My father came from western Siberia, a little village about 50 miles away from the railway. In my childhood we could only get there by horse or in rainy autumn days by tracked tractor. That was one of the reasons why my mother was not keen on the idea of visiting her in-laws. She was a very 'towny' sort of person to whom the idea of going for mushrooms and berries and being bitten by mosquitoes never appealed very much.
The village had a romantic name of 'Kamishenka', the translation of 'kamish' into English is 'reeds', and the suffix 'enka' makes it sound nicer and warmer, sort of 'lovely beautiful reeds', however the older I become the more romantic and nice the word 'Kamishenka' sounds to me.
I was only 8 months old when I visited the village for the first time. It so happened that my daughter Natasha made her first journey to Russia and her dedushka's (grandfather's) village at the same age. The only difference was that in 1994 we did not need a horse or a tracked tractor to get to Kamishenka but were driven in my cousin's new 'Lada'. The sadness of that visit was that Natasha could never meet her grandfather Nikolai as he died soon after she was born.
I do not know a lot about my father's childhood but it is not difficult to imagine a life of a boy in a little Siberian village who was born in 1926. His mother was a simple village woman whose husband disappeared and was never seen again. Whether it was a case of the well-known Russian purges or whether he left her for another woman remains a mystery.
My father was about three years old when his father vanished. His mother remarried and had three more children by her second marriage. Little Kolya (short for Nikolai) was raised by his aunt Anastasia in the same village. His own mother grew to be more of an aunt to him than a real mother. The reason is not clear again, either his stepfather did not want him or the bond between aunt Anastasia and her little nephew was so strong that she wanted to bring him up with her own child.
Kolya was a bright little boy and he did very well at school. When the Second World War started he was 15. They lined the boys up and told all those who had done seven years at school to take a step forward. They were given a chance to continue their education at a military school in Vilnius, Lithuania. My father was among them. Those who were 'undereducated' were sent to the front and most of them were killed in their first battle. So my father's love for studies gave me a chance to be born.
When my father graduated from the military school the war was over and he was sent to work in the Achinsk Military School of Civil Aviation as a platoon commander, where he worked for many years. His cadets loved him and called him "our captain". My younger brother Yuri was the very image of his father, and on meeting him in the street they used to say: "This is our captain's son!".
My father did not speak about his feelings very much but I always knew he loved his children. I loved him too. I was always glad when he came home from work. When my mother was about to come home I automatically checked whether all the tasks she had given me in the morning were completed and tried to finish them if they were not. When father came home I was relaxed as he always came with a joke. He never gave me tasks to do anyway.
Some time during the evening he would say: "All right, Lyuda, let's have a look now how you are doing at school!" We sat down together and he started to look through all my exercise books in all the subjects slowly and thoroughly commenting on the marks: "Good girl!", "Excellent!", "Not as good here but never mind... next time..." and so on. Every time when he did this he started from the very beginning of each exercise book. I enjoyed being praised by him!
If he went somewhere without us he always came back with presents. I was over the moon when he went to Riga to buy furniture and brought a whole set of furniture for my dolls without me even asking him!
I do not remember our father playing with us much but I do not think he had time. He worked irregular hours and could often be called out. Occasionally he had to go for karaul which meant to be on guard all night when he had to carry his gun with him.
Sometimes they had military exercises at their school which meant father disappeared from home for two or three days. The exercises were supposed to be unexpected but our father often seemed to know they were coming. He prepared his kit in the evening which included some underwear, socks, a razor, toothbrush and so on. There was a knock on the door in the middle of the night and he was gone. He never told me what they were doing there, maybe it was a secret.
There was once when I got frightened and thought that the war had started. I was ten or eleven, at home on my own as I was sick and away from school. I heard something happening outside and looked out of the window. There were hundreds of cadets fully equipped with the guns across their front in the street. Many military cars and lorries were going along the roads.
I had the impression that they were going to war but that the war itself was not actually there where we lived. I think father did not know anything about it otherwise he would have warned us.
My father was a modest quiet sort of person who liked to do things slowly but thoroughly. My mother was as quick as fire and there was some contrast between them. On the other hand they might have complemented each other very well.
My father could play accordion and he was a good singer. He had a very nice and strong voice. When he was young and lived in the village he was the only accordion player there. He was always welcome to all the wedding parties and all sorts of occasions because of his skill. He was the soul of a party. Sometimes he was invited to neighbouring villages to play. He did not do it for money but just for pleasure.
I loved the minute when he got his accordion out of its case! Then he sang one song after another. Sometimes our mother started to dance a Russian folk dance. It was always the case when we had a party at home: father playing the accordion and singing, mother and other guests dancing.
The accordion was given to my father by his cadets as a present at a farewell party when they were graduating from the school. It was made in an old Russian town called Tula, famous for making accordions. It was a sort of accordion which had round buttons on both sides, not keys like a piano.
I started to take music lessons in accordion once and I did enjoy it but stopped after a while. I wish it had been a proper school, then perhaps I would not have given up so easily.
My father only played and sang while he was not too drunk to do so. Of course he did drink at the parties as there is no such thing as a Russian party without plenty of vodka, but he seemed to be the most drunk person after every party. I wondered why it was that way. Although he was never violent but just wanted to sleep afterwards I still hated him being so drunk that other people could disapprove of him.
I cannot remember a party which did not end with him to be the drunkest. However I do not remember him ever drinking if it was not a party or ever missing work the morning after.
Maybe because he was playing and singing he did not have time ever to eat well. Eating after a drink always helped people to keep sober. My mother suggested once that maybe he got used to drinking at the parties in the village. He was young and popular and everybody wanted to have a drink with the accordionist. Again he did not have time to sit at the table and eat.
There was a couple of times when cadets brought him home after farewell parties when he could hardly stand. They did not mind because they absolutely adored him.
He never showed low spirits to them and there was always a joke ready for them to smile at. I knew teachers who brought their low moods in to the class and made the students be scapegoats. It was never the case with him. He was like a father to his cadets.
However there was quite an incident in our family once in connection with a drinking party. My kind and normally quiet father got jealous of my mother dancing with a senior officer and he decided 'to put things straight'. He threw a cream cake at the man (which reminded me of one of those comedies about jealousy) and then pulled the table cloth off his table. As the man was leaving, walking down the stairs, the jealous husband also gave him a kick in the arse.
The next morning when mother was trying to discuss with him what had happened the night before he could not remember anything. The only thing he kept repeating was: "Nobody kicked anybody". For years this saying remained in our family.
If somebody was disagreeing or arguing about anything they said: "Nobody kicked anybody" which meant: "Leave me alone!". It was the only scene of jealousy I remember between them, but what a remarkable one!
I loved to go anywhere with my father. He was always gentlemanly: offered a hand where necessary or kept warning me: "Careful, there is one more step here". If we entered the block of flats late at night he never forgot to hold the door saying: "Quiet, people are already asleep". He always cared about other people.
When I was little we had a plot outside the town where we grew potatoes nothing else. We did not have a cellar where to keep them. Our friends' who lived outside 'voyenniy gorodok' in the centre of Achinsk, about a mile and a half away from us, allowed us to keep our potatoes in their cellar. When we ran out of potatoes we had to go there and fetch some.
I do not know how it happened in summer. Probably father went there by bus with a rucksack. In winter it was a different matter! It was wonderful when father said: "Shall we go for potatoes?" We took a big sack to put the potatoes in and a sledge and father gave me a ride all the way to the friends' house! I do not remember whether he took Yura for 'a potato ride' or whether it was my special treat and a privilege as a girl.
On the way back I sat on top of the full sack which was also fun. As it was always dark early in the winter months, there was the clear starlit sky above us, (that is what the sky is usually like in Siberia at night) and the brilliantly white snow was shining like glitter.
Those potato trips are very special memories to me from my childhood. I think such things compensated a lot for my father not playing with me in the usual meaning of the word.
When I was eighteen and a student in Irkutsk, my school boyfriend Sergei was a cadet in the military school in Achinsk. When I came home on vacation and wanted to go and see him there I was a little shy to go to voyenniy gorodok in order to ask him for a date. They could also refuse to let me see him. Then I asked: "Papa, will you go with me to ask Sergei out?"
Father did not work in that school anymore but he put on his uniform and we went. All the doors were opened for us then! When an officer came and asked to fetch such and such person nobody dared to ask what for and Sergei was there soon. It was nice to feel my father's solidarity that way.
I liked how he dealt with my boyfriends. If I left them for a smoke together I knew father would never say or do anything wrong. His secret was very simple. He discussed anything with them in a most friendly manner but he excluded me completely as a subject for discussion. That strategy always worked and he never put his foot into anything.