Last week’s Understanding Russia taught us exactly that—to understand.
It’s no secret that the average Russian may not be the friendliest person you’ve ever met, at least not at first . Revisit the history books and you’ll soon understand why—today’s Russians have endured more turmoil than several generations, in just one lifetime.
Last week I had the honour of hosting one of the most inspirational women I’ve ever met. She arrived for our regular Understanding Russia lecture on time; dressed in a cobalt silk blouse that made her blue eyes sparkle. We had a record attendance of over 45 women and the lounge room was filled to capacity. I introduced myself, took her hand and led her to a chair in the lounge room
“Oh thankyou darling, you’re so kind. I’ve heard all about you—your’e Australian—I’ve met allot of Australians” she said in perfect english. As she settled in for her lecture, I got a sense she wasn’t in the least bit perplexed!
Vera Prokhorova was born in 1918. She was the daughter of a wealthy textiles merchant. Her mother’s family were Russian aristocracy.
After the Communist Revolution, her father’s factory was nationalised. At the workers’ request, Vera’s father Ivan Prokhorov became director, however under this new system the government often ‘forgot’ to pay the workers and Vera’s father would compensate them with goods from the factory.
It wasn’t long before the government named him a ‘Capitalist Enemy of the People’ and a ‘Robber of Society’. He was arrested and taken to the notorious Lubyanka; the building of the Russian Ministry of the Interior (forerunner of the KGB) where he was sentenced to death.
The factory workers, risking their own lives, staged a protest by sending a delegation to the Ministry to demand his release. Surprisingly, they were successful. The family home and business was seized but Vera’s family were assigned small cottage in Tzaretzina, near the country estate of Catherine the Great. Here her father worked as a cotton specialist in a local factory.
According to Vera, her childhood at Tzaretzina was like a fairytale.
“When the cherry trees bloomed, it was like living in a pink cloud. My father, deeply beloved by his former employees, stood godfather to a majority of their children, and on Sundays they would come to the house with their families; bringing trays of food, singing and dancing. It was a scene out of a Russian folk painting” says Vera.
When Vera was nine, her father died. He was 37 years old. The workers organized his funeral and carried his casket past the little factory he had grown to love. They wove a long canvas ribbon that carried the inscription, “With you, we bury part of ourselves and will shed tears that will wash the way to your grave.” It was signed by every worker in the factory, and is what Vera considers her true inheritance today.
Vera’s mother was still considered an ‘Enemy of the People’ and a ‘Deprived One’ (someone who was deprived of the right to work). With two children to support (Vera’s brother was born at Tzaretzina) she had to move in with her sister. For years, the factory workers secretly brought them food at night until she re-gained the right to work. She then begged them to stop before they were discovered.
In 1937 a terrifying round of purges began and once again, Vera’s father was a person of interest. Although he had been dead for 10 years, the special police came to the family home with a warrant for his arrest.
Vera tells this story with a wry twinkle in her eye.
“Where is your husband?” they said to my mother.
“He doesn’t live here,” was her response.
“Where is he? You must tell us!”
“He is at Vagankovo Cemetery.” She said.
“The Special Police were very disappointed” Vera recalls with a smile.
With the beginning of World War II, came an end to the purges. 27 to 30 million Russians died in this war, among them Vera’s brother.
By 1945, Vera was a professor of linguistics and living in an apartment in Moscow with her cousin. When the end of the war was announced in Red Square, Vera recalls an overwhelming sense of joy “ It brought joy for all the peoples for the defeat of fascism. In Red Square, people of different nationalities celebrated as real friends. Americans, Australians—so many people. They all embraced each other and we were one” recalls Vera.
But with the end of the war came new purges. Stalin was surrounded with war heros and anyone who’d had contact with outsiders; people who’d spoken with allies in any capacity, even war heroes, were suspect. They were separated from regular Russians and were even treated in separate hospitals. Marriage with a foreigner was treason.
It was during this time, that a “pleasant gentleman” as Vera recalls, came to her apartment and told her that an English teacher was needed. He suggested they go to the Ministry to discuss her skills. He assured her it wouldn’t take much time, so she left a note for her cousin simply saying, ‘Back soon’.
The gentleman escorted Vera past the Ministry of Education to the Ministry of the Interior. They walked through beautiful hallways into an office decorated with an expensive rug and cut flowers, where he asked her about her teaching methods and materials. He spoke about a new teaching opportunity and offered her the latest resources. She was assured, she met all the job’s requirements.
“Oh, that’s very kind of you, but I’m afraid the Ministry might be too serious for me. You see, I cannot keep secrets.” Vera said
“Oh, no, you’ll enjoy it” the gentleman said.
Finally the young man told her she could go. She explained to him that she did not have her internal passport (her identification papers), but he said he would send a man to get it and escort her out.
Vera recalls the man who entered the room next. “He was a terrifying man. His face was sullen and his manner rude”
He led her out another door. There were no flowers, no rugs, no gentleman; just a long walk to the basement— Lubyanka prison. She told him she was in a hurry to get home, her cousin would be worried, but he just laughed. He unlocked a door with a large key, and they entered a room filled with soldiers. One of them presented Vera her arrest warrant; she had been arrested for slander. At this moment, Vera realised what had happened. ” I remembered that I had been out with friends and expressed sympathy for the people being arrested and killed in the purges. My cousin and I were with friends, but I knew then, that one of them had been a spy. To save my cousin, I had to get a message to her”
Vera was shown to a room of 20 women. They were given blankets, but their hands had to remain outside the covers within sight of the guards in case they suicided or tried to escape. The lights were never turned off .
This is where Vera stayed for the next five months. She was glad she couldn’t be present at her own trial—she knew there would be no justice. She was given the standard sentence: ten years in a forced labor camp.
The prisoners were taken from Lubyanka to the Butyrka Detention Centre in prison trucks decorated with pictures of children’s toys, sweets and fruit (to portray an image of prosperity and ‘good times’) Some weeks later, they traveled for five days by train to a labor camp for political prisoners of conscience near Krasnoyarsk, Siberia. On the train, Vera recalls a conversation she had with one of the guards
“Do you have a family sir?” she said
“Yes, yes I do have a family” he replied
“Then could you please send this letter to my cousin and tell her I’m alive. She will be so worried and this letter will bring her peace”
“Yes, I will do it” he said, and put the little triangle of paper Vera had managed to find to write on into his pocket; risking his own life in doing so. The letter was received by Vera’s cousin shortly after.
Upon arriving, Vera was assigned a number. From that time, she became known as 294. ”I was pleased I didn’t have to hear my name come from the guards’ lips” she said.
There were city women like Vera, country women from all over Russia, foreigners including Germans and Australians and women who’s only crime had been to marry foreign men. Every nationality was assigned its own barracks. Provisions were meagre—each prisoner had basic gruel in the mornings and 400 to 500 grams of bread a day. In the evenings, they were given fish soup.
They worked in horrific extremes. In winter, in temperatures as low as minus 50 (Vera explained they were allowed to stay indoors if it dropped below minus 50) and in summer, with mosquitoes “that ate your skin until you were raw. The mosquitoes were much worse than the cold” she says.
Despite the intense suffering she experienced there, Vera chooses to dwell on what she learnt from her experience in the Gulag. She remembers expressions of kindness from her fellow inmates, Christmases spent celebrating around sprigs of Spruce in her barracks and the intricate embroidery secretly carried out by women using fish bone needles and threads from cloth. She also recalls funny stories. She has a wicked sense of humour and I think it saved her life.
When Stalin died in 1953, Krushev issued a mass amnesty for all prisoners of the gulags. Vera recalls the out-processing officers being very polite. “We apologise for having deprived you of six years of your life. You were quite unjustly accused of slander” they said. The officers then advised Vera to “think of those six years as something that had not happened to her; to think of them as just a nightmare”. They explained, “It was the beginning of a new life” she says.
When Vera asked how she would explain the six year absence on her work record (so she could later qualify for a state pension) she was told, “Tell them you worked for the KGB.”
She was given two months ‘salary’ and sent back to Moscow where her work record stated that she had been “dismissed due to not presenting for duty”. She was reinstated to her previous role as a teacher of english, where she worked until she retired.
Today, Vera lives on a small government pension in a flat with one of her relatives. She’s not lonely— she receives a lot of visitors—but she tires easily, despite enjoying an opportunity to talk or recite poetry (she can still recite all the English classics flawlessly)
She was recently asked back to her father’s textile mill in Moscow, which is still in production today. She recalls the tour the current owners gave her, pointing out her grandfather’s piano that has recently been restored, her father’s desk and a beautiful grandfather clock that keeps perfect time.
There has been no re-distribution of seized assets since the revolution. Had there been, Vera would be a wealthy woman. But at the risk of sounding cliched, its clear after having spent a morning with Vera, that she is indeed a wealthy woman; rich in spirit, rich in love and most of all, miraculously free of the debt of any bitterness or hatred.
As she says herself,
“If you concentrate on the wonderful, good and noble qualities of people, you have so much to be grateful for. Good will always be victorious. Believe in goodness, friendship and most of all, in love. And, if you meet a Russian person who seems unfriendly at first, be patient and remember to make allowances”