My mother's stories
The great famine of '47
Somehow listening to my mother's stories I have never understood what it was for her to live in her village marked as “a daughter of the enemy of the people”. I think she was too proud to show me that it bothered her too much. It was not really strange, of course, that she was so eager to leave the village, considering poverty and hard labour. But it couldn't explain why my mother was so determined not to set her foot there ever again. In contrast to her grudge against her mother she was fond of her grandmother and aunt, her father's sister. The latter didn't have children with her husband and they treated my mother as their own child. Moreover she really missed her beloved oak forest, where she used to spend so many happy hours wandering with her granny. So why was the very thought of coming back so hateful for her?
For a long time I believed it was my mother's hatred towards her own mother that prevented her from visiting the village. Yet, after putting together all the details, while writing my memoirs, I began to think that the main reason was rather different. It was her fellow-villagers' enmity that hurt her feelings even more than her mother's dislike. It was them who couldn't forgive my mother her proud demeanour, her flat refusal to bear her status of “the daughter of the enemy” as a stain of shame. I imagine it was not so easy for her to stand on her dignity because of the rural custom not only to hiss accusations behind someone's back but to throw them straight to their faces. So that was the time, I think, when my mother developed a habit of using her pride as a shield against everything and everybody, a trait that cost me so many inconveniences in my childhood and irritated me so much in later years.
I don't remember exactly if my mother had ever had any doubts as to her father's innocence. But I do recall clearly her tale about some young Komsomol activists, members of Young Communist League, who came to her house once. They explained to her that if she meant to continue her education she had to join their ranks but before that she had to sign a statement with - a renunciation of her father.
My mother didn't think twice to say “no”, adding mockingly at the end that Komsomol could easily do without her but she couldn't do without her father. It was dangerous to joke like that at that time and my mother was really lucky to get away with it. Nevertheless, that refusal predetermined all her future life. The doors of the college were closed for her after that in spite of her good marks at school and all the hopes of a good career were now lost.
Besides, my mother had to pay for that refusal when a great famine of 1947 broke out in the country. I remember her looking at my father with a mixture of light envy and amusement and telling me with mild indignation that during the famine he got as much bread as an adult in his orphanage, while they received half as much as ordinary citizens being “the family of an enemy of the people”. To my surprise my father reacted good-humouredly to her remark. He just smiled reminiscently and said that he had even more than that – there were one or two pieces of sausage floating in his soup on all red-letter days. And what a joy it was for orphans to fish those small delicious bits out of their festive broth!
At the same time my mother had to survive on their miserable bread rations – she and the majority of the population, that is, those who didn't belong to some strictly limited privileged group. The others weren't in much better position than my mother's family. Actually, they began to receive that poor help from the state only after the field work began in spring. Before that, in autumn, that very state grabbed most of the wheat that was grown on the collective farms' fields, leaving peasants to survive with that grain that they managed to grow on their personal plots. And it was not much as it was a notorious year of great drought and bad harvest.
They say Stalin's regime never stopped trading in grain. Even in 1933 and 1947, at the time of great famines, heavy laden trains continued to cross our borders – exactly like in that joke that was popular at the beginning of the Second World War when the USSR was still happily trading with Germany. As my father told me the narrators of the joke started with the question “Do you know what our wagon wheels say when they go abroad and then on their way back?” The answer, as for me, was simple and brilliant: going abroad the wheels rattled “rye - wheat, rye – wheat” and coming back they tapped “screws – bolts, screws – bolts”. The narrators pronounced slowly the first pair of words, giving their listeners the impression of heavy carriages full of grain. The second pair, on the contrary, was pronounced in quick succession, creating immediately the image of more than half-empty wagons with small piles of iron produce somewhere at the bottom.
So that was the price for our industrialization. But still I can't grasp why they continued to send grain abroad when people were eating grass and swelling from starvation. I can accept a wide-spread explanation that communists organized the famine of 1933 just to suppress peasants' rebellions and force them to enter collective farms. How else could they make people work hard without getting any money for their labour? But the famine of '47 was different. It happened just after the war, when the country had been rendered lifeless with heavy death toll. It seemed mad to organize a new famine at the time like this, even if Stalin was afraid of new rebellions. But then I remembered a phrase which was ascribed to Stalin “There is no one, who cannot be replaced”. It inevitably reminded me a well-known Russian proverb “Women will give birth to other ones” where the same thought was put into simpler words. They say nowadays that the great moustached leader never said anything of the sort. But does it really matter? It's enough to know that it was undoubtedly the invariable motto of communists at the time of Stalin's rule.
To be continued...28. Why did they kill him?
The importance of family (the ending)