St. Petersburg: Five Generations

In 1995, we closed out the original Russian Chronicles by telling the story of the Russian 20th century, as seen through the eyes of one family. We started with 98-year-old Maria Mikhailovna Gurevich, the cognac-sipping, straight-talking matriarch, and went down through five generations to her great-great-grandson Vanya, who was then six.

Listening to Maria Mikhailovna tell stories of life in Tsarist times was a thrill. Her memory was strong, and she told us about the fires of revolution, her husband's departure for the front in World War I, and the bloody Civil War that nearly cost him his life.

Nina, who still works as a physician, says life is more difficult than it was in 1995. (David Hillegas)

She'd seen a lot of pain and sorrow in her ten decades, but she finished our interview by saying, "Out of all the years of my life, I have to say that now is the best time of all." It was -- and still is -- a very rare sentiment to hear from an elderly Russian.

We caught up with Maria Mikhailovna's family this week, to find out how they've all fared over the last ten years. Here's what we learned:

Maria Mikhailovna died three months after our interview, at age 99, in her great-granddaughter Zhenya's arms. Not long before she died, she'd enjoyed a few sips of cognac with a family friend who'd stopped by. When told she really shouldn't be drinking, she said, "As long as I'm alive, I'll do what I want!" She'd hoped to live to see the first day of spring, but missed it by one day.

Lia Mikhailovna, Maria's daughter, had told us in 1995 all about the World War II years in Leningrad -- of seeing people starve to death during the 900-day siege, and working as a radio operator for the war effort. She also described the paranoid years under Stalin, when her father was arrested and sent to prison.

Boris, Vanya, and Boris' mother Nina (l-r), are the surviving members of the five-generation family story from 1995. Vanya's mother Zhenya stands at right.(David Hillegas)

Lia, too, is dead, having succumbed at age 76 to complications from hypertension. She died at home, in her daughter-in-law Nina's arms. "She was very demanding in life," Nina told me, her eyes welling up, "but in death she was the opposite. She just lay in her bed as I took care of her."

Nina Alekseyevna, Lia's daughter-in-law, had told us about life under Khrushchev and Brezhnev. She described the pride she felt as a schoolgirl, hearing of Yuri Gagarin's historic foray into space, and of her gradual disenchantment with the Soviet Communist system.

Today Nina, a physician, still works at the same polyclinic as she did in 1995. But she says that life in the last ten years has "gotten worse. I have so much paperwork now, there's no time to work with the patients. It's become a nightmare." She's traveled abroad often in the last decade, visiting France, Spain, Austria and India among other places. Yet the onetime disenchanted Komsomolka expresses a firm patriotic preference for her own country: "No place is as beautiful as St. Petersburg," she says. "No museum is as beautiful as the Hermitage."

Boris Shalyopa, Nina's son, was a 25-year-old psychology student in 1995, and offered us his views on Gorbachev and perestroika. He'd greeted the end of the Soviet Union with no sadness: "The USSR was an artificially created entity," he'd told us, "Kazakhs, Azeris and other nationalities... should have their own countries."

Today, Boris works as a psychologist, and lives in his grandmother Lia Mikhailovna's old apartment. The walls of his home office are still decorated with old photos of Maria Mikhailovna, Lia Mikhailovna, and other family members -- just as they were in 1995.

Vanya Vedernikov, the six-year-old great-great-grandson of Maria Mikhailovna who posed happily with her in 1995, is now finishing his last year in high school. Back then, he was just about to enter a special school for intensive English language study. Today, he speaks English with ease.

I always loved the photos of little Vanya with his great-great-grandmother -- pictures that captured the past and future of Russia at once. As it turns out, Vanya doesn't really remember Maria Mikhailovna, so the photos serve as one link to the family past he inherited from her.

Vanya is a young Russian standing on the brink of new century -- much as his great-great-grandmother was, a hundred years ago. He was born just two years before the fall of the USSR, so his generation is the first since the Revolution to have no memory of what life was like under Soviet rule

Tomorrow: Vanya and his friends, the first post-Soviet generation, talk about the future of Russia. Also, at noon today, please join me for a Live Online discussion about the Russian Chronicles.

By Lisa Dickey |  November 17, 2005; 10:15 AM ET
Previous: St. Petersburg: From Gum Warrior to Entrepreneur | Next: St. Petersburg: The Future of Russia


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Lisa, this is a fabulous blog. I was stationed in Moscow from 1980-82 and again in 1993-95; during the latter tour I was one of the embassy evacuees during the siege of the Russian White House.

Also during the latter tour, I was party to a conversation in a store where the young woman behind the counter called a business associate "tovarishch," (comrade). I asked her how long she thought it would take for this verbal legacy to fade away. She said, "Vek."

I know you are aware that the word "vek" means both "century" and "forever." So, two questions for you:

1. Will it take a hundred years for "comrade" -- and by extension the Soviet impact -- to fade away? Or are the Russians stuck with it "forever."

2. And the archetypal grad school question: Which is winning the war in comparing the Soviet and new Russian system, continuity or change? Thank you.

Posted by: Vienna, VA | November 17, 2005 06:24 PM

Lisa, thanks for these nice chronicles touring my country. They seem corect, reasonable and relly interesting.

Vienna, VA: In today's reality some people, especially young, are using 'old Soviet' words and expressions in a funny way, perhaps like a slang. Living here, I don't remember using 'tovarisch' seriously :)

Posted by: Vasily | November 18, 2005 08:19 AM

Vienna, VA: I agree with Vasily, I never hear "Comrade" used except in jest. There's only one exception that I know of: "Tovarishch Militsioner" (Comrade Policeman) seems to be a set expression, unrelated to time and context, that is now and always has been used as a respectful form of address for a policeman. I must admit I've heard the word a bit here and there in Central Asia for "colleague", but they're usually non-native speakers.

Posted by: Mark | November 18, 2005 10:01 AM

Thanks, Mark and Vasily. Remember, I said this "tovarishch" conversation took place between 1993-5. So maybe at least the terminology is fading faster than the shopgirl thought. How long before the impact fades, I wonder.

Posted by: Vienna, VA | November 20, 2005 07:15 AM

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