This is the story of six generations of a Siberian family in the journey from Red October to modern-day Russia.
Sofia Ivanovna was a Ukranian woman living in the northern part of the Krasnoyarsk region of Siberia. Her mother had married a Ukranian man who was exiled to Siberia, where he worked as a fisherman on the Arctic Ocean or the Yenesey River. Whether this exile is how the family ended up in Siberia or the marriage took place in Siberia, it seems no one will ever know. No records exist in the family to know such things. Her first husband left her early, but not before a baby girl, Marina, was born to them in the first few years of the 20th century. Several years before the Revolution, 'Sonya' moved with her mother and baby to Tulun, a small city near Irkutsk.
In Tulun, Sonya and her mother started working for a rich Jewish family, the Schwartzmans. She was a maid, her mother a cook. As Sonya worked, she listened to the lessons of the four boys of the family as they learned Hebrew, French, and Latin. Though she had no formal education, she found that she had a good ear for languages. For the rest of her life, she could speak five languages (including Ukranian and Russian), though she was unable to write or read in at least three of them.
There were four sons in the family. The oldest, Abram, had been blind from birth. Eventually Mother Schwartzman became ill. As she was lying on her death bed, she begged Sonya to marry Abram after her death, so he would not be left alone. When the old woman died, Sonya made good on this promise and married Abram.
Abram's three brothers decided to move to the big city of Irkutsk. They took Abram with them. A daughter, Nadyezhda (Nadia) Abramovna, was born to Abram and Sonya in 1915, not long before the Revolution. The couple was very poor, because Abram couldn't work, being blind in a society that did not provide him with many opportunities. The family lived in one room of a small, communal, wooden house in the center of the city. Abram's brother, Grigory, who owned a restaurant on one of the main streets of Irkutsk, became rich and took care of Abram and his family. Little Nadia often ran to the restaurant with a bucket, which her uncle would fill with scraps of food.
Marina married early and moved away, somewhere to the Krasnoyarsk region. A few years later, they heard news that a daughter, Shura, had been born. She lived in a closed city, where communication was forbidden. After the news of Shura's birth, Abram and Sonya never heard from Marina again. They tried to find out anything they could, but it was impossible.
Eventually all Abram's brothers moved to Leningrad. One started working for the company 'Eastern Sweets' and became fairly successful. Grigory died serving in WWII. Vladimir died during the Leningrad Blockade, along with thousands of other residents. The story of brother Zinovy (Zina) is perhaps the most interesting. At some point he was sent to a prison camp, because he went on a business trip and was overheard on the train telling a joke about Stalin. His life was spared during WWII, because he was sitting in prison. After his sentence had been served, Zina returned to his wife Luba, who maintained a long-distance correspondence with Sonya and Nadia for years after he did eventually pass on.1
Sonya actually started going blind quite young, and for many years, she and Abram were a blind couple, depending much on the love and care of Nadia (and later Nadia's children and grandchildren). Of course, Sonya was still independent and capable, continuing to cook and do other household tasks with skill. Her grandchildren loved her greatly and called her 'Baba Sonya'.
As a young girl, Nadia often wanted to go to the largest Orthodox church in the city. Standing 60 meters high, and with a sanctuary that could accommodate 5000 worshipers at one time, the formidable building resembled a castle. She had a great interest in Christianity, and despite several attempts to go in, she was never allowed into the church, due to her Jewish heritage. To this day, anti-semitism is alive and well in the Russian Orthodox Church.
In 1930, when Nadia was 15, the building was closed by the government. In 1932, the church was destroyed. Nadia remembered the destruction of the church very well. She saw how difficult it was for the officials to set the explosions. Eventually they gave up and started taking the church down one stone at a time until all that remained were several large piles of rubble, the removal of which took several months. In its place the Home of the Soviets, a large ugly bloc building, was built in 1938. A large German church (Lutheran?) was also destroyed and replaced by a statue of Lenin, which still stands to this day.
In around 1935, Nadia married a man named Boris, who was a meteorologist. In 1936 a daughter was born to them, Ludmilla (Luda) Borisovna. The young family made their home in the northern Siberian city of Yakutsk, where homes are built on stilts, due to the annual floods during the great thaw of the north-flowing Lena River. It is not uncommon for temperatures in the bitter winter to reach -60 in this region of tundra and taiga.
No one in the family remembers Boris. It is uncertain exactly how the couple split, but it seems that Nadia, who needed to care for her ailing parents, moved back to Irkutsk, but he refused to go with her. Eventually they officially divorced. There are no pictures of Boris, and one day when his granddaughter asked what he had looked like, her mother had quipped, "Just look at me, and think of a male version."
During the war, Nadia worked at a special factory making gun barrels. She worked hard to feed her mother, her father, and her baby. The four lived in the cramped room of the cold, wooden communal house where she had grown up. Similar to life in America during the WWII, in Russia while the men were dying by the thousands on the front, the women were working 'male' jobs. This war made an indelible, nearly debilitating impression on the history of Russia, due to the staggering loss of life, especially male life. In Irkutsk, several war hospitals were established. At school, little Luda, who started first grade in 1943, had no notebooks. There were no school supplies available. Children would write between the lines on old newspapers.
On May 9, 1945, nine-year-old Luda joined a mass of Irkutsk citizens at the main city square to celebrate the Great Victory, the declaration of the end of WWII. Nadia came home from work and was disturbed to find that Luda had not yet returned from school. She followed the crowds to the square, and found her daughter celebrating with the others.
That same year, Nadia married Yevlampii Grigoryevich, who was the head of the local Department of Statistics. He was soon after sent to Ukraine to work, and Nadia and Luda moved with him. The new family was quite happy. Nadia did not have to work. Luda, who deeply loved Yevlampii and knew him as her father, enjoyed her school years. Sadly, Abram died in 1949, and Nadia was unable to be at the funeral, because she lived so far away.
As every child during Soviet Times, Luda was involved in Pioneer Club (similar to Boy Scouts, but with occasional communist indoctrination). A younger girl in the club contracted TB Meningitis, and soon 14-year-old Luda was also gravely ill. The hospital in their small town could do nothing, so due to Yevlampii's position, they secured a spot for her at a hospital in Kiev. Luda lay in that hospital, close to death, for a year. At some point in that year, Yevlampii was called back to Irkutsk.
It was 1950, and there was no penicillin available. The post-war years were nearly as devastating as the war years in the USSR, due to an increase in Stalin's maniacal paranoia and lack of moral conscience. Nadia sold everything she had in order to feed her daughter. Her shoes were so worn that her toes were sticking out the ends, a moment-by-moment reminder of her desperation. Nadia's name means 'hope'. She persevered through this difficult time to provide her young daughter with any scraps of hope she had.
Miraculously, Luda did eventually get better, and in 1951 they returned to Irkutsk to be with her papa. 2 She entered ninth grade upon returning. Luda moved in with Grandma Sonya to help take care of her. Nadia and Yevlampii lived with his parents in one room of a building above a store.
In 1955, Luda entered Irkutsk State University, studying journalism. Among her classmates was Alexander Vampilov, who went on to be a famous playwright, writing the play Elder Son (Starshii Syn), among many others. A year ahead of her in university was another man who went on to be famous, author of Siberia, Siberia!, Valentin Rasputin. He fell in love with Luda and even asked her to marry him, but she knew he wasn't for her. They remained friends, and years later, he reminisced about how she had broken his heart.
After graduating from college, Luda started working at a local paper. On her first day on the job, a man who was crazily dressed, bumped into her on his way into the building, and without an apology ran on ahead of her down the hall. Come to find out, this man with poor taste in fashion was one of the editors of the newspaper, a young up-and-comer, with a real knack for being a trouble-maker. This trouble-maker, with bushy eyebrows and crazy Einstein-like hair fell in love with Luda at second sight, first sight being their initial encounter at the door. His name was Vladimir Giorievich, the son of a Polish mother and a Belorussian blacksmith father and one of six children from the Siberian village of Zima (Winter).
Love-crazy Vlad started going wherever Luda went, and by 1961, they were married. One of Luda's former university professors, who had also taught Vladimir, upon finding out about the union, quipped, "How could such a bright, beautiful girl marry such a hooligan?!"
Later that year, the happy couple discovered that Luda was pregnant and they started preparing for parenthood. Luda's pregnancy was extremely difficult, and she was very ill by the third trimester. She was forced to stay in the hospital on bed rest.
Her condition was worsening, and Vladimir was not pleased with the care at this particular hospital. So in the middle of the night, he rescued Luda through the window of her first-story room taking her to another hospital. He lied and said he was a medical student, so he could be in the delivery room with Luda. Great medical student that he was, he passed out at the sight of her blood.
On May 7, 1962, Luda had triplets. One had died in the womb, the identical twin of baby Sergei. The third baby, a girl was fraternal. Making things even more difficult, Luda did not have any milk, and there was no such thing as formula. At one point, Marine and Sergei were given cow milk, but Sergei got very ill. Vladimir desperately ran around the city with bottles to other women who were nursing at the time, begging for a little bit of milk. This became a regular part of his daily schedule. Being in this survival mode, it actually took them several weeks to name their daughter. They finally decided upon the name of Marina.
It wasn't until the twins were three that Luda and Vlad understood there was something wrong with Sergei. He wasn't developing the same as his sister. Vladimir and Luda decided to take Sergei to Leningrad for a consultation, because doctors in Irkutsk were unable to diagnose such things at the time. After a four-day train trip and a battery of tests on Sergei, the news they received was shocking.
They were told that Sergei was severely mentally retarded, that he would be horrible and aggressive, that they might as well not keep him but send him to a home, because they could do nothing. Vladimir and Luda, appalled at what the experts told them, returned home and firmly decided they would never give him up to a home. They made adjustments in their lives.
Vladimir, by now a successful correspondent, could write at home. This allowed him to be available to take care of the kids, while Luda worked at a local radio station. Luda was constantly reading medical journals, researching how to best care for Sergei. Grandma Nadia, who by that time was working at Eastern Siberian Coal as the administrator for a hotel for workers visiting Irkutsk, helped as she could.
Baba Sonya was still alive. Luda and little Marina visited her regularly. While Luda fed her grandmother, Marina's would braid Baba Sonya's hair.
In 1969, Marina started first grade at the best school in Irkutsk. In order to enroll in this school, she had to live in a certain part of the city, so she moved in with Grandma Nadia and Grandpa Yevlampii. Every Sunday morning, Grandpa would take Marina to a café for a roll and tea.
When Yevlampii retired, he started to cook like a gourmet chef. He had a notebook full of recipes scrawled out in his beautiful penmanship. He also had Baba Sonya's old recipe notebook. Both of these books are now kept by Marina as keepsakes. In addition to his newfound love for cooking, Yevlampii started writing poetry in his spare time. In cards he gave his dear loved ones on special occasions, he took the time to write a poem particularly for them.
Yevlampii also took up drawing with pastels. Marina recalls that he tried to teach her how to draw, but the attempt was futile. She was admittedly a lazy student. He helped her with her homework, which was always an uphill battle. At the end of the year, Marina received a certificate from her teacher, and her grandmother Nadia jokingly gave it to Yevlampii, saying he deserved it.
April of 1972 brought much sorrow to this family. Baba Sonya died on the 11th at the age of 102. And on the 26th, Yevlampii died at the age of 69. Marina and Sergei did not attend the funerals.3
1 Years later, Nadia's granddaughter Marina, as she was registering for the university in Leningrad, stopped by the home where Luba and Zina had lived to ask about how and when Luba died. Many years had passed, and the occupants would not let them in.
2 It is not known how Nadia's parents were cared for while she was gone, but her granddaughter believes that neighbors and friends teamed up to look in on them.
3 The Rest of the Story: Addendum
The Rest of the Story: Addendum
Marina is my Russian tutor and one of my best friends in Irkutsk. She is the mother of two young men, Sergei and Dmitrii (Mitya). She is a graduate of Leningrad State University, having received a degree in the early '80s for teaching Russian to foreigners. She is a believer in Christ (some day I may share the story of her journey to Christ with you). Through the years, she has taught many ex-pats how to speak Russian. This is her ministry, to teach those who have been called here to be able to communicate the Gospel to her countrymen.
The Lord continues to write the story of this family. In 2001, Nadia passed away at the age of 86. She had worked long into her 70s. Ludmilla treasured her mother's sacrifice in saving her life when she nearly died in Ukraine, and so she was at her mother's side through her years-long illness. On January 13, 2004, Vladimir died suddenly of a heart attack. I attended the funeral; many of you may remember reading my impressions at that time. Last week I had tea with Ludmilla and Sergei, Marina's brother who is still alive and is jovially curious about all things. He still does not understand that his father is gone and asks about him daily.