My grandfather, Spiridon Ivanovich, a skilled cook was the chef of Lenin and then later, Stalin. I was eager to hear about the old leaders some called tyrants. Grandpa was trained by the NKVD, the KGB’s predecessor, and passed away when I was 13. Then, my Russia was in its’ prime with young blood running hot in the veins of the youth and the idea of communism was virgin but true to its purpose. We were all working on making mother Russia the most successful, most powerful and an example to other nations around the world to reach a worldwide utopia. But poverty, especially post war, continued alongside the silent cold where food was scarce and a reason to live was scarcer. It choked the life out of all of us. Germany had followed a more aggressive role of Nazism that later turned into the Second World War spreading like wild fire and with a force to be reckoned with.
When the war erupted and Nazi Germany was advancing into St. Petersburg, or Leningrad as it was then known, they took it under siege. Father was a labourer on train cars but was enlisted into the army in a platoon of twenty-eight soldiers who were sent to East Germany. The war was getting more ugly and bloody everyday; soldiers were competing for the most kills. Towards the end of the war people were becoming less and less concerned with humanity and wanted freedom and liberty. In the beginning they were thinking the more they killed the sooner it will end, but towards the end it turned into a fight to stay alive. The dead fell like flies, and there were no more tears to be shed for the young, handsome and souls that perished. At first they dug each martyr his private and respectable resting place but as winter fell, so did the bodies and bigger holes were dug to bury them all. They did not have the energy or the food to sustain them and their drive dropped faster then the temperature.
The weather was minus seven but with the frosty humid weather it felt like minus fifteen. Gratefully, the leather boots were made for wear and tear, but the continuous walking caused fungus in their feet. The wiser men would rub charcoal on their soles to help absorb the humidity as a solution. Rubbing salt on the toes helped keep infections to a minimal to avoid the spread of bacteria and rubbing a little alcohol disinfected the area.
Alcohol was consumed in small doses to help them sleep and stay warm; they secretly concocted different brews with what they could at base camp. After seeing many friends suffer the loss of an arm or a leg, grown men became knowledgeable nurses out of their need to keep their limbs. Surprisingly, in extreme conditions men in war united like a family and stood together engineering tactics of attack and defence when the enemy was approaching but once the enemy retreated or was defeated, they stood alone to lick their wounds and went back to old personal grudges and arguments.
Sleeping in their boots, gloves and helmets was a common practice in case there was an ambush, they slept uncomfortably in their tents. Night attacks became more and more frequent so they divided into shifts of sleeper and watchdogs and with their shrinking numbers they began planning ways to ensnare opponents.
My father dragged his blistered feet thinking of my mother and life after the war. He had worked in the submarine fleet in the 1930s, which was less bloody, but at times like an underwater coffin. He was of able build and intelligence and was assigned to frontline against Germany on their soil and behind enemy lines. He was responsible for sabotaging German ammunitions and was to weaken the enemy from the inside to cause less damage to Russia and other countries defending themselves against the Nazis. A very dangerous position, in a final attempt before him and his group ran out of food, they bombed an ammunitions depot. Ultimately, their cover was blown and the Germans cornered them.
Survival seemed like a dream, but soldiers are fighters and they fought to stay alive. Whether they lost loved ones, limbs, an eye or their reason for living, it didn’t matter, because the breath they breathed was too sweet to be taken away from them so aggressively, it was also a matter of honour. They fought bravely but many fell. Later they escaped the vicinity to a farm and swamp. Those that sought refuge amongst the animals were slaughter like them. The last of them that reached the swamp and thicket tried to hide in the bushes but the Germans had dogs that sniffed them out. The swamp acted like quicksand and dragged the bodies to a murky death but my father was quick to think and used a hollow reed to breathe underwater for almost two hours as the German troops hunted, searched and scoured the area for their next kill.
Only four from the twenty-eight survived that nightmare. He dragged himself from the icy waters to find that he had been shot in his shoulder. It was a clean shot that entered and left the body but there was mud and dirt stuck inside from the wet mud. He walked back carrying his shoulder heavier with every step praying that he wouldn’t have to amputate it. If he cleaned the wound in time and kept his fingers moving he would not lose the sensation and ability to use it.
He reached his camp and they helped medicate him with what they had but the pain of the shot was like a canon blast. His shoulder ached and throbbed like an old lost lover, it would be present, like a parrot perched retelling a tale that was like a clock striking twelve repeating the horrendous ordeal like a pendulum day and night.
Time, they say, heals all wounds, my father grew stronger and sought refuge the simple dream of his home, his wife and a child that bore his name one day. Before he left for the war he had saved to buy his wife a beautiful pair of red shoes. They were of beautiful workmanship and he wanted her to have warm feet because he was so grateful for his boots in the cold. He found it the most thoughtful thing as she already had coats but shoes this special were rare since all the able working men were sent off to fight, finding one that was warm, comfortable and beautifully made was rare.
Not long after, he was sent back home for a short while at the hospital where he enjoyed a few weeks of rest and time with his wife. As soon as he was able to stand and walk, he as sent back to the frontline. The lines were filled with injured soldiers but no one complained, they would fight and fight until they fell dead or were incapable of walking and then sent back. Until one day a German grenade almost blew up his legs but he was sent back to Leningrad because he was so bashed up from the war he was deemed unfit to fight. He was finally returning home and was at peace despite being semi crippled in one arm and with more scars and nightmares a village could handle. He had served his country well, and was allowed to return in peace. His salary would be cut and because he wasn’t completely handicap there was no pension or community support.
Nevertheless, going home was a happy ending that was long awaited for. He packed his wrinkled picture of his wife that was tattered from his journey. He promised himself that he would be more loving for she seemed to be the last of link to tenderness in his world. His haven. His rock. All that was left of him. He looked at his face, and was ashamed of his scars, scruffy beard, broken tooth and forlorn look. He looked like he had aged fifteen years in the last five months. He didn’t think that he would come back alive, but here he was alive and all limbs attached though rusty and damaged. He hoped that once the war was over they could treat his ailments. He would need to work to feed himself and his wife. It was another hour to strike in his clock when he went to sleep.
Transportation was scarce having been bombed by the enemy so released soldiers would have to go back to Russia walking all the way from Germany. It was a painful limp of thousands of miles and cold nights. Gratefully, St. Petersburg was closer to Germany than Moscow so the trip was shorter but closer to enemy home and attacks. His blood pressure went up and his adrenaline rose as he noticed that the war had come home; too close for comfort. Despite the pain he pressed forward harder in haste. The once neat architectural landscapes with flowers cascading down the balconies decorating the roads were now a pile of rubble. They stood bare, full of holes that ranged from bullet holes to bomb holes. The stench of death lingered on the roads and the clotted blood was drawn to the sewers until they amalgamated into a dark brown stream. He couldn’t recognise the once familiar streets, but the thin faces of the children that ran and scavenged for what they could eat distracted him. Now probably orphans that were the result of this senseless war. The ambience of apathy and lack of sympathy with children stealing from a weaker smaller child was like a strike of lightening as what had happened to a once peaceful, stable economy and society. The repercussions of this war would last years, the scars and the broken homes, children and souls had no one but God.
Upon finally reaching home, the house was mercifully still standing, but had it’s fair share of damage, most visibly a hole in the roof. As he rushed between the rooms calling Maria’s name, his heart pace quickened. He was depending on her to stay alive. She couldn’t have died when he was the one at war. She was a kind and gentle woman, and at that specific moment the only one he needed to see alive and well for him to stay sane.
She was not there and there was no food. He saw a pair of shoes torn from use that was present in the kitchen, so a flicker of hope glimmered in his heart that perhaps she was simply out visiting the neighbours, getting groceries, or farming elsewhere to be fed at least.
The neighbours were absent, an old man and his ailing mother. As he stepped on to the porch, he saw that the grandmother was buried in the garden. She had loved her flowers and her son, Peter, who had cultivated her last resting place with a beautiful bed of dwarf spray roses.
The desperate soldier stared for a minute frozen in time. I was causing his heart to bleed witnessing to the graveyard that was once his garden of memories, reminiscing all her tales about her flowers and her life around them. Peter was mentally challenged and at this particular time his life sustenance was threatened, as he had no one to fend for him. The state of the once stable city was crumbling, and survival was for the fittest fighter.
Peter opened the door only after he recognised my father’s voice. There were visible marks of injury and cuts to his forehead and hands. It seems that the war had touched them all, not only the frontline battalion. He inquired about Maria after he hugged him and told him that it is soon over and they will have food soon. He promised him that he would come for dinner every night to keep him company. He never asked or mentioned his mother or complimented the flowers. He wanted to salvage what was left of his broken home.
Peter said that he hasn’t seen Maria in two days. Father panicked and asked where her usual routes were. He searched and combed the streets with her picture back and forth in hope of finding her. After dusk had fallen, his hopes began to set and the temperature dropped dramatically. He huddled close to a group of people in a closed shed where a large fire burned. The warmth attracted strangers, children and even stray dogs and everyone brought a few planks and branches of tree trunks and twigs to feed the fire that was giving them sense.
There was a pile of bodies piled on top of each other neatly like a pile of wood. It was unclear if they were Russian or German. A stack of sick children, failing women, and the elderly that did not survive the cold, hunger, sickness or vicious attacks by the hungry and desperate. Then as the dawn broke, he spotted a red pair of shoes. He remembered the special shoemaker that was now only to make army boots for the army. He had only made a handful of those shoes in particular. The ankle was a youthful young lady, another life stolen too soon. It was on the higher levels carried on a wagon with a few bodies over it. Like a moth drawn to the last light of a fading candle in winter, he began removing the bodies.
There, after a couple of bodies, laid Maria. Frozen, peaceful as if she was asleep. A sudden shock woke him up with such an aggressive force that felt like an eruption of pain that throbbed or what grown men call a heart beat. The pain of the shot to the shoulder, even when infected was no match to this explosion of realisation that his beloved was gone had him crying like a baby. She was the last thing left in the world for him that was kind and loving. Soon his hanging shoulder and throbbing limping legs were numb, but now a dark hollow abyss in his chest deepened with the overwhelming loss of his love and what he called home. All he fought for was meaningless. He whispered sweet nothings to her, everything he hadn’t said to her when she was alive. Weeping he carried her and covered her from the frosty winds because she felt like a stiff icicle.
Try as he might to warm her, her gentle body frame refused to respond. He kissed her so many times, for all those nights he missed her, and for all those lonely walks that he wished he held her hands as they strolled. He hugged her so hard he felt he could cocoon her until she came back to life.
A lieutenant approached him,
“Why did you remove that body off the corpse rack?” The gentleman was formal but young and insensitive from the looks of it.
“She is my wife.” He couldn’t raise his head; he was too busy trying to warm her cheek against his cheek, in a locked embrace.
“She’s dead? Isn’t she? Sorry to inform you soldier but all dead bodies have to be buried as soon as possible. We don’t need a bubonic plague spreading or rats eating them. We all dig a big grave and bury them together in one big pit.” He looked impatient and in a hurry.
“I’ll bury her. Thank you.” He wanted to lick his wounds in private, but it really didn’t matter to the lieutenant. Apathy was a coat of scars that everyone wore in the region.
“Can you walk or even carry her? By the looks of it your limbs are falling apart.” He stared at his body as he remembered the limp and hanging arm.
“I will carry her. She is all I have left.” He knew his strength and with the injuries it didn’t matter, all that mattered that he was close with the last thing he loved.
He carried her home, undressed her and laid her in the bath to clean her from the blood and mud. He prepared her best Sunday church dress and red shoes for the coffin that he would made for the garden. He didn’t trust graveyards as Russia was in dire times, it was common for fresh graves to be ransacked of their clothes, jewellery, shoes, and later dogs and rats would feast on the remains. He didn’t want that for his Maria.
As he sunk her into the tub of water, he noticed air bubbles from her nose escaping. He questioned it, so he raised her head above and in the quiet of the night, he could feel a gentle but weak breath and a weaker heartbeat. He quickly dressed her and carried her to the nearest hospital, where they said her chances of survival were low.
Maria lived and later gave birth to Vladimir Putin and this is his story he told to Hillary Clinton over a dinner.