grandmother. I wanted to cry when I saw her.
"Babushka, what are you doing here?" I asked.
She told me she had brought me my suitcase. She only
stayed a few hours, then she walked to the bus and took the
overnight train back home to Moscow.
Her hair was always short and neatly styled. When my
grandmother was nineteen years old, her hair turned
completely white, like paper, and ever since, she went
regularly to the hairdresser. Her face was darling; her
voice soft and soothing. I loved to listen to her read to my
sister and me at night. My favorites were Grimm's fairy
tales. Very, very scary. My grandmother did most of the
cooking, and I liked to help her in the kitchen. She taught
me how to knit and sew, and made my skating costumes for
me until I was eleven. She taught me how to suck the yolks
out of eggs and decorate the shells for Easter. That was one
of my family's favorite holidays. A few weeks before Easter
came, Babushka used to take a plate, fill it with earth, then
plant grass in the earth. She watered it and tended it until
the grass grew up. Then on Easter morning we'd hide painted
eggs in the grass for my sister, Maria, to find.
My grandfather--my mother's father--also lived with us.
His name was Lev Faloseev, and I called him Diaka, which is
short for diadushka: grandfather. He had been a colonel in a
tank division during World War II, a prestigious position that
enabled us to live in a lifestyle that was, while not
extravagant, quite comfortable by Soviet Union standards. He
taught about tank warfare at the Red Army academy in
Moscow. He always wore a uniform to work, covered by a
warm gray coat in winter, and a big fur hat and strong leather
boots. His uniform always smelled very weird to me, pungent
and musty, so he took it off as soon as he came home. Then
he would have a nice long dinner, followed by a glass or two of cognac.
He called me Katrine--nobody else called me
this--and he liked both me and my sister very much. He
was a calm man, a quiet man, who used to let Maria and me
play with his medals from the war. We also liked to look at
his books. I remember thumbing through his history books
and geography books, which were very old and filled with
maps of famous battles, much more interesting than our
We lived in a five-room apartment on the eleventh floor
of a twelve-story building on Kalinina Prospekt, near the
Russian White House, where the parliament meets. It was a
fantastic location, with a good view of the Moscow River.
From the balcony we used to be able to watch the soldiers
on parade march past our building on their way to Red
Square. It was also a beautiful spot to watch holiday
fireworks, which were aimed so they'd come down in the
river. The Olympic torch in 1980 was also exchanged on
our street. I remember watching the ceremony from our
balcony when I was nine years old.
From what I could tell, I was the luckiest girl on earth,
wanting for nothing. Like most children, I never thought
much about the rest of the world. I never heard bad things
about the United States, either on television or in school,
was never frightened that someone would drop bombs on us,
and never worried that the United States and the Soviet
Union would go to war. It was more like: We're the happiest
country; we're the greatest nation. I was fourteen before I
began to learn anything about politics, and by then I
understood, or started to, that when the government tells
you something, it doesn't necessarily mean it's true.
* * *
My parents used to vacation for a month every summer at
the Black Sea. I hated to swim. I've always hated to swim, I
don't know why. I'm not very good at it, and my mother tells
me that the only time I ever got angry as a child was when I
couldn't do something well. But in a roundabout way, a
Black Sea vacation was how I got started skating.
On one trip my parents met a skater who trained at the
Central Red Army Club. The club was known by its initials:
CSKA, an acronym that we pronounced cesska. The army,
like many trade unions in the former Soviet Union--
automobile manufacturers, farm equipment makers, coal
miners, steel workers--sponsored sports clubs throughout
the country, and the biggest and most prestigious of these
was CSKA. These sports clubs--and there were
hundreds and hundreds of them nationwide--were
quite professionally run, with the best coaches and
facilities. They turned out the elite athletes that made
the Soviet Union an international powerhouse in sports.
One key to the success of the clubs was identifying
talented children at a young age and teaching them
sound fundamentals so they could reach their full
potential. Tryouts were held by age group, and they
were open to anyone. Your parents didn't have to have
any army affiliation to join CSKA. If your child was
selected, the club was free of charge. It was affiliated
with a sports school in Moscow that also provided the
young athletes with an education. It was a great honor
to be admitted to any sports club, but particularly
CSKA, because sports was one of the few means by
which a Soviet citizen could travel and see the world;
and top athletes also got many privileges unavailable to
the ordinary citizen, like hard-to-find Moscow
apartments, cars, and relatively generous monthly
This skater knew of my father's dance company, and
he suggested that my parents bring me to the rink at the
army club in September to try out. I was only four
years old, too young to start ballet and too young even
to try out for skating. But this friend lied to CSKA
officials and told them I was five, which was the age at
which you were allowed to join. I was very tiny, which
is an advantage for a girl in skating, and they took me
It was impossible to find skates small enough to fit
me in Moscow at that time, so I wore several pairs of
socks beneath the smallest skates my mother could find. The first
year I skated twice a week, a regimen that increased to four
times a week when I was five. It was just an activity to me,
something to give me exercise. I didn't have any goals in
mind. If it hadn't been skating, it would have been
gymnastics or dance. My mom never really believed I'd be
anything special as a skater until Sergei and I won the
Junior World Championships when I was thirteen. She
just wanted me to be a normal kid and thought whatever I
was doing was great. I never dreamed about Olympic medals
or traveling the world like my parents. On the ice, I was not
a good jumper. I just liked to skate.
But the Central Red Army Club had a long history of
producing skating champions, and the coaches knew how to
train a young child for future success. We did physical
conditioning off the ice three times a week--abdominals,
jumping, leg exercises--and ballet training three days a
week, which I loved. We learned how to stand, how to hold
our heads, how to hold our hands and arms. Everything. There
was a mirror the entire length of the army club rink where we
skated, so we could keep an eye on our posture. And I was
always the smallest one, boy or girl.
My mother tells me that as a child I was obedient. I was
not a troublemaker at all. And disciplined. In order to be at
the rink by 7:00 A.M., which was when we had ice, I had to be
up at 5:30 or 6:00 in the morning. Sometimes my parents
wouldn't want to drive me to the early practice. I'd toddle in
and wake them, insisting, "I can't miss it. It's my job."
This side of me came from my father. He was very hard
on me, very demanding. He got mad at me if my hair wasn't
braided, or if my shirt wasn't tucked in, or if my room wasn't
neat; if my posture wasn't right, or if my face wasn't clean,
or if my food wasn't eaten.
As a child I was always tense around my father. He
expected me to be able to tell time when I was four years
old. My mom always said, "It's all right, she'll learn it soon
enough." She always had sympathy for me, probably because
I was so tiny. But my father just kept on pushing
me. I was scared of him. If he came to help me with my
homework, my head didn't absorb anything because I was
so afraid that I'd make a mistake. Always fast in mind and
movement, he wanted the answers immediately. I got so
stiff, so panicky, I couldn't do it. He expected the
homework perfect, with no mistakes. If I didn't do it right,
he made me repeat it again and again, until it was not just
correct, but also neat. I used to make my sixes backward,
and if I erased one of these mistakes, I had to do the whole
homework sheet over again.
Looking back now, I can see that he was teaching me to
strive for perfection. Sometimes I think he overdid it. But
whenever I made a remark like "I want to finish first" or "I
want to be the best," my father liked it.
Deep down, though, my father always had a kind heart.
It's said that the eyes are a window to the soul, and I know
it's true, because my father's eyes were kind. He sometimes
came to my room before I went to bed and said, "Katia, I'm
sorry I was so hard on you." He used to get angry with me
if I got sick, saying it was my fault because I wasn't
wearing warm enough clothes. I was even afraid to cough
in front of him. But in the evening he'd come up to my
room and give me my medicine, or would rub cream on my
chest, and he'd apologize for getting mad.
He explained that he was the way he was because he'd
always been hard on himself. He was already a dancer
when he began serving two years in the army, and every
night, after doing his army duties all day, he'd go to the
ballet and work out so he wouldn't lose his conditioning.
He told me, you always have to do extra. If your coach tells
you to do five jumps, you must do eight. If everyone else
does something once, you must do it twice.
Now I see my father with my daughter, Daria, and I can't
believe he's the same man. He's so patient, and will take
hours to explain something to her. If he asks her to clean up
her toys, he will also help. I don't remember my father ever
helping me clean up. When Daria was little, he would feed
her the bottle and hold her as long as he could. He is
completely different now that he's a grandfather. His body
shape is different, too. Perhaps there's a connection.