“The first time Franz came into the toy shop, Galina was dusting the nearly immaculate shelves, her back to the door. She was half-singing a new song she had heard in the park, filling in the spaces between words with uncertain humming. My heart, it is not peace you want…hmm hmm my heart…
“Spasibo, siertze,” he prompted, causing her to spin around in surprise, the dust cloth clutched to her chest. One of Ilya’s carved squirrels fell to the floor behind her….
After he left, the figurine pieces tucked securely in his shirt pocket, she stood a moment, recalling the touch of his fingers against her palm, and the way he nodded politely at the door, waiting until he stepped outside to put the cap back on his head. Siertze, kak horosho na svete zhit’. The lyrics rushed in from some recess of her memory.
“What nonsense,” she said aloud. How good it is to be alive, indeed. Try to remember that when in line for a half-kilo ration of worm-eaten potatoes, the skins creased like walnuts and about the same size, too.”
“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
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.
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.
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.