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17 December 2018

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First Love

Saturday, September 02, 2017

by Paul E. Richardson

Upon our arrival in Novosibirsk at 4:40 am local time (12:40 Moscow time, in case anyone has a train to catch), we are greeted by a light rain and a refreshingly cool temperature of 12˚ Celsius (54˚ F). The moisture has given the city a fresh, glittering gleam, but we barely notice. After 30 hours on a sleeper train, all we want is a shower, a few extra hours of sleep on a bed that doesn’t shake and rattle, and some breakfast.

And the strongest coffee this Siberian city can offer.

Novosibirsk at 4 a.m. {Photo: Paul E. Richardson}

We have traveled over 2000 kilometers by train to Novosibirsk to meet two centenarians. We were to meet one each day over the next two days, but the first has backed out due to illness, so we now have an unexpected day off.

We spend it exploring our corner of the city (after finding amazing coffee, RAF style, at Akademia Kofe), visiting the newly renovated natural history museum, and taking an afternoon excursion to neighboring Akademgorodok (“Academic City”). Founded by a Khrushchevian decree in 1957 with the intent of being a scientific oasis, the town is jam-packed with institutes and research facilities. Akademgorodok, we are told, has a roadway that made it into the annals of Guinness as “the world’s smartest street,” so numerous are its academicians and scientists. It is also a bit of an environmental oasis, as every attempt was made when the city was built to take down as few trees as possible, giving the town a very green, calm feeling.

Nastya Beznosova-Bliznyuk regales visitors with information about her collection. {Photo: Mikhail Mordasov}

We catch that vibe as we wait by a pleasant duck pond for a rendezvous with our local guide. Nadya wonders aloud if everyone we see around is an academic (which holds a higher status in Russia than the English term suggests to Americans), so Misha half in jest asks a woman standing near us if perhaps she might be an academic. “Almost,” she replies. “My husband is.” And she introduces us to Sergey Fass, an academician mathematician who is also a member of the British Academy of Scientists.

When our contact Rita arrives, she leads us to Nastya Beznosova-Bliznyuk’s “Integrated Apartment-Museum of Daily Life in Akademgorodok.” It is a work-in-progress time capsule of the academic city as it was in its heyday. Nastya and her husband collect things others are throwing out or have donated, establishing their provenance and history, and then allowing visitors in by appointment. Nastya herself is the daughter of an academician, and she wanders the room as we sip tea, regaling us with the history of multiple connected items in a breathless, rocket speed monologue that is at once exhilarating and exhausting. One elderly woman at the table lived much of her life in Akademgorodok and shares the story of attending a packed concert given by the famous bard Alexander Galich in 1968.

One of the museum's more curious items: a pre-revolutionary prostitute's ID card. {Photo: Mikhail Mordasov}

*  *  *

The next day we set out on a 250-kilometer drive over gut-pounding roads that trail through wide, open fields of knee-high wheat (it grows shorter here) broken by lines and copses of birch, and capped with tremendous cloud structures left over from the previous day’s storm.

The road to Pokrovka. {Photo: Paul E. Richardson}

Our goal is the village of Pokrovka, which barely figures on any map. This is not surprising, since there are just three families living here.

We have come here to meet Lyubov Pakhomova and her family. She is our first centenarian named Lyubov (Russian for “love”) and, after traversing over 2300 kilometers to meet her, we are hoping against hope that she will have memories and stories to share that make all this travel worthwhile.

Alexandra, Lyubov, and Irina. {Photo: Mikhail Mordasov}

Lyubov does not disappoint. In fact she and her family surpass our wildest dreams.

First, of course, we must sit for lunch with Nikolai (Lyubov’s grandson) and his wife Irina (and their teenage daughter Alexandra – Lyubov’s great-granddaughter). They work on the local farm and have a simple farming life that provides most all they need (and includes a yard teeming with dogs, cats, geese and chickens), but like most farmers the world over, they are not well off. Nonetheless, they roll out a sumptuous spread.

“The rooster was pecking grain in the yard this morning,” Irina says as she sets down a steaming plate of chicken. "Oh, no, no no," Nadya replies... An obligatory shot of vodka is followed by some tasty homemade cherry juice, and we dig in.

*  *  *

Totally blind and only able to get around with assistance, Lyubov has a tiny frame and a small, pleasant, round face. She looks far younger than her 100 years (she turned 100 on August 2, but she looks at most 80), and while her voice is soft and quiet, she speaks clearly and with emotion, recounting events with a level of detail that astonishes us.

Born in Kaluga oblast, Lyubov moved here in the 1920s with her family to flee starvation. Back then, this area was an uninhabited corner of Siberia that offered the family the promise of more fruitful land. They established a homestead through great effort, only to have it all taken from them a decade later under collectivization.

“Mother did not want to join the collective farm,” Lyubov tells us, “but father said there was no point in resisting, so we joined.” They gave the farm their four horses and cattle, and hardly knew what money was, because they were paid in kind over the years that followed.

In 1941, Lyubov says, she and two other girls (Lyubov was 24 at the time) heard there were jobs cutting turf in Yaroslavl Oblast. They were promised 98 rubles a month, plus a passport (which would allow them to travel and resettle there), so they decided to flee the collective farm under cover of night. It was a huge risk, because collective farm workers did not have internal passports, and traveling without one was forbidden.

The family's back yard. {Photo: Paul E. Richardson}

We ask if she remembers the day she left. Yes, she says, it was March 24, 1941. They walked the 20 km to nearby Reshyoty, where they caught a ride to Kargat , from where they caught the train west.

Having just made the eastward trek from Moscow, we were curious how long, generally, it took to get from this region to Yaroslavl in 1941. We were surprised to hear that Lyubov had a very specific answer.

War memorial in Pokrovka. {Photo: Paul E. Richardson}

“We arrived in Yaroslavl on April 21,” she says, meaning it took a month to travel 3100 kilometers, she lived with relatives and worked long hours at very physical labor, mainly on drying out the cut turf.

Did she send any money back home? we ask. “Of course not,” she replies. “We were young and there were things to buy, and we had to eat.”

* * *

As we are packing up to go, I overhear sweet Lyubov say under her breath, not knowing I was standing near her:

“They recorded me. Now I won’t be forgotten.” [Списали. Сейчас не потеряюсь.]

Irina, Lyubov, and Nikolai. {Photo: Mikhail Mordasov}


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