My mother was born in Achinsk in 1928 in a poor Tatar family where she was the youngest out of eight children. She was called Ekaterina but that was the translation of her Tatar name into Russian. She had five brothers and two sisters. There was a girl born after my mother but she died when she was three years old.
Two of my mother's brothers were killed in the second world war. Another lived far from Achinsk but I only had heard of him, we never met. A third lived in the Soviet republic of Bashkirija, he came to live in Achinsk at end of his not a very long life. Another brother had always lived in Achinsk and occasionally gave my mother troubles, which she took as a good sister would.
My mother's mother wanted her daughters to marry men of their own nationality. Either the girls were so disobedient or there were not enough young Tatar men around but none of them married a Tatar. One sister married a Georgian and the two other girls married Russians.
My sisters moved far away from home after they got married. One to a little village in Georgia where no one could speak a word in Russian or Tatar and she did not know a single word in Georgian. However after several years she could speak Georgian as a native and was taken for a local. We visited them in Georgia many times and it is worth writing a separate story about it.
The other sister also tried to live in Georgia with her Russian husband but was less successful and moved to the Ukraine in the end. Now their six children and seven grandchildren live all over the Ukraine and some in the Crimea.
My mother being the youngest in the family was also the favourite child and her mother tried to keep her at home as long as she could. She was against my mother's education and Ekaterina could only study when her mother was not looking. Nevertheless my mother finished school and went to a Teachers' Training college in Achinsk with her friends.
Later she finished the Pedagogical Institute in Krasnoyarsk by correspondence. It was three and a half hours by train from Achinsk. She only had to go there to take her exams. She was one of the best students wherever she studied and she was the only well educated child in her family.
She started to work as a teacher when she was eighteen years old. By the end of her career she had forty-two years service!
My mother was very devoted to her job. She says she never thought whether she loved it or not, she was just doing it to the best of her abilities. I can say that she was a talented teacher, her Russian lessons were very interesting, the discipline was good and the children loved them. She was my teacher for a year and I enjoyed her lessons very much. I can even say she was one of the best teachers I ever had.
Some would say that it is not very good for a daughter to be in her mother's class but from my own experience I can say that it is not always true. I did not think all the time that she was my mother and managed to enjoy what we were doing at the lessons. Maybe if she was a supply teacher it would have been embarrassing to me but being in her class every day seemed natural and it did not bother me at all. She treated me the way she treated other children and she never showed any preferences. I never called her 'mum' in the class either.
However as it turned out later, preferences she did have! To my surprise she admitted once that she always enjoyed working with so called 'difficult' children more than with 'normal' ones. She loved talking to them trying to get to the root of the problem and help if she could. It was challenging and rewarding. Children who did not have a chance to deal with her closely were afraid of her, thinking she was very strict. And it was true. Children who had to deal with her even once loved or at least respected her.
She appreciated sense of humour and wit in people very much. Once a boy ran into her and nearly knocked her over. She was furious and said more to herself than to him: "It is wrong to get angry with someone who has already been deprived by God". "But I am not angry with you" - the boy answered. Instead of being angry she burst into laughter. It was her favourite anecdote for many years.
Mother was at school by seven o'clock every morning . She got up at five, prepared meals for a day, did some cleaning, got herself ready (she always looked smart) then woke us up and left.
We got up and dressed. I took my brother to the kindergarten, which was luckily on the ground floor of the same building, and went to school. I came from school about 2pm and did my housekeeping chores. Mother was strict about it. She expected the rooms to be tidy, washing up done, the floor wiped.
By the age of seven or eight I even managed to make some simple supper by the time parents came back home from work. This however did not happen very often and when it did I was very much praised. What was good about communal flat that I was never in the kitchen on my own. There was always someone else to help if something went wrong.
On the days when I failed to make the beds and the rooms were left untidy I was severely reprimanded. My mother never beat me but sometimes I thought she would rather have done. She was very 'good' at telling me off and I tried to avoid it as much as I could.
My brother being the second child and also being a boy managed to stay away from housework. When he became older and sometimes failed to do a task and annoyed mother he always managed to make her laugh before she even started to get angry.
If she asked him to go to the shop and he was sitting comfortably with the cat in his lap he would say : "I will go but only with the cat's permission". Then he asked the cat whether he could go to the shop or not and gave it a little blow into the ear. The cat shook its head 'no', Mother laughed, and I went shopping.
I do not remember any serious competition between me and my brother for our parents' love. They loved us both and there was never doubt about it. I did feel more responsible because I was four years older and a girl and maybe I am more responsible now but that is a separate story.
The truth was that I was very happy to have a brother, four years was a good age gap and we grew up very close. The matter was that our mother did not want the second child, her pregnancies were far from easy: she was constantly sick, occasionally fainted and as her heartburn was unbearable she kept nibbling on a piece of chalk when her pupils were not looking. She was thinking about an abortion and I am glad she changed her mind. And so is Yura.
She was on her way to the hospital to get an abortion when she decided to pop into the school for something. Her headmistress happened to be there. She had no children of her own but she managed to persuade my mother to change her mind and to keep the baby. The headmistress would have gained more from my mother's getting rid of her pregnancy rather than from keeping it, but she took our family's side and it was very good of her. Instead of going to the hospital my mother went back home.
Once while we still lived in voyenniy gorodok our mother came home very excited. Yura was four years old and I was twelve. She said she had been offered a place as a headmistress in one of the town schools in Achinsk. If she took the job we would have to leave voyenniy gorodok and live in town. It was sad. However we could live in our own apartment instead of a communal flat. That sounded wonderful!
She was reluctant to take the job because she was happy where she was (she was already a deputy head then) and the new job meant even more responsibility and less time with her own children.
At the age of forty-five my mother was rewarded the highest title for the teachers in the Soviet Union. She was the only teacher in a town of a hundred and thirty thousand with such a title. We had a big party with about a hundred people to celebrate that award. There were many toasts and speeches said in honour of my mother's achievements.
I made a toast to her too. I said something about being very proud of her and also being her daughter and seeing her every day both at home and at work I knew even more than others how much she deserved the reward. She really did.
She worked under difficult circumstances most of the time. The school was big (about 1500 pupils) and had a boarding school as well where children from small villages all around Achinsk stayed at school for a week and went home for the weekend.
She became a headmistress in 1964 and retired in 1986. She worked through all the Brezhnev's years which were as good for us as they were bad. She did her best for the school, its children and teachers and most of the times she greatly succeeded.
For many years the school was the best on the East-Siberian Railway in many respects. We had a lot of inspections from the local authorities and also from Moscow. Every inspection ended in high praise of the teachers and their headmistress. The quality of teaching was good and to high standards. Everybody should have been happy. But they were not.
Some people were far from happy, even very unhappy. They wondered how the school could be so successful for many years. There must be something wrong.
Anonymous letters started to come to the local Party Committee with the complaints and accusations. Many were about money being misused by the school administration. After each letter there came an inspection "to check the facts" which lasted several days and always finished to the school's credit.
In spite of all the checks and no evidence of anything wrong the letters kept coming often with the most ridiculous accusations, often illiterate and silly. One of them asked how could it be that the boarding school had nice curtains and carpets for the children?
One might expect a complaint that in spite of the school having so much money there was nothing good for the children, but not the other way round. I remember my mother joking that she put most of her salary into the school budget for buying things for the boarding school.
The letters were very often ridiculous and the writers did not even bother to write them properly but there was a law then that every letter should be investigated.
Even I, then a child, could clearly see that all the success was due to very hard genuine work and nothing else. What else could it be due to? I saw the enthusiasm with which my mother and the other teachers worked. School always came first and home second.
My mother felt a little guilty at times about this order of things. Much later, when retired, she said to me once whether everything she had done in life was worth it or whether she should have devoted all her time to her family?
I told her how much the school years mattered to me and how warmly I remembered all those years. Now imagine, I said, those thousands and thousands of young people like me all over the Soviet Union who have the same warm feeling. How could what you were doing possibly be not worth it?
I never felt rejected or neglected or unimportant. On the contrary I had a secure feeling of belonging. I felt like a participant of everything what was happening.
She was accused of taking things home from school for her personal use, like arm- chairs, carpets, or a TV-set which were absolute lies. 'Spies' were sent to our home to find out what kind of things we had there. There were rumours that we had an unbelievably rich and posh home, which we had never even aimed at. Our home was quite modest and there was always something that needed doing. However even if we had planned home improvements, my parents were so busy at work that they rarely had time to do it.
We were amazed at the peoples' inventiveness. It was said once that we had a dacha (a country house) at the Black Sea coast in Pitsunda (an international health resort) where the houses were no cheaper than hundreds of thousands of roubles.
We did go to the seaside every year but only because of the free railway tickets and the cheapest accommodation we could get (one rouble per person per night). How could we possibly have a dacha there on an officer's and a headmistress's salaries? They were good but not that good! They were implying that the money was stolen.
All these inspections and proofs of being honest took a lot of my mother's time and energy. Her life was very difficult at times. Working in such a big institution as her school it was difficult to have everything right all the time anyway.
Working in the Soviet Union in the seventies had its own peculiarities. It was very difficult, at times impossible, to stay honest in a country where everybody else was lying. It became more and more clear to people that the whole socialist society was actually based on lies. Being a headmistress and especially a very good one took a certain amount of disobedience and dishonesty on my mother's part but not in the form of taking school's money for her personal use.
She worked within a certain budget which did not always reflect the school's real needs. It quite often happened that her 'orders' told her to spend money on something that they would not need in the near future. They bought what they really needed and got a receipt which did not reflect what it should have done.
It could also happen (and it often did) due to the country's constant shortages that they suddenly came across something very important for the school but they did not have money for it at the moment. They were so happy to get the thing that they bought it with the 'wrong' money thinking they would justify it later somehow. This was also an offence but not a criminal one. It was the only way my mother could work under the circumstances. She was always juggling the money and was always trying to do it in the most beneficial way for her school.
I wondered why my mother could do such things which other people could not. She was brave and she never cared much about her belonging to the Communist Party. She was always ready to put her communist membership card "on the table" which meant to resign from the Party. She did not do anything that she could go to prison for, but to be excluded from the Communist Party was not something that could frighten her. She had "nothing to lose but her chains".
She was quick-tempered, very witty and never short of something to say. There was a situation once when she had to go to the Party Committee to give some "explanations" for being "naughty" again. Knowing her character well after many years of working together, a colleague asked to keep my mother's Party membership card for her. She was afraid that my mother, if annoyed or humiliated, could throw the card into some important face and that would be the end of her carrier.
She had many friends among the staff who stuck with her through all the difficult times. They worked together for many years, knew what things were really like and what kind of person she was.
I wondered why they should disturb the whole school just because one or two people decided to write a ridiculous letter. If the first, second, tenth complaint were found groundless why to keep checking month after month? If I were in charge I would have introduced a law that every anonymous letter should have been ignored and thrown into the bin. If there had been signatures, my mother could have defended herself by taking legal action against the writers. As it was she must have felt very unprotected. I imagine the letters were anonymous for that very reason.