Strictly speaking, a memoir is quite different from an autobiography, although the idea is the same. It’s a truthful retelling of past events. However, a memoir may roll several events into one, or condense multiple characters into one, or things like that. Great memoirs, like Elie Wiesel’s Night, can be more powerful and effective than a straight autobiography, which is concerned with getting all the details right. Memoirs are about impressions and memories. That’s what I’m doing with this post. I’m condensing a couple days of time here in Ryazan into a few scenes. It’s all true, but the organization has been shifted in the interest of creating a better narrative. I do hope you like it.
Scene One: Prelude.
It is cold. Extremely cold. I wear long thermal underwear, top and bottom, a sweater, gloves and scarf as well as a warm Russian ushanka hat. Jenia’s sacrificed style, in the form of her snappy Guess jacket, for warmth, wearing a baby blue down jacket she bought ages ago. When we step out the apartment complex’s entrance it’s still so cold that I cringe as the air bites my exposed face. The sky is clear and blue, the day brilliant and bright. We walk together, carefully, trying not to slip and fall on the icy and uneven driveway. Our breaths puff in front of us. It is December 24, Christmas Eve for those in the Western world, and even though it’s after 10:00am and warmer than it was this morning when we rose (a numbing -27c, or -17f), it’s still roughly -21c, or 8 degrees below 0 Fahrenheit.
A few minutes later we’ve arrived at our bus stop. We are accompanying my mother-in-law to the country house and the bus is the first leg of a multi-leg journey. The bus has already gone. It will be some time before the next one. Instead of loitering there, we walk to an Orthodox Church a quarter mile away. The walk is stressful, as we are forced to be mindful of every step, and we all slip and slide at least once, although nobody falls this time. We pose for some pictures in front of the church. At this point, my legs are starting to feel cold. Maybe a second pair of long johns would’ve helped. The cold is invasive. It tries to work its way around the joints of my clothing. My toes, despite woolen socks and heavy boots, start to feel cold by the time we figure we’ve spent enough time snapping photos. Jenia doesn’t like it, but I have a little “soul patch” of facial hair below my lower lip. By the time we’ve returned to the bus stop, it is covered with ice.
Scene Two: Country House.
The village is tiny. How many houses are gathered here, a mile from the train tracks? Maybe 50. It’s hard to tell when you don’t want to linger in the snow-covered road long enough to even guesstimate. And I can’t wait to get indoors. I’m not alone: the ladies have been in an even bigger hurry than me, as we’ve trudged along packed snow paths, through a patch of woods and an expansive meadow, snow squeaking beneath our feet. We’ve come to the village now, and we walk past fences. A German shepherd barks. A man scolds it in Russian. The dog and I have something in common: he doesn’t seem to understand Russian, for his barking goes on unabated.
Indoors, the little house seems warm. My tyosha (mother-in-law; our Russian word for the day) cranks up the furnace. It’s been on, but running very low. Still, it feels wonderfully warm. Only after being here for an hour or more do I realize that it was actually mighty chilly when we arrived–it was just a lot warmer than the negative temps outdoors.
Scene Three: Catching the Train.
There’s a slight whistle blast from beyond the trees. “Oh, no, what time is it?” Says my tyosha. She finds the time, and says to hurry. We hurry. “Run,” says my tyocha from behind me. I’m in the lead. So I begin to jog. I’m carrying a backpack heavy with canned vegetables from the country house’s stores. Jenia jogs behind me. “No, run fast, or we’ll miss the train, and another one doesn’t come for two hours.” So I run. I can go a lot faster than my 5-months pregnant wife. “Go ahead,” she says. “If he sees you trying to make it, he might wait!” I race out of the trees, and hurry up the treacherous steps, gripping the railing lest my feet slide out from under me. A conductor is leaning out of the engine watching me. It’s clear he’s going to wait for us. The ladies catch up in a second and I offer them my hand as we board. We plop down on benches and Jenia gasps as she recovers her breath. An old man across from us watches her with interest–is she okay? What’s the matter with her? Asthma? The car is mostly empty. Men in heavy coats with fur hats sit here and there, most staring blankly out the windows. All are old enough to appear grave and dignified. After it’s clear that my wife is going to make a complete recovery from her rush, I content myself with joining the men in gazing out the dirty windows. Birches rush past. There are elevated pipes–gas lines?–that are here and there. A Lada sits at a crossing waiting for our train to pass.
I’m learning to enjoy life in the emirate of Abu Dhabi, even though I find some aspects of the local culture more than a little off-putting. I’ve discovered that if I keep myself busy with things other than work, which isn’t quite what I expected, I can have a good time. But, both Jenia and I have been ready to escape for a while. Where to go? We toyed with an affordable trip to Thailand, courtesy of Cobone or Groupon. But we ended up going where we’d planned all along–Russia.
And what an escape it is. We’ve swapped heat for cold (it was about 80F during the day in Al Ain, and here it’s mostly been around 0F, although we had one day of icy -17). Instead of wearing sunglasses and shorts, we wear furry hats and thermal underwear. We’ve swapped the minarets of mosques for the onion domes of Orthodox Churches. And of course, we’re experiencing another culture, one which neither of us have spent time in for quite a while, even though this is where Jenia’s from.
Russian culture, like the country itself, has an outward coldness that is shocking to the first-time visitor. Most passersby on the sidewalk aren’t friendly at all, and make no effort to be. Store clerks don’t give you the time of day, unless you seek them out and ask them something. Their idea of customer service is a bit different from what we’re used to in the West, and certainly differs drastically from the fawning attention you get as a customer in the UAE. Compound these things with sidewalks and parking lots which are hardly ever cleared of slippery and dangerous ice and snow, and you have a place that’s not very welcoming. At least, that’s how it seems until you are invited into someone’s home–then things are entirely different. Apartments are snug and warm, and rarely will you find more gracious hosts. You’ll be fed delicious home-cooked meals and tea–which is an excuse to eat still more food, in the form of sweets.
Of course the best part of being here is spending time with family, which is something we haven’t done since moving to the UAE months ago. We’ve enjoyed a white Christmas (although, interestingly, the Russians don’t celebrate Christmas on December 25, but rather on January 7, which is when the holiday falls according to the Russian Orthodox calendar) and we’re sure enjoying this change from the desert. It’s a nice escape.
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.