My favorite Grandfather and best friend Vasily Petrovich Kuznetsov would have been 92 years old today - September 29, 2010. The last time I spoke to him was in August of 1994, just before I left for the United States. I called on his birthday a month later, but he was out walking the dog, and my phone budget was too limited then, and so I left my greetings with Grandmother. A couple of weeks later Grandpa sent me a note, "I am sorry I missed your call and am touched by your attention. I miss you very much, but I think you are doing the right thing. Fight the melancholy by working on yourself." Two months later I received a letter from my Dad telling me that Grandpa died of a stroke. That was easily the hardest time I had since I left Ukraine - the only time, really, when I wanted to drop everything and go home.
Grandpa Vasily was by far the best storyteller in our family. That is saying something, in an environment with three TV channels and frequent black-outs, when people had nothing else to entertain themselves except reading and telling stories. Grandfathers obvious, if untrained and unpolished, talent is obvious from his account of the Leningrad Blockade The Ring of Nine. To this day, I miss his conversation, his letters, and even the explosive arguments we used to have.
And so, to celebrate my Grandpa's birthday and to introduce him to my readers, here is a chapter about him from the recently published A Child In Translation (formerly Ukrainian Vignettes).
The book trailer is available on YouTube.
CHAPTER 8. GRANDPA VASYA
I know it isn’t nice to play favorites with my family members. However, I absolutely refuse to feel bad about the fact that my Grandpa Vasya (Vasily Petrovich Kuznetsov) has been, is, and always will be my favorite Grandpa. It wasn’t that he coddled me and spoiled me and let me do things my parents normally wouldn’t let me do (that’s what my grandmothers were for). Oh, no! Grandpa Vasya and I had explosive arguments with screaming, yelling, stomping of feet, rivers of tears and slamming doors. We called each other names and repeatedly swore to never speak to each other again. However, a couple of weeks later either I would call Grandpa with something like, “I need to write a composition on War and Peace. Didn’t you tell me you had a good reference book for that?” or Grandpa would call me saying, “Have you heard? That new miniseries on Lomonosov is out. We have the color TV, you want to come over and watch?”
Mikhail Lomonosov, one of Russia’s greatest poets and scientists, was Grandpa Vasya’s hero and role model. Just like Lomonosov, Grandpa was born in some God-forsaken village in the woods in the north of Russia. Grandpa’s dad was a jack-of-all-trades: he hunted, he fished, he could build a house, breed livestock, grow wheat and lots of other things that hardly anyone knows how to do anymore.
Grandpa was the eldest son and the second of seven children (the eldest child was Grandpa’s elder sister Anastasia). But none of his siblings bore the dubious distinction of being born in the middle of a lake, like my Grandpa did. Apparently, his parents went fishing, without giving a second thought to the fact that his mom was nine months pregnant. She went into labor and gave birth in their boat in the middle of a lake. Grandpa’s dad rowed to the shore, wove a basket out of willow branches into which he placed the baby, handed the basket to Grandpa’s Mom. Soon after she walked to their village and he went back to fishing.
Grandpa was born in August, but his birth certificate read September 29, 1918. Apparently, a child’s birth was registered as the child was baptized. When great-grandmother took her newborn to be baptized, the priest chose the name of the patron saint of that particular month – Bartholomew. Great-Grandma was distraught – that was an extremely ugly name (it sounds very goofy in Russian). She begged the priest to postpone the baptismal ceremony till the end of September, when the patron saint would be Saint Basil (Vasily in Russian), so Grandpa could have a normal name.
Peter Kuznetsov (Grandpa’s dad) was a tough man who never cut anyone any slack – not even his wife after just giving birth. As soon as the children were old enough to walk, they received some household chore to take care of. And boy, would they get into trouble if something didn’t get done! When Anastasia (the eldest girl) accidentally left the door open once, letting the pigs into the house, not only did she have to get the pigs out of the house and clean up after them, but she also received such a sound spanking that she could barely sit for three days. When the family sat down for dinner and their mother (Maria) placed a loaf of bread and a pot of boiled potatoes on the table, nobody was allowed to touch the food until everyone had said grace and the father had gotten his serving. Some of the more enterprising young minds dared to hope that Peter wouldn’t notice one of the little hands reaching to snatch a piece of potato from the pot, because he prayed with his eyes closed. They were sorely disappointed. As soon as someone’s fingers were within an inch of that coveted steaming potato, the huge wooden spoon came out of nowhere and descended upon the perpetrator with a smack! The ill-fated potato thief spent the rest of the pre-meal prayer frantically rubbing a huge reddening bump on his or her forehead, while their father continued to say grace with his hands peacefully folded and his eyes closed.
Grandpa’s father died tragically. He was hunting in early spring and stumbled onto a large female bear, who must have been protecting a nearby den and young cubs. Ordinarily, bears don’t bother people without direct provocation. This ferocious female, however, charged Peter so quickly he didn’t have the time to pull out the long stick with a wide two-pronged fork on the end, designed specifically for pushing away large animals. The bear grabbed him and essentially crushed him in her grip. Peter was able to free his long hunting knife and kill the bear by stabbing her through the heart. However, he was badly mauled – all of his ribs must have been broken. He crawled several miles to get home, eating snow to stay conscious along the way, and lived for several more days before his feisty spirit finally succumbed to the injuries in his broken body. Being the eldest son my grandfather became the head of the household, though still in his early teens.
More than anything in the world, Grandpa wanted to learn. I don’t mean getting a college education – at that point in his life Grandpa didn’t even know what a college was. He wanted to be literate – to know how to read and write and perhaps even how to count, add and subtract. So, much like his hero Mikhail Lomonosov, Grandpa walked to the nearest town of Arkhangelsk with a fishing train in the middle of northern autumn to continue his education beyond the seventh grade. (A fishing train was a long caravan of fishermen’s horse-drawn carts loaded with fresh fish. Late fall and winter was the best time to transport fish, despite the awful weather, because the cold temperatures kept everything fresh, thus saving the fishermen the money they would otherwise spend on salt for preserving their catch.)
Those of you who have painful memories about going to school and being unpopular should console yourselves by comparing your school years with those of my grandfather. He entered first grade in his mid-teens and was much teased by the little kids watching him – a big, stocky country boy – trying to squeeze behind a tiny first-grader’s desk. He didn’t care.
His hands, accustomed to hauling heavy fishing nets, stripping logs of their bark before using them for building houses and carrying a rifle, were too coarse and clumsy for the delicate art of writing, sometimes causing him to snap his pens and pencils in half. He didn’t care. His teacher – a kindly man, whose heart went out to the awkward village kid trying so hard to get an education – would sigh (pens and pencils were worth their weight in gold in those days) and say, “What’s the matter, Vasya? Did you break another one? Here, take one of mine.” Grandpa’s tongue, weighted down by years of country brogue, practically folded up onto itself while trying to articulate letters of the alphabet, causing other kids who were expert readers by then to double over with laughter. He didn’t care.
When not at school, Grandpa either holed up somewhere with his books, trying to wrap his brain around words and sentences and how two and two made four or walk around town, practicing his new skills by reading every street and store sign he could find. His finest hour was when he composed and dispatched a three-sentence letter to his mother – with a complete address no less, including the street name and number (not that anyone had ever before used street names and numbers in his village to locate someone’s house).
Grandpa Vasya managed to squeeze ten years of school into five, sometimes testing for three or four grades at a time with the local Board of Education. He went on to join the army – specifically the artillery troops. Having grown up in the country Grandpa was good with horses, which was extremely valuable in the artillery, because all of the heavier weapons and the accompanying ammo were drawn by horses. World War II found Grandpa in Leningrad, where he studied at the Army Commander Cadet School.
Grandpa told me everything about the war. His narrative remains one of my most vivid childhood memories. He and I went for long walks and he talked about the course of the war literally day by day. Sometimes he asked me, “So, where did we stop last time?” and I said something like, “November 15, 1943,” and Grandpa picked up his story from that day. He described his war experiences, specifically his story of survival of the Leningrad Blockade in a memoir titled The Ring of Nine. I would like to relate one of his stories here – his memory of the first day of war, Sunday, June 22, 1941.
Attacking the Soviet Union on a summer Sunday was a brilliant tactical stroke by Hitler. Not only were most of our military personnel on vacation or somewhere away from their bases taking training courses in the summer, but Sunday was everyone’s day off, and most of the military establishments had nothing but a skeleton crew on duty. With fewer people to watch the Soviet borders and airspace, the German airplanes met with no resistance as they dropped bombs on military bases and airfields in and around Kiev and Minsk (two major cities nearest to our western border) at four o’clock that morning. At the same time, the German infantry had easily overtaken the border patrols and we had enemy troops in our territory before anyone knew what had happened.
Grandpa Vasya had a day off from his classes that day and went to Petergof (one of the most famous Leningrad suburbs, where one of the royal family’s summer palaces was) to enjoy the lovely grounds and the famous Golden Fountains. The weather was perfect, and the famous Petergof park was full of families with small children. Some of the fountains were activated by the park attendants who were strategically placed all around the park, sitting on the comfortable benches with newspapers and magazines in their hands and hidden fountain switches under one foot. Whenever some adventurous toddler tried sneaking under one of the large mushroom shapes, believing it to be no more than a decoration, a nearby switch was discretely pressed, and the mushroom cap exploded with streams of water, causing the delightedly squealing (and completely soaked) kid to run to his parents. Some of the adult visitors of the park joined in the game and seemed to enjoy it no less than the little ones.
Suddenly, all of the fountains shut down, and the sounds of a waltz pouring forth from the park speakers were replaced by the “urgent message” signal of the central radio station. It was followed by the voice of the most famous radio announcer of that day – Yuri Levitan, “This is Moscow! The Red Army Central Command Headquarters report from June 22, 1941. At dawn on June 22, 1941 German troops attacked our border military divisions along the front line stretching from the Baltic to the Black Sea, who offered valiant resistance through the first portion of the day. In the afternoon the German troops were met by the emergency response divisions of the Red Army infantry. The enemy was driven back with large casualties. The enemy was able to achieve insignificant tactical success in the Grodny and Kristynopol regions, where the enemy troops have overtaken the villages of Kalvaria, Stoyanuv within 15 kilometers and Tsehanofets 10 kilometers from the border.
“The enemy air force attacked a series of our airfields and civilian targets, but was uniformly met with decisive resistance from our fighter planes and anti-air artillery, which inflicted great losses upon the enemy. 65 of the enemy planes were shot down.”
Most of the civilians in the park that day were trying to make sense of what they just heard. What did this mean? Were we at war? But he said we drove the enemy back… Was this serious?
Grandpa Vasya didn’t wonder. He knew. Just like the rest of the military personnel scattered throughout the city that day, he knew exactly what this meant – we were at war, it was unprovoked and unforeseen, we had enemy troops on our soil and things were not good. He got up and went to the nearest army headquarters to report for active duty.
There would be many, many more announcements by “the voice of Russia” Yuri Levitan. Millions of people holding their breaths listened for the signal of the Moscow radio station every day at noon, as they were dealt one blow after another.
“The enemy troops have invaded…”
“After sustaining heavy casualties our troops have retreated from…”
“Under the onslaught of the enemy tanks, the Red Army has left…”
Two more years passed before the tide of the war finally turned, and the Red Army started pushing the Germans back to the west, over the border and across half of Europe. Grandpa frequently said that these daily radio reports were what allowed him to remember the entire course of war in such great detail. Just as everyone in the United States who was alive in 1963 remembers where he or she was when Kennedy was shot, everyone in my country who was alive between 1941 and 1945 remembers where he or she was when the Fortress of Brest was finally taken , when Leningrad became surrounded, when the German troops came within 35 kilometers of Moscow, when the enemy armies were annihilated during the battle of Stalingrad…
Grandpa’s war stories would be enough to make a separate book. But whatever he told me, he concluded by saying, “Remember – always remember this. This is our history. You must remember this long after I’m gone and pass it on to your children and grandchildren.”
War stories being what they were: tragic, frightening and filled with complicated details, my parents asked Grandpa Vasya to postpone telling them to me until I was at least two or three years old. He begrudgingly agreed to wait, but on the condition that he was allowed to help in other ways. When my parents brought me home from the hospital, I was not a pretty sight – all crooked arms and legs, with a huge pumpkin-like head and not much else. Having unwrapped me from the huge satin orange blanket, Mom and Dad weren’t sure how to proceed. I needed to be fed, bathed, swaddled, carried around, rocked to sleep, placed into my crib – in other words, taken care of. However, they weren’t sure how to approach all of these tasks, because it wasn’t clear how exactly I was to be picked up. This is when Grandpa Vasya stepped in and told everyone to stand back and let him do his thing.
Having come from the wilderness in the north of Russia, Grandpa was well-versed in folk medicine, rudimentary chiropractics and herbal remedies. He went to the farmers market and bought a supply of various herbs – some for clearing the skin, some for improving the breathing, and some just because they had pretty flowers… Every day for several months Grandpa bathed me in a little white tub filled with herb-infused water with an addition of one of his most prized possessions – a silver Imperial ruble, which he used to purify the water. While he bathed me, Grandpa also exercised my arms and legs to help straighten them out and massaged my head to make it look a little less like a pumpkin. Years later as the rest of the family admired me in my new school uniform or in a costume for a school recital or in my prom dress, Grandpa said, “Can you believe she used to be all twisted up and with a great big head? And look at her now! A princess! And who made her one? I did!”
As soon as I was firm enough on my feet, Grandpa Vasya started taking me for walks, although he brought along a stroller in case I got tired. We went through a large park not far from where Grandpa and Grandma Kuznetsov lived and sometimes took a spin on a merry-go-round or climbed into one of their huge swinging gondolas to see how high we could get it to go. Having listened to my Mom’s desperate complaints about being unable to get me to read from a basic ABC book, Grandpa suggested we practice reading the way he had decades before – from the store and street signs. That, of course, was a much more interesting way of learning how to read, and a few months later Mom switched to complaining that we were out of children’s books that I hadn’t read yet.
Sometimes Grandpa stopped by his favorite little bar, where he got a small glass of red wine, and I got a glass of birch juice (basically birch syrup diluted in sugar water). I was already quite a singer by then (I started singing when I was three) and knew lots of tunes from children’s movies as well as Ukrainian and Russian folk songs. So, Grandpa placed me on a table, where I sang and danced much to the delight of the waiters and other regulars. As a reward, Grandpa got another glass of wine on the house, and I got lots of free candy and my favorite sugar cookies, shaped like sea-shells. Grandpa and I called them “pechenushki”, which literally means “little cookies”.
We then headed home, and Grandpa made me swear not to tell Grandma Lora that we had stopped by the bar. At home, Grandma asked, “Where have you been?” and I told her about the merry-go-round and the swing. Unfortunately, my pathological honesty finally did us in, when Grandma figured out the right question to ask. One time, after the usual “Where have you been?” and “What did you do?” she asked, “Did you have anything?” (meaning – to eat), to which I replied, “Yes, I had a glass of the white birch juice with some cookies and Grandpa had some red birch juice with no cookies.”
Grandma turned to Grandpa with a battle cry, “What?! Did you take the child to the bar?!”
Grandpa was forced to confess that this was the case but that I was one of the most popular performing artists there. For some reason that didn’t seem to appease Grandma Lora in the least. When we were alone, Grandpa reproached me, “What did you do?! You turned me in to Grandma!”
“But Grandpa, I didn’t say we went to the bar – I just said what we had.”
That story took its rightful place in our family lore along with another episode where I again managed to put Grandpa into a somewhat awkward position. In 1980 the entire country celebrated the 35th anniversary of our victory in World War II. One night that year, Grandma Lora and Grandpa Vasya hosted a party for Grandpa’s army friends. As I mentioned before, both my grandfathers were highly decorated veterans, which made me very proud. I made it my business to know the correct name of every single medal they had and to point out that during any war veterans’ gathering, my grandfathers had more hanging on their jackets than anyone else. It was customary for each war veteran to receive an honorary medal for every victory jubilee (10 years, 15 years, 20 years, etc.). So, in 1980 all of Grandpa’s friends came to the party with a new medal. As we discovered later, Grandpa Vasya’s honorary medal somehow got delayed in the mail, for which reason it was not on his jacket. During the party with the room full of people – all of them drinking and smoking – everyone took off their jackets and hung them on their chairs. And while the guests discussed politics and other matters, I walked from one chair to another, carefully inspecting everyone’s awards. To my great dismay, I discovered that Grandpa Vasya’s jacket was missing a shiny new medal everyone else had. I approached Grandpa and pulled on his sleeve to attract his attention. When he turned to face me, he was rather alarmed, because I had tears in my eyes and my lower lip was trembling.
“What?!” he asked, “What is it?”
“Grandpa,” I said pointing at the new medal on his neighbor’s jacket, “you are an insufficiently decorated Grandpa.”
My only consolation is in the knowledge that I handed these men the biggest laugh of their entire adult lives. For years afterward Grandpa Vasya’s friends would begbeganin every letter and every greeting card with the words, “Hello, insufficiently decorated Grandpa!”