"Fairy tales do not give the child the idea of the evil or the ugly; that is in the child already because it is in the world already. What fairy tales give the child is his first clear idea of the possible defeat of evil. The baby has known the dragon intimately ever since he had an imagination. What the fairy tale provides for him is a St. George to kill the dragon."
_ G. K. Chesterton
As uncertain as the time and place of her own birth, Lubachka can trace her family history back only to “Russia someplace,” where her grandparents were born. Every detail is somewhat nebulous.
Affectionate for Luba or Lubov, Lubachka is what my mother was called by her parents’ friends and anyone their age or older. Diminutives are ubiquitous among Russians and nobody is known by just one variant of their given name. To my mother’s elders, most long dead, she is forever a child, a little girl who emerged from the darkest world and triumphed over death.
When my mother made her first confession at the age of 6 or 7 to a Russian Orthodox priest, she clenched her hands in prayer, tears stinging her innocent face and admitted to every sin she’d heard of, including murder and adultery. (Her very confession was a sin, to those who observe the most stringent interpretation of Orthodox faith, which regards listing the sins you have not committed or things you have not done as likening yourself to the Pharisee of the Gospel. It would be considered a form of boasting, though thankfully this priest was not a fanatic.)
The priest must have struggled to not giggle. “Why my dear, Lubachka,” he said, “when did you find all the time to commit these sins?”
Like her first confession, Lubachka’s early childhood encompasses the laundry list of tropes found in Russian folk tales as outlined by Russian formalist Vladimir Propp.
1. The Initial Situation (the setup) is a backdrop of war, attacks on all fronts by multiple enemies.
2. Though her parents survived, Lubachka lost many others, including authority figures, making The Absentations (someone leaves or dies) central to her tale.
3. Lubachka’s father made several Violations, including leaving the Soviet Army in fury.
4. In a series of small villages comprised of dueling ethnic and political groups, Reconnaissance was rampant, and often it’s unclear if someone is the villain or the hero.
5. There were countless instances of Delivery (the searching party discovers information), often by those disguised as friends and working for an enemy.
Lubachka’s first few years encompass most of the more than 30 tropes, which haven’t lost their universal appeal. These are woven through everything from The Odyssey to modern works such as Star Wars, Labyrinth and Pan’s Labyrinth.
Let’s stick with what is known.
My mother’s mother, Alexandra Dimitrievna (Dimitrieva) Grishaev, was born March 3, 1913, in Dubrovka, a village in Vitebsk Oblast. My mother’s father, Grigori Ustinovich Grishaev, was born Nov. 18, 1907, in Lagi, also Vitebsk Oblast. Both villages are located near the Russian border, and my maternal grandmother would walk to miles to attend services at the closest Russian Orthodox Church. The oblast (which means administrative region) borders Russia, Latvia and Lithuania, and is a major railway center with stations for lines between Russia and Ukraine, Russia and Poland, and Russia and Lithuania. Her maternal grandparents were Dimitri and Matrona, and her paternal grandparents were Ustin (Justin) and Natalia. She only recalls that they were born “in Russia someplace.”
My mother was the oldest sibling, the only girl and the only survivor. Her brothers all died as infants, and are still remembered as such in her daily prayers. She doesn’t recall exactly when or where her brothers were born.
In her words: “One of my brothers was born a year or so later than me. His name was Pyotr, which is Peter in English. And my mother had twins; they were probably like two or three years younger than me. One of them was Michael (Mikhail) and one was Ivan, which is John. And actually one of them didn’t live that long. And I, for some reason at that time, liked the name John better. And when they were lying on a bed or something I used to switch them because I thought my mother and father wouldn’t know the difference. [laughter] (My parents) said something that one of them was weaker, and probably wouldn’t live too long, but they knew (I was switching the babies).”
Lubachka’s attempt to save her “favorite” baby brother echoes one of the four types of classic Russian folk tales: magic tales with a female hero, usually a girl, and focused around her ability to perform certain tasks. The others are: magic tales with a male hero; animal tales and magic tales about everyday life. Heroines in Russian folklore are held to higher ethical standards than their male counterparts. But the rules aren’t quite carved in stone. Girl heroes aren’t allowed to lie, but “half-truths” may be permitted. They can’t steal, but taking something from an evil character may be admissible.
While she survived, my mother’s early childhood is a tragic tale.
Says my mother: “I don’t know how my brother Peter died. I don’t know anything about that. He was an infant. And John died when the war was almost to start, it was like 19 … I don’t know … when the Second World War was starting. And John died soon after that. And Michael … we did not have any, hardly any food, to eat, and he got very sick. There were no doctors. He had pneumonia. And he was 2 ½ when he died.”
My mother says her brothers were buried in the tiny of village of Lemnitsa in Vitebsk Oblast, some 158 miles northeast of Minsk. There is nothing online but serial maps of Lemnitsa, searching in English or in Russian. It’s as if it exists only as a tiny pinprick on the massive expanse of a geographic region and only in the memory of the few survivors like my mother.
For my mother, Lemnitsa serves literally and figuratively as a giant grave, where nearly all members of her family perished along with all its other inhabitants. “That's where also my father's mother and sister were harshly killed, and his sister was 16 at that time,” my mother says. “That's where they are buried, too.”
Quests for Russian folk heroines can be as mundane as gathering firewood, mushrooms or berries in the forest or more like that of a male hero, a journey to a far-away magical land.
Even the everyday was magical for Lubachka, when it involved the rare appearance of a mushroom or a berry.
Lubachka’s first happy memory comes from when she was about three years old.
“Afterwards, when we moved into this house that was built, and I was very little, we didn’t really have that much food, usually, always, you know. And the people across the street, they had these … they made them for me… it was like hamburger meat or meatballs. Just a little bit of meat and potatoes. And they gave me some. I thought that was the best thing I ever had.”
“And the other thing that I remember myself -- I really don’t remember too much of my childhood at all -- I do remember someone giving me candy one time, and ironically, I must've really wanted the candy for some reason, but I really don’t think I remember much of my childhood except a horrible war. And when the war sort of ended, but it wasn't ended yet, the Germans were still there and had let open some churches, and my brother Michael was still alive at that time, and that's when he was baptized in the church when it opened.”
She doesn’t recall the name of the church or the priest, but she speaks of a mystical experience, which punctuates her lifelong passion for Russian Orthodoxy and guilt, even now, over her tardiness to liturgy, even when she’s ill. The girlhood hunger for faith was as intense as the need for food to survive. My mother still thinks this way. It’s an inescapable passion.
“Oh, it was beautiful, big church. And I think, in my opinion, I saw angels singing on top of the church, but when I was telling someone they said I probably just heard people singing, and because there were probably paintings (of angels), so it was like a very large church. Yeah, to me it looked very good.”
She doesn’t remember anything about the cupolas, or onion domes, whether they were wooden or gilded.
“I don’t remember the outside. I just remember the inside of it. And, oh yes, there were a lot of people!” Most were strangers, bonded only by faith in Orthodoxy or at least a transfixion with the church itself, finally erected, open and serving a safe place to seek refuge for the soul or body. “I was too little. I didn’t really know anyone there. The church was full.”
My mother’s memory shifts suddenly to retrieve another visceral early childhood experience, one she’d likely repressed.
“And then I do remember something which I'm very upset about. When my little brother was sick, Michael, I was a little bit older, and well, actually, before he got sick, the reason he got sick is because there was this one room where four or five families of us lived because we all lost our houses and everything. But it was not where I was born or where I lived, it was somewhere farther. (Possibly closer to what is now the Polish border.) And what happened is, my mother, she was in quarantine because she had typhoid fever, and my little brother was still breast-fed at that time, and because she wasn’t with us and the two of us were left there, and this one woman that had a cat in there, and it was a cold, a very, very cold autumn day. It was very cold outside. And of course, he wasn't dressed, he only had a shirt. Like a T-shirt, some kind of an undershirt on, and she threw him outside, and I wasn’t able to pick him up or anything because I was too small yet, too. And then that's when he got very sick. And he had to leave late in the night. I don’t know if it was like a crib or something like that, for a long time he was very sick, and there was another girl that was my age that lived in that house, and we were playing cards with her, and my little brother would cry, and I would get very angry at him because he was disturbing me, and so that actually to this day tortures me. That I did that.”
“The woman with the cat, she was actually in the other room, but she was Polish, and her daughter had affairs with the German soldiers, so they had everything. We didn’t have anything.”
“Well, I don’t know. She was a woman at that time because she did have a daughter, I think. She was not a young girl. She was probably in her twenties. No. No, I don’t remember that woman's name. And then at the same time, when my little brother Michael died, that's when my grandmother, my father's mother, and his sister were very brutally killed.”
Michael died in “either October or November. I don’t know. I don’t know what year it was. Maybe 1944, probably 44. And the thing is, we were actually living at that time where the German soldiers were, but my grandmother, my father's mother and his sister that were killed, they were in a killed (by the Partisans) in a place that in the daytime, the Germans would be there at night. The Partisans were there, or vice versa, I don’t remember. But anyway, somehow, I remember, I do sort of remember going to the cemetery, and they were all, as far as I know, all killed and just buried in one grave. And but it was the cemetery, where we lived before the war started.”
My mother says they were killed by the Belarusian Partisans, resistance fighters who fought the Nazis and collaborationism during World War II.
“My aunt, at that time, was in school in Russia where they had to learn German. The German soldiers took her and another 16-year old, and they were asking who is living in this house and this house, and they had a list of people who they were told to burn down the houses. She was 16, so of course, she's going to say whose house it was. She was lucky because her father was also a Partisan, and of course he wasn't there at that time, but he was in their party. And my father was against the Bolsheviks and everything else, and he was in a German zone. And so when the Partisans came after them they told him whose house it was, they came to get my aunt, they wanted just her. My grandmother, she ran after her daughter. And then they would go and take them a few miles away from there, but they had to cross some kind of a river, and they were going to be interrogated there by the Partisans, where their headquarters were. But what happened, it became close to nighttime, and they had to get out of that region because I guess that's when the Germans were coming or something, so the Partisans said that we know what's going to happen with them, so they didn’t want to waste the bullets, I guess.”
“And so they used the other part of the gun (rifle), the wooden part, and they beat their heads open. That's how they were killed, and when my father saw that, it really affected his mental state for the rest of his life. And so – [sobbing] then we had to just, I guess, put them in ground and we had to leave there because the fighting between the Germans and Russians would start. And then when we got back to the place where we lived, and the second day or I don’t know maybe it was the same day, I don’t really remember, I was outside. And I saw my brother who was all in white, that's not the way he was buried. I guess I don’t know what he was buried in, that I don’t remember, but I saw him outside and to me he had represented an angel. That, I think, I just made up. No one was able to tell me that. I think that I remember myself.”
“I think I do remember, I saw when the fighting was going on between the Germans and Russians -- I'm not sure if it was Partisans or the or the, Russian Army. I don’t know, I never asked my parents what army it was. But I know at that point I just saw the Germans afterwards because they're the ones that took us as prisoners after, so I really didn’t see any Russian soldiers after that. And there was a wagon full of stuff and we were walking on one side, and this other girl, about my age, was walking on the other side, and the grenade was thrown, and she was very close to me, and she got killed, and I didn’t. And of course there were other people that were killed but I remember her because she was a friend of mine, you know? And that was very, very tragic.”
“And then, after that, Germans were moving us from one place to the other. And I remember we lived in Poland for almost like nine months. In Lublin, which was going back from the Russians to Poland.”