Simple Girl from USSR

Once upon a time, in a small Russian village with a Tatar name, a baby-girl Natasha was born to a family of farmers. For her parents, Maria and Pyotr, she was the fourth child, and not the last one. They were quite prosperous; they had a good house, and their land was so large and the livestock so numerous that they had to hire several other villagers on full-time.

These were the late 1920-ies, the time of NEP in then young USSR, the New Economic Policy — that strange mixture of economic freedom and communism that also the modern China exhibits.

When Natasha turned eight, communists decided to end NEP in that village. One day, armed people came to their house and declared all their property nationalized, and themselves exiled to Siberia. They weren’t given any time to prepare to the exile, and they were only allowed to take so much each person could bear.

Millions if not ten millions of other prosperous farmers everywhere in USSR were affected by this nationalization. Typically, they were gathered together (concentrated) in concentration camps, and then pushed into railroad waggons not intended to transport people, to be transported without food and water for days and weeks. Nazis repeated that communist trick with Jews twenty years later. What they couldn’t repeat is what happened, when the minority of the railroad transport survivors actually arrived to Siberia.

Typically, they were convoyed to an empty place in taiga, so far from the nearest village you would need days and weeks to reach them, and then just left alone — only having the random things they could took with them… And then… well, this is Siberia. -40 Centrigree in winter, no spring or fall, and the summer is only three or maybe four weeks long.

A year later, the convoy usually returned to check for any survivors. If present, the survivors were registered officially as “being in exile” and left alone again. The procedure was repeated until there were no survivors.

Natasha and her family had also faced this fate, when they were convoyed to the nearest large town’s prison for “concentration”. And if one can imagine how much fear and sorrow could have an eight-years-old child, robbed of her toys, and her house, and her friends, and her home village, and being driven into a slow and painful death – while one can still imagine that, I wouldn’t even try to imagine what her mother Maria felt and thought and hoped and prayed in this couple of days, until they’ve escaped.

Yes, they’ve escaped. We don’t know how. May be, the war experience of Pyotr helped, who was a soldier for the Tsar in the World War I, was captured in Austria but managed to escape and to return home safely. Or somebody from convoy was a relative of Maria and let them go. Or maybe they were just rich enough to bribe high enough. Who knows…

As the matter of fact, Pyotr stayed in the large town to work as a glass cutter in a huge aluminium plant, and his family stayed with him. Now, remember, they could only take so much with them they could bear, and had possibly spent all their treasures for a bribe. They were as arm as it could possibly be. They lived in a dugout. They went to the nearby forest to gather mushrooms, wild berries and eggs of wild birds. In summer, they “organized” (I’m using “organize” here as an euphemism for steal, exchange or obtain cheaply) milk and sugar, and made ice-cream out of it for sell. I suppose, they hadn’t any legal status, a least for some time. Nobody, not even their close relatives from the home village, helped them — if you would, you could possibly go to exile yourself, sentenced as a helper of an enemy of the state.

With nine, Natasha was responsible for organizing food to feed her sisters and brothers. She went out into the town to sell the ice-cream they were making. Selling private ice-cream was illegal, but she was just a child, and it was easier. And then she went to the prison, where Pyotr worked in the kitchen, to pick up some bread (officially, they were breadcrumbs) that he could “organize” out of the prisoners meals. Oh, and because all USSR children were required to learn, she of course went to the regular school, where she learned about Pythagoras, and how many cells an amoeba has, and how to speak German, how bright the future of the communism is and how hard the life of farmers was before the communist revolution, in the Tsar times…

When she turned 18, they were living together as a large happy family in an own house. Of course, it was a tiny town house with a small garden, and they could hold only a couple of hogs, hens, and rabbits. Of course, it was situated in the area, where poisonous gases and rainfall from the one of the largest aluminium plants in the world came down, so at times it was hard to breath and the sheets would turn yellow when left drying outside. “Simple” people housed in this area, people who either ought to be in the prison, but weren’t, or were just released from it, or worked in the prison, or were so poor they couldn’t afford to live anywhere else. But, still, it was an own cosy house, built with their own hands. It had lovely designed ornaments, thought through ground plot, and the happy family feeling.

Natasha finished the school, learned milk processing technology and started to work. For most of her life, she will work in organizations producing food. Pyotr used to say, you can easily “organize” only things being produced where you work. And remember, she was responsible for food in their family.

So, she turned 18, when her parents were going to marry her to Dmitry. We don’t know if he was a communist, but being responsible for showing movies to the prisoners of the local prison, he was on duty in NKWD, the same organization who nationalized Natasha’s parents. Employees of NKWD had limitless power at that time. They could exile, inprison or kill anybody, and they controlled everything, and nobody could control them. So, Natasha’s parents actually had only one right answer, when Dmitry’s mother came into their house to arrange the marriage.

Natasha married.

Pyotr bought a house for her and Dmitry, and her adult life, happy or not, just started, when the World War II begun. Dmitry, being in NKWD, was not mobilized to the front in the first two years, and so avoided the almost sure death awaiting most of Russian soldiers in the beginning of the war. He was sent to the front, when Russian army started to regain the territory. Some NKWDists went to the front voluntarily at that time, because it was a possibility to plunder in european cities. We don’t know if Dmitry was of that kind, or just honestly fought against the Nazis. What we do know is that he was wounded in Poland, and returned back home before the end of the war.

And Natasha gave birth to a daughter, and then to another one. But the relationship between Natasha and Dmitry, being probably never perfect, suffered more and more. I think, Dmitry initially really loved her, as being in NKWD he had a vast choice of girls to marry. I also think that Natasha never loved him back.

Anyway, at some point, after a really ugly story, they divorced, and Natasha erased Dmitry from reality. She destroyed every single photo, all his documents and things, everything belonged to him. In her family, there were absolutely no communication with him. She left their house and went back to live with her parents. Her daughters were educated to ask no questions about the father, and to have the only feeling against him: the hate. When Dmitry met his daughters on the street, they greeted him promptly and went away.

Her grandchildren were grown so that they didn’t ever come to the idea to ask the grandma, why there is no grandpa in their family. At some point, they inevitable discovered the name Dmitry, because in Russia it is an obligatory part of their mothers full names. When asked “Who is this Dmitry?”, their mothers answered, “Ah, Dmitry, he was just my father. He isn’t there,” and changed the topic. Dmitry’s daughters didn’t allow him to see or to speak with his grandchildren, and the grandchildren had never seen him. When Dmitry died, Natasha got to know about it only six months later. She didn’t asked, where his grave was.

Divorced and freed herself from Dmitry, Natasha was 30 years old and devoted herself fully to her children. She never married again. Pyotr and Maria helped her to buy yet another cosy house, still in the same poisonous area. The house had a big Russian stove, cold waterline, and even electricity.

Every single penny Natasha could economize, earn or “organize”, she spent on her children, or invested into their live insurances. She spent the bare minimum on herself, like, one pair shoes for summer and one pair shoes for winter, used, repaired, and repaired again for decades. On her vacations, she worked in her garden. She never went to a cinema or club, and she only went twice to a restaurant: when her daughters married.

And when the first one married, and her husband came to live into Natasha’s house, Pyotr quickly “organized” some wood, and bricks, and they added an additional room to the house. And when the another one married, yet another room had been added, so that Natasha’s grandchildren had a roof over their heads. This was perhaps the happiest time in Natasha’s life: a cosy three-generation house, stable food situation, her daughters are happy with their families, and she turned to grandma.

Let’s stay a little while in her happiness. The cold snowy winter outside can’t break into the house. The Russian stove is loaded with charcoal “organized” from the nearby aluminium plant, and its smells and sounds remind a fireplace in some duke’s palace. In the first level just above the fire, french fries are being prepared in a pan. In the second level, her grandchild is sleeping, lulled by the warmth. The clock is ticking loudly. The water is babbling in the self-made heating pipes, moved by the heat of the stove. A gray cat is noiselessly coming into the kitchen, attracted by the smell of fries. Her adults are outside, in the Russian sauna in the garden, which reminds her she should bring some bones to the dog in the hovel. Tomorrow, she will “organize” some gas for the herd, and visit her parents, living nearby…

And she was still happy, when her elder daughter divorced – because she still had a granddaughter. They erased her husband from reality and continued living. And when her daughters left her house to live in new modern apartments, she was only happy for them — at least, they don’t need to breath the poisonous gases. Her grandchildren visited her every weekend, and she loved them above everything.

She decided to do everything she can to make their children and grandchildren lives more happy than hers. So she decided to save money and to present their grandchildren with 1000 roubles each, at the days they marry. It is hard to convert 1000 soviet roubles to the modern currency remaining fair, but I believe 10,000 (ten thousand) dollars would be a proper estimation correctly showing how ambitious, if not absurd, this goal was in relation to her job and her family background.

But nothing is too ambitious, if you’re devoted, and loving. Natasha economized thirty years long, and, finally, she had two bank accounts, opened on behalf on her grandchildren, with 1000 roubles on each.

Which were robbed by the Russian government, again.

USSR was never more, and the bank accounts were frozen. Hyper-inflation that followed, had quickly turned 1000 roubles into 0.10 modern Russian roubles, which corresponds to 3 US cents according to the modern conversion rate.

At the same time, the area around the huge aluminium plant was officially recognized as dangerous for the health, so the city decided to demolish all the houses. This was the fourth house she was forced to leave in her live, and it was memory of her parents, already late at that time. But, still, Natasha gathered herself, and fought against the fate, the last time in her life. She “organized” a clever scheme allowing each of her children and grandchildren to obtain some replacement apartment in exchange of the demolished house. She only remained homeless herself, as a result of this scheme, but she was sure her children will not leave her on the street.

And they didn’t. Not in the first ten years. She lived together with their children families, helping raising the grandchildren and to survive hard times after USSR breakdown, with all of the survival experience she had. And she was always available, for any help anybody may need.

But then, the grandchildren grew up, and needed more private space. So they “organized” her a separate apartment. When you’re in the late 70-ies, it is hard to live alone. Natasha missed the grandchildren so much, and asked permission to live with them, but her grandchildren were too selfish and declined. She never asked again, not willing to stay on the way of their happiness.

One day, being alone in her separate bleak apartment, she had a stroke, and nobody was there to help her. Her daughters found her days after, hungry and thirsty, because she forgot she need to drink and to eat. She was not able to recognize her relatives.

It took a year to recover, but Natasha recovered only partially. She learned her relatives anew, and she remembered her parents, sisters and brothers. But she still needed help, and care, somebody who would live with her, remind her to eat, and just be with her.

Her children and grandchildren were too busy with themselves to recognize it, and she was too loving and caring to request their attention. They called her once a year, on her birthday, and she always repeated to them “be happy, be healthy, I want everything will be alright with you, and I’m OK, don’t worry about me”…

She died two yeas ago, soon after their grandchildren had their birthday parties.

And she was closest to be a saint among all persons I know.

I miss you, grandma.

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