The chances of a white Christmas have gone up exponentially. We are in Russia right now. It’s been six years since I, Shon, have been here. Jenia’s been gone a long time, too; nearly three years have elapsed since she’s been home. But here we are.
When we got off the plane at Sheremetyevo and headed for our train Tuesday morning, we were greeted by frigid -21C weather. If I remember right, that’s -6F. You know what? That makes for quite a shock when you’ve just come from Abu Dhabi. Before long, we were whisked southeast to Ryazan, where the temperatures have remained a little less severe (but have still hovered just a few degrees above zero most every day). The cold isn’t all that’s news here, of course. In fact, that’s really not news at all. It’s winter in Russia; what else would it be, if not mighty chilly?
This trip is about family. To that end, we’ve been coddled and fed delicious home-cooked meals. Borsch (we’ll leave off the puzzling letter “t” that often gets included in the English translation of that word), vareniki, mushroom soup, apple pie, and much more. And it wouldn’t be Russia without a whole lot of tea drinking. “Cheorniy ile zeloniy?” I’m asked: black or green? “Zeloniy, spacibo.”
Speaking of tea, this afternoon we visited Jenia’s 90 (almost 91) year-old grandmother. She is an animated 5’1″ or so, a little stooped, quite slender, with a ready smile and a characterful face. Naturally, we settled down to tea and sweets before long. While the ladies were visiting, I probed the apartment with the camera.
The apartment and its decor speak about Babushka Anya’s life. Sitting atop an old inkwell on the desk there is an icon which she had with her at all times, even through the Soviet years. Hanging on the wall there is a gilt-framed painting which once, prior to WWII, belonged to a German household. It came back from Germany with her when she returned from WWII. The painter bears a name that must not be famous; one of her grandsons tried googling it recently for her and got no hits. Above one of the doors is a pair of antlers from a saigak, a souvenir from her son’s time in Kazakhstan.
Somehow, the topic of her wartime experience was raised. At only 19, she was pressed into service in Leningrad. Just a girl, she was placed in charge of a pharmacy in a mobile medical detachment which sat just behind the front lines. As a pharmacist, she mixed and prepared medications. Her equipment included a vat that had been taken from the Germans. “It was non-stop work,” she said. “When there was fighting, the wounded didn’t stop coming. We went without sleep for days.” In fact, she and the other paramedics were so exhausted that they took naps while traveling–by foot. “We would walk like this, one on each side, arm-in-arm,” she said. “And we’d say, ‘I’m sleeping now,’ and the others would carry us along as we slumped. Then we’d wake up, and the next one would go.”
Babushka Anya shakes her head, and says, “I can’t even imagine how we did it now.”
Among her army decorations is the equivalent of the Purple Heart–for she was wounded more than once. One of those times was when a German airplane spotted the three medical tents, even the one that she was in, which had been set up with one side against a high river bank, making it much harder to spot (and probably saving her life). The plane was audible long before anyone could see it. Finally, alarms were sounded and the tents were emptied, doctors helping patients out and to other locations. Anya had a wounded man she was helping, but they couldn’t make it out of the tent in time. She huddled by the exit behind a stack of crated supplies, but couldn’t feel at ease about it. There were stretchers leaned against that side of the tent which was next to the bank. She and her injured patient lay length-wise there, seeking cover. And it was a good thing, too, for the German plane accurately strafed all of the tents. The one that she lay in was destroyed. The stack of boxes she’d sheltered behind at first was annihilated. The supporting tent poles were shot to pieces and the canvas collapsed around them. The patient siezed her in his grip as he was struck. When all was quiet, she was grimy, wounded by shrapnel, but alive–and her fellows on the ground were thrilled when she rose alive.
“There were so many times when I couldn’t understand why I lived,” she said. “It had to be the grace of God.”
Anya met her future husband on the frontlines–he worked in a neighboring medical squadron. Their story is a great romance that lasted the entire war, even as he was shipped East to fight the Japanese in Mongolia, and she went to Germany. One of the photos she showed us, of her wearing an immaculate uniform, stretched out on the grass before a lake in Austria, bore the legend, “To George, to remember.”
The immaculate uniform was something that she was always careful to keep on hand. She kept her white collar and cuffs clean, and always wore them. “I was an example that the officers used for others,” she said. “There was no reason not to be neat.” This is one of the reasons she doesn’t like WWII movies. “They’re unrealistic,” she says. “Everyone’s always dirty, and that’s not how it was.”
My perceptions of the war having been partly shaped by viewing films like “Enemy at the Gates,” which depicts Russian troops being ordered into battle despite having ranks mostly unarmed, I asked her about weaponry.
“The first two years there was no shortage of weapons,” she said. “Then they started to get old and fall apart.” But salvation was arriving. “The Americans had sat back and watched to see who was going to win–the Germans or the Russians–and when they saw that we were, they decided to help us. So they gave us Studebakers, which helped a lot.” Before the arrival of the American trucks, everything was moved about by horses. The pharmacy that Anya ran included a two-wheeled cart that she was responsible for pulling or pushing when the squadron moved. Besides the influx of American equipment which made life much easier, heavy artillery began arriving, and that made a big difference in the war effort.
These days, most of Babushka Anya’s fellow soldiers have passed away. “It used to be there were people I could talk to about it, that understood, and knew what it was like. But now there’s noone to talk to.” Her face darkened as she thought about this. “When Georgiy [her husband, who was a military pediatrician before and after the war, and a GP by necessity during it] was alive, he never drank vodka. But on Victory Day, he would ask me, ‘Anichka, can I have fifty grams?’ Then he would raise it and address her, saying, ‘Dear Senior Lieutenant, to our victory.'” Remembering this, her face warmed and happiness tugged gently at the corners of her mouth. Georgiy, tragically, lost his life in an ice-fishing accident when he was 70.
Our tea long-since finished, Jenia’s grandmother apologized suddenly. “I hope I haven’t bored you,” she said.
“Not at all,” we both assured her.
“I’ve never been through it, and,” I added with a grin, “I hope to never go through it, so hearing your stories is very interesting.”
“Thank God you haven’t,” she said with an earnest chuckle, “And hope you never will.”
We made to help her clean the table–the cups and saucers, the utensils, and so forth–but she stopped us. “I have nothing to do,” she said. “Leave them. Then I will have something to keep me busy.”
Besides the stories that the decor tells, the apartment itself, in size (which is one room, other than the kitchen and bath), color, and appointments, tells what Russian living is often like. The kitchen is large by local standards, but the stove is tiny, and the counterspace extremely limited.
After a bit more small talk, we took our leave, out of the cozy apartment, and into the cold. Outside, we made our way along the road, slick with packed, icy snow. The danger of slipping and falling is ever-present in this country, where only a few sidewalks are ever cleared of snowfall, and driveways seem to never be.
And so, with Christmas right around the corner, we expect a white one, and we will be happily celebrating it with the company of family.