by Wallace Kaufman
Almaty, Kazakhstan, Saturday October 23, 1999
At 3:20 in the morning dark Lara knocks at the door of my simple room attached to the back of a one car garage. The door is unlocked and I tell her to come in. “Baba Shura has died,” she tells me. She is speaking about her mother. Baba is short for babushka which means grandmother. She needs to find her mother’s passport and other documents in this room where Baba Shura lived until a month ago when she became too frail to walk and the force that had cut off her ability to talk finally made it impossible to swallow. I ask if I can do anything at all. “Sleep,” Lara says.
When I first came to Almaty in 1993 as the American advisor on housing and land reform I slept in this room for a month. I wanted to live with a family instead of a hotel staff or in a luxury apartment that USAID allowed. That was when Baba Shura lived in the house across the yard, two apple trees and a flower bed away. She lived there with Lara, Lara’s daughter Natasha and Natasha’s nine year old son, Dima. They had a living room with a foldout couch, a kitchen, and two closet sized bedrooms—one bedroom more than most Soviets. Baba Shura often called me over to eat breakfast together in her kitchen, and she had proposed that I rent the house and she would live in the room behind the garage. She used the money to buy a one-bedroom downtown apartment in a five-story walk-up for Lara, Natasha and her great grandson Dima. This was considered moving up in the world.
Shortly after we made our moves, Baba Shura sat across the narrow kitchen table from me drinking coffee and listening with a certain pity in her eyes as I told her how much things would improve now that the Soviet Union and communism were gone. Her response was a summary of 70 years. “When I was born there was the civil war and the Bolsheviks burned churches and the icons my father painted and all the records. I don’t even know when I was born. Then came the starvation when we were forbidden even to pick up grain dropped in the field at harvest. Then came the terror and executions and people went to the gulags. Then came the war. Then more starvation. After that the “Stagnation.” And after that Perestroika and chaos. Now independence. And my life is over.” And six years later her life was over.
When the daylight begins on this third day of light mist and rain, I look out the window by my bed. Three days ago, a friend of Lara’s, who has been helping her through Shura’s decline, washed clothes and hung Shura’s old house robe outside my window. It is a dark blue terry cloth with bold red stripes. She wore it often when we sat in my kitchen or hers as she corrected my grammar or taught me to tell good smetana (sour cream) from bad. Her robe hangs out there this morning in the gray and chilly weather waiting for a drying sun. The sun will come in a day or two, but never its owner.
In the weak, early light I go into the small yard between my room and the house that Baba Shura and her husband moved into after the war. Everyone in this district built makeshift homes from stolen materials. They used outdoor toilets and drew water from the pump on the corner where the lanes called Grushevaya (pear) and Oleg Koshevoi (a young war hero) crossed. On the little porch the lid of a flimsy coffin leans against the wall beside the door. It is covered with a bright red cloth. Stitched to the cloth is a big black Orthodox cross, a horizontal bar at the top, a slanted bar near the bottom. Like old coffins, it is wide at the top and narrow at the feet.
Lara asks me to come in and have tea. While she is busy at the stove, I step into the living room. In the middle of the long and narrow room Shura lies in the red box supported at each end on a kitchen stool. She lies under a white sheet, her head in a white scarf, a band of white paper like a nun’s wimple across her forehead. Lara and two friends have dressed her in a nice white crocheted shirt. Her face is tallow colored, like raw wax. She would seem more at home in her blue and red robe.
I open an album I looked at many times when I rented this house. In 1946 Shura (she was not a babushka then) stands looking at the camera, a beautiful small woman with dark laughing eyes and a baby in her arms. She loves this baby boy, Lara’s younger brother, and she is proud of this contribution to her family, and maybe to her country. A year later she would lose him on a railroad journey when a boiling samovar fell and scalded him to death.
Lara’s friend Natalya comes into the room. “How small she has become,” Natalya says to me. Today they have a lot of shopping to do. Thirty or forty people will come by tomorrow and at 3 is the burial. Afterward everyone will eat and remember. They will remember how they survived.
The old couple from across the lane come in. The first year I lived here I drove them with Lara and Baba Shura to their potato plot on the old collective farm. They are two short and rounded and weathered people. He has two good grape arbors at his half house across the street. I ask him how this year’s wine production went. “No wine this year,” he says. Frost got the grapes. “It’s a sad year without wine.”
I remember Shura recounting more than a few sad years. In the years of the Starvation she and her sisters and brothers scrounged for grains of wheat and overlooked potatoes in the fields near the present capital. I remember the 50 kilo sacks of five-year-old flour in the garage, “just in case.” Even at 80 she was still climbing down the steep stairs into the little dirt cellar where she kept apple sauce, onions, potatoes—survival food, the kind of cellar from which babushkas all over the former Soviet Union saved their families from hunger. Hoarding, waiting in lines for hours, mending and re-mending old clothes, scouring the city for a store with bread or milk—these were acts of rescue, bravery and endurance. Shura and women like her were willing to suffer that and more—before, during and after the war—to save their children and grandchildren. They were braver than the young Komsomol member for whom our street is named, Oleg Koshevoi who organized Ukrainian partisans before being caught by Germans and thrown to his death in a mineshaft.
Back in my room I pick up a small notebook on the windowsill looking for a piece of paper. It was Shura’s book of phone numbers and a few notes. She has cut out many pages to write on or throw away. Two pages noting visits remain. On the last page– “Natasha [her granddaughter] went to America in 1997 6 August and came to us 13 June 1999. And left us 10 July 1999. Dima came with her, but leaves 25 August 99.” They were now safe abroad and living on whatever gifts of personal strength she had given them. She knew she would never see them again. That work was finished.
Sunday October 24, 1999
By ten o’clock the living room is constantly full of people, mainly old people. On one side of Shura and her coffin they sit on kitchen chairs and on the other side they sit on the little sofa. In the steamy kitchen Lara’s friends, both named Natalya, are making a huge pot of borscht, meatballs, mashed potatoes and the usual salad of peas and potato cubes in mayonnaise. As three o’clock and the departure for the cemetery comes closer, the yard also fills with people. A few have dressed up. Most wear their weekend casual clothes, every-thing from sweatpants and sneakers to a shirt covered with the picture of an American Indian’s head with a single feather in it. Two old men trade small talk. “We all know we have an end, but we never know when,” the man in a trench coat and felt fedora hat says.
The other man with long white hair to his shoulders answers, “A good person always has good weather for burial.” For fifteen years he was Shura’s second husband, and for 20 years more he lived in the other half of the duplex house, sometimes her antagonist and critic, sometimes her handyman. He had fought in the war, been left for dead on the battlefield, revived by Americans, and for that contact Stalin sent him to a copper mining gulag. He survived.
The burial people come in a small bus. It is yellow, faded, and covered with dust. Two young men dressed in gray camouflage fatigues and sneakers get out and go into the house for the coffin. It has to be carried straight out the door and handed over the railing of the small stoop. On the street behind the grimy bus they set up the two small kitchen stools and lay the coffin on it. A friend of Lara’s pulls back the cloth that covered Shura’s face when they carried her out. Neighbors gather around for a last look as she lays there in the sunlight, the last time she will be out on this street where she has lived for the last 49 years, always a good neighbor. The woman who uncovered her face says, “Anyone who is not going to the cemetery, please come now and say goodbye.” Several neighbors step up. They touch Shura’s face lightly and step back. Some, old men as well as women, begin to cry. Like Shura, they survived. Like Shura, their lives are soon over. The men in camouflage pick up the coffin and slide it into the back door of the bus.
The cemetery is a very poor and humble place compared to the large Kazakh-Muslim cemetery a little farther out from the city. Here most of the monuments are simple wooden crosses, crosses made of welded iron tubing, or sheet metal obelisks silvered with aluminum paint and with a cross on top. Many from the communist times have no religious symbolism at all. Alongside the road no one has cleaned the trash for at least a couple of years. The embankment is full of bottles, papers, plastic containers and miscellaneous litter. No doubt half the people buried here are as forgotten as the trash.
Baba Shura’s grave has been dug on the third terrace up the hill. We follow her coffin past several fresh graves. Many of the graves have not only their knee-high fence borders but a small metal or wooden table and benches where friends and family members sit and have a drink or a small meal while visiting the dead. No Russian outing is considered complete or civilized without drinking and eating together, even if one person is living and one dead.
At her grave the men in camouflage again place Shura’s coffin on the two stools and a woman again uncovers her face. “Now is the time to say good-bye,” Lara’s friend says. Shura’s younger brother bends down carefully and kisses her on each cheek and on the forehead. He is 80 and has traveled with his wife two days on a crawling train from the Siberian border. He told me earlier, “Of my three sisters, she was the gentlest.” The gruff ruddy little wine maker from across the street takes his hat off, bends down and kisses both cheeks. Tears run down his face. Several of the women kiss her on the cheeks and sometimes on the sheet over her breast. Lara comes last. She kisses Shura, strokes her cheeks and her head. Someone gently tries to pull her back. They cover Shura’s face and Lara bends down and says, “So I will remember,” and pulls back the cloth again and touches the face of the small woman who once carried her in her arms. Up on the top terrace the noise of workmen talking and digging another grave drifts down.
One of the men in camouflage steps forward and asks if there is anyone else. No one speaks. He and his partner place the top of the coffin in place. Then with the heavy Soviet hammer any welder might use he starts driving long nails through the coffin lid to its box, one at each corner. Blam, blam, blam, blam, blim, blip. They slip two ropes under the coffin, slide it over the narrow grave and lower it into the dark earth. One by one we come forward. Each person throws three handfuls of dirt into the grave. Shura’s monument has also been carried in from the bus. It is a five-foot high obelisk of sheet metal covered with aluminum paint. Rising from the peak three iron bars have been welded into an eight-inch high Orthodox cross. A black plaque on the front of the monument bears her name, Drobot Alexandra Petrovna. It is a monument like hundreds of others here. I have seen the same monument on the arctic shores and in St. Petersburg.
The younger Natasha is handing each person a small ball of rice and almonds on a napkin. “Tradition,” is all she says as she serves me. The winemaker standing beside me asks if I remember that it was just below this hillside where we planted a small garden plot of potatoes in 1994.
When the grave is filled and the dirt mound shaped over it, several women cover the raw earth with flowers. Five displays of paper flowers are placed over the grave covering it and the real flowers beneath. Their black banners have been stenciled with big gold letters saying who sent the display—“Grandchildren,” “MP” (her last husband), “from brother” and one that says “Babulya.”
A woman says that now is the last time for whatever anyone might want to say. Shura’s second husband steps up to the corner of the fence that the workmen have placed around the plot. He faces the grave. “We lived in the same house for 35 years. We were married for fifteen of those years. Alexandra Petrovna, forgive me my faults.”
Everyone turns and walks away along the terrace. I’m last. I take out my pocket camera and take a couple of pictures of the grave. I may never see it again. Baba Shura’s grand-daughter Natasha and great grandson Dima in California may never see it at all.
At the house, in the center of the small living room where Shura lay in her coffin on top of the two stools, several tables are joined end to end to sit fourteen people. The food is laid out, cups filled with compote. I sit with the first fourteen. Across from me is an old woman with weak eyes and a quick mind. She met Shura when their husbands were both stationed in Germany after the War. Their husbands, both army officers, had fought together since 1942. Shura was so much in love she conned her way onto a troop train and found her husband at the front near Poland. For a week or two they lived together in an abandoned house between the Russian artillery and the German artillery, until her husband moved on with his advancing troops.
The old lady tells me of the war and the men she and Shura loved. She says both couples stayed in Germany with the occupying forces for a few years. They remained close friends for more than 50 years. She says that Shura talked about me often and read my letters to her. “She kept every one of your letters in a box,” she says. Her granddaughter, who was once my office manager in Almaty, told me that Shura sometimes thought of me like the two-year old son she lost on the train. This son was the baby she had held up for the camera.
So ends a life—the steep decline into death, the gathering to say good-bye, and after that, pictures and candles and memories. The memories will last longer than the cand-les, but memories are only slow burning candles, some dim some bright.
Shura was a good babushka, a good pravbabushka (great grandmother). I am glad that for a few years I had a babushka again. From Petersburg to Magadan to Almaty and Bukhara I have seen many wonders in the former Soviet world, but there has never been any greater wonder or gift than a real babushka. Here in the tiny room where she lived behind the garage for the last few years and where I now live for a few weeks, she has propped up on a shelf a photo taken in summer when her great grandson Dima came to visit from America.
They are sitting on a couch together, each with an arm around the other’s shoulders but looking straight at the camera like one person with one message. Baba Shura has already lost her ability to talk and even to swallow solid food. Her once round cheeks have flattened and the muscles in her face work only faintly to show her emotions. The faintest smile widens on her lips and her eyes are frank and sad. She knows she will die. Dima, almost thirteen, knows it too. He leans toward her, his temple against her cheek. The man in the boy is already visible–the confident fearless eyes and smile, the lanky arms of his father. He is entering that long time of manhood when for the next thirty or forty years he will not talk very much about love, at least not the way a child brings flowers or a drawing and writes notes saying, “I love you Mama, I love you Babulya (Lara), I love you very much Baba Shura.” In this picture it is clear that all the genetic coding visible on the surface of Dima’s life is his father’s. It is also clear that from Baba Shura he has been inoculated with the ability to receive love and to love. Statesmen may stand for centuries, bronze figures on stone pedestals. Bronze warriors wave in triumph from rearing horses. What greater deeds have any of these men done for their country than the babushkas whose names disappear from the public records and whose faces fade in old albums? None of the bronze heroes and their victories have given as much to his people or to civilization as Baba Shura.
Epilogue. January 2019. Shura’s great grandson Dima’s first child was born last year. Her name is Victoria.
Wallace Kaufman’s poetry, fiction, and non-fiction have been widely published along with several books of non-fiction and one sci-fi novel that takes place largely in Kazakhstan.