"Grandmother wasn't afraid to criticize Stalin, but she always said to us, 'Walls have ears. If you repeat what I tell you, they'll take you away and you'll never see your family or your home again.' The whole time I was growing up, I had this vision of walls being gigantic ears."
In 1954, Nina' s family moved to Tallinn, Estonia when her father was stationed there by the army. Although Soviet slogans forever trumpeted the "brotherhood of nations" and "friendship between peoples" of the USSR, Nina found that the Estonians -- whose land had been annexed by Stalin less than fifteen years earlier -- were not well-disposed toward Russians.
"Russians and Estonians went to separate schools," she recalls, "and we always made sure not to walk by the Estonian school, because the kids would taunt us, and try to start fights. Before we moved to Tallinn, I didn't even know what another nationality was. But I found out quickly enough that I was different from the Estonian kids.
"I always felt like a second-class citizen in Estonia, and made up my mind during that time that I would never live anywhere but Russia again. We lived there more than ten years, but it never felt like home."
In 1956, Nikita Khrushchev made his "secret speech" to the 20th Party Congress, boldly denouncing Stalin and his reign of terror in unprecedented terms. The period that followed came to be known as the "thaw", as hundreds of political prisoners were released, certain freedoms were conceded to the arts community, and the atmosphere of the country in general became slightly more open.
"There was a different feeling in the air," says Nina. "Students started coming to the USSR from Africa and the Arab states, and people felt more free to talk openly."
But even with this relative thaw, many old habits of fear and secrecy continued. Although Nina's parents both professed a belief in God, they were afraid to go to the only Russian Orthodox church in Tallinn. Nina went with her grandmother, who was unrepentant and unashamed of her religious beliefs. "She used to say, 'Let them shoot me, but I will have icons in my house'," says Nina, who has a row of icons in her own house today.
One day in 1961, when Nina was sitting in her 9th grade math class, the teacher was called out of the room. When she came back in, her eyes were wide with excitement. "Children!" she announced with pride, "Man is in space!" Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin was at that moment orbiting the earth in the first-ever manned space flight.
"I was so proud," she says. "I was the kind of child who cried whenever Soviet athletes won international awards and our flag was raised. I loved my country so much! So when the first man in space was a Soviet man, it made the achievement that much better.
The idealistic young Komsomolka got a dose of cynicism when she went to her first open Party meeting. "I was so nervous," she said. "I thought it would be this monumental gathering, where people discussed ideas and really did the work of the Party. But when I got there, nobody was paying attention; people were milling about, reading, playing chess. It was farcical.
"I knew from that time that there was nothing to strive for in the Communist system. If that was what Party meetings were about, there was no reason to want to belong.
The seeds of cynicism sown in that first meeting sprouted further as Nina grew older. When applying for admittance to the Leningrad Medical Institute after finishing high school, Nina wrote a scathing indictment of Soviet slogans for her essay. Due in part, perhaps, to her experiences in Estonia, she viewed them as mindless and hypocritical.
"Those slogans made me sick! 'Long live friendship between nations!' 'Long live the Soviet brotherhood!' So I wrote a critique. When my aunt found out about it, she said, 'The black raven is going to come for you!' -- meaning the black Volga sedans that came for people who were to be arrested.
"But nothing bad resulted from that essay. In fact, I got highest marks."