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My Family's Russia

Few countries have seen more changes in the last century than Russia.

If you were to ask most Russians about their origins they would immediately refer to Mother Russia. But our nation is not as homogeneous as it may seem. In fact, the majority are descendants from many nations, as I am.

I am only a quarter Russian, and a hotch-potch of Ukrainian, Polish and even Albanian blood flows through my veins. I wouldn't be surprised if there were even some Tartar drops as well - the legacy of 300 years of the Mongol - Tartar yoke in medieval Russia.

I am sure my family story is not unique in Russia. But it gives a picture of what it was like to live behind the 'Iron Curtain' and why we are the way we are now - sceptical of our government, suspicious of any changes.

My great-grandparents were originally from the Ukraine. They had a big family of two sons and seven daughters - of whom my grandmother, Zoya, was the youngest - and a little piece of land, which provided them with everything they needed.

In the early 1930s a great famine hit the Ukraine, known as 'the bread-basket of Russia'. A plague of locusts ate the harvest. Some people went mad and even started to turn to cannibalism. There were cases where women killed their husbands to feed their children. My grandmother was very little then but she still remembers the horror. 'Wherever you went there were orphans, swollen with hunger, sitting in the streets begging for money.'

Even worse than the natural disaster was the inhumanity of the authorities. The Soviets confiscated people's last stocks of food - to make everyone equal - and sent fathers to labour camps and their kids and wives to Siberia.

The same fate was waiting for my great-grandfather. The Soviets took away his little allotment (its original size had been determined by the number of males in the family) and all his belongings. He was sent into exile at the labour camp on the Solovki Islands in the Barents Sea. He was accused of being a kulak - rich peasant - because he owned a few pieces of farming machinery to feed his big family.

'I was three years old when they tried to take our favourite cow, which didn't want to go with them,' remembers my grandmother. 'To comfort my mother I reminded her of a whole jar of milk we had in the basement.' From the camp her father was sent to build the Belomor-Baltic Canal and then to build a new city, Murmansk, up north on the Kolskiy Peninsula, where his family joined him later to escape the famine.

My great-grandparents were religious people. However they brought up their children, including my grandmother, as atheists, because they were afraid of the consequences. The practice and expression of religious beliefs were banned. Those who dared to disobey were prosecuted, sent into exile or to labour camps.

My grandmother has always been a believer, but not a religious churchgoer. She used to believe in the 'bright Communist future', which for her - and many other Soviet people - took the place of religion. True faith in God came to her much later, during the perestroyka times in the 1980s, when the atrocities and lies of the past decades became known. People were horrified by the cynicism that the Soviet leaders, starting with Stalin, had displayed towards their own people. It was the first time people had the opportunity to return to God.

In 1941, on their way back to the Ukraine from Murmansk, the family decided to visit one of my grandmother's sisters, who had married and settled in Gorki, now Nizhny Novgorod. On the day they arrived in Gorki, World War II broke out and they had to stay. They lost contact with their father, who at that time was trying to reestablish the family home in the Ukraine, which was now occupied by the Fascists. Only some years later, when the Ukraine was liberated, did they succeed in finding him and he rejoined the family in Gorki. Till the last day of their lives my great-grandparents spoke only Ukrainian.

In 1953 Stalin died, and the whole country mourned. People were incredibly patriotic and devoted to him. It was impossible to get a train ticket as millions were flooding into Moscow to bid farewell to their leader. 'The capital was seething with people. There was no transport except the overcrowded tube,' recalls my grandmother, who went to Moscow, but never got to Red Square, as our Moscow relatives foresaw the danger of overcrowding. People fell into the sewers under the square through badly closed manhole covers. Many were injured and many died in the stampede.

While studying history at the Pedagogical Institute of Gorki, my grandmother met the love of her life, Muftar Muco, a medical student from Albania. He was taking part in the international students' reunion, which she was helping to organize. At that time there were many foreigners from the Peoples' Democracy countries, such as Hungary, Romania, Yugoslavia, Albania, China and Bulgaria, studying in Gorki's universities. But as the Cold War intensified, it was becoming more difficult for foreigners to visit the city, because Gorki was a large centre for the military industry.

The closure of the city influenced all aspects of life there. Supplies of food and other goods were so bad that there were long queues for everything. People started taking the 'sausage train' to Moscow just to do their basic shopping, making the long journey home the same night. The closure also had a detrimental impact on cultural contacts, as international tours, concerts and cultural exchanges were abandoned.

These were the days when marrying or even communicating with a foreigner could cast a shadow of suspicion on the whole family. But my grandparents ignored her family's advice and took the courageous decision to marry and move to Albania.

My grandfather became a prominent doctor in Tirana and they were given a good house in the city centre, which much later was turned into the state museum of Enver Hoxha, the Albanian dictator. Then it was demolished and currently there is a Museum of the Martyrs in the same place. While my grandmother was teaching Russian in the embassy school, she made good friends with some diplomats, who constantly invited them to special occasions. But the thunder was coming. One night, at a New Year's ball in Tirana, friends advised my grandparents to 'enjoy it as it may be the last one'.

This was the beginning of the Sixties, when diplomatic relations between the Soviet Union and the People's Republic of Albania were getting worse and worse, until contact was finally broken, parting many mixed families for good. Khrushev's 'thaw' back in the USSR - 'a short breath of freedom' - was taken by Hoxha's government as a threat to their rigid belief in Communism. Many Russian spouses faced the horrible choice of whether to stay in Albania, without any contact with their relatives back home, or to leave the country within a given time. Those who put off the decision were not allowed to leave later.

'Our Albanian relatives came to say goodbye to us at night, so as not to compromise their own families,' recalls my mother. She was only four when they were taken to the airport to leave Albania. Her father was called off his duty at the hospital to see them for the last time. 'I still couldn't believe that it was actually happening,' says my grandmother. 'We were totally convinced that in two or three months everything would get back to normal and we would come back again.'

Six months later she received a letter, written in an unfamiliar hand, in which my grandfather officially announced their divorce. They didn't see each other for 32 years, during which they kept sending letters, which never got through the strict censorship filters of both countries.

As time passed, my grandmother remarried. My Russian grandfather was a professor of Physics in the State University of Gorki. They settled down in Gorki, and she had another daughter.

In 1991 Gorki was reopened and renamed Nizhny Novgorod - its original name. It became a 'capital of reforms', due to the first economic reforms which took place there. With a new young Governor, Boris Nemtsov, the city thrived with cultural renewal and international relations development.

It was a significant time for our family. Some of my grandmother's Russian friends, who had stayed and had been taken to labour camps in Albania, came back to Russia for the first time. They told my grandmother that her first husband was still alive and had remarried, to an Albanian, and had two children. In 1993 we invited them to visit us. It was an incredibly emotional reunion of hearts when my grandfather finally came, with his son Adrian. My grandfather died a month after they got back to Tirana.

I was 15 when I met my Albanian family. I am lucky to have been born just in time to experience the past and present of Russia, and to face its future. People often ask me, with a frown on their faces, what I remember about the Soviet times. There are more sides to it than they think.

In spite of our family experience and that of many of our friends, my childhood memories are full of bright and idealistic images. It was great to be elected as a leader of an 'October Star' in my class and later to be a flag-carrier and reporter for my Pioneer squad. I guess I inherited my zeal from my grandmother, who was also a leader of the Pioneers.

We learned how to be responsible and accountable for everything we did in life as well as how to be altruists and take initiatives. Of course, it was part of the strategy of 'building a brighter future' with Communism. However, when you were engaged in all the varied exciting activities and felt like an integral part of your society, you genuinely believed that 'the luckiest ones were born under the Soviet Star', as some of the propaganda leaflets said.

Also, great emphasis was put on the free medical system and free education for everybody. In every school as you entered you would see Lenin's famous slogan in big letters, 'Education, education, education', which was supposed to encourage each student.

Another side of the coin, which we as Soviet children realized much later, was quite dark. I still remember the day when I was secretly baptised, taken by my grandmother to a distant Russian Orthodox Church. I was only four years old, and it was my first visit to a church. I thought it was a beautiful palace of Father Frost, as we call the Russian Santa Claus, who for some reason was wearing a black gown and gave me weird presents - a piece of bread, something red to drink and a little silver cross on a silk string.

After the ceremony my grandmother asked me not to tell anyone outside our family circle about it. It was not that dangerous at that time, but people were still cautious, as they remembered too well how you could lose your job and social status if you expressed a belief in God.

In my immediate family we never discussed religion. I thought believing in God was something only grandparents were supposed to do. So it was a great surprise when I discovered that both of my parents had kept their faith in spite of their professions: at that time my mother was a teacher for deaf and dumb children and my stepfather was a missiles engineer. Neither occupation allowed them to practise their beliefs openly. I didn't even know that both of them had the same silver crosses and little icons, which they kept in a discrete place at home.

I am very grateful to my parents for taking me to so many different places across the former Soviet Union, spending all they earned on travel and new experiences. My stepfather's profession meant that we also lived in a variety of places. The most memorable was Kazakhstan, where we spent six years in Emba, a little military town in the north-west. Our blocks of flats were out of place amongst the vast Kazakh steppes, which looked unwelcoming and empty in winter and were covered with beautiful, sweet-smelling wild tulips in spring. Often we could see camels wandering around. It was both romantic and rough, with temperatures of +40C in summer and almost -40C in winter. The water was rarely clean even after being filtered and boiled several times, and caused damage to our health. The culture was so strikingly different that it was difficult to believe that it was part of my country. I will never forget it.

It was in 1986, when we moved to Kazakhstan, that perestroyka brought glasnost and other new values and freedoms.

Throughout our turbulent history, family values have always been at the core of Russian life. It was because of the enormous support within my family that most of them were able to survive. 'Faith and optimism kept us going,' says my grandmother.

In spite of all the difficulties they have had to go through, my family have always been patriots. Most of them took part in defending the Motherland in time of war, either by fighting or by working in hospitals.

If it were not for their strong convictions and beliefs, their longing for righteousness, I would not be able to appreciate the freedom I have as much as I do, as I look back at my family history. No one could have foreseen the collapse of the USSR back then. Nor that quite soon we would have to have visas to visit the Ukraine. As recently as the early 1990s, my family couldn't have foreseen me going abroad. It proves how incredibly quickly things are improving in Russia now.

I am extremely grateful to be a witness to the living, constantly changing history of my country.



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