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The Grannies who baptised Russia

Marina Biryukova
22 October 2008

Some time after the war, in the 1950s probably, our factories made an unbelievable amount of plush jackets lined with cotton wadding. They were brown or black and shone with a sort of olive reddishness in the winter sun. The young people didn't wear them. It was the grannies who wore them. Kerchief on their heads, plush jacket, long satin skirt and galoshes with knitted socks - that's how I see the grannies in my child's memory...

I remember well our village in the steppes, exposed to the wind from all sides, a collection of mud brick or wooden houses (when the first real brick houses appeared they seemed palaces to us). There were blackened old fences and trees stuck up here and there. The little pond swelled in the spring and seemed to us like a whole sea.

There we were, my grandmother and I (she never wore a plush jacket), standing on the banks of our spring sea, looking across at the little mud brick house reddish on the other shore, and there went the plush-clad grannies in twos and threes, one after the other, all off to a meeting or something? My own grandmother, she was born around the same time as they were, in 1903, and figured out what it was all about, explained to me that today was a religious festival, the Annunciation it was called, and the grannies were all so stupid and ignorant that they were still celebrating the event.

My grandmother recounted as best she could what she remembered from her schoolroom lessons in religious instruction. She sounded like Leo Taksil at first, but as she talked her tone changed of its own accord, grew warm and even took on a sort of significant note. You can't ever scrub someone free of their childhood. But I was amazed nonetheless, wondered how anyone could ever believe such fairytales.

There was never any Orthodox church in our village or even in our whole district. We lived in what had been the Volga German Autonomous District. After Stalin deported the Germans and abolished the autonomous district others moved into the emptied lands. First it was the war evacuees who came, and then just people hoping to find a better lot here beyond the Volga. There were also those who, like my grandfather, were sent to the steppe by the Party's iron hand. Practically none of the original population remained, just a few scattered here and there, but the grannies in their black plush jackets clearly had something that bound them all together.

A few days later, my grandmother came home from beyond the pond, that is, came back from bread shop, with the news that the grannies held a ceremony the day before, took out the Shroud of Christ. She told me what the Shroud of Christ was and went on in tut-tutting tone to say that some of the grannies even dragged their grandchildren along to the event, and where are the parents when all this was going on, and surely the school should react somehow...

My school friend Tanya was among the grandchildren ‘dragged off to the event'. She turned unusually serious as she described to me what she saw there. Four grannies emerged from a room, carrying a large icon, holding onto its corners (they did not really have a Shroud of Christ of course) and laid it on a stool. They covered it with a white towel and placed flowers on top (the cheap plastic flowers sold in our village shop). A beautiful melody the grannies sang, many of them crying, and Granny Raya read something from a very old book.

I reminded my friend vigorously that we were members of the Young Octobrists, getting ready to join the Pioneers, and should not be going to these kinds of meetings. But my friend's unusual seriousness troubled me. I soon heard for myself just how those grannies could sing.

My grandfather's sister, who lived nearby, died. Serafima, Granny Sima I called her. On the night before her funeral, my mother, who had been helping to prepare the food for the wake, came home and said, "The grannies are reading there. They've brought an old book and they're reading in Church Slavonic. They say they're going to read all night. Do you want to go and see?"

"Whatever next!" my grandmother was disapproving. "There's nothing for her to see there".

The next morning, they carried Serafima in her coffin into the yard. The men raised the coffin to their shoulders and the grannies began to sing.

How was it they could sing this way, and where did their voices come from? How many years had it been since any of them could have heard a real church choir?

But the beauty of their melody amazed me. It more than amazed me. I was a faithful little Young Octobrist but I felt immediately that this religion denied and rejected by our entire Soviet life had an inexplicable attraction and even some strange power.

It would be a great exaggeration to say that from that moment I began to think seriously about religious faith. I'd need a couple more decades, great change in the country and big personal upheavals before I began to think about religious faith. But when I did finally turn my thoughts in this direction I recalled our miserable little yard, the grey sky, wet snow (it was winter then it seems), the coffin covered in something black, and the singing of the grannies in their brown plush jackets.

Each of them had their own road of trials behind them. Their fates were woven through with the common thread of revolution, the civil war, collectivisation, the famine of 1933, the arrests and terror of 1937, and the war. Many of them were war widows. The authorities had given up on them and let them live out their days unchanged, stay what they'd always been. The authorities were convinced that the grannies would die and take their religion with them, and it would all soon be over. The grannies' behaviour seemed on the outside to go along with that idea. "We'll live out our days as we've always lived", they'd say when the party enthusiasts thought to try indoctrinating them in the new ways. But they did more than just live out their days. Those grannies, they baptised half of Russia!

Propaganda was one thing, but when it came to the test it turned out that in our class, for example, only a handful of children weren't christened, the children of the state farm and railroad bosses and the schoolteachers' children, that is, those who had the Party's eye on them. The more ordinary families had their children christened. Usually it was the grannies who insisted, and who still had authority as the elders of the family in those days. The nearest working church was in Saratov. The train went there and the grannies would gather all their grandchildren of various ages and take them there in secret ceremony. They did not christen the children themselves, without a priest. They probably knew that this was possible only in the most extreme event. And there was already so much they had to do themselves as it was.

Now, many years later, I realise that what those old Russian grannies did was indeed a true feat of loyalty and faith. They stayed faithful to He whom all around had rejected. They continued to perform the holy rites in spite of everything. Like the sisters of Galilee they were truer than the men. Throughout all the post-war Soviet years the word ‘church' was always associated in our minds with the word ‘granny' but never with the word ‘grandpa'. It was always ‘old women' who came to mind, and never ‘old men'.

Barely any of our forty heroines lived to see the first glimmers of what is now called the Second Baptism of Russia. They could not see the future of course, but I think they believed that religion would return. One of them, Granny Raya maybe, Granny Nyura perhaps, said, "Whatever happens, faith will return". I have only a fuzzy memory now, a vague recollection of one of them making this assertion as we queued at the bread shop.

My own grandmother, who never wore a plush jacket or kerchief on her head, outlived them all. She entered her tenth decade and grew indignant watching perestroika-era TV.

"What is Gorbachev doing bringing the priests back?" she exclaimed naively.

But when she died, we found under her pillow a page from a notebook with something scrawled on it in pencil. Her hand had grown weak with age and it was hard to make out the letters: "Our Father who art in Heaven..." It was the only prayer she still remembered by heart from the religious instruction lessons of her distant schooldays.

Marina Biryukova is a poet and journalist who lives in the Volga city of Saratov.

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