Eternal Memory

“Father Stefan’s sonorous basso cut through Filip’s fruitless ruminations. In a voice both louder and brighter than before, the deacon intoned the words vechnyi pokoi – eternal peace – for the departed. Filip closed his eyes and heard the congregation join in the singing of the final words, in a rising minor motif of such mournful beauty that even he felt the pricking of tears behind his eyelids. Beside him, Galina’s clear voice rose above the others, then broke down, the last Vechnaya Pamyat’ no more than a hoarse whisper between her barely stifled sobs. Eternal Memory.”
From Roads: A Novel, copyright 2017, Chicago Review Books

Katyusha

Another song I heard countless times growing up, though never in such a charming rendition. Katyusha is the song playing in Galina’s head after the birth of her child, and the name that springs to her lips when she sees her daughter for the first time. Why?

The song was a big wartime hit. It celebrated constancy, home front support for men fighting to protect their country from the fascist invader. Its portrayal of women as passive tenders of the hearth (and heart) could not have been farther from the truth. Women served alongside men in the military, not only as nurses and administrative staff, but as fearless bomber pilots – the famous Night Witches who inflicted real damage on the enemy.

As in the US, women worked in munitions factories, sewed uniforms and parachutes, ran government offices and farms. Like their American and British counterparts, they did important work decoding enemy messages; some were spies. They were teachers, machinery operators, bus drivers, keeping the country running, often while raising children and managing things at home.

Katyusha was also a powerful Soviet missile launcher instrumental in the defense of Stalingrad and other key battles. It seems ironic that this lethal weapon would take its name from such a sweet song. But then war is nothing if not ironic.

Pirog

Chekhov and Gogol called it the glory of Russian cooking.

Pirog, filled with meat for feast days, or cabbage and eggs for everyday consumption, has earned its pride of place among the many great dishes of Russian cuisine. And yet, like the enigma of the Slavic national character, it is a deeply humble dish, rich in its simplicity. Universal. In Roads, it is the one thing Ksenia must make, at any cost, to feed her son, body and soul.

My personal favorite? Potato with sauteed onions and dill. Or maybe sauerkraut cooked with fresh cabbage….It’s almost impossible to choose one when you love them all.

Build it high with chicken filling and it’s called kurnik; salmon layered with rice and mushrooms in a flaky pastry crust makes it kulebyaka. Any variety formed into handy individual shapes becomes pirozhki, without which no traditional Russian buffet table is considered complete. Whatever its name, you can just call it divine.

Perfect picnic food, satisfying snack, a natural accompaniment to soup, pirog, (or its smaller cousin), is as essential to the celebrated zakuski tray as marinated herring, caviar, beet salad, or chilled vodka.

My grandmother, whose baking skills were legendary, could not teach me how to duplicate her creations. She used an old teacup with a broken handle to scoop the flour; everything else – yeast, salt, eggs – was weighed in the palm of her hand or measured by her unfailing accurate eye. Since her passing, I’ve found recipes to outline the proportions. I know what the ingredients are. I can make savory fillings. I spent enough time in her kitchen to remember the technique. What I have yet to learn is how to knead the dough until it “feels right.”

All the more reason to keep trying.

 

 

Immigrants

These are immigrant children.

My brother, his favorite (and one and only) fluffy bear, and my four-year-old self, posing for a photograph in a Belgian studio.

What was certainly a luxury was seen as an important way to document our existence, to make a necessary statement: we were here. In the family archives, there are few such records.

Later, with the war receding into memory, my father will own a Brownie camera; there will be snapshots. But for now, the only way to capture our likenesses is to present ourselves, dressed and combed, at the photo studio.

Where is the line between refugee and immigrant? Legal status, yes. Receiving asylum, protection from deportation, permanent residency. Right to work, attend school, receive medical care. The promise of citizenship, not now, but sometime in the future, perhaps. Choosing where to live, once the flight from home is behind you.

There are other, less obvious but no less crucial signs. Asking a gendarme for directions without cringing in fear. Trying out your new language by talking to a neighbor over – why not? – a cup of coffee. Resisting the urge to hoard food, though cleaning your plate is a habit you will never lose as long as you live.

Sinyi Platochek/Blue Scarf

Here’s a popular 1940s song staged as a commemorative musical production number (note the obligatory ballerinas). The Soviet pop singer Klavdiya Shulzhenko added some patriotic verses, turning an already popular romance into an anthem to fidelity and sacrifice. With its lilting melody, Sinyi Platochek belongs to the young, to lovers’ partings and the hope of triumphant reunions.

In Roads, which version did Galina sing to Filip, who was no soldier? Truthfully, I don’t know. With Yalta under Nazi occupation, he was in no danger of Red Army conscription, but the possibility of separation loomed large, nonetheless.

I may have first heard this song at home, the LP spinning on my father’s record player on a Sunday afternoon, my mother humming along while setting food on the table for our early dinner. Or it might have been at one of the frequent Russian club social evenings, where for a modest monthly fee, members enjoyed dancing to a small instrumental ensemble, bring your own vodka to accompany the tasty treats at the buffet. I only know my mother loved this song, because it was a waltz, and because blue was her favorite color.

Seventeen

 

The year is 1943. By now, my mother has completed the eight obligatory grades of school. She opts out of the additional two that would grant her a gymnasium diploma. To what end? Her country is at war. Sitting in a classroom, learning more history and mathematics, seems entirely irrelevant.

Besides, her heart’s desire is to be an actress. She won’t learn that in secondary school, and the art institute is out of the question. She lands a bit part in a local amateur production; loves it. But the time for daydreaming is over. Yalta is overrun by German occupation troops. The business of the day is survival.