The author, seven years old and at the start of the school year, after a brush with juvenile delinquency Credit: Courtesy Maya Dukmasova

When I was seven I broke into a house with some older kids one summer. This was in Russia in the 90s, as the society around us was collapsing. The fall of the Soviet Union and the descent of the country into sudden, unregulated capitalism yielded the rapid development of inequality. Seemingly overnight a place in which, for decades, people basically had the same homes, made the same paychecks, and got access to the same opportunities became a place where ostentatious wealth coexisted with grinding poverty. Grannies with college educations were begging for change in the street in threadbare clothes while the latest Mercedes sedans zoomed past. I and a lot of others had a parent who’d lapsed into drug addiction or alcoholism and disappeared from our lives, while some of our classmates had parents with money who bought them their own apartments in the poshest parts of town. Within a few years, the same people who’d relied on humanitarian aid shipments of clothing from London were going on vacations to the French Riviera while retirees who’d rebuilt the nation after WWII were going back to work to pay their light bills. My grandmother was among them. She toiled on a small plot of land in the countryside all summer to grow the food our family needed while nearby newfangled “businessmen” built palatial second homes. The house we broke into was one of those, standing empty while the owners were away in the city. I was small enough to squeeze through an open window and unlock the doors for the rest of the crew.

I remember so vividly the feeling that none of it was real. The house—massive, multistory, filled with nice furniture and expensive electronics—looked like something out of an American movie. I didn’t feel like I was assaulting a neighbor’s space. I don’t know if anyone stole anything, but I remember doing damage in the house. We threw food and paint around the bedrooms, found tires to roll down the stairs, bounced around in the pool shed on rolls of fiberglass until we were exhausted. I knew what we were doing was wrong, I knew I could get in a lot of trouble if my family found out, but I didn’t care. The consequences seemed far away, and in front of me was a chance to have fun.

Maybe we were depraved little villains with irresponsible parents, maybe we weren’t whupped enough. But thinking back on it now, all I can conclude about our bizarre, dangerous, harmful decisions is that we had nothing to do on a summer day, and when confronted with what, to us, seemed like fairytale riches and a window of opportunity, we psyched each other up to do something wild. Why didn’t I do it again? Probably the biggest “consequence” that deterred me was the fiberglass powder lodged in my skin that took days of bath soaks and interrogations from my mom to clear. I also never had a chance to. Life just got too filled with other things to do.   v