Tapestry series no. 58

Date contributed: 22nd January 1999

Contributed by Dr Sonia Toft

My Grandmother migrated to Australia with her husband and first child (my father) a couple of years after the events described below happened. She has lived with my Grandpa in Australia for nearly 50 years and now has 6 grandchildren and 2 great grand children whom she enjoys spoiling.

I would like to share some of my experiences of when I was a young person

I had many happy moments during my childhood as I remember how easy life was and how disconnected I was at a young age. When I was a student these were different times, country and conditions to what we have now in Australia.

I lived with my dear parents for just over 16 years, where I had a protected, happy and normal life and enjoyed my schooling and outdoor activities (such as skiing, skating and horse riding, volleyball and gymnastics) At the time, when the Communist Regime was severe through Stalin’s ruling, teachers were given all power to spend with students as much time as possible (even after school hours) to minimize the influence of parents’ upbringing. Instead of the moral, Christian standards taught by our parents we were taught anti-religious lessons not only for ourselves, but to perform at concerts to the collective farmers and peasants with songs, poems, plays, and satirical hymns. This was especially important during religious festivals like Christmas and Easter. Teachers had to have the Communist Party’s trust (be members or candidates). I never forget how my best two teachers were given the sack because they refused to join the Communist Party. Imagine my very Christian father, how he felt, when we used to tell our parents all the news from school.

One day, my parents gave me their view and made me learn one prayer ‘The Lord’s’ Prayer’. They hugged me and asked me whatever may happen to me in the future that I never forget to pray. At the time, I never took things seriously but my parents could not go to church and they did not have much right over their children at the time.

When I completed high school I hated the thought of staying on the farm with my aged parents (they were over 60). My two sisters and two brothers were in Leningrad. One day, my eldest brother suggested in a letter to me that if I studied at university then he would provide me with moral and financial support. Under his conditions and rules he would provide accommodation in Leningrad. It sounded like an exciting offer. With no doubt in my mind I agreed to leave my parents but I was uncertain when I would see them next since I would not be able to afford to do the 500 km journey often. I knew then that I would meet lots of hardships, but I would rather that than stay on the farm which offered no chance of progress for me.

My first impressions of Leningrad were that it was very exciting. My sisters, brothers, aunties and uncles made me feel welcome. I was given a small room in my brother’s apartment to share with his sister in law.

The thought of entering university made me worry. How could I survive for 4 or 5 years when my brother had his own family to support? My parents could not provide me with any financial assistance and my scholarship would be insignificant. After two sleepless nights while Tad (my brother) was still away doing military service I looked through all the newspapers and found an advertisement that a certain Meteorological Institute needed applicants to study for two years to become Climatologists-Technicians for weather forecasting at aerodromes. Without delay I applied, was accepted and to my satisfaction started at that college.

My sister-in-law was a kind person, but with three children, a large apartment, queues to join for meat and food, washing to be done without a washing machine for seven people and floors to be polished, I knew I owed them for my full board. I had to travel 40 minutes by train to my college to study from 2pm until late. My brother reminded me that any pleasures like late night outings or boys should be out of my head. Many times I wished for more clothes or visits to the theatre but I paid my 95 rubles for board and did not have much left over. My brother Nikolay was kind enough to escort me to the theatre sometimes and family gatherings had a happy atmosphere with billiard games, checkers, cards, songs and chats.

One day I went to the market in the city and some gypsy girls stopped me to tell me my fortune. One of the girls insisted that I pay her the money for my lunch and she told me that I will be going away soon, thousand of kilometres away and will return. After that I will go away again and never come back she said. (At this time I knew of my future trip to Sverdlovsk, about 3000 km away so her words had meaning for me.)

I passed my first year at college successfully. I admit I was never too smart at absorbing the subjects like synoptics, aerology, meteorology, hydrology, physics, political economy and mathematics. I had to work very hard writing out all lessons given by the lecturers. We could never get enough books in the library to borrow.

In August 1939 four of us student girls were sent by train to Sverdlovsk, Siberia, for work experience at the airport and meteorological observatory. I was looking forward to this trip; it was like an adventure, which turned to be a great exhaustive trial of our survival. Never before had I had to worry about where my next meal would come from, or know how hard people had to work for a living. At the age of 18, this was a great lesson.

The train to Skerdlovsk took us quite a few days and nights. We passed cities like Moscow, Kursk and the Ural Mountains. We spent all our money, which was supposed to last us for 1 month. When we arrived at our destination we had no money, no relatives or friends. The following weeks passed with us feeling hungry.

Several times boys from work asked us out to the pictures, offering us some sweets and ice creams. I wished I could have one sandwich instead, but would not dare show my need for food. We realized what it meant to live with the support of relatives and what a secure upbringing we had had from our parents. We learned that we should not take them ever for granted, and never to waste any food.

Our landlady knew about our situation and she offered us some milk and some of her garden products, but we knew we could not pay for these. Instead we went to pick up some berries, fruit and mushrooms, which she sold. With the money she bought us some groceries.

It is fun to think back now. Our departure from Sverdlovsk was a rewarding lesson: The local boys had admiration for us four girls. They knew we were there for just three months and they treated us with respect.

We had to go by train again to Leningrad. Young people brought us their share of fruit, vegetables, biscuits and chocolates. These were great gifts to us as we needed them and we thought them more precious than other gifts.

The other year of college was grim, because Leningrad was next to Finland which was involved in the war with Russia at the time. That meant warnings of air attacks, raids, more queues for food, and many dangerous trips by train in the dark. During these train trips there were robberies, cases of rape and murder.

Anyway I was with my relatives again, and I had just one more year of study, which I knew would not be difficult, so I was determined to complete my studies.

Life in Leningrad left me wonderful memories such as fun balls in the college, trips to the theatre (once it was a magnificent ballet called ‘Swan Lake’), and warm caring relatives who even let me borrow some clothes for special occasions.

And the most important part is that all of this I learnt to stand on my own two feet at the age of 19 and came out of it with a Diploma in June 1941 which was a magnificent achievement for me.

In a way I was glad that I did not forward onto University because soon after graduations the terrible World War 2 began and that was the next huge step in my survival. I will one day