Having lived through Tsarist times to the Second World War, from the Soviet years to today’s Russia, Yevgenia Gracheva, who recently celebrated her 102nd birthday, is still dreaming of a better future. A resident of the village of Azovo, an hour outside of Omsk, Yevgenia has a quick mind and a clear head (although she complains her hearing is not what it was). She told me the story of her life.
The good life
‘I’m a Siberian born and bred, although we were always known as ‘Donfolk’ because my parents had emigrated from the Don region during Stolypin’s land reforms [before the First World War]. Peasants would be given land if they decided to settle here, so off they went, in freight wagons, along the new Trans-Siberian Railway. We ended up in a village called Gorkaya [‘Bitter’] – it was a good name for it – and I was born there, one of seven. My parents built themselves an earth hut. Richer people bought or built log cabins. But the Tsar also gave us money to help us settle and we started a small farm. We had ten cows, and horses as well – we might not have been Cossacks, but we were from the Don, after all!’
‘We all helped out, even when we were small. And we soon had a good life there – milk, meat, butter, bread. Dad made our shoes, Mum busied herself preparing a trousseau for each of us four girls. We spun and we wove, and on weekdays we wore homespun clothes. It was a good thing Mum was a stout woman – she would make four skirts for us out of one of her old dresses. We had good clothes for Sundays, of course, and always went to church. But our father wanted to give the horses a rest so we would have to walk the 30km there and back – I remember doing it when I was just three.
‘Then, in 1914 some war broke out – I can’t remember who we were fighting. But it didn’t affect us, life went on as before and there was a good harvest that year. Some of the men were called up for the army, which made things harder, of course. But my father was deaf in one ear, so when they came for him they only took him as far as Omsk and sent him back home. He would laugh about it: “I only had to eat army porridge once.”’
The Reds will bloody you all
‘But then it all started – God knows what! First the Whites came and got billeted with us – and then they took our best horses. But they didn’t stay long; the Reds came hot on their heels.
‘I remember how the White commander used to say: “Just you wait. When the Reds come they’ll bloody you all!” And they did. They set up a kolkhoz [collective farm] and took our cattle. We had a barn full of wheat, and they stole that as well. They said they would give us a grain ration – half a pood [eight kilos] a month per worker, and four kilos for non-workers. We got it for two months, then it stopped. We’d managed to squirrel some away, but that didn’t last long either. Our mother took some of her homespun cloth somewhere, hoping to sell it, but it was hard enough for everybody to feed themselves, let alone have new clothes.
‘I remember it was the feast of St Peter, and we girls went in to the fields where cow parsnip grew, and picked all the buds off the stems. Mummy boiled them up, added salt and served them up. They were so tasty! But I could see Mummy looking down, crying, and tears falling on her plate... But we weren’t the worst off, my father had work. Sometimes we’d get a bit of grain and we grew potatoes.
Yegeniya's icon stand at her apartment near Omsk. Image courtesy of the author.
‘Our neighbours were not so lucky – the husband had been taken for the army, and his wife had to exchange everything they had for food. I remember their daughter had just one dress: she’d wash it every evening and hang it on the fence to dry and she’d sleep naked – and they only had straw to sleep on. Before the War we didn’t have bread to eat. They’d give us some grain now and then and we’d sow it by hand and harvest it before the snow came. The frost would get at it – it was flabby and wet and if you baked with it the bread would be tasteless and fall apart in your hands. But it was still bread – a real treat – we didn’t leave a crumb.
We weren’t the worst off; sometimes we’d get a bit of grain and we grew potatoes
‘And we still celebrated New Year, despite everything – people needed something to look forward to. They said Stalin had banned Christmas trees, but we didn’t have fir trees anyway. We’d decorate birches. Stalin seemed a long way away, but he cast a long shadow – we could see the prison vans driving through the village. The kolkhoz manager would give lads who didn’t have fathers a pocketful of grain for their work, but somebody ratted on him and they arrested both him and his eldest son, leaving his invalid mother alone; and her bedridden. We asked them again and again to let them go, but it didn’t do any good.
‘I remember neighbours arguing about whether it was better to be paid in grain or a metre of cotton cloth to at least cover your nakedness. Our granny took our family bible and all our icons to the church; so did everybody else, thinking they’d be safe there.
‘But then they burned down the church. The old people would meet on one another’s houses to pray and sing the old songs, but someone would rat on them as well, and the houses would be raided, and the old people beaten up, although we were all supposed to be friends together.’
Work and a wedding
‘When I was 17, I went for a job in a children’s home. There were all kinds of children there – five-year-olds, fourteen-year-olds – and they’d been brought here after the civil war from all over, from Moscow even.
‘The manager, a hard kind of man, wouldn’t take me at first – I was so thin he wouldn’t believe I was 17. I went out the door, crying my eyes out. But his wife saw me and took pity on me. She calmed me down and persuaded her husband to take me on.
‘I did all kinds of work there – cooked, cleaned, looked after the children. There were 36 of them there – Russians, Ukrainians, Cossacks, and gypsies. Once we were given some flour, and made pancakes – a real feast. The children had forgotten what a pancake was, and the little ones had probably never seen one in their lives. One little boy said: “Let’s not call her Dina (that’s what they called me) anymore. Let’s call her Mummy, cause nobody ever looked after us like this before.” I burst into tears: “Call me what you like, my dears!”
The children had forgotten what a pancake was, and the little ones had probably never seen one
‘Life goes on, however hard it may seem. I had two boyfriends. One, Seryozha, was a local lad who worked at the kolkhoz. He started courting me, and I quite fancied him too. He wasn’t anything special, but I could feel my heart pounding. And then someone else turned up – a good looking, educated fellow, a teacher. He started hanging around as well, and he was smarter than the farm worker: he would bring me flowers. Then Seryozha was called up for military service, and the other one was on the doorstep: he’d got a head teacher’s job in a town, with a house thrown in – the previous head had just been sent to the Gulag. “We’ll have a good life there”, he said, “and I’m lame, I won’t get called up.”
But it’s a big decision, deciding to get married, and I was only 20 and not ready to take it. So I waited for my Seryozha to come back and we had our wedding. It wasn’t a big do – they weren’t, then – but people brought what they could: bread, salted pork fat, moonshine.’
It was easier in wartime
‘Then the Great Patriotic War started, and my man was among the first to be called up, along with my three brothers and my sister Masha’s husband. I didn’t even get to say goodbye to Seryozha: they took him to the recruitment office straight from work.
‘My three brothers were killed right away, one after the other. One managed to write first: ‘Don’t wait for us; we won’t be coming back, we’re facing tanks with sticks in our hands.’ But Seryozha was still dreaming: “I’m protected by a spell from you: there’s a German trying to shoot me, he’s killing my mates, but I climb out of the ruins, dust myself down and walk further. I come back to the dugout after the battle and there’s not a man left standing. And the only thing that keeps me going is that after two years at the front I’ll get some home leave and see you again.”
‘We had three kids already, and I’d been working since 1939 as a cook at a military base. Things were getting easier in other ways: we could keep cattle and pigs again, although they weren’t our property, they belonged to the kolkhoz. We were supposed to hand over the milk, and we could only keep the skin from any pig we killed – the meat was for the community.
‘My little cow helped a lot of people. A little girl with TB – she was about five – would come when I was milking and say: “Dina, give me a drink.” And each time we said goodbye she would cry and say: “You’ve saved my life.” And an officer with a lung wound got his share as well, and pulled through. And when the Volga and Ukrainian Germans were exiled here, I asked to have two of them billeted with me. I had a cow – I could feed them. Instead, they brought me a pregnant woman, her sister, and her husband with two small children.
Sitting here at her apartment, Yevgeniya Gracheva has lived through world wars and revolutions. Image courtesy of the author.
‘I was taken aback, but what could I do? I gave them my one room, and moved to the kitchen myself. We got on fine – the baby died as soon as it was born, but the other two survived. Twice a day, when I milked the cow, I would give them half a litre of fresh milk. But Seryozha wrote from outside Leningrad: ‘I’m fighting Germans here, and you’re feeding them – how can you do that?’ But they weren’t to blame for anything, especially the children. They were sent here and dumped somewhere along a road with nowhere to live, and not a crust of bread to their name. I argued and argued with him, then just wrote saying I’d got rid of them, and he seemed to calm down. Then two of the Germans were sent off to dig trenches somewhere, leaving just the mother and the two tots, and we got on with our lives together.
‘I’m fighting Germans here, and you’re feeding them’
‘So I was working at the military base, boiling up enormous cauldrons of wheat kasha [porridge]. When I washed the cauldrons afterwards, I was supposed to throw out all the bits sticking to the sides, but it was ok to take them to feed the pigs. So I would scrape off all the bits and put them in an enamel bucket with some other scraps on top, and make like I was taking them to the pigs.
‘But I would run up the road, and it was quite some distance, terrified someone would check. My sister Masha would be waiting for me at the gate: I would hand it over and run back to work. A neighbour would be there in a flash: “Masha, give me some kasha, my little Kolya is crying with hunger.”
‘She would be followed by all the other single mothers, and when I got home Masha would be in tears; “I forgot to keep some back. There’s hardly any left.” Never mind, I would think, the Lord will provide. What can we do, we’re only human. I never took my cross off my neck. I hid it, I never wore anything with a low neckline, but it was always there.
‘But I couldn’t save my own children. One day while I was working on the farm my brother-in-law fed my little boy boiled cream, and his little stomach went into convulsions. And my youngest caught pneumonia, and there was no one to treat them. Only one child, Faya, survived. And I didn’t see my husband again – a bullet sent him on leave to the other world in 1943, still fighting for Leningrad – all I got a letter telling me he was dead.’
‘We cried, we laughed, life was going to be different’
‘In 1945 we celebrated victory, even though nobody was coming back. We cried, we laughed, life was going to be different, we had hope. I took Faya, who was five by then, with me and moved to Lyubino, where my uncle was – he had just come back from ten years in the Gulag, building the Belomor Canal between the White Sea and the Baltic.
‘I left the house, where I had had so much sorrow, to my sisters and their husbands. And even in Lyubino it wasn’t me that Sander – that German we took in with his family – found, it was my sister Masha. He’d got a job making felt boots, and gave her a pair. “Give them to Dina”, he said. “I want to thank her for saving our lives.” But I never saw him again. I wanted to find him and give the boots back to him – what was there to thank me for? And Masha told me later that they brought a young girl back to one of the German settlements nearby, but nobody would take her in and she just stood in the middle of the road, crying. In the end, one of the Cossack women took pity on her. And evidently she married the woman’s son when he came back from the front after getting wounded! So all kinds of things happen.
‘I got a job as a cook in the Lyubino army base. Faya and I didn’t starve: that was the main thing for me, to be able to feed her. Mind you, the only coat she had was made of sackcloth – I begged for used sacks at the base. I also set up a smallholding with my cousins – a young ewe with her lamb, and a pig. When Stalin died, they went round the houses checking whether women were wearing black headscarves – if you weren’t, you got a lecture on how things would be bad without him. And I held the cross round my neck and thought: “You’re on your way to Satan in Hell.”
‘We hoped it would be better under Khrushchev, but he had big ideas as well – everybody had to give some of their animals to the kolkhoz. It was supposed to be better for the farm and better for us – we’d pay more attention to the ones we had left. I told my cousin to give them the ewe: we wouldn’t get much meat from her – at least the pig would feed us.
In my dreams Seryozha still asks me, “Why did you take those Germans in?”
‘I had lots of men after me – I worked at the base, after all – but I wanted Faya to remember her father. I still dream about him, and he’s always asking me, “Why did you go against me and take those Germans in?” We are still arguing about it, and I still can’t change him. People are all equal before God, it’s not their fault that they have monsters ruling over them and bringing them hardships.
‘In Brezhnev’s time we had plenty to eat. It was all a bit more human at least – the more you worked, the more you got paid. I still hid my cross, though. I didn’t want anybody to find out that Faya, who was in the Pioneers and then the Komsomol [Young Communist League], had a mother who was a believer – all roads would have been closed to her. She’d known since she was a tot that you couldn’t say anything bad about the people in charge. She got into the college of education, but she dropped out of it and became an aircraft designer. And she was a believer as well – the Komsomol hadn’t managed to put her right! Even in 1980 a research scientist at her work had his PhD accepted and was just waiting for the paperwork to come through when, high on his success, he went and had his son baptised – and that was that, no PhD.
‘But what would we have if we didn’t have God? I don’t hold a grudge against anybody – everything that happens is God’s will. We just need to help one another. My Faya says that the secret of my long life is the goat’s milk she buys for me, but I think it’s because I saved those little German kids. And Faya, God bless her, helps me out, looks after me. I have two grandsons, one great-grandson and one great-great-grandson. And they all help me out, though I still have my health.
‘I can look after myself. I would still be able to run if I hadn’t broken a leg in 1978, trying to help with the cows. But I can still walk and I wander around my house. I pray and Faya brings the priest to see me and hear my confession, so my soul is at peace. I want to go to the fields and crush the grass between my fingers, and I want to go on living.’
A dream of no more wars
‘Sometimes I think I’m tired of life, and then I remember one of my relations who nursed her bedridden husband for 24 years. And she’d ask him: “Do you want to go on living, Ivan?” And he’d say he did. And so do I – I want to live as long as God wills.
‘I just don’t want you to have to live through what I’ve had to. But it feels like it’s starting again.
I’m an old woman, don’t listen to me, but there’s something in the air, just like there was before the War. My dream is for people to live so that there will be no more war. But I’ll meet Seryozha again in Heaven and explain everything; and he’s a good man – he’ll finally understand.’