Sunday, 8 February 2015

To Russia with Love.

Natalya (alias Rachel) set me thinking this morning and prompted me to write a story about my long-dead friend Antonina.   I have been out to lunch with the farmer and friend W, eaten too much (lamb in my case, beef for the farmer and W) and am now ready to sleep by the stove, so this is a rather lazy way of doing today's blog, particularly as I may possibly have told this story before, a long time ago.   But it is sufficiently interesting to tell it again for new readers if I have.

My friend Antonina and her husband Igor lived with their son Mikhail in the Midlands town where I lived for getting on for twenty years.   Antonina was a darling - beautiful, effusive, a romantic, always immaculately turned out and dripping with jewelry, a teacher of Russian part time in our local Grammar schools.   She would occasionally come (along with another friend) for a meal in the evenings and over the years her story gradually emerged.   It is a remarkable one, but one which I am sure was repeated hundreds of times in similar form as the aftermath of the Second World War.

When the war began she lived in what was then Leningrad and was in her second year at Medical School.   When the Germans overran the city where she was studying at University they sent  her and her friend (also studying medicine) back to Germany to work in a field hospital as nurses.   Of the war she said very little.   But after the war she had to decide what to do - a difficult choice because - through no fault of her own - she had literally worked for the Germans.   Her friend risked going back to Russia and was hanged from a lamppost.

Antonina became a political refugee and came to England, where she met and married Igor and they settled down together.   Bear in mind that by now it was the height of the cold war and she had no means of contacting her parents, who for many years had thought she was dead.

By the fifties she had become Naturalised British and had been invited to join a British Council official visit to Leningrad to study methods of education.  Of course she went and on the first night, after they had been settled into their hotel, Antonina, wrapped up well against the cold, set off to the last address she had for her mother - much of the city had been destroyed and she had no idea whether or not she would find the place.

Well, find it she did.   She stood at the gate, undecided as to whether or not to approach the door, when suddenly the door opened and a woman came out with a saucer of milk and called the cat.  Sufficient to say, it was her mother - who had thought her dead for ten years or more.

Antonina died a long time ago and within a year Igor was also dead.   Sadly, about a year after that Mikhail died of a heart attack while travelling on a bus.   I was always pleased that Antonina was spared the heartache of the deaths of both husband and son.   Surely she had had enough pain and sadness  for one life.

16 comments:

Jane and Lance Hattatt said...

Hello,

This is indeed a most intriguing story.

It never fails to surprise us how people have managed to survive the most terrible of traumas in their lives, often victims of circumstance or just being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Your friend, Antonina really did have the most remarkable life and someone who, clearly, made a great impression upon you.

When we first came to Budapest, before Hungary was an EU member, things were very different and it did feel as if one was adventuring behind the Iron Curtain. Nowadays, it us more like being behind the Net Curtain but relationships with Russia and Russians are as varied as there are Hungarians. All so odd, but intriguing.

Thank you for your kind comment on our latest post, to which we have made reply. We shall look forward to frequent visits here.

Mac n' Janet said...

How sad, I hope she found some happiness in her new life in England.

The Broad said...

Growing up in New England we met many people who had escaped iron curtain countries -- some from Hungary, some from Poland, some from the Baltic States, many came from Italy. They all had amazing stories and adventures to tell us, though they seldom did... My mother's grandparents came from Germany, Switzerland and Ireland. Sadly very little is known of their stories and almost nothing has been handed down. I have one piece -- a little carved wooden box from Switzerland, which my great-grandmother brought with her in the 1870's.

jinxxxygirl said...

So wonderful she shared her story with you. So many stories are lost even just within our own families.

I was hanging at the edge of my seat there Weaver but you never did say... When her mother came outside to feed the cat did Antonio speak to her....or just stand at the gate and watch....? Hugs!deb

angryparsnip said...

What a beautiful and sad story.

cheers, parsnip

Gwil W said...

Your story reminds me of the day an elderly lady who was no more than someone to nod to in the street suddenly smiled and stopped me in my tracks and waved a letter in front of my nose. "At long last I have permission to visit my sister in Russia." she announced delightedly. It was in the communist era. "They might not allow me to return to Britain," she said. I never saw her again after that.

yael said...

It seems that every one have a great story if only we can listen.

Rachel said...

I have a friend whose grandparents died in the siege of Leningrad and she now lives in their old apartment. I stayed there two years ago and it was as if very little had changed to the interior although she was slowly trying to up-date it. She was very frightened of speaking aloud outside the apartment in case someone was listening and did not mix with her neighbours and she said little had changed since the Glasnost. She wrote to me recently and said it all now getting much worse and she did not wish to accompany me to Moscow (as I was suggesting to her) because of the worsening situation in Russia.

Heather said...

What an incredible story. Antonina must have been a remarkable woman and her problems make all of mine pale into insignificance. No wonder you loved her and remember her so well.

Joanne Noragon said...

How that war and the cold war affected so many. Both my brothers married girls whose mothers were refugees. My daughter's mother-in-law escaped East Germany for a new life. Her story is a hard one, but she dwells only on the present, not the long ago past.

Cro Magnon said...

We can only begin to imagine how many similar stories are now just beginning. Refugees are everywhere, and in huge numbers, whilst marauding gangs of killers clear villages and towns for so-called religious reasons. What a dreadful mess.

Hildred said...

We have a new couple in our congregation, - she is recently from the Ukraine and is dreadfully worried about her sister, who is still there. Over the years I have met a number of people who were refugees from Iron Curtain countries, and their stories were invariably sad.

Bovey Belle said...

A fascinating story and I am so glad she saw her mother again - presumably she spoke up! We take our freedom for granted, here in Britain.

thelma said...

Fascinating story, sadly I think there is another change in Europe going on, and those stories will be repeated. Russia, and of course Putin, prowls it land like a big angry bear, though perhaps I am being unkind to bears....

Elizabeth said...

Such amazing stories. Glad you told this one.
My friend Sigrid MaCrea has just published a book
(Viking )
A World Elsewhere.
She was the sixth child of an American woman married to a German.Sigrid was born in Germany 1943 after her father's death on the Russian front.
So her mother Aime was left a widow with 6 children.Well written.
Ice pellets currently falling.
Need to go out with the dog.....
so your snow drops were a treat!

Linda Metcalf said...

What a sad story...hope she was happy with her life after all the bad parts. So happy she found her mother.