September 02, 2017

First Love


First Love
"Warning: There is a dog in the yard." {Photo: 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

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}
Like this post? Get a weekly email digest + member-only deals

Some of Our Books

Life Stories: Original Fiction By Russian Authors

Life Stories: Original Fiction By Russian Authors

The Life Stories collection is a nice introduction to contemporary Russian fiction: many of the 19 authors featured here have won major Russian literary prizes and/or become bestsellers. These are life-affirming stories of love, family, hope, rebirth, mystery and imagination, masterfully translated by some of the best Russian-English translators working today. The selections reassert the power of Russian literature to affect readers of all cultures in profound and lasting ways. Best of all, 100% of the profits from the sale of this book are going to benefit Russian hospice—not-for-profit care for fellow human beings who are nearing the end of their own life stories.
Fish: A History of One Migration

Fish: A History of One Migration

This mesmerizing novel from one of Russia’s most important modern authors traces the life journey of a selfless Russian everywoman. In the wake of the Soviet breakup, inexorable forces drag Vera across the breadth of the Russian empire. Facing a relentless onslaught of human and social trials, she swims against the current of life, countering adversity and pain with compassion and hope, in many ways personifying Mother Russia’s torment and resilience amid the Soviet disintegration.
Maria's War: A Soldier's Autobiography

Maria's War: A Soldier's Autobiography

This astonishingly gripping autobiography by the founder of the Russian Women’s Death Battallion in World War I is an eye-opening documentary of life before, during and after the Bolshevik Revolution.
Marooned in Moscow

Marooned in Moscow

This gripping autobiography plays out against the backdrop of Russia's bloody Civil War, and was one of the first Western eyewitness accounts of life in post-revolutionary Russia. Marooned in Moscow provides a fascinating account of one woman's entry into war-torn Russia in early 1920, first-person impressions of many in the top Soviet leadership, and accounts of the author's increasingly dangerous work as a journalist and spy, to say nothing of her work on behalf of prisoners, her two arrests, and her eventual ten-month-long imprisonment, including in the infamous Lubyanka prison. It is a veritable encyclopedia of life in Russia in the early 1920s.
A Taste of Russia

A Taste of Russia

The definitive modern cookbook on Russian cuisine has been totally updated and redesigned in a 30th Anniversary Edition. Layering superbly researched recipes with informative essays on the dishes' rich historical and cultural context, A Taste of Russia includes over 200 recipes on everything from borshch to blini, from Salmon Coulibiac to Beef Stew with Rum, from Marinated Mushrooms to Walnut-honey Filled Pies. A Taste of Russia shows off the best that Russian cooking has to offer. Full of great quotes from Russian literature about Russian food and designed in a convenient wide format that stays open during use.
Faith & Humor: Notes from Muscovy

Faith & Humor: Notes from Muscovy

A book that dares to explore the humanity of priests and pilgrims, saints and sinners, Faith & Humor has been both a runaway bestseller in Russia and the focus of heated controversy – as often happens when a thoughtful writer takes on sacred cows. The stories, aphorisms, anecdotes, dialogues and adventures in this volume comprise an encyclopedia of modern Russian Orthodoxy, and thereby of Russian life.
At the Circus

At the Circus

This wonderful novella by Alexander Kuprin tells the story of the wrestler Arbuzov and his battle against a renowned American wrestler. Rich in detail and characterization, At the Circus brims with excitement and life. You can smell the sawdust in the big top, see the vivid and colorful characters, sense the tension build as Arbuzov readies to face off against the American.
Moscow and Muscovites

Moscow and Muscovites

Vladimir Gilyarovsky's classic portrait of the Russian capital is one of Russians’ most beloved books. Yet it has never before been translated into English. Until now! It is a spectactular verbal pastiche: conversation, from gutter gibberish to the drawing room; oratory, from illiterates to aristocrats; prose, from boilerplate to Tolstoy; poetry, from earthy humor to Pushkin. 
Woe From Wit (bilingual)

Woe From Wit (bilingual)

One of the most famous works of Russian literature, the four-act comedy in verse Woe from Wit skewers staid, nineteenth century Russian society, and it positively teems with “winged phrases” that are essential colloquialisms for students of Russian and Russian culture.
White Magic

White Magic

The thirteen tales in this volume – all written by Russian émigrés, writers who fled their native country in the early twentieth century – contain a fair dose of magic and mysticism, of terror and the supernatural. There are Petersburg revenants, grief-stricken avengers, Lithuanian vampires, flying skeletons, murders and duels, and even a ghostly Edgar Allen Poe.
The Pet Hawk of the House of Abbas

The Pet Hawk of the House of Abbas

This exciting new trilogy by a Russian author – who has been compared to Orhan Pamuk and Umberto Eco – vividly recreates a lost world, yet its passions and characters are entirely relevant to the present day. Full of mystery, memorable characters, and non-stop adventure, The Pet Hawk of the House of Abbas is a must read for lovers of historical fiction and international thrillers.  

About Us

Russian Life is a publication of a 30-year-young, award-winning publishing house that creates a bimonthly magazine, books, maps, and other products for Russophiles the world over.

Latest Posts

Our Contacts

Russian Life
73 Main Street, Suite 402
Montpelier VT 05602

802-223-4955