Meet Sonia Panova
I was born in the Soviet Union, in Moscow. I think my family was quite unusual – both of my parents are biology professors so from early childhood I was surrounded by books and interesting people, living a life of Russian intelligentsia stereotype with “underground talks to smuggled records in a smoked filled kitchen”. There were always enthralling conversations about science and sometimes politics because life in the Soviet Union was not much fun. Everything was scarce, for example, my mum would make us clothes and we’d have different amalgamations of buckwheat and rice for every meal for years, and to get bread my parents would have to stand in a line for hours and present their bread coupons with mine and my brother’s names written on them (kids need bread). One gets used to it but I always had a feeling that life could be better than that. I loved reading and it has always been a form of escape for me, I spent years in my bedroom devouring books by Russian and foreign Greats.
When I was 6 my mum sent me to dance classes. When I was 8 we went on tour to Germany which was like being on another planet, such a surreal experience. Going on these dance tours as a child was eye-opening and it gave me a feel for independence. No one really learnt foreign languages at that time as people thought they’d never use them (the Iron Curtain and all that), but my mum sent me to a lady who privately taught me English. I read Somerset Moem in the original and memorised texts about Westminster Abbey which I thought I’d never see in real life. My English was basic but it meant I was able to get jobs as a self-proclaimed interpreter and earn a bit of money to do something nice for my family.
I was a good student at school as I love learning but it was kinda boring and didn’t seem to have much meaning. I liked history and reading so decided to do Slavonic literature and languages specialising in Polish at Moscow State University. I did actually want to be a journalist, but my mum convinced me to study something that at least seemed broader, hence the choice of the degree. Having quickly learnt another language I was being able to get more jobs as a Russian-Polish Interpreter at different literary magazines and international trade shows. I took a gap year when I was offered a Polish government scholarship to study in Warsaw. After returning to Moscow and graduating from the university I bought a ticket to Kabul, without informing anyone in my family, where I started working as a (self-proclaimed again) journalism mentor at a radio station.
Not long after, my then husband got a scholarship to study at the University of Glasgow, so we moved there for a while. We returned to Kabul in 2009 and set up our own media company implementing projects for UN and USAID. This was a difficult time for me as a foreign woman, as I was vulnerable to being kidnapped so I spent months working from a room 12-14 hours a day. It wasn’t a war zone then, but it was still quite dangerous. Even now when I hear a helicopter I automatically think of hiding. When my first son was born I didn’t feel that staying in Kabul was a great idea. We moved to the UK on Highly Skilled Entrepreneur visas and ended up setting up Rocket Science toy and bookshop at the bottom of Trafalgar Street here in Brighton. It was very DIY but I loved working with publishers, art suppliers and collaborating with local artists. I ran it for 5 years until my second child was born.
Around 3 years ago, my eldest son wanted to learn the piano so I took him to Under the Bridge studios – a community music school with local musicians. I loved it there so much (but also got very competitive with my own child), I started taking piano lessons too. Through this I started going to gigs and meeting lots of musicians and I instantly knew I wanted to be part of that world and also get back into education in some way, so WaterBear was a great fit. This is when I realised there was so much life to live and I wanted to be my own person.
A year ago I started the MA programme at WaterBear which was great – being with like-minded creatives and doing everything on my terms. My partner Ben, a very talented multi-instrumentalist and fellow workaholic, and I started up Fresh Lenins; an over the top music and art promotion company putting on commie cocktails (as we jokingly call our gigs) around Brighton, bringing together bands and solo acts that sound very different but complement each other. Going forward, we have Napoleonic plans for Fresh Lenins – more and bigger gigs, setting up a studio, getting our own venue and conquering the Universe. Just wish there was more time in the day. I also still do my art and enjoy teaching. My MA dissertation was somewhat about connection and people doing things together creatively and that is what I intend to carry on doing. The past year of facilitating musical and artistic madness was a lot of fun – the number of fantastic people we’ve met and befriended sometimes seems unreal and although there is a lot of stress affiliated with our line of work, we wouldn’t have it any other way.