One morning this summer shortly after we had moved into our new house I took a break from reading to go down and get another cup of coffee. I glanced out our upstairs window as I returned, and I saw a lady, a babushka (grandmother), walking outside our fence. As she passed by I could see she was leading four goats into the forest beside our house. It looked like a billy goat, a nanny goat and two kid goats. The goats were looking around for something to munch on as they walked, but they never got far from the old babushka. I called for my little daughter to come watch “the goat lady.”
[Caveat: Sometimes Russian readers whom I do not know will translate my blogs into Russian and post them on Russian sites. I realize “goat lady” does not translate easily (or prettily) into Russian. For my English readers this could be partly because the term for a male goat has a negative connotation in Russian—kind of like “jackass” in English.]
I saw this babushka walking with her goats on a regular basis after that. It was a fun distraction to watch the goats play as they walked through that pine forest. Eventually Oksana went out to meet her. She wanted to find out if “goat lady” sold milk. Oksana returned to tell me her name was Nadezhda, which means “hope,” and she did indeed sell raw goat milk. She does not process it in any way, but she assured Oksana that no one in her family or anyone who had purchased her milk had ever gotten sick from it. Since she lives just around the corner from us in an old house with her goats and two old dogs, it is convenient for us to get the milk which is quite tasty, not to mention nutritious.
I went with Oksana to meet her one day. She seemed very glad to meet an American. She was a little uncomfortable, however, because I have no patronymic name. I think I have covered this before, but Russians do not have a “middle” name like Americans or other Westerners. After their given name they have a name which is a form of the name of their father. For example, my wife’s name is “Oksana Ivanovna,” since her father’s name is Ivan. (If she had a brother his patronymic name would be Ivanovich.) Only her close friends call her simply Oksana. When Oksana explained Americans don’t have patronymic names Nadezhda still looked uncomfortable. I think it seemed impolite to her to call a man my age simply by his given name. So she avoided addressing me directly.
Over the next couple of weeks Nadezhda began to feel comfortable talking to Oksana. One day Oksana returned home and told me Nadezhda’s life story. She was born in Luga over 80 years ago. She came from an Orthodox family. Her grandfather had been a deacon in the Orthodox Church when the October Revolution occurred. After the Bolsheviks took over and established the Communist government, her grandfather announced that God had told him the Communists would rule Russia for only 70 years. Word of his prediction (or prophesy) reached the ears of the authorities. He was severely punished and warned never to say such things again. But he was not a cowardly man. In his mind, God had given him a message to be proclaimed. He would not keep quiet. After receiving more warnings, he was ultimately executed.
When Nadezhda was a little girl the Nazis captured and occupied Luga on their march toward St. Petersburg. The citizens of Luga, as I have mentioned before, formed militias to fight for their homeland. Eventually the superior numbers and firepower of the Germans were too much for them. Nevertheless, Luga was later declared a “Hero City” because the people here held off the Germans long enough for St. Petersburg to barricade itself against the coming siege. The Nazis besieged St. Petersburg from September 1941 until January 1944, but the city never fell into Nazi hands.
Here in Luga the Germans tore down street signs and other public announcement boards and replaced them with ones written in German. Administrative buildings downtown were taken over by Nazi leaders, and Nazi soldiers served to police the population here. This “policing” included taking any Russian citizens they desired into captivity to do whatever work the German authorities dictated. Some families were exported to Germany to take care of work there. Since many Germans were serving in the military there was a great need for slave labor in Germany. The Germans decided to use Russians as slaves.
Little Nadezhda, her sister, and parents were among the Russians sent to Germany as slaves. While her mother and father had to do whatever their German masters said, Nadezhda said that, oddly enough, it was a good time for her and her sister. They lived in a Russian settlement and, unlike many Russian kids their age that were taken to Germany, were not made to work. The best thing was they had three meals a day! So they could play and eat plenty of food. They really were so much better off than many during those times.
Eventually the Russians were able to push the Germans out of Russia. It seems to me it was a miraculous feat. The Nazi soldiers were forced out, and the Russians pursued them and eventually took control of Berlin. The allied troops were also coming from the other direction. Some wanted to get to Berlin before the Russians and get the glory of the certain victory. General Eisenhower was in charge of allied forces there at the time and stated that would not be the case. He said the Russians had sacrificed more lives by far than anyone in this war, and the victory in Berlin should belong to them.
The allies and the Russians subsequently joined together to liberate German cities. The troops who came to liberate the city where Nadezhda and her family were kept were Americans. She recalled her amazement at seeing real live American troops enter the city. They called out to the troops. Some ignored them, but some tried to say “hello” to them in mangled Russian. (The Russian word for a formal hello is «Здравствуйте» [Zdrahstvuyteh]. Most Americans wouldn’t even attempt to say that word.) Then the Russians saw that some of the American soldiers were black. None of them had ever seen a black person before! Nadezhda bashfully admitted they stared at them. It wasn’t racism. It was simply the first time they had seen black people up close and in person. Anyway, the Americans arranged for them to be sent back to their homeland.
The journey back home was far from joyous. Their train stopped in Poland, and the Polish people greeted them with bottles of vodka with which they could celebrate on the way home. Turns out it was a ruse. The vodka was laced with poison, and the men who drank it died shortly after leaving Poland. There had been a long standing animosity between the Soviet Union and Poland, but the Russians really did believe the Poles were glad they had defeated the Nazis. They were wrong.
The joy of arriving back home to Luga also quickly evaporated. The city was devastated by the Germans. There was nothing of value left. Worse, there was a food shortage. Nadezhda and her family went from having three square meals a day in Germany to reduced rations here in Russia. The rebuilding of Russia after “The Great Patriotic War” (as WW2 is called in Russia) would take many years.
Eventually Russia and the USSR would get back on its feet. Nadezhda went on to have a family and career. She worked for the City Planning Commission. She inspected construction projects within the city. She still keeps a sharp eye on construction. She explained to us everything about the construction of our home, so obviously as she was walking her goats by here she was still “the inspector.” I don’t mean she shared a few general tidbits. She gave the details on how this house was built and the elevation of the lot. Thus, her conclusion that it was a well-built house was great to hear.
Years later there was another tragedy in Nadezhda’s life. One Sunday morning she was going to Liturgy on St. Nicolas Day. It was a cold wintry day with snow and ice. As she got off the city bus she fell and slid under the bus. The driver did not see her and drove over her. The wheel of the bus crossed over her body from below one hip to over her opposite shoulder. She barely survived and spent many months in the hospital. She still bears the scars from that accident. She worked on for a while but eventually had to retire because of the injuries. But she never gave up or gave in. Today she says she walks her goats in part to keep them healthy and enjoy the natural feed, but also because if she sits and does not get out and move around she gets very sore in the places where the bus tire ran over her.
So now when I look out and see Nadezhda I see more than some old grandmother walking her goats. This lady survived being the daughter of slaves in Germany, a famine in her own country and being run over by a bus. She lived through the leadership of Stalin, Khruschev, and Brezhnev. She saw Communist power rise after the war and saw it fall with Gorbachev. She somehow made it through the awful 90s when, with the help of America, Yeltsin and the oligarchs almost destroyed Russia again. There is some fascinating history inside the mind of that old woman with the goats.
There are several ways to learn about a foreign country in which you may want to live and/or work. The traditional and perhaps best way to learn about Russia is to go to a university and major in Russian studies. You study the language, history and culture under qualified professors. Then usually you go and spend a semester or even a year studying here.
When we decided to move back to Russia I was supporting a wife and three kids, so I hardly had the opportunity, time or money to go the traditional route. I tried to condense in a short time as much learning as I could about this country. Since I had already visited here three times and then lived here almost three years, I did have a head start.
I had already started the first task, to study the language, and I continue to study it—most every day. The progress is slow, but I’m getting to the point of actually talking one on one with Russians. This is why I plod away at the Russian language. I don’t study Russian in hopes that one day I can impress people with my linguistic skills or get a certificate showing I am fluent in Russian. Those goals are beyond my grasp anyway. I study Russian to know the people here better. I believe in order to understand a country or culture one must be familiar with the language. Our thoughts are expressed in our words, the words of our native language. We cannot disconnect thought from language. I don’t believe I can really get to know Russians and how they think unless I understand as much of the language as possible. I don’t think I’ll ever reach the point of complete understanding, but the more I know the better. Furthermore, when Russians see that I’m struggling to learn their complex language just so I can talk with them they seem very grateful and open up to me more.
Second, I had also already begun to familiarize myself with Russian history. Heck, as a kid, I thought everyone here had always been atheists and Communists. I really enjoyed learning that there are so many aspects of Russian history about which I was totally ignorant. And reading Russian history is more enjoyable than studying the Russian language in my opinion.
I have two shelves of books on every part of Russian history, but I especially love the more recent history of the last 100 years or so. The books I prefer are those based on research that included interaction with “the people of the land.” For example, I’ve read a number of analyses of Stalin’s gulags. My favorite is Stephen Cohen’s, “The Victims Return,” because 1) Cohen holds a Ph.D. in Russian studies from Columbia University and taught Russian studies at Princeton and New York Universities for many years. Thus, he has stellar academic credentials. 2) He also spent a lot of time in Russia over his academic career, and still comes here and interacts with former acquaintances both in and out of the Russian government. Thus, he has access to “inside” information not readily available to the public. He and Gorbachev have been friends for years, and he is still interviewed by Russian reporters when he is here.
“The Victims Return” is based on his personal interviews and interactions with people who either had been imprisoned in the gulags or had family members who were. His biography on Nicolai Bukharin was secretly translated into Russian, and many “zeks,” (prisoners of the gulags), including Bukharin’s widow, sought him out. Oh, I know the Soviet archives have been opened and many who have read those documents have reached different conclusions than Cohen. However, I still trust scholars like him who do research on the streets and in the apartments more than those whose research is limited to sitting at a desk with a computer. A couple of years ago I got a nasty response to a blog in which I had made a negative comment about Stalin. The irate reader insisted Stalin only imprisoned true criminals. I asked him, “And how many former prisoners have you discussed this with?” His language got so bad I blocked him. Of course, studying Russian history and drawing any hard conclusions should always be done with humility. There is a saying I’ve heard, although I can’t find the original source: “Россия—страна с непредсказуемым прошлым.” (“Russia is a country with an unpredictable past.”)
Listening to Nadezhda, however, is a way to hear the history of this land come alive. She lives in that old house on a dirt road in the small city of Luga. I suspect even many people living here still think of her as I did: the old lady with the goats. But hearing her life story, I realized how much I could learn from her and people like her who went through similar experiences. My life in America was so different. There is something about meeting people like her that jars my mind into thinking from a different perspective.
This is a land with a history rich in wonders and horrors. Since first coming here in 2002 I have seen it transformed for the better. Russians are durable folk. For over three years now I have read almost daily what the mainstream media wonks and the warmongering politicians say about “the Russians” on American TV. Sometimes I wonder what I would think of “the Russians” had I never lived here. Would I have been able to see through the distortions and lies? I must be honest and say–probably not. I would not have had the chance to participate in life here: to shop here; to send my kids to school here; to go to church or to birthday parties here. I would not have had the opportunity to meet Nadezhda, the goat lady. I am quite sure my understanding not only of Russia and Russians but of life itself would have been much more distorted and impoverished.