My Testimony for My Friends
I am a Russian woman and now I am 75 years old. Isn’t it amazing that though we live so far apart, we are drawn very close together in heart? I would like to share my very innermost thoughts with you, my special friends.
I was born in a family of a worker in 1932. My father was an expert saddle maker. We are pure Russian. My parents, my grandparents and great-grandparents were Russian and all of them were born and lived in Saint Petersburg, which for some years was called Leningrad. My parents were committed Christians and went to the Russian Orthodox Church. It’s not often sunny during the winter in St. Petersburg, but every time it snows and there are many snow drifts and much sunshine it calls back into my mind those days of the Siege of Leningrad (1941-1944) and in particular the winter of 1941/1942 which was the most terrifying, severe and hungry of all. The memories of the Siege are engraved on my mind forever. World War II took away eight of the fourteen members of my family. Only in being an adult could I estimate my mother’s faith in God that was fully revealed during those 900 days and nights full of suffering from the bombings, gunfire attacks, starvation and bitter cold.
World War II began on June 22, 1941, when Hitler invaded Russia nullifying their mutual nonaggression pact with the former USSR. Soon the Nazis were near Leningrad - now called Saint Petersburg. A famous American writer, Danielle Steel, found special words to describe that time in her novel “Crossings”. She was very careful and correct in regard to the smallest details:
“On the 6th of September,1941,Leningrad was bombed and the blitz began, with the shelling of buildings and streets and people night by night until Leningradites spent more time in bomb shelters than in their apartments. Houses were falling, with entire families killed every night...” On September 8, 1941 the ring around Leningrad was closed. I have to retreat and tell you a short loving story of my parents because their love helped me to survive and helped me to live and have faith and trust the Lord. They were young when they fell in love with each other, but my mother's father would not permit them to get married. He considered my future father not to be rich enough and told my mother to marry another man. It was long ago during the times when a father's word meant everything.
My mother married the other man and they had three children. After five years of marriage my mother's husband died of a heart attack. Not more than a year later, my father whom my mother had loved all her life, proposed marriage to my mother again. This time my grandfather was not against it. They married and father treated and loved my mother's children as though they were his own. It was God's will for them to be together. For fifteen years they did not have their own child, but then God blessed them with a baby. Excuse my immodesty, but it was me.
When I was born, my mother was 41 and my father 48. I was baptized when I was one month old. It was not easy at that time to baptize a baby in church because it was forbidden to go to church and the common people, for the most part, had to obey the Government policy. They were afraid of being punished, and in addition most churches were transformed into store-houses or even swimming pools! At the beginning of the War I was 9 years old. My brother was 19 years older than I and he was called to military service to defend Leningrad. My eldest sister, Nina, was 21 years older than me. She had heart disease and was quite ill and because she was starving, she had dropsy. My other sister Lidia,who was 15 years older than me worked in an air defense organization, as did her husband, who had not been called to military service because he was a disabled worker. Our father, who was too old to fight, continued working as a saddle maker until the last horse in Leningrad fell dead. Our mother was a housewife. She also took care of Lidia’s little daughter, Gallina, because at that time we all lived together in our flat. Our parents were a loving couple and each of us felt their love to us. Gallina, who was only 4 years old, and I grew up in the atmosphere of love, kindness and firm belief in God Almighty.
On the 6th of September Leningrad was bombed heavily, and all the depots (storage warehouses) with food supplies were burned to ashes. Afterwards people went to the site of the fire to take some earth which was impregnated with sugar and butter. Our father also brought home a sack of that earth, and we were eating it for some days - a little of the sweet earth and a mouthful of hot water... And our mother, smiling through her tears, said, “What a glorious day! Praise God!” After the fires there was absolutely nothing to eat. People were given coupons and could get only a small slice of bread daily. My little niece and I both asked my mother for bread, for the smallest piece of it though it had been moldy or stale… My mother’s eyes were full of tears when she answered, “There is none, my dear children, and you’d better not mention bread or other food now. Let it be our secret game - not to mention food at all - then it is easier to endure starvation. You’d better drink some hot boiled water and stay in bed to save your strength.”
The winter of 1941-1942 was most severe and frosty - about minus 60 degrees F (48 – 50 degrees C). My mother said it was God’s way to freeze the German fascists who encircled and blockaded Leningrad. It was the most terrifying, severe and hungry of all. Our city was covered with snow, hoar-frost and ice. Trams and trolley-buses covered with snow to the top, were standing by in the middle of the street because the electricity system was ruined. The temperature outside was about 46-48 degrees Celsius (minus 60 degrees F). It was quite cold in the apartments because heating and running water systems (as well as sewerage system) were ruined. Many people were killed by frost, by artillery shells, by bombing, or by hunger. More than a million of them died during the Leningrad Siege. We were very nervous during that time. Day after day, night after night the Nazis bombed our city. We rushed to the shelter with the other people - old men and women, and children, and women with babies. I recollect the day of the heaviest aerial bombardment when even the shelter was shaking and it seemed its walls were swaying. We were sitting on a bench, my head was on my mother’s lap and her hand was patting my hair. We heard the sounds of bombs and the explosions shook the shelter. I was trembling with fear. I heard my mother’s sweet voice, ”Don’t have such a great fear of bombing. Our Lord is with us and no hair will fall down from your head without His Will. Our Lord is merciful.”
When we returned home and were sitting in our kitchen, where we felt relatively safe because it had no windows, my mother told us, “Let’s not run to the shelter any more. It makes no sense. We trust God and whatever happens will be His Will.” From that moment we never went to the shelter again. In spite of the air raid warnings, canonnade and bombings we sat in our kitchen - not in the shelter. On the table there was a little can with kerosene oil in it and a wick inside. Sitting close together, we very often sang Psalms.
Life was very frugal. There was no food except a small slice of bread (125 grams) for dependents, and two slices for those who worked. All the Leningradites were given bread vouchers so we could get our small portions of bread, but nothing more. This bread couldn’t be called real bread because it consisted of only one part of flour; others were - sawdust and pine needles with a little soy bean. The bread was wet and heavy. My mother cut it in small pieces and dried them on the surface of a small metal hand-made cooker. There was no wood so we used pieces of furniture and some books to heat our stove. Three times a day we were given some small pieces of dried bread for breakfast, lunch and supper. That was all - only that and water. A well known Russian poetess, Olga Berggoltz, wrote in one of her poems:
". . .it was bread made half of blood, half of fire..."
To have water we had to bring it home from the River Neva which was not easy for very weak people. Usually my sister Lidia and I went to the river, traveling across the city on foot with a bucket and a children’s sled on which the bucket full of water rode on our way back. Once I saw the body of a teenager near the edge of the river. He was frozen to death inside of the ice block, because water had been splashing on him and then froze.
We were all extremely thin - as thin as a lath. Our faces were as white as a sheet. Our gums bled, our teeth were loose and our ankles and feet were swollen. It was painful to even sit because we did not have muscles. At that time doctors invented a drink as a good remedy for scurvy made from pine needles. People were told to drink that beverage though it had a bitter taste. Mother forced us - my niece and me to lie in bed most days to save our energy. But at the same time she asked my father, who was getting weaker and weaker, to move more. She asked him to go to the neighbors and take them hot boiled water. She said, “Adult people have to keep moving to be powerful enough to help those who need help much more than us.” In spite of our hardships, my mother was always in high spirits and she tried to make us happy and cheer us up when there was the smallest occasion. I remember her words, “Every situation we go through is God’s will, so praise God for each situation.” Mother often joked that before the blockage she had been rather plump, but then her body started using up the fat. In mixing the portions for herself and my father she said that she had eaten hers earlier, but secretly she gave it to him as he needed food badly because he was tall and big. But sometimes there were feasts amongst our starving. Once my father brought a piece of very firm oil-cake or cotton-¬cake (pressed seeds without a pith), a kind of forage for horses. My mother soaked it and made small pan cakes on the stove (of course without oil or salt). She cooked about twelve, but halved them and asked my father to treat our neighbors. My father refused because we all were extremely hungry. I overheard them talking. I remember them both standing near the window – my very tall and broad-shouldered father with fair hair and my dear mother, not very tall, with bright blue eyes and long black hair. It was morning. A ray of sun shine fell on them. There were tears in my mother's eyes when she asked my father to have pity for the neighbors, especially for one who was pregnant. My mother was patting my father's hands and looking at his face with love, sympathy and deep tenderness. She said, "I know you are not at all greedy, you are simply hungry – so much the more since you are tall and big and there is nothing to eat, but it is better to give than to ask. Those who give will never be in need and are always happy because their hearts are full of love.” Two minutes later he carried the cakes to our neighbors. When he returned he was cheerful and hopeful. “Forgive me!” he said and I saw tears in his eyes. Under these exceedingly difficult circumstances my mother’s words, and particularly her deeds, influenced me greatly. She understood the primacy of the spiritual over the material. She was self-sacrificing and big-hearted. She did not think of herself. She was kind and helpful and constantly busy always trying to make our lives a bit easier. From early morning until late at night, she never rested and nothing was too much trouble for her. If ever somebody was in difficulty, it was to my mother that they came for help and support. She told us,” Remember these words – It is in giving that I receive; it is in pardoning that I am pardoned.” Once I heard her praying aloud, “Our Lord, give me a quick perception of the needs of others and make me eager-hearted in helping them.” I hope I have inherited that part of my mother’s heart – that feature of her character and nature.I also hope my sons have inherited something of their grandmother whom they have never seen.
Some people in Leningrad ate cats, birds and even rats. One of our neighbors ate her stuffed owl and a crow which had been in her apartment as ornaments. Another one ate her marmot fur coat, bit by bit. We did not eat animals or birds, but I remember a jelly made from carpenter glue. We were so happy to have it, but after the meal we suffered from constipation for a week! I also remember the taste of soup which was cooked from my father’s leather belt.My mother cut it into pieces and boiled. We enjoyed that soup and could keep the pieces of the belt in our mouth for a long time, feeling as though we were having meat. Another feast was when we had soup made of the hempseeds left from our pet bird which we let go when the War began. But those hempseeds had been kept in the case on which our petroleum stove was standing and they had a smell and flavor of kerosene-oil. They were like small buttons in our mouths and all of us were happy to eat them. It was an occasion for celebration and we thanked God for His grace.
When my father became weak and tried to lie on the sofa or sit most of the time after his work, my mother gave him a jug with hot boiled water and asked him to deliver it to neighbors who could no longer walk. We had our "tea" very often also – a cup of hot boiled water and the smallest piece of bread…
The smallest and the youngest in our family died of starvation first - my sister Lidia’s twins, who were three months old, and the son of my eldest sister, who was nine months old. Then, in February 1941 my eldest sister, Nina, died. Her last words were: "Give my portion of bread to Father. God, forgive my sins." She was buried without any coffin. There were no boards to make it from, no timber in Leningrad. When we drew a sled with her dead body wrapped in a sheet to the cemetery, I saw many dead bodies in snowdrifts. In the churchyard there were piles of dead bodies stacked there by their families. We wanted to commit Nina’s body to the earth, but to dig a grave 20 centimeters deep cost 500 grams of bread and a packet of cigarettes. We did not have them.
Next Lidia’s husband was killed by a bomb while he defended Leningrad in the battalion of anti-fire measures. Then my brother, because the soldiers defending the city suffered from starvation as much as the people inside the blockage. My parents coped with their grief in having their firm faith in God and His outgoing love. My mother told us that we must fully accept the situation God had us in, though only five of us were alive by that time. And then my mother died. She had very high blood pressure, but never complained and we were not aware of it. One day she suddenly fell down, hit her head and lost consciousness. It was a stroke. She remained unconscious for three days and when she awoke the left side of her body was paralyzed. I kneeled and prayed God to put spirit back into my mother to keep her alive. Though she was paralyzed, she suddenly sat in the bed and made a sign of the cross. Only God knows how it could be! It was a miracle! But when I realized that my mother was no longer breathing, great grief filled my heart. I kneeled again and prayed God begging Him to put life into my mother’s body. That time God did not answer me and I said crying, "There is no God!" It was my great sin and even now I ask God to forgive me. I will always remember my mother’s way of life - her firm belief that God is Love, her words and her conduct and in particular her trust in Him during the bombings. To me it proved her unmistakable belief in God and made me think of my own attitude towards God time and time again. I was not a committed Christian during the days after the war was over. I did not deny God’s existence during my university years, nor did I while living and working in the Far North with my husband and sons. When I was in Leningrad I visited the Church, but I did not confess nor take Holy Communion. From time to time I turned to God, praying for my sons, husband, close relatives and friends. I prayed to God when I was in hopeless or despairing situations and when I was ill or unhappy. I was never envious or possessive and always tried to help people before they made a request.
When I was living and working in the Far North of Siberia, Lidia sent me the prayer written by my mother’s hand: “O Lord, grant that I may not be so much consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love – for it is in giving that I will receive; it is in pardoning that I am pardoned and by Your love I am lifted up into new-found health.” After my mother's death my father and my stepsister Lidia who was also my godmother, took care of me. Lidia tried to be a mother to me and she did it like a loving mother. She was kind, tender and patient. Her daughter and I grew up as sisters. Lidia was 28 years old then, a very beautiful young woman, and after her work she needed some time for her private life. In 1947 she married for the second time. They sold our three room flat and bought a one room flat for my father and me. Lidia and her husband left Leningrad for a small town in the country side, in Leningrad region. My father was broken-hearted after my mother’s death. He even started smoking which he never did before, but by good fortune, he gave it up a year later. At that time only one chuch in our district was open where 300,000 people lived. Each evening my father went there to make mention my mother, his beloved wife, and take part in the worship. He had a nice deep sounding voice and sang in choir. I suppose he knew of my words having been said to save from despair at my mother’s death-bed, but he never reproached me or forced me to go to church with him. Sometimes he asked me to go with him under pretence of waiting for him there to go somewhere else together after the worship. I always agreed to. I loved and respected him, as did my stepsister Lidia and all the others who knew him. My father loved me with all his heart. Very often he told me fairy tales or some stories from his or his friends’ lives. In those stories people were not selfish, nor possessive. They could be poor, but were ready to share a last crust of bread with others. They had pity for the weak and for those who were in need more than they. They were hard working and noble by nature and listening to those stories I pictured a model of life for myself with all its options.
My father taught me to be honest, to be as good as my word, modest and discreet, unpretending, and to value spiritual much more than material.He wanted me to be thankful and responsible, and at the same time to have self-respect and dignity. And I know, my father was all of these. Most of all my father wanted me to be educated. He worked without rest to do the work of four for me to enter the University and finish it. He died of stomach and liver cancer in June 1953, when I was a third year student of Leningrad State University.
I loved my father very much and I honour his memory, but since his death I have regretted and repented of my egoistic behaviour when he asked me whether I objected to his second marriage. He told me that he had met a kind, interesting and thoughtful woman, a committed Christian who sang in choir at the same chuch where he sang, and he hoped she could help to make easier my life,too. I was 14 or 15 years old that time, and was foolish enough to answer, ”Nobody could replace my mother, and I don’t need any attendant. I can do everything myself, for you and me!” I did not think of him at all, and he gave way to my wishes. Our merciful Lord! Forgive me! I did not go to church, but I was a believer in the corner of my heart. I remembered my mother's words, "No hair will fall down from your head without God's knowledge." She was patting me on my head and said, "Trust God, trust in His presence, in His perfect answer and believe in the outworking of good in our lives and of those for whom we pray." These words gave me the opportunity to not completely fall away from God. I prayed for my parents in heaven and for Lidia and her daughter, whom I loved so much, but I was not a committed Christian at that time.
I remember the time of cracking the blockade in 1943. It was America who helped us and sent canned ham to the Leningradites. Until now I remember how that can looked like and how it tasted though we were given only one slice a week. May American people be blessed by God. I tried to translate the poem written by one of Russia’s poets, ¬ B. Kudrjavtsev, and published in the Saint Petersburg newspaper for the 50th anniversary of complete breaking of Leningrad's Siege (27th of January, 1943)
“Bend your knees, burn a taper, put flowers
On Leningrad's sacred gravestones.
Stand quietly, calm and be silent¬
You are shadowed here by the Siege traces left.
All the civilized world must not forget
Nine hundred ghastly, blood-curdling days:
They are the pain; the wound to our city;
To those who were lost and to those who are alive.
It is the tombstone, which cannot be forgotten.”
Excuse me for not being able to find specific English words to translate the contents more in the English style - there are no rhymes. I want to add, “Our Lord! Pour out Your richest blessings upon those who remember and lament for the deceased.”
In 1957 I graduated from State Leningrad's University where I studied English and American literature and learned the English language, but for twenty years I did not have the opportunity to speak with English speaking people. After the University my husband and I were sent to the extreme north of Russia to live and work in the town of Norilsk. Norilsk is situated in latitude 69 20 north. That is north of the Polar Circle in the perma-frost reaches of Siberia. Norilsk is situated on the Taimir Peninsula, which is one of the coldest spots in the Far North due to the close proximity of the Arctic Ocean. The winter temperatures are severe reaching -50°C (-120°F). Cold blizzard days are the worst. The chaotic fury of the wind and snow is totally blinding and impenetrable. There are 267 frosty days, 150 days with snowstorm or blizzard. During 8 months the temperature is below zero (below 32°F). For 60 days there is no sun at all. There is not only the Polar Night, but the Arctic Day when the sun stops setting below the horizon. This comes to Norilsk in May and lasts till 20 August. There are wonderful aurorea borealis in the sky in winter. There is spring (June), summer (July), and autumn (August). Other months are winter. The average temperature in July is 13°C (55°F) But during 6-7 days in the summer the temperature may be 25°C (75°F) or even more, though the town is in the tundra.
Norilsk is the town of miners, builders, metallurgists, power specialists and transport workers. Buildings in Norilsk stand on piles-heavy metal or stone-like (concrete) posts hammered upright into the ground as a support for buildings and as the ground there is eternally in frost, the buildings stand properly. Most buildings in Norilsk are 9 stories tall. The people are strong, hard working, friendly and hospitable and most of them are nature lovers. In the summer, spring and autumn they spend their weekends in the tundra where trees and flowers are very short, but wonderful. People pick red cliberry (red honeysuckle) and blueberry and mushrooms in the tundra.
I worked and lived in the town of Norilsk for thirty years… I always remembered my mother's words about God and there were some memorable cases when God answered me in hopeless or despairing situations. I was seriously ill in 1983 and doctor's diagnosed cancer of the womb in me. They treated me with some medicine, but it was to deceive the eye only. I was overcome with sorrow. My elder son was married. He stood on his own and lived with his family in the Far East of Russia. I did not worry about him, but my younger son was a teenager and I prayed to God to protect him after my death. I knelt and prayed. I asked God to forgive my former sins. Six months later when the second analysis was taken there was no cancer, only erosion! I thanked God for His will and His answer to my prayers. I am still thanking God for His grace.
In 1988 my younger son was called to military service for two years. About six months later it happened that I had nowhere to live. My colleague asked me to stay in her flat for two months while she was on holiday near Moscow. I thanked God for a temporary way out. But when the fixed time of her return was near I did not know what to do or where to go. Again, I prayed to God and asked Him to help me. And He helped. The chief at my work rewarded me with a permit to a special rest home for working people for two months. The rest home was not far from Norilsk and a special bus fetched people to their work and back to the rest home. I was given a special room and was given the right to have three meals a day and medical baths in the evening free of charge. Wasn't that the hand of the Lord?! It was another miracle and I thanked God for it. It was the l0th of August 1990. I had a contract to work until 10 October. At that time I had two jobs. After finishing my day at work I taught English to post graduate students.
One day I received a telegram from my neighbors in Leningrad. They said that the building where I had a room in the communal flat was to be repaired and we were offered separate flats in a new district of Leningrad. That was another of God's answers to my prayers. On the 10th of October 1990 I left the town of Norilsk for Leningrad. My younger son returned to Leningrad from his service in the army. It was at this time that I came across an advertisement in our daily newspaper that a free newspaper called "SOON" could be sent from England to everybody who wished. The editor of "SOON", John Lewis, asked whoever wanted a copy to write a letter in order to receive it. I sent a letter and not only got a copy of "SOON", but also a letter from Mrs. Daphne Handford who wanted to be in touch with me. It was another miracle of God!
The answers of God to my prayers in 1983-1985, 1989-1990 and 1993 (when my sister Lidia had the fourth stroke) helped me not to feel miserable and helpless, but still I had fear and anxiety connected with life situations and could not feel God inside me. Daphne's letters, her coming to St. Petersburg in 1993 and 1994 when we were inseparable, her talking with me and her strong faith helped me a lot. And in August 1994 Daphne asked me to spend three weeks with her in Derby, England. There I made friends with many committed Christians, saw many people with strong faith, and observed their love to each other and to people on the whole. The first time during 50 years I had Holy Communion, it was in England side by side with Daphne. I prayed God for His grace, tried to know Him, to be nearer to Him. I felt my heart becoming open and pure when I prayed.
That time I did not know that Daphne, Linda, DeeDee and Harriet were friends and they were united by faith and the memory of Norman Grubb. That was another of God's miracles that in 1995 Linda, Dee Dee and Harriet sent me Norman's books and we started corresponding. They are people who know God and love Him and love people. The letters from them helped me to know God in a new way. In reading their letters and the books they sent me, more and more I felt my heart open and I now understood what Daphne's words meant, "When you are praying your heart is getting open and God comes into it."
In 1997 Dee Dee, Harriet, John and Linda came to St. Petersburg and we met face to face. I was happy to see my American friends who had done so much for my coming to God and who showed me what real love was. And though the situation in Russia and in my family was sorrowful and distressful, I looked to the future with confidence in God's great love. I remembered these words: "I will be with you always, even to the end of the world."
Another miracle was when John, Linda, DeeDee, Gary, Harriet and Wade invited me to America and presented me a return ticket and I got visa, though eleven people in the line to the Consulate General of the U.S.A. were turned down. God was leading me here. And God gave me the happiness to meet so many committed Christians there and to pray with them. That is a great miracle of God. Daphne sent me a letter and a post card saying, "It will be the time of blessing in the U.S.A."
Now I am no longer depressed or anxious in hard situations. I am not nervous about anything. I feel inner peace because I know God is in me and with me. I feel God in every cell of my body. His hands support me through the people He is sending me on my way of life. And my having been with you once again at the yearly meeting in America proves it. I have the strong desire to please God and I hope faith and love will help me not to do anything apart from it.
May God shower all of you with His blessings!