Sunday, March 17, 2013

The  following selections are my brightest memories of the people closest to me in my early life, and of the difficult lives they lived in the far northeastern part of Siberia, in Yakutia. The lives of some of these people spanned two world wars and two revolutions. I feel so lucky to have grown up in the untouched natural beauty of Yakutia, where natives lived side-by-side with political, intellectual and ethnic exiles, surviving and helping each other with a communal spirit I have not experienced since. I have also included my memories of Father Alexander Men’s parish from the time I was living in Moscow.

Mama Asya

I cannot say that my mother Asya was the gentlest of mothers, but she was definitely reliable, courageous, and tenacious. She handled difficult situations as best she could, without complaining-the way her life of being a Jew in Russia taught her. No long lectures for us children, just short and clear messages, like this one: “Finish your “prostakvasha" (homemade yogurt), otherwise you are not going to school.”  This we heard at breakfast.

To feed a family of five during long, brutal Siberian winters mother knew how to garden and cook. It seems to me that she inherited the habit of survival from her Jewish family who lived near Baikal Lake  in the southern part of Siberia. Now these days, when I am working in my vegetable garden here, in Kennebunk, Maine, I am using my mother’s rationale and methods of gardening. I have the same approach: a garden is a source of food, not a hobby. Whatever Asya Itzkovich did, she did very well, without laziness, which she considered a sin. Mama never used any recipes. She cooked healthy and tasty Jewish and Russian dishes by memory from her childhood. Each time she cooked, her dishes came out slightly different but always good despite the limited supply of ingredients available in Yakutsk.  

Long winter evenings we spend around a big round kitchen table making “pelmeni” (meat ravioli) or cross stitching. My sister,  mama Asya, our cousin Mucya, I and my father’s nephew, who came to town from a village to study in college. We, children never had a babysitter. Raising children was not a family burden; it felt like a natural community effort. Relatives and neighbors kept an eye on us while our parents were at work while we stayed home alone. Once in the summer time when my parents went for a vacation far away for a month, the neighbors helped us with cooking food but three of us age fourteen, nine and seven lived by ourselves in our summer house. My worst trouble that month was losing one of my galoshes while running in a large puddle, more like a shallow pond, after a rain. A crowd of neighborhood kids helped to find my galosh. I have recently recovered from whooping cough and was prohibited by my parents to walk outside without shoes. A rainbow after the rain, water splashed by running barefoot kids, my excitement of breaking my parent’s rule- all have stayed with me for a good sixty years.     .

Asya loved opera. There was one Yakut Opera Theater in the tiny town of Yakutsk in the very northeastern part of Siberia, where she lived for thirty-seven years. She listened to Verdi and she liked piano classics and Yakut lyrical songs. There were no opportunities to hear Jewish music. Mama had several close friends who were Jewish, whose music, as well as religion, were persecuted. She was exposed to the Jewish soul, but not to the culture.  Mama Asya considered solfeggio and theory of music much more important for me to study than to go to basketball practice, which she called “rolling an empty ball”.
I don’t know how many and how hard her troubles were before she came to Yakutsk as a graduate of the Siberian Institute of Finance in the town of Irkutsk, sometimes called the Paris of Siberia. I presume there were  many difficulties in the Itzkovich family of 9 children.  At the age of nine Asya was placed with her older married sister, probably for financial reasons. I know very little about Asya’s childhood. People of the post revolution and later under Stalin were trained very well to forget who they were, and not to share past lives with their children.

When Asya was twenty four she met my father, Yefim, on a steam boat on her way to her first work assignment of three years in Yakutsk. Soon they got married. Both were teaching at the time, and they started a family in part of a classroom divided by a wall-to-wall curtain between the classroom and their bedroom. A year later in 1937 at the peak of Stalin's terror, Yefim was arrested. Asya   refused to sign the paper against him and was courageous in pursuing his release. He was released in a few months. That same year their first child, my brother Eduard was born. My parents went through a period of severe hunger during the Second World War.  They lost their second son because at age of one he was given rusty water at a public child care center. In the middle of the war at the peak of the hunger time my sister, Esfir arrived. Before the revolution my Yakut grandfather was a farmer and used to have herds of cows and horses. After collective farms were formed he was left with one cow.  That was the Soviet rule to have only one caw, no matter how large your family.  American canned meat delivered to Yakutsk from Alaska and the one cow left to my father’s relatives helped the entire family to survive the war. I was patient and waited till the end of the war to be born. I came on May 4th, 1945, on the day when the Soviet solders installed the Soviet flag on the roof of the Reichstag in Berlin.

My mother started a family in an unfamiliar culture and language, without any relatives or friends in the very tough Stalin time. For 37 years she taught in a college in Yakutsk, raised three of us and made many diverse friends.  Mama Asya died at the age of 63 in Moscow where she retired, two years after my father died.  Sixty was a typical life expectancy for people in the rugged Northeast Siberian environment.   

E. Vaughan
March 17, 2012    

                                          Father Alexander Men

A friend of mine brought me to the village “Novaya Derevnya,” about 30 miles North of Moscow, to listen, for the first time to a sermon given by Father Alexander Men. The small village church was filled with local older women (“babushkas”) and younger people from Moscow (“intelligentsia”). It was in the mid 1980s, before Fr. Alexander’s popularity had reached its peak. A crowd from Moscow began coming on Sundays to listen to Fr. Men's  sermons and hoped to converse with him after a liturgy.

At the end of the liturgy my friend led me to kiss the cross and to introduce me to Father Alexander. I stood in line thinking that I should not take more time than anybody else, and should be aware of how many were behind me. As I was approaching Fr. Alexander, I had a clear feeling that all the people behind me had moved far away, and I was left standing alone with this priest of medium height who suddenly felt like a very tall man talking to me. Instantly I stopped being shy and worried.  Time stopped, and it was just the two of us: the priest and me. My feeling was that a power coming from his presence moved everything and everyone away from us leaving only the significance of our interaction.

Many more conversations with Father Men would come during the next four years. To make that happen more often, I rented a room with a little porch for summers in the village where his church was. Every Sunday after liturgy my room would be mobbed with parishioners waiting for a long time for their turn to talk with Father individually. Children would play in the yard, parents, tired from traveling from Moscow since very early morning, would lie on the ground under the sun. A neighbor, seeing people sleeping on the ground, thought that too much drinking was going on in my house.  Gathering with a priest was prohibited, so we were glad that neighbors thought we were just having drinking parties every Sunday.

My eight year old son, Yegor, could not find a better person to talk about his favorite movies than Fr.Alexander (see the picture). Father loved cinema and knew a lot about it. He also loved good strong tea. After having tea and common conversation, we would  all walk with Father to the train station. It was a long walk during which we would take turns conversing with him. People asked him all kind of questions: “Should I switch my job?” “Is it time for potty training for my youngest one?” Everything! I do remember a few answers he gave us when some of us would complain about another parishioner behavior. He would say: “This is what I have. I have no other parishioners”. If one told him that a person acts like a madman, he said: “Can you point to me any absolutely normal one?” To a complaint about a child misbehavior he would say: “We can’t change the child, we can only polish him.”  
The best of my years as a parishioner in “Novaya Derevnya” were our prayer group gatherings. Eight of us got together once a week in someone’s house. Each of us, age 25 to 35, as  a Christian attending church, already had the experience of having trouble with officials, so we were careful never to press the correct floor button in an elevator in the presence of a stranger. Fr. Alexander kept close contact with the leader of our group, directing her in our study. He would come to some of our meetings, somehow finding the time in his incredibly busy schedule. Our group studied the New Testament line by line comparing each sentence from the French, English and Russian versions of the Jerusalem Bible. Later we prayed traditionally as a group, and individually, freely and spontaneously thanking God and asking for help in the difficulties of everyday life. Everyone felt a little wiser in understanding Scripture piece by piece, and all of us had an incredible feeling of family.      

Once I visited Fr. Alexander on his birthday. We were sitting around the table on his house porch having tea with a simple dessert. There were too many of us to fit in the space, so there were two or three layers of people around the table quietly passing food to the people just behind them. The questions to Father were coming from the back of the crowd as fast as the food was going to them. Time pasted quickly, and before we knew it we were getting ready to take our train back to Moscow.  Fr. Alexander walked us to his gate.

It was this very same gate where he was found murdered several years later while walking to the train station. On the early morning of September 9, 1990 Fr. Alexander Men was brutally murdered by someone wielding an axe. The murderer was most likely sent by those who were envious of his popularity; those who did not like that a priest, a Jew by nationality, was just appointed as a rector of the newly organized Orthodox University and who was also well known in the Vatican and in the West as a bright theologian and a Russian Orthodox priest with an ecumenical spirit.    

Twenty-one years later, visiting from United States, I was in the church in Moscow where many of former Fr. Alexander’s spiritual children are now parishioners. A member of our prayer group is now the priest of that church. I saw so many familiar faces that had become too old to be recognized right away. Many years of prosecution and underground survival during the Soviet time left deep signs on their faces. But I could sense the same strong active Orthodox spirit as before in this truly ecumenical parish working with the local sick and poor, and keeping in touch with the rest of the world. 

E. Vaughan
January 2013       

                              Yefim, the hunter and the teacher

My father was unusually tall for a Yakut man, and his skin was lighter than most. Maybe this was the reason they called him "Baghynai". It might have been the Yakut word for the Russian “zemlepashetz”, a person who was a descendant of newcomers who had farmed the land. Most natives were cattle farmers.

Every spring and fall Yefim would go hunting to provide his family with meat. There was no meat or poultry in the stores, just flour and spaghetti. His fellow hunters would form a very wide circle and knock on the ground with sticks to gather the hares inside. Then Yefim, a real sharpshooter, would shoot the hares. Of course, he shot in the direction of one large opening in the circle so that he would not endanger the hunters. It was a slaughter! Each hunter would have about 300 hares. This was not too many, for it meant about one per family per day for a very long winter. My sister Fira and I helped father get ready for hunting trips. Our small and precise fingers put exact amounts of powder into each cartridge. 

Being a teacher all his life, my father was teaching us many things that men and women in Siberia needed to know. Without emphasizing his intention, he just did these things with us as life required, and the lessons were learned. Eduard, our brother, was away at music boarding school, so it was just his two girls, Fira and I, eleven and nine years old, who learned how to shoot from a two- barreled rifle, drive a three-wheel motorcycle, split wood with an axe, and start a wood stove with any type of wood.

Yefim’s sister, Manechka, once told me a story about him from their childhood. At the age of five he tried his first papiros (self made strong cigarette without a filter). One time he laid out on a big board all her dolls and cut their heads off, saying that it was the Tsar’s order. He must have heard what was happening in St Petersburg in 1917 (Petrograd then), and that was his interpretation of the revolution.

Having good mathematic skills Yefim became a math teacher when he was only eighteen. Later he became principle of the school and then superintendent of the school district. His height and strong build, as well as his entire appearance, made students respect and obey him, but his forever laughing eyes betrayed a very kind man.

Soon after World War II, Yefim needed a new hunting gun. He looked at one at a store and expressed his uncertainty about the quality of the metal to the owner of the store. The owner assured him that the gun was made of the strongest alloy. Yefim said that it looked a bit too soft, and that one could bite a hole in the gun barrel with his own teeth. “If you make such hole, the gun would be yours free” the owner challenged. That gun with the hole made by my father’s tooth always hung above his bed.

After a few shooting lessons when I was about ten, my father took me to the overnight duck hunt. My task was to sit quietly inside a tent with an opening at the top. I had to watch for the beginning of light around three in the morning and give a signal to the hunters when I could see the ducks rising. I wanted to be useful to the hunters, so as soon as I saw the rising flock, I shouted: “They are flying, they are flying!” The flock immediately changed direction, and the hunting, of course, was spoiled. But my father was not upset with me; for I’m sure he must have understood my excitement as a first time hunter.

Now my life here in Maine requires many small, practical skills. When I need to know how to make compost, provide a steady supply of water to the vegetable garden, or fight insects, instead of checking on the Internet, I use my father’s old fashioned, natural methods that have stayed in my memory - strong memory of childhood.

When “the old hunter” (he was only 60 years old) had learned about his advanced stage of cancer, he did not want to be a burden for the family. His ancestors, old time hunters, when they felt sick unto death would go to the tundra far from people and peacefully die of starvation. There was no tundra for Yefim. By that time, he and my mother had moved to the town of Oreyl in the central part of Russia.  So he went to the garage with the gun he had all his life. Fortunately, my mother was able to prevent him from making what would have been his last shot.

A few months later I came from Moscow where I was a post-graduate student, and spent a month living in his hospital room. Yefim was very calm and silent at the end of his life. Sitting next to him I realized that his silence was the peace and wisdom of his last days of life here on the earth before leaving what the Yakut people believed to be the “Middle World”.           

E. Vaughan
April 12, 2012   


                  The Gifted Person Who Gave Me So Much

I was a baby when he gave me my very first ride in a basket on the handlebars of his bike.  A few years later he gave me a big push when I sat for the first time on my two-wheeler bike.  I ended up crashing into the single tree, standing lonely in the meadow in the front of our summer house near Yakutsk.  Being seven years older than I, my brother Edick left me the memories of running fast for his boyish business.  In summer time our summer house was a jungle where Edick traveled by jumping with a rope, not only from tree to tree but also from a bed to a piano with a rope called "tarzanka" tied to a beam on the ceiling.  He left home at the age of 14 after being chosen as a gifted young musician for the music boarding school in Moscow.

Much later when I came to Moscow as a college student, my brother passed me his friends. Some of them varying in age from 30 to 82, became my life-long friends.  He enriched my life with evenings at the Tchaikovsky Music Hall and his circle of fine Moscow musician friends.  For long period of my life, my brother would be a model of a man for me.  Maybe this is why my search for the "right man" took so long and became successful only when I met my husband Terrence.

With time Eduard became a very good son.  He took good care of our mother, and she also adored him.  So my expectations of "mother - son" relationship were also high; the expectations that, sadly, have been forever taken from me by a tragic accident with my 30-year old son Yegor.

My brother and I have exchanged friends, doctors, books, favorite foods, parishioners, and even whole cities: I came to Moscow where he was a well adjusted young professional, he came in his sixties as a refugee to Massachusetts where I had been living for seven years by that time. 

When I am puzzled by a big issue, let’s say "current war" or "global warming", I will ask Eduard’s opinion and if he is not in a "silent mode" (I consider his silence as a sign of wisdom) he will give me his explanation and I can’t find a better one.

Loving and strict parents, a happy free childhood, a rich cultural environment in Moscow, a rigorous life style  and ethnic richness in Yakutia;  all of that has given to Eduard so much that he gives to others.

Evelina Alexeeva Vaughan,  Kennebunk, Maine, 2012              

            A letter to Eduard’s children on his 75th birthday

Dear Alex, Asya and Yefim,

If we still lived in Yakutsk, the town where I was born, instead of this letter, we would have a family conversation on the eve of your father’s birthday on December 4th. We would most likely be confined inside the house by three meters of deep snow. Our current life has brought us to the United States and spread us around Boston, Maine and Canada.  Alas, now we do not have these long evenings together around a wood stove to listen to each other’s memories. Instead, we have busy highways to travel, and we converse by cell phones or Skype on our laptop screens.

My memory of my brother Eduard as a boy at home starts when he was about ten and lasts till he was fourteen, when he left for the boarding school for musically gifted children in Moscow, an eight-hour flight from home. Always running around on his boyish business, his hat’s flaps fluttering against the wind; no scarf or gloves even on the coldest Siberian winter days,  he was creating games for his schoolmates and giving us, his two younger sisters, Fira and I, small parts in them. He built trenches in the snow on the top of our barn, and we would lie down in them, counting all the pedestrians on our street. We pretended that they were German soldiers who needed to be watched all afternoon. It didn’t seem to matter that our feet were as cold as ice.

Practicing piano and doing homework were never problems for my brother. I don’t recall any time that our parents would remind him to do it. It was always effortless, quick and natural. I remember only one problem that my mother had with Edick: reading books at night, when everybody else was sleeping. He read under a blanket with a flashlight. This probably was the reason for his early vision problem. Edick was the center of the children’s games he created, always making jokes, and doing a great deal of teasing in the neighborhood. A good skier, he designed a way of riding on slalom skies pulled by our three-wheeler motorcycle.   
Then, of course, came a period of romance during his years in Moscow. I was too far away from Eduard during my high school and early college years to pay much attention to his interests at that time. When I came to Moscow to study in 1965 I found my brother well established in Moscow cultural life.

In his early thirties, when my parents were sick, my brother became the head of the family, making medical decisions for both parents, contacting doctors in Oreyl and Moscow, arranging for a "dacha" (retreat house) in Rusa near Moscow and spending time with them there. At that time, he was your age, and revealed himself to be a loving and caring son. Now this time is coming in your lives.  Dear Alex, Asya and Tima, I am sure you will continue to be the devoted children for your father and mother as Eduard was for his parents.

With much love,
Your aunt Elya 
December 4, 2012

                Through the Revolution and Two Wars  (Grandfather Yegor) 

Can you imagine raising six children in the third coldest place in the world? Yakutsk, located in the northeastern part of Siberia, has very hot short summers and extremely long freezing winters, making it very hard to survive. But, my grandfather did, and he lived to be seventy four years of age, which is considered very long for this part of the world. 
Yegor Nicholaivich Alekseyev was born in the village of Tyllyma , Republic of Yakutia, in 1883. It is located on the Russian side of Alaska, on the opposite side of the Bering Straight.

As he grew, his hands became more useful and strong for work around the family farm. Without any education Yegor had learned everything he needed from his father, including taking care of horses and cows on the family farm. As a young man he married a woman named Matrena, and together they raised 6 children: Yakov, Zoya, Maria, Yefim (my father), Natalia, and Simeon who died in the war with Japan in 1945.

When the Russian Revolution came, the state officials were told to seize the cows and horses from the “rich” for collective farms, allowing them only one animal. Yakutia is so remote from the center of Russia that it took years for the new Soviet rule to come to Yakutsk and locals interpreted some of the new rules in their own way.  When private farms were outlawed and collective farms were organized instead, Yakut people put their eldest, most respectable person, the shaman, as a head of the collective farm. My grandfather Yegor was considered “rich”. When the Soviets took away the horses and cows that he worked so hard to take care of and left him with just one cow, Yegor became poor and barely had enough food to feed on. By that time his son Yefim (my father) became a teacher, but he had no rights to help his father financially, a former rich man, “kulak”. My father’s friend, a lawyer, found a way to help Yegor and stay out of prison. He suggested that Yegor complain to a court that his son Yefim was starving him. The court made a decision to take a certain amount of money in monthly payments from Yefim to his father and the normal human action of feeding one's own father became legal.

Yegor had 6 children and 18 grandchildren. Working as a farmer all of his life, Yegor developed strong hands and since he did not have a farm, he had time to carve and shape wood. He started with woodcarving, and after many compliments he started carving stone and mammoth husks, which were widely available in Yakutiya. There was a lack of many household items in Siberia during the World War II, including combs for hair, to prevent lice, so Yegor started making combs from mammoth tusk. He devised his own machine for cutting comb teeth. Yegor carved some amazing things and made gifts for many. He even sent Stalin a paper-cutting knife, carved from mammoth tusk (see of the very top of the blog). He was accepted as a member of the National Union of Artists and his work was placed in the Museum of Stalin’s Gifts in Moscow. Now, after the liquidation of Stalin’s Museum, that knife is in the Museum of Art in Yakutsk.

Yegor Nicholaivich Alexeev became a well known artist; his work is published in several books. All of us, his grandchildren and great grandchildren, have and treasure some of these pieces carved from tusks- buttons, combs, pins, etc. Grandfather Yegor died in 1957. I was holding his thumb before he died and still remember the flat surface on his thumb from all the work and carving he had done.  He never spoke much. His only language was Yakut, but he didn’t need to; his spirit was in his smiling eyes and his rough hands that had worked hard for a very long time.

Ada Vaughan & Evelina Vaughan
December 2011


                 Letter to Leonid’s Vasilenko daughters after his departure

Dear Lena, Ul'yana, Lisa and Vera,

Though our loss is great, the sense of loss that we, Leonid's friends, feel
is not comparable to the loss that you must feel. Each one of us had a
special relationship with Leonid, and so is mine very precious.

The most vivid memory I have is of one winter school vacation in the early
1980's. It was before the Garmaev's camp*. We had already felt the need to be
in a quiet natural place where we could read to the children, offer prayers,
and just be ourselves. As cold as it can be in the woods near Moscow that
time of year, Leonya with his three little girls, and I with my young Yegor
spent a week in an old house in a small village. Everything we had to do was
a real task: gathering wood, lighting a stove for cooking, making a fire in
the woods with the children at night for warmth and fun, walking a few
kilometers to the nearest store for provisions. No matter what we had to do
Leonya was strong and tenacious.

When Garmaev's camp came later there was no question that the leader of our
fifteen to eighteen person "family" would be Leonid. It was not easy to
lead several difficult families, children and adults. Leonid's leadership was a
calm, firm and abiding presence. Small or big, Leonya respected and honored
each individual. It seems to me now that he knew just what Father Alexander
Men meant when he said, "You cannot really change a child. You can only shine
them up."

Leonid has bound us all together with the fragile thread of an extended
family connection. That connection can easily break if we do not make the 
effort to preserve, nourish and extend that thread to our children. These 
relationships need to be kept. It is your turn, Lisa, Vera and Yl'yanya, 
as Leonid’s daughters, to become the thriving center of that circle!

Evelina Vaughan/Elya Alexeeva
Kennebunk, Maine

*Garmaev’s camp was a summer time camp for families with difficult children and single parent families. It was an imitation of “Old Russian Village Life”: surviving on nature resources, working at a collective farm, without shopping and connection to modern life. Garmaev’s camp was preparing families to become Orthodox Christians in an underground way, since such preparation was officially prohibited under the Soviets.