I was born to a Jewish family from Leningrad in 1981. My grandpa on my mother’s side, Arkady [all names changed], died two years before I was born. He was an avid photographer, and a great many pictures you’ll find in this article were taken by him. He was also a few other things: a soldier (well, kind of), a university lecturer in economics at the Mining Institute, a writer (financial stuff), and of course, a pretty strict but devoted father and husband.
He left us many hundreds of pictures. A few years ago, I finally scanned them, spent hours fixing the damage in Photoshop, and then had my mum tell me something about each of them.
And you know what? Quite a few interesting stories came to light.
I’ve now selected about a hundred pictures to share with the whole wide world. It would be such a pity for them to gather dust on my hard drive! Ultimately, I’ve decided to split them into two parts – the first part (this one) will cover the time from the early 1910s to the early 1950s when my mum’s brother David was still a little kid and she a baby.
Grandpa Arkady was born in 1909 in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, but moved to Leningrad in 1930 – just like my grandma, Larisa, who was from Ukraine, born in 1916. It was while studying economics that the two met.
Mum occasionally remarks that I inherited my grandpa’s love for photography, but she’s wrong: the reason I take so many pictures is that it’s cheap and easy, but I don’t want to disappoint her, so I keep quiet and just nod.
Grandpa tried to instill in my mum’s love for classical music and hired a piano tutor for her. She hated every moment of it – until one day… Until one day, after about five years, she decided she hated it so much she couldn’t take another moment of it. She was fully aware grandpa wouldn’t appreciate her saying “no more!” but that was precisely what she said. Better face his anger than hear another word about keys, scales, and chords, she decided.
It was for this reason that she would always frown whenever I tried to touch the piano as a kid. She still can’t stomach most classical music.
Two of my grandma’s sisters.
Anastasia, grandma’s sister. The two never met though, because she died before grandma was born – of typhoid or scarlet fever. Mum says grandma didn’t like talking about it. In fact, no one in her family did.
Grandma had six sisters, and I’m told they all looked quite similar.
My dad, too, lost a brother to a childhood disease. He was about one and a half years at the time, and his family, too, preferred not to discuss this subject.
One of the oldest photos in our family’s collection. My grandfather Arkady in Tashkent, in the early 1920s, together with his two brothers, Oleg and Stanislav. Of course, their family wasn’t natives to Uzbekistan, where the population is predominantly Muslim. Just how exactly they ended up in Tashkent, my mum is not exactly sure.
Grandpa Arkady with his two brothers and their parents. He would grow up to become a rather serious and respectable man, and from all the stories I’ve heard about him, there is only one with him behaving in a way that could be classified as mischievous.
It was when grandpa was still at school. He was a good student (as one would expect), but as most of us, he too had a subject he wasn’t particularly good at. Now, sadly, I don’t know what subject that was, but I do know that he was so bad at it that his parents decided to hire a tutor for him. The times were tough (when weren’t they tough, huh?) and the family didn’t have much money, but they did have a cow, so they would pay the tutor with milk.
Once a week, grandpa’s parents would give him a canister of milk and send him on the way to the man’s house. Grandpa did leave point A, but never arrived at point B, pouring the milk into the gutter somewhere along the way and spending the next two hours strolling about.
As you may guess, at some point the tutor paid a visit to the parents and asked why little Arkady had stopped coming. I don’t have any details re just how furious the two were, but I certainly would not want to be anywhere within a one-mile radius of their house that day.
Grandma, around 1920
She grew up in a fairly religious family. Her grandpa was a rabbi, and her parents were quite observant, too, from what I hear. However, when grandma, at the age of seven, once saw a hard-smoked piece of ham on a market, she begged her parents to buy some for her. Seeing she was dying to try it, they went and got her 100 grams, bless their heart.
So, no, they certainly weren’t too dogmatic about the whole Jewishness thing.
Grandma’s mum and grandma always spoke Yiddish to each other, never Russian, so when we moved to Germany in 1997, grandma was fairly good at understanding the general drift of what was being said to her. The languages are pretty similar, you see.
Mum would listen to them and understand pretty much everything. Then, my great-grandma died in 1960, and the tradition of speaking Yiddish in our family ceased.
Grandma (left) at uni, with her German teacher (middle) and another, older student. She would frequently be seen wearing a satin robe – not as a fashion statement, but simply to protect the little clothes she had from getting worn off too quickly.
When she was enrolling, she had to pass an entrance test. As Jews weren’t exactly welcome, the examiner asked all kinds of tricky questions to make sure she failed – but she knew all the answers.
Still, when I asked mum how often members of our family fell victim to antisemitism, she said it had only happened to her on a few occasions throughout her entire life. Sure, your passport still said “Jew” – but apparently, things weren’t all that bad.
But then again, my family – like any other family – always lived in a bubble. A Jewish intellectual bubble. Many would argue this wasn’t the “real world”.
Grandma in her satin “uniform”, gaining practical experience with one of her friends, Inna. Their friendship would last until Inna’s death in the late 1980s.
During WWII, grandma would work at an arms factory in Leningrad (which later moved to Tashkent), so the skills really did come in handy. What exactly she did there, she wasn’t allowed to disclose, but it was economics- and management-related.
Grandma (second from the right), Maria, one of her besties (middle), and Inna (left). Maria’s family moved to Germany in 1995, two years before us. She and my grandma remained friends until Maria’s death in 2000.
No idea why the chap in the foreground makes me think of a pan (the mythical creature, not the kitchen utensil).
From left to right: Inna, Maria, and grandma. Even in those days, in the 1930s, Maria had a privilege that few other people could enjoy: she had a flat that she didn’t have to share with other families. And so, the gang would invariably meet up at her place. The location was quite prestigious, too – her flat was on the Fontanka River (a branch of the Neva – Leningrad’s Thames and the fourth largest river in Europe).
Grandpa served in the army, not only during WWII but also during the Winter War. He didn’t participate in any military operations but was part of the engineering team. He left the army in 1947 as a First Lieutenant.
Grandma contributed to the war effort by helping to run an arms factory in Leningrad. When the Siege of Leningrad began on 8 September 1941, they disassembled the factory and moved everything to Tashkent. Luckily, grandpa had family there, so she stayed with her mother-in-law. Naturally, she took her son David, her mum, and grandma with her.
They returned to Leningrad in autumn 1944. After the war, she went on to work as a primary school teacher.
Sadly, I don’t know much about what my grandparents on my dad’s side were doing during WWII, but I do know that grandpa was in the navy. He lost a few family members, including one brother, during the Siege of Leningrad. And I do know this episode from his life: Once, he had a date with my grandma (before they got married, that is), and then had to work in a shop as a cleaner. He was so tired he fell asleep in the shop window, to be woken up by jeering passers-by in the morning.
In 2011, Germany issued my grandma compensation for her hardship during the war – about 2500 euros.
From left to right: grandma, grandpa, Arseny (Maria’s husband) and Inna, engaged in two extremely Russian activities at once: playing chess and looking pensive.
Mum had no idea what this one was about, but a friend of mine is a genius at googling.
The year is 1934. Place: Kazan Cathedral, Leningrad. And the white cloth… the white cloth symbolizes snow.
A soviet vessel, the SS Chelyuskin, was on its way from Murmansk to Vladivostok exploring a new route for transportation of goods. In the Chukchi Sea, in a place where another ship had suffered a crash the previous year, the Chelyuskin became blocked by ice. The ship went on drifting for almost five months. On 13 February 1934, it was crushed by ice and started sinking. Luckily, the crew had foreseen such a turn of events and prepared to evacuate everyone on board and to set up a camp on the ice. A total of 104 people was thus marooned.
Thankfully, only one man lost his life – crushed by cargo while still on board the ship. Everyone else was transported to safety by airplanes, even though it took them a whole month to evacuate the last crew members.
What you see in front of the Kazan Cathedral is a model of the crew’s camp.
Further reading: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/SS_Chelyuskin
We can’t really place this snap on the timeline, though this was most likely in the 1930s. The two ladies on the left: grandma and Maria. The lady pushing the second kicksled (“Finnish sled” in the USSR) is Nina.
These pictures are among the best in our collection – they are just so full of life! It’s a shame I can only publish so much material in one article!
Three little maids from school: According to mum, grandma, Maria and Inna were offered a discount on a trip to the Caucasus as a reward for their outstanding scholarly performance.
Having a carpet on your wall was something of a status symbol in the USSR – in particular, if the carpet was imported, even if it was from Turkmenistan or Georgia. Also, wallpaper was pretty difficult to come by, so a carpet would cover any damaged spots – or the lack of any wallpaper altogether! It was one of the best possible gifts, and if you got it from a family member, you would hang it somewhere where everyone could look at it.
There was a time when grandma and grandpa had broken up for a while and the latter had a bit of a fling with another lady. Mum knows nothing about it, but refers to that period as the “Dark Times”.
Grandpa with the other woman
My grandparents reunited!
Grandma with David, great-grandma, and a neighbor. Yes, this is very much how one imagines Russian rural life in those days.
Maria’s son Misha. He and his family have lived in Leipzig, Germany, since 1995. Mum and Misha still call each other regularly. Beats me why they can’t use Skype.
Grandpa and mum’s brother David.
Grandpa in front of the Bronze Horseman, a statue of the horse of Peter the Great (including Peter himself), and Saint Isaac’s Cathedral.
Peter had a really tiny head (or an unnaturally large body, I’m not quite sure). Unsurprisingly, you wouldn’t come across such unflattering depictions of him anywhere in the Union. If you want to see an anatomically correct representation of Peter, come to London – there is a statue of him by the Thames.
My great-grandma in the chair on the left, with grandma in the back and David in the hammock. I don’t know how the rest of the folks are, and sadly, no one will ever know.
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