The Night I Lost My Faith in Woman Power, and the Day I Gained it Back.

One woman's shocking, tragic Me Too story, and her struggle, decades later, to integrate her experiences into a society where women believe in their own strength.

New York City. Friday morning. I am in the SoulCycle class at 8:30 am and wondering why all these people here are not working, studying, or rushing someplace at this time. I am in my 50s, and it seems as if a whole century separates me from this crowd, which consists predominately of girls from the ever-awesome millennial generation. They know what they want and they get it. They do not do what they do not want. That is why they are not at work or school, but here at 8:30 for the cycle class.

The class is full, about seventy people; seven rows of bikes squeezed into a room the size of my apartment. It is filled with young, incredibly fit girls with beautiful torsos. They are stripped down to their Lululemon bras and fancy leggings in anticipation of a sweaty ride. The lights dim, the music starts, the instructor shouts a few encouraging words to give us a boost of energy, and we all embark on a 45-minute trip to the moon and back.

The girls in the first six rows are flawlessly synchronized. They are moving enthusiastically, beautifully, and intensely. They are one giant, unstoppable machine of energy, strength, and perfection. Speaking of perfection… They all have perfectly round, firm butts, which I call “SoulCycle butts.” Seriously, they all exert power, courage, and a strong sense of self-worth. These girls are the modern Amazons, fiercely spurring their bikes on the road to equality and independence.

I am in the last row and spend the first ten minutes of the class trying to fit my cleats onto the wrong side of the pedal. Finally, success! Pedaling twice as slowly as everybody else, desperately trying to follow the moves, listening to the music and the instructor’s inspirational commands, pushing myself to the brink.

It does not stop. I’m sweating profusely, trying to listen to the lyrics (it helps!) while pushing myself harder and finally realizing, “Yes, I can do this!”

I’m trying to convince myself that if I can somehow get through this, I can stick with these girls and go anywhere with them. I can work, travel, ski, hike any mountain, and fulfill my wildest dreams. I am not in the ditch yet; I am still driving down the middle of the road. I am crying. Luckily, it is dark in the room, and nobody notices.

The long-awaited water break, and then we are doing weights while still pushing the pedals. I am raising the five-pound weights up and to the side. I push them ten, twenty, thirty times. My muscles are burning, but there is no escape. Everybody will notice if I stop. Then, we have to do a boxing kick, punch while holding onto the dumbbells.

Punch? I feel confusion and anger arise within me. I think, “No, oh, no, no, no! This is an aggressive, scary, and misleading move. It just creates an illusion. Yes, you girls are strong and fearless. You are unstoppable, and spiritually, you might outrun men, but physically… Please! Do not kid yourselves.”

A situation comes to mind. I remember that beautiful fit girl I read about in the newspaper. The one who ran in the early evening in the park in Queens. She was raped and killed. It is horrible to say, but I think if she had not fought back, she would’ve been raped, but not killed. She would’ve lived, seen many sunrises and sunsets, and enjoyed many more runs in the park.

One cold evening in Leningrad

Long ago, in my college years, I was still living with my parents. One evening, I had a fierce fight with them, slammed the door, and left. Sadly, it was late in the evening, and I had no place to go. All my girlfriends lived with their parents, hotels were out of reach for me, and I had no boyfriend at the time.

I flipped through my mental Rolodex and made a few calls from a phone booth. The people I called were either not home or could not offer me a solution. I was out of ideas and out of phone tokens.

It was November in Leningrad, and it was cold, damp, dark, and miserable. I was looking for anyone from whom I could buy more phone tokens, but people rarely went out at that time of night. I was not giving up though. Not yet. Worst-case scenario, I thought, I would sleep at the train station.

Suddenly, a car stopped, and the guy at the wheel asked me if I needed to go anywhere. I said, somewhat sadly, that I had no place to go and asked him to sell me a phone token. He gave me a few and left. I made a couple more useless phone calls. I had no place to go.

Half an hour later, the same car returned and stopped again. The driver asked if I need somewhere to go. “No!” I said, almost crying. “I do not need a ride!”

Then, he softly said that he could help me, that he had a place in mind for me to stay, that it was not that far away, and that I did not need to pay him anything. I hesitated, but the man looked decent, spoke in a slow, calm voice and projected nothing but confidence. I got into the car.

I thanked him for his kindness and said that one day I would pay him back. He smiled and said nothing. He did not give me his phone number and did not ask for mine.

After a short ride, we stopped next to an old apartment building. We walked a couple of flights up, and he opened the door to what turned out to be a vast communal apartment with many doors on both sides of the long dark corridor. He opened one of the doors and pushed me in.

“Don’t Waste Your Angelic Voice on Screaming”

Bright, very bright light. A small room. Four half-naked men. Two empty bottles of vodka and another one sitting on the table. I tried to open the door. They laughed. I immediately knew what would happen next, but in case I did not, one of them spelled it out for me.

“We want to have some fun with you, baby, and you are going to play along, right? Because, if you don’t, we’ll do it the hard way, and you will have bruises and broken bones, and God knows what else is going to happen to you…”

He said it all with an ugly sneer, showing his disgusting, yellow teeth. I knew he was not joking.

“And don’t waste your angelic voice on screaming, as nobody will hear you. It’s an old building, with very thick walls, you know,” he laughed.

All four men were very fit and very drunk. Their minds were totally set on what they wanted to do. I was bewildered. I felt defeated, and not just that, I felt trampled, crushed, violated. It seemed as if my limbs had been amputated. I was numb. I could not come up with an escape plan, with some scheme to negotiate my way out of this nightmare. I could not even cry.

I asked for a glass, filled it with vodka to the brim, and gulped the whole thing. My vision blurred…

“Good Girl!”

When the sun finally came up, and daylight filled the room, these four got dressed— in the policeman uniforms. The one who had talked the most was a Major. “Good girl! Smart!” he said.

The police in Russia was called “militia,” and by its nature, it was closer to the mafia than to a law enforcement group. But none of that mattered to me that morning.

“I survived,” I thought. My head was heavy. My brain was frozen. My body…

I had inexplicable emotions. No words in any world language could describe what I felt. And even if they could, I certainly didn’t want to put my feelings into words—to survive, to not to carve them into my memory, to obliterate the thoughts and emotions for good.

Until now, I never mentioned this to anyone. I just lived. In due time, I had a happy marriage, good kids, and a wonderful, eventful life. But after that night in Leningrad, Queens girl inside me— the one who thought that she was tough, who believed that she was stronger than a man—was no more. She had died, and her parents were heartbroken.

I wish I could tell you a better story, but I cannot.

Maybe Women Should Fight Back

So, here I am back in the SoulCycle class on this delightful Friday morning. I enjoy the class, but disagree with that punching move with the dumbbells. “What a stupid and delusional symbol of women’s superiority and allegedly equal physical power,” I think.

The instructor, a gorgeous young woman in a SoulCycle branded outfit that accentuates all her assets, changes the music to a slower rhythm, lowers the volume, and puts the candles in a row to create a relaxing atmosphere. It is time to stretch and meditate.

Yesterday, the night before the class, I had a more age-appropriate experience. I went to the opera to see “Rusalka,” the Eastern European version of “The Little Mermaid” story, except without the happy ending.

Rusalka falls in love with a prince and wants to become a human, to become someone whom she is not by her nature. She needs to give up her voice in exchange for the magical, alluring world of humans. She fails in her attempts. Without her voice, she lacks sparkle and passion, so the prince eventually abandons her. In the end, she is forever cursed to be tormented in her swamp. She gave up her innocence, but still never became the full-fledged woman of her dreams.

I have this dilemma all the time. How often have I wanted to be someone I wasn’t or go somewhere I did not belong! In Russia, being Jewish, I wanted to fit in, to adapt to the Russian traditions and morals. I sang the same songs, read the same books, and celebrated the same holidays. I was never entirely accepted. It was like the yellow star never left my arm.

When I came to America, I was again trying to fit in, adjust, and accept new values. I learned to speak English, developed a love for hamburgers and American football, and studied American history and political science. Still, I will be called Russian for the rest of my life.

And now, I am in a SoulCycle class designed for young, tough girls, and trying yet again to fit in…

Suddenly, I realize that I do not want to give up. Maybe, I think to myself, Rusalka did the right thing by trying, even though she did not succeed. Maybe that Queens girl didn’t do the wrong thing after all. I look around me and start to feel respect for these girls who are trying and training and believing.

Maybe I like that punching motion in the SoulCycle class after all. Maybe we should fight and be strong and cross the limits and challenge the status quo. We should try to open the closed doors, break the walls, and demand transparency. We are all “Rusalkas” at every point in life when we are trying something new. And we succeed only when we are confident and resilient.

Amazon women proved that they were equal to men and that they could be just as noble, brave, heroic, and physically strong. The Greeks were fascinated, yet appalled, by such independent women—man killers and man lovers. They were so different from their wives and daughters. Pictures of these warrior women, painted on ancient vases, rarely depicted them gesturing for mercy.

So maybe the SoulCycle women—beautiful, active, spirited, and courageous—should not ask for mercy either. Maybe women should fight back, and if we fail, then so be it—may our lives be the price.

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Olga Bulanov

Olga immigrated to the US from Russia in 1990, and some of her stories reflect her East European background, which affords her to see things through a peculiar lens. Her text is imbued with insight, the love for life and adventure; and above all—a deep-rooted belief in the resilience of the human spirit. She's always been encouraged by her friends to put her stories on paper, which she finally did to the amusement of her future readers. Enjoy Olga Bulanov's stories—a truly unorthodox marriage between black caviar and American football!

45 Responses

  1. Linda says:

    Thanks for sharing your story. Very inspirational

  2. Leo Winston says:

    An amazing story with passion and optimism. It is inspiring for everyone who faced adversity and was able to overcome it. Thanks for sharing everything with everyone.

    • Olga Bulanov says:

      Thank you, Leo. I am happy to inspire, to help and to share. Here is my favorite quote by Churchill – Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts!

  3. Marla Shneyder says:

    What an amazing story! I can totally relate. So timely to what is going on in our culture today. I hope this writer continues to write and publish all of her stories with us.

    • Olga Bulanov says:

      Thank you, Marla, for your unstoppable support for everything I do in life – as woman to woman, parent to parent, and professional to professional.

  4. Stella says:

    Great story Olga, brave, passionate, and optimistic!
    Keep writing!

  5. Cheryl Cowles says:

    This is commanding writing!! Commanding our attention, interest, empathy, disdain, remorse and ultimate jubilation about a triumph, triumph over evil and the need when confronted with evil to continue. Olga chooses not only to continue but to succeed, the ultimate form of revenge and retribution is success. Set in a story of well intentioned social interaction for personal good and gain, Olga takes us outside the walls of a cycling space into the broader world and gives us a perspective of life that few in the US see, understand or appreciate in the daily dissertations of intellectualism over NYC lattes. Olga you dare to go places and speak truths that few of us can even begin to understand, you address the uncomfortable, and ultimately show us what true insight is, what true intellect is and what real life is outside our gilded cycling and news rooms. And most importantly, you express for us as women what true triumph is – success in the face of adversity. God bless you for your truth, wisdom and the lessons you teach all women about how to truly live a meaningful life despite evils that while we can strive to control but ultimately may have to face and overcome – and still relish a leaderboard in a cycling gym.

    • Olga Bulanov says:

      Dear Cheryl, your comment is very powerful! Thank you! I am very happy that the story provoked strong emotions, thoughts, and feelings. There is no right and wrong in this world, but the quest for the truth is one of the purposes of our life. Thank you for understanding!

  6. Adrien says:

    Olga. Your story is truly inspirational for anyone who has faced adversity and managed to overcome , persevere and achieve happiness. The manner in which you shared and weaved your extremely personal Leningrad experience into current day with the Amazon woman of soul cycle is impressive. Your story is empowering.

    Reminds me of a verse from the song “I am Woman” ~ Helen Reddy

    Oh yes, I am wise
    But it’s wisdom born of pain
    Yes, I’ve paid the price
    But look how much I gained
    If I have to, I can face anything
    I am strong
    I am invincible
    I am woman

    I look forward to reading more of your stories in the months ahead!!
    Thank you for sharing.

    • Olga Bulanov says:

      Thank you for the kind words, Adrien. I am glad that I can touch the hearts of men as well as women. No, I am not that strong, and not invincible… nobody is. It feels that way because the only choice I have, the only choice most of us have is to be strong.

  7. Inga says:

    Bravo, Olga! Surviving a dreadful circumstance, while never loosing yourself in the process. Drowning only to resurface, never allowing a tragic event to define your entire life. Fighting to the end even when the end is bleak, and the hope is barren. Now, every time when I use the word “perseverance”, I will see your face. You are it! No doubt about it!
    Please write more on the subject – it’s like fuel to those whose energy is down, whose belief in the possibilities is low. One fights to the end, because one refuses to concede.
    Some of your passages can be made into motivational quotes.
    You write well, you write from the heart, but what’s more important – you write through the lens of confidence, as the new day will break, and it will inevitably be a new beginning, if only you believe in it.

    • Olga says:

      Life indeed feels like survival sometimes, but it should not… I believe that we all have an ability to “close the door”and move on with our lives, focusing on the future and not on dwelling in the past – be it a rape, abuse, poverty or just miserable existence. Thank you Inga for your kind words.

  8. Marina says:

    What a great story – you opened up your heart and dared not to be judged! So proud of you for always being yourself and sharing your stories – cheers to many more!

  9. Maria says:

    There is a lot of heart in Olga’s writing. I hope we get to read many more of her stories.

  10. Dina says:

    It is remarkable how the quest for soul searching inspired you to write this wonderful piece of prose showing all the vulnerability but also the strength of the human’s spirit. More actually of woman’s spirit. Thank you so much for sharing your creative exploration and journey.

    • Olga Bulanov says:

      Yes, you got this totally right – writing for me is a soul-searching. Sometimes I find it and sometimes I do not 🙂 The process is beautiful, but not necessarily easy. I am trying as you see, and will definitely try more. Thank you for your kindness and support always!

  11. Marianna says:

    I hope we will be seeing more stories from Olga in the print from now on. She adds a unique perspective to the subjects she writes about, and her writing keeps a reader engaged to the very last paragraph. Looking for more soon!

  12. Olga says:

    I love your writing. Look forward to more!

    • Olga Bulanov says:

      You did not just help me… you did not just support me… you taught me a lot about everything I am writing about. Thank you, sister, I never had.

  13. Rebecca says:

    You are an inspiration and a strong woman. Please keep these stories coming!

    • Olga Bulanov says:

      From the day we met, you put me on a pedestal. You always admired my life, my choices, and my character. I could never understand why, but growing up in Soviet Russia with brainwashed parents, confidence was not a given trait. Gaining confidence in life was hard work, and you helped me with this a lot! Thank you!

  14. Anastasia says:

    It is a great story written by a very talented women.
    I really enjoyed it.
    Keep it going, Olga!

    • Olga Bulanov says:

      From the day we met, you called me “special.” When I started writing my stories, you called me “talented.” Thank you for seeing something in me that I do not dare!
      Now you call my daughter “special.” I hope she has an easier life than me.

  15. Claudia Vidal says:

    Olga, thank you for sharing a piece of you with us through your story. I’m so proud of the woman you’ve become and look forward to reading more from you!

    You are courageous and resilient!😊

  16. Marlene says:

    Exquisite. That’s the only word I can use to applaud Olga on this piece. Bravo.

  17. Debbie O says:

    Take a deep breath and get ready for a journey that will make you gasp and cry, laugh and applaud. The range of emotions one experiences in Olga’s stories is deep and rooted. Keep it going, Olga. We want more.

    • Olga Bulanov says:

      You write so beautifully yourself that sometimes I wonder why you are not the one writing the stories. Thank you for always being there to help, to guide, to teach and doing these kindly and tactfully.

  18. This story tore me up inside. It’s disturbing and shocking what happened to you, and it’s also so inspiring how, all those decades later, you were able to find something positive inside the tragedy. I am in awe of the power of human resilience, and I consider you a perfect example of that. Thank you, Olga.

  19. Alex says:

    Profound story beautifully written by a talented writer. Thank you.

  20. Monica says:

    Congratulations Olga! Very powerful message in this beautifully written piece. Extremely meaningful especially in these times. Get ready for a book deal!!!

  21. Vassa Shevel says:

    Thank you for these great stories!
    Very timely too in today’s climate.
    Would read more from this writer!

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