I want to dedicate the second half of my Siege of Leningrad tribute to my paternal Grandmother - Elena Georgievna Kuroshchepova (nee Basova), who also survived the blockade and was evacuated via the Road of Life across the Ladoga Lake. She was not the easiest person to get along with, but she will always have my love and respect for being steadfast in her beliefs and for managing to preserve her faith through the worst of the Soviet history.
Below is a chapter Grandma Lala from my book A Child In Translation. Grandma was still alive when the book was written, but had since passed away after a long and brutal battle with age-related dementia, breast cancer and asthma. I hope you enjoy this story of yet another amazing woman from the Kuroshchepov-Kuznetsov clan.
I consider myself fortunate, because I grew up with two complete sets of grandparents. Having both grandpas and both grandmas around and living in the same city simplified matters considerably when my mom’s theater trips overlapped with my dad’s flights. The only part my parents had to worry about was a bit of politics they had to play with my grandmothers, who were always fiercely jealous of each other and the amount of time I spent with them.
Grandma Lala (pronounced “Lah-lah”) is my dad’s mom. “Lala” is actually one of the numerous derivatives of the name Elena. While in most areas this name is usually reduced to Lena, Grandma retained the derivative specific to Leningrad (now St. Petersburg), where Grandma grew up. In general, we tend to be very creative with derivatives of various names. A derivative is a kind of nickname. For example, “Lala” is to “Elena” is what “Gerry” is to “Gerald”. My own name – Maria – has lots of derivatives: “Masha”, “Manya”, “Mashen’ka”, “Mashunya” – the list goes on and on.
I must say here and now, that I love all my grandparents and consider all of them remarkable in their own right. However, that doesn’t change the fact that all of them had their own idiosyncrasies we all had to live with. Grandma Lala, for example, has always been a little “stuck up” because of her sprawling family tree made up of generations of Russian and Polish nobility. (For that reason Grandma Lala had somewhat looked down upon my mom’s “lowly” parents and initially wasn’t very happy with my dad’s choice of a wife. Although, in retrospect, when my dad remarried after Mom’s death, she wasn’t happy either – I don’t think she would have ever found anyone who would have satisfied her criteria of what was good enough for her boy.) Prior to the Revolution (November 7, 1917), Grandma’s dad was a prominent businessman, while her mom worked at the palace among the secretarial and waiting staff of the last Russian Imperial family.
Grandma Lala still has some of her mother’s keepsakes, including a priceless collection of Russian Orthodox icons in golden and silver frames she keeps in a tiny cupboard transformed into a household shrine. During religious holidays she always opens the cupboard and lights a tiny oil lamp of green glass. I realize that Grandma’s icon collection would be easily worth thousands here in the States. However, none of us would ever bring up the question about selling them, despite the fact that Grandma and Grandpa are barely getting by with their measly pension and skyrocketing medication costs. It’s just not something that would be considered in our family. It would mean asking her to give up the last thing that reminds her of her family.
Grandma Lala lost everyone during the World War II. Her brother Vsevolod (Seva) went into the army as a volunteer as soon as the war began, was dispatched to the Northern Front (the section of the Soviet Front from Moscow to Lendingrad and up the Baltic Sea coast) and was declared “missing in action” two or three years later. Grandma never found out what happened to him. The rest of her family (her parents, older sister and herself) was marooned in Leningrad during the blockade, when German and Finnish troops completely surrounded the city, cutting off all communications and all supply lines. The blockade lasted 800 days, during which over a million people died from famine, exposure to the elements and bombardments. In the winter of 1941 Grandma’s father went out to look for some food and never came back. This wasn’t uncommon at the time – people were so weak from hunger that they sometimes collapsed in the middle of the street and froze to death. Grandma Lala – a fragile teenage girl at the time – was left alone to care for her too-weak mother and sister. Every morning she went to work at a factory. On her way home in the evening she would stop at their designated grocery store and trade their food ration cards for the measly portions of bread and sugar. At the height of the blockade famine a single bread ration for a civilian person was the size of a matchbox.
One day she came home to find her mother dead. Only her sister Tatiana (Tanya) still clung to life. Out of consideration for her little sister, who suffered a huge shock of suddenly finding their mother dead, Tanya suggested a routine: when Lala came home from work and before she entered Tanya’s room, she would ask, “Tanya, are you asleep?” and Tanya would reply, “No”. That way, Lala would know that everything was alright. They carried on with this routine for weeks until one day Grandma Lala came home and asked the customary question, “Tanya, are you asleep?” only to receive silence in return.
Grandma Lala was rescued from the starving city several months later via the Road of Life. The Road of Life was a single point where the Soviet troops were able to break through the blockade established by the Germans. The remarkable fact about the Road of Life was that it went across the Ladoga lake – across the ice – connecting St. Petersburg with the mainland. Despite the constant bombings and artillery shootings by the Germans, thousands of pounds of supplies were trucked into Leningrad and thousands of survivors were taken out thanks to the Road of Life.
There are two monuments in what is now St. Petersburg that commemorate the victims of the Leningrad Blockade. One of them stands on the shore of the Ladoga lake, where the Road of Life began. It is a tall arch with a gap at the very top and is titled “The Broken Ring” to symbolize the point, at which the blockade was broken. The other monument is located within the city limits. It is a series of granite blocks carved to resemble diary pages by a girl named Tanya Savicheva. Tanya’s story resembles that of my grandma’s to a letter. According to her diary she watched her entire family – her parents, her grandfather, her little brother – die of starvation one by one. The last page reads, “There is no one left but Tanya…” Sadly, Tanya herself didn’t survive long enough to be rescued. Her diary is as well-known among our war veterans as Anne Frank’s diary is in the rest of the world.
The family icons in Grandma Lala’s little cupboard were the only things she carried with her out of the starving Leningrad and managed to preserve through the remainder of the World War II and years of moving from one military base to another with my grandfather after they married in 1946. Another thing my grandma managed to keep intact was her faith. Let us not forget – all forms of religious expression in the Soviet Union were strictly prohibited. A few churches were preserved as historic monuments, even fewer of them remained operational. Nevertheless Grandma Lala managed to remain a fervent Russian Orthodox Christian. I have no idea how she found one of two operating churches in Zaporozhye after she and Grandpa moved there, but somehow she did. The church of St. Nicholas (our family saint according to Grandma) required an hour-long trolleybus trip, and only one trolleybus route – number 3 – went there, which meant a one- to two-hour wait at the trolleybus stops. Trolleybus is a bus that is powered by electricity via two long “antennae” – the trolleys – at the top that clip onto two parallel electrical cables that run along the trolleybus route. Sometimes, when a trolleybus makes a sharp turn or an abrupt stop, one or both trolleys fall off and the driver has to get out and clip them back onto the cables using ropes attached to the trolleys. Grandma attended the church regularly all her life until recently, when she turned 80 and her poor health simply wouldn’t allow her to venture out on this exhausting trip. Not only did she maintain this routine throughout the Soviet era, but she also managed to get all of us – her children and grandchildren – secretly baptized.
And while my religious views drifted away from Christianity over the years for my own reasons, I still have my baptismal crucifix as well as my mother’s, and I can’t help but respect Grandma Lala’s solid and unwavering grip on her faith. I remember the day when I was baptized – it was in the summer of 1982 just before I started school. Grandma and I made the long trolleybus trip to the church – a small white building with several blue roofs in the traditional onion-like shape. There were a few elderly beggars at the entrance (Grandma always made a point of giving them some change) and a tiny booth where one could buy candles and the special church biscuits – small breads made of flour and holy water, usually with a cruciform stamped on top. The inside of the church delighted me – it was all so colorful and glittery. The priest who baptized me was a very handsome young man (Grandma, who knew every last bit of the church gossip told me that he was recently married to a beautiful young woman) who looked a little bit like the image of Jesus on the church frescoes, only with shorter hair. The height of the ritual for me was munching down a bit of the church biscuit dipped in red wine (our churches used – and still use – real wine). Then Grandma and I went home and she made me promise I wouldn’t tell anyone where we had been – not even my parents. She hoped that the fewer people knew about her taking me to church, the less trouble it would cause.
Sadly, our attempt for secrecy failed. While I managed to hold true to my promise, it turned out that my mom’s boss (the mean library Director) lived in that area and saw us going to the church. The next day she called my mom into her office and said, “Tatiana Vasilyevna, please tell your relative (not, ‘your mother-in-law’ – ‘your relative’), that if she continues taking your daughter to church, you may lose your job. In fact, it would be better for everyone involved if she stopped attending that establishment altogether.”
Grandma Lala didn’t stop, although she did her utmost to be extra careful when she wanted me or one of my cousins to come with her. She also continued observing all of the important Russian Orthodox religious holidays, such as Christmas and Easter and kept track not only of our regular birthdays, but also of our so-called “angel days”. An angel days is a day dedicated to a specific saint. If your name happens to be the same as that saint’s – that’s your angel day. While our angel days were never celebrated nearly as elaborately as our birthdays were, Grandma Lala always made a point of cooking something special and making a small gift of some sort. She would also tell a story of the particular saint to whom that day was dedicated. For example, I knew that my saint was a young girl named Maria, who converted to Christianity along with her father. Fleeing Roman persecution and knowing that the Roman soldiers would be looking for an old man traveling with a girl, Maria’s father dressed her as a boy and told everyone it was his son named Marion (with an impact on the last syllable), thus, enabling them to escape.
Last but not the least, Grandma Lala kept track of our names. She believed that a person with a good strong name was more likely to succeed in life. So, she always made a point to remind us that Constantine (my middle cousin) meant “steadfast”, Tatyana (both my mother and my aunt) meant “the keeper of the flame”, Vladimir (my paternal grandfather) meant “the great ruler” and Maria (yours truly) meant “the lady of the house”. With names like these, Grandma said, we couldn’t help but be destined for greatness. Let’s just say we all gave it an honest shot, although not all of us were entirely successful.