Before The War

Grandma, 18 years old, 1942

The large number of various “probably”, “apparently”, “perhaps”, and “somewhere” in this story of my grandmother is due to the fact that it is derived from a small number of little stories told to me by their participants. I have never had the nerve to ask them questions and clarify something. The little stories, a few documents, and many pictures with inscriptions on the reverse are the only sources of information.

Jumping slightly ahead, I have to note that there are no pre-war pictures — by “war” here and elsewhere I mean the war, the only war the Russians care about, the Second World War, or, to be more exact, the period of it from June 22, 1941 to May 9, 1945 — they know nothing and do not want to know anything about what happened before that and after that.

Given that the war-time pictures, including the ones taken in the Nazi-controlled territory, have perfectly survived, this lack of pre-war photos can not be explained by the owners spending time in German and Soviet prison camps. My guess is life under Stalin was too sad for people to want to take pictures. While not as sad as under Hitler. Not a particularly patriotic conclusion, but I can not come up with anything else: lots of pictures taken during the Nazi occupation, and none before that. A surge in personal wealth or consumer services would not be a more patriotic version.

Coming back from global history to one single story, my great-grandmother was born in 1901. Her parents were apparently more or less wealthy since they owned and rented out a large house. Which was taken away in 1917, after the revolution — yes, there was only one revolution the Russians care about, the one in 1917.

Great-grandmother apparently got married in 1919. She told me about a boyfriend she had really wanted to marry, but he could not make up his mind, and by the time he did she had been pregnant already, and she was 18 then, thus it happened in 1919.


My great-grandmother, born 1901. The picture was taken in 1951.

Great-grandfather I have never seen and know practically nothing about

I have never seen her husband or their first daughter — for reasons that will be mentioned in the chronologically appropriate place. Their second daughter — my grandmother, the central figure of this story — was born in 1924. One more child, a son, was born in 1934.


Grandmother, born 1924, on the right; her sister, born 1919, on the left; some dude in the middle.

Grandmother's younger brother, born 1934

Approximately in 1937 they tried to arrest my great-grandfather. This year in most Russian minds is associated with mass arrests. There are many stories of black cars coming at 3 a.m., people not sleeping all night waiting for the ominous sound of steps outside their doors — I was never able to connect all this intelligentsia crap with my great-grandfather. He did not wait for any cars sleeplessly, and when they came, his wife and daughter stalled the cops, he jumped out of a window, and spent next three years hiding in a nearby forest.

On the other side, I can not say he was a Rambo-like survival expert — I do not know that, and the only picture of him does not immediately support this version. What I mean is he obviously tended to control his own life, unlike all those people who helplessly waited to get arrested.

Three years — and minimum two winters — in the forest had damaged his lungs, naturally.

His wife and daughters brought him food when they could, but eventually he was ratted out to the authorities by some dick that had designs on my great-grandmother — it was not the guy mentioned above, I believe. He was arrested, and I do not know what else happened to him in the remaining few years before the war. He was, perhaps, freed from prison by the invading Nazis, but it is a guess.

The great-grandmother was arrested, too. This follows from a little story of how she was released. My grandmother and her brother worked in a field, and their mother appeared at its edge. She walked on foot 20 km from prison and collapsed right there, and they ran to her — this is the little story.

All this was developing against a background of total hunger. We did have one total hunger in the Soviet Union in 1932, but that was another one. Or not the only one. When grandmother would be sent to buy milk for her baby brother, she would drink some of it on the way back and dilute it with water — she really wanted to eat. And her brother was born in 1934, thus the conclusion that 1932 was not the only year of hunger.

Then there was a little story that sounds like an urban legend — about some criminals luring children into their house, killing them, and selling meat at the market. It would have been an urban legend if grandmother had not told me about a trial of those people which either her mother or aunt have personally witnessed. The cops had hard time protecting the accused since all those children — over sixty of them — or was it sixteen? — had parents, naturally, and those parents wanted revenge.

Yes, the aunt — great-grandmother had a sister, born in 1909. They had other siblings — four more, I believe — but those ones did not make it through the war. Their fate is still unknown. Maybe, they escaped to the American occupation zone in the end and emigrated from there — let us hope that was the case. Anyway, they have disappeared, one way or another.


Great-grandmother's sister, born 1909. The picture was taken somewhere in a prison camp in Soviet Far East, approximately in 1950.

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