Twenty-Five Pages of You
These twenty-five pages were not written by me. They were written by my grandmother in the year 2000, right after she turned seventy-one. Her diary found its way to me a month and a half after she had passed away, at the end of July, on my birthday, in 2019. The best birthday gift a loving granddaughter could wish for. After I read the scanned pages out loud to my husband Chris in the car on the way to my birthday party, I thought for a few days about whether my grandmother would want it to be translated and shared with the world and came to the definitive conclusion that yes - she absolutely would. I have not edited anything in my grandmother's memoirs and tried to translate every word, as literally as I could. This is a pretty raw, unabridged glimpse into Russian life during and right after WWII as seen by a young teenage girl. Some of the details about the events during the war are quite intense and might upset you or stay with you for some time. I did not - could not - cut them out though, since, well, this is not my story, and I had to preserve it all. This is also by no means meant as an attack against certain nations. I have friends from all over the world, and, if anything, I hope that this story will help us bring more peace into our world.
The journal stops very abruptly - I guess my nan got tired of writing or got distracted by whatever she had to tend to back then, in 2000. I wish she had kept on writing. These twenty-five pages is all I have, and I so wish I had more. This goes to show how important it is for all of us to share our story. Whether you write, or sing, or draw, or dance - no matter how you express yourself - please do so. Because after all is said and done, your grandchildren and great-grandchildren will want to know more about you and how your life truly was. They will be looking for that innate connection, for that invisible thread through time and space that will help them attain a better grasp on their current reality and on the bigger picture that mystifies us all. So, please, my darling readers - don't go to your deathbed with your music still in you. Share your story so that your soul can continue to shine and dance even when you are gone.
And now - are you ready for a journey back in time? Then buckle your seat belts and let's go!
June 21, 2000
Shall we start then?
My name is Nina Kulapina. I was born on May 9, 1929. Back then no one knew that soon our people will be faced with horrible times, and that they would end when I turn sixteen. From that time on, I would always celebrate this day with tears in my eyes.
I spent my childhood years in a small town not far away from Moscow, Naro-Fominsk. My mother and father were wonderful people. They lived together for 10 years, and during that time, my mom gave birth to 5 children. Only two are alive today - my middle brother Nikolai and I, the other three of my siblings died when they were still little. My dad died fighting in the Finnish War (reference to The Winter War) in 1939, and we were left alone. When I think back on my childhood years, I remember a beautiful little hat with cherries all around the rim, pretty outfits that our parents loved buying for us. Unfortunately, I don't remember my mom and dad when they were young, and only thanks to the stories told to me by my aunt Masha, I know that my dad was a wonderful person.
My mom would also tell me stories about dad and her, and I know that they loved each other very much. Their life together flew by in an instant - 10 years, it's not much time at all.
My mom became a widow when she was 32 years old. She did her utmost best at raising us, and her sister Dusya was helping her as much as she could during these difficult times.
Before the war, I finished 4 grades in school, I was an A student, I joined the Pioneers (reference to the Young Pioneers), and was a very active child. I attended all kinds of after-school clubs, but most of all, I loved to sing. I used to sing at school evening performances, they were called "Pioneer gatherings" then. I had a natural singing voice, and I didn't even need a teacher. I had a great ear for music, and my ability to memorize melodies was amazing. At 12 years of age, I was able to sing a lot of opera arias, just like Frosya Burlakova from Come Tomorrow, Please... (a reference to the popular 1963 Soviet comedy). I also knew a lot of romances (reference to the music genre, a narrative ballad that originated in Spain and became very popular in Russia) by Izabella Yurieva, Lyalya Chyornaya, and many others.
This was the little world of a provincial girl who was dreaming of living in a big city and studying in a music conservatory. But fate had other plans in store for her. Terrible times came for all of us - the WAR!
German troops approached Moscow very fast. On September 17, 1941, our town suffered a horrific air raid. A bomb exploded very close to our house, all the windows were taken out in our house by an explosive wave. We lived on the first floor of a five-storied apartment building. A crowd of people already flooded the entrance hallway, so my mom only took whatever was absolutely necessary, and we climbed out the window (my mom, my brothers Volodya and Nikolai, and I).
It seemed like the air raid was going on for a long time. We kept running around the old cemetery, and when bombs were dropped right on us, we ran towards the plane (the men in the town told us to do it that way). Bombs were exploding behind us, but one time I was still hit by an explosive wave and covered with dirt. Mom said she had looked for me for a long time. When she found me, I was a little stunned, but still, thankfully, intact. One thing I saw would stay with me forever though. Right next to me, there was our neighbor, his head was blown-off. I will never forget that.
I remembered one more scene really clearly from that air raid. The pilot would bring the plane really low and there was a person with a machine gun, shooting people, as if they were just moving targets. From that time on, every time I would see scenes like that in movies, I would get really scared.
That day, September 17, 1941, turned our whole life upside down. My mom, instead of running away towards Moscow, fled with us to her home village, Novinskoye. One of the women who lived in the village let us stay in her house. There were five families staying at the house and all of the families had kids. We all slept on the floor. When we arrived, the lady who owned the house fed everyone - they still had a lot of food stocked up - and then we all fell asleep.
We woke up to a very loud rumbling noise. German planes were flying past us on their way to bomb Moscow, and Germans on motorcycles rode into the village, proudly shouting "Ja, ja!", "Gut!", "Sehr gut!". Everyone around was whispering "Germans, Germans" to each other and tried to hide wherever they could. This was the start of our very hard life in the territory occupied by German troops.
We "lucked out" in a way, since in the beginning of their retreat, the Germans didn't do any of those horrific things they did in other places - like those that were described in books later on. But bad, horrible, things were happening in our village, too. What I remember the most was how Germans were raping young girls in the daytime, right in the middle of the street, for everyone to see.
One day, they gathered everyone in the school building, locked the doors and started looking for young women. I remember that some of our friends and neighbors covered their faces in soot and dirt, and wore old, ragged clothes to look bad on purpose. But you couldn't trick those executioners. They tore girls clothes off and raped women right there, in front of old people and even children. One girl died during this.
We were forced to flee further and further away from home. The Germans had to retreat from Moscow extremely fast, something that they didn't expect. So we found ourselves in the village of Pafnutievka, and we had to live in a house with German soldiers. The way they were acting was very inappropriate. They would wash themselves in a wooden washtub right in the middle of the room, and they didn't care that there were young women and children looking at them. They would laugh loudly and ask some of the women to wash their backs, and if they were told 'no', they would point a gun at them and say, "Move it, woman". One day I had a toothache, and I was crying loudly. A German came up to me, pointed a machine gun at me and, looking at my mom, said, "Kaputt, kaputt!" ordering her to tell me to be quiet. I can only imagine how horrible that moment was for my mom who must have been terrified he was going to kill me.
One day there was a rumor that Germans captured a girl who set the stables on fire, and when she was being hanged, she cried out, "Our troops are coming soon, the Nazis will be done for really soon. Just hold on, everyone, hold on!" It was Zoya Kosmodemyanskaya. The village of Petrishchevo was just 3 km away from our village, Pafnutievka. But before we were liberated, we had to witness a scene that was no less horrific than those I had seen before. Next to our village, there was another village - Afanasievka. Our troops captured this village back, but in order for them to chase the Germans out of our village, they had to shell them with Katuyshas (reference to Katyusha rocket launchers). However, before they started to retreat, the Germans forced us all out in the street and set fire to all the houses - and there were at least 50 of them. We had nowhere to hide, we were running around the burning village as the powerful cannonade of Katyushas rained down on us. Many of our neighbors died in that battle, but God saved us. It was hell on Earth if there ever was one! Mom, my poor mom, how much she had to suffer through back then, constantly wondering if we would live or die and if she would be able to protect us.
Soon we were given permission by the government to go back home. There were not enough vehicles for everyone, and we had to walk most of the way. It was over 30 miles, but we were finally going home. The winter of 1941 was very cold - -41 °F. It was the coldest winter with the heaviest snowfall in Moscow and its vicinity than any of us had ever experienced. Many of those who walked with us had their feet and hands frostbitten on the way, but this seemed like nothing compared to what so many of us had been through - we were finally going back home, we were free and happy, and, most importantly - we were all alive.
After we got back home, a new life started for us. Our apartment was still intact, even though all of our furniture and belongings were stolen - not by the Germans, but by local looters. While some had been escaping the air raid, others were robbing people's apartments. They even managed to get our heavy dresser out through the window, but I guess they were interrupted by something, and the dresser was left standing outside.
When we came back home in January 1942, it was very, very cold, but we were still so very happy. My mom and aunt Dusya brought a small stove from somewhere. We put the pipe out through a window vent, and used all that was left over after the air raid - broken doors, window frames. etc. - as firewood to keep warm. When the venting of the stove was not sufficient, the entire apartment was covered with black smoke - but at least we managed to generate some heat.
It was easier to survive through those times for families with men. They would go to neighboring villages and exchange clothes for potatoes and other produce, and those who had jewelry somehow started living much better right away.
In our family, there were no men and no jewelry - just two poor women (my mom and aunt) and three little children. Mom tried to get in touch with old acquaintances - before the Finnish War, my dad occupied a respectable position - he was a newspaper editor. He had friends in high places, important officials. He also was a true communist, an ardent believer in the principles of Communism. But all of his "friends" didn't turn out to be friends at all, they were just a bunch of yes-men. My dad, however, was a highly-principled man, and people were somewhat afraid of him. Like I mentioned before, he was a newspaper editor - what if he said something wrong about them, or wrote something in the newspaper. After all, those were scary times - 1938 (reference to the Great Purge). I remember how much mom cried in those days, and how it always happens with people who face desperation, mom became really depressed. Fortunately, she found her solace in faith and God. She started going to church, pulled out a box of religious icons, holy images, that she had hidden there at my dad's request, and she would always say from that time on, only God saved her from a severe psychological disorder. (Christians were continuously persecuted in the Soviet Union and had to hide their beliefs)
The restoration period began throughout the country and in every family in particular. The degree of starvation was unprecedented. We would eat saltbush leaves (weeds), and mom would mix dirt with old potatoes that were not dug up and left over from the previous year to make flatbread cakes that we would call "pukies".
But I lucked out in comparison to my mom, aunt and brothers. My dad's sister, Aunt Manya took me to live with her in Moscow. By that time, she had graduated from the Plekhanov Moscow Institute of National Economics and worked as a professor of Marxism–Leninism (reference to the official state ideology of the USSR). Back then they lived in Lenin Hills, before Moscow State University was built there. During the war, it was the location of the Red Army Headquarters. Uncle Vanya, my aunt's husband, was stationed there. This was when the dreams of this small-town girl started to come true. I didn't just get to live in a big city, I got to live in Moscow, the biggest, most beautiful city, in the capital of our country.
When I turned 13, I started attending a vocational school for metal workers. I was a diligent student, and, of course, I also enrolled in amateur talent groups so that I could sing. For singing was still what made my heart beat. One time, when we were participating in a contest of labor reserves, we got to perform at the Pillar Hall in the House of the Unions, and we even took an award-winning place.
When I was still in school - I was 14 years old - I was sent to work as a labor machinist at the Moscow Instrument Plant. I worked 12-hour shifts, it was extremely exhausting hard work. Even now I'm just about 5'1'', and back then I was even shorter, and I had to stand on top of a wooden crate so that I could reach the lathe. But young people will always be young people. So instead of going back home and getting some sleep after our graveyard shifts, we would head over to the local skating rink. Then, after sleeping for 3-4 hours, we would go back to the plant to work another long shift.
In 1944, I graduated from the school and became qualified as a metal turner of the 5th skill level category. Back then it was the highest category one could attain, and I continued working as a machinist until the end of the war. Only when men started coming back home from the war did girls start getting transferred to jobs that were not that so labor-intensive. Up until 1948, I was working as a tool storage room attendant.
By that time, we were no longer living in Moscow, but in Nikolskiy, a suburb 12 km away. Even though today in 2000 it's already considered to be a part of Moscow. Back then, the construction of Moscow State University started in Lenin Hills.
During all those years, while I was living in Moscow, with a relatively well-to-do family, and - most importantly - without ever finding out what real hunger was - my mom, aunt and brothers were still struggling back in the village. They came to know hunger and freezing weather, and my brother Volodya was forced to mature way too quickly due to the hard conditions he was growing up in. A woman who lived in a nearby village hired him as a first-time shepherd to keep an eye on her many sheep. So he was the main provider of food for our mom and little brother. My aunt Dusya back then was working to support the efforts of the people against the invasion, they called it "labor front". When the factory was restored, mom started working there - first as an apprentice, and then as a weaver. She worked in this position until her retirement.
So my little brother Nikolai was going to school, mom was working, and Volodya was helping the family as much as he could with produce that the lady paid him with for his shepherding work. It seemed that life was going back to normal, but then something truly horrible happened.
On one summer day in the life-changing year of 1944, a year before the war ended, a terrible tragedy came to our family. Volodya came home on his day off, to visit the family, and went outside for a walk. Suddenly, mom heard a loud explosion, and she ran out the house, fearing the worst. Volodya was down on the ground, his body all torn to pieces. My mom somehow managed to pull herself together and took whatever was left of my brother back to the apartment. She got in touch with our relatives, and they helped her bury him.
They didn't want to call me in Moscow, they didn't want me to know about it. But my heart must have known. I decided to come for a visit, brought them some treats from the capital. When I walked into the living room, I saw a terrible scene. There was a coffin, and I thought that inside of it was a grown man. Then I thought that maybe it was my mom's sister, aunt Nyura. Then I realized it was my little brother.
It turned out that Volodya, after he had gone outside, saw a ring sticking out from under the ground. He pulled at it. It was a hand grenade. Our poor mom, she suffered through so much. She was a very strong woman, and she was a strong believer in God. She always thought that only her faith in God helped her cope with all the tragedies and horrific experiences, and live to be 84 years old.
What I always found interesting was that even though my mom was such a devout Christian who was keeping the faith and reading the Bible and Gospel, she never forced us to go to church, read religious literature, etc. Only when I became a fully-grown adult, after I learned about many religions and sects, I realized that the Orthodox faith is the purest, holiest faith, and that if you believe in God, it doesn't mean that you have to go to church and pray in front of everyone, or to try to convince others to believe. Faith in God is something that lives in the soul of every human being. It is something that cannot be explained with words, it is something that you feel deep inside your soul. I don't like all this showing off on TV these days - in my mind it's blasphemy and an insult to true faith.
When I was working at the factory, I was attending the factory's talent group. Our choir manager, a former professor at the Moscow Conservatory, realized right away that I had a very unique gift. He would always say, "Little pigeons can carry great messages". I already had a great natural singing voice, but I had to learn to sing in accordance with all the rules of the art of vocal mastery so that later on I would be able to attend a music school. I don't remember the name of that wonderful man who was so kind to me. He was giving me private lessons at the factory, and then, later on, I would go to his small apartment in Moscow where he would teach me everything he knew about musical notes and vocal techniques. I did it for about a year. He was an elderly man who treated me as if I was his granddaughter, and he really believed in me. He wanted to see me become a professional singer. But it didn't work out that way. The first year, I was not accepted by the Gnessin State Musical College, because I was considered to be too young - I was only 15 years old, and the next year, I didn't even try. I got too carried away with thinking about boys and all that stuff - young love, you know what I mean? Besides, my family didn't really take my musical dreams and aspirations very seriously, thus I never became a professional singer. But I sang a lot through all my life, and I still do. I especially love singing old Russian romantic songs.
I worked at the Moscow Instrument Plant until 1949 when I moved back to Naro-Fominsk to live with my mom. I got tired of living with my aunt. Life started once again going back to normal, the rationing of food was canceled. My mom and aunt, and my younger brother Nikolai were not doing bad. When back in Nara (short for Naro-Fominsk), I enrolled in the night school and got a new job as Young Pioneer leader at the local school.
In 1949 I also started dating my future husband, Gena. Despite the fact that we pretty much grew up with him in the same sandbox, as they say, back then it was as if we met for the first time. I really liked Gena then. Among all other small-town boys in Nara, he stood out as a very interesting young man - he was very knowledgeable, sophisticated and well-rounded in all subjects, and he came from an intellectual family (reference to the fact that Gena belonged to the Russian intelligentsia - educated people engaged in complex mental work as opposed to proletariat - the working class, which my nan's family belonged to). There were two things that made my relationship with Gena difficult - the fact that he was ill, he had tuberculosis, and his excessive drinking habit. My mom could not understand all her life why I fell in love with him and how I could marry him.
We got married in 1950. By that time, he was already a student at the Moscow Electrical Engineering Institute, and I was in the 8th grade of the night school. I didn't finish the school, because I got pregnant by Gena right away and I was extremely sick in the beginning of my pregnancy. I had to stop learning for the time being, but my life had other challenges and joyful events in store for me.
On February 17, 1951, we had a little boy, Lyonya, Leonid. When he was little, we used to call him Lyolya. My God, it is so hard to describe the happiness you feel when you become a mother. It has been almost 50 years since then, but I still remember his cute little eyes and his tiny face when the nurses handed him to me for the first time.
People say that all babies look the same when they are just born, but that's not true. Once you see them and nurse them, you're never going to mix them up with any other baby. One day my nurse in the hospital decided to play a practical joke on me and brought someone else's baby to me to nurse. As soon as I saw that baby, I exclaimed, "Oh no! That's not my Lyolya!" She burst out laughing and said, "And I thought you wouldn't notice!" Giving birth to a child is the greatest happiness a woman can experience in her lifetime.
I had a lot of helpers - Lyonya was pretty much raised by grandmothers before we moved to Voronezh. And we had quite a few of them - Nanny Nyura (my mom), Nanny Dusya (my aunt), Nanny Vera (my mother-in-law) and Nanny Lida (a wonderful woman, Gena's aunt). Before Lyonya turned 4 years old, our son was like a toy for us, and my life had become a carefree paradise. Everybody loved me and Lyonya very much, particularly my father-in-law, Boris Kulapin.
He adored Lyonya, spoiled him rotten and spent a lot of time with him. But sometimes he would tell me, "I love my grandson to bits, but maybe you could have a little girl, too? I've always dreamed of having a granddaughter." I might not remember my dad very well, but I was very close with my father-in-law. Boris was a wonderful person - kind, ready-to-help, loving. He loved people. He was a chairman of the local municipal executive committee (a Soviet version of a city mayor). His heart was so big, it was enough for all of us, as well as for all the residents of the town. Nobody ever left his office unhappy or dissatisfied - he always did his best to help people, even if it was just with a kind word. He died from lung cancer, at the age of 53. On the day of his funeral, the whole town came out into the streets. The cemetery was about 2.5 miles away from the town center, and the whole way to the cemetery was full of mourning people - there was a wall of people crying, remembering all the good things he had done in his lifetime. He was an amazing father, grandfather, father-in-law...
And just like this, the story ends. I searched and searched - asking my mom and my cousins if any more pages were found, but that is it. If I could go back in time, I would travel to that summer of 2000 and encourage my nan to keep on writing. But alas, I was too young and selfish then. I was about to embark on my junior year in college and was preoccupied with nothing but boys. Sounds awfully familiar, doesn't it? :) I will tell you one more thing though, my darling readers. After 3 miscarriages, in 1960, my nan did end up giving birth to a baby girl - Natalia. And this baby girl is my mom.
What can I say? I spent the last three weeks translating this memoir. I was taking my time, procrastinating even - I called it a-page-a-day date with my nan. I feel like I got to know her from a different perspective, as if I lifted a veil and took a peak into the realm that has long been gone. But for now... For now, the circle of life goes on. We will always remember our nan. She will always live in our hearts, and, hopefully, she will live in your hearts, too, my darling readers. Hopefully, after reading this, you will embark on the journey to follow your dream and share your story. After all, why else are we here?
Picture below: My daughter Chloe Valentina with my mom Natasha Markina, the daughter of my nan, Nina Kulapina. Life goes on...
PS I also just had to share this video sent to me by my cousin Alex - the video where my nan is singing at Alex's wedding circa 2001. So that the entire would finally hear that Nina Kulapina had a magical voice indeed - and she did deserve to be the Star of the big stage.
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