If it is the case, as asserted previously, that a not insubstantial measure of our heroes’ longevity can be attributed to the care and support they receive from their children and grandchildren, then Galina Grebneva and Marina Goncharova, both born in 1917, are further proof of this thesis.
Galina Grebneva (born Kortova) is a diminutive woman with neat, shoulder-length hair. Blind and with slightly diminished hearing, she is a profoundly tender soul. She smiles and laughs when Misha tells her how fine she looks in the yellow dress she has donned for our photo shoot – the same one she wore 60 years ago to the coronation of Queen Elizabeth.
Galina never admits to being tired, and when asked how she is doing, replies with a sing-song, legato-cadenced “kho-ro-sho.” When we ask what is her favorite meal, she replies without hesitation, “Caviar on buterbrody” (an open-faced sandwich). She has a sweet tooth and repeatedly asks for just a bit more sugar in her tea.
This remarkable centenarian is living out her days with her daughter Irina in a cozy two-room apartment, one room of which is a shrine to Galina’s life and achievements, filled with displays of photographs, orders and timelines to show the groups of students that come to visit each May 9.
“Did we go hungry? Of course we did,” Galina said, referring to her life in Leningrad.
In 1937, she was a student at the Institute of Railway Transport Engineering in that city when she met her future husband, Sergei, a rising star in the Communist Party. He came to deliver lectures. For him, it was love at first sight; for her it took a bit longer. They grew close singing together in a choir, but they would not marry until 1945, carrying out a tender correspondence during the war that has been preserved in the family archive.
Galina was active in the Party and struggling to finish her degree while taking care of her ailing mother and grandmother when Leningrad was blockaded by the Germans (“Rockets did not land on me,” she says drily). Eventually allowed to evacuate, she could only bring one person with her. Grandmother was left behind.
Shortly thereafter, Galina moved to Kirov, to be with her father.
“The first time I went to the banya in Kirov, I had not undressed for three months. The women there saw me and began to cry. Where my belly should have been, there was only a cavity. I had sticks for legs and circles for knees.”
After the war, Galina’s husband joined the foreign service, and they lived all over the world (South Africa, England, Ceylon, Batumi, Spitsbergen).
In 1967, while in Moscow between postings, her daughter Irina recalls, the family was given a samizdat, mimeographed copy of Solzhenitsyn’s The First Circle. They were only allowed to keep it for two days. Galina and Sergei read it simultaneously, one passing a finished page to the next. They did not sleep for two nights. Galina believed what she read in the novel, Sergei did not.
The family was always close, always active in sports and outdoor activities together. Even today, two of her children call her every night to check up on her. Once a month, on special days, a cousin who comes and takes Galina and Irina to a church three minutes away - Peter and Fevronia Church. In 1999, a few years before her husband Sergei died, the couple had an official church wedding.
Galina’s great-grandfather was a peasant who gained noble status for his service in the Crimean War. For this “crime,” it was harder than it should have been for Galina to enter the Komsomol and later the Party, and yet she persisted. For this reason her daughter Irina, in a love-laced jest, today sometimes addresses her mother as “your highness.” As when Galina asks for a bit more to eat.
“And what can I give your highness?” Irina asks as we sit around a table for tea.
“Well, perhaps some caviar buterbrody?”
* * *
Born in the village of Baryshskaya in Simbirsk guberniya, Marina Goncharova recalls vividly how as a child she attended school during the week in the nearby town, and would go home on weekends to be with her family and to refill her provisions for the week to come. And how between home and school she had to walk alone through a wolf-infested forest.
The story is something of a metaphor for the grit Marina has demonstrated throughout her long life.
A charming, healthy woman with the monotone voice of one whose hearing is long gone, Marina has an astounding memory for the facts and details of her life. We show her a photo from her institute days 80 years before and she quickly and easily puts a name to every face.
This driven centenarian was the first person in her peasant family (which included seven brothers and sisters) to obtain higher education. She got her degree from Kazan University and went on to become a doctor.
In 1936 she met Alexander Plastov, who was also training to be a doctor. They fell in love and he proposed, but she was not ready. She insisted she had to finish her studies. Plastov finished his courses and went to Perm, where he was doing army service. They corresponded for two years, planning to marry when he demobilized, then the war came along. Marina never heard from him again. She would not learn of his fate for 73 years – an unexpected benefit of her long life. It turns out Alexander had been serving as a doctor in a birthing hospital near Vitebsk, Belarus, where he had sheltered some wounded partizans, disguising them as women in labor. He later joined the partizans more directly, was caught, and paid the ultimate price. He was subsequently named a hero of Belarus. A monument honoring his heroism hangs near a hospital in Vysochany, Vitebsk oblast.
But Marina’s life went on. She got her medical degree and received her first posting to Petropavlosk-Kamchatksky, which she calls the most difficult time in her life – the hospital didn’t even have X-ray machines. But there she met her future husband, also named Alexander, a surgeon, and for the rest of their long career together they were dispatched to work in trying situations at military hospitals throughout the USSR.
In 1950, when the couple was posted in Kudeptsa, near Sochi, Marina went into labor with her second child. Her husband went looking for a car to take her to the hospital, but did not return in time. So Marina delivered the child herself, completing the delivery and cutting the cord before her husband returned.
The couple finally ended out their career in Grozny (Marina mustered out with the rank of major; Alexander with the rank of lieutenant colonel), where they retired, living there for 38 years until the recent unpleasantries there forced them to move north, to Tarusa, to be nearer to family.
Alexander died in 1987 and for the past 30 years Marina has lived in Tarusa, visited daily by her namesake granddaughter and other family members. While she is confined to a wheelchair, her mind is sharp, she is an active reader, and she loves to play cards with her eighteen-year-old great-grandson.
And she often wins.
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