Tuesday, May 13, 2014

The Quest for Childhood Memories

"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.”

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

A Primeval Forest of Guilt

A little girl lost in a forest, bewildered, in peril, not knowing when she’ll find a clearing. Such a quintessential and universal image would have been a fantasy for my mother, who watched the forests burn along with houses, as loved ones, friends and other children ran screaming usually to be greeted by death elsewhere. Survival seems like a way out. And for her there was an escape, but not to some idyllic land rich with frisky wildlife, ripe berries and fragrant flowers. Instead her path out, a forced one, was paved with the stench of death and not so much as a crumb to eat. The harsh environment wasn’t the worst of it. Losing others when she, for no good reason in her young perception, made it out alive came with a lifelong condition: guilt that ran deeper than the Dnieper River and stung more than a bullet wound.

Belarus was effectively flattened in World War II, leaving little of historic interest for tourists who flock to monuments and battle sites. But within those thick primeval forests and picturesque villages is buried a history of death and destruction.

Between 1937 and 1938, Stalin's NKVD secret police executed more than 1,000 people per day, most with a shot to the back of the head. As many as 1.6 million people were killed in Belarus during the Stalin-era purges, according to historian Ihar Kuznyatsow, even as officials claim only 600,000 Belarusians were killed. By any account, it’s a staggering number. Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko has downplayed Stalin’s reign of terror, claiming that mass graves don’t contain the NKVD’s victims. For parts of modern-day Belarus, little has changed. The country still has Soviet-style collective farms and there has been very limited privatization.

To the best of her recollection, my mother was born June 21st or 23rd by the Gregorian calendar (now internationally the most widely used civil calendar) in either 1936 or 1938. As a Russian Orthodox Christian, my mother observes holy days, or moveable and immovable feasts, by the Julian calendar, a reform of the Roman calendar introduced by Julius Caesar in 46 BC. The Julian calendar served as the civil calendar in some countries until as late as the 20th century. But her birthday, for all practical intents and purposes, has been July 5th since she immigrated to the United States in 1950. It has nothing to do with the differences between the two calendars. “When my father was interrogated, when we were prisoners in Germany (circa 1946), he had made a mistake about (some other fact) and he got scared and that's what he gave as my date of birth,” she explains.

Whether she was born before or just as Stalin unleashed his murderous rampage is irrelevant because her earliest memories would be of a world ruled by this evil beast. As today’s evil dictator, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko (who was born in Vitebsk Oblast) continues to undermine the magnitude of the country’s losses, such historic events become mythical. Without any records of births and deaths and no markings on mass graves, it’s as if those who perished never existed outside the memory of survivors like my mother. Most of my mother’s close relatives, including all three of her brothers, and childhood friends were denied any burial ritual, all becoming lost in the very soil they identify with using a term zemlak (or zemlachka for women), literally meaning those from the same earth. For my mother’s parents, there was a culture to identify with before all the bloodshed. For my mother, there was nothing positive until she made it to a displaced persons’ camp in Germany.

My mother has no truly youthful memories. Her memories from youth don’t include any childlike whimsy that lends to the lighter side of fairytales. She didn’t learn many of these tales until she was older. As a little girl, these tales were passed down to me, both orally by my grandparents and their friends, many much older and from vastly different villages and cities, or in various tellings and translations. It’s unsurprising that my mother identifies only with the tales of the church, as her first happy memories are tied to hearing and singing liturgies.

Had my mother’s brothers lived, their story could have been more like the classic tale “The Metamorphosis Of The Dnieper, The Volga, And The Dvina,” of which the first and third run through Vitebsk Oblast.

The account recorded by 19th century Russian scholar and translator William Ralston Shedden-Ralston, a close friend of Ivan Turgenev, begins like this:

The Dnieper, Volga, and Dvina used once to be living people. The Dnieper was a boy, and the Volga and Dvina his sisters. While they were still in childhood they were left complete orphans, and, as they hadn’t a crust to eat, they were obliged to get their living by daily labor beyond their strength. “When was that?” Very long ago, say the old folks; beyond the memory even of our great-grandfathers.

Well, the children grew up, but they never had even the slightest bit of good luck. Every day, from morn till eve, it was always toil and toil, and all merely for the day’s subsistence. As for their clothing, it was just what God sent them! They sometimes found rags on the dust-heaps, and with these they managed to cover their bodies. The poor things had to endure cold and hunger. Life became a burden to them.

One day, after toiling hard afield, they sat down under a bush to eat their last morsel of bread. And when they had eaten it, they cried and sorrowed for a while, and considered and held counsel together as to how they might manage to live, and to have food and clothing, and, without toiling, to supply others with meat and drink. Well, this is what they resolved: to set out wandering about the wide world in search of good luck and a kindly welcome, and to look for and find out the best places in which they could turn into great rivers—for that was a possible thing then.

Depressing to most, this would have been a far brighter outcome for my mother’s siblings. For her, along with a childhood stolen, all hope is lost.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Spirit of the Skaska

In a remote part of a sprawling land comprised largely of forest and home to more than 2,800 lakes and 500 rivers, a baby girl was born. The majority of those forests are centuries-old coniferous woods, which have survived horrible battles that have claimed countless human lives. The girl’s three brothers died as infants, along with friends and family, mostly innocent victims caught in the crossfire of multiple conflicts led by cruel and unrelenting conquerors. She watched and wept, not understanding why everyone was being killed, but also not knowing a life without such constant horrors. Her first years spent in this forest marred by bloodshed, bombs, grenades and murderous rampages, are forever imprinted in that girl’s memory, even as many details remain a blur of atrocities. So many tiny villages, so many large-scale attacks; it was impossible for those being forced from their homes even to know who was striking at any time or why.

Like a Russian skazka, or fairytale, my mother’s early years in small villages in Vitebsk Oblast in Belarus are fraught with horrific and otherworldly images that tell a dark story that many would like to bury.

Today some 1.2 million people live in Vitebsk Oblast, which borders Russia, Lithuania and Latvia. My mother, an ethnic Russian, was born close to the Russian border. The region now boasts excellent road infrastructure connected to several major international motorways, and international railway lines offering access to Russia, Ukraine, Poland and Lithuania. When my mother was born, the only path out for her and other survivors was through labor and concentration camps in Poland and finally a displaced persons camp in Germany. It was a war path, and even getting out alive left a legacy of pain and suffering that few could comprehend.

The modern day Vitebsk Oblast would likely be unrecognizable to my mother who has never returned to her homeland. The picturesque Belarusian land of lakes, or Belaruskaye Paazerye, inspires art and awes tourists who appreciate its natural beauty. This disputed land remains unsettled to this day. From my mother’s perspective it’s a mass grave, with no markings, just distant memories of where and when so many violently died or disappeared.

It’s easy to assume that Russians, or Slavs in general, are more dramatic, darker and heavier of heart than westerners. Imagine your entry into the world as a struggle to survive, and childhood realizations that you’d be better off dead with the rest than cope with the guilt of getting away alive. This lens obscures any hope of living a truly free life. Far worse than fear is the belief that if you’d perished someone else, someone you loved, would have thrived. Yet nobody thrives. Survivors of this kind of trauma, especially in early childhood, are forever living in debt, as if they owe it to those they watched die to live in some form of deprivation. They’re not deserving of any happiness, any quality of life, any peace. At least this is what I’ve learned from my mother, that little girl who never let her spirit blossom.

Regarded as a seminal figure in modern Russian literature, Alexander Pushkin also is significant for breathing new life into skazki, which exemplify the true native literature of a people and a history that have been cast into darkness. Sure there is levity and love and other conventions in lighter tales, but most are cautionary at best and the Slavic versions of classic European stories are handed down with a ponderousness in Russian. Mocking the woeful, soulful voice of the quintessential Russian is a western sport. But most westerners dismiss the root of this misery.

Alexander Afanasyev, a nineteenth century Russian folklorist who published a record 600-plus folktales and fairytales, is known both for depicting the archetypal figures found in universal stories in multiple languages, as well as recording uniquely Russian characters including Koshchey the Immortal (Bessmertny), Baba Yaga, the Swan Maiden and the Firebird.

While most westerners have read or heard some version of Baba Yaga, her male counterpart, Koshchey, tends to circulate more in Russian circles. He is an evil sorcerer who gallops on his magic steed, naked, around the Caucuses. I’d be surprised if Putin didn’t secretly regard him as a folk hero. A shape-shifter who takes on the form of windstorms, Koshchey steals away beautiful women, especially the brides of heroes. His presence is preceded by dark clouds, thunder and lightning. Think Loki, but much darker.  He is immortal (or “deathless,” which is a closer literal translation of bessmertny) because what he calls his death (but may be interpreted as his soul or spirit) is concealed and detached from his body. His death sometimes is hidden in a needlepoint inside a duck's egg, and Koshchey the Immortal may lose his powers and die if a hero finds the egg.

As with all folk tales, there are many versions of this story, and in Russian many words that could alter the meaning significantly. But this is a dark tale by any standard. I remember hearing it as a child and thinking it was perfectly plausible. After all, the tales of my mother, her parents and the few others who survived weren’t any less morose or ridiculous by the standards of where I was born.

Even my mother’s birthday has been passed down like a skaska, shrouded in mystery and blurred details. The first record of her birth was created by a priest when she was a schoolgirl at a displaced persons camp in Germany. As I attempt to retell what she remembers and what can be culled from the few remaining documents and photographs, I aim to keep the spirit of the skaska alive.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Reliving Trauma by Mourning "Bad" Deaths

It was something like: “Ooooowhoawoahoooo!” The exact sound is impossible to convey in writing, but I can still hear it.

“Ooooowhoawoahoooo! Ooooowhoawoahoooo! Ooooowhoawoahoooo!”

My grandfather – my beloved Degushka -- the strong, stubborn, handsome, well-coiffed, impeccably attired, intimidating and often-argumentative man who I admired and idolized despite his prominent character flaws, was bellowing.

The chaotic chorus of “Ooooowhoawoahoooo!” was thunderous yet muffled. I called for him. In quickfire Russian, he warned me to hide, too. “They are coming! They have killed my sister and my mother! They will kill us all!”

Terrifying, but not delusional. His mother and sister were brutally murdered some seven decades ago in Belarus. Though on a quiet street in a Western Massachusetts suburb in the mid-1980s it would have struck any other passer-by as the ranting of madman, even though nobody else understood what he was saying.

As a tween and young teen, I volleyed between my parents’ house, about a mile-and-a-half away, and my grandparents' house. I forget why I was headed there, that day at that time. It was an otherwise mundane day that had gone -- by any middle-class suburban American standard existing at the time -- mad.

Deugshka was hiding under his car parked in the driveway, supine, legs straight, right arm crossed over left as if he were preparing to accept communion or his body readied for funeral and burial in the Russian Orthodox Church.

It was one of those moments. When I first learned the term posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) on the TV news, it referred to soldiers in the Vietnam War. As I came to understand it, I realized my grandfather was having a flashback, another term that had taken on a very different meaning in my social education. It wasn’t the first time I’d witnessed something like this, and certainly not the last. But feeling exposed on the driveway, even though nobody reacted, made me self-conscious. Already I was an outsider in this world of WASPs and other people who had no connection to the generation of their family that first arrived in America. Now this.

I was frustrated, scared and worst of all helpless. What could I possibly do? Get the keys and attempt to slowly roll back the car, hoping he didn’t budge? Attempt to drag him out? None of this was feasible. The episode, like all others, passed, but the impact was forever imprinted.

In the last years of her life, my Babushka, my mother’s mother, entered trancelike states where she would moan in a somber, steady stream of cries of and gasps for breath. The sound was similar to her husband’s “Ooooowhoawoahoooo!” but heavier and more sorrowful. In a PTSD flashback, she was mourning the deaths of her three young sons and countless close relatives and friends who died during my mother’s early childhood.

In all the years my maternal grandparents underwent tests for various medical conditions, not a single doctor ever mentioned PTSD.

With my mother, there also is no talk of PTSD, no mention of survivor's guilt or survivor's syndrome, which clearly is the root of her anxiety and stress related to what might otherwise be considered normal circumstances or situations. My mother feels guilty for surviving when her three brothers and peers perished. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, published by the American Psychiatric Association, removed survivor guilt as a specific diagnosis and redefined it as a significant symptom of PTSD. Regardless, my mother clearly suffers from both yet has never been treated for either.

So much of what is relived in these PTSD flashbacks manifests in concert with Russian Orthodox rituals and traditions and/or superstitions surrounding the complex mourning process.

Both the deliberate practices and the flashbacks play out like a dark fairytale. As a child I felt that the mourning in these PTSD episodes was a call back for the dead, as if somehow reliving the traumatic experience might reverse the outcome of the tragedy that claimed their lives.

In Russian folk tradition, death can be reversible and is related to sleep, a state in which one can experience the "other world" and return to tell about it. A couple of years after finding my Degushka bellowing under his car, I witnessed what my grandmother described as “crossing over” after a near-death experience. She called my parents’ house in the days of landlines, her voice muted and fading. I knew something was wrong. “Come quickly,” she said calmly. I stormed into the patio and ran into the house. The door was unlocked. She was nowhere. I rushed to the basement, where another time I found her laying in a pool of blood after she cracked her head in a tumble down the stairs. She was nowhere. I panicked. I ran back into the patio. She was laying on a sofa, still but faintly breathing, I think. In shock, I sat there, holding her hand. She awoke, describing how she’d walked through a green meadow and saw her mother, siblings, sons and others who told her “It’s not your time yet, Alexandra Dmitrieva.”

Russian folk tradition considers it a “good” death or “their own” when someone dies in old age surrounded by family, and a “bad” death or “not their own” when they die early, generally from murder, suicide, sickness or in war. My mother and her parents lost nearly every loved one to “bad” death during her early childhood at the hands of Stalin, The Nazis and the Belarusian Partisans. In Russian folklore, the soul is depicted as small and childlike, and sometimes as having wings and flying. It’s unsurprising that mother claims to have seen angels singing above her brother’s body during his funeral.